By Catherine Ordeman, Teach for America-Alabama Corps Member
This year, Teach for America-Alabama celebrates its fifth anniversary. Catherine Ordeman is a Teach For America corps member and an art teacher at Jefferson Davis High School in Montgomery, Alabama. In November, she launched We Are The Ones, a photography project in which nearly 200 students posed for Instagram portraits in front of a quote by President Barack Obama. More recently, she and her students attended the historic Selma to Montgomery March commemoration.
As teachers we are faced constantly with the issue of teaching our kids about the world, while also allowing them to form their own opinions. This issue is one I grapple with frequently in Art class: how do I teach my students to create without stifling their creativity?
In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, many of my students were confused about why so many of these deaths were happening in the North. As students in Montgomery, Alabama, they were under the impression that racism existed in isolation in the South. They learn about the Civil Rights Movement and hear all about why their state and city are so incredibly significant. In their eyes, it wasn’t a Northern problem; it wasn’t a national problem. I wanted to address all of these issues, but most importantly, I wanted to give my kids a chance to say what they were feeling and thinking — no matter what it was — and that’s when I decided to launch We Are The Ones.
The lesson began with a TED talk about the Inside Out Project. The Inside Out Project is a photography project that aims to change the world by posting large-scale photos of faces and sharing individual stories. The subjects are asked to make “a face of commitment.” For my students, that meant “don’t show me your yearbook smile; show me who you really are.” Some decided to be serious, others laughed or talked to friends to get candid shots, and some even covered their faces.
We also adapted the Inside Out Project to work with Instagram. Every photograph was taken in front of a quote by Barack Obama and shot in black-and-white. Before students could take a photograph, they had to respond to Obama’s quote. Then I asked them the big question: “Why does your life matter?” Their responses amazed me. They talked about making their moms proud. They talked about their dreams. They talked about the changes they want to create in their community.
Over the few days we took these photographs, I learned more about my students than I have with any other project. Their faces of commitment showed me how they perceived themselves. Their statements helped us explore their own self-worth. I also heard stories that they most likely wouldn’t have felt comfortable sharing in another context. One of my students pulled me into the hall and burst into tears because she truly could not answer the question of why her life mattered. This child is bubbly, and brilliant, and beautiful — but couldn’t see that for herself. There was a lot of emotion, but it was a cathartic experience.
As students started to see the positive responses to their photographs on Instagram, and read the comments people were leaving, they got really excited. They felt empowered. Every “like” validated that, yes, their lives do matter — and not just to them, or to me, but to everyone.
To see more images from We Are the Ones, please visit instagram.com/creativeclassroom.
(Courtesy of Teach for America-Alabama; used with permission.)