Me and Anne Shirley teaching: Animations with Kids

I just finished re-reading Anne of Avonlea (the sequel to Anne of Green Gables.) In that book, Anne is sixteen-and-a-half years old and starts teaching, and of course, she becomes the best teacher the kids ever had.

I always liked reading this book. I loved reading about Anne as a teacher. Except this time when I read it, I realized how little it actually focuses on the teaching itself. Most of it is about everything else going on in Anne’s life.

But as far as the teaching parts go – it was good for me to re-read about that, because it is imbued with Anne’s philosophies as far as teaching go. And her philosophy is to be very kind and inspiring.

If you’ve been reading about my challenges as I run my “Science Animations with Kids” program, then you will know that no matter how inspiring I try to be, I still don’t always reach the kids. My foundational philosophy with this program is that all kids love to be creative; and all kids especially love Disney films and animated films. And if they are given a chance to make a computer animated film about science, then they will learn the value of teamwork, computers, taking care of the earth, reading, creativity, and science careers all at once. I mean, how can you get more inspirational than that?!

And yet, I had second-graders laughing at the work other second-graders did; and I had the girl Anna who I snapped at when she leaned back; and I had the other girl, Leah, who just up and turned her back and nearly started to cry when it was her turn. Those have been some rough moments.

Reading about Anne’s philosophy of kindness, I realized that I just not the kind of person who can live up to that. I am not patient enough, I’m not tactful enough, not soothing enough. When I get the attitudes of different kids flung in my face, my instinct is not always to try to “understand” and be gentle and mothering; rather, I want to fling their attitude back in their face.

I had a pretty bad day with the fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow two weeks ago. When I walked into the class, Anna – who I sadly correctly predicted I had lost the trust and respect of – gave one glance my way and immediately ripped out a groan: oh, she’s here again?

That’s a nice entrance to have when you’re volunteering, of course. The teacher told her right away: Anna! That was very rude. Apologize!

I honestly don’t know whether Anna apologized or not. I am sometimes slow to take in what is happening. I might not even have noticed what Anna said had not the teacher commented on it, or realized that Anna’s outburst was directed towards me. But as soon as my brain caught up, I simply decided I didn’t want Anna’s apology; I just didn’t want to work with Anna at all.

During that same class period, I managed to work with 3 kids in total; that’s pretty slow progress. It wasn’t because the kids were being slow, they were just being careful. But the slow progress was starting to frustrate me nevertheless, plus at this school I don’t have the luxury of having hours of time allotted when I can pull kids to animate with; all the time is kind of on a strict diet, if you will. The last kid I worked with that day, “Evan”, ended by making me really mad. After he was done animating, he told me: because I animated with you, now I won’t have time to build me connect-a-Lego! (some sort of construction building-block game.) I thought to myself: hello! This might be the only time in your life that you get to make a computer animation, and you’re complaining that you didn’t get to build your connect-a-Lego that you can access in class any old day? That’s gratitude for you! Out-loud I just told him curtly: then you should have told me from the start you didn’t want to do this, and I could have gotten another kid to animate your page.

Evan stayed still for a while as he wrapped his brain around this thought; and I did feel a little bit bad! I remember being his age, and feeling like when a grown-up told you to do something, not realizing that you have an option to say ‘no’; because so often you actually don’t have an option to refuse. How was Evan to know that he could have refused me?

He then bounded off to play with connect-a-Lego; but class ended shortly thereafter. As the kids filed out for lunch, someone called out, Evan’s crying. And indeed he was; he was squatting on the floor, over his beloved Connect-a-Lego, crying his heart out because class was over and he had to put everything away. “But I was almost done!” he wailed. His teacher, who has a heart of gold, tried to sooth him. But I did not! I did not feel bad or sorry for him; I felt mad. Like what am I doing with this project if Evan’s going to cry about it, and Anna’s going to groan?

I went home that day to an email inbox full of job rejections; oh, I was in a state, let me tell you!

The next day, I yelled at some people and felt better. I went back to Wolf Meadow, and luckily, no kid started crying when they had to animate with me.

The next week, when I was back at Wolf Meadow again, Evan came up to talk to me, all normal. I guess he has forgiven me for stealing his connect-a-Lego time. And I hope he will enjoy watching his part of the animated film when it’s all over. Anna is apparently a lost cause for me. But something surprising happened with the other girl with whom I’d had a hard time, Leah.

