A Brave New World of Literacy

Alternative Transmedia gives children a voice through journaling and photography

By Jamie Miles

photograph by children in Transmedia program

One raised hand started the class talking. Rows of journals sat open until one brave volunteer shared a personal entry.

“My room is very pretty, but it hardly gets a visit. The thing is, I’m afraid to sleep alone,” she said. Another student’s hand flew up in the air and she offered, “I took a picture of my room because I like my room. I like being alone half the time.”

Supportive feedback swelled into the original cacophony of side conversations, curt expletives, and cries. For an outside witness in this public high school located in the poorest zip code in New York State, the scene felt strikingly raw.

But for Stephen Mahan, this scene defined every Friday morning. Dressed in loose-fitting jeans, a sweater with rolled-up sleeves, and a plaid newsboy cap, Mahan stood at the front of the classroom, speaking over 31 chattering students. “We are going to write an American Pop,” Mahan said, referring to Jack Kerouac’s three-line alternative haiku with no syllable limit.

One student played with the point-and-shoot Nikon used for the photography portion of the class and — flash — lit up one half of the classroom. Uninterrupted, Mahan bounced through the room, scripting his own colorful three-liner off the top of his head, encouraging his students to think creatively and start writing. “If you feel more comfortable writing in a language other than English, do it,” he announced. Journal entries, verbal expression, photography, and open dialogue are the tools for Mahan’s Literacy, Community, and Photography (LCP) course, showing students their voices matter.

photography and poetry

Mahan teaches photography in the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) at Syracuse University. Through an outreach portion of the LCP course, SU students join Mahan in mentoring kids of all ages throughout the community.

The LCP program uses photography as a starting point for students to tell their stories. Mahan believes the camera creates a level playing field and a healthy sense of self-esteem. He’s right on track — teaching through photography has become a growing national trend as institutions embrace alternative tools for a greater understanding of self and academia. “I’m not out to play Mother Teresa,” Mahan said. But it’s good that it allows kids that learn differently and think differently to see that they can achieve a high level of praise and worthiness.”

The photo/literacy residency in the class builds on approaches modeled after Wendy Ewald’s “Literacy through Photography” program, developed at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Ewald works with children and encourages them to communicate their aspirations and experiences creatively. Like Ewald, Mahan challenges every student to use the camera to express themselves and “look at things sideways,” a rule he stressed since he began teaching the LCP course in 2005.

The student photography projects center around thematic questions: Who am I? Where am I from? What are my dreams? The photographs then prompt writing. Like Mahan’s students, the answers come in all forms — from a few simple lines to a compelling poem, like “From the Shadows”: I’m from nights with no food Crying with mom Raising my brothers From ‘I brought you in this world and I’ll take you out …’ I’m from liquor and parties Drama and fights Police (‘We have a report of a disturbance’) I’m from flames Hospitals family reunions Phony family members I’m from the house I’m the glue

Tenth-grade English teacher Adam Lutwin directs the writing component of the course at George Fowler High School in Syracuse, N.Y.. He notices student improvement as the program progresses; the photographs grow in depth, the writing becomes more personal, and the students branch out in sharing their work. “They tell me things that I don’t think they would ever say if we weren’t doing things like this, if they hadn’t written it or taken photos of it,” Lutwin said.

Even the SU mentors detect improvement in the students’ work and their overall academic performance. Stephanie Appleby, a junior communications design major, believes that before being exposed to the LCP class and its alternative teaching approach, the children viewed education with a limited perspective. She thinks this course ignites the students to move forward, attend class, contribute, and consider pursuing higher education. Appleby once overheard one of the more outspoken boys in class announce, “This is the kind of shit that makes me want to come to school!”

Mahan resumed his place at the front of the room, ready to assign the next writing project to a full classroom. His honest energy commanded their attention and admiration. “That’s my dude!” sophomore London Odistor exclaimed.

“He’s not like other teachers. He takes teaching to another level.” The mentors attest that the children respond especially well to Mahan as a teacher. “He’s real to them,” said junior communications design major Stephanie Hart.

Mahan began teaching photography in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1993. His experience proved useful in his ability to connect with the students, and foster an open relationship based more on friendship than the hierarchy imposed by the authoritative position of teacher. Mahan, who once struggled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), relates to the challenges that learning poses for many children. “Those kids, the worst kids in school — those were me,” he said. “I was the one thrown out of schools all the time just because I learned differently.”

photo of tattooed arms paired with a poem

SU also offers services to the LCP students in the form of Light Work, a nonprofit photo center and community darkroom located on campus. Through scholarship funding, Mahan’s students can attend classes and workshops on Adobe Photoshop as well as on black-and-white and portrait photography. The scholarship gives them all the necessary resources: access to a camera, a fully equipped digital lab, a darkroom, and bus tokens for transportation to and from the center.

One particular student inspired this scholarship when she found a positive escape from her life in journal-writing and photography. In 2008, Cherron Patterson’s boyfriend beat her 20-month-old child to death using metal rods, tubes, and a metal spring. Mahan said most of the students he works with come from backgrounds of drugs and violence — a harsh reality of Syracuse’s West Side. Although Mahan recognizes he cannot save everyone, he hopes to make students aware of their potential to transcend their issues through education. “All I do is do what I can,” he said.

The course visibly impacts the entire community. This past July, the Near Westside Initiative sponsored the installation of 10 large-scale photographs on the exterior of a building on West Fayette Street in downtown Syracuse. The images measured 48 inches by 64 inches and were sealed with a protective shield to ensure their permanence in the community.

Mahan recently received funding for another community installment downtown, which will feature text imposed on images of children’s hands. He expects that further public displays will attract statewide recognition. “It’s impressive,” he said. “Especially when somebody goes through the poorest neighborhood in New York State, and the third poorest neighborhood in the country, and there’s student art all over the place.” Mahan cited statistics given by mayoral candidate Alfonso Davis.

As Mahan concluded his Friday lesson, students reluctantly turned in their glue sticks that they used to paste images from their contact sheets into their journals. “Okay, now pass in your books,” he announced, much to the student’s disappointment. “You’re taking my journal? But then I can’t write in it and I’m going to get all sad and stuff,” said a humble voice over the shuffle of children anticipating the final bell. Mahan suggested writing on a scrap piece of paper and reassured the student he could paste the writing in his journal next time.

The student surrendered his journal and said goodbye. He went home to an empty room to spend another night alone, writing on a piece of paper.