How Photographs Can Get Children Talking and Teachers Listening

Guest blog by Adina Lopatin

Remember being a student teacher? On any given day, my mind was filled to the brim. My mini-lesson, my handouts, timing transitions just right, remembering modifications for particular students… and where is my clipboard?! The list went on. I was so focused on my plans that I had limited cognitive capacity for listening to my students. 

This dynamic is common among new teachers, and it is problematic. Learning happens through relationships, and feelings of being understood and belonging are essential foundations for creating relationships that support learning (Denton, 2014). Teachers need to listen well to build these relationships. 

Susan Atkins

Another common dynamic exacerbates the situation: 79 percent of teachers are white¹ whereas only 48 percent of their students are white² and most new teachers grew up speaking English as a home language while 10 percent of US students are English language learners³. Teachers, especially white teachers, often bring problematic assumptions about their students, and often interact with students in ways that function to validate their assumptions rather than taking in new information to overturn them. This is one of the everyday but devastating ways that white supremacy shows up in classrooms. 

But what if deep listening could become one of those top priorities occupying new teachers’ busy minds? And what if, through iterative practice and intentional coaching, new teachers could overcome their biases, learn to listen well across lines of difference and elicit and interpret every student’s thinking? Susan Atkins, a lecturer in teacher education at the University of Michigan with expertise on teaching English learners, teaches preservice teachers to elicit and interpret students’ thinking. I spoke to Susan about the activities she uses to help new teachers learn to listen to English learners—an essential element of anti-racist teaching. 


ADINA: You use photographs to teach listening. Why photographs? 

SUSAN: I’ve noticed that some novice teachers have a harder time listening to students with a truly open stance. So often, because we are teachers, we are listening for content understandings, and in that space, new teachers sometimes struggle. I have seen them, they have this impulse to guide the conversation in very particular ways. And through their questioning, you can tell that they’re trying to drive the student to a particular place, hoping that they will hear a specific answer.

So here I am, with this background of using photographs with students, and I see my teacher candidates struggle with this practice of listening. It dawned on me that they need to listen to a conversation where they don’t know the content, where they are not searching for a particular answer. Using the photos gave my teacher candidates an opportunity to engage with students and practice being in that space of what I call “authentic listening.” It was a really nice way to prepare them to then ask them to do this type of work with content.

ADINA: Can you tell me more about how you used photographs as a teacher? 

SUSAN: I started my teaching career in Northern California in the Bay Area. I was hired for a fourth-grade bilingual elementary position. In the interview, the principal said to me that it was amazing that I spoke Spanish and would have that in common with my students. 

But once I got inside the classroom, I realized that we really were quite different. Most of my students had a Mexican or Central American background, and though I had been to those countries, I didn’t share with them the same upbringing or cultural considerations. I became very curious about my students and wanted to learn more about how they were experiencing the neighborhood and living in our school community. 

One day, on a whim, a student told me about an upcoming family quinceañera and in response, I asked her to take some pictures. Afterward, she mentioned that she would have liked to, but she didn’t have a camera. This was back before everyone had a camera on their phone!

So, I started buying disposable cameras and used a library system to let my students check them out. They began to take a ton of pictures—images that were meaningful to them, and parts of their lives that I would never get to see at school. As time went by, and I saw the piles of pictures in our classroom grow, I saw the potential in how I could use those photographs in my own instruction and bridge the content I was teaching to what was important to my students. 

I learned about my students in very deep ways and getting to know them allowed me to become better prepared to instruct and motivate them. So many of them were learning English on top of the 4th grade content, and getting the chance to learn to express themselves around topics that were really significant to them was very motivating for all of us. 

“I saw the potential in how I could use those photographs in my own instruction and bridge the content I was teaching to what was important to my students.”

ADINA: What was it like when students brought in their photographs? 

SUSAN: Students brought in so many pictures! Everything from family members, lots of pets, books, sports, family events and other things important to students. And lots of food, so much food! 

