How to Explore Counter-Narratives through Youth Place-Based Photojournalism

Teach YR

How to Explore Counter-Narratives through Youth Place-Based Photojournalism


Rebecca Longworth (she/they) teaches 9th grade Humanities at Latitude 37.8 High School in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, on the unceded Ohlone land known as Huichin. Mx Longworth is also a veteran media-maker as a motion graphics designer and creator/producer of live performance. They live in East Oakland with a partner and two cats, and are dedicated to facilitating critical literacy and authorship across all media, for all ages. 


I’m designing a project that will allow my 9th grade students to build counter-narratives by investigating their community and telling the stories that they deem important there. I am fortunate to be in a school context that values and integrates “leaving to learn” – designing curricula around field trips, site visits, and other off-campus experiences – and community partnerships with local organizations within a project-based learning model. 

In this project, students will investigate different ways to promote counter-narratives, and create a written “journalistic account” accompanied by an image to tell stories of their communities.

See also: Latitude Project-Based Unit Plan

The essential questions I explore with this project are:

  • How does my unique perspective contribute to the stories I tell?
  • How can I promote counter-narratives that more authentically represent me and my communities?
  • How can visual media combine with written media to tell deeper and more engaging stories?



In student journals or on a separate piece of paper, invite students to think, then write about their memories of the summer of 2020, and then to share any part of their writing or memories with a partner. You may preface the activity by reminding students that this was the summer just *after* society shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Alternatively, you could ask students to think and write about protests they’ve witnessed, or their memories of protests related to George Floyd and/or Black Lives Matter. 


Part 1:  Visual Thinking Strategies: Alexandra Bell’s series, “Counter-Narratives”

Introduce this activity with a content warning: alert students that the image they’ll be looking at was created in response to the killing of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, by police. Show students “A Teenager With Promise” by Alexandra Bell (2017) and ask the following Visual Thinking Strategies questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What else do you notice?

During the discussion about the photo, you can give the context (or prompt students to do so) that Brown’s death, like Floyd’s, was a galvanizing moment for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

During or after the discussion, let students know more about Bell’s work to re-imagine front pages of The New York Times as a means of highlighting media bias.

Part 2: Identifying Dominant Narratives and Counter-Narratives

Have students discuss in groups or write an independent response to the following questions, based on the two side-by-side front page images in Alexandra Bell’s “A Teenager With Promise”: 

  • Start with left-hand image: How can you characterize the dominant narrative reinforced by The New York Times? (You may prompt students to notice how the side-by-side columns give “equal weight” to the two people, and to read the struck-out headlines).
  • How can you describe the counter-narrative told by Bell’s re-imagined front page? How does Bell’s front page characterize Michael Brown? (You may prompt students to discuss Bell’s choice of image, and edits to the headline).

Part 3: Brainstorming Dominant Narratives 

Reinforce the definition of “Dominant Narrative” as a story or explanation that works to support a dominant group’s interests, usually reinforced through repetition and by authority figures, such as mainstream media.

Brainstorm: Based on this definition, what are the dominant narratives about….

  • Your neighborhood or your hometown?
  • People your age?
  • People who share other factors of your identity (race, ethnicity, religion, etc)?

Part 4: Class definition of “Counter-Narrative” and Frayer Model


Part 1:  Learn about Vashon Jordan, Jr., a young photojournalist

As a class, read this article on YR.Media about Vashon Jordan, a young photographer: Chicago’s Summer 2020 Through the Eyes of a Young Photographer

Check for understanding with these text-dependent questions:

  • What were some of the main events that occurred during the summer of 2020, according to the article?
  • How does Vashon Jordan Jr. describe the dominant narrative about the summer of 2020? In other words, what story was the media putting out about this time, according to Jordan?
  • How does Jordan want to change the dominant narrative, or create a counter-narrative?

Part 2:  Explore and Respond to Vashon Jordan’s work

Have students select and explore one of these links to collections of Vashon Jordan Jr.’s photos on his website:

Ask each student to choose an image from one of the collections linked above, then answer the questions below. In Part 3, students will share their image, so you may want to form groups of students with different images, or form groups now and stipulate that each student should choose a different image.

  • What is the overall mood of the image? What do you see in the image that makes you say that?
  • What do you think is going on in the picture? What do you see in the image that makes you say that?
  • How does this image connect with other images you have seen, or stories or events you have heard about? If it doesn’t connect, what makes it different, new, or unique?
  • What else do you notice about the image?

Students may write their answers first in a journal then share them in a small group, or may write answers in a short composition to turn in, or both. 

Part 3: Group Discussion

  • Form small groups for student discussion about the different images students have investigated. Within groups, each students should share their image and a written reaction from journal or short compositions.
  • Based on the class reading about Vashon Jordan Jr. and the images they have explored, groups should discuss the following question:
    • Overall, what does Vashon Jordan Jr. want people to know about his community (claim)?
    • Where do you see evidence of that in his photography (evidence)? 
  • Groups can collaboratively summarize their discussion including an overall claim and evidence or sharing their aloud with the class or both.


Video of the poem:

Text of the poem:

What dominant narratives does Mottley reference? 

What counter-narratives does she present?

What sensory details does she include?

What characteristics of Oakland and Oaklanders does Mottley celebrate?


Part 1: Sensory Details or Sentence Structure Warm-up

Part 2: Take Photos

Part 3: Write Descriptively


Discuss as a class either aloud or silently on chart paper or Padlet. Discuss in small groups, ask students to report out or fill out written/electronic surveys:

  • What did you like about this activity? 
  • What did you find most challenging?
  • In what ways do you want to tell important stories in your community? 
  • Having done this activity, is there another topic you’d like to hear your peers’ perspectives on? 


Alexandra Bell


  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.4 – Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (Grade-specific expectations for writing types are defined in Literacy Standards 1-3.)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.5 – Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience. (Editing for conventions should demonstrate command of Language Standards 1-3.)
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.10 – Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
  • Social Justice Standard: DIVERSITY.9-12.8 – I respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.
  • Social Justice Standard: DIVERSITY.9-12.10 – I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures


Students will critically investigate newsworthiness, and create a news item with an original image that reflects something “newsworthy” in their communities. The news item is a written piece that may be recorded and/or translated to increase access.

Basic Process:

  • Pitch: What “newsworthy” item will you write about?
  • Draft: Write a piece (profile, photoessay, news item, etc) addressing your newsworthy item.
  • Revise: Collect feedback on your work and offer feedback to others, then revise your work.
  • Publish: Finalize your work for publication on the class website. You may also pitch your piece to YR Media.
  • Reflect: How have you been a Crusader, Herald, Advocate, Mirror and/or Record for information in your community?
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