Recycle Robot League Takes Over Local Kindergarten Class

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The Collector-Bot reports to class.

After a winter in hibernation, the Recycle Robots have returned, just in time for Earth Day.

When Eileen Kelly, a kindergarten teacher at nearby Archway Trivium Academy, called to ask if I’d help her students make recycle robots, I happily agreed. I built a Collector-Bot, which the children spent the next week feeding with recyclables they brought daily from home–cardboard tubes, yogurt containers, lids, cracker boxes, water bottles, vinegar bottles–anything that could fit in its mouth.

I watched while Mrs. Kelly demonstrated what happened when she dropped a bottle cap in its mouth (the bottle cap dropped into the see-through “stomach”, whose latched door we then opened to retrieve it). The “oohs” and “aahs” would have made you think she’d made the Statue of Liberty vanish and reappear right there in the classroom. She did the same thing with a yogurt cup, and got the same reaction. She did the same thing with a paper towel tube, and got the same reaction. I knew we had a hit on our hands.

This week, I returned to the classroom to help the kids build their own robots fr1-2014 April and March 217om the loot they’d fed the Collector-Bot. And what a pile it was. Thirty-odd five- and six-year-olds sat in a big circle, taking turns picking out robot parts: bodies, heads, legs, and extra bits and pieces that caught their eye. It looked to me like they were just reveling in the opportunity to play with trash. But each one chose main body parts with great thought, and it was fabulous to see their imaginations at work as they visualized the bot they would create.

Then Mrs. Kelly and I armed ourselves with hot glue guns, and construction began. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the kids at work, which is a shame, because the enthusiasm was inspiring. But I did have a chance to scribble a quote midway through. Watching me tear a scrap of tin foil from the lip of a yogurt drink container she’d chosen as her robot’s legs, one student thoughtfully said, “I have a story about that gray stuff. One time my dad left some of that gray stuff on some butter that he heated up in the microwave. It caught on fire. It was AWESOME.”

Fortunately, none of the robots caught on fire, but every single one was awesome, from the six-legged robo-deer to the Mountain Dew Monster with munching jaws; from the red-headed milk-jug robo-dog to the graceful, long-necked Minute-Maid with a turning head; from the Q-tip Crusader to the Capri-Sun Creature with the smiling mouth that opens and closes.

The kids will take them home–along with, maybe, a new way of looking at what most of us consider trash, a feeling of power that they can create fun in unexpected ways, and a realization that they can help shape their world.

My favorite moment of the afternoon came near the end when a shy, quiet boy considered his finished creation of toilet paper tubes and Chobani containers, and said to me, in a tone of deep surprise, “I didn’t think mine could turn out so cool.”

Recycle Robot League: Mission accomplished.

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Meet the Recycle Robots!

Meet Omega-3, Heinz, and Joebot. (copyright Betsy Andrews Etchart)

The pioneers: Omega-3, Heinz, and Joebot. (copyright Betsy Andrews Etchart)

Once upon a time, sometime in August, I made three friends.

It was not long after Mbot’s fifth birthday. It seemed all the toys he’d received at his party were breaking because they had outlived their unwritten life-expectancy of three weeks, or collecting dust, because they’d entered the boring zone.

The idea of robots originated with Mbot’s very first show-and-tell, over two years ago.

Heinz door open

On the eve of his first show-and-tell, we (I use the term very loosely) made a recycle robot for his first preschool show-and-tell–not because we were trying to be clever, but because we were panicky and desperate (again, the term “we” used loosely). I documented that event in my post, Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus. Ever since, I secretly wanted to make more.

So I’d been piling recyclables in the garage–not all of them of course, but the choice items with interesting shapes or moving parts (cardboard tubes, ketchup bottles, wipies lids), in preparation for a recycle party that we hadn’t had. I envisioned inviting over some of the bots’ friends and making cool stuff out of all the cool stuff that other people thought were trash.