Ever since she’d gotten into a huff with me, she’s been hanging around when I animate with other kids. She’ll throw glances my way. Last Friday, a girl called “Miya” – who maybe is friends with Leah – did a very cool thing. She got the scientist in the program to walk across the screen. Miya did a great job, so I was squealing in praise of her. Leah showed up next to us! “Is that fun?” she asked in a very kind and very humble way to Miya. I pretended not to notice. Miya kept on making the scientist walk, and by the time she was done, we had a little audience behind us. Everyone was clapping Miya on. This is, by the way, one of the moments that does make me feel good about this program; because I don’t think Miya is someone who gets a lot of praise for accomplishments on the regular. But now she was having this special moment.

Suddenly, who should sidle up next to me but Leah? She dropped onto her knees so her head was level with mine (I was seated) and she said: Dr. Mejs, I’m sorry I was rude the other day.

And just like that, we made up. We talked a bit, and shook hands, and I can’t wait to animate with her now!

The teacher saw our interaction, and after the class had left for lunch, she asked: “so you’re good now with Leah?”

“Yep!” I answered. “She apologized.”

“What?!” The teacher was very surprised, which in turn made me surprised.

“I thought you’d told her to apologize,” I said.

“Not me! When she walked into class today, Leah told me, ‘I still haven’t animated my page. And I don’t want to, either!'”

You’ve got to love the defiance! I’m glad she changed her mind, and I think it speaks volumes that she apologized off her own bat, without any prompting. It was a good ending to this particular episode. So I’m not at Anne Shirley-levels of greatness in teaching; but I hope that I am doing more good than harm.

Can’t understand fifth-graders

I’m working with fifth-graders, and they are quite beyond my comprehension.

There was this girl called … well, let’s call her Anna. She’s a goofy girl. She spent the first class I was with them with her head down or in her arms the whole time nearly. Now she’s opened up a bit and she can’t go two seconds without whispering and giggling and making some sort of reaction to every thing I say as I stand before the class and teach. And how am I supposed to know if her reaction is in sympathy or in hostility? Her guffaws and giggles leave a lot of room for interpretation. Is she really bored? Is she testing my (non-existent) discipline? Does she like me and she felt comfortable enough to joke around, not realizing that doesn’t work when you’re trying to teach a whole group something (obviously, I hope for the latter.)

Except now she really doesn’t like me. This particular classroom has very bad lighting. The other schools I’ve been in must have way newer technology: even when all the overhead lights are on, the kids and I can see see my laptop screen, with Blender open on it, projected onto the SmartBoard with no difficulty. In this new school, even when all the lights are OFF, my screen of Blender on the SmartBoard nevertheless persists in being gray-tinted and dull. So we decided that instead of me teaching all 25 or so kids about animation basics at once, we instead would split the class up into two. I’d only teach about 10 at a time, and there would be enough room for them to sit on the carpet up close to the board to see. The other half of the class was to sit quietly (ahahahahahahahaha) in the back and build stuff with Legos until it was time to switch.

They were not quiet in the least, and I’m the sort of person who can’t really hear myself think if I’m trying to teach and there’s lots of distractions. I mean, it was really noisy. And me getting flustered, I kept getting messed up in my lesson and explaining things the wrong way. My 10 kids on the carpet before me, all of them too were whispering and giggling, and Anna was the worst. Or was she? She was the only black girl sitting up front. And she’s unfortunately really good at drawing attention to herself, and I spent the whole time wondering – is my perception even true, or is it just because she’s a black girl who won’t sit still that I’m singling her out as the worst? My lesson was going to the dogs, and I was exhausted trying to manage with all the noise in the background plus the fidgets right in front of me – yes, exhausted, I tell you, after 10 minutes! Plus, the room being all dark except for the glaring glow of the SmartBoard made me feel claustrophobic. Plus, I’m teaching them computer animation for crying out loud! Can’t they sit still for that?

Then Anna slung herself over. She actually just slung herself back on her elbows, but I reacted before that, during a split second when I actually thought she was going to lie down.

“Anna!” I said very sharply. “Sit up.”

She did not. I waited a second. I suspected that she was in that confused spot where she doesn’t want to be the “bad kid” but neither does she want to acquiesce and allow herself to be bossed around by me. So I kept moving with the lesson. She sat up as soon as I moved on. But you know, any hope I could have had of building trust with her or inspiring her into anything is probably over.

Shortly thereafter, so exhausted was I that I just plopped myself into a chair and declared I couldn’t go on. The kids looked both confused and nonchalant.

Today when I went back to teach the second class of fifth-graders, we did the whole class all at once. Ten kids sat on the carpet, the rest sat on the nearest chairs. I think most of them could see, after all. We got through the lesson. Still quite a lot of fidgets starting around 20 minutes in! But more manageable because there wasn’t all the background noise to distract us, I could hear myself think, and we had the whole class time, rather than just half of it, to do a thorough and proper lesson on using Blender.

