‘Photovoice’ Program Helps Disadvantaged Students Engage in School

Posted: March 14, 2011 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: March 11, 2011 at 3:15 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Kristien Zenkov. Photo courtesy of Kristien Zenkov

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” This phrase couldn’t ring truer for Mason literacy expert Kristien Zenkov, whose program Through Students’ Eyesemploys a novel approach to help students develop richer connections to school.

The program uses a “photovoice” method, which combines photographs and written reflections to allow middle and high school students of diverse backgrounds in underserved communities to document what they believe is the purpose of school, what support exists for their academic success and what barriers prevent them from achieving.

“In urban cities across the country where dropout rates are consistently high, there is often a disconnect between school curricula and the value it has in students’ lives,” says Zenkov, an associate professor of literacy and secondary education in Mason’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD).

“This project serves a dual purpose: It engages students in exploring the meaning of school while helping to improve their ability to read and write.”

Zenkov founded the program in 2004 with his colleague Jim Harmon, an English teacher in the Euclid City School District in Ohio, and several other local educators and community activists. So far, the researchers have collaborated with nearly 400 students worldwide.

How Do Students Excel?

While teaching at Cleveland State University in the early 2000s, Zenkov observed the low graduation rates and the dilapidated conditions of many of the local schools. He was also fascinated by how some underserved students excelled despite growing up in an environment that doesn’t value education.

"Uphill all the time" by Lindsey: This is a photograph of the hill I walk up and down every day to get to and from work. I started working full time at the zoo to help out my family. I don’t make a lot, but what I do make helps pay for my dad’s prescription medications and allows me to take care of my own expenses so my family does not have to worry about me. Every day when I come home from work I walk uphill, and I feel like I’m walking uphill all the time. Courtesy of Through Students' Eyes

Zenkov wanted to actively engage the students and, as a result, launched the first “Through Students’ Eyes” program with 20 students at Lincoln-West High School in Cleveland.

Since then, the program has expanded to other schools throughout Ohio, as well as to schools in Colorado, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Typically, Zenkov or Harmon will attend the first class to introduce the program. Then, the teachers in the individual schools work with the students with Zenkov or Harmon making regular visits.

The program usually runs at three or four different schools each year and can last from two months to one year. During this time, students are armed with digital cameras and spend several months snapping photographs and writing about school and what it means in their lives.

Since coming to Mason in 2008, Zenkov has worked with students at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va. Recently, he began working with students, including those in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, at Metz Middle School and Osbourn Park High School in Manassas and Smarts Mill Middle School in Leesburg.

With the help of Metz Middle School teachers Marriam Ewaida and Athene Bell and Osbourn Park High School teacher Megan Lynch, Zenkov and several students in Mason’s secondary education program visit each site several times a week to work with the students on choosing meaningful photographs and writing about them.

“ESL students face many of the same challenges as students who come from diverse backgrounds, such as growing up in environments that don’t stress the value of an education,” says Zenkov. “This program benefits ESL students by not only helping them to explore their ideas about education, but also to overcome their language struggle.”

Exploring the Meaning of School

Images collected from the program have ranged from a cluttered bedroom to a favorite teacher to an old pair of shoes. According to Zenkov, several themes emerge from these seemingly mundane images.

One of the themes suggests that despite their busy schedules — many of the students work two jobs and take care of younger siblings — students have a desire to serve as mentors to other struggling youth. It also became evident that the role of teachers in supporting student success was vital. So was having a strong adult role model.

In addition, simply having someone show an interest in them or finding new ways to make school feel like an important part of their lives will engage students in school, their reflections show.

“Most of the students begin this program thinking they aren’t good students or writers,” says Zenkov. “By the end of the program, both the students and teachers forget about this negative perception. It is incredibly inspiring to see the students realize their potential.”

Students use their photographs and written reflections to create a finished product, such as a calendar, brochure, DVD or even an MP3 recording. In addition, the students’ work is showcased throughout the country at various social justice organizations.

Spreading the Word Globally

In June, Zenkov will travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he will run another “Through Students’ Eyes” program for the next two years with funding from grants and Mason. He hopes to build on the success of the program’s first international run, which he conducted with CEHD adjunct professor Laura Horvath in Sierra Leone in 2009.

“My ultimate goal for this program is that it helps to inform students, their families and the world

about why education and learning matter, as well as giving them the tools and resources needed to ensure success,” says Zenkov.

“In addition,” he says, “future educators must be aware of new methods so they can continue to help students experience school and learning in meaningful and powerful ways.”



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