We have yet to have our recycle party, but I started partying with recyclables by myself. While During the seven weeks that I was going through radiation, I promised myself that I wouldn’t push myself too hard. I wouldn’t try to make headway on any of my writing projects. I would be kind to myself. I would have fun. I decided it was time to get out the pile o’ trash. I made these three dudes as toys for the weebots. They’re all about twenty inches tall (antennae not included) and have swiveling heads, moving arms, grasping hands, and secret compartments. I avoided using brads or any metal parts, for safety reasons.

What I didn’t know before I made the recycle robots is that they would turn out to be the perfect toys. Why?

1. They are cheap. They are made out of garbage!

2. When they break, I can fix them myself, because I made them in the first place!

3. When the bots get bored with them, I can change them! They will seem new again!

4. They can serve as friends, targets for Tae Kwon Do kicks, storage containers for other toys, or piggy banks. And it’s always nice to have a friend who’s also a piggy bank.

6. They can double as décor by adding a test tube filled with water and a flower.

Heinz 2

Wouldn’t you love to have him holding out a flower to you all day? (No test tube in this picture; I added it later.)

7. They have turned my own weebots into lean, green, recycle machines; their favorite craft now is collecting junk, gluing it together, and adding eyes. They can, literally, make their own friends.

Fresh off his shift as a sparring partner, Joebot becomes a handy Lego container.

Fresh off his shift as a sparring partner, Joebot becomes a handy Lego container. (At far left, Mbot’s speedboat, complete with a hatch that opens into a raisin box filled with ninjas that look a lot like wine corks.)

My friend Solveig, who’s been around since the failed Scotch sewing machine days, dubbed the robots–and we who make them–the Recycle Robot League.

Thanks to St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival–where, after three weeks of collecting recyclables, the children built their own recycle robots–there are now nearly fifty members!

It is very cool to have a hungry robot bigger than yourself greet you at school!

It is very cool to have a hungry robot bigger than yourself greet you at school!

Next week, I’ll post pictures of the kids’ robonderful creations. Toilet paper tubes have never had such a shiny future.

RRL Montessori Fall Fest 11When a friend asked for step-by-step instructions so she could make them with her eight-year-old homeschooled twins, I sat down to write them, and at her prompting, made them downloadable on Etsy.com  for $.99. The process that actually made the robots better, because I wanted to make sure to include tips on how to reinforce their bods to make them as durable as possible. Because while it’s great to be able to whip out a glue gun for a quick fix, it’s even better not to have to!

He Breathed a Song Into His Bear

I shot a rocket into the air...

I shot a rocket into the air….

Several weeks ago, Mbot, in the backseat, said, apropos of nothing:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost.

Whose woods these are, I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake,

The darkest  evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake,

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The snow is lovely, soft, and deep,

But I’ve got promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep

Before I could fill the car with astonished applause, Mbot added, “I wonder why he has to go to sleep twice?”

Apparently, Mbot’s class had learned the poem in preparation for St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival. This was the first I’d heard of it. I knew they’d been learning songs–Gbot spontaneously throughout the day would lift his voice to sing that the autumn leaves were falling, falling, and (crouching down, hands at his feet) touching…the…ground. But Robert Frost?

The fascinating thing about the spontaneous recitation was the the expressiveness with which Mbot spoke–it wasn’t like he was reciting it by rote as much as telling me with great enthusiasm about what he did last night (in extremely articulate rhyming iambic pentameter). He owned that poem! And obviously enjoyed the tumble of it from his tongue.

It reminded me of the first time I can remembering hearing classical music (although I’m sure I’d heard it before)–in a gray-linoleumed, fluorescent-lit music room where my third grade class filed once a week to sing simple songs very badly. The music teacher lowered a record’s needle onto a vinyl disk, and the first notes of “Morning Song,” at the beginning of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite were breathed into my consciousness. I didn’t know what it was. I remember sitting in my metal folding chair as the music described the rising sun, transfixed with joy–I had never even imagined that anything that beautiful that could exist. I went home and asked my mom if it would be possible to actually buy it. Soon afterward, this appeared in our living room:

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I couldn’t care less about the Nutcracker. But I listened to the B-side of that record as often as my mother would agree to load it onto the turntable of my dad’s treasured hi-fi stereo, whose amplifiers he had built by hand (and whose vacuum tubes periodically self-destructed in a dramatic cloud of smoke that filled the house with the smell of freshly charred wiring).