Next week, I’ll go back and try to teach the first classroom, again. Whole group this time. I’m kind of nervous what happens with Anna.

Update: it was a great lesson! but Anna was absent!

The girl who turned her back

“I never met a child who didn’t like this project.” This is what I tell everyone when describing making science animations with kids.

Until last week, when this girl we’ll call Leah turned up with an attitude for her session with me. As we have been progressing quickly along, I was already at the stage where I sit with each student for about 15 minutes, sometimes more, and watch and prompt them as they animate their section of the movie on my laptop. I had taught them the animation lesson the week before, and yet … the very first student to have a go at it had been a little unsure; she seemed to have forgotten everything.

So it flashed upon me that why not, as one student is animating, have the student next-in-line to sit beside us and watch, so as to just help refresh how the Blender3D program works ahead of that next student’s turn. Because I really wasn’t looking forward to re-explaining and hand-holding to every single student.

One doing, the other watching
New configuration: One doing, the other watching!

I thought it was a great idea, but it hit an immediate snag. Flush with my decision, I looked at my list, and lo – the next student in order was Leah. “Leah! Come sit with us.”

Leah was engrossed in a computer game.

Called her again; asked her to hurry up (still being friendly). Leah actually starts complaining out-loud. That was my first sense of annoyance. Excuse me – I did not come all the way to your school to teach you 3D animation and make a movie with you, only for you to complain about it. Never happened before!

The teacher induces Leah to come over; Leah slams down on an spare chair. I tell her to get back up while I maneuver the chair into position just behind the kid who’s working in front of my laptop; this adjustment was apparently a big shock to Leah’s system. The teacher comes over and tries to console her. Leah now has a very hurt look on her face, and out sticks her lower lip as though she’s going to cry. She’s not even looking at the screen or paying attention when I glance back at her, so I give her a little prompt. This is another too-great shock to Leah’s system, and she heaves herself in her chair so as to turn her back towards me and the laptop and the other kid!

And at this point — at this point, a few years ago, and back when I was teaching in Philadelphia, I might have felt really sad and like I needed to sooth Leah and explain to her just what we’re doing and why it’s so cool and get her cooperation. But apparently, I am way different these days, because I lost my patience and ordered Leah back to her seat. I can’t believe my daring! I didn’t even really care. I was just like, whatever, girlfriend, you don’t want to be here, then don’t waste my time.

Instead, I called the next kid after Leah up and had him watch. And I skipped right over Leah’s section of the animation, and went on with all the other kids.

As soon as Leah was dismissed, she went back to her teacher, to complain again – not sure what about this time! All I caught was, “I was sitting there and she told me to go back…” And then as I flew through animating with student after student, Leah would sometimes come back and take a look at the screen. I ignored her. Then, after lunch, when I was back with her classroom, she comes up and says: “when’s it going to be my turn?” I told her flatly, “you already had your turn.” “No, I didn’t…”

Yesterday, I saw a tweet that said: we don’t have good attitudes every day. So why should we expect our students to have good attitudes every day?

Very true, very good point. But I don’t think Leah needs any coddling or any soothing from me. Can’t believe I was less than kind, understanding, forgiving, and soothing towards a kid but certainly had a better outcome in the change of her attitude than otherwise.

Making a snail in Blender

I poked around some online examples and tutorials.

This snail was super cute and ended up being my inspiration! Can’t get any cuter.

And then this was a nice and straight-forward tutorial for making the spiral shell, which I stuck on top of the snail.

snail
snail in Blender3D

He’s a little lop-sided and one-eyed, and after all, that shell on his back looks kind of unappetizing, but that’s what I have so far.

This is the snail that goes with the animation I’m making with one of the fifth-grade classes at Wolf Meadow, who are doing a great job animating so far. Yes, we have already started animating – can’t believe it’s gone so fast!

Quiet pause in the class

After some rough days, just had one of the best lessons I conducted today at Wolf Meadow. This was with a group of kids whose lesson last week was a complete wash, mostly due to some miscalculations on my and my partner teacher’s part. Well, we tried again this week, and it went so well.

When I do these lessons, I get so nervous about keeping a flow going; or I get nervous that if I don’t keep the pace relentless, I’ll lose the kids — they’ll start daydreaming or get distracted. Or if I don’t keep talking, then it will seem like I don’t have things straight in my mind, and the kids will start smirking.

That gets tricky when you get to a part of the lesson where you’ve been demonstrating and showing the kids things for a while, and you’ve piled on tools and tricks and tips, and now you have a new twist to show them, and — and — you’re out of breath yourself, but still feel like you need to plow right along.

Well, today, when I got to such a point, I took a breath instead! I took a pause. And the kids didn’t explode into chatter. I asked them instead: what do you think about this?

