Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dioramas - Out of the Classroom onto the Net

As a parent, I’ve seen the amount of work that goes into creating a diorama. This came to to mind as I was sitting in the fifth grade classroom at lunch. I glanced at their dioramas and a project was born. I have been wanting to teach my fifth graders a little about digital photography and the dioramas would give us an object to photograph.

Digital Camera Basics

We have a variety of digital cameras. With three cameras, it is realistic to have a group of 20 students work on a project within one forty-two minute class period. Since starting the project, I purchased memory cards for two additional cameras. We now have five cameras for projects.

I started the students off with some questions to set the stage: how many students have used a digital camera, how many have their own camera, and what rules they had for using a digital camera.
They were pretty clear in knowing that they should keep fingers off the lens, stand still, and place the camera strap around their wrist or over their neck.

I had prepared three simple slides to be displayed while I gave them some additional hints for our cameras. The first slide allowed me to discuss how close one should stand to the person or object there are photographing. Most of the students realized that you could get too close.

Their teacher had the fifth grade students bring their dioramas down to the computer lab. They left them on the floor in the hall.
Using one of the dioramas, I gave them a visual demonstration of how close I wanted them to be to the object. This led to a discussion of the macro feature of digital cameras. I had taken a close-up photo of the button on one of our cameras for the image at the beginning of this post. It helped me to describe the macro icon on our cameras.

Students Teaching Students

When it was time to take the photographs, the students went to their own computer and began typing the description of their diorama from an index card attached to the shoebox into Word. While the students were busy typing, I took one student and demonstrated how to turn on the preview screen. It is usually turned off to conserve batteries. I modeled pressing the shutter half way to focus and then all the way to snap the shot. They were to take at least two photos and then teach the next student how to use the camera.

It really took no time at all to get the students working independently. By the end of the class, almost all the photos were taken and almost all the index card descriptions were typed. The teacher gave the students time in class to finish up outstanding work. The students back to my room later in the week to borrow the camera and bring it to their classroom to finish taking their photographs. They used their class computers to access the Word document on the file server and finish typing the index card description of the diorama.

Wikis Take the Dioramas Out of the Classroom
I wanted the students to do more than just turn the diorama into a public show and tell. I set up a template in Wikispaces with the following prompts:

1. Diorama Description

Copy and paste the description from Word into this page.

2. Materials Chosen
Why did you choose these materials for your shoebox?

3. Photography

Do you often use a digital camera?

Did you ever use the macro setting on a digital camera before?

How would you describe the macro setting to other people?
What did you choose to remove from your original photo to create the final image?

How did it make a better image?

How many photos did you take in total?

How many photos seemed a bit blurry to you?

4. Book Reports

You completed several different types of book reports this year and in previous years. What type of book report is your favorite and why?

These prompts gave me insight into the students understanding of the digital camera concepts. It gave them some time to reflect on this book report and book reports in general. Here is a completed student page.

Learning About the Discussion Tab

I used this lesson to explore the discussion tab with the students. I taught the students that the tab is for student/teacher discussions. I left each student a message after we used one class period to begin editing the wiki, copying and pasting the Word description, and importing the photo. It is so nice to be able to easily leave an individual comment for each student on their progress and get some feedback from them.

Lessons Learned

Overall, I am very happy with this project. I plan on making it an annual project for the students.

An unexpected lesson that I learned was that iPhoto takes the camera’s internal date for the photo date. When I came to this realization, it made sense. I didn’t realize one camera had its date set to 2007, so I thought I deleted the photos from the camera before placing them in iPhoto. Over Christmas break, I “found” them.

The students had taken their dioramas home. Some threw them out. Those students whose photos were “lost” either brought their diorama back to school to take more photos. The fifth grade has also made animal cell models. The students whose photos were lost or whose dioramas were destroyed used the cell model instead of the book report diorama.

It has taken a number of classes to complete the project: one to photograph and type the index card information, one to learn to crop and save the photos using Preview on the iMac, one class to learn to import the photo into Wikispaces, and start answering the questions, and one class to copy and paste the Word document into Wikispaces. The students are mostly done. I will need one more class to really have a complete project.

How About You?

Have you tried a similar project? What suggestions do you have for lessons that use projects from the classroom that use a digital camera?

Image Citations:
Macro button. Ann Oro.
Diorama. Saint Michael 5th Grade Student.


  1. Thanks for the great idea. The 4th graders recently did a project on a planet and made a model. When i get back to that school this week I'll see how long the planets will be on display and maybe I'll have the kids do something similar. If not this year then next year for sure.

  2. I'm glad you like the idea. I was really happy to give the work they did a longer and more visible life.

  3. Ann,
    You may also be interested in this recent post about dioramas by Barry Bachenheimer -
    Did you see it? It's time to get teachers thinking BEYOND dioramas? No need to keep those shoe boxes.

    I love your extension activities - you take projects to the next level and teach your students new skills.

  4. Karen: Thanks for the link to Barry's post. I hadn't seen it. I like to try to get the students to think more deeply about what they did and think in different ways. I want to do this again next year with more questions. Barry's post and the comments to it have given me some more ideas.