Campus & Community

Through a child’s eye

6 min read

HGSE’s Luttrell gives kids cameras and learns to see the world from a new vantage

At first glimpse, the photos don’t seem particularly revealing: a fish on a plate, a television, clean dishes on a rack, a toddler with outstretched arms, a lighted porch.

But to Wendy Luttrell, these pictures — and 1,600 others like them in her data base at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) — open a window onto a largely secret world of childhood.

Luttrell, a sociologist who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, is Harvard’s Nancy Pforzheimer Aronson Associate Professor in Human Development and Education. She’s three years into a research project that she hopes will help educators understand the lives of children, illuminating the way they interpret concepts like culture, success, work, and family.

Child-created visual imagery reveals the influences that shape students outside of school, said Luttrell. It also provides education researchers with a little-explored way of understanding the academic achievement gap. Starting in the earliest school years, by every measure, poor children do less well than their middle-class counterparts.

To untangle the message behind the photographic images, Luttrell and a team of HGSE doctoral students have adopted a visual ethnographer’s approach to studying the inner lives of children. They use a methodology called PhotoVoice, first developed by University of Michigan public health educator Caroline C. Wang. It helps draw children out about their photographs during videotaped individual and group interviews.

Luttrell added an analytical component to PhotoVoice, a sort of inventory of childhood from the child’s perspective. Her team, still fine-tuning the requirements of such visual analysis, looks for thematic constants that tell about family, home, friends, food, and religion.

They’re studying a low-income, working-class, multiethnic group of 36 fifth- and sixth-graders, chosen over three years in groups of 12 from Columbus Park School in Worcester, Mass., an hour west of Boston. (Luttrell will stop at 36, but plans to follow the cohort into high school, where they will take another set of photographs.)

Columbus Park, a kind of United Nations in miniature, has 360 students in pre-K through sixth grade. Many are recent immigrants, 90 percent live in poverty, and a third speak English as a second language. There are students from Somalia, Sudan, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Albania.

Each annual group of 12 fifth-graders, six boys and six girls, is ethnically mixed. Every child gets a disposable camera with 27 exposures, along with an assignment to document their lives over a period of four days. They also get specific prompts: Look for what’s important to you in your school, family, and community. Photograph where you like to read, what makes you feel proud, whom you admire, what you do after school and on weekends, and the places you feel comfortable and respected. (Sixth-graders get twice the number of exposures, and fewer instructions.)

Last year, when he was a fifth-grader, Jimmy’s pictures included the school nurse, three firefighters in turn-out suits, two boys in mock battle, and a stack of pizza boxes. “On my list” of what’s important at school, he explained in a 50-minute videotaped interview, “I put good food.” The firefighters he admired, Jimmy went on to say, and the idea of fighting scared him.

What emerges from the photographs is a child’s sense of identity, said Luttrell, along with notions of class, success, failure, and what it means to be educated. “I’m interested in the way kids see cultural differences, and how they talk about it,” she said.

During the school year, students look at 300 photos arrayed on long tables, prompting them to look at their friends in a new light. “The children learn more about each other,” said Columbus Park principal Dolores Gribouski Ed.M ’90, Ed.D. ’97. “It’s a valuable opportunity to have real meaningful discussions about diversity.”

The teachers benefit from the pictures and the videotaped interviews, said Gribouski, because they come away with a “deepened and expanded” sense of the lives of their students.

Luttrell agreed, and went further. “It doesn’t take much to challenge a teacher’s assumptions,” she said. “The question is: How well do you really know the students you teach?”

A picture of a $20 bill, said Luttrell, made some teachers think of consumer culture. But to the child, in an interview, it was a sign of pride: money she made working at home.

Race, class, and gender — and the hidden messages of hierarchy in each — underlie the story of many photos, she said. Mothers are often pictured as iconic figures, and in the interviews are spoken of that way. To girls, mothers are someone to share work with (child care, vacuuming). To boys, mothers are objects of high praise, as well as their primary font of servitude. Luttrell said this division shows the emotional attachments that go along with “gender inequality in the domestic space.”

As the children discuss one another’s pictures, they reveal well-formed assumptions already in place about class, race, and expectations. Understanding the voices of children and their images, said Luttrell, helps educators understand “how inequality is reproduced,” and how early it is that prejudices are shaped.

Scholarly investigations of the achievement gap are largely based on institutional barriers and parenting styles. “What’s missing is childhood,” said Luttrell — that is, what children themselves have to say.

Luttrell and five HGSE doctoral students are coding the photographs based on a system of 50 markers developed last fall. The list of codes, organized in a spreadsheet, enumerate setting, gender dominance, predominant objects, and other clues.

This semester, the students gather twice a month in Luttrell’s research practicum, “Finding Culture in Talk and Images.” So far, each has coded about 150 photographs — which sometimes is as much a puzzle as an exercise. Jimmy’s close-up of the pizza boxes, for one, isn’t clear at first. “What’s that?” someone asked in class. “Welcome to our world,” said first-year doctoral student Carla Shalaby.

The graduate students will each have to trim a videotape into edited “chapters,” so they study the tapes for themes and stories. Jimmy, for one, readily offered up stories about his world, including explanations of his pictures of homework, board games, and a rumpled bed.

The point of interviewing is “eliciting narratives,” Luttrell told her students, assembled one afternoon in Gutman Hall. Jimmy, she said, “organized his pictures around work. It’s a wonderful American story.”

Luttrell hopes her research will one day be a book, including a DVD and a “data dictionary” to help teachers decode the photographs and the taped interviews.

If nothing else, the process of taking pictures and talking about them opens the children up to themselves and to one another, she said. As a bonus, at the end of each school year, the children rate their photos as art. They gather in a technology lab at Harvard, and help chose 27 final pictures for a child-juried show.

“My real interest is: What do these kids want made public, what do they value?” said Luttrell. “We don’t spend enough time treating kids as experts in their own lives.”