Partly because of the vividness of that memory, I’ve never believed in dumbing down language or music for children. Sure, we read picture books by the shelf-foot, and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But I also read to the bots whatever they’ll sit still for–parts of articles from National Geographic or the New Yorker (Ian Frazier’s adventures in northern Russia, for some reason, particularly captured Mbot’s interest), and I intersperse what is now the Bot’s fave music–“beat music” (any popular dance song, whose lyrics they argue over, both of them wrong), with large doses of classical, and not the Little Einstein version, either. Once in a while they complain about it (Mbot: “I will NOT thank whoever wrote THIS music”), but not often. Who knows what the bots get out of all these grown-up forms of artistic expression? But if they’re ready to get something, it’ll be there for them to get, and they’ll get it.

The Fall Festival was just over two weeks ago. Mbot and the other kindergartners recited Robert Frost, almost incoherently–it was much better performed solo in the back of the car; Gbot performed his extremely brief song about falling leaves while waving a gauzy scarf in autumnal colors, and the elementary class recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Arrow and the Song”:

I shot an arrow into the air

It fell to earth, I know not where,

For, so swiftly it flew, the sight

Could not follow it in its flight.

 

I breathed a song into the air,

It fell to earth, I know not where;

For who has sight so keen and strong,

That it can follow the flight of song?

 

Long, long afterward, in an oak,

I found the arrow, still unbroke;

And the song, from beginning to end,

I found again in the heart of a friend.

Since the Festival, Gbot has been reciting bits and pieces of this poem, out of the blue. I provide the words when he can’t remember, but generally, he just seems to be enjoying saying a couple of lines at a time; his favorite combo goes straight from breathing a song into the air to finding it again in the heart of a friend.

Since Junebug has died, we’ve been talking about her almost every day; we’ve been talking about death lately, too, because the antique cat–after nearly eighteen years, having beaten diabetes but unable to conquer renal failure–is finally sneaking up on the end of his ninth life. Needless to say, there are way more questions in the house these days than answers for them.

Yesterday afternoon, I happened to say to Gbot at breakfast something like, “Goodness, your cereal just disappeared.”

At which point there was a brief pause before Gbot responded, “And June disappeared.”

“Yes,” I said.

There was another pause, and Gbot replied, “And you know not where.”

Gbot’s use of the poem’s antiquated syntax made me think that he was making a connection to the song breathed into the air, and its trajectory. It reminded me of the power of poetry–not only to create beauty in the presence of grief, but to connect seemingly disparate facts, objects, memories, experiences–and build a harmony of them filled with subtle and complex understanding.

Even as tears sprang to my eyes, I had to stifle a giggle. I thought for a moment. “Into the hearts of her friends,” I said. Then we went out and rode bikes.

Friends.

Friends.

This Cat Will Never Go to San Diego,

I should not have been surprised, as this is what happened when we painted pony statuettes.

I should not have been surprised, as this is what happened when we painted pony statuettes. Fortunately, the antique cat was out of range that day.

and not because he’s dead. The antique cat is alive and not long ago,smelled like a coconut. Along with the smell was the visual effect: he looked like he’d lost a sun lotion squirting fight. Of course he lost. He doesn’t have thumbs. It’s the price he paid for my sleeping in (6:30).

Gbot did not sleep in.

Gbot, although he insists loudly that he’s fourteen, is three.

And I’d left the Hawaiian Tropic SPF 30 sunblock in the swimming bag, and I’d left the swimming bag within fifty inches of the floor.

I did not take a picture, to preserve the dignity of the victimized party. Also to preserve the upholstery, pillows, and antique quilts. Because the antique cat was getting ready to curl up on all three, threatening to transfer the great white globs that were slathered from withers to hips onto anything that moves slower than he does.

A few minutes in the shower with the baby shampoo did the trick and the antique cat emerged clean, albeit nonplussed, and smelling like babies instead of beaches.

The sound of the shower awoke Mbot. “Mom, why’s Tesserpiglet so wet?” he asked.

