When Disposable Cameras Develop Far More Than Photography

In the world of education, teachers are familiar with the rare, unplanned moment where a learning opportunity presents itself to their students. In the business, we call this a "teachable moment." When this fleeting opportunity arrives, we immediately grab it before it's gone. Other times, a teachable moment grabs us and takes our breath away! This is precisely what happened when I took my Westfield fourth graders on a trip to Trenton, NJ to visit our State House and Old Barracks Museum to learn about New Jersey government and the Battle of Trenton in the American Revolution.

Trenton is a wonderful trip filled with Revolutionary history and civics. It's an exciting time filled with surprises like running into legislators in polished suits who stop to give an impromptu lesson on how state laws are passed. Or the time we all shivered in the cold winter at the Old Barracks while hearing first-hand about the Battle of Trenton from a Continental Army Uniformed Sergeant barking orders at my fourth grade "recruits" within the stockade fence of the 250 year old building.

But, in my 13th year running the Trenton trip, my "teachable moment" originated from just two sentences I uttered when giving instructions a week before the bus would be pulling out. I remember my students' reactions when I stated, "There are to be NO electronic devices on the trip. No phones, games, DS's, or any devices starting with an 'i'. If you want to take pictures, please get those disposable cameras at the pharmacy." At the time, I wondered if it was unfair to put a technology sanction like this on my students. After all, is it really their fault that they were born at a time when a camera, phone, calculator, and game system sits comfortably in the palm of their little hands? Yet, I had grown all too accustomed to kids staring at their glowing screens completely oblivious to the world around them.

And, I really wanted them to feel the excitement of driving under the Delaware River tunnel as we approached the city of Trenton. I wanted the children to gasp at the picturesque gleaming gold dome atop the State House building as we took the exit ramp onto West State Street. I wanted them to actually sit and talk with the other kids around them. As it turned out, suggesting my students bring disposable cameras turned out to be the best decision that I made!

On the day of the trip, I enjoyed watching the kids peel the disposable cameras from their foil wrappers. They studied these foreign objects like relics from an ancient civilization. The kids showed off their plastic cameras, comparing yellow labels to green ones.

An hour later, when it was time for our first tour, I heard sixty kids making a familiar sound : cranking the manual film advancement wheel. They weren't exactly sure why they were cranking, but once one student began, there was a cacophony of plastic cogs cranking all at once. I could only imagine the myriad explanations they might have given themselves for this process, knowing the kids had no idea what was going on inside the plastic black case.

The next lesson was when the kids learned to press and hold that little button to the right of the lens until the flash indicator glowed orange. I witnessed students giving one another mini-lesson tutorials on the flash, and chuckled when the little instructors realized that not everyone had flashes on their cameras. I quietly observed all of the enthusiastic learning that was happening all around me. I enjoyed the students' realization that the viewing lens was nothing more than a hole in the plastic casing. Yet, despite the inauspicious nature of their little manual cameras, they were delighted by the fact that they were in complete control of something in their world. There was something in the simplicity of this technology: no focus, no zoom, no preview, no screen, no charging cords. I imagine there was something very freeing about just aiming and pressing the little black button in order to get that very unassuming click.

But by far, my favorite moments of "culture clash" came when I saw a group of girls trying to take a selfie with their Kodaks. I don't know exactly how they managed to ensure that they were all within the clear frame. They obviously were forced to stave off a strong desire for the instant gratification digital preview -- making the selfie much more of a "myster-ie." Growing up a child of the 80's in the heyday of the disposable camera, the concept of selfies didn't even exist when I attended INXS concerts or visited the beach or water park. I experienced a second "culture clash" moment that almost knocked me over with fits of laughter when we were leaving the Barracks Museum to go to lunch. We were waiting for some kids to finish at the "porcelain chamber pots" when some boys decided to shoot photos of each other standing by the cords of wood. One boy was trying to take a photo and suddenly, someone jumped into the scene to "photo bomb!" The photographer looked at the boy and yelled, "DUDE! You totally ruined my picture! I only have 15 left!" I guess they quickly learned that their generation's photo-bomb doesn't belong in the 80's world of disposable photography.

As the day ended and the kids finished their last clicks, they boarded the bus brimming with the excitement of their fun day as I counted heads for the final time. I could hear them all buzzing about their favorite parts of the trip. I knew I could finally relax in the front seat of the bus, knowing we all made it through the day without any major incidents. And then, a final thought occurred to me regarding my students' photography lessons. In order to complete their retro 80's photo experience, they would have to make a trip to the nearest pharmacy, full of anticipation and excitement. I imagined the kids walking in with their parents, who were just as curious as their children to discover what would come out. I deducted that they would no doubt choose the one-hour photo development. But, would they choose glossy or matte finish (once they learned what they meant?) Would they choose single or double prints? They would be presented with so many new choices that their modern digital worlds never afforded.

Then, 60 minutes later, I imagined my students standing beside their parents, agonizingly anticipating the moment when the big machine behind the counter would begin shooting out their memories of the day one by one. Would the kids experience the joy and exaltation of the accurately centered, focused photo documenting the perfect moment of their trip -- the one that would stay with them as a reminder of their class trip to Trenton? Or would they suffer the harrowing devastation of overexposure, improper lighting, blurriness, or worse, thirty-six photos of their own index finger mockingly obscuring the otherwise perfect photo.

Regardless of what my students learned in Trenton from the tour guides, legislators, and Revolutionary actors, one thing seems evident. I imagine that for just one day, my students learned to slow down a little and be present in the moment with their classmates. I think they learned to have a little more patience and faith, knowing that sometimes, good things are worth waiting for. I also have to believe they learned to connect to each other a bit more -- by listening and sharing each other's lives. And maybe, just maybe they learned that the world is infinitely brighter and more in focus when they unplug from their digital world every now and then. And when the time is right, "Click!" There is just nothing like those teachable moments when you watch them develop right before your eyes, but let's leave Polaroids for another lesson!