As she displays this photograph on a large projection screen,
Walden Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Mary Wingerden asks her class,
“What do you see first? What jumps out at you?”
The students’ heads nod up and down, from projection screen
to paper, as they jot down their observations. When Ms. Wingerden asks the
class to share answers, they’re varied.
“I see an eight on the wall.”
“There’s some kind of drum that says 2015.”
“There’s a kid with playing cards in his hands.”
Ms. Wingerden is participating in The New York Times’
Learning Blog’s weekly “What’s Going on in this Picture?” activity. Each week,
the website posts a photograph from across the world and invites educators to
encourage their students to guess what is happening in the photo using
observation and reasonable evidence. At the close of the week, the blog will
post the background story behind the photo and students will have the
opportunity to compare their perceptions to the reality of the photograph.
The free activity is part of a teaching methodology called
Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which aims to strengthen critical skills such
as problem-solving through teacher-facilitated discussions centering around art
or other visual mediums that encourage students to make observations and draw
reasonable conclusions based upon what they are seeing. According to the VTS
website, these discussions “enable students to use existing visual and
cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience, learning to use what
they already know to figure out what they don’t; they are then prepared to
explore other complex subject matter alone and with peers.”
As Ms. Wingerden’s students list their observations, she facilitates
the discussion, using open-ended questions to encourage students to elaborate
on the reasoning behind their observations. No detail is too small. When one student points out that there is a
young boy in the photo, Ms. Wingerden asks, “What makes you think it’s a
“Because he doesn’t have any facial hair and he’s short,”
the student answers.
“Why do you think there’s no electricity?” she asks another
“Because if he had electricity, he would have a space heater
near him instead of a blanket,” the student answers.
It’s all personal observation, and the students don’t always
agree. While one student sees a broken
light on the ceiling, another describes the same object in the ceiling as “a
hole with sticks in it.”
Once the class has discussed and compared their
observations, Ms. Wingerden asks them to use their observations and critical-thinking
skills to describe what they believe may be going on in the photo. Again, the
answers vary, but the overwhelming consensus of the students is that the young
boy in the photo lives alone and does not have, or has lost, his parents. Ms.
Wingerden continues to prod the students to use evidence from the photo to
back up their theories.
“If he had parents, he wouldn’t be allowed to light a fire
“He looks depressed, and there is no one to cheer him up.”
“The room isn’t clean. If he had parents, they would have
made him clean it up.”
“The benefits of VTS
are tremendous,” Ms. Wingerden said. “Aside from sharpening their analytic
and observation skills, they also learn how to have a productive conversation
and a healthy debate using evidence to back up their assertions.”
The students’ observations have sharpened since Ms. Wingerden
introduced the lessons in October. They are noticing more details in the photos
and improving their sense of what is reasonable based on the context of the
“They’re starting to really understand how to infer,” Ms.
Wingerden said. “Giving them the practice of verbalizing it really helps.
Once they’re able to verbalize their observations, their writing becomes much
After a lengthy discussion, Ms. Wingerden asks the class
to write a story based upon their observations as the final lesson until The
New York Times Learning Blog publishes the story behind the photograph later in
the week. The students open their Chromebooks, and the air is filled with the
sounds of fingers tapping computer keys.
“It helps improve my typing and gets me thinking about
what’s happening in the picture,” Michael Holmes, a student in Ms.
Wingerden’s class, said. “There was
one photo where all these people were holding shields and one girl was sitting
in front. I guessed they were protesting about something, and I was right. I’m
On Friday, The New York Times reveals the photo’s original
caption: “A child played cards in
the local Palace of Culture, used as a bomb shelter during fighting between the
Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed militants.”
“It’s my favorite
part of class,” Maddox Rivera, a student in Ms. Wingerden’s class, said of
the VTS activities. “Mysteries are my favorite type of books, and [these
lessons] help me get better at solving them.”
Photo credit: Top photo by Anastasia Vlasova/European Pressphoto Agency. Originally published here.