Animations with kids: do the kids actually learn anything?

The main idea of “Animations with kids” is that the kids learn some science in a friendly, storytelling way.

So when I was writing the story for “Mr. Glump and the poisonous pond“, I had hopes that the second-graders, and anyone watching the film, would come away knowing exactly how algae kills fish: that when the algae dies, it sinks into the water, decomposes, and the process of decomposition sucks so much oxygen out of the water that when the fish “breathe” through their gills, there’s nothing for them to breathe in.

Except that’s not exactly how it turned out. When we’d finished the movies at McAllister, I visited each classroom to show them their movie (before the parent party) and to have them take a survey and get their feedback. After we watched the “Mr. Glump” movie, I would ask: So, tell me what the movie said: how does the algae kill the fish?

And these were the answers I got:

They eat it and it’s poison! No…

It smothers them! No….

They had quite a few theories, and the exact mechanism with the algae decomposing was just lost on them, it seemed. I was a little bummed. So all that work and they hadn’t learned what their own movie was trying to explain??

But then I told my partner teacher about it, and he said: at certain ages, kids just aren’t developmentally ready to grasp certain concepts. They might not understand exactly how the algae kills fish … but they will be able to remember: algae is bad; spraying stuff into water is bad.

That made me feel a little better.

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.

 

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.

 

How to gently give kids feedback

Over at McAllister, we have already made the drawings for their animation project. That means we have about 45 illustrations floating around, from 3 second grade classes.

We’re doing the preliminaries before winter break, and then we’ll do the animating afterwards.They’re going to make two different stories in between them.

On the first day of illustrating, looking over the kids’ shoulders, one drawing in particular was sloppy. She was supposed to be drawing a messy garage, so I guess the sloppiness was in the spirit of the ‘messy garage’, except you couldn’t even really tell that’s what it was. I wasn’t sure if that was the best she could do, or if she had just splattered down colors haphazard out of carelessness.

So when she told me, “I’m done,” I suggested back, “well, why don’t you also draw a car for the garage?”

That’s when she pointed confidently at a blob, and said, “that’s the car right there.”

I was a little afraid if I kept pushing, she might start crying … like, “what do you mean you can’t tell what I drew?” Or maybe she would throw up her hands and say, “I don’t care! I don’t want to do this anymore!” I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say in the gentlest way possible, either, but I sat down beside her and made an outline of a garage and a car on another sheet of paper. Then I added some boxes in the corner of the garage, and we agreed we should add some tools. Eventually, she said: “I like that, can I use yours?”

So she was really welcoming of the help, after all. She added a fence, and then I sketched in paint cans. And then the kid beside us, who was also really sweet, helped her to spell “paint” on the paint cans. Then I said, “what else does the picture need?” hoping the girl would say, “color.” But they thought I was still talking about the paint cans, so the boy said, “they need handles.” They were going for all the details! So we added handles on the paint cans, and then the boy leaned over and add smears of paint along the top of the cans! They were both really cute helping each other.

I guess it was a bit of an iffy situation; maybe the girl’s reaction could have been very different. But in this case, I think she really appreciated the extra help. And although I like to say that the kids do all the work on these projects – this is the first time I remember helping with a drawing – I think this was okay to just provide a boost up.

Animations with kids – pond algae

Animations with kids is going really well! The “Butterfly Story” is on hold for the moment, because due to scheduling, I’ve over at McAllister Elementary for the time being.

But the last time I was with the butterfly kids, in a new classroom, we at least came up with the title for that story. It’s to be dubbed, “All about butterflies.”

The kids at McAllister have come up with a title for their pond algae story, too, a rather inventive one. “Mr. Glump at the Poisonous Pond.” There is a Mr. Glump in their story, and he is quite an unsavory character. But one kid exclaimed: no, no! Can’t we make the title sound happy?

But the story itself is not really that happy. The same kid asked why there wasn’t a happy ending. I showed them pictures of the big red tide that swept Florida earlier this year. “Ewwwww!” said all the kids. I asked, when do you all think this algal bloom happened?

“100 summers ago? 10,000 years ago? 30 years ago? 100 years ago!”

So I had to tell them that it had happened THIS year, and that algae is a problem today. I was trying to explain why there’s not much of a happy ending.

I had the kids staring wide-eyed, open-mouthed at me. It was the same in both McAllister classes who are doing this story. I remember being their age, when you still think that responsible adults run the world, and that these responsible adults don’t let bad things happen. On the one hand, I feel a little guilty to be wrecking their innocence; but on the other hand, there’s still a lot of action and civic engagement in our stories, so I hope this learning process is a healthy and constructive one.

We had a lot of other title suggestions shouted out: “Call it Mr. Meanie-Mouth,” one kid suggested, referring to Mr. Glump. Another: it should be called “Mr. Glump doesn’t know how to listen to people.”

What’s really cool about this story it allowed me to I teach them about the Periodic Table of Elements, Nitrogen and Phosphorus, phytoplankton, the ocean food chain, and the role that rain plays in washing pollution on land into the water, within 50 minutes. All while also reading the “Mr. Glump” story and watching “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick“, so that they can familiarize themselves with the project. And we looked at a map of the US/Canada/Mexico, and found North Carolina, Florida, and the Chesapeake Bay (usually, the kids don’t even know where our home state is.)

And I even explained how once an algal bloom dies, it sucks oxygen out of the water as it decays. And that’s why fish die. They were very sad about this picture of fish dying. Again, there was that innocence: responsible adults are actually allowing there to be so much pollution that fish die from it? What?

And I told them how scientists can go out and scoop up water samples, and then measure the pollutants in the water in their laboratories, and that every single one of them can have that job when they grow up. I showed them a female scientist in action by a river.

The question with lots of enthusiastic response was: so if scientists scoop up water and measure the pollution, but algal blooms like the ones in Florida still happen, does it seem like anyone is listening to scientists?

Noooo!!!! came the chorus. Kids are so cute.

But ultimately — though of course I don’t know how long the feeling will last — I have now 30 second-graders at this school thinking that science is great, if their response is a way to gauge, and that scientists should be listened to. It’s not actually super-hard if you present science in a human, emotional way, rather than a rigid, competitive, ugly way.

Well, maybe I should hold that thought. Who knows what these kids will think in the future.

Oh, one more awesome thing that came up with one of the classes. The kids noticed that phosphorus is represented by a ‘P’ in the Periodic Table, but its first sound is ‘ffff’. So we even got to talk about phonetic sounds.

Same thing when we got to “phytoplankton”: why’s it start with a ‘p’? they ask.

I remembered at that moment that ‘phyto’ is a prefix; so I told them some of these words came from the Ancient Greek (is that right? or do I have the wrong ancient language?) and that’s why they’re spelled ‘ph’. They looked at me a little skeptical, like, what is Greek? Well, we didn’t have time to go into it.

And then I thought I’d sound really smart and tell them that ‘phyto’ means ‘light’ in ancient Greek. But I just looked it up and apparently it means ‘plant’. Shucks.