Feeling ghosted – Animations with kids

I feel like I have very bad follow-through sometimes when it comes to my Science animations with kids program.

Sometimes, it’s my fault. Like at my last viewing party, about 30 parents, grandparents, aunts, everyone, showed up. I gave them all a little slip of paper with the URL of my website (the one you’re reading) and my YouTube channel, and my email, so they’d be able to find the films that their kids had made online.

But alas, I neglected something very evident … I forgot to collect their email addresses. So let’s just go ahead and assume that all the slips of paper I passed out are by now lost, crumpled in a bag somewhere, etc. And I have no way of contacting the parents. Kind of really sucks, because during the viewing party, I couldn’t get the sound to be loud enough, and we were in a big room, and I don’t think anyone at all understood what was happening in the movies.

These were the two movies the kids had made, by the way: A lesson on nurdles and When Anders, Dilsa, and Reza were mean.

But then some other times, it’s not my fault at all. Instead, I literally just get ghosted by the teachers I worked with. For example, the teacher I worked with at Wolf Meadow. The kids there made two such beautiful films: The grass is not trash and The desperate tale of the last tree snail.

At the very least, these films deserve to be championed by the people who were involved in making them. The kids were all fifth-graders who apparently don’t have emails or anything, so I don’t expect much from them. But my partner teacher! And the school principal! First, they said that we would have a viewing party for parents once the films were done. Well, when we actually reached that point, they cutely changed their minds … no, we can’t have a viewing party because only two of the five fifth-grade classes participated in this project, and if there’s a fifth-grade event happening, then a notice must be sent to all fifth-grade parents, and the parents of kids in the other three classes will be upset their kids didn’t participate. I mean, what kind of a lame excuse is that? No, actually, it’s very possible to just send a notice to the parents/families of the two fifth-grade classrooms I worked with. Gotta love rank inflexibility.

But I got over that, and my partner teacher said: oh, yeah, we’ll post the movies on the school website, and we’ll send an email to all the parents. Yeah, that is the very least you could do when your kids have just made two excellent animated films. Except even that never happened. I know, because the viewing counts never changed. I sent email reminders to my partner teacher and everything, but nothing. Can you believe it?

Then there was the time I was describing this project to a lady who’s part of a science communication network. She said, oh, the project sounds great. And she said, without me begging for it, that the science communication network she’s from run a blog, and would I like to write a blog post for them? Well, yes, I would. I emailed her twice after that to remind her, ask her about doing that, but of course she ghosted me, too, her and her exclusive little science communication club that people like me aren’t good enough to get into.

Then there was a man who ran in the same exclusive club circles. Let’s just call him Loser idiot stupid ugly moron. Well, me being me, I don’t learn my lessons the first time, so I was still panting after the exclusive club. Loser idiot stupid hateful moron tells me, and I quote: “This is so cool” [talking about the Animations with kids project] and “hope we find ways to cooperate” and “I was deeply moved, happy and proud” [while looking through my work] …. ahhh, shut up. He also blabbed a whole bunch about how he would talk to this and that person, and find partners for me, and he went into details! Like asking me, how much money will you need, and giving me ideas for film topics, and when would this happen? And he even did the thing, which is kind of rare, of answering my emails within a day. That honestly never happens.

Then after about a week of this, and me being really happy, he ghosted me, too. I hope he falls into a meat cleaver. He just stopped responding to all my emails, everything. If you ask me who I hate, his name will be the first mentioned.

 

Bad audio, all the time

I usually use my trusty laptop to record kids’ voices for animations. It usually works out really well, and picks up the kids’ voices even when they’re speaking softly.

But I ran into a problem this time around at the summer camp. There was a super annoying buzzing sound in the hall where I started animating. It came from the light fixture. I had already recorded the voices of about 5 kids before I noticed it. We migrated then into the empty room next door, but the buzzing followed us, and I didn’t exactly want to close the door, because it’s not a super good idea for an adult to be alone with the child. So I kept the door cracked.