There were always some pictures that were surprising and that required explanation from the students. I remember a picture of a drawer. The student explained that in her house, she was expected to share most things and most spaces. Her mom allowed her one small drawer, in the bathroom, to be hers alone. That was an example of something that would not have been obvious if you just looked at the picture! A photo of a puppet once came in, and after lots of guessing, we learned that a grandfather in the family was a well known ventriloquist and the puppet was considered a “brother.” When you get into the space of talking with students, all the pictures begin to make perfect sense.

The morning meeting when the photos came back from being developed was always so exciting. We’d pass the photos around, make predictions about what the photos depicted and asked each other lots of questions. 

The pictures were communal although they originated from one student in the class. If we were doing a writer’s workshop, I’d tell them to look through the photo basket and see if there’s something about which they could write. The photos became a resource for the classroom that was different from the original intent of taking them. We had photos to match particular vocabulary words that came up in content discussions. We had photos posted up on our word walls. At the end of the year, I’d pass all the photos back out to the students. 

ADINA: Now that you teach preservice students, how do you create similar learning experiences for them? 

SUSAN: I teach in the Teacher Education Program at the University of Michigan. The courses I teach are open to our undergraduates, graduates and those who are pursuing elementary education and secondary content education. I teach the methods course for second language acquisition. I have also taught specific courses about instruction for newcomer language learners, teaching literacy and content, and I have done field instruction and seminars. 

When I teach eliciting and interpreting student thinking, my teacher candidates have the opportunity to go into a partner school and work with an English learner student three times. The first time, the  teacher candidates model specific English language structures and introduce themselves using photos from their own lives. They then leave a camera with the English learner student. The second time they go back, they have the student’s photos, and then the fun begins. The teacher candidates plan for an “eliciting conversation” where they can ask open-ended questions about the photos to the students. The third field experience is when they go back to do a similar style of conversation, but this time around a particular text. In this way they move from practicing those authentic listening skills to then trying them out with content and housing that same practice of eliciting and interpreting about a text.

ADINA: How do you get your teacher candidates ready to talk about the photographs that the students had taken? 

SUSAN: I would collect the cameras and print the photos beforehand, and then pass them out to the teacher candidates so they could spend time practicing (via peer run through and rehearsal) how to initiate and plan for the conversation. 

We have a lot of discussion about how visuals are a support for language learning in general, and there are really rich ways to apply language development strategies to conversation about the photos. We talk about how you can label photos, use them to introduce particular academic words, or prompt students using the eliciting techniques, to make space to hear what they have to say.  

I also have my candidates reflect on their own identities and the identities of their students. This is important because I do not want my candidates to make assumptions about the photographs, or be insensitive about what the images mean to the students. One year a student brought in family pictures that were taken in Thailand. A teacher candidate commented that she knew there were really good spas in Thailand and always wanted to go there for vacation. For the student, who was experiencing Thailand as their home country and the cultural center of their family life, the comment that it was a vacation spot and a great place to get a massage, was a bit problematic. Having a practice phase, in a structured way in the teacher education classroom, allows me to attend to potential problems. 

“I also have my candidates reflect on their own identities and the identities of their students.”

ADINA: How can teacher candidates, who bring whatever biases they bring, avoid making mistakes like that one? 

SUSAN: I tell my teacher candidates that this activity is all about listening. This isn’t about you talking, or you driving the conversation to a particular place. Beginning teachers have an understanding that what they say really matters and they often have that impulse to guide the conversation. In the practice space in my teacher education classroom, I can ask them: “Do you think just asking a question might be a better way to enter this conversation?”  

“This isn’t about you talking or you driving the conversation to a particular place.”

ADINA: This is a powerful activity but seems challenging to set up. What advice do you have for others who might want to use this resource with their own teacher candidates? 

SUSAN: This series of field experiences can be difficult to set up, but there are other ways to create this space for students to talk to you about the things they care about that are less demanding in terms of preparation. In the field experience, you can have teacher candidates ask students to draw something or to pull something out of their backpack that is meaningful to them. You can use the school building and ask students to take you to their favorite spot, or you can pull images that are important to them from Google. You can simulate this same authentic listening experience to help teacher candidates learn to listen and get to know a student. The key idea is to get students to drive the conversation by having a hand in determining the image, the topic or the “thing” to discuss. This really helps teacher candidates let go of any impulse to control the interaction. 

