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.

 

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.

Can’t understand fifth-graders

I’m working with fifth-graders, and they are quite beyond my comprehension.

There was this girl called … well, let’s call her Anna. She’s a goofy girl. She spent the first class I was with them with her head down or in her arms the whole time nearly. Now she’s opened up a bit and she can’t go two seconds without whispering and giggling and making some sort of reaction to every thing I say as I stand before the class and teach. And how am I supposed to know if her reaction is in sympathy or in hostility? Her guffaws and giggles leave a lot of room for interpretation. Is she really bored? Is she testing my (non-existent) discipline? Does she like me and she felt comfortable enough to joke around, not realizing that doesn’t work when you’re trying to teach a whole group something (obviously, I hope for the latter.)

Except now she really doesn’t like me. This particular classroom has very bad lighting. The other schools I’ve been in must have way newer technology: even when all the overhead lights are on, the kids and I can see see my laptop screen, with Blender open on it, projected onto the SmartBoard with no difficulty. In this new school, even when all the lights are OFF, my screen of Blender on the SmartBoard nevertheless persists in being gray-tinted and dull. So we decided that instead of me teaching all 25 or so kids about animation basics at once, we instead would split the class up into two. I’d only teach about 10 at a time, and there would be enough room for them to sit on the carpet up close to the board to see. The other half of the class was to sit quietly (ahahahahahahahaha) in the back and build stuff with Legos until it was time to switch.

They were not quiet in the least, and I’m the sort of person who can’t really hear myself think if I’m trying to teach and there’s lots of distractions. I mean, it was really noisy. And me getting flustered, I kept getting messed up in my lesson and explaining things the wrong way. My 10 kids on the carpet before me, all of them too were whispering and giggling, and Anna was the worst. Or was she? She was the only black girl sitting up front. And she’s unfortunately really good at drawing attention to herself, and I spent the whole time wondering – is my perception even true, or is it just because she’s a black girl who won’t sit still that I’m singling her out as the worst? My lesson was going to the dogs, and I was exhausted trying to manage with all the noise in the background plus the fidgets right in front of me – yes, exhausted, I tell you, after 10 minutes! Plus, the room being all dark except for the glaring glow of the SmartBoard made me feel claustrophobic. Plus, I’m teaching them computer animation for crying out loud! Can’t they sit still for that?

Then Anna slung herself over. She actually just slung herself back on her elbows, but I reacted before that, during a split second when I actually thought she was going to lie down.

“Anna!” I said very sharply. “Sit up.”

She did not. I waited a second. I suspected that she was in that confused spot where she doesn’t want to be the “bad kid” but neither does she want to acquiesce and allow herself to be bossed around by me. So I kept moving with the lesson. She sat up as soon as I moved on. But you know, any hope I could have had of building trust with her or inspiring her into anything is probably over.

Shortly thereafter, so exhausted was I that I just plopped myself into a chair and declared I couldn’t go on. The kids looked both confused and nonchalant.

Today when I went back to teach the second class of fifth-graders, we did the whole class all at once. Ten kids sat on the carpet, the rest sat on the nearest chairs. I think most of them could see, after all. We got through the lesson. Still quite a lot of fidgets starting around 20 minutes in! But more manageable because there wasn’t all the background noise to distract us, I could hear myself think, and we had the whole class time, rather than just half of it, to do a thorough and proper lesson on using Blender.

Next week, I’ll go back and try to teach the first classroom, again. Whole group this time. I’m kind of nervous what happens with Anna.

Update: it was a great lesson! but Anna was absent!

The girl who turned her back

“I never met a child who didn’t like this project.” This is what I tell everyone when describing making science animations with kids.

Until last week, when this girl we’ll call Leah turned up with an attitude for her session with me. As we have been progressing quickly along, I was already at the stage where I sit with each student for about 15 minutes, sometimes more, and watch and prompt them as they animate their section of the movie on my laptop. I had taught them the animation lesson the week before, and yet … the very first student to have a go at it had been a little unsure; she seemed to have forgotten everything.

So it flashed upon me that why not, as one student is animating, have the student next-in-line to sit beside us and watch, so as to just help refresh how the Blender3D program works ahead of that next student’s turn. Because I really wasn’t looking forward to re-explaining and hand-holding to every single student.

One doing, the other watching
New configuration: One doing, the other watching!

I thought it was a great idea, but it hit an immediate snag. Flush with my decision, I looked at my list, and lo – the next student in order was Leah. “Leah! Come sit with us.”

Leah was engrossed in a computer game.

Called her again; asked her to hurry up (still being friendly). Leah actually starts complaining out-loud. That was my first sense of annoyance. Excuse me – I did not come all the way to your school to teach you 3D animation and make a movie with you, only for you to complain about it. Never happened before!

