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SU launches Photography and Literacy Project at the Warehouse to increase academic excellence for K-12 students in the Syracuse City School District

July 14, 2010

Jemeli Tanui
(315) 443-3784

Syracuse University’s Coalition of Museum and Art Centers (CMAC) has launched the Photography and Literacy Project (PAL) for local students to explore their world through photography, video and sound to promote critical thinking skills, writing, visual literacy and self-esteem. The PAL Project—which is based on ongoing work initiated by SU instructor Stephen Mahan of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)—will be based in the community spaces at the Warehouse in downtown Syracuse.

Mahan started his work at SU a few years ago by collaborating with the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), CMAC, VPA, the Partnership for Better Education, the Creative Writing Program, Light Work and other partnering area institutions. At its core, the project encourages students to explore their world as they photograph, film and capture sound recordings from their world and their lives, and then use their documents as prompts for verbal and written expression. PAL also provides a valuable opportunity for students to bring their home and community lives into the classroom. Photographs and videos, in turn, give teachers a glimpse into their students’ lives and, in increasingly diverse classrooms, give students a way to understand each other’s experiences. SU students in Mahan’s VPA Department of Transmedia class “Literacy Community and Media” participate in PAL projects by going into city school classrooms as teaching assistants and mentors.

The PAL Project has involved numerous elementary, middle and high school teachers, as well as hundreds of children of varying ages and backgrounds. A good showcase for the PAL Project can be seen in the large-scale self-portraits made by SCSD students in a project called “The Best Part of Us” currently displayed on the walls of the former CASE Supply Building on Fayette Street in the city’s Near Westside neighborhood. Mahan has also worked on a similar project with patients at Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse, and youth groups at P.E.A.C.E., Inc. in the Near Westside.

Mahan, who often quotes British author and education expert Sir Ken Robinson’s line about schools ‘filled with brilliant kids who think they are not,’ says his passion for using photography as an educational tool began while he was a graduate student at the University of Buffalo in the 1990s.

“Our educational system is set up to deal most effectively with one type of learner, and I was the ‘other’ type of student with reading and attention problems that made me feel a certain way,” says Mahan.  “So what I try to do is even the playing field by using a camera as a storytelling device that articulates and validates each individual’s point of view, which builds self esteem. When the pictures are all laid out on the table, it is impossible to tell which kid has difficulties, and that is what motivates my passion.”

Mahan has been named the new director of the PAL Project and will continue to teach the VPA course while leading the PAL Project under the CMAC umbrella. In his new role, which took effect July 1, Mahan will be responsible for establishing PAL based on past projects, as well as expanding the project to reach out to more students and other communities.

“The Photography and Literacy Project truly defines the meaning of Scholarship in Action. It exemplifies collaboration among University departments including Light Work, the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the School of Education and the Coalition of Museum and Art Centers, just to name a few partners,” says Jeffrey Hoone, executive director of Light Work, and executive director of CMAC. “Through PAL these University departments, in turn, collaborate with the Syracuse City School District to work with students on a sustained basis to hopefully teach them skills to last a lifetime.”

With the new physical offices at the Warehouse, the PAL Project will be able to provide a more permanent home to the students’ work through the exhibition space at the Link Gallery in the Warehouse.

In addition to providing administration, scheduling, outreach and access for the existing community spaces, the PAL Project will create a new model for community engagement based on providing ongoing classes, workshops and lectures for children and teens, with the aim of promoting literacy through the exploration of photography, video and multimedia tools. The PAL Project will provide instructional learning and also function as a laboratory space with regular hours of operation after school throughout the week for students to continue their progress and further engage with other participants of the PAL Program and SU mentors.

For more information about the PAL project, contact Mahan at

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