Positive claps all around.

Anything that’s really sticking out for your?

Ah, one kid said something, I just don’t remember what!

Then I told them: okay, there’s a bit more teaching to do before I let you all come up and practice yourselves, so let’s all take a deep breath. And we did quietly take a breath.

Way back when I was an actual teacher, I remember some of the “veteran” teachers would say things like: you can use silence so effectively in the classroom. Pauses and check-ins can be very helpful. Well, it’s a very nice tip, but I never made it to the stage where I was actually an effective enough teacher to be able to employ such nifty techniques. But here I am!

What the kids call me

I used to always just have all the kids call me ‘Mejs’, when I visit schools for ‘Animations with Kids’.

But then, the teacher I first worked with in the fall insisted on the kids calling me ‘Dr. Hasan’, plus she would always introduce me to the kids, or refer to me, as “my doctor friend.” I think she did that as an aspirational thing for the kids – look at this person who is a science doctor, you can be that, too. Mrs. Bravo-Boyd herself is of immigrant parents, and she really liked that I was, too.

Animations with kids – my little readers

I have to take aside every student, one by one, and record with them. They read out-loud their little slip of paper on which is printed the words for their page of our animated story while I record (I just use the ‘Voice’ program that came installed on my laptop, is that lame? But it works pretty well.)

When I record, I don’t know if the kid is going to be a glib, fluent reader who polishes it right off, or is going to halt and stumble between every word. I can’t deny that when I get one of the halters, there’s a voice inside me saying, ‘Heaven grant me patience’. But one thing that I do love so much about this ‘Animations with Kids’ program is … I have time to give the kids. I’m not the teacher, I’m not following a curriculum, and aside from my other obligations, I don’t necessarily have a strict deadline. So when I get a kid who’s not yet such a good reader, we can spend the time together to let the kid practice. They can take the time to sound out words. I don’t really have to hurry or rush them – I don’t even have to swoop in and read out the word in exasperation if they don’t get it right away. We can sit in silence for 30 seconds while they take the time to think it out in their heads. They can practice the sentence as much as they want, and then, we can record it a couple of times. We listen back to the recordings – the kids always like that. Sometimes adding: I can’t believe that’s what my voice sounds like! I think they all feel special and important that they are getting recorded.

I’ve observed a lot of various speech defects. Some kids can’t say ‘s’, which is in fact a little tricky for the rest of us to understand! They’re not lisping – they don’t replace ‘s’ with ‘th’. They just knock it off the word altogether.

Some kids don’t say ‘r’. That’s always kind of cute. I had a girl who just mumbled. With her, extra practice didn’t seem to help. She seemed to mumble more and more when I recorded again. Oh well.

Sometimes when we record again, the kid, gaining confidence, will give a smoother rendition that removes some of the stumbles and pauses between each word. Sometimes not, though; or sometimes the kid doesn’t want to record again. Then I’m stuck in the video editor having to cut out all the pauses. Yes, that gets old.

Another fun part is getting the kids to read with expression. When the kid gets into the spirit of things, it sounds really cool! I’m excited for the animations at McAllister to get done, because there were some very expressive kids there.

Today, I recorded with the last of the McAllister kids – mostly the ones who had been absent or I’d just not gotten to last week. One of them is a new kid. He moved in after we started the project, so he hasn’t even made his drawing yet. I tried to get him up to speed last week. He was the last kid I pulled. I sat him down in the bright little office inside the library where I was recording. It was almost the end of the school day, we had about 4 minutes. Also, he looked sullen and like he’s been crying. His teacher had ordered him, “get it together!” as we slipped out the classroom. And it became evident very quickly that this kid has some major speech impediments and was also not the best reader. So I told him: don’t worry, we don’t have time right now, but I’ll get to you next week.

Next week was today. And it went really well with him, after all. I hadn’t been sure that it would, but he turned out to be a very dogged kid who wanted to practice again and again. He made the funniest faces when he messed up. He gave me the funniest sly looks when he wanted me to prompt him with a tricky word in a whisper in the middle of his recording. And his speech impediment wasn’t so bad after all once he’d practiced. He’s another one who doesn’t say ‘s’ at all when it’s at the beginning of a word. But he does say it if it comes at the end of the word. And when we listened back to his recordings, and he heard himself say ‘tart’ instead of ‘start’, he would notice and grimace and say: oh! why do I keep saying it like that?! It was very interesting to see to what extent he was aware.

He was really proud of having read his long sentence with some very long words in it, and marched up to the librarian and wanted to show off to him. And this is the kid who’d been crying the first time I tried to record with him, and apparently also burst into tears during a library session yesterday.