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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
August 28, 2006
DeKalb — Looking at the world through a child’s eyes is nearly impossible for most adults, whose once-innocent curiosity and fascination has become jaded by age and experience.
But an exhibition of photography coming to Northern Illinois University in October can help.
“Voices of Children: Exploring Childhood and Culture through Visual Literacy” showcases photographs taken by elementary school children, some from Illinois and others from far-away lands overseas. All were given cameras and a simple instruction: “Show us your world.”
The photos will occupy the Gallery Lounge of the Holmes Student Center from Oct. 16 through Oct. 28. An opening ceremony is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 16, with remarks at 6:45 p.m. Dignitaries from Australia, one of the other countries, are expected to attend.
Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call (815) 753-1745 for more information.
Rhonda Robinson, a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, served as the project’s U.S. representative.
She collected photographs from Wright Elementary School (the District 428-NIU Partnership School in Malta) and Western Avenue Elementary School in Geneva.
“The pictures had some similarities. Almost everyone took a picture of their bedroom and the things in their bedroom: dolls, stuffed animals, real animals, trophies, sports equipment, dance gear,” Robinson said. “In showing us their world, a lot of them gathered together the things they’re interested in, almost like self-portraits through objects.”
Robinson also was struck by the nearly universal reaction from the children.
“Almost never does anybody hand them a camera,” she said. “None of them could ever remember getting that opportunity.”
That unique opportunity – disposable cameras loaded with film and the permission to take photographs of whatever the children wanted – began in Australia.
Robinson met a group of educators at the International Visual Literacy Conference who had funding from Adobe Systems to sponsor the project. They represented several countries in Africa, Asia and Australia, and asked Robinson to involve the United States.
She approached Sharon Smaldino in the NIU College of Education’s Partnership Office, who helped pay for cameras and processing. Fifteen students from each school were invited. At Wright, Robinson even taught four 90-minute photography workshops during after-school sessions.
Finally, directives were given for the written expression requested from the students.
“We had questions in a booklet: My family is … one thing I like about my family … one thing I like about the world … one thing I’d like to change about the world …,” Robinson said.
Robinson, whose specialty is visual literacy, loved the results.
“There’s a lot of richness in each of the photographs. They see themselves as really active kids, connected to other people and other things. You also begin to see the differences in how the kids interpret the word ‘family,’ ” she said.
“I love the still-lifes. Some of them were really quite artistic – someone’s ballet shoes just tossed on the floor, really casual,” she added. “And at the same time that it’s complex, it’s simple. Here’s my baseball trophy. Here’s my desk with my video game on it.”
The NIU exhibition also features photos shot and verbal expressions by children in the other participating countries, making the exhibit a multicultural experience for all who participate. Large collages of faces and digitally projected images from all countries are featured.
During the workshop, the Wright photos were displayed on a screen so everyone could comment and offer constructive criticism, another learning component built into the project. The children also knew the photos they chose would become part of the exhibition in other countries: Students in Bangkok saw the U.S. pictures in early spring.
“I’m sure that the students saw the difference between their homes and the American homes and their friends and the American friends. We also had Australian group pictures online to project that included a landscape picture to show the diversity of things,” Robinson said.
“We’re all different. We see things differently,” she added. “I’m hoping they learn the world if full of a lot of people who have similarities and differences.”
Robinson hopes the NIU community, especially pre-service teachers and their professors, will turn out in great numbers for the October exhibition. She and others working on the project have created a “museum-guide” brochure to distribute to local school children who attend.
“This is a recommended school or university field trip as an exploration activity,” she said. “For teacher education candidates, it’s an opportunity to see the kinds of work kids can do and a reason why they should use visual learning activities and technologies in their classrooms.”
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