5 Ways to Engage Learners with Photography

Photo by Arati Kumar-Rao

Editors Note: This blog was originally published on the Teaching4Tomorrow blog and has been reposted with permission. Get alerted about the next Teaching4Tomorrow blog post.

One photograph can tell a unique and compelling story, capturing a specific moment in time and offering students opportunities to examine themselves and the world. Learning with photography can support meaningful self-inquiry, creativity, imagination, and expression in students’ lives, especially during challenging times. Photography can be used as a powerful tool for teaching and learning in the classroom and beyond.

At the Global Oneness Project, the medium of photography is used to explore global issues and cultures in the classroom, as well as highlight student voices. The Project’s photo essays document themes including human rights, cultural displacement, environmental justice, sustainability, and climate change. Through ongoing student photography contests, including their current contest “The Spirit of Reciprocity,” the Project challenges students to document their place on the planet, encouraging students to become active citizens and witnesses to the rapidly changing world.

Through photography, students are not only documenting social and environmental changes to their homes and communities, they are also capturing their personal and cultural heritage stories. For example, 16-year-old Gianna Leung from Mississauga, Canada, captured a photograph of a small clay teapot, an entry to the Project’s international photography contest, “The Artifacts in Our Lives.” Leung describes that the teapot has always been a part of her home and a part of her immigrant parents’ story. She writes, “Artifacts are a physical manifestation of the stories of our roots and are symbols we can see, hold, and experience for ourselves.”

Whether you are teaching in person, virtually, or implementing blended learning, integrating photography in the classroom is accessible and adaptable for multiple subjects and grade levels. Based on our work with educators, below are five ways to use photography to effectively nurture empathy, challenge perspectives, and foster connection in students’ lives.

1. Make Global to Local Connections
Photographs can help learners make sense of their local communities and draw meaningful comparisons to distant places. For example, students studying the effects of COVID-19 on health-care workers may examine photographs by National Geographic journalists taken close to home when air travel was not possible. By comparing the pandemic’s impacts to those in their local communities, students glean universal implications, such as distress, exhaustion, insomnia, and resilience.

2. Inspire Environmental Stewardship
A photograph has a unique way of connecting us to place and time, as well as provoking conversations around critical ecological issues. Biologist and nature photographer Paul Nicklen, for example, documents remote, extreme environments like the polar regions and endangered land and sea animals with the goal of raising awareness of the impacts of climate change. Beautiful photographs draw people in, he explains. Through greater analysis, however, they teach us about fragile, interconnected ecosystems and inspire us to protect them.

3. Bear Witness to History
Since its invention, photography has helped us understand and interpret the world. At the end of 2020, National Geographic published “2020: The Year in Pictures” with 54 photographs from an “unforgettable” year. Photographs document the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and climate change, from the desert locusts swarming East Africa to wildfires in California. Photographic analysis tools and discussion prompts from the Library of CongressThe National Archives, the Annenberg Foundation, and Facing History and Ourselves support students of all ages to connect to and understand historical eras and events. Susan Thomson and Kayenta Williams (2008) explain the power of photographs for historical inquiry: They offer “a richness that words alone often cannot accomplish…concise captions normally take the place of narrative written material, giving the photographs the opportunity to speak for themselves.”

4. Gain New Perspectives
How might a single photograph shape students’ perceptions and ways of thinking about the world? The following resources are recommended photography sites that encourage students to consider the medium of photography through the lens of art, history, and science:

5. Photography as a Catalyst for Social Justice
Photography can serve as a form of activism. For example, in 2015, photographer Devin Allen photographed the Baltimore protests for Time Magazine after the death of Freddie Gray. The photograph he took resembled photographs taken in 1968. Allen took photos this past year during the George Floyd protests and, as a young photographer, he encourages individuals to see the Black Lives Matter movement beyond the media. He said, “Black Lives Matter is beyond a hashtag.” Use the International Center of Photography’s resource on integrating photography in the classroom with a lens on social justice. Their teacher’s guide contains learning activities and exhibition images from their collection, challenging students to identify social justice issues and be a part of the solution.

