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Speculative Annotation in the Classroom: A Conversation with Educator Ashley Wood and Innovator Courtney McClellan

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The following is a guest post by the 2021 Innovator in Residence Courtney McClellan, a research-based artist who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. With a subject focus on speech and civic engagement, McClellan works in a range of media including sculpture, performance, photography, and writing. She has served as studio art faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Georgia, and Georgia State University. Most recently, she was named the 2019-2020 Roman J. Witt Artist in Residence at the University of Michigan.

My vision for the 2021 Innovator in Residence project is to create a tool for students and educators to be able to be in direct conversation with historical objects from Library of Congress holdings. Speculative Annotation intends to use creative notetaking and artistic mark making to allow students to actively explore and respond to historic artifacts, while providing scaffolding for educators such as lesson plans. I am visiting classes in order to speak with students and teachers about what kind of tools might spark curiosity and deeper engagement with the collection. These visits include brainstorming and annotation exercises. Ultimately, students will be giving feedback throughout the development of this application, which will premier in the early summer of 2021.

Ashley Wood is an educator at Francis W. Parker Charter School in Devens, MA. She teaches a range of humanities courses for 9-12 students. I visited Ashley’s Photography class in order to kick off the user-testing and student outreach portion of my residency.

CM: Thank you for speaking with me today, Ashley. First off, I would love to just hear a bit about your photography class that I visited.

AW: It’s a semester long photography course for 11th and 12th graders. It’s online currently, which feels important. Usually, it would not be. The course is intended to familiarize students with basic digital photography skills as well as fit into the School’s Arts and Humanities department. [Students] are also working towards bigger skills that work across mediums like critical thinking, and media analysis.

CM: Could you tell me a little bit about your student population? What are they excited about? Who are they?

AW: My school, the Parker Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, is a suburban charter school in central Massachusetts. Kids come from a wide range of counties from around our school. The school is interesting because the classes are heterogenous. So, I could have students as young as 10th grade to 12th grade in my class. It depends on how the students have moved through the program. It is diverse in terms of age and skill level. Everything is fully inclusive.

AW: At the start of the semester it’s a lot about getting used to the camera and understanding the basic mechanics, but we do that by looking at the work of others. I like to see what they’ve focused on for the many photojournalists that we looked at or are interested in–for example, social issues or telling the story of a place or a particular population. Subsequently, that’s when I’ve seen [students] turn the camera on – their lives, their communities. In this time there has been a lot of focus, too, on implications of the pandemic. I had one student do a series photographs in an empty mall. That was pretty interesting.

Ultimately, they turn in a series of 10 to 15 photographs that adopt the style of one of these photographers and write an associated 2-3 page paper. In the paper, the students provide an analysis of their photographer’s work, and then offer connections to their own work. An overarching question or a central question driving that assignment is a conversation about truth and photography and how we build narrative. It also covers how we manipulate truth by making certain choices. We also discuss how who we are as photographers impacts the story that’s told. For example, we look at the work of Gordon Parks. Parks was a photographer during segregation, and he did a large piece for Time magazine on segregation in the South. We talk about how he made images from his point of view of as a black man.

Photograph by Gordon Parks of Ella Watson with mop and broom in front of American flag
“Washington, D.C. Government charwoman” photograph by Gordon Parks, 1942. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives.

CM: As you mentioned, when I visited, we did discuss the idea of truth and visual storytelling. After our discussion, I shared some of the Free to Use images from the Library of Congress and I asked them to annotate them. How do you think that annotation experience or exercise impacted this larger assessment about truth and visual storytelling?

AW: I think what I did was stitch together our emotional read of images with a more technical understanding of photography. For example, I had some students connecting things like– it’s blurred motion, then understanding on a technical level, there is a long shutter speed or longer exposure. Then we take it to the next step which is, what kind of mood or feeling does that create and how does that lend itself to a larger story? So, it really helped to look at those images. The inspiration images made them nail down a little bit more specifically what they were thinking about what they interpreted and what they thought they saw directly in the image.

CM: Students discussed what they directly saw in the image, but they also linked this to what it made them think about, many of which were connections with pop culture.

AM: Right, we talk about lateral thinking. So, how do you take one thing and either through metaphor or through comparison make connections to something else. This kind of analysis further supports understanding and interpretation of an image. These experiences assist in understanding how the image is functioning and what techniques are being used.

CM: How might you use Speculative Annotation after its available? Is there a way that you see the application fitting into your classroom teaching? Do you imagine that you would use something like this?

AW: Yes, for one, I would absolutely use the lesson that we put together. Again, I think it helps with those initial stages of unpacking an image. I also teach literature and poetry as well. This idea of marking up is deeply embedded in English language instruction. I teach a poetry class and we have done similar exercises. We discuss image association, mood, interpretation, and connotation. I’m wondering how working with text or starting with an image could be interesting as well.

CM: Ashley, thank you for letting me participate with your class and for speaking with me today.

McClellan will continue her virtual annotation research in classrooms through the end of the school year as part of her Library of Congress Residency. With an interest in K-12 education and covering a range of subject matters, Speculative Annotation will be informed by the needs of students and teachers. If you are interested in collaborating with Courtney in your classroom, contact [email protected]

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