The teacher induces Leah to come over; Leah slams down on an spare chair. I tell her to get back up while I maneuver the chair into position just behind the kid who’s working in front of my laptop; this adjustment was apparently a big shock to Leah’s system. The teacher comes over and tries to console her. Leah now has a very hurt look on her face, and out sticks her lower lip as though she’s going to cry. She’s not even looking at the screen or paying attention when I glance back at her, so I give her a little prompt. This is another too-great shock to Leah’s system, and she heaves herself in her chair so as to turn her back towards me and the laptop and the other kid!

And at this point — at this point, a few years ago, and back when I was teaching in Philadelphia, I might have felt really sad and like I needed to sooth Leah and explain to her just what we’re doing and why it’s so cool and get her cooperation. But apparently, I am way different these days, because I lost my patience and ordered Leah back to her seat. I can’t believe my daring! I didn’t even really care. I was just like, whatever, girlfriend, you don’t want to be here, then don’t waste my time.

Instead, I called the next kid after Leah up and had him watch. And I skipped right over Leah’s section of the animation, and went on with all the other kids.

As soon as Leah was dismissed, she went back to her teacher, to complain again – not sure what about this time! All I caught was, “I was sitting there and she told me to go back…” And then as I flew through animating with student after student, Leah would sometimes come back and take a look at the screen. I ignored her. Then, after lunch, when I was back with her classroom, she comes up and says: “when’s it going to be my turn?” I told her flatly, “you already had your turn.” “No, I didn’t…”

Yesterday, I saw a tweet that said: we don’t have good attitudes every day. So why should we expect our students to have good attitudes every day?

Very true, very good point. But I don’t think Leah needs any coddling or any soothing from me. Can’t believe I was less than kind, understanding, forgiving, and soothing towards a kid but certainly had a better outcome in the change of her attitude than otherwise.

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!

Animations with kids – fifth graders

I’ve now started with Wolf Meadow Elementary. As with all the other schools, the teacher I”m partnering with is amazing, kind, and supportive.

The only difference is now I’m working with fifth graders. I have worked with ages up to age 21, but that was in mixed-age groups put together in a library or at the university. This is the first time I’m working with a classroom that’s not second or third grade. I was a little afraid older kids might have an attitude, might be rolling their eyes at the whole project. But these fifth graders have not. It’s really cool to be working with them, and they are doing such good work so far. Last week, we read our stories and talked about the science behind them. This week we are drawing. There definitely is a difference between fifth grade drawings and second grade!

Today, one of the fifth graders called out, “do you like Trump?” He was clearly a product of a very racist home, just the way he said it and his nerve in calling out. Mind you, about 75% of the class is either Hispanic or Black. So they all have to deal with him. I was a little sad to see that afterwards, one of the Hispanic girls went over to sit beside him as everyone was drawing, to keep him on task (this kid apparently acts up all the time). I feel bad that the Hispanic girl thinks this kid, who isn’t worth any of her, is something she has to put effort and care in it. We often don’t recognize the little ways and efforts that kids have worked out to try to keep harmony and consistency amongst their peers.

Any case, I didn’t answer that bratty kid – I also didn’t really go over to him and check his work. I feel super sorry for any teacher who doesn’t have that freedom. And I feel sure that any racist person reading this will also want me and my volunteer program out of the schools. They will never understand – don’t care to understand – what kind of panic someone like Trump causes. I’ve read articles on and off since the 2015 campaign about teachers having to deal with kids who wear ‘Trump’ t-shirts, or kids who said nasty things. Imagine having to teach and care for a child who is spouting rhetoric whose end goal is ethnic cleansing, genocide, and death. I am sure I could not have handled that as a teacher. You’re already being yelled at, being snapped at, being mocked at as a natural thing by your students. Now you have to listen to racism and attacks on your life, and act like you don’t care and it doesn’t bother you and doesn’t frighten you?

At Irvin Elementary, in the hallway, the kids had hung up drawings of their heroes. Trump was among them. It’s so scary.

I believe that my 15-year-old self would idealistically have told me: I have a chance to show the little “do you like Trump”-er that racism and hate isn’t a path he has to follow! That I can model for him a different way! I can show him someone like me belongs in America! And that as a moral person, I should care about ALL children, even little racists. I can change his life!

But you know what? Me right now doesn’t really have the energy to do that. I really don’t. I don’t care about the little racist enough to want to change him. I think back to the day after the 2016 election, when we were all told that if we are just nice to the “economically distressed” folks out there, then they won’t want to kill us after all. Your perspective on things really changes when recalling things like that.