Closing Thoughts
There are many benefits and approaches educators can use to bring photography into the curriculum. Photographs can uniquely evoke an emotional response in learners, such as joy, curiosity, or empathy, as well as invite them to ask questions and investigate deeper meanings beyond first impressions. Importantly, photographs are also highly accessible for emerging readers or English language learners. Further, when selecting images that connect to students’ lives, teaching can become more culturally responsive, nurturing trust between educators and students. As with any curricular tool or resource, we encourage teachers to use their knowledge of learners when selecting appropriate photographs to forge connection, exploration, and deeper understanding of themselves and our planet.

Additional Resources: Photography as a Tool for Teaching and Learning

  1. 9 Photo Composition Tips” with photographer Steve McCurry, YouTube video by COOPH
  2. Lori Wenziger, “A Middle School Photography Project That Develops Interpersonal Skills,” Edutopia, August 19, 2020
  3. Marybeth Jackson, “Photography Can Transform Students’ Perspectives,” EdWeek, April 9, 2015
  4. The Power of Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church
  5. Cooperative of Photography (COOPH) YouTube Channel
Most Poplular Funding Opportunities for March 2021

Most Popular Funding Opportunities Last Month

In the previous month, educators were looking for funding opportunities in the areas of career and college readiness, STEM/STEAM, and workforce of the future. Check out which grants GetEdFunding educators viewed the most in the month of March.

Education and Youth Grants
Sponsored by The Webb Family Foundation

Webb Family Foundation

The Webb Family Foundation makes grants in the areas of education; youth development; career and workforce development; financial literacy; entrepreneurship; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; digital and blended learning; and youth mentorship. The foundation supports programs and projects that target underserved children and youth. Recent grants have funded a college success program and support of charter schools working to close the achievement gap for low-income students.

Deadline: June 1st, 2021

Build Strong Program Grants
Sponsored by TC Energy Corporation

TC Energy

TC Energy Corporation sponsors Build Strong Program Grants that support initiatives related to education and training, the environment, community, and safety. Priority areas include early childhood education, environmental education, youth recreation and leadership, and safety education and training.

Deadline: Applications are accepted year-round.

Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers
Sponsored by National Science Foundation


The Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program promotes prekindergarten through grade 12 students interests and capacities to participate in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and information and communications technology (ICT) workforce of the future. To do this, ITEST supports the development, implementation, and selective spread of innovative strategies for engaging students in experiences that: (1) increase students’ awareness of STEM occupations; (2) motivate students to pursue the appropriate education pathways for STEM occupations; and (3) develop disciplinary-based knowledge and practices, or promote critical thinking, reasoning, or communication skills needed for entering STEM workforce sectors.

Deadline: August 13, 2021

Education Grants

Sponsored by Stavros Niarchos Foundation


The Stavros Niarchos Foundation awards grants to fund projects in education as well as arts and culture, health and sports, and social welfare. The foundation has supported a variety of programs in the United States, including recent relief requests for emergency needs related to the coronavirus pandemic. Examples of previous education grants are summer and after-school tutoring programs for middle school students from low-income backgrounds, an “edible schoolyard” gardening program, music education, and multiple examples of support for higher education initiatives. Emphasis is on programs serving vulnerable populations.

Deadlines: Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Education Grants – HDR Foundation
Sponsored by HDR Foundation


Founded in 2012, the HDR Foundation has provided nearly $3 million in grants to nonprofit organizations located where HDR employees live and work in communities throughout the United States. Preference is given to discrete projects that show promise for lasting impact and projects that can be replicated or scaled. The foundation has three priority areas of focus: education, healthy communities, and environmental. Under the category of education, the foundation supports projects that focus on architecture, engineering, design, environmental science, and consulting and planning. Recent education-related grants have supported a high school robotics program; a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academy; academic success programs for underserved middle school students; and hands-on STEM activities to increase youth interest in careers in technological, engineering, and scientific fields.