I didn’t finish recording all the kids that day, and when I went back later, I had an action plan: I decided to record the leftover kids outside. It was nice and quiet out there! I went home and listened to all the recordings, and the outdoors recordings definitely won the day.

So, when it came time to do the recordings for the second film, I strolled outside with each kid, out the front door of the church where the summer camp is held, off to the side a bit where there’s a nice slab of pavement to sit on past which our feet dangled into bright green grass, and warm summer sun all around us. And I felt very fresh and pleased that I was both getting the project done, and getting some outside time.

Sadly, though, it did not turn out for the best. The mosquitoes must have been out in full force that day, just to spite me, I suppose. I heard them buzzing about but I thought — the other day, we recorded outside and it sounded just fine. Surely it’s not possible for mosquitoes to vary how loud they’re being from day to day? Well, apparently it is possible. I found that out later. I had, in good, responsible time, done the necessary animation edits to stitch the kids’ work together. I had it all completed so that there wasn’t a crunch and flurry of work necessary the day before the family viewing party. Instead, though, I had left all the audio wrestling for the last day. I had been at a workshop a few weeks ago where they told us: Guess what! If your audio has a weird buzzing noise, it’s easy to fix it! Just load it into this program [one of the Adobe Creative Suites] and you click the button that says ‘reduce buzz’ or ‘reduce background’ or something like that.

Well. First of all, it is not that simple, between having to load the files, and do some extra clicking about. And second, and saddest, it didn’t really do a good job 😦 I could still hear that stupid buzz from the light fixture, and the mosquitoes. And in fact, the mosquitoes were the hardest to overcome, I guess because the stupid light fixture buzz was a steady and narrow sound, while the mosquitoes blared their song up and down the octaves and blazed forth and dove down. Any case, so the sound is not that good in these two movies, even though it took me forever to try to fix them. And in fact after the family viewing party, and before uploading to YouTube, I spent like a day trying to further fix up the audio. I uploaded and then removed, and then re-uploaded the movies like three times, adjusting the sound each time. And before that, I had rendered the movies about 5 times already, adjusting the sound and volume in between.

I was pretty sad to think that I had the animated parts mostly ready to go, and here was the audio to trip me up.

And here are the movies: “A bird story” is the one where the weird buzzing was in the background. “A lesson on nurdles” was the one which was recorded a lot outside.

GIS and Blender at once

Two of my favorite pieces of software are QGIS – used for making maps on a computer – and Blender 3D – used for 3D animations.

Both of these pieces of software, furthermore, are open-source. That means they are free for anyone to download.

Every time I make an animation with a group of kids, I make sure to tell them that Blender is a free software, anyone can download it, and that thousands of computer wizards across the world have contributed to making it free and available for all of us. And that maybe they can be one of those computer wizards one day.

I’ve always wanted to tell the kids about QGIS being free as well, and I finally got the opportunity. The story that underpins the second animation for this group of kids has a lot of geography in it, and mentions making maps on the computer. It was the perfect context for doing a whole lesson on QGIS with the older kids (fourth grade and up). I told them about how I first learned about latitude and longitude when I was in sixth grade; and that I didn’t really see what was all that special about it, until I went to college and I saw a presentation on the use of computer maps to track endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

The context of our geographic lesson was “nurdles”. I happened to see a story about “nurdles” on Twitter, and went with that. I made up some nurdles data, put it together using R and QGIS, and showed that to the kids. The person who wrote the nurdles story is a young Muslim woman in Texas, by the way. It feels good that the two of us are actually feeding into and supporting each other’s work in this way.

I re-created, as best I could, the computer map onto a poster-board map. I threw a gird over it. And I showed the kids how you would find the location of nurdles contamination on various points on the map.

map of coastline with latitude and longitude

I’m very proud of that lesson, because it actually involves a lot of Algebra, and whenever I remember learning it in school, or trying to teach it when I was a math teacher, it was always somewhat of a disaster. A lot of kids wouldn’t get it. But this time, I had volunteers come up and practice finding a latitude-longitude, and they all got it – except for the kid who wasn’t paying attention. They would find the lat/lon, and then stick a post-it note there with a datapoint about the number of nurdles at that site. I had a whole fake data collection campaign going on.

finding latitude and longitude

The computer mapping will continue to be a theme throughout the story, and it’s very cool to combine two of my favorite pieces of software together like this.

