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.

 

Watching kids watch each other’s animations

I made “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick” with a class of second-graders in Chapel Hill 4 and a half years ago.

And every time I go into a new classroom, those kids watch “Mr. Turtle”, too, so they have an idea of what this project is like.

It makes me really happy to think that after all these years, the messages from those first set of kids are still being heard. My audiences are always so engrossed! And the movies from all these new classes will hopefully be used as models in my future classes.

In fact, I already had my fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow watch the two animations (Mr. Glump and Handbook to caring for the Earth) the second-graders at McAllister made. They laughed, they leaned forwards … okay, some just kept on drawing and whispering through the movies, too, but they were still pretty interested!

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Kids in Concord, plus some of their parents, watching “Mr. Turtle”, which the kids in Chapel Hill made. Mind you, they’re watching it now for the third time and still full of interest!
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The fifth-graders in Wolf Meadow watching the animations made by the second-graders at McAllister

Last messages from my animating kids

I like to finish each film with ‘Last messages’. I did it first with “Mr. Turtle Gets Sick”. I came up with the final thoughts myself. But this time around, I thought I’d ask the kids, and this is what they came up with..

The second-graders who made “Mr. Glump and the Poisonous Pond”:

  1. Algae is bad
  2. Fish can die
  3. clean the fish pond
  4. Do not pollute
  5. Don’t spray poison on your yard
  6. Keep things clean
  7. Protect fish
  8. If you have a question, go to the library and check it out
  9. Check out books
  10. Libraries are cool and teach you a bunch of things
  11. Keep reading.

Isn’t that lovely? There was a second class of second-graders who worked on this same film, but when it was their turn to offer final messages, they turned into holy terrors instead, so we skipped that part. And I condensed the first list into the following:

glump final message 3

And then, in connection with “Handbook to taking care of the earth” (the kids came up with that title; I love that they thought to include a fancy word like ‘handbook’!), here are the final messages:

  1. We only have as much water as we have, so let’s take care of it
  2. Don’t pollute water
  3. Please don’t pollute
  4. We want to swim in nice, clean water
  5. Pay attention to class, don’t pay attention to things that don’t matter
  6. Pay attention to family and friends, and important things
  7. Ignore people talking about silly stuff

handbook final message 3

Isn’t that lovely all over again?

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!

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.

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.