Polaroids from Heaven: Developing an Active Learning Session with Unconventional Visual Resources

Examples of student work from the “Alterations” assignment in the course, Alternative Photography.

A photograph of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing on a rose petal, a Polaroid of unexplained religious symbols in the clouds, and an image of a mysterious flash of light that eerily resembles the name of a Portuguese child visionary from 1917… How can archivists use controversial or unconventional photographs like these to support student learning? This post provides a lesson plan for an active learning session with archival visual resources that was part of the Alternative Photography course at the University of Dayton.  

As the liaison to the Department of Art & Design, I have many wonderful opportunities to collaborate with faculty in fine art, art history, and art education. I was particularly excited when I was put in touch with a faculty member teaching the course Alternative Photography, which focuses on non-traditional photographic processes and emphasizes experimentation with the photograph as a physical, social, and intellectual phenomenon. The content of this course was a perfect opportunity to use a fascinating archival collection of photographs and accompanying documents related to Marian apparitions–reported supernatural appearances by the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The teaching faculty member and I developed a special collections instruction session that served as the foundation for an assignment called Alterations: Negative, Print, Space. The goal of the assignment was to introduce students to manipulation of the photographic negative, print, and viewing space. For this assignment, students were involved in all aspects of the photographic process including concept development, exposure of the film, formal manipulation of the negative/print, the making of the final print, and final display. The special collections instruction session provided context, historical background, and critical perspectives for the image-making portion of this assignment.

Prior to the session, students read the article, “Polaroids from Heaven: Photography, Folk Religion, and the Miraculous Image Tradition at a Marian Apparition Site” by Daniel Wojcik. During the session, students engaged in three separate but related activities: speed-dating with archival visual resources, pair and share, and affinity mapping. This culminated in a final discussion on the collection themes as they related to the assignment.

Students at work during the “speed-dating” activity with the Marian Apparitions collection.

Lesson Plan Outline

Speed-dating activity: Students analyzed an item from the archival collection and answered the questions: What is the item? When, where, and/or by whom was it created? What are some keywords that describe this item? What questions does this item raise for you?

Pair and share: Students shared their findings, initial reactions, and questions with a partner and discussed the prompts: Where do you see the photographer’s hand in these images? How might you think about this collection in the context of photographic alterations?

Affinity mapping: Students identified keywords from the speed-dating activity, wrote them on post-its, and mapped them into themed categories on a whiteboard. This became a launching point for further discussion on collection themes.

Outcomes and Reflection

Over the next two course meetings, students created images and then critiqued them. As a librarian teaching mostly one-shot sessions, the critique was the perfect opportunity to engage with students after the archives session and learn more about the outcomes and any potential impact of their experience with the collection. During the critique, students identified both direct and indirect impacts of engaging with the archival collection as a foundation for creating their own images. For example, one student identified the “spiritual experience” she had while creating images and another student mentioned that her images were directly inspired by the idea of creating an apparitional experience for the viewer. Other student work aesthetically referenced the archival collection. 

Through active learning, the collection facilitated encounters with analog photographic processes, analysis of the various dimensions of religious imagery, critical perspectives on photographic manipulation (both of the image and of the viewer), and discussion on the history and contexts of apparition photography.

Jillian Ewalt
Librarian for Visual Resources/Associate Professor
Marian Library, University of Dayton