The unestimable sweetness of fifth graders

Yes, I said once that ‘I don’t understand them’. And I think I still don’t. I related many anecdotes of my difficulties. But they’re sweet, nonetheless.

The way they all eagerly contributed to ideas when I asked them to pick a title for their story.

And then we voted on the ideas … and I was worried those contributions that got zero votes would put a spotlight of shame or failure on whoever had made that suggestion. Instead, the kids just shot out humorous little smiles that swept the awkwardness away.

I take each kid aside for 15-30 minutes so they can do the animation on my laptop. When one of them chanced to see the photo of me on the background screen, she asked ever so quietly and shyly if she could see more photos.

The hesitating way they say: yeah, I want to go to college one day, with slow smiles and that inward consciousness of talking about their futures.

I brought the draft video to each class before the viewing party. Those drafts were a bit of a mess – with weird cut-outs rising menacing across the screen when they’re not supposed to be there, and the quality super choppy, because it was only at 4 frame per second (the standard is 24!). And still they watched avidly at the screen as though it was the best thing ever, and never minded telling me all the mistakes to correct.

Then yesterday, we had the official “World Premiere” viewing party of “The desperate tale of the last tree snail” and “The grass is not trash“. First, can I say I am super proud of how these movies came out?

But I was a little bit sad going into the viewing party, because no parents were invited. I thought that was a bummer. The point is that parents are to be invited. But apparently the principal took an executive decision on this because “we’re not really in the demographic where parents come.” Uh, except I did this at Irvin Elementary, and there about 10 parents showed up for the viewing party, and they are in the same demographic. Also, “since you only worked with 2 fifth grade classes, we can’t have parents because when we invite parents, we have to invite the parents of the entire grade.”

Is that not the lousiest excuse in the history of excuses?

But okay, I told myself. Just the students.

We did it in the gym, because Wolf Meadow doesn’t have the best technology. If you will believe it, we actually did it with a projector that just projected onto the white cinderblocks of the gym wall. Well. And yet, the color of the video was better than when we watch things on the smartboard in the classroom!

Of course, now let’s break for some technical difficulties: I had passed a USB drive with the two movies on it over to my partner teacher. She hooked her laptop up to the projector, and the movie came up fine … but there was no sound. We fiddled with all the cords, still no sound. I didn’t have a heart attack just yet, because I had already pulled up the videos on my own laptop and everything had played normally, with sound. So I had no need to panic and think: OMG, I rendered the movies with no sound, and it takes 20 minutes to re-render them, and OMG, OMG, all is lost! Cause I definitely would have done that.

The logical course of action was to play the movies from my laptop. But lo and behold, once I hooked my laptop up to the projector, the sound again vanished. And it suddenly occurred to me that almost four years ago I had done a presentation in a classroom in Sweden, and that time, too, the sound went mute when I hooked up to the projector. It’s some sort of issue with an HDMI cable.

Luckily, we had two laptops in play: mine and my partner teacher’s. So I just told her: we’ll simultaneously play the video from one, and the audio from the other. That solved it for us! I had brought my laptop in order to be prepared for just such an eventuality. A voice had said: now, you know that if you just bring the movies on the USB drive, something will go wrong and you’ll wish you had your laptop, heavy though it is to carry around.

Now, all this time as we jiggled cords and plugged laptops in and out and were trying to figure out what to do, do you think the fifty fifth-graders sitting on the gym floor were being serene and quiet and helpful? No, ma’am! They were setting up a ruckus. And I thought to myself, oh, dear, we’ve lost them.

Even when we got the movies going, I tried to steal myself against disappointment, because lots of whispers and jabbing of shoulders went on. I looked over the kids, and took solace in the few (at least, it seemed few to me) who were looking intently on the screen. I thought to myself: well, I guess I’ll have to revise this blog post; maybe they’re not so sweet after all!

And I guess above all, I tried to banish any thought of: all the hard work you did in working with these kids was for naught, because the experience doesn’t seem to have settled further than skin-deep for them.

After the movies were over, we all applauded. My partner teacher asked: do you want to say anything?

Oh, yes, I did! Something inspiring, something to really pull things home! But I’m not that good with words when I have to speak them, and I had already decided to accept this clunker of a viewing party; and it seemed wisest not to fight against fate. So I just shook my head with a cheeky grin.

Then my partner teacher said: everyone give a big round of applause for Dr. Mejs for taking the time out of her life to come work with us for the past 3 months. She worked so hard la la la … and it was a pretty big round of applause. I was surprised! I thought the kids couldn’t wait to be rid of me.

Then the partner teacher said: This is the last day Dr. Mejs will be here so make sure you show her your appreciation.

