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.

 

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?

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 the room is lit, the kids and I can see see my laptop, 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, only for you to complain about it. Never happened before!

The teacher induces Leah to come over; Leah slams down on an extra chair. I tell her to get back up while I maneuver it 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.

Animations with kids – my little readers

I have to take aside every student, one by one, and record with them. They read out-loud their little slip of paper on which is printed the words for their page of our animated story while I record (I just use the ‘Voice’ program that came installed on my laptop, is that lame? But it works pretty well.)

When I record, I don’t know if the kid is going to be a glib, fluent reader who polishes it right off, or is going to halt and stumble between every word. I can’t deny that when I get one of the halters, there’s a voice inside me saying, ‘Heaven grant me patience’. But one thing that I do love so much about this ‘Animations with Kids’ program is … I have time to give the kids. I’m not the teacher, I’m not following a curriculum, and aside from my other obligations, I don’t necessarily have a strict deadline. So when I get a kid who’s not yet such a good reader, we can spend the time together to let the kid practice. They can take the time to sound out words. I don’t really have to hurry or rush them – I don’t even have to swoop in and read out the word in exasperation if they don’t get it right away. We can sit in silence for 30 seconds while they take the time to think it out in their heads. They can practice the sentence as much as they want, and then, we can record it a couple of times. We listen back to the recordings – the kids always like that. Sometimes adding: I can’t believe that’s what my voice sounds like! I think they all feel special and important that they are getting recorded.

I’ve observed a lot of various speech defects. Some kids can’t say ‘s’, which is in fact a little tricky for the rest of us to understand! They’re not lisping – they don’t replace ‘s’ with ‘th’. They just knock it off the word altogether.

Some kids don’t say ‘r’. That’s always kind of cute. I had a girl who just mumbled. With her, extra practice didn’t seem to help. She seemed to mumble more and more when I recorded again. Oh well.

Sometimes when we record again, the kid, gaining confidence, will give a smoother rendition that removes some of the stumbles and pauses between each word. Sometimes not, though; or sometimes the kid doesn’t want to record again. Then I’m stuck in the video editor having to cut out all the pauses. Yes, that gets old.

Another fun part is getting the kids to read with expression. When the kid gets into the spirit of things, it sounds really cool! I’m excited for the animations at McAllister to get done, because there were some very expressive kids there.

Today, I recorded with the last of the McAllister kids – mostly the ones who had been absent or I’d just not gotten to last week. One of them is a new kid. He moved in after we started the project, so he hasn’t even made his drawing yet. I tried to get him up to speed last week. He was the last kid I pulled. I sat him down in the bright little office inside the library where I was recording. It was almost the end of the school day, we had about 4 minutes. Also, he looked sullen and like he’s been crying. His teacher had ordered him, “get it together!” as we slipped out the classroom. And it became evident very quickly that this kid has some major speech impediments and was also not the best reader. So I told him: don’t worry, we don’t have time right now, but I’ll get to you next week.

Next week was today. And it went really well with him, after all. I hadn’t been sure that it would, but he turned out to be a very dogged kid who wanted to practice again and again. He made the funniest faces when he messed up. He gave me the funniest sly looks when he wanted me to prompt him with a tricky word in a whisper in the middle of his recording. And his speech impediment wasn’t so bad after all once he’d practiced. He’s another one who doesn’t say ‘s’ at all when it’s at the beginning of a word. But he does say it if it comes at the end of the word. And when we listened back to his recordings, and he heard himself say ‘tart’ instead of ‘start’, he would notice and grimace and say: oh! why do I keep saying it like that?! It was very interesting to see to what extent he was aware.

He was really proud of having read his long sentence with some very long words in it, and marched up to the librarian and wanted to show off to him. And this is the kid who’d been crying the first time I tried to record with him, and apparently also burst into tears during a library session yesterday.

 

New school project

Not too long ago, I grumbled on here about how no teacher wanted me to come to their class and do a free project with them. I am adept at grumbling, so why hold back if you’re good at something? And besides, I can’t just write about when I’m full of hopes and everything is working out.

Not too many days after I wrote that post, I got some good news. First, the teacher I wrote was a “maybe” for hosting me became a “yes”! I met her, and she was really nice, and I explained the whole project to her, and she loved it! She’s a second grade teacher, here:

IMG_20181005_164634 edit

It’s a school literally in the middle of nowhere, North Carolina. I drive there (no public transportation in these parts) from the middle of nowhere, North Carolina, so we are all in good company. The road by this school is “Irish Potato Road”, if that helps picture the setting.

I’m really really happy. I can’t wait to see some little kiddies and listen to the strange and wonderful things they have to say about their understanding of the world.

When I met with the teacher, she filled me in on her side of things: she can’t just say yes to projects right away, she has to check with the principal. And even though this project is chock-full of reading, computers, math, creativity, we still have to be very clear about how it’s aligning with the second-grade curriculum. The science topic we choose for the story can’t just be any science topic, it has to align with the 5 approved science units in the North Carolina second grade curriculum.

We talked about that, and I think we came up with a really good topic – something that local scientists have been dealing with, so hopefully we’ll be able to invite some of them as guest speakers, too!

I did learn a lesson: the silence I received from many of the teachers to my email queries maybe weren’t because they didn’t like the project, maybe it was just too difficult for them to see how it would fit in? Maybe they’re too busy to deal with something like this. I don’t know.

A second teacher at a different school had also emailed back, interested, but she needed to “check with the administration”. I expected never to hear again, but she did get back to me after all, and her administration cleared it. I’m going to work with all three second grade classes at that school. We originally said we’d start in January, but I hope we’re going to be able to push it up to November, instead.

And a third teacher at a third school emailed back, and she said I could work with all five fifth grade classes! But when I emailed her back to set up a time to meet, I never heard again. So that one I am still working on.

But this very exciting! And I know I wrote recently too about how much I hate writing grants. I need those grants to pay for the laptop to be used with all these kids making animations, and it would also be nice to get money to pay for my transportation to all these schools, and, you know – I’m not working or anything, so it would be nice to receive some money for my time working with all these classes. Well, I maybe am going to have some good news from that corner, as well. I’ve had good news, and bad news, as far as submitting grants go, and the bad news was all definite and very heart-breaking, and the good news was all tentative. So I won’t say anything more until things have solidified. But if things do solidify, I am going to parachute into the sky with glee!!