“A student has to be a valedictorian—or bring a gun to school—in order to be considered newsworthy,” says Amika Kemmler-Ernst.
An educator for more than 40 years, she’s talking about our tendency to focus on either the great or the horrible, while paying less attention to everything in between. A teacher of children and a mentor to teachers, Dr. Kemmler-Ernst is now officially retired. But in an ongoing visual ethnography project, she’s been visiting Boston Public Schools (BPS) and taking pictures of normal kids in action, learning at school.
It’s a passion she’s indulged in throughout a career teaching in Brookline, Boston, around Africa, and in Italy. Shelved at her Jamaica Plain home, bulging albums hold photos of kids at work, in their classrooms, and on the field trips of her own design. Always, she asks students to add their own words to explain what’s they are doing in the pictures.
“I wanted to find a way to celebrate ordinary kids,” says Kemmler-Ernst.
A photographer who’s not into camera lenses and gadgets, Kemmler-Ernst’s tool of choice is a modest point-and-shoot that she uses without a flash, the better to blend in during the mornings she’s making pictures at a school. She looks for kids engaged in their work. With a circling motion of her arm, she redirects students to turn away from her and not pose for the camera. After editing the photos, she returns to the classrooms to ask the students in the pictures to explain what they are doing and learning. (Schools help select photos for publication and check media permissions.)
The resulting text and photos become tabloid-page-size stories about individual schools, currently being published as a series by the Boston Teachers Union on their website and newsletter under the title, “We’re Learning Here.” Mostly teachers are exposed to Kemmler-Ernst’s work. She’s gratified when she hears from a teacher that her stories themselves can instruct.
But she also wishes the general public were more aware of all the good happening in BPS. Kemmler-Ernst recalls noticing during her own graduate studies at Harvard that much research looks at pathology, examines what doesn’t work, and focuses on the negative. So while her “We’re Learning Here” series intentionally deals with the everyday, there are always small surprises to be discovered.
For example, during her recent visit to the Clapp Innovation School in Dorchester, Kemmler-Ernst peeked in on a P.E. class. The teacher, Ms. Scott, was working on a yoga lesson. But what struck Kemmler-Ernst was that the walls were papered with word lists, used for spelling and vocabulary purposes in many a classroom. But here, in the gym, an uncommon place for a “word wall” to begin with, the words were about feelings. Upon entering, students were asked to write down how they and their bodies were feeling, an inventive way to link each child’s physical and mental work during the class.
With the experience of someone who’s seen the insides of dozens of BPS schools over just the past few years, Kemmler-Ernst notices things like the use of whiteboard paint (which is used to make a dry-erase surface) on walls and desks at the Clapp. The first graders she visited loved being able to write directly on their desks.
“Teachers are so busy, and their days are much longer than the public might think,” says Kemmler-Ernst. “They attend professional development sessions, where they can sometimes see teachers from other schools, and they go to meetings. But there’s no real forum for teachers to learn what others are doing outside of their grade level or building.” With her teacher’s eye, Kemmler-Ernst’s observations make “We’re Learning Here” a window into worlds other educators wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to see.
For the students, "asking them what they are learning gives kids a chance to reflect. Sharing the photos and their words, whether in print or on hallway walls, is a powerful way to help students see themselves as learners,” says Kemmler-Ernst.
Her pictorial records go back decades. If you were ever lucky enough to be in one of Amika Kemmler-Ernst’s classes—look her up. She might have some great old pictures of you.