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

Animating with kids: the home stretch

I am finished animating with all the kids I’m suppose to animate with, for now. I can’t believe it.

And something so nice happened on my very last day. I was back at Wolf Meadow. Let me back up … there’s no good ending as far as Anna goes, unfortunately¬† …¬† I just never animated with her.

But, on that last day, I finally got to animate with Leah. She did a great job, and as she finished up, she chanced to see my desktop wallpaper as I was flipping between programs. The picture is one of me and the baby that the neighbors next-door had in Chapel Hill. “Is that your son?” Leah asked.

No, I told her, it was just my neighbors, and then I thought I’d show her some more pictures of them, and as luck would have it, as I searched through my pictures I happened right upon the folder wherein I have an album of the times I took those same neighboring kids on tours of the University in Chapel Hill. I had like 80 photos – of the Old Well, of the funny chairs they’d placed outside the Campus Y, looking out the top floor of Davis Library; when we ate at Alpine Bagel, when one of the girls posed with the photo of Malala in the Union, when we went to the big Science Day they have every April and we took pictures with butterflies and brains and took a swing through the MakerSpace in Murray. Ah, I’m feeling nostalgic!

Then I asked Leah, so what do you want to do when you grow up? and she told me, and then I asked if she’d thought college, and then I blabbed out any encouraging words that came to mind (but I don’t think I came up with anything other than the trite, hackneyed things to say) and that was that. But what a nice ending for me and Leah after we started with ignomy!

Me and Anne Shirley teaching: Animations with Kids

I just finished re-reading Anne of Avonlea (the sequel to Anne of Green Gables.) In that book, Anne is sixteen-and-a-half years old and starts teaching, and of course, she becomes the best teacher the kids ever had.

I always liked reading this book. I loved reading about Anne as a teacher. Except this time when I read it, I realized how little it actually focuses on the teaching itself. Most of it is about everything else going on in Anne’s life.

But as far as the teaching parts go – it was good for me to re-read about that, because it is imbued with Anne’s philosophies as far as teaching go. And her philosophy is to be very kind and inspiring.

If you’ve been reading about my challenges as I run my “Science Animations with Kids” program, then you will know that no matter how inspiring I try to be, I still don’t always reach the kids. My foundational philosophy with this program is that all kids love to be creative; and all kids especially love Disney films and animated films. And if they are given a chance to make a computer animated film about science, then they will learn the value of teamwork, computers, taking care of the earth, reading, creativity, and science careers all at once. I mean, how can you get more inspirational than that?!

And yet, I had second-graders laughing at the work other second-graders did; and I had the girl Anna who I snapped at when she leaned back; and I had the other girl, Leah, who just up and turned her back and nearly started to cry when it was her turn. Those have been some rough moments.

Reading about Anne’s philosophy of kindness, I realized that I just not the kind of person who can live up to that. I am not patient enough, I’m not tactful enough, not soothing enough. When I get the attitudes of different kids flung in my face, my instinct is not always to try to “understand” and be gentle and mothering; rather, I want to fling their attitude back in their face.

I had a pretty bad day with the fifth-graders at Wolf Meadow two weeks ago. When I walked into the class, Anna – who I sadly correctly predicted I had lost the trust and respect of – gave one glance my way and immediately ripped out a groan: oh, she’s here again?

That’s a nice entrance to have when you’re volunteering, of course. The teacher told her right away: Anna! That was very rude. Apologize!

I honestly don’t know whether Anna apologized or not. I am sometimes slow to take in what is happening. I might not even have noticed what Anna said had not the teacher commented on it, or realized that Anna’s outburst was directed towards me. But as soon as my brain caught up, I simply decided I didn’t want Anna’s apology; I just didn’t want to work with Anna at all.

During that same class period, I managed to work with 3 kids in total; that’s pretty slow progress. It wasn’t because the kids were being slow, they were just being careful. But the slow progress was starting to frustrate me nevertheless, plus at this school I don’t have the luxury of having hours of time allotted when I can pull kids to animate with; all the time is kind of on a strict diet, if you will. The last kid I worked with that day, “Evan”, ended by making me really mad. After he was done animating, he told me: because I animated with you, now I won’t have time to build me connect-a-Lego! (some sort of construction building-block game.) I thought to myself: hello! This might be the only time in your life that you get to make a computer animation, and you’re complaining that you didn’t get to build your connect-a-Lego that you can access in class any old day? That’s gratitude for you! Out-loud I just told him curtly: then you should have told me from the start you didn’t want to do this, and I could have gotten another kid to animate your page.

