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:

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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!

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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.

The unestimable sweetness of fifth graders

Yes, I said once that ‘I don’t understand’ fifth-graders. 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.

It came time to vote on the ideas … and I was worried those contributions with 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.

Without any prompting from me, I ended up with a string of blue houses capped by black roofs in the “Grass is not trash” background pictures. I didn’t even know it was happening at the time, but the kids must have put their heads together to ensure continuity in their individual drawings.

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 title, which I’d already started writing; maybe they’re not so sweet after all!

And I guess above all, I tried to banish any thought of: all the effort you put 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”; they might call it 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 gets sick”, 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!