Photography For Middle Schoolers

A Photography Project That Develops Interpersonal Skills

Students create high-quality work, care for the well-being of themselves and others, and participate in meaningful service as part of our middle school’s mission to shape and support an inclusive community. Recently, I started teaching a new course on leadership and service-learning where students lead project teams that collaborate with career mentors to address needs in the community. As a first step toward preparing students for success, I teach a series of lessons that encourage the development of fundamental interpersonal skills such as effective communication, empathy, and teamwork.


A photography project called “Finding Your Joy” was created as part of a lesson on empathy that I taught in collaboration with a local photographer and a parent from the school. I believe that other educators can adapt this lesson to help students build classroom community while also assisting them in identifying the feelings of others, which will result in the development of positive relationships. Lessons like this teach students how to read people, as well as how to comprehend the context of a situation and anticipate their reactions.

During the first lesson, which lasted 55 minutes, the photographer covered four sections: photograph analysis, in which students learned how to identify emotions and uncover the story behind the image; brainstorming, in which they considered what joy looks like at school; introduction to photography basics, in which they learned about the rule of thirds and composition; lighting and exposure; and practice, in which they visited art, chorus, and drama classes to take photographs; and final practice, in which they visited art, chorus, and drama classes to take photographs.

For this assignment, students were required to shift their attention away from themselves and instead observe—and anticipate—the actions of their peers and teachers. We distributed a letter to all of our employees outlining the project guidelines, which included rules such as obtaining consent from potential subjects and refraining from taking selfies or other posed photographs.


For one week following the first lesson, students practiced taking photographs in a variety of settings, which included environments ranging from the school to family and community settings. Students created a folder on Google Drive and uploaded their work to it, where it was shared with me and the photographer. During that week, the students and I used the last ten minutes of each class to go over the guidelines again, answer questions, discuss challenges, and analyze entries submitted by classmates. For peer feedback, we used the “two stars and a wish” format, in which students identified the two most important aspects of a photograph and shared one suggestion for how to make the photograph even better.

In the beginning, students struggled to provide meaningful feedback to their fellow students. Comments tended to be too general, for example, “It’s good.” It’s satisfactory.” I demonstrated different approaches to providing specific feedback, which prompted higher-level consideration. “How did you come to photograph this girl?” I inquired. “Why did you choose to photograph this girl?” I inquired. If you believe the student to the left detracts from your photograph, please explain why. and “How can you crop the picture to send a stronger message?” are other questions. Students took multiple photographs to be able to choose the best work to submit for consideration. Some students were even able to recognize that they had missed the mark and that they needed to try again after receiving feedback.

After a week, the photographer returned to teach the following lesson, which focused on analyzing student work, digital editing, and learning from one’s work, among other things. She led the students through a think-aloud exercise, during which she asked them additional questions about their photographs. Then, in pairs and small groups, the students practiced editing with the tools that were already on their phones and Chromebooks, gaining valuable experience. Throughout the majority of the class period, the photographer walked around the room and gave feedback to the participants.


For the project, students were asked to submit three of their favorite photographs. The photographer and I met once more to choose the photographs that students felt best represented their feelings of joy. We received media releases from the families of our students, and we then posted photographs of the students on our school’s social media pages. It was decided that the winning photographs would be printed onto canvas and displayed at a local resource center for caregivers and their families. As of today, the photographs are displayed in the school’s main entrance hall.

Photographs taken by students and displayed on a classroom wall
Lori Wenzinger is a writer and editor based in New York City.
Finding Your Joy project photographs are shown in this collection.
The lessons learned by the students from this project were profound. Looking is a straightforward physical act; seeing represents the act of observing and comprehending. Many middle school students are not adept at recognizing the emotions of others, but student leaders quickly learn that everyone has a story to tell about themselves.


The project was completed in a traditional classroom setting in the fall of last year. For this year’s assignment, I’ll modify it to fit my virtual teaching style. A photographer will now serve as a mentor to my students through the use of a service such as Google Meet. Photographs will continue to be posted on the shared drive, but feedback and discussion will now take place in online breakout groups. Students may be unable to collaborate closely in the classroom due to the pandemic, but the project objectives remain unchanged.

Another lesson, perhaps the most important of all, was learned at the end of the journey. A photography project allows you to see the world through the eyes of students. It leads to a more meaningful exchange of ideas. Student participation in this project was high right from the start, thanks to the fact that they were allowed to use their cell phones and Chromebooks. At the end of the day, this project served as a springboard for students to begin concentrating on others. We can’t move forward unless we have a vision. Make it possible for your students to go beyond looking to see.