Chairs – photographed by Remy Ost, age 11


Sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet and try it…. the switch to distance learning this past spring by elementary and secondary teachers, and students, essentially happened overnight, with very little preparation time. Teachers across the state and the country dove in and did their best, in very trying circumstances. As did the students, who not surprisingly missed their teachers and the ‘old’ way of doing things.

While the focus was primarily on the regular school day classes, an instructor of an after-school digital photography class for students aged 9 – 14 years old at River Grove, a local K-6 charter school, recognized his class might appeal to students online. In addition, Carl Wegener was inspired by his daughter, a nurse working with COVID-19 patients, and he wanted to try to help health care families.

Carl’s after-school classes combined unique ways to introduce his students to the workings of a camera together with in-person instruction. His contact at River Grove was Ele Anderson, the office manager and coordinator of after-school classes. Ele and Carl collaborated on moving the class to a distance-learning format, once the students could no longer attend school in person. “Carl has a wonderful approach to kids,” noted Ele. “He connects with the kids, making the class fun yet he is able to frame his constructive criticism in ways that the kids only see as positive, so they want to keep taking pictures and learn more.” 

Carl had previously created a program for students 9 – 14 years old called “Recycle Your For Kids.” The mission of the program was “Empowering Kids with Knowledge and a Camera.” Carl found that as most people primarily use a phone camera, many had digital cameras taking up space in their cabinets and drawers. Carl began collecting those digital cameras, whether operational or not, through donations from friends, neighbors and the general public. Carl then refurbished the cameras and provided them to his digital photography students, who would take home the camera at the end of the class. “Through photography, students developed a skill of seeing the beauty around them,” explained Carl. “Once the skill is developed you can’t unlearn it, it stays with you for a lifetime.”

Marcy Ost’s son Remy (age 11) was one of the students who began taking the after-school digital photography class and then switched to a remote class this past spring. Marcy noted that Carl’s approach of combining silliness and serious instruction resonated well with the kids, “he charms the students with his ‘dad jokes’ and willingness to share his skills on a ‘peer to peer’ level, the kids respond well to him.” She was appreciative that Carl was able to continue with the class this past spring. “Remy missed the social interaction of school. He looked forward to having fun with other students in the remote photography class; it was a nice break for him. And Carl was able to continue to help him grow with his photography, even though their interactions were not in person but rather through this online class.” Marcy explained further, “My son continues to apply the concepts he learned this past spring, such as the ‘Rule of Thirds,’ when we are taking walks or otherwise doing something where he’ll want to take a picture. It’s fun to see his excitement and continued interest.”

Carl strongly believed that his digital photography class could help families cope with the isolation and strangeness of the pandemic, giving kids a focus and opportunity to learn something new and different. But he also knew that he’d have to adjust some content in order to keep the online class interesting for his young students. That’s when he reached out to Emily Gibbs, a practicing nurse and neighbor who had expressed interest in having two of her children take the digital photography. 

Carl asked Gabriel (age 12) and Layla (age 11) if they’d be willing to be ‘test pilots’ and help him develop a completely online digital photography class, knowing there would most likely be some technical challenges along the way. With their mom Emily’s support, they enthusiastically agreed to help. 

The plan had been to have the students use the Chrome computers they received from their school, but these inexpensive computers had limitations that prevented them from working for this online class. The solution was to use computers from classes that Carl had taught at Marine Mills Folk School, a local arts organization that had suspended classes in March due to the pandemic. Carl ‘sanitized’ the pc computers and the refurbished digital cameras, and then delivered them to the Gibbs family…. by walking down the street. “I thought the kids would take a few pictures and learn a little, but I underestimated their involvement,” said Emily Gibbs. “Carl invited Gabriel and Layla on a weekend photography walks that I also joined. The walk lasted four hours long! I kept waiting for the kids to give me a signal that they wanted to finish up and do something else, but that never happened. I’ve been impressed with how much they learned and how often they continue to refer to the class.” 

Emily commented that her expectations about the class were exceeded. “Both of my children learned positioning, lighting and other concepts that they continue to use. Carl wasn’t too academic – he was able to adjust if he noticed the kids were fidgeting during the class. They stayed interested and engaged.” She noted another strength of Carl and the class was his ability to turn the online discussions into learning opportunities that he always had positive suggestions when they reviewed their individual photographs, giving Gabriel and Layla ideas on how to improve their next photographs. “I’d say one of the strongest indications of their new enthusiasm for photography is that now when we are somewhere away from home and away from their digital cameras, they are always asking to borrow my phone to take a picture!”

Both Marcy and Emily felt the class would appeal to a variety of students. The Gibbs family tends to prefer action to sitting, but Emily found the class had a good balance of instructional time and getting-out-to-take-pictures time, and kept her children’s attention. Marcy Ost suggested that students who may not consider themselves ‘artists’ would find enough movement and new concepts to keep interested. And both parents felt the class exposed their children to seeing things with new perspectives. Emily Gibbs noted her family has a new outlook as a result of the class, “Carl often smiled and pointed out that a beautiful shot would be even more beautiful if there was an owl or moose to focus on. The kids were so literal that at first they thought he meant it wasn’t a good picture without an owl or a moose. Now we’re always thinking of Carl and his class as the kids laugh and ask ‘seen a moose today?’”

An instructor with Marine Mills Folk School since it’s opening in October 2018, Carl will partner with the folk school again as they begin to offer online classes in September. Each registrant of the Online Digital Photography class will receive a refurbished digital camera to use during the class and then keep at the completion of the class. The series of classes for youth will cover concepts such as design, lighting and editing, and will include time with the instructor and student to review individual work. The folk school and Carl are also pleased to be able to offer scholarships to health care families, to provide free classes for the children of health care workers. 

Marine Mills Folk School is located in Marine on St. Croix, MN and offers adult and intergenerational classes in traditional arts and craft skills. The folk school suspended in-person classes at the onset of the pandemic in March. The folk school will begin to offer online classes beginning in September. Please visit for additional information or to see a complete listing of classes.

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