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Guiding Kids to Picture Things in a New Way

May 25, 2006 By:
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For the past year, Irv Orenstein, a 76-year-old amateur photographer, has been taking groups of five children - students at Spring Garden Elementary School - and each week teaching them a little about photography before letting them loose with some new digital cameras.

The Huntingdon Valley resident is a school volunteer who first helped the children with math and reading as part of an informal group - once connected solely with Congregation Rodeph Shalom - of some 15 retirees who showed up on Wednesdays.

The tutoring project, known as the R.S. Volunteer Group, was formed about a decade ago when founding member Jules Kay, who had just retired, joined a friend from Rodeph Shalom to assist the students at Spring Garden Elementary. Soon, Kay asked his friend Howard Rosen, also newly retired, to join them. In just two years, about a dozen people had signed up to teach rudimentary skills in reading, writing and math.

"With no real classroom, we work in every nook and cranny that we can find in the school," said Rosen, 77, of Elkins Park. "It's kind of cramped sometimes, but we've had good success. Our pleasure is seeing success in the kids."

Kay said that while a New York-based foundation, as well as Rodeph Shalom and Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, donate some funds, most of the dollars come out of the volunteers' own pockets. The group bought Christmas presents last year for every kid at the school - kindergarten through seventh grade - and has paid for buses to take them on trips.

One time, it even hired an art teacher to head up a class.

Orenstein explained that his new photography initiative - which followed a purchase by the volunteer group last year of cameras and printers - offers the children the ability to express themselves.

"They are trying to get a sense of aesthetic and the expressiveness of the subject and observing these things," he said. "We talk about it a lot. I tell them how to stand still, and that they are responsible for what comes out of that camera, and they have a responsibility to bring something back that's worthwhile to an audience."

Orenstein was so impressed with the portraiture work of the students - ranging from age 11 to 13 or 14 - that he submitted some photos into a competition at the Philadelphia International Airport. The person in charge of the competition told Orenstein that a winner wouldn't be selected for four years. Instead, he put him in contact with someone at City Hall.

As a result, 17 of the students' pictures are being displayed in showcases on the fourth floor of the city building. The photos will be there through the month of June.

Orenstein said that while he may be giving the students strictly technical advice - how to use a camera, for instance - they are really learning much more.

"I think the powers of observation are transferable to reading, mathematics, geography and history," he said. "They are getting some sort of generic training. It teaches them to see, and that's not such a bad thing."

In the end, Orenstein noted that regardless of the influence he's made on their overall studies in general, his students will never quite look at photography through the same lens.

"What they get is fundamental, and I hope that they'll keep that with them," he continued. "They can't pick up a camera and a viewfinder and not hear my words."

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