I explained that Gbot had smeared sun lotion on him, and that we do not do that to animals. “Why?” asked Mbot. “Why did he do it?”

“I think to be funny,” I said. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t really know WHY Gbot had done it. “Gbot, why did you smear Tesserwell with sun lotion?” I asked.

“Because!” he replied guilelessly. “I wanted him to be cool in the sun!”

“Oh,” I said. I explained why kitty cats don’t need sun lotion. I explained that when it gets too hot for them, they go inside or lie in the shade.

“Then I will NEVER take Tesserpiglet to San Diego,” announced Mbot. “Because that’s the HOTTEST place on earth.”

I was grateful that my children are (at least attempting to be) kind to animals. I was grateful to be reminded not to prematurely assign nefarious motivations to others. I was grateful that I’d stored the Rainbow Animal Painting Kits more than fifty inches above the floor.

Mbot actually started it; the animals in his Rainbow Animals Painting Kit became a Skele-Pig and a Skele-Pony before he turned to bigger and better things. I have cropped this photo for privacy purposes, but let's just say that Mbot became Skel-Mbot, from brows to bare booty.

I’m still slightly dumbfounded that Mbot’s Rainbow Animals Painting Kit mini-statues became a Skele-Pig and a Skele-Pony before he turned to bigger and better things. I have cropped this photo for privacy purposes, but let’s just say that Mbot became Skel-Mbot, from brows to bare booty.

From the Notebooks of Bots

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by Mbot

Me: “Mbot, what are you drawing?”

Mbot: “It’s a fox. It has super attachments and power-boosters and a giant cannon and he can’t shoot a squirrel. He (the squirrel) is looking into his computer and he’s seeing the fox’s giant blaster. Then he’s transferring his giant thing that has a camera–he has lots of cameras-and he has knee protections on his giant robot….”

Me: “Is this the squirrel?”

Mbot: “Yeah, the squirrel, because of the sideways wings. The fox is dropping a box on the squirrel but the squirrel is shooting giant missiles….”

 

1-Gbot's telephone

by Gbot

 

Me: “Gbot, what are you drawing?”

Gbot: “Oh, just an OLD-FASHIONED telephone!”

Juniper at Jupiter: A Bear, His Boy, and a String Quartet

I apologize to readers for my absence–but we are back! I’ll make my excuses later. Today, I bring you volcano music.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the handsomest one of all?

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the handsomest one of all?

Attending the Jupiter String Quartet’s Phoenix performance with Mbot was my idea. Attending the concert with Mbot and Junepy was Mbot’s idea. So was the necktie, a strip of red felt fashioned into a bow, although in the end, Mbot wore a pair of fleecy dinosaur zip-up footie pajamas and a wide, pale blue polka-dot grosgrain ribbon tied in a Windsor knot, and Junepy wore the red felt bow. “But Junepy will be handsomer than me,” worried Mbot (unnecessarily, most would agree).

 

I’d been lucky, the week before while in Boston, to have a friend casually drop the fact that her daughter was singing that night in the Boston Baroque Ensemble at the New England Conservatory. It was serendipity–I am a huge fan of chamber music, and particularly of Baroque music, and I am a huge fan of the NEC, as it’s home to my ultrafave radio show, NPR’s Sunday evening staple, “From the Top,” which features amazing young musicians from across the nation. As far as music goes, I am one of those people perfectly designed to provide an audience, unburdened as I was at an early age (by my piano teacher, as it happens) of any illusion that I’ve got the rhythm in me. There is evidence to make me suspect that Mbot has inherited a seat beside me among the spectators.

 

So my first morning back home, Mbot climbed onto the bed and asked what I’d done in Boston. “I went to hear the most beautiful music ever,” I told him. I retrieved the netbook and pulled up the Boston Baroque Ensemble’s homepage. He pointed to a picture of a bright red, erupting volano. “I want to hear that one! The volcano music!” So I clicked it–the volcano was the image on the DVD cover of the BBE’s recording of Haydn’s Creation. I left the room to brush my teeth and see what havoc Gbot was creating, and Mbot listened to the volcano music, rapt, for twenty minutes.

