Using Field Visits, Photography and Writing to Study Communities
by Gerri Hajduk
Getting Started with a Teacher Inquiry Team
The KCAC "Shifting Landscapes, Converging Peoples" theme examines changes in suburbia because of urban-oriented growth and the arrival of immigrants from other regions and countries. To begin exploring this challenging topic, our research team of four teachers started with a broad perspective on the study of suburbia because each of us had our own unique vision when defining the term. Very quickly we realized that we would have to narrow the focus of our inquiry while being willing to move into unfamiliar territories: the various suburban outskirts of Atlanta that were unfamiliar to some of us.
As teachers and researchers whose students would later be joining us as inquiry partners, we started by studying changing social spaces, such as restaurants, public buildings, planning and zoning ordinances, and cultural events. After a great deal of discussion and preliminary individual research, we focused on three very diverse suburban communities of Atlanta, Georgia: Smyrna in south Cobb county, Post Riverside's planned community in Marietta and the Tri-city area near the Atlanta airport, which includes Hapesville, College Park and East Point.
Our teacher research team of Linda Stewart, Oreather Bostick-Morgan, Sylvia Martinez and I developed a process for initial exploration of each of the suburban communities we had selected for our inquiry. Our plan was to blend field visits, data-gathering and subsequent group discussion of the areas to identify both similarities and differences in these three suburban communities. We also hoped to discover ways in which the communities we had chosen matched or differed from those we had read about during our first summer institute. (See "What Is Suburbia?" )
Before we toured each particular area as a team, one member did preliminary research. Then she presented her tentative findings about that suburb and we discussed what we wanted to target in our field visit. We generally focused on the center of the community or the Town Square, the public buildings, and the specific landmarks or icons of the community. We tried to note any tension between urban sprawl and historic preservation. We gathered oral histories from residents and chronicled stories from recent immigrants about their view of life in the outskirts of Atlanta.
In each area we gathered materials provided for visitors and we took pictures to capture popular images of the community. As we analyzed our various artifacts (e.g., notes from the oral histories, handouts from the public sites), we soon found that the most compelling stories emerging from each place seemed to be imbedded in the photos we had taken ourselves during our group and individual visits. The photographs presented us with the best lens to compare and contrast the ever-changing suburban areas of Atlanta. For example, images team member Sylvia Martinez had captured in Smyrna provided striking evidence of the growing Hispanic population there.
Involving My Students as Co-Researchers
My experience with KCAC inspired me to make my classroom more "community" friendly. That is, I became committed to making my American Studies students realize that there are connections between past and present history and that they are not only students of history but actual participants in the ever-developing cultural history of today. I wanted my students to become aware of not only the world around them, but also the community that they live in. I was now faced with the challenge of how to accomplish this feat and still fulfill the curriculum necessary to the students for dreaded AP U. S. History tests in the spring. The answer was photography, and the techniques for using photos to explore community life that my teacher research team had been developing. We had studied photography and the importance of visual documentation during the KCAC Institute, and I became interested in the impact, insight and cultural evidence that photographs produce when studied with a critical eye. I knew that having students take pictures of "where they live" would allow them to see those spaces through a different lens and at the same time to become part of their community's history.
To get us started in the classroom, I used the photographs of Jacob Riis to inspire the students and create an awareness of the historic value of photography. The class discussed the changes in urban America as portrayed in Riis' pictures, the differences between social classes and the hardships endured by the poor.
I then presented these questions: "Do these conditions still exist today?" and "What visible conditions in our community could be captured in photographs to depict our cultural practices and values?" After a brief discussion of their preliminary observations, it was time for the students to go out and take their own pictures. Their assignment was to think about the changes, tensions, historic sites or icons that existed in their community and then take several pictures of a particular subject that they had chosen. After studying their photographs, the students were to select one that best exemplified their topic. A caption and reflection would complete the assignment. On an assigned date, the students would share photographs and observations with the entire class.
This assignment, although done on a small scale, was quite successful in introducing my students to a new approach for investigating and representing suburban life. Because Wheeler High School, where I teach, is located in southeast Cobb county, many of the photographs students produced were taken in familiar suburban areas. The subjects included historic and local cemeteries, neighborhood playgrounds, and the Big Chicken (a well-known local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise) in Marietta.
But some students took their "community" pictures in downtown Atlanta, signaling their conviction that our suburban culture is still closely connected to the city. Subjects for these photos included Turner Field (home of baseball's Braves), various building sites, the Varsity restaurant, and the streets and landmarks of Atlanta.
