Photo taken by Emilia Gonzalez from Panoche Elementary School.
Photo taken by Emilia Gonzalez from Panoche Elementary School.

From mid-March until the last week of May, Jefferson Elementary School and Panoche Elementary School participated in a photography class through a grant by the E Cubed Foundation, a local organization that helps rural schools bring music, art, drama and science into the classroom.
Kirti Bassendine ran the photography lessons. Residing in San Benito County, Bassendine studied fine art photography in England and has over 30 years of experience as a photographer. She said she was happy to have the opportunity to work with the students. “Teaching is passing on my passion and my skills,” she said.

Panoche Elementary’s start date was the first day schools closed in response to COVID-19.

“Kirti was amazing,” said Amanda McCraw, Panoche’s principal. “She and I collaborated and quickly came up with a plan to take the lessons digital. 

“Originally we had planned to have the students tell their stories about their unique experiences living and learning in rural San Benito County. When the school closures happened, the students’ writing and photos naturally shifted to a theme of how the closure and distance learning impacted them personally.”

McCraw said that students faced “immense learning and emotional challenges” during the closure, and that she was proud of them.

“They produced beautiful works and showed impressive resilience and flexibility during this unprecedented event,” she said.

Bassendine taught the children photography skills using resources they had available to them. They used either cell phones or tablet cameras to take photos.

“I wanted to create my classes so they are accessible to all students without extra cost,” Bassendine said, explaining that the students spent time on composition and framing because they can use those techniques with anything that has a camera. The students worked on “incorporating technical styles into storytelling,” she said.

Teaching photography “has given students the chance of expression,” said Bassendine. McCraw said, “Students often struggle with writing, and I feel that these photojournalism lessons from Kirti provided a wonderful way for students to find their voice.”

Elizabeth Volmer, principal of Jefferson Elementary School, said the most important message of the photography lessons was that everyone has a story to tell, and those stories can be told through photography.

“I hope the students learned that even though they might think that their everyday experiences are common, ordinary, or uninteresting, their stories are actually unique, special experiences that should be valued and shared with others,” Volmer said. “Photography is a means to capture these experiences and help them remember it throughout their lives.”

To show off their work, students put their work in a Google Slides presentation. They introduced themselves and discussed how the school shutdown affected them. Jefferson students shared their photography projects during an online graduation for two eighth graders who attended the school.

Bassendine has applied for a National Geographic grant “based on rural school systems and the impact that COVID-19 has had on rural schools.” She said “the hope is to find a location to share the photos so that the public would be able to see them.” 

Bassendine expressed that rural schools and their students enjoy a unique lifestyle. “I feel really blessed to be taken into this community and be told these stories,” she said.

There are plans to continue the photography lessons when school resumes in August. Jefferson and Panoche will be doing a second session, while Willow Grove Elementary School is planning to do its first lesson with Bassendine.


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I am a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno. I spent a year teaching in China and two years working as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Kingdom of Tonga.