Moving In Close

Teachers, it seems, could take a lesson from photographers. Robert Capa, a well-known Hungarian photojournalist, once said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  Teachers, like photographers, are sometimes tempted to use a wide-angle lens—to get everything in the picture, to be comprehensive. But a closer, more intimate look draws students in, helps them relate, and then makes them curious about the larger subject. Here are a few examples:

  • Students might listen when a teacher talks about racial discrimination. But it’s a photo of a kid their age in a coffin that gets their full attention. After they see Emmitt Till’s face with its bashed-in bones and a gouged-out eye, they want to hear his story. The specifics grip them—how his friends waited outside while he went into a store to buy bubble gum; how while he was in the store something happened, maybe he whistled at a white woman or flirted with her; how later that night he was pulled from a bed at his grandpa’s house by the store owner and his brother; and how he wasn’t seen until three days later when his decomposing body was pulled from the river with a 200-pound iron cotton-gin fan attached to it. After these specifics, they have urgent questions about a big topic.
  • The teacher in the movie Stand and Deliver gives his students a close-up look at the concept of zero. It’s like digging a hole in the sand, he says, and then filling it again. And then he invites his students even closer.

“Did you know,” he asks his Hispanic students, “that neither the Greeks nor the Romans were capable of using the concept of zero? It was your ancestors, the Maya, who first contemplated the zero, the absence of value. True story. You burros have math in your blood.”

These students, far below their grade level in academic skills, sit up straighter and eventually pass the AP Calculus exam.

  • I once tried to explain fractals to a class. I gave them the broad idea, the textbook definition—a geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as a whole. This didn’t impress them. But when they looked close up at a fractal fern to see how each stem with its leaves looked like a miniature version of the larger fern plant, they understood and appreciated the fractal pattern.

I found that Robert Capa was right. When lessons fall flat, it was often because I had relied on generalities and hadn’t moved in close enough.

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