 

So I bought us tickets to the next performance sponsored by the Phoenix Chamber Music Society. It would be a big evening. It wasn’t cheap, the concert venue was almost an hour’s drive away, the concert started at what was technically bedtime, and the concert would require sitting. For over an hour. And then for another thirty minutes. While Junepy excels at sitting, Mbot’s gifts lay elsewhere.

 

The night arrived. An hour before takeoff, an excited Mbot announced, “Junepy wants to come!” and disappeared into the bedroom. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Silence. In my experience, ten minutes of silence usually equates to a twenty minute cleanup effort afterward, and so I went to investigate. I found Mbot on the floor struggling the bear.

 

He’d managed to push Junepy’s large, obstinate head through the neckhole of a shirt, but the bear’s large, obstinate feet were proving too large and obstinate to go through pantlegs without motherly help.

 

“Junepy’s going to be the handsomest bear there!” announced Mbot proudly. Then he said with alarm, “But he needs a tie!”

 

At last, everyone dressed and ready, we headed into town. “The volcano music is so beautiful,” mused Mbot from the back seat.  “But why is it so beautiful? Why does it sound like swans singing?”

 

Why, indeed? I had no answer. But in my mind, the evening had already paid for itself.

 

When at last we pulled into the parking lot of the church where the preformance was being held, he studied the crowd. “Are we in the right place?” he asked. “I see lots of old people.”

 

“Then we KNOW it’s the right place,” I replied.

 

“No Mom,” he insisted. “It’s not the right place. This is the senior center.”

 

Indeed it did look a senior center. There was even a big white bus that had come from the senior center. Mbot was the youngest attendee by about forty years. There were a handful of twenty-somethings–literally, I could count them on my hands–and one teenage girl with her mom.

 

I thought the silver-haired crowd might express fear at our disruptive potential, but without exception they appeared delighted by the presence of the bot and his bear. Many observed his outfit with a sigh of envy. If only we could wear fleecy dinosaur one-piece zip-up pajamas!, everyone agreed.

 

We settled into a pew. The lights dimmed. The woman behind us sneezed. The musicians appeared. The concert began. “Mom, I’m dehydrated,” whispered Mbot. I found with horror that his sippy cup was empty. Thankfully, the M&Ms in my purse provided distraction. The woman behind us sneezed again. Beside me on the pew, which seemed to be designed by or for ascetics, squirming occurred. My blood pressure rose. In spite of the soothing and lovely tones of Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 575, I sat rigid, hoping the squirming would be contained to our five board feet of bench.

 

It was.

 

There was considerably less squirming during the next piece, Bartok’s Quartet no. 1, due no doubt to its energetic and unpredictable progression, and so when Intermission finally arrived, with its promise of water, cookies, and an opportunity to run intervals at the back of the sanctuary, Mbot had actually earned many charmed smiles and compliments. “We need more young blood!” exclaimed one couple with delight. The woman behind us sneezed again.

 

“Allergies?” I asked with heartfelt sympathy, when she asked me for a tissue, which I provided.

 

“Do you have a cat?” she replied.

 

I admitted that we did, and she eyed Junepy suspiciously. “I’ll bet the fur is all over that.”

 

I bit back the urge to say, “Him. The fur is all over him.” but I did defend him. “Actually, he’s way cleaner than he looks.”

 

Still leveling a doleful gaze at Junepy, she replied, “I find that hard to believe.”

 

After intermission, Mbot lay on Junepy listening to the Schumann Piano Quintet until his lids slowly dropped, and he fell asleep. I finally relaxed.

 

Afterward, I carried Mbot through the warm night to the car. The sneezing woman kindly and bravely offered to carry Junepy.

 

In the following days, Mbot would claim that his favorite part of the concert were the orange M&Ms, and that he liked “to listen to beautiful music, not watch it.” But I consider the evening a triumph for chamber music, for children, and for cat-dander-carrying bears everywhere.

