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

Pretty clothes clashing with science?

I like pretty clothes.

However, in one of my “Animations with kids”, I made a video with the second-graders at MacAllister Elementary called “A handbook to taking care of the earth.” And in that movie, it kind of sets up a conflict between doing good in school/being conscientious versus fashion.

I didn’t want to make it a conflict … so I tried to soften it by adding: “I like pretty clothes, too … but Diana thought about nothing else.” (The boy who narrated that line did such a snarky job of emphasizing Diana, with no pointers from me!)

However, I then went back to the second-graders at Irvin Elementary and showed them all the films I had made at other schools. We also re-watched their own film, “All about butterflies.” They were really into all the films!

But when we watched “Handbook,” and then paused to talk about it afterwards, most of the kids raising their hands told me what they’d learned was: you shouldn’t care about clothes and make-up, you should care about the Earth.

And I got a little muddled and trying to help them distinguish between normal levels of interest in clothes versus complete asceticism versus complete hedonism was beyond me when faced with these lovely little upturned faces. So I didn’t have much more sense than to quickly nod my head and tell the kids they did such a good job for comprehending the lesson of the film. I’m going to try to be a bit more perceptive and careful next time!

animations with kids irvin
Not always the best at thinking on my feet!

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.