Art Project Helps Kids Picture Natural World

By Joe Beck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

Posters of wildlife photography began to take form last week as fourth-grade art students at Whetstone Elementary School hunched over tables, intently studying pictures they had taken with digital cameras.

Some of the hundreds of photos captured geese flying in V formations against a gray sky. Others showed plastic classroom models depicting plants and animals in their habitats.

The photos were the fruits of five days of work by the students, teacher Sarah Joyce-McCarron and visiting artist Joanne Miller in a lesson that used photography to explore nature. The project is to culminate at 6 p.m. Tuesday with a show at the Gaithersburg school.

Miller's residency at the school was supported by a grant from Target stores. The 30 digital cameras used by the students came from her personal inventory.

McCarron and Miller said that the project has deepened students' understanding of the natural world.

"Some kids who aren't always so invested in their work are really excited about this," McCarron said.

Abiel Alvarenga, 9, said he used photos to tell a story.

"I . . . made a story of a lost duck," he said. "Some rats are planning to attack him, and the duck finds his family before the rats get him."

Miller smiled as she recalled one of the highlights of her visit, when students spotted some flying geese.

"These kids, 26 at a time, are chasing a flock of geese with their cameras and screaming at the tops of their lungs," Miller said.

Sara Johnson, 9, said the photos added to her enthusiasm for the class.

"So far, I love doing this," she said. "I've always been into photography, and I'm just glad we're taking a class in it," she said.

The project came with a lesson about environmental principles. Students learned how to use photography to illustrate their understanding of terms such as ecosystem or food chain and the differences among herbivores, carnivores and omnivores.

Photography brings topics to life in ways that textbooks and other traditional forms of instruction miss, McCarron said.

"You're adding a lot of dimensions to their experience, and the kids love it," she said.

Miller, who also teaches a nine-week photography and nature class at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, said she was pleased at the way the students took to lessons taught outdoors.

"I think they have a lot of enthusiasm for being in nature and to create in nature," she said.

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