Western Avenue Community Center

Group & individual projects: Six 10 - 12 year old participants.
Duration: 1 1/2 hour weekly sessions for 7 months.
Location: Western Avenue Community Center, Bloomington, IL.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION:

Between October of 2016 and May of 2017, I facilitated a weekly series of animation workshops at Western Avenue Community Center’s after-school program in Bloomington, IL.

In this project, I worked with a group of six 10 to 12-year-olds; two boys, four girls; two African-American, four second generation Hispanic students. While they all spoke fluent English, the four Hispanic students also spoke fluent Spanish. We met for an hour and a half long animation sessions, where the students worked independently and in groups on stop-motion animations, which would later be uploaded to YouTube and discussed. Each session consisted of cognitive, social, and emotional elements, respectively assigned to watching and learning, creating, and discussing the final product—animation.

LOCATION and SETTING:

Western Avenue Community Center (WACC) is a non-for-profit community program in Bloomington, IL, yearly supporting more than 1000 families in the community. Since 1920s, WACC serves the role of a social service organization and the hub for the community, working with people of all ages. The services include: after school programs for “at risk children” in grades K-5; youth sports, developmental, and summer programs for older kids; senior programs that promote active lifestyles, learning new skills, and socializing; Hispanic Outreach Programs providing interpretation services, English language classes, legal help, counseling services, and general advocacy for the Hispanic population. The after-school program focuses mainly on support in reaching academic goals, providing positive social and emotional mentoring, and facilitating various enrichment activities. Regular daily activities include reading time, homework time, and recreation time. The special enrichment activities--animation workshop, martial arts, or music lessons--are offered to interested children on scheduled basis.

STORY:

  1. Self-Portrait
  2. Hero Journey
  3. Cinco de Mayo
  4. Self-Portrait 2

FINDINGS and ANALYSIS

Play and control correlation quickly emerged as an important aspect of animation. In all of my conversations with the workshop participants, when asked why they like animating, all of my interviewees stated that it is “fun”. Though I can attest to that, it usually is not the first descriptor I use. Perhaps I expected time consuming, rewarding, magical, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear my young students refer to it as “fun”. “What is it that makes it fun?”, was usually my next question, and again, the consistency of the answers surprised me. Some of them said that they enjoy inventing their own characters and backgrounds without the fear of being judged; the feeling of being their own boss. They enjoyed being able to control time—making characters and objects move at different speeds and being in charge of their own created worlds. Experimenting with different mediums and different techniques of animating allowed them room for playfulness and therefore, learning without the pressure or fear of failure. It legitimized their visions, talents, and knowledge because the sense of control was never in my hands; always in theirs. In our society—in schools, after school programs, and family homes—kids do not usually have a lot of power. Giving the kids options up front can be new and exciting for them because they are rarely in control of what they do what they wear, who they play with, and so on. The control I recognize they have in creating animations—from coming up with the story, to designing and creating their animated characters and worlds—is one of the most important building blocks of mutual trust, which in turn, leads to creating fruitful and beneficial learning environment. On the other hand, a greater sense of responsibility the students have results in heightened sense of ownership and care they put into their projects. Lisa Barton, the program director, who sees the students on daily bases observed that on the day of the animation workshop they were excited, unusually eager to come into the classroom, and talkative; which, if you deal with 4th to 6th graders, you know it is a great achievement for an educator. She explained that for most of them it is one of not many environments where they are entrusted to make their own decisions, rely on their instincts while experimenting, and are being pushed to be playful and spontaneous.

The notion of play and control was initially brought to my attention by Lisa LaBracio, an animator for TED Talk and an animation workshop facilitator, who utilizes therapeutic aspects of animation within art education contexts. She taught animation at an orphanage in Tanzania; as a visiting teaching artist at FilmAid International, she has organized and conducted animation workshops at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya; and has been teaching art and animation at a number of New York’s nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping homeless youth. She has become a huge influence on my research and graciously shared her experiences during our numerous interviews. While working with underrepresented and often underserved communities I questioned my role as an animation educator, while believing in therapeutic qualities of animation that could potentially benefit them. One of the main questions posed to Lisa LaBracio, who herself faced similar challenges, was: How do you justify teaching animation, which could be perceived as a privileged medium, to people, whose basic needs of food and shelter are not met; who—in case of the refugees in Dadaab—often lost everything due to traumatic and unimaginable events. Lisa responded by quoting a part of the poem by Ojullu Ochan, one of the refugee participants with whom she had worked. Ojullu created an animation about the experience he had during the workshops and Lisa herself: “She captured the mind of hungry children. The hungry children forget about their hunger [...]” Lisa LaBracio explained that going into the camp, she had many expectations of deep conversations, participants sharing and documenting their moving experiences, and creating metaphorical animations about important and difficult subject matters, but at this point she realized that she is “just a distraction...and that’s okay too.” She understood, that play at the camp is not a regular occurrence. One could say that play, just as any other non-necessity is considered a privilege. “It's okay if this is just play, because play isn't a thing in a refugee camp. It's okay to be just a distraction and once you get past that, that can be your purpose at that moment. And that’s enough.” That was also my realization while teaching at WACC.

