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March Issue

Vol 23|No 4|March 2014


The Selfie goes to school

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)


You can explore these images in larger formats by doing a Google Image search
for "vincent van gogh self portraits in order."

Even though "selfie" is a new term, self portraits have been around for a long time. Vincent spent many hours painting his image. With the widespread availability of hand held cameras embedded in phones, nearly everyone in developed nations has the capacity to take self portraits and share them with friends, family and strangers. But Colin Powell was quick to announce that he was "doing selfies 60 years before you Facebook folks."


This article suggests ways that schools might capitalize on this craze to engage students in levels of self reflection they might not otherwise consider. The mere shooting of a selfie need not involve much reflection at all, but there is great potential for the thoughtful exploration of concepts like masks, masking, pretense, persona, projection, front, facade, guise, and exterior.


Not all selfies that appear when searching Google or other sources like Instagram
will pass the "safesearch" test.

The Daily Selfie

Before the term "selfie" was popularized, many people around the world were experimenting with cameras and phones to take images of themselves, some posting these online in Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter or Instagram. For many people, the selfie was just one of a dozen or more types of snaps. In addition to the selfie, there were shots of meals, pets, tourist spots, dancing friends, great bands and great moments.

Some became more serious about selfies, signing up for a 365 project on Flickr such as these:

Taking a selfie every day is easy. Taking one to share with others is a bit more challenging. Taking selfies that are revealing is yet another matter. Doing selfies in a creative and intriguing manner day after day after day requires much thought and ingenuity.

From Reflex to Reflection

There is nothing wrong with snapshots, but consider the thousands of hours Vincent devoted to self portraits and introspection. What are the benefits? What is to be gained by staring into the mirror or the screen of your smart phone? Why save these or share them?

Those who post a self portrait each day may take only one shot each day or they may select their favorite from several dozen. These shots may be casual and spontaneous, or they may involve quite a bit of planning and intention. Schools can offer projects that challenge students to invest more thought. The goal might be to augment the kind of introspection associated with text-based diaries and journals.

"What face shall I present to the world today?"
"What faces shall I offer up?"
"What masks shall I wear?"

Of course these questions apply to our faces throughout all days with or without a camera recording anything. Facebook educates the young early on to the pros and cons of projecting idealized, romanticized or entirely imaginary selves, but people have been "making faces" for thousands of years before cameras arrived.

"Who am I really?"
"Who do I want them to think I am?"
"Who do I want to become?



Perhaps an English class has been studying the Great Gatsby, and the teacher asks how masks and masking may relate to the themes and the characters of that novel.

"What masks did Gatsby adopt?"
"Which parts of his past did he wish to mask?"
"How did his unmasking undo him"
"How did Daisy's husband unmask him and then frame Gatsby with a false mask?"
"When you compare the acting of Carey Mulligan with that of Mia Farrow as Daisy, which actor did a better job of wearing the kinds of masks Fitzgerald probably intended? Same for Leonardo DiCaprio in contrast with Robert Redford?

"In what ways do masks and masking play a pivotal role in the development of the novel's main themes?"

The study of selfies suggested here ties in beautifully with the exploration inspired by issues of identity raised in the novel.

"In what ways are selfies like masks?"
"In what ways do they differ?"
"What good are masks?"

"What other questions should we explore about masks and selfies, identity, hiding and dissembling?"


Image courtesy of Fighting-Wolf-Fist on Deviant Art

Constructing a unit around key concepts

As mentioned earlier, the taking and sharing of selfies can deepen students' understanding of key concepts such as identity, masks and masking as outlined in the Gatsby section above. The teacher frames the unit around those terms and orchestrates a series of activities that will contribute to concept attainment.

The exploration may begin with the reading of Gatsby, but students should start developing word lists early in that reading process, taking full advantage of the great online thesaurus sites like the Visual Thesaurus, Lexipedia, Visuwords, Snappywords and Thesaurus.com. Directing them to these sources, the teacher asks students to collect more than forty words related to the key concepts, "as many related words as possible."


The above image is from the VisualThesuarus.com Copyright 2014, Thinkmap, Inc. all rights reserved.

