Seeing home through a different lens

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Class 5-B is out on a photo shoot, and they're not going unnoticed.

Pedestrians, storekeepers, and folks mingling on street corners in this gritty section of the South Bronx all pause to cast curious glances as the huddle of serious fifth-graders, led by two students clutching cameras, makes its way along the avenue.

These children have become accustomed to a great deal of attention. Even as their school photography project, which today has them documenting local tradespeople, has helped to introduce them to their neighborhood, the work of author Jonathan Kozol has made their school well known before the eyes of the world.

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These are the children of PS 30 in the South Bronx. Their school is featured in "Ordinary Resurrections," Mr. Kozol's most recent book, in which he celebrates the spirit, innocence, and depth of the children he encounters in the neighborhood. He paints a stark contrast between the freshness and originality of their interests and observations and the grim nature of their surroundings.

But Kozol also praises administrators and teachers at PS 30 who, despite working at an underfunded school in a disadvantaged neighborhood, have created a strong learning environment.

One way administrators at PS 30 work to enrich the school's program is to bring in private money for extras that would not be available to students otherwise. That was the genesis of the school's photography program, sponsored by Learning through an Expanded Arts Program, a New York-based group.

LEAP serves about 90,000 students in 300 schools throughout the northeastern United States. The organization works with students, trains teachers, and produces curricula and course materials.

The students are well aware that they're receiving something special. "Not that much schools have photography," says Class 5-B member Daisy Chavez proudly.

But the class offers these students more than just a chance to take pictures. Arlene Schulman is one of the adjunct faculty members brought in by LEAP to supplement the school's standard curriculum with arts instruction. Ms. Schulman introduces the basics of photographic composition and lighting, but also strives to push the boundaries of the learning experience.

"I try to expose the kids to cameras, to the neighborhood, to people," says Schulman. A walk around the neighborhood to photograph residents also becomes a lesson in etiquette, as the group discusses the importance of a neat and clean appearance, the proper way to approach potential subjects, and how to politely respond to people who may not wish to be photographed.

Later, back in school, photography spills over into computer and writing skills, as Schulman takes the students of 5-B to the computer lab and asks them to write essays explaining who or what they would photograph if they could photograph anything in the world.

"Don't forget - details, details, details!" exhorts Schulman, as the kids hunch over computer keyboards and begin to peck out compositions about photographing a favorite brother, Mount Everest, or the Eiffel Tower. Often, the same things that make a photograph great, Schulman reminds them, will also enliven a written composition.

Through LEAP, Schulman has been serving as adjunct faculty in various New York City public schools for four years. While she has taught classes as young as kindergarten, the program she's now involved in at PS 30 includes Grades 3 through 5.

The project is called "The Bronx: Past, Present, and Future." Today the kids photograph the short-order cook in a local diner, a pair of carpenters outside a small store, a friendly newspaper vendor, and a couple of women out shopping with a small child.

"These kids have had an experience like you wouldn't believe," says Elida DeJesus, their regular teacher, who accompanies them on their photo shoot. "You should have seen their faces the first time they saw a lens." The project has also been helpful, she says, in expanding their vocabulary and writing skills.

Their professional horizons are expanding as well. Like some of their peers featured in "Ordinary Resurrections," the students of 5-B are quick to offer their own unique and sometimes humorous perspectives on their class assignments and their personal ambitions.

Jesus DeMartinez says he really enjoys the camera but would prefer to be photographing animals, because "they're just more interesting than people."

Inspired by the class, he's begun photographing birds in the park on the weekends - when he can spare time from the three cartoon strips he regularly pens as part of his plan to become a professional cartoonist.

Diana Napoleoni says the photography class has significantly altered her life goals. Originally, she explains, she wanted to become a mortician, but after interviewing and photographing a local police officer and learning about his line of work, she says, "Now I want to find a way to be both a mortician and a police officer."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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