Deadline: Applications for small grants are accepted May 12 through June 7, 2021. Letters of Intent for large grants are accepted July 29 through August 19, 2021.

Proposal Rejected

What to Do If Your Funding Proposal Is Rejected

Rejection can be hard to take, especially when you’ve poured so much time and effort into a great proposal for your school or classroom. You may not know how to proceed after putting your best efforts into a proposal that doesn’t make the cut. A rejected proposal doesn’t have to be the end of your search. Here are some tips on what to do after your proposal is rejected.

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Most Poplular Funding Opportunities for March 2021

Most Popular Funding Opportunities Last Month

In the previous month, educators were looking for funding opportunities in the areas of improving student learning, science, environmental education, and STEAM education. Check out which grants GetEdFunding educators viewed the most in the month of February.

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Funding for School Gardens

Springtime is the perfect time for planting a new garden. If you’ve been dreaming of bringing a garden to your school, check out these funding opportunities to get started.

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Most Poplular Funding Opportunities for March 2021

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In the previous month, educators were looking for funding opportunities in the areas of STEM education, literacy, and COVID-19. Check out which grants GetEdFunding educators viewed the most in the month of January.

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Including Students in Your Grant Writing

Cash-strapped teachers know that grants can bring much needed monies into the classroom to enhance learning experiences and engage students. But teachers often lack the time to prepare and write grant applications. Incorporating the grant application process into your classroom is a viable solution.

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Yes, Please! Getting Your Principal to Approve Your Proposal

Teachers are always searching for new products and programs to help their students achieve more. However, new materials come with a cost, and teachers need approval from their principals to move forward. Here are simple tips for getting your principal to say yes.

Timing Is Everything
Approaching your principal at the end of a long day or in the middle of a noisy hallway isn’t likely to get you a very receptive ear. Try to catch your principal at a time when he or she can devote full attention to your proposal. You may want to initially set up a time to talk with your principal over email.

Know What Makes Them Tick
Understanding your principal’s priorities will help you give a persuasive pitch. Think about how the product or program meets your principal’s goals. Try to illustrate how a program benefits your whole school, instead of just your classroom.

Be Prepared
Approach your principal with solutions rather than problems. Principals have enough issues to manage already, and they’re not interested in adding another to the pile. Have a solution to your problem already in place by planning out exactly what you need, why you need it, how much it will cost, the intended outcomes, and the benefits to your students and the school. Present this information succinctly and persuasively. You may even want to create a one-page proposal. The more prepared you are, the more seriously your principal will take your request.

Get Students on Board
Encourage your students to get involved in your project. Have them write a persuasive essay or make a video explaining why they need a product or program and how it will help them learn.

Find Key Influencers
Talk to the people who influence your principal. See if you can get them on board with your proposal. They may be willing to discuss it with your principal, which could mean the difference in getting approval.

Seek Funding
Reduce the costs of implementing the product or program by seeking funding through grants, contests, fundraising, and crowdfunding. The GetEdFunding database has thousands of funding opportunities for educators and resources to help with grant writing. Crowdfunding on sites such as DonorsChoose, AdoptAClassroom, and Classwish, can help fund smaller projects. Check out our blog on creating a successful crowdfunding campaign. Don’t have time to write your grant or start a crowdfunding campaign? Ask your PTA for help.

Be Willing to Compromise
Settling for two virtual reality headsets over a whole set for your classroom is better than coming away empty-handed. Consider splitting your proposal into smaller steps. For example, you might first ask for a few virtual reality headsets, then for a curriculum to go with the headsets, and then work up to asking for a classroom set.

It isn’t easy to find the time to prepare a thoughtful proposal for your principal. However, if you don’t ask, you cannot receive. Finding the right time, getting buy-in from students and key influencers, and seeking additional funding sources will all help make it easier for your principal to say yes.

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