The "shifting" landscapes and increasing ethnic diversity in the suburbs were the two common themes that developed from this photography project. One photograph of Peachtree Street showed the rich history of Atlanta, from the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. Martin Luther King to the glory days of the 1996 Olympics.
A playground collage portrayed the diversity of a Marietta community. Asian, white, and African American children become one as they play in the sand and climb the monkey bars. One photograph of the Marietta Civil War Cemetery had an ironic counterpart included: a mulatto toddler sitting in the foreground with the caption: "What they died for."
As the students shared their photographs with the class, I tried to make historic connections whenever possible. We displayed the photographs during open house and the parents were both pleased and complimentary.
The photographs and accompanying reflections allowed my students to interpret life in their community in a new way. Most of the writing was of a very personal nature; the style was informal, with the students' own voices were evident in their narratives. The use of first person gave their writing a personal touch and worked well with their peer audience. One interesting pattern that was used by several students was writing about familiar places in the school's neighborhood, such as the Sope Creek Ruins.
Many of the students related how, through this photography-centered inquiry, they realized the historic significance of this now-suburban area. Rachel Bishop, one American Studies student, explained :
"Until recently, Sope Creek only had personal significance, but as I researched the area, I discovered it is full of history as well. During the Civil War, Confederate General Johnston positioned his soldiers along the Chattahoochee. This was done in an effort to prevent Union General Sherman from making his way to Atlanta. Sherman, however, went around Johnston and his men. Union soldiers, under the command of General Garrad, guarded the river, which Herman's men crossed at Sope Creek. Interestingly, my great-great-great grandfather, Lemuel Brooks, was among Sherman's men. While they guarded the river on July 5, 1864, a detachment of Johnston's cavalry burned the Marietta Paper Mill. Today the mill remains can still be seen along the banks of Sope Creek. The ruins only add to the significance of the Sope Creek area. Now, it is not only important because of the personal memories my family and I have there, but also because of the historical events that occurred."
Despite their informal tone, the narratives were usually serious in nature. Themes such as the closing of Kmart, the entrance to an abortion clinic, Civil War cemeteries, congestion on area roads, a water fountain as a symbol of Civil Rights, and the materialism of suburbia showed that high school students are concerned about the community that they live in.
Only the Varsity and Big Chicken (favorite eating-places) evoked a bit of humor when the presentations were made to the class. Even in those cases, my students realized that the images they had gathered and the interpretive narratives they had written conveyed important information about what members of our suburban community value and how they live their lives. We knew, in other words, that the collection of visual records we had assembled provided a kind of window into suburban culture in one historical moment, on the outskirts of one American city. Gathering the images for this web presentation has further crystallized and synthesized my students' findings, presenting our community's ongoing changes to a larger public.
What I Learned About Collaborative Research and Visual Culture
This collaborative research project has brought me into a whole new teaching realm. It has made me aware of the changing public spaces in my suburb and in turn I try to make my students aware of the impact that these changes are having on their lives.
Now, each year, we start by looking at our own school, Wheeler High, located in suburban Marietta. Wheeler reflects the changes that have occurred as a result of different ethnic and racial groups moving into this community. When students share their personal narratives in the beginning of the year, the barriers that are caused by their differences begin to disappear and a class community begins to build. We build on this community throughout the year.
I have learned that my teaching is much more effective when a sense of community exists in the class. For example, student are much more willing trying new projects. I also learned that for the photography project and similar kinds of research to be successful, my students need to have practice in reading and analyzing illustrations, paintings, and photographs early in the year. We now start during the Revolutionary period by analyzing paintings and illustrations in student groups of four.
Group work allows them to brainstorm many ideas and continues to build community in the class. We continue this group work when studying the photographs of the Civil War and Industrial Revolution in the United States.
One change I plan to make from the version of the assignment recorded on this website is to ask students to organize their work around a particular topic, such as immigration or civil rights. Each student will research one topic extensively as it can be "seen" in our community, then create a whole collage of photographs to convey a point drawn from that research. Overall, by combining field visits, photography and writing through the lens of research, my students are learning to be historians of their own community and to share their expertise with others. Along the way, they also learn to view the world around them in more informed ways and to consider connections between visual culture and community values.
What is suburbia?
By Gerri Hajduk
The Town Square Redux
by Linda Stewart
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