Get students connected

Students connect to learning and feel empowered when they work with their personal interests.

Instead of choosing a topic, try to find the student’s interests and work from there. Have group discussions or talk with your students one-on-one. Engage with your students.

© Convergence Academies
© Convergence Academies


Example for use:

Instead of assigning topics, give them opportunities to express themselves, and in turn allow them to connect to the topics you choose as the teacher in a way that is relatable to them.

Students are eager to relate school to themselves, their lives, and the world in which they live. Take polls to find out your student’s interests. Create correlations so that the students see the connections to themselves. The following is an example using the concept of self-portraits, which can take visual or written form. I see this as a way to get to know your students for future projects.

© Convergence Academies
© Convergence Academies

Activity: This is Me


The history of self-portraiture and autobiography is evident. In visual form it has been done as technical exercises and expressions of the artist’s psyche. In written form, sometimes the author aims for a true sense of the events and sometimes the author stretches the truth to make a point. Finding the right tone for expressing one’s self is a dynamic balance.

For this project, students will use both image-making and text to tell their story.

This project is aimed at students grades 5+


Look at self-portraiture in art and autobiographies in literature. Consider projecting images of examples like Vincent Van Gogh, Fida Kahlo, Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, Kathe Kolwitz, Rembrant Van Rijn, Diego Rivera, Jenny Saville, Duane Michaels, and Cindy Sherman. Read selections from autobiographies such as Gertrude Stein, Maya Angelou, Tina Fey, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, David Sedaris, Frederick Douglass, and Ernest Hemingway. Consider showing your students graphic novels because they use images and text together, such as Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, Art Spiegelman, Jeffery Brown, and Craig Thompson.


Have your students start with creating lists of meaningful experiences they have had. In the end they may end up focusing on just one of these list items or they may use this list as connected stories. Have your students team-up or work in groups to tell the stories orally and to have discussions to get feedback from their peers. Ask your students to discuss and give feedback on how the stories create a visual story.

After writing out the main action points of the story, ask your students to sketch the visual interpretations. Express to them and show them that the drawings can be simple and not technically well done to get the point across. In fact, many of the drawing techniques that are naive are the best ways to express the story (see Jeffery Brown, for example).

Have them experiment with media like drawing, collage, paper cut-out, painting, photography, and video. Stress that the images do not have to be of themselves but can be objects that tell their story or symbolize how they see themselves.


After discussions, the students will hopefully have a sense of direction for the final outcome of their project. Allow them to choose the media, but require that the final product include an expression of themselves using both image and text.


Finally, have the students present the results to each other or the larger school community through projection or art exhibition.

–Unit based on Digital Media Mentor KW interview

Inspiration From Teachers

“Okay, we’re going to engage you, and this is what you’re going to be engaged in,’ I think that’s the wrong answer. I think it’s ‘Okay, our mission is to get your motivation active and make you feel comfortable exploring what you want to create.‘…[we have had] tremendous success with students who before have never wanted to write an essay or anything, but that ability to speak it, to [authenticate] their voice is much more powerful than paper on pencil or word processors.” –Digital Media Mentor AN

“I always try to relate things back to some kind of real world experience because I think a lot of students think things are not relevant, and I think everything is relevant.” –Digital Media Mentor LL

“Not only just the opportunity to feel comfortable saying these things, because they were probably saying these things and writing and stuff before, but we are trying to get it out into the world. It gives them a sense of importance, and I think that is what is really great.” –Digital Media Mentor LL

“To me, it is less important what a student learns, and it is more important to me as an adult to respect them as a person, and for them to feel respected, cared about. Those things are pretty basic. It is more about humanity, it is about the relationship…That is something that feels very important to me, is to just reach them on, I don’t know, that social emotional level.” –Digital Media Mentor SM

“He was watching. He comes in with his hood up, and he just leans into the computer. Does not talk to anybody and he just looks up guitar tabs, and is watching guitar videos, but there is not a guitar…I have the ability to interface with the administration and talk to the music teacher and let them borrow a guitar. The next time he came in I had a guitar for him, and he was, like I said, he is super quiet, you barely ever see his face…and then I gave him the guitar. He gave me the coolest look. It was that little exchange where he gave me this weird look, and he mumbled something, and it was awesome.” –Digital Media Mentor LS

© Participatory Learning Strategies