American Teacher-Esther Wojcicki

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Esther Wojcicki

Holy Smokes! what kind of journalism program is she running at Palo Alto High? The school...the HIGH school, publishes a newspaper, web-based paper, a general interest magazine, sports magazine, fine arts magazine, and some other magazines. The founding editor of the arts magazine told me the magazine got its start because she and her friend wanted to do an arts magazine so they started one! Wow! Simple as that! The kids here are driven.

I had lots of fun photographing Esther. She had a calm coolness about her that comes from years of experience and knowledge of her abilities. A laconic assuredness that gave confidence to her comments without any sense of ego. While I was setting up the shot, Esther was meeting with a student editor who was absolutely furious at the action of one of the reporters who she felt violated journalistic ethics. She’s pouring her heart out at Woj the way only a high schooler can, just LIVID at the stupid antics of this reporter. The whole time Woj is listening, almost detached, voice flat near monotone. Just like the no-nonsense, seen-it-all paper editors you see in movies. “Um hum”, she’d say. “Yes that’s terrible.” “Yes, I see what you mean”, she’d say calmly, flatly. but the thing is, she WAS listening. And what struck me was the way Woj spoke to her editor, less a teacher to student and more professional in tone.

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This reminded me of something she said the beginning of the day; she gives the students a platform to do what they want and publish what they want and tries to stay out of their way.  The way she figures it, She doesn’t need to tell her students the importance of proper spelling and grammar. The students implicitly understand why they need to know proper grammar because they can’t write an article without the ability to spell and write correctly. I love this “teaching without teaching” method.

American Teacher-Daryl Bilandjiza

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For next several weeks I will be blogging about my experience photographing for the book American Teacher published by Welcome Books in Fall of 2013. I hope you will enjoy!

Daryl Bilanzija

My participation with the American Teacher project kicked off with the photoshoot of Daryl Bilanzija. It was trial by fire. Well, maybe that’s too rich. More like trial by really hot sun. That week in March, we were experiencing a heatwave. The week before, it was 59 degrees. The week after, 75. The day of the shoot, the high was 90 degrees! The kind of weather where old ladies and little kids pass out crossing the street and you break a sweat just thinking about stepping outside.

Daryl won the “Great American Teach-Off” contest held by Good Magazine the year before for the innovative ideas he brought to his classrooms at Odyssey Charter School. Besides teaching English and Theatre, Daryl built an edible garden where he teaches his students topics such as ecology, natural science, nutrition and practical hands-on problem solving by way of gardening.

As subjects go, Daryl was a great one to start the project off with; Ruggedly handsome with an athletic build, charismatic both in person and in front of the camera, and a bundle of energy. I always jokingly tell people rule number one in getting a great portrait is to have a good looking person in front of the camera and he was that person.

I knew going in that the garden was a location that we wanted to feature in the portraits. After finding the angle, I had to figure out who was gonna be in the photo and what the kids were gonna do. This is where things always get hairy for me. A minute after I meet the students, I have to figure out who they are and where to place them in the photo. I don’t have much time with them. I don’t know how many kids there will be. And I have to get really great photos of them. It’s a process of trial and error moving kid from one spot to another trying to find the nice balance of faces. The worst thing I can do is to have them lined up into one big lump of mass of bodies. And I try to make alterations and adjustments as fast and few as possible as I don’t want to lose the subject’s interest and focus. I literally sweat buckets in these kinds of situations due to my brain going 200 mph trying to solve all the problems of this photographic puzzle and the intense heat isn’t helping.

The sun is so bright and intense, Daryl and the kids had the kind of sheen on their skin that you find in Spaghetti westerns. It’s so bright I’m blind cause the pupil in my eyes are the size of a pinhole. It’s so bright I can’t see the images on the laptop monitor where the photos are shooting into. I’m a couple of degrees fahrenheit away from passing out but thankfully Daryl and the students are still engaged, having fun with the process. They don’t complain one bit.

After the session with the students, I photographed the solo portrait of Daryl. He had some chickens around (don’t we all) so we took some photos of him holding a chicken.

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The one good thing about the intense sun was that it made the colors really pop; A small sacrifice for good photos.