Evan stayed still for a while as he wrapped his brain around this thought; and I did feel a little bit bad! I remember being his age, and feeling like when a grown-up told you to do something, not realizing that you have an option to say ‘no’; because so often you actually don’t have an option to refuse. How was Evan to know that he could have refused me?

He then bounded off to play with connect-a-Lego; but class ended shortly thereafter. As the kids filed out for lunch, someone called out, Evan’s crying. And indeed he was; he was squatting on the floor, over his beloved Connect-a-Lego, crying his heart out because class was over and he had to put everything away. “But I was almost done!” he wailed. His teacher, who has a heart of gold, tried to sooth him. But I did not! I did not feel bad or sorry for him; I felt mad. Like what am I doing with this project if Evan’s going to cry about it, and Anna’s going to groan?

I went home that day to an email inbox full of job rejections; oh, I was in a state, let me tell you!

The next day, I yelled at some people and felt better. I went back to Wolf Meadow, and luckily, no kid started crying when they had to animate with me.

The next week, when I was back at Wolf Meadow again, Evan came up to talk to me, all normal. I guess he has forgiven me for stealing his connect-a-Lego time. And I hope he will enjoy watching his part of the animated film when it’s all over. Anna is apparently a lost cause for me. But something surprising happened with the other girl with whom I’d had a hard time, Leah.

Ever since she’d gotten into a huff with me, she’s been hanging around when I animate with other kids. She’ll throw glances my way. Last Friday, a girl called “Miya” – who maybe is friends with Leah – did a very cool thing. She got the scientist in the program to walk across the screen. Miya did a great job, so I was squealing in praise of her. Leah showed up next to us! “Is that fun?” she asked in a very kind and very humble way to Miya. I pretended not to notice. Miya kept on making the scientist walk, and by the time she was done, we had a little audience behind us. Everyone was clapping Miya on. This is, by the way, one of the moments that does make me feel good about this program; because I don’t think Miya is someone who gets a lot of praise for accomplishments on the regular. But now she was having this special moment.

Suddenly, who should sidle up next to me but Leah? She dropped onto her knees so her head was level with mine (I was seated) and she said: Dr. Mejs, I’m sorry I was rude the other day.

And just like that, we made up. We talked a bit, and shook hands, and I can’t wait to animate with her now!

The teacher saw our interaction, and after the class had left for lunch, she asked: “so you’re good now with Leah?”

“Yep!” I answered. “She apologized.”

“What?!” The teacher was very surprised, which in turn made me surprised.

“I thought you’d told her to apologize,” I said.

“Not me! When she walked into class today, Leah told me, ‘I still haven’t animated my page. And I don’t want to, either!'”

You’ve got to love the defiance! I’m glad she changed her mind, and I think it speaks volumes that she apologized off her own bat, without any prompting. It was a good ending to this particular episode. So I’m not at Anne Shirley-levels of greatness in teaching; but I hope that I am doing more good than harm.

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.

Is Mary Poppins anti-science?

I guess a lady who floats down from the sky on an umbrella would, on first glance and by a lazy observer, have to be classified as anti-science. I guess?!

I saw the movie this weekend, and I loved it. But some comments made me pause, just for a bit. There was a repetition by many characters that “logic” and “practicality” and “sensibility” are boring and rather than being the foundations by which we live organized lives, they are impediments to achieving our dreams; barriers to saving ourselves and our families.

It was exactly those kinds of movies, and those kinds of books, that spoke to me when I was little. I didn’t want to be bogged down by boring, flat, and colorless logic (i.e. science). Of course, I would rather have an imagination and lead a life rich with fancy and humor and glimmers of magic.

But now that I have a Ph.D. in science, I sense there’s something lazy and wrong about these depictions. Yes, science is logical, but goodness, for something that’s so logical, there’s still an awful lot of creativity and imagination in it. Magic, too. Coding, for just one example, is pretty magical.

We need to find a way to teach science to kids so it’s as exciting as Mary Poppins’ huge dreams and schemes and talking cane. All those kids who think they are artistic and creative and want to dream and write and imagine need to understand that there’s room for all that in science, too.

And we need those kids in science, for our own sake, as much as we need the kids who love calculations and rules and gadgets and wear NASA shirts!