Five-year-olds computer animating

Is there a minimum age-limit when it comes to computer animation? Well, I’m sure there is for toddlers and babies, but in the summer camp I’m in, there’s three little kids that are entering kindergarten in September. They’re all five. They reach out their hand for me to hold if I chance to walk them from room to room. They skip a little bit as they go. They have little baby-kid voices. When I first heard how little some of the kids were at this camp, I thought: maybe I’ll just have the big kids animate, and the little kids can at least then watch the final movie. They’ll participate by being spectators.

But then I thought, what the heck. I’ll try it with them all. And the five-year-olds are doing really well. Two of them are a little hesitant, and stare at me with big adorable somewhat clueless smiles before they dare to touch any of the keys on the laptop. The third is super sharp and does the ‘G’, ‘S’, and ‘R’ keys of Blender 3D (‘go’, ‘size’, and ‘rotate’) like she’s a boss, and with the biggest, most excited smile, and the most eager look on her face.

five-year-old doing computer animation

Animating at a summer camp

I had written a dour and grim post about the futility of applying to grants, but before it went live, I actually received one.

Which means I was able to do one more ‘Animations with kids’ project in Concord before my run here ends (at least for the expected near future.) I am working with a group of 40 kids part of a summer camp in downtown Concord. I’m with them for over a month. The camp directors are very accommodating, and give me all the time I need. I can pull kids individually to work with whenever, so we are hopefully going to complete two films. It’s very exciting because it’s the first time I have ever been able to do two animations with the same group of kids. It means I get to see how they grow between their two turns at using Blender. So far, the second round of animating has been spectacular! Some of the kids are really like a young director, moving things around and making decisions and just in general being the boss of things. It’s great to see.

Oh, best of all, one of these kids will actually have animated with me three times 🙂 Because he was in Mrs. Bravo-Boyd’s second-grade class last year, which did “All about butterflies.” It was such a surprise when I saw him in front of me and realized who he was on my first day at the camp!

I’m realizing more and more, too, how important the component of the project is that requires them to record their voices as they read. We sometimes do a couple of takes together, and this batch of kids is really paying attention to how they sound. They’ll notice if their recording is too staccato, and ask to re-do it. They’ll notice if their voice wavers off as they get to the end of the sentence. I never had so many kids ask to re-do their recording, without prompting from me. And the expression in some of their voices is phenomenal.

Animating with young girl

animating with kids
Here they are watching “The grass is not trash”, that a fifth-grader class at Wolf Meadow made this past spring, so they get an idea of what the project is like.

Helping out at the Science Festival

We had a “Science Festival” on Union Street, and I got to share about my Animations with Kids project. In typical fashion, I started making my poster about 5 hours before the event started.

Animations with kids poster

(But I got it done in time!)

Now, I’m pretty proud of my poster, because in keeping with the environmental theme of “Animations with kids”, I did such a good job at recycling and re-using for this poster! First, I searched in my brother’s closest and found his old posterboard from like 20 years back, in which he described his invention “the reflector”, and declared he had won 2 Nobel Prizes for his inventions and written 20 books, or something. Any case. Of course, this “thing of beauty and a joy forever” must not be destroyed, so I instead got some construction paper that has been lying unused in our personal “school store” for about 15 years, and tacked it up all over the poster, safely hiding “the reflector” and giving me a blank slate for my own poster material.

Next, I grabbed some pins that I’d bought like 13 years ago, and used those attach the construction paper to the poster. I ended up with quite a dangerous contraption, in that all the pins were poking out at odd and dangerous angles out from the back of the poster. Since I knew a lot of kids would be at this festival (plus there were the possible recriminations to my own hands and body), I re-worked the pins so that they were directed – as much as possible – straight down into the cardboard part of the posterboard. So many of the pointy tips were ensconced were they could do no harm, and otherwise they were at least tilted down.

