Last year, I had a student we will call Clay. Clay was the quintessential “bad boy.” He was 11 and had already been suspended many times, missed many a recess, often bullied other students, got into fights and hated school. He had repeated a grade, so he was my oldest 4th grader. He had a very nice, supportive family who wanted to help him, they were just at a loss over what to do. He was several years behind in reading, writing and math. Exactly how far behind was hard to say, since we had no real test scores for him. On tests, he would do a question or two, then give up and just guess the rest of the way through. He was often frustrated by his lack of understanding and had incredibly low self-esteem. He would disrupt class and talk back to come across as the cool, tough, funny kid and not the kid who didn’t know the answers. In short, he was a mess and in crisis.
One day, I was looking through a closet in the back of the school when I found a box full of cameras. These were nice Nikon D60’s — good stuff. Who knows how long they had been there, or why, but I took them to my classroom for further investigation. At recess, I brought one of the Nikons out to take a few photos. Hesitantly, I let Clay use it too and he suddenly became a National Geographic photographer! He was getting other children to stage shots, climbing into the slide to get kids coming through, having them jump off the swings and photographing them in mid-air. He was on fire. It was odd because he had never used a camera before. This was a low-income school with 94% of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. A Nikon like this just wasn’t sitting around their houses. I was fascinated by the event and thought about it all week.
As fate would have it, we had a field trip to the Museum of Nature and Science coming up, so I thought it would be cool to have Clay take pictures there. I told him I’d be busy watching students and needed him to take some photos for me. He eyes lit up and he took the camera all around the museum. I watched him as he planned angles for shots, some at the base of a dinosaur, others across the wing. He was in a zone. He took pictures of minerals through the glass into the geode so it would look like a crystal cave. It was amazing to watch. At the end of the day, he explained to me that he had been there before on field trips but this was the best time he had ever had on a field trip. WOW!
I knew what I really had to do now was to get him to photograph his own world and see what he came up with. We had a long weekend coming up so I asked the principal if he could take the camera home for that time. She, of course, said no. It was a $800 camera and this kid was no saint! I did the natural thing and let him take it anyway, after giving him a long lecture about responsibility and camera care. This was a big step in showing responsibility, but I believed in him. I talked to his mom and asked her if she could take him around Downtown Denver or to a nice park. When he returned from the extended weekend, Clay was all aglow! He wanted to share his photos with the class, so I showed him how to make a simple slide show. The next day he presented his first digital portfolio. It was amazing and the kids were in awe of his talent. For the first time, other kids were paying attention to his skill and accomplishment instead of his antics or anger. I also showed him how to start an account on 365project.org, a site where you upload one picture a day for a year. I had been using it and had maybe 45 followers, so I asked them to follow him and give him praise and advice on how to improve upon his newfound talents. He loved it, and so did the others on the site.
My next plan was to have him be the “school photographer.” I sent out an email asking staff to let me know if they had any events or projects they needed photographed and I would send Clay. He went around for weeks, taking pictures of class parties, projects they finished and just fun pictures for this and that. I taught him how to download the photos, do some basic editing with software, and how to make an Animoto presentation. He was walking on air. He told me he was so happy because he felt like he was now famous. If teachers didn’t know how to do the things he was doing, they asked for help, then gave him little treats and small gifts in return. He felt so important.
How could I stop now? He had pretty much taken all I had to offer in the way of photography. But I am a promoter and a connector. I love to promote a cool idea and I love to connect people together into mutually beneficial relationships. I have a friend who is unable to work and spends a lot of time taking amazing photographs within a 2 mile radius. She completed the 365 project and never really left her small area, yet capture beauty in the biggest and smallest places around the park. I asked her if she would take Clay around her area for a day and teach him the ins and outs of great photography. Of course she was ecstatic to show someone something that she was so passionate about, and I know Clay will be like a sponge wanting to soak up these tricks of the trade. I asked her to teach him about focus, shutter, contrast, framing a shot, speed and lighting. I will bring my laptop for downloading the photos, then she can show him how to use editing software to change contrast and lighting, special effects and the like. He will then be a true artist! They will meet next month.
There is really only one thing left to do, and I now just how to do it. I need to post on Facebook that I had a student in love with photography, however he doesn’t have his own camera. I can’t use the school one much longer, and he needs something to use in his own world, whenever he wants. I am sure within two days, I will have at least three messages in my inbox offering cameras, from people who have them but don’t know what to do with them now that they had new ones. They don’t want to throw them away and don’t know where to donate them. I collected three last time I asked, from one friend who was thinking just that. I use them in class, for other projects. I don’t have to tell you how excited Clay will be to get a gift from an absolute stranger who wants him to be able to follow his passion!
This is essentially how the idea of the Denver Dream Lab got started. It sat in the back of my mind for a while bubbling and brewing until events pushed it forward and made it a reality. Who knows, Clay may be the next Ansel Adams or National Geographic photographer, his artwork displayed in the MOMA…or just a great guy who stayed in school, went to college, and has an incredible slide show for friends and family.