That changed the mood. “She’s not coming back??” asked a startled girl called “Allie”.

Nope, said the partner teacher.

Now, I had gasps and groans coming towards me. We broke up the class to take them outside for the rest of the period. In the hub-hub that followed, a delegation of girls marched up to me, headed by Allie , and said: we want to give you a hug. And that set almost all the girls off in the class, and one or two boys, who also wanted hugs.

Might I add that Allie is a Black girl and she has an expression on her face that most people (or most white people) would call “not innocent; wary and dangerous.” She worked beautifully with me every step of the way, though I did not escape getting those under-the-eyelid looks of caution from her. It’s hard not to worry about the types of constrained chances and rough reactions a girl like that is going to get as she grows up in this world.

Then a girl called “Mia” started shadowing me as we walked to the playground: don’t leave. Please don’t leave. Why do you have to go to Houston?

Honey, I don’t want to go to Houston either, but somehow you have to make money in this God-forsaken world.

“But it’s not fair,” Mia tells me. “There’s other kids around here who deserve the opportunity of making movies like this, too.”

Mia was equipped with a notebook and a pen! So like me! (except at this moment, I had nothing.) I told her she could write down her email for me and pointed at her notebook. I added: it’s so cool you carry your notebook and pen around! She goes: you never know what’s going to happen. What a smarty!!!

Then, the notebook got passed around to kids all over the playground, Allie taking a lead going up to kids and saying: give her your email!!

By this time, I was feeling pretty happy, you may say. So my project was a success, after all? I have dreams of being able to follow these kids through middle school and high school, and maybe give them pointers and advice along the way.

 

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 – paid in hugs

I get lots of hugs from second-graders these days. It’s pretty nice. Sometimes when I show up in the class or the library, I get four or five little pairs of arms coming around my waist.

Rarely, but it does happen – happened today! – it’s a bit of a manipulative gesture! It means, can you please pick me to animate with right now?

Sometime, it’s a very excited girl who hugs every adult who walks into class.

Sometimes, it’s from sheer glee because they weren’t expecting me to come, and when I do, they come running.

And sometimes – and this is really cute – they’re not really popping a big grin or otherwise looking pleased. But nonetheless, they leave off whatever’s occupying them at their table, and they come ambling over, without really even looking at me, and give me a hug as though checking off an item on their to-do list.

Today, I got the cutest hug ever. I was at McAllister recording with a shy boy, and when we were finished, he kept inching closer and raising his arm to me, but then dropping it. He didn’t look at me, either, just off to the side. I thought he wanted to give me a hug but was too shy. I tapped his shoulder; he raised his arm and dropped it again. I opened my arms, and there! hesitation gone, and we hugged.

I can report that fifth-graders are not such big huggers.

Groups hugs, nose-pickers, and racism – the highs and lows of Animations with Kids

I’ve been teaching animation basics to the three classes at McAllister Elementary. I’m able to walk to the school – 30 minutes, each way, it’s really nice. There’s an ice cream shop on the way. And a new shop that sells baked goods and chips and sandwiches and stuff.

When the last class came in the library and saw me, they all squealed, and half of them ran up to me and gave me a hug. They all tried to jostle for the best position, or waited for their own turn to say, “she’s mine!”, or called out, “group hug, group hug.” Goodness. I’m rarely that popular.

We did our lesson. Because this was my third day in a row teaching the same thing, I was getting pretty good and had the flow down, had tweaked and improved how I was explaining things to the kids.

Animations with kids lesson
Making the cardinal move

I demonstrated how Blender works uses a cardinal bird that I made – it’s a good choice because it’s the state bird of North Carolina. When I ask the kids if they know what the bird is, the first one always guesses “robin.” And I tell them, “no.” So the second one guesses, “a red robin.” But the third then guesses cardinal.

cardinal4

For the second half of the lesson, I have the kids come up one by one and maneuver the cardinal around themselves. They pick a spot on the movie number line, and then they either make the cardinal “go”, or rotate it, or change the size. After all 15 kids have done something, the end result is pretty cute:

With my first class at McAllister, we had time for every kid to give it a try. With the second class, two boys were naughty and kept blurting out. So the librarian took them aside, and I skipped them. And for the third class – well, I ran into a problem, quickly, because two little kids were picking their noses like the WHOLE time I was teaching them. They weren’t really trying to hide it, even. And I didn’t exactly want them to touch my laptop. And I didn’t want to tell them, hey, it’s because you’re picking your nose. You don’t want to crush a child in that way.

