Kyle Miller is an Assistant Professor of Child Development in the School of Teaching and Learning. She has worked in a number of educational settings, as a teacher and student support coordinator. Her research focuses on lower-income families and strengthening the relationships between families and schools.
Using Photography with Families
When it comes to studying and working with students’ families, there is one thing we are consistently good at – identifying what families are not doing. As an educator, it is dangerously easy to enter this conversation, and become part of the negative dialogue about families. As a teacher, I remember complaining that families did not have enough books at home or were not spending time reading with their child. I remember my frustration with families when their child came to school tired or without the necessary supplies. I was so focused on what the families of my students were not doing, that I was unable to identify the contributions they were making to their learning and development.
This is especially true of students who live in lower-income families. When home-based learning does not match a teacher’s image of what should be happening outside of the school day, we often view it as the “wrong” way. This leads us to deficit thinking about students’ families and it is counterproductive. What would happen if we forced ourselves to abandon our “checklists” of what learning-related activities should occur in the home, and began to celebrate the variety of ways families contribute to learning? Shifting to a strengths-based perspective is not easy, but it can make a profound impact on our relationships with families.
One way to find out what families are doing is to give them a camera to document their lives. The camera provides families with a means of communicating the dimensions of their lives that are often invisible to educators. I have used this method in research with lower-income families of preschool-age children. Families took photographs for a week and then shared those photographs with me during an unstructured interview. Photographs were a tool to explore the contextualized lives of families, and simultaneously, families used photographs to provide a unique way to communicate activities in their everyday lives.
Many individuals warned me that this method would not work or yield any meaningful findings. I was told that lower-income families would lose the cameras or not return them, and that families would not be interested in participating. I found the opposite to be true. Families were thrilled to share information about their lives and all cameras were returned and unharmed. Most importantly, the experience generated a range of knowledge related to children’s everyday lives and non-traditional ways in which learning is supported in the home.
For example, one mother took a picture of her mailbox. At first I thought the photograph was a mistake and was uncertain how the mailbox was related to her son’s learning. She told me the following:
My son is obsessed with mail. Obsessed! He takes the junk mail and he acts like it is his mail. And he takes the junk mail and he cuts it up and starts gluing it to paper – and it ends up all over our house. At first I was like, “That is not your mail, what does that say?” And he learned and then he started writing his name on it. And he says, “See, it’s mine.” So then I started writing letters and like sending them to him. I just put them in the mailbox and then when he comes back from school he can open them up. He’s like, “Mom, I got mail!”
For a young child who was struggling with literacy, his mother found a creative and engaging way to strengthen his skills. This parent was not alone. Each family displayed a variety of activities that support early development and learning (e.g., cooking, grocery store shopping, playing with letter magnets, creating youtube videos). The images were proud and meaningful aspects of their lives, which helped demystify the child’s world and identified their strengths.
Learning about families’ lives is a critical aspect of education and supporting children’s early beginnings. By inviting parents to take the role of the expert on their child, and learning about their everyday activities, researchers and practitioners can shift power into the hands of the family. Parents become the knowledgeable source when it comes to interpreting and describing their child’s home environment and the role they play in children’s success in school. Students, families, and researchers may use photography to communicate ideas and confront issues both inside and outside of the classroom. Using photography to share information from the home to school (and school to home), can allow schools and communities to identify existing strengths and extend these strengths, rather than focus on deficits. I encourage everyone to think about how photography may enhance their work with students and families.