Using Photographs to Modify Perspective

It’s hot in Malaysia. Some days the afternoon heat and humidity is so crippling that all my students want to do is sleep. Usually, I want to curl up into a ball and sleep too, preferably directly underneath the classrooms single functioning fan.

And yet I need to teach.

How can I possibly teach in this heat?

How can I focus on content when there is sweat accumulating below my lip? Beads streaming down my neck and lower back. How can I expect my students to focus on a rigid information transfer lesson when I am struggling just as much?

The answer, I discovered, was to modify my approach. Modify the content. Modify the activities. Modify the desired outcomes. Once I shifted my perspective, I was able to cut through the challenges and deliver an engaging and successful lesson. Although this realization seems to be quite simple, the fact that it occurred organically made it very impactful. This simple yet powerful realization contributed to one of my favorite learning experiences to date at SMK Badak.

Part of the Malaysian National Curriculum for Form 4 classrooms requires that student be able to read, understand, and accurately summarize a text. The curriculum encourages that students read blocs of academic text and share their knowledge with the teacher.

This activity, although mandated by the Malaysian Ministry of Education, would not have been entirely successful for my students for the aforementioned reasons. I was just too hot to ask my students to focus on paragraphs in a textbook. So, I modified my approach.

Instead of using the students’ textbooks, I brought in large photographs that showcased every day life for different groups of Americans. To begin the lesson, I laid out all twenty-six photographs across the room, one per desk, and gave my students five minutes to walk the classroom and examine the different photos.

During the “Gallery Walk” portion of the lesson, students were able to examine the twenty-six photographs before selecting one to analyze further.


After five minutes, I encouraged each student to select their favorite photograph and take it back to their seat. Inevitably, there were a few photographs that multiple students loved, so I permitted them to share the photograph. Once the students had selected their favorite photo, I explained that they would have two minutes to study and describe it. We discussed techniques for recording as much description as possible in a short period of time. The students determined that writing single descriptive words or short phrases would be more efficient than recording whole sentences.

Although our whole class conversation was fruitful, I made sure to direct towards the underlying curricular focus of the lesson: recognizing, recording, and summarizing critical information. I reminded the students to, “answer the ‘Wh questions’ when you are analyzing your photo: Who is in the picture? What is going on? Where do you think the photo was taken? When was the photo taken? Why do you think the photographer chose to capture this particular moment in time?” Working together as a whole class, I modeled a two-minute “quick write” using a photograph that nobody selected as their own.

After modeling the activity to the whole class, I reset my alarm and asked the students to practice with their selected photograph. Walking around the room during this work time, I witnessed students pushing themselves in ways they had not in a long time. I heard them reminding themselves or each other, “Answer the ‘Wh questions.’ Who is in the photo? What is going on? Where…”

I couldn’t help but smile. Even though their shirts and tudungs were heavy with sweat, and their arms subconsciously rose and fell to wipe their brows, they were engaged. Their brains were too busy generating nouns and adjectives to think about the humidity.

After selecting an image, students had two minutes to write down words and phrases that described their photograph.


After the two minutes were up, I asked the students to partner up. Once everyone was settled, I explained that the next part of the activity built upon their quick write descriptions and emphasized their oral speaking skills. I asked that all the photographs be flipped over to the blank side. I told them that their next challenge was to orally communicate their photograph to their partner or small group using only their memory and their generated word list from their quick write. They would not have the luxury of using the image as a guide.

The room fell silent. Then, after only a moment of stillness, it exploded with self-deprecating comments.

“But Mr. Max, my English is not good enough!”

“How can I do this with these words only?”

“My word list is too small!”

While we could have spent an entire day discussing the reasons why these comments were untrue, I opted to brush them aside with positive reinforcement and encouraged every one to try their best. To further prove my point, I participated in both describing and drawing my photograph with various groups. Each individual or small group was given ten minutes to share and draw. After the ten minutes were up, the groups switched roles for another ten-minute session.

Despite the students’ lack of belief in themselves, their finalized pieces were spectacular. My boys, although outnumber nearly three to one in the class, shone brighter than ever before. Their buried artistic talents finally surfaced and they were able to fully participate in an activity without feeling uncomfortable or shy. Changing my pedagogical approach allowed for this growth to occur. Encouraging student to illustrate their essays or name poems is one thing, but creating an activity grounded in art is another thing entirely. I could not have been prouder of their hard work!

Students were encouraged to work together or independently during this activity.


My girls, suddenly called to utilize artistic skills they had not relied on in quite some time, were initially hesitant to completely engage in the illustrating portion of the lesson. However, after a few minutes, they simply could not resist the urge to produce a piece to be proud of. It was wonderful to step back and watch my students engage wholeheartedly in an activity given the circumstances. I was taken aback when a number of them approached me after the lesson and asked that I take a picture of their work so that I could show it to my family and friends. This had never happened before. In fact, my students almost always shied away from my camera lens. Not after this lesson.

Teaching English in Malaysia has not been easy. The experience has taught me a lot about myself both as an individual and as a professional educator. I have learned to consciously pay attention to my oral, written, and non-verbal communication. Speaking to non-native speakers requires patience. Often times I find myself scouring my brain trying to think of a third or fourth way to explain the meaning of a word or to provide the comprehensible background information necessary for my students to grasp a written text. I have learned to slow my speech and enunciate each syllable, careful not to glaze over any distinct vowel or consonant sounds. Sometimes I will walk into my scheduled classes or after school activities to find that the students have been pulled for a school-wide program.

However, all of these experiences can be synthesized into one general realization: the importance of modifying my approach. When I realized that I was speaking too fast, I modified my approach and slowed my speech. When I search my brain (and sometimes my thesaurus) for synonyms to unlock the meaning of a new word, I am modified my approach to vocabulary instruction. When I prepared an after school activity only to find that a mandated school program had occupied my time slot, I changed my modified and infused the activities into the normal school day. And when I take the information I know about my students as learners and tailor my lessons in a way that acknowledges the Malaysian curricular standard(s) and allows for learning to occur, I am modifying my pedagogical approach.

Even though I remain positive throughout most situations, sometimes all of this modification can be draining. I sometimes find myself reflecting on my time at SMK Badak wishing I could do more. And yet, whenever I begin to become unsure of my purpose, I teach a powerful lesson and all of those concerns become insignificant. All thanks to small modifications in approach.

One of my student’s finalized pieces. Even though they were hard on themselves initially, they produced some fantastic work!

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