But I remembered the class the day before when not every kid got to animate at the end. I figured I could swing things so that by the end of the class, we’d just “run out of time” before we got to the nose-pickers. Of course, I’m learning more and more that “running out of time” – as long as the kids aren’t being chaotic – is very much under my control. I can just come up with things to talk about, things to show them.

Problem was, one of the nose-pickers at least was a very sweet girl who was being very quiet and patient and kept raising her hand to get a turn at my laptop. I felt pretty bad about that.

Two kids were being loud and obnoxious. One of them was a Black boy, and he wouldn’t stop talking. The other was a white girl and she wouldn’t stop talking either, but I swear, I think because she was an innocent-looking red-head, I must have over-looked her obnoxiousness. She kept raising her hand and asking in a most sad and mournful way, “when are you going to pick me???” So towards the end, I did – and I didn’t call on the Black boy. And I regretted it because at the very end of class, she and the Black boy – who were sitting side by side – were cutting up again. And only one of them had felt the consequences of it. I felt really really bad and I’m realizing when I only have a few seconds to make these judgment calls, there must be racism that’s lurking in the background and making the decisions for me, to an extent. It’s not a good feeling to walk away with.

At the very, very end – because I still needed an excuse not to call on my nose-pickers – and I felt even worse that the obnoxious red-head got a turn when the nice and quiet nose-picker did not – I decided to show the kids an animation. I showed them “All About Butterflies” that I just finished with Irvin Elementary. This way, they could both appreciate what their neighboring second-graders had done, and get a sense for what they’re about to do. Unfortunately, the kids were pretty riled up by that point and they didn’t really watch, they just sat and made comments. I was sitting behind them, and trying to point out: look, that’s a rotation, and other pointers. I didn’t really catch what the kids were saying. I did sense that the comments were not exactly very laudatory.

Finally, the librarian marched forwards and put an end to the movie-watching and the kids’ giggles. “Boys and girls! I am so angry right now. I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry with a group of boys and girls. I cannot believe what I’m hearing. How dare you all make fun of the movie? Would you all like it if you all had worked hard on something, and then another class watched it and made fun of it?”

Immediate silence. I had also turned the movie off.

“Folks, I can handle you all talking and saying things, but what I cannot tolerate is you all making fun of other people’s work. This has given me a whole new opinion about this group of boys and girls which is going to be very, very hard for me to let go of! Who worked very hard on that butterfly movie?”

It was only then it occurred to me that indeed, the talking during the movie hadn’t been very nice to the second-graders who had made it! But I have a tendency to take things personally. So if someone makes fun of my work, my first instinct is to think: oh, yeah, it’s not really that good. Oh, what should I have done to make it better? All while trying to hide that I was mad at being made fun of.

Silence from the kids. So the librarian again: who in this room worked very hard on this movie?

The kids pointed to me.

“And who else worked hard on this movie?”

“The other second-graders.”

“That’s right. The second-graders at Irvin. How rude is it for you all to make fun of them. I was waiting for one of you to say: stop making fun, this isn’t nice. And not one of you did …” And it went on like that. The class’ teacher in the meantime had come in and was apprised of the situation.

“Oh my word!” she said.

The kids turned around. “How did you get in here without us noticing?” But she put her finger to her mouth.

And now both the librarian and the teacher were giving the kids a lecture, and finally the teacher said: “Rude! That’s the word for it. It’s not even disrespect, I’m just glad you used that work, ‘rude’, because that’s what it is, and that’s what we should call it.”

Whew! So the day started with me getting hugs from everyone and everyone running at me with big smiles, and it ended like that. I have another tendency that when someone is ‘rude’ to me, my default is to think it’s my fault. I must have done something to cause them to be that rude. So in a most contrary way, it was actually after the librarian started lecturing the kids that I started to feel bad – like I started to feel that I had messed up, or been foolish. So the day didn’t end all that great.

But I can say, and I have seen it again and again with the teachers I have worked with – wow, what great souls we have in our schools. Really, we don’t deserve them.

 

The Concord, NC buses are not always 10 minutes late

The last time I rode the Orange bus on a Saturday – same bus stop, same time – it was 15 minutes late. So I thought there was no harm in now showing up 10 minutes late and still catching it, but it would appear that I missed it. Shucks.

And one time, I was catching the purple bus, and I again banked on a secure 10 minute cushion. So I showed up just about 3 minutes late to the stop. As I walked up, the bus pulled up from the other direction! I had to run to make it to the stop in time. And then, I actually delayed the bus further because I hadn’t had a chance to count out my change. I had to do it while the bus was waiting on me, and my $1-bills all disappeared at the crucial moment.

Update: I ended up catching the bus a bit later in the afternoon. Same bus, same stop. I got to the stop 3 minutes late, and the bus came 2 minutes after that. Wow!