If possible, the words associated with mask and masking should be gathered and stored with mind mapping software like Inspiration or SmartIdeas. This strategy allows for powerful grouping and organizing. The goal is to deepen, augment and broaden the students' understanding of the key concepts by considering dozens of associated terms, including antonyms and what Lydia calls fuzznyms (words that are related but not so closely as a synonym.)

As the collecting proceeds, the student may differentiate between nouns and verbs or group the words in other ways that relate to meaning, keeping antonyms apart from synonyms and fuzznyms, for example.


Gathering so many words runs counter to normal practice, but students will usually take up the task with enthusiasm as the divergence is somehow motivating. They enjoy finding words like humbug, dupery and dissemble, especially since they have been reading Gatsby.

Turning to the camera

The teacher provides clear selfie instructions for all class members:

During the next two weeks, you will be shooting and saving self portraits every day. Fourteen days of selfies! As you build your portfolio to be shared with the whole class, you will make every effort to vary these portraits and play around with 'making faces.' You will consider the list of synthesis techniques I have distributed so that each day's production is fresh, imaginative and intriguing.

You will keep a running journal noting each day the strategies employed as well as the mood or concept you hoped to express. For example, you may want to seem trustworthy and reliable. Perhaps a picture is worth a thousand or more words, but write down what character trait you hoped your photo would communicate. You will paste each's day's best shot into this journal, but you will also post the shots in the online location we have agreed upon so that your classmates may view and comment upon your work.

Take a look at these sites offering helpful hints, but don't stop with the ones I have listed here. There are hundreds! Some of them aren't worth much, but give it a whirl.

Together we will visit some sites that show hundreds of selfies such as Selfie Shots, Self Portraits and Instagram. We will develop a list of criteria to determine the qualities of a great selfie or self portrait.

After the camera

The activities outlined above should provoke considerable thought about identity, persona and pretense. Students will acquire a deep understanding of the effort involved in Gatsby's transformation from gangster to "Oxford man." They will also gain photographic skills, inventive capabilities, acting abilities and emotional literacy. While we would not want to foster cynicism, we would hope they would learn to be more conscious of deceptive practices and not always take people or things at "face value."


Image courtesy of Fighting-Wolf-Fist on Deviant Art

The teacher orchestrating the Gatsby unit may bring the unit to a close with a series of discussions that will allow students to synthesize what they have learned. After several days of discussion, the teacher may ask for a thoughtful response to an essay question. Questions suitable for discussion or a culminating essay are listed below.

  • To win Daisy, Gatsby created a character quite different from the one she met at first. See if you can identify all of his inventions.
  • To what extent is reinvention basic to human life and growth? Can you think of other characters we have studied in novels this year who did lots of reinvention? Others who should have? Friends you know?
  • When is reinvention fraudulent and dangerous? When is it healthy?
  • When is it healthy to hide things? when is it unhealthy?
  • When are masks most useful?
  • Is it good to be poker-faced at times?
  • Of all the selfies you took, is there one that stands out in your mind as the best? What qualities does it have that wins your vote? Would others agree?
  • Some people have a Facebook persona quite different from their real selves. How do you feel about that?
  • Gatsby was not the only one wearing masks. Who else?
  • Many celebrities seem popular on sites such as Instagram. They post many selfies. Some of these celebrities have issues with drugs and alcohol. Do you think there is any connection between fame, identity and substance abuse?
  • Once you post a selfie online, it may live there for decades. Have you decided upon limits and boundaries to define which kinds of images you will keep private and which you might share?
  • What were four or five emotions you experienced while doing selfies? Which were most surprising to you?
  • What are the most important new insights you gained from the selfie exercise?
  • How did the selfie exercise change your understanding of Gatsby?

Not just Gatsby

This article employs a unit on Gatsby to illustrate how selfies might help students come to terms with complex concepts like masks, masking and identity, but there are many other novels that would serve well for a similar kind of unit, and there are many aspects of history where these activities would foster understanding of the guises employed by key leaders and figures.

The main goal of bringing selfies into schools is the fostering of reflection, introspection and








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