This post was written by Dr. Yajaira Fuentes-Tauber.
A few years ago, I started to become interested in photography, and that year for Christmas, my father-in-law gave me the National Geographic Photo Ark book. Around the same time, our local children’s museum happened to have an exhibition on the Photo Ark. Looking at the photos of the species at risk, I realized that my 1-year-old son might never be able to see those animals in person himself. As an environmental science teacher, that had a huge impact on me, and I realized that photography really opens a door to tell ethical stories. What are the ethics of storytelling? What is the story we want to tell? Why are we telling that story and is it biased?
I was born and raised in Mexico — I didn’t come to the U.S. until the 7th grade — and I have had some experiences where I haven’t felt 100% welcome or that my opinions matter. I really felt like photography has allowed me to contribute to the conversation. It’s a skill we all can pick up, not just to do our jobs, but also as something we can do with our families to make memories.
Because technology has become a lot more accessible, we all can be storytellers. We sometimes don’t realize that but it’s such a powerful tool. You can sketch, write about something you’re witnessing or seeing, or even post on social media. Because it doesn’t require anything fancy in terms of equipment, everybody can be a storyteller — and therefore help us bring equity and access.
Equity is deeply important to me; I have always thought that everybody deserves the right to be educated regardless of where they come from. I was lucky we were able to move to the U.S. but not everyone has that opportunity. I want to make sure all students can have access to equitable education and that we’re catering to their needs. Students’ needs don’t start when they enter the classroom or stop when they leave. Whatever those needs are at home, they’re impacting how they’re performing in class. It’s not just about a grade but learning social skills and how to be a good human being.
For example, we were talking about the wildfires in Colorado, and I asked my students, “Why should we care about them? We’re 35 minutes away from the front range.” And a lot of students shared, “Because we’re human, so we should care,” and that’s great! Because even though the fires don’t impact us right now, they can have impacts on our lives later on — pollution, the ashes falling into our watershed, etc. Telling these stories helps my students realize how we’re all connected and we need to live in harmony.
A lot of times students might not even be aware of their surroundings until they start making comparisons to other places through storytelling. I’m trying to start incorporating more environmental justice into my curriculum so my students can investigate what environmental story they can tell about their neighborhood, city, county, state, and how it’s different from what students elsewhere might be seeing. For example, in my AP environmental science class, one of my assignments was for students to go outside and see something. Take a photo, write about it or draw something, and then share how it connects to our class and what story is being told.
One of the things I want to do is provide my students with opportunities to analyze thought-provoking images and answer, “What does this make you feel and what does this make you think of in terms of your community?” The goal is that they’ll be able to create their own story or design their own art and tell it. Those conversations — especially around environmental justice — can be difficult to have even face-to-face. And now in fully remote or hybrid environments, we want to make sure those conversations are still taking place and that we’re providing an adequate venue with the expectations that we’re respectful, open-minded, and continue to learn the stories we each have to tell.
My students come from various backgrounds, and so doing something in the classroom or on Zoom where I tell students, ”pick a story you want to tell” really helps me get to know them at a different level. They might not be willing to talk in person, but if they write and photograph something directed to you, you can learn so much about them and how you can better serve them. This is a good way to build relationships and be inclusive in the classroom, making sure students feel they have a voice. We do ice breakers and surveys at the beginning of the year, but I think photo stories will really help me get a good understanding of who students truly are.
We’re also focused on a contest this current quarter called Caring for Our Watersheds, which has students identify a local problem and think of a solution they could implement if they had a thousand dollars. Proposals get reviewed and 10 students get the funding to implement their project. This year, I will incorporate storytelling through photography in their proposals. Adding graphics to their proposals is part of the rubric, and I think using photography to tell the story of the concerns they are seeing in their community will help their proposals be more successful.
I’m currently taking the National Geographic Service-Learning course and the Mapping as Visualization and Communication Tool in Your Classroom course, and I’m going to integrate my learnings from them into the spring quarter. I’ll have my students go out and see some of the needs of the community and take photos of their findings. Then they’ll come back to the class and share, “This is what we need to focus on for our service-learning project,” presenting their evidence through storytelling (either photography or writing). If my students pick up on the skill of storytelling — it doesn’t matter the content — they’ll be taking it with them wherever they go. Work is temporary, but learning is something they’ll always have.
How do you use storytelling in your classroom? Share your best practices and lesson plan ideas below. And if you’re looking for ways to further your learning journey, check out our online courses (new cohorts are opening Monday, 11/16!).
Feature image by Yajaira Fuentes-Tauber