Based on my prior animation workshop facilitation experiences, I knew the more control I gave my students, the more productive and enjoyable their learning experience will be. I remember my very first animation workshop, that I taught in a museum setting to a group of 5 to 10-year-olds. I came up with a plan for a great stop-motion animation, that included portals in time—appearing and disappearing, going through solid objects, moving in crazy unexpected ways—and included a tub full of costumes for the kids to dress up as they wish. Unfortunately for me, the tub and dressing up turned out to be the most fun and memorable part of the workshop. I still remember students’ miserable faces, when I tried directing them through every single part of animation that I came up with, forgetting how long and exhausting the process itself can be without feeling personally invested in it. Being able to pick out their own costumes, was the only part they were in control of; they were able to be themselves, to have fun, to be as silly and playful as the strange costume combinations allowed them. The passion for animating comes from making your own choices—from coming up with the original idea, through technical solutions that will later read as magic on the screen, and you’re the only holder of secrets, to character and background design, which will further provide you a sense of ownership. In case of this unfortunate group, I only gave them the latter-the tub full of costumes. Of course, they loved the end result-the animation itself, but they hated the process and I am almost certain that instead of instilling passion for animation in any of them, I most likely deterred them from this medium. Needless to say, progressively, with every single workshop, I learned to rid myself of control and expectations for specific results. I slowly understood the power of play and control in education.

‘Play’, as an activity and ‘playful’, as a descriptor of an experience, are often dismissed in educational or professional settings. We are systematically conditioned to understand anything educational as serious and lacking spontaneity. “There is time for work and time for play”, the popular saying underlies the important dichotomy of separation between production and consumption—a good old order of things: in order to play hard, you must work hard! Play is considered a reward for a job well done—never an intersecting and important parallel to it. We must usually choose between work and play and through that choose our priorities. Marian Liebman (1984) suggests that words ‘game’ and ‘play’ allude to frivolous activity; something that will undermine any and all attempts of serious and meaningful work. That very traditional understanding of the relationship between work and play often disables educators from incorporating playful activities in their lessons, regardless of their effectiveness.

Yet, there is plenty of research proving the benefits of incorporating play in learning. According to Peter Gray (2011), through play, children develop essential skillsets, learn to problem-solve and come up with solutions, exercise their sense of control, learn about the rules and their application, learn to self-regulate their emotions, make friends and learn about relationships, and experience joy. Play removes the strict seriousness of an expected outcome and allows for children to try out different possibilities and produce different outcomes. “It is a major way in which they learn about themselves, others, and the outside world” (Lavine, 1998, p. 267), which is especially important for recent immigrants, for whom the seriousness of their new reality can be overwhelming. The weight of assimilating to a new culture, language, and social norms can be easily lifted. With the set of rules that need to be followed or broken, all of the involved players learn about the boundaries of the game, their involvement in it, and forming relationships amongst each other. By respecting the structures of the game or mutual agreement of changing those structures, the players allow each other to enter each other’s worlds, while mastering the game. Playing with someone means experiencing a relationship with someone, who is “willing to enter a specific play-space” with us in a particular moment. It normally involves immersion in the present actions and feelings and though it is not a total recreation of one’s reality, it draws on one’s experiences (Lavine, 258).

Although, playing games is normally an activity reserved for children, the lucky adults, who are allowed to participate, connect with said children on a different level. When those adults are also the teachers, the privilege of trust given by the students opens new teaching opportunities. According to Laurie Hicks, when we play together, “we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence” (Hicks, 2004, p. 296). The preexisting power structures between a teacher and a student are diminished and all involved are bound by the same rules of the game. Teaching and learning happen simultaneously, when all involved are willing to participate and enjoy the surprising outcomes. Playfulness requires flexibility from both students and teachers. As I rid myself of any preexisting notions of consequences and hopes for a finished product, my goal becomes to provide my students with an environment and an attitude that cultivates play and all benefits that come with it. It is also to understand the coexistence of playfulness and seriousness in the classroom, since both perpetuate each other and cannot be sustained separately.   

Seriousness as a condition of finite play sets the stage for later bouts of playfulness. And playfulness is the proper response to a seriousness that undermines play, blocks inquiry, and turns defensive in the face of anomalies and problems. Without both, neither art nor art education could sustain themselves. (Hicks, 2004, p. 296)