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Teacher Captures Student Portraits 10 Years Apart

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Award Winner: This story was recognized at the Canadian Association of Communicators in Education (CACE) BRAVO Awards with a Coup De Coeur Award.


Students grow and change a lot during their time in school, and Conan Stark, a teacher at Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute (CHCI) in Kitchener had the unique opportunity to appreciate just how significant, or how indistinguishable, these changes can be.


In 2012, alongside his students Zaven Titizian and Leigh Sellner, he photographed a class of Grade 2 students at Williamsburg Public School, which happened to be taught by his wife, Melissa Stark. In the 2021-22 school year, he learned that some of those same students were now in his Grade 12 photography class.


"We went there - just for the day - just to teach my students about photojournalism, kind of working on-location photography," Conan told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.


Melissa remembered this day well. She was excited to have the opportunity to see photographs of her students learning in action.


“I had a Grade 2 class, a sweet little group of kids,” said Melissa. “It was winter, so we were cutting out snowflakes and getting ready to decorate the classroom.”


A decade later, in May 2022, Conan realized many of these same students were now Grade 12 students at CHCI. An innovative idea about the unique opportunity available began to take shape as he connected with each of these students. He could take a series of updated portraits, which could also serve as a surprise for his wife, Melissa.


“The kids all seemed to really enjoy being a part of it,” said Conan. “I knew we had to do something with it.”


Titizian and Sellner both returned to reconnect while the portraits were being taken, too, truly taking things full-circle.

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“It was really neat to see my Grade 12 photography students from 2012, 10 years later as adults and to see how well they are doing,” said Conan.


The 2022 portraits help to show how students change in some ways, but stay the same in others.

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"The more I looked through the photos, and in talking with the students that were in front of me, I started realizing they had grown a lot, but their core identity was still intact,” Conan said. “The same energy, if you will. A similar smile, a head tilt, a calmness."


Once the photos were compiled, Conan revealed the surprise for Melissa. Through teary eyes, she explained what it was like to see so many of her students again.


“You love these kids and you help them learn and grow and you celebrate with them…and then you send them off and you don’t always see who they become or what path they’ve chosen, and so being able to see them as Grade 12 students, ten years later, was so fulfilling and so emotional,” said Melissa. “Seeing them and knowing that they were happy and safe and doing well, and moving on to wonderful things in their lives, it was just, so, so cool.”


She was especially struck by what confident, talented and grown up people they had all become.


“They look so powerful,” said Melissa.


A few of the students involved told CBC KW what this opportunity to reflect meant for them, and what they took away from it.

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"Growing up, was really, really, really scary to me. Every year that I went up a grade I would be so scared of everything, and so anxious all time," Anne-Katherine Le said to CBC KW. "Growing up isn't so scary. Change isn't that bad and change is sometimes for the better. Even though some change is horrible — but you do grow out of it."

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Thinking back, Grade 12 student Nardos Felefele sees how much she has learned about herself, and the strength of her voice in the past decade.


"Especially as a woman, and as a woman of colour - I wish that I had of known earlier that standing up for myself would be the most important lesson, and that's how I'm going to get ahead in life: making sure my voice is heard, and not expecting anybody else to do the talking for me," said Felefele.


As Felefele learned and grew during her time in the WRDSB, at every stage she gained confidence and skill in using her voice to help guide her path, and to shape the world around her in positive ways.

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For Conan, he hopes that this opportunity helps students see just how much they’ve learned, grown and evolved as individuals. He knows they’ll continue to find success as they bring the same curiosity and excitement to wherever life takes them next.


"As a teacher you're not too sure if it connects, but that's what I hope for them: that they just keep having that positivity," said Conan.


The photo series drew a much larger response than just from Melissa and the students, though. Their peers, friends, family, other former educators and more expressed how joyful this series made them feel.


“I wasn’t expecting a lot of reaction beyond the students themselves,” said Conan.


For Conan and Melissa, this illustrates just how connected we all are in the close-knit community of the WRDSB and in Waterloo Region as a whole.


“Yes, K-W is a big place, but it’s a small place too,” said Melissa.

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Melissa built on this theme of connection, and explained her hope that all students know they remain connected to and cared for by all of those educators who have worked with them on their learning journey in the WRDSB.


“I hope they know that the teachers that taught them along the way care about them,” said Melissa. “Just because we have you for a year, doesn’t mean we stop caring after that.”


Both Melissa and Conan see no end in sight for their connection with these students.


“I hope I see them again in another ten years, and see where they’ve gone,” said Melissa.

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