Historical Witness, Social Messaging Lesson Plan Land Use and Lawmaking in California

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Lesson Steps

  1. Tell students that they will be charged with the task of creating photographic essays that explore a local natural environment, including factors that could impact it negatively. Before taking any photographs, students must first conduct research on the Internet or in their school or local library. Pass out the handout Protecting a Local Environment. Based on their research, students will complete the handout and answer the following questions:

  • What can an individual gain from experiencing the local natural environment?

  • What different factors could negatively impact an individual’s experience of the environment? (Pollution, litter, commercial development, tourism, etc.)

  • What are the causes of these different factors?

  • What are the consequences of these factors? (Health hazards, endangered species, aesthetic concerns.)

  • What should be done to protect the environment? What can the community do to persuade the local, state, or federal government to take action and protect the environment?

  1. Pass out copies of excerpts from Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. You may wish to select excerpts based on your specific curricular needs or choose to excerpt the first paragraph. (To view the complete Nature, visit The Internet’s Complete Guide to the Life and Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (www.rwe.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=107&Itemid=42). Discuss Emerson’s main points. Explain to students that Emerson was at the center of a literary, political, and philosophical movement called transcendentalism. Transcendentalists emphasized the role of the individual in shaping his or her own experience without the influence of authorities and institutions. For Emerson and other transcendentalists, like Henry David Thoreau, truth and beauty could be attained by experiencing nature, writing, creating art, and meditating.

  1. Inform students that Emerson praised photographs of Yosemite taken by Carleton Watkins. Display a reproduction of Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite. Ask students why they think that Emerson liked Watkins’s works. Explain that Watkins's images helped define America's preference for landscape views depicting rugged wilderness and celebrating spectacular landforms on the grandest of scales. Watkins's photographs confirmed the sense of wonder celebrated in America's wilderness.

  1. Explain that Watkins had the ability to photograph a subject from the viewpoint that allowed the most information to be revealed about its contents. Ask students what they notice in the foreground, middle ground, and background of the photograph. Point out how Watkins positioned the camera in such a way to include the decaying tree on the left-hand side of the composition and the façade of El Capitan on the right. He was also able to capture the top of the looming granite cliff in the background and the stillness of the water in the foreground.

  1. Tell students that, in the spirit of the transcendentalists and of Carleton Watkins, they will create their photographic essays by spending time with nature and creating art. To prepare students for shooting photographs, pass out the handout What’s in a Photograph? and review the information with the class.

  1. Students will be responsible for making a pinhole camera out of a recycled oatmeal canister and will use their camera to create original photographs. See the lesson "Capturing Light: The Science of Photography" (www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/art_science/lesson01.html) for directions on how to construct and use a pinhole camera.

  1. Students’ photographic essays should comprise three to five images that explore the local natural environment that they researched. The essay should communicate different ways that people impact the environment or are impacted by the environment (i.e., litter, noise pollution, traffic, negative impact on air quality, respiratory issues and other health concerns resulting from air pollution). Students should plan on shooting at least eight pictures using photosensitive paper. Remind them about Watkins’s deliberate compositional choices evident in Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite and encourage them to try different angles and to shoot in different positions (i.e., crouching or standing on a chair rather than simply standing) so they can see how different perspectives affect the outcome of the image.

  1. When students have completed the assignment, instruct them to write an artist’s statement that can be exhibited with their photographs. In their artist’s statements, students should reflect on their experience of taking photographs in a local natural environment. They should respond to the following questions:

  • How would they describe their experience photographing the environment? What inspired them to shoot in a particular location?

  • How did their research influence the subject matter of their photographs?

  • What did they learn from examining Carleton Watkins’s photograph that they considered while making their own images?

  • Based on their experience, do they agree with Emerson and other transcendentalists that truth and beauty can be attained by experiencing nature, creating art, and writing?

Instruct students to include specific examples from their personal experience or their photographs that support their ideas. Students should also include an introduction and conclusion in their essays. For further ideas about how to how to craft artists’ statements, view the lesson “Exploring Photographs, Lesson 3: Writing the Artist’s Statement” (www.getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/exploring_photographs/lesson03.html).

  1. Set up a class exhibition in your school library or another local venue and invite the school community to attend.

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