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What Do You See?

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What Do You See?

Photo © Michael Luger

As I wrote in Befriending the Beamer, I love me a lesson with an overhead projector. Since about Day 1 of teaching, when I discovered that foreign people automatically assume I am cool just because I used to live in New York City (sweet ignorance!), I have loved bringing in photos of the New York, and my hometown, so I can tell the students all about America.

I tell them all kinds of things, about the neighborhoods of Manhattan, the bagel toppings, the types of houses, the modes of transportation… They left the classroom with their heads stuffed full of info.

But then a few weeks ago a (non-teacher!) friend suggested that I show them a photo and ask them what they see.

Ask them?


I gathered some photos of seemingly simple scenes (all photographed by my amazing husband in Washington, D.C.) and showed them to a few different groups, from teenagers to nearly fluent adults. The output was incredible.

Take this photo. In my previous slide shows I would have narrated, “This is Arlington Cemetery,” and moved on. Enthralling. But I asked my students to list at least 10 things they could see. When they ran out of things they could list colors, shapes, dimensions, emotions.

Photo © Michael Luger

What did they see?

Shadows. White. Grey. A wall (hey, I didn’t see that!). Horizontal lines. A forest in the distance. Rows. Symmetry. Equality. Death. Sadness. Solitude. Soldiers. Marching. War. Peace. Death. Heaven.

I couldn’t write fast enough, filling the board with words.

Photo © Michael Luger

For this photo, at first it seems like the only logical response is “chairs!” but instead I got:


It was fascinating in each group to observe how the longer they looked at the photo, the closer they came to putting it in the right context. It went from “chairs” to “auditorium,” until someone detected the tiny blades of grass between the legs of the folding chairs. Outdoors. A wedding — no, too many people, and no aisle. A speech. Somebody famous is speaking. The Pope! With plastic folding chairs? The president. No… (Hint: it’s once a year.)

Well, I won’t give it away, but if you look long enough, perhaps you’ll see for yourself.


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