ADINA: So many teacher education courses will be happening virtually next year. Do you think it might be possible to do a version of this online? 

SUSAN: Using visual artifacts is particularly important in online instruction, especially for English learners. 

When learning transfers online, a lot of the visual clues and body language that English learners use to make meaning are lost. At the same time, acquiring language and content from a screen of “talking heads” is asking a lot. 

When teachers use an image that comes from their students, is meaningful to them, or is chosen with them, the opportunities to build meaningful, comprehensible instruction really can improve. 

If courses are online, there are still opportunities to work on these skills with teacher candidates. This type of photo-based activity can transfer to video platforms, with or without K12 students present. The teacher educator, or if possible, the student, can screen share an image online and teacher candidates can practice a plan to elicit students’ thinking. I have asked teacher candidates to plan questions for K12 students at different proficiency levels, and to think about academic vocabulary and phrases that “match” the image and can be taught in the context of the photo. Online breakout rooms also can serve as a good space for teacher candidates to go practice via peer run-throughs and practice with one another. 

ADINA: If I asked your teacher candidates what they took away from the experience, what do you think they would say? 

SUSAN: All of them would tell you how surprised they were to get to know so much about a particular student in such a short amount of time. Oftentimes the teacher candidates, through one or two conversations with an English learner, end up learning something that even the classroom teacher does not know. I remember a teacher candidate following up with a classroom teacher and mentioning how pleased she was to get to learn so much about Guatemala from the student. The classroom teacher had thought all year long that the student was from Mexico!

Teacher candidates are primed to saying things like: “Building relationships is important.” But I don’t think they can all give you an example of how that work gets practiced during teacher training. My teacher candidates can. And now, through these field experiences and practice in listening and eliciting student thinking, they actually know how to do this in a classroom. They know that as you launch a school year, this is a goal, to develop a connection over the year with every student, regardless of their English proficiency level, personality or background. 

ADINA: Great teachers build strong relationships with students, but learning to do this well takes some practice. How might this activity fit into teacher candidates’ trajectories of learning to build relationships? 

SUSAN: This activity helps teacher candidates build some habits that really transfer to the work of building relationships with students. They learn to be curious about their students, to hold judgments about what students think, and to ask open-ended questions for students at multiple English proficiency levels. They learn that they do not need to wait until a student reaches a certain level of English proficiency before connecting with them. 

When I ask my teacher candidates what it takes to build relationships with students, they often respond that they need to do something extra to “get to know students.” When I ask what that “extra something” is, I often hear things like attending soccer games, going outside at recess, and holding extra clubs or classes after school. Those are all good things, but the one-on-one eliciting work teaches them that listening is foundational, everyday work that should also happen within the classroom.

Resource Center 

You can find the full unit of instruction that Susan uses in her methods course here. See below for some highlights:  

  • Decomposition of the practice of eliciting and interpreting with English learners 
    • Teachers reflect on the decomposition of eliciting and interpreting student thinking, and reflect on considerations they will make to do this work with English learners.
  • Eliciting and interpreting students’ thinking about personal photos (field task)
    • Teachers enact and record their lesson plans for an eliciting conversation with students about their personal photos. Teachers are directed to monitor and reflect on the language that they use and to pay careful attention to the English language that their student produces.
  • Preparing for the field task through peer run throughs
    • Teachers break into pairs to practice the plans they created for conversation with their English learners. The pair take turns enacting the eliciting conversation and provide feedback to one another.

This post is part of a blog series authored by leaders from seven networks of teacher preparation programs—Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, Center for Transforming Alternative Preparation Pathways (CTAPP), Innovation Center for Educator Preparation (IC4EP), National Center for Teacher Residencies (NCTR), New York City Department of Education, TeachingWorks, and University-School Partnerships for the Renewal of Educator Preparation (US PREP)— who are working together to transform the way teachers are prepared. In this series, these leaders talk about who they are and why they want to tell stories about teacher transformation. Read the previous blogs here, and don’t forget to share the series with your colleagues. Feel free to send comments to and sign up for our email list. We’ll be using #teacherprepmatters to spread the word, and invite you to do the same!

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