 

The Mouse-Rat-Strawberry-Creamcheese-Cupcake Ship

img046Yesterday, Mbot made a pirate ship (pictured above, upper left). We had been reading library book about pirate treasure. “Only Tesserwell and Mbot allowed,” he pronounced, while assembling his vessel, which he named, in honor of the favorite foods of the captain and first mate, “The Mouse-Rat-Strawberry-Cream-Cheese-Cupcake Ship.” Later, he said to Gbot, who also decided to build a pirate ship on the same patio, “I get Tesserwell. He’s a great pirate cat.”

I am not sure where the antique cat earned his swashbuckling reputation. It could possibly be because Mbot believes Tbug to be capable of Great Things. Earlier that morning, I’d found the ancient fellow sitting in the bath tub, a place he has always enjoyed. He looked up at me and plaintively meowed. His favorite drink besides apricot juice, preferably from someone else’s glass, is running water, preferably from the bathtub tap; preferably trickling very lightly so as not to splash his fur, so he can sip delicately from around the drain without getting his feet wet. Not to deprive him of one of his great joys in life, I turned the tap on just a smidge, brushed my teeth, and got on with my morning.

Twenty minutes later, when Mbot got out of bed and ventured into the bathroom, I heard him exclaim, “This is SO EXCITING!” He repeated it: “This is SO EXCITING! Mom, did YOU turn on the water?”

“No,” I called, lying.

“Did Dad turn on the water?”

“No.”

“Gbot, did you turn on the water?”

“No!”

Like any good detective, Mbot was eliminating all other possiblities before reaching the conclusion he suspected and desired. “It’s AMAZING! Tesserwell turned on the water!” he called, using his best deductive reasoning.

Such an impressive cat would certainly be good company on the high seas.

Gbot, who couldn’t find a ship as good as the emptied patio toy bucket, decided he’d join Mbot and Tbug in theirs. The first thing he brought on board was his toy cash register (complete with its key, which I’d lost track of long ago). He explained it was for his gold doubloons. You will see, in the picture of Captain Fishypants, above, that he made sure I drew him holding a bag of doubloons in addition to a sword. (Mbot drew the picture of himself, upper right.)

This is in keeping with Gbot’s interest in finance. Five weeks ago, he produced his first two representational drawings ever, shown below:

Abraham was notoriously not  handsome man.

Abraham was notoriously not a handsome man.

The second work in Gbot's series, "Abraham Lincoln," which represents a new direction for the artist. (Image courtesy of Gbot)

The second work in Gbot’s series, “Abraham Lincoln,” which represents a new direction for the artist. (Image courtesy of Gbot)

For those of you not schooled in the iconography of preschool stick figure drawings, it is an image of Abraham Lincoln. Behind and above him is the Lincoln Memorial. Gbot was not inspired by the great man’s accomplishments, but rather by what appears on either side of a penny.

Mbot was not pleased about letting Gbot join his crew. But if I put chocolate chip-oatmeal-walnut-coconut cookies in the cash register drawer, I think Cannonball Mbot will reevaluate whether or not his ship has room for Captain Fishypants and his booty, and the Mouse-Rat-Strawberry-Cream-Cheese-Cupcake Ship will sail.

Attack of the Eggliens

2013 March 30 hike & eggliens 021

The first egglien spaceship arrived in the docking bay. Close behind it was a second, this one with a more elaborate antenna, and an eye :

2013 March 30 hike & eggliens 024

The hatch opened.

The eggliens had arrived,

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bringing with them a unique and unforeseen dilemma:

How do you convince your kids to eat an egg that is looking at them? An egg upon which they painstakingly placed the eyes and hair themselves?

And am *I* going to have to eat twenty-two hardboiled eggliens in secret, all by myself?

Friday Flashback: Fingerless Arm Found

2013 Feb 8 009My apologies to those of you who already read yesterday’s post, but I was informed by one of my followers that none of my followers were informed of my post. This is due to my server doing me a disservice as I was publishing the post.

So this is a Notice of Posting: Tune in to yesterday’s, which features photos of the completed Ironman pinata. Some of you will be pleased to hear that I found an arm in the back of my car today, under a box of papers To Be Shredded. I guess it’s true: he just can’t die. And you know what? I’m actually glad.