Boston-based photographer Gretchen Ertl documented how the Burlington, Mass., school district was preparing for field-testing by offering teachers a chance to look at a sample PARCC test on devices such as tablets and laptops. Ertl talks about her process, gaining access, and creating a series of compelling visuals. To read Education Week’s national look at the mid-point of PARCC and Smarter Balanced field-testing click here.
Beethoven’s Pathetique played over the public address system of the Marshall Simon Middle School in Burlington, Mass., as I arrived on assignment for Education Week on a bitter cold Thursday in March. I was there to photograph a story about how the Burlington school district is preparing for field testing by offering teachers a chance to look at a sample PARCC test on devices such as tablets and laptops.
I was hoping to come away from the workshop with two things; 1) interesting photos of the teachers seeing the test format for the first time, and, 2) finding a teacher who would allow me to photograph his or her class during the school day, when the students were also getting an opportunity to look at a sample test.
I found the Burlington district’s technology staff upstairs in the library checking the battery power on various tablets that were being prepped for the field-testing. Reflections of IT staff members in the tablet screens caught my attention. After working that visual idea until I felt I had a successful image, it was time to move on to the computer lab where the workshop would be held.
The room quickly filled and I gravitated toward a group of teachers that appeared to know each other well. I inquired if they had plans to show their students the sample test so that the students might become familiar with how the test is formatted.
Paula Panagiotopoulos, a 7th grade English/language arts teacher, offered me access to her Tuesday 7:45 a.m. class. I spent the rest of the workshop looking for moments of concentration that might portray how serious the school district is about getting their staff and students ready for the PAARC
An exchange of emails with Paula Panagiotopoulos brought me to her 7th grade class the following week. The students in her class approached the sample test with the same level of focus the teachers had the week before. Some of their concerns echoed their teacher’s sentiments, such as the pressure of being timed, difficulty scrolling on the small screens, and pages taking too long to load. I continued to look for students in deep concentration while paying close attention to the quality of available light.
While kneeling in the front of the room looking at students’ facial expressions and reflections in their tablets, facts on Amelia Earhart could be heard broadcasted as some students began a video segment of the test. Opportunity struck when I gained a clear line of sight of 7th grader Nimra Mian reflected in a tablet of a student who just vacated his seat.
Gretchen Ertl is a Boston-based photographer. Most recently, Gretchen worked as a staff photographer at The Providence Journal, where she covered a wide range of stories, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 and 2008 New Hampshire Presidential Primaries, and the New England Patriots in Superbowl XLII. Prior to The Providence Journal, Gretchen worked as a photographer in the Boston bureau of The Associated Press. She is a graduate of Boston University where she studied journalism and sociology. In 1995 she received the Distinguished Student of the Year award from B.U.’s School of Journalism. She started her career as an intern at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Penn., where she was quickly promoted to Staff Photographer. To see more of Gretchen’s work click here.
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.