Entering Lawrence: A Photo Alphabet Book, Robert Frost School, Lawrence, MA

In the spring of 2007, Miss Ha’s second-grade students at the Robert Frost School in Lawrence, MA set out to create a portrait of their community in the form of an alphabet book. The photo-documentary below traces the class’ four-month adventure in studying photography, reading alphabet books, using cameras, writing their own book, creating a DVD, and exhibiting their work at the Essex Art Center in Lawrence.

The Inspiration behind the Project

Like most Photography & Writing projects, an exhibition at the Addison Gallery prompted Entering Lawrence. The fall 2006 exhibition, Wendy Ewald: American Alphabets presented the photographs of artist Wendy Ewald who collaborated with children around the United States to create A Spanish, An African American, An Arabic American, and A White Girls Alphabet. Ewald’s images, like pages from an alphabet primer, illustrate words selected by children of various ages and come accompanied by a definition they wrote. With this series, Ewald prompted educators to consider how language can reflect and shape individual and group identities, and question why “a” is for “apple” and not “avocado” in the U.S.. Inspired by Ewald’s ideas, Miss Ha decided to use this Photography & Writing project to help her students recognize the connection between a community’s language, people, and culture. She aspired to see the students’ photographs and writing come together in the form of an alphabet book.

Getting Started: Learning to Look at Photographs

Miss Ha invited Addison Education staff to visit the classroom to engage the class in looking critically at a selection of photographs from the museum’s collection. The students carefully examined four photographs over the course of an hour and discussed how to determine the photographer’s subject, focus, and message. They were first asked to describe what they saw in each image and then to find the significance of these details. They learned new terms like up-close, framing, contrast, foreground, blurry, and others which would later help them converse about their own photographs.

Looking at Alphabet Books and Selecting a Theme

Miss Ha extended the discussion about imagery by introducing photography and alphabet books. The students began to analyze the pictures in the alphabet books, making sense of the many ways a word might be illustrated. Miss Ha next guided the class to choose a theme for their own alphabet book. They selected their home city as their theme and began brainstorming words to describe Lawrence from A-Z.

An excerpt from Entering Lawrence Getting Started: Making the Book

Once the class had determined which twenty-six words they would include in their Lawrence alphabet, they had to figure out how to photograph them. Over many weeks, the students used shared cameras to photograph the words assigned to them, shooting in school, at home, and outside around the city. After developing the first rolls, students examined their successes and errors and troubleshot for the next roll. One student’s photograph of a sign reading “Entering Lawrence” found its way to the cover and became the title of the book. The students also drafted text to accompany their words and photographs. When finished, Miss Ha compiled the students’ photos and writing in a book using the website.

Studying Photography at the Addison Gallery

As a component to every Photography & Writing project, the Addison encourages teachers to bring their students to look at original photographs at the museum. After experimenting with cameras on their own, developing their pictures, and reviewing the results, the second-graders were anxious to look at more. At the Addison, the class explored the photography of artist William Wegman and was able to describe and critique the artwork by putting into practice the keen looking skills and language they had acquired during the project.

Celebrating with a Book-Signing

To conclude the project and observe the class’ achievements, Miss Ha organized a reception and book-signing at the school for the students’ friends and families, and for those who assisted in the project. In addition to printing books for every student, Miss Ha also created a DVD outlining the project, complete with the students’ narrations. Even school administrators turned out to marvel at the book and DVD, enjoy food and drink, and congratulate the students and teacher on their extraordinary work.

Going on Public Exhibit!

After months of hard work by the Robert Frost second grade, Miss Ha, and collaborators, the Addison Gallery organized an exhibition of Entering Lawrence, along with fifteen other similar alphabet projects conducted in collaboration with the Photography & Writing Program during the 2006-2007 year. The concluding exhibition, Student Photography Alphabets was on view at the Essex Art Center in Lawrence from June 22 through August 17, 2007.