And then I found some colored scotch tape – surely 10 years old – that my Dad had lying around; and more construction paper from bygone days; and I went to the library down the street were I was able to print out pictures in color for 75 cents per page, with 3-4 pictures crammed into a page, and put together my poster.

Now, when I had first read the instructions about the Science Festival, I had just skimmed them to get the main points. Or did I even skim? Any case, my impression from my “skimming” had been that I needed to make a poster. Well, with about 3 or 4 hours to go, I decided I would be wise and read the entire instructions more carefully, and that was when I discovered I was actually supposed to provide an activity for the kids to do — and I was supposed to prepare this for about 200 kids!

And this is where my reuse and recycle philosophy kicked into high gear. I had a packet of cute little cut-outs that I’ve been hauling around for about 6 years ago, ever since I was at an environmental literacy event where I used to work in Maryland. I don’t even remember what event it was, but I thinking I was helping out at it, and they were doing some sort of activity that required lots of things like this:

IMG_20190416_185729396

They’re all beautifully cut, and the construction paper is in pretty colors and really high-quality. All the left-overs (there’s like 300) were going to be thrown-away that day, so I rescued them, and have used them twice since: once to make certificates for the “All about butterflies” viewing party. And now I decided they would hold me in good stead for the event I had a booth at in 3 hours. I decided I would let kids that came to my booth write “messages” about the environment on these, and I told them I’d then make an animation out of their messages (hasn’t happened yet).

So I packed the pretty cut-outs, sharpies I found lying around my dad’s house, and some other essentials into a shoebox, stacked it neatly over my folded posterboard with the pins, and with 20 minutes to go until 5 pm, trudged down Union Street to the Rotary Square where, alas – I ought to have known – my booth was one of the least popular for the next two hours. Oh, well.

Animations with kids event

Of backwards heads and mixed-race couples: Animations with kids

I had two more interesting experiences with “The grass is not trash” worth mentioning …

First, did you notice that the brother has a white girlfriend? When we got to that page of the animation, I myself hadn’t really decided what the girlfriend should look like. So I told the Latina girl I was working, who was responsible for that page, to look at a whole menu of people that I have …

Blender animated people

Oh … never mind. I thought I showed her girls with a variety of skin colors. I, uh … I really think I did! Maybe I just can’t find the right file. But any case, the Latina girl picked the girl in the blue skirt and white ribbon for the girlfriend. The black girl sitting next to her agreed; and then I showed the pick to a group of boys sitting across from us, and they all thought she suited for the girlfriend role, as well.

So that’s how the brother’s girlfriend became white. The Latina girl did the animation with her, and she on purpose made the girlfriend taller than the boyfriend, which I thought was nice. Then, when I went home, I modified her features a little. Here’s the girlfriend in all her glory …

Blender animated people white girlfriendBlender animated people imperfect chin

I changed her hair to red; and I decided it would be healthy if all the characters did not have perfect straight and delicate features; so I gave her a protruding nose and a disappearing chin.

Okie dokie, so I had the girlfriend and a mixed-race couple in the animation. Turns out I also had a girl with her head screwed on backwards … the main character, no less.

This is “Louange”:

Blender animated people

At the beginning of “The grass is not trash”, her head is on right. Note the opening slit on her collar.

Well, right around the middle of the movie, things are looking a little different:

Blender animated people

Yes, in a surprising display of gymnastics and ballet, one of the kids twisted her head all the way around, and I didn’t notice until the last quarter of the film. Yes, her feet were therefore also pointing the wrong way all that time. Yikes.

It was too late to untwist her head, because I would have had to reverse the direction of all her hand and feet movements, everything. So instead, I just twisted her ankles to make her feet point the right way, and I hoped people wouldn’t notice the shirt collar. I felt really bad to be inflicting this kind of bodily pain on the lovely Louange, and I half expect to see her face writhing in torture.