Part of my new teaching position goes a little beyond the typical world of English Language Arts. While I’ll still be spending the majority of my time teaching junior level English and AP Literature, I will be spending one hour of the day teaching traditional darkroom photography under an emergency license.
As things progress for our department, the film photography class will eventually morph into a visual literacy course that works in multimedia, using both word and image to teach, write, and learn. Helping to write this new course is something I’m very excited about. But this year, Photo One gets its swan song with me, a woman who had never set foot inside a darkroom before… until she found out that one was attached to her new classroom. Becoming acquainted with the darkroom was… intimidating. As I considered what seemed like a dark and mysterious dungeon filled with uncertain contraptions from the 1960’s, sinks filled with various apparatus, and jugs of uncertain chemicals, I felt some panic start to set in. How am I supposed to teach kids to navigate this strange, old technology? I wondered. I don’t even know what any of this stuff is!
So, I set out to answer a question that many teachers have asked themselves when faced with a “surprise” assignment: How do I get ready to teach my students to become experts in something that I don’t, myself, know? After the brief day of panic was over, I knew I needed to answer this question and fast. Fellow emergency teachers of all subjects, I hope you may find my method useful.
How to Confidently Prepare to Teach a Subject You’re Unfamiliar With
STEP 1. Identify your strong points (prior knowledge you bring to the table) and plan how to best make use of them.
In my case, I have a solid background in art and design. I reminded myself that I know the basics of a strong visual composition, and that I know how to talk about art from theoretical and practical standpoints. In fact, my professional development plan and several special projects I’ve done center around linking visual art with language arts. I saw a potential for strong meaning-making and unit design in my class. Even with zero technical film photography expertise, I wasn’t starting from zero. That helped give me courage for the next step.
STEP 2. Read up. (And video up.)
Thankfully, many people who had some experience in the photographic arts had books to lend me, and YouTube videos to point me to. I started to devour these materials, attempting to expand my knowledge base as rapidly as possible. In this, I also was able to note what is easy to pick up and what is confusing–by doing this, I’m better able to envision where my students will need additional support. I started learning the names of some of the aforementioned contraptions I was dealing with. Honestly, YouTube is a gold mine of people with niche knowledge to share with the world–utilize it.
STEP 3. Find experts and set up times for in-person, hands-on lessons in your area of weakness.
You may be a teacher, but right now you NEED a teacher…. hopefully, several teachers. Do not be ashamed about your lack of knowledge–ask everyone you know what expertise they may have in your new discipline. Get connected: friends, friends of friends, or even That Guy You Talked To At That Thing Once. Most people are very generous with their willingness to share knowledge, especially if it’s about something they have a passion for. Get out there and ask for help! I was blessed to have three wonderful teachers show me around the basics of a film camera as well as my own darkroom space. They were able to offer everything from “What is that thing?” explanations to teaching process practicalities to hands-on supervision of my chemical measurements.
People I can’t thank enough for their voluntary assistance in assuaging my inexperience include: accomplished photographer and teaching colleague Ms. J (follow _msjohnson on Instagram), professional photographer and dear friend Ms. B (find her at EmilyBeeArts.com), and photography teacher and all-around photo guru Mr. M (find him at MedvedPhotography.com). These teachers allowed me to envision and practice my new discipline. The more real-life instruction you can get, the better you will be able to instruct others. I put in many hours of practice time with these folks. Now that I am growing in proficiency, I’m continuing to practice on my own.
STEP 4. Celebrate yourself as a learner–and apply your new joy of discovery as the cornerstone to your teaching, however inexperienced it may be.
Behold, the first two photographs that I made on my own! I took the images with a beautiful loaner Minolta X-700 35mm SLR from the 1980’s. I loaded the film onto a reel in complete blackness and developed the negatives. I selected my exposure times from a test strip I made with an enlarger. I exposed, developed, and fixed the prints under safelights and watched them emerge into the world! (This is extremely basic photo stuff. But to me, it is AMAZING.)
While expert photographers may look at these images and see their many flaws, I see absolute magic. The thrill of going from 9-1-1 emergency panic to a Photo 101 beginner’s swagger has made me so excited to teach students to experience the same feeling. My first prints are far from perfect, as will theirs be. But discovery is the point. Getting past frustration and cluelessness to a point where confidence promises the growth of new skill ahead is where the love of learning is solidified. Just two prints in and I’m hungry for more. That’s where I need to get my students. And, while I still have much, much, learning to do, I’m more than ready for Week One!
Composition–it’s the same word for both images and words. I can’t wait for a year of teaching kids how to write with lenses and light.