In the Spring of 2020, we were all working remotely with our students. I ditched any hope of following my usual curriculum and focused on finding imaginative and exciting assignments that would help students through these difficult days. Luckily, I joined a newly formed social media group where a very cool photography lesson using toys was featured. The objective was to create a sense of realism by making small toys fit into life-sized settings. Since the majority of my seventh- and eighth-grade students owned or had access to a cell-phone camera, I was sure this project would be a winner.
Left: Lilli H. C. Right: Ashton H.Michael Z.Max S.Derrick C.
In the Spring of 2020, we were all working remotely with our students. These were tumultuous times for sure, and we were all challenged by the new and unique circumstances that surrounded us. We were left wondering how to keep our students learning about art, and more importantly, making art. How could we use the technology at hand to instruct and motivate our students? Would they rise to the occasion under these conditions and produce something creative and meaningful? So many questions. Like everyone else, I took it one step at a time.
I ditched any hope of following my usual curriculum and focused on finding imaginative and exciting assignments that would help students through these difficult days. Luckily, I joined a newly formed social media group where a very cool photography lesson using toys was featured. The objective was to create a sense of realism by making small toys fit into life-sized settings.
My students weren’t little kids, but I was betting they still had some toys hanging around. And since the majority of my seventh- and eighth-grade students owned or had access to a cellphone camera, I was sure this project would be a winner.
Playing with Toys
I began the process by creating toy dioramas using my own kids’ toys. When I was finished, I realized a few very important things: (1) Outside environments seemed to make the illusion of realism stronger. (2) Since we generally view things at ground level, photographing from a low angle creates a stronger sense of realism by putting the viewer at the same height as the toy. (3) The photos needed to tell a story. This is important because including a narrative element elevates the artwork, making it especially creative.
Next, I created a slideshow presentation featuring my examples and some others I found online. I outlined the important things for students to remember based on my own experience with photographing dioramas. I also discovered through the social media group that many of the newer phone cameras have a portrait mode that creates an extremely shallow depth of field, making the background very blurry. This was another effect that would enhance the realism of the shots, and I asked students to use this mode if their phones had it.
As the assignment neared its deadline, students began submitting photos to our online classroom. I immediately saw how much fun students were having with this assignment and could sense the energy they were putting into it. But I soon realized I would have to help them achieve a stronger sense of realism.
Since I was working with them asynchronously, I provided comments and asked them to reshoot if possible. In other cases, I downloaded their photos and cropped them in Photoshop. Since many students had older phone cameras without the portrait feature, I added a shallower depth of field if their photos needed it.
It was a busy time between giving feedback to more than a hundred students and doing some Photoshop work to help them along, but I was energized by the fact they were truly engaged and doing such an outstanding job.
Showing It Off
At the end of the assignment, I was astonished to see so many strong pieces. The next question was how to show off students’ marvelous work in this new online environment. I assembled a short video featuring as many of the works as possible and shared it in our virtual classroom for students to see. Then I posted it to a few of the district’s social media pages and some of our local community websites. It was a big hit on all fronts, with parents and community members enjoying the work and appreciating the assignment.
My toy photography project turned out to be a wonderfully creative distraction from the stressful times that students—and I—were struggling through.
Michael Sacco is an art teacher at Three Village Central School District in Long Island, New York. Ocassm@GMail.com
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
Play and process-based art abound in the summer issue! Art teachers share lessons in which students can take risks and experiment with materials in a stress-free environment. Students create artful sound sticks to express emotions, assemble 3D hats inspired by art careers, collaborate or work solo to engineer mixed-media parade floats, draw colorful portraits with exaggerated expressions, and more.