Adult education students with special needs explore the world through digital photography.
Have you ever taken a photograph that brings back wonderful memories of a special life event? Have you ever taken a photo of a family member who is no longer with us that you treasure? Do you often look over your photos and wish that you could go back to that place and time? Have you ever looked at a photo in a magazine and said, “I wish that I could take pictures like that!” Well, if you answered “yes” to any one of these questions then you can appreciate the impact that photography can have both personally, and in an educational setting.
As an educator, I believe that sometimes the best way to get the most out of the learning experience in the classroom, is to leave it and to take the learning outdoors and into the community. Exploration of the surrounding natural environment is especially important in the world of photography. In the adult education sector, we are always in search of innovative ideas and opportunities to engage our students of all age levels and experiences. This is particularly relevant for our students with special needs who face many varied learning and communication challenges on a daily basis in a traditional classroom setting. It was our belief that using digital technology could level the playing field for these students with special needs and enable them to experience success in different ways.
With this in mind, in Adult Education at the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board in Laval Quebec, we embarked on a new initiative with a program developed for our group of students with special needs which uses digital photography as therapy. This group of Social Insertion Services or “SIS”, offers a specialized program where adults over the age of 21, with varying intellectual difficulties and challenges, and or physical disabilities, come to school to be able to integrate into the local community and ultimately into the world of work. Offering these students the opportunity to learn about photography as a way to express themselves visually was the plan when developing this new offer of service to our clients.
Through the structure and organization of this course, our students learned the basics of how to use a digital camera to take pictures, how to analyze the composition of their pictures, how to perfect the lighting and shadows, and, how to best tell the story they wished to communicate. Outdoor excursions were organized for our adult students to be able to take photos in different and often challenging settings and to take pictures of moving objects. Together they discussed their creations, and then manipulated and modified them through cropping and other visual design applications.
A Facebook page was created by the group and they posted digital albums and commented on each other’s photos on a daily basis. The students immediately became more engaged, excited to have this new opportunity and were very eager to share and display their photos. In fact, they made display boards and portfolios of their photos and presented them to several different groups of individuals in the school as well as at the school board. Their ability to collaborate on these types of meaningful and interesting projects was especially beneficial in the development and improvement of social as well as targeted academic skills.
The culminating activity was a special exposition at a meeting of all school Principals where the students presented their photos for sale. They developed the pricing and were able to do all of the financial transactions themselves. In addition to communication skills, this activity helped to develop the mathematical skills of budgeting, reasonable pricing, counting money and making change and put them into action in a meaningful context for our students.
Integrating this type of course into the competency-based curriculum came easily. As a social insertion program for adults with special needs, the learning is delivered through fourteen competencies which are life skills based in nature. Oral expression, communication with others, perspective-taking and understanding the world around them are competencies that are developed on a daily basis. Integrating digital photography course into this Ministry program was a means of providing a real context for the students’ voices and creative talents.
Digital photography provided a new setting to take on challenges and to learn life skills without the students even realizing it. In addition to developing the competencies of the program, we discovered that through the lens of a camera our students were able to relieve stress and anxiety, develop social and communication skills, improve their motor skills and express their creativity in a new way. Our goal at the CDC Vimont Competency Development Center is to support all of our adult learners to enable them to be happy, responsible and productive members of the community, and this course supported our efforts far beyond our initial expectations.
Through the implementation we learned that photography as an art form breaks down many of the emotional and psychological barriers that make it difficult for adults with special needs to develop confidence and personal satisfaction. Our students learned that they were more self-sufficient, more focused and more capable than they had previously imagined. The research in education supports the fact that people with disabilities are often better able to express themselves in images rather than in words. All artists have their own unique vision and understanding of the world and the camera lens makes this expression an easy reality. Our students found their voice and themselves in the process of taking photographs, and they were learning to see themselves in a different way.
Technology can be a great equalizer in a classroom with diverse learners. Incorporating different types of technology often increases the desire and motivation to attend school, to learn and it also enables students to reach their potential in ways they never imagined. There is a sense of achievement in meeting a challenge and the students take that confidence to succeed into other situations in the classroom and beyond into the world. Digital photography is an inclusive activity that ties in many different disciplines together from design, technology skills, patience, creativity, geometry and exploration of the natural environment.
As the Director of Adult Education, I am proud of what our Social Insertion Services students have accomplished and the fact that they were able to showcase their newfound talents with their families, other students and in the local community. The students developed unique new skills and abilities through the use of the digital cameras, which in turn, freed them from their disabilities and help them towards achieving their potential. Building on our initial successes, we are planning on expanding our program even further with video presentations in youth sector schools, providing the images for the school board
calendar and arranging card sales throughout the year to support other students in need. This is a wonderful way for others to see our center and what it has to offer adults of all ages and abilities, as well as provide a showcase for our very talented students.