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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I Believe We Can Make Them Disappear: Thoughts on Mass Murderers

Mbot reads the news on "TV."

Mbot reads the news on “TV.” His news was about how the ants had a picnic. Do we have the power to make our news so benign?

I have been stalling with this post because I feel the need to address the shootings on Friday and I don’t want to. There is so much to say and at the same time such despair that silence seems the only reasonable course. Becoming a mother dissolved some binding agent in my emotional chain mail, allowing news items like the shooting deaths of twenty children (and seven adults who used to be children and who have children and who are the children of others) to penetrate deeply between the links. I believe this phenomenon–of weakening the binding agent that protects the one in order to allow the formation of empathy throughout a group–is a biological trick. Even Hollywood’s caught on–“women with children” is one of four demographic groups considered in the marketability of any big movie. We are different, which is the reason I nearly wept on Friday when the friend I was meeting for lunch–himself a parent–told me the news. Our server thought their was something terribly wrong. I assured her I was fine.

But there is something terribly wrong.

This isn’t the place for a scholarly diatribe and I’m not equipped to deliver a policy statement. I speak as a mother and a reasonably well-educated citizen.

This event is just the latest in an epidemic of mass shooting murders by young men. It is an epidemic, as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, in which he investigates social epidemics from the crime wave in New York City’s subways to the decade-long wave of teen suicides in Micronesia.

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell, in an interview about the book:

 In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Micronesia had teen suicide rates ten times higher than anywhere else in the world. Teenagers were literally being infected with the suicide bug, and one after another they were killing themselves in exactly the same way under exactly the same circumstances. We like to use words like contagiousness and infectiousness just to apply to the medical
realm. But I assure you that after you read about what happened in Micronesia you’ll be convinced that behavior can be transmitted from one person to another as easily as the flu or the measles can. In fact, I don’t think you have to go to Micronesia to see this pattern in action. Isn’t this the explanation for the current epidemic of teen smoking in this country? And what about the rash of mass shootings we’re facing at the moment–from Columbine through the Atlanta
stockbroker through the neo-Nazi in Los Angeles?

That inteview was from before Senator Gifford, before the theater in Arvada, before multiple shootings in other public places, before Friday’s horror.

We can’t change human nature–violence is our birthright. But behaviors within groups can be changed.

The question, of course, is how do we stop such an epidemic? The answer to making New York’s subway safe again began in a five-year effort to remove all the (then rampant) graffiti from the underground transport system. The theory behind the successful campaign: change the context, change behavior. It worked. A well-taken care of environment sent the message that criminal activity wasn’t expected. And people did what they were expected to do.

We’ve all seen that mentality at work time and time again: when children join other raucous kids on the playground, they become more raucous. I know that my own behavior shifts depending on my environment.

Offhand, I can think of three changes to our environment that might make this country a safer place for us all, and particularly for our children.

The first and most boring–because it’s been said a million times–is to ban ownership of semiautomatic weapons. I believe in gun ownership–I was raised by a father who provided his family with venison from deer hunting, and I married a bird hunter who shoots nothing he won’t eat. But people don’t hunt quail or deer with semiautomatics. People hunt people with them.

The second is to recognize schools–especially schools for children and teens–as the sacred spaces they are. There have been recent shootings in churches and mosques in this country, and so obviously, sacred spaces are not immune to the epidemic. But elevating our schools to the position they deserve–by paying teachers more, by valuing education more, by spend more money on programs, facilities, and protection for these facilities–we would be publicly recognizing these places as the most important places in our society, off-limits to such violence.

But I think a third change would be even more important. Peter Gabriel’s song, “Family Snapshot,” comes to mind, about a lonely boy fantasizing about assassinating a public figure:

“I don’t really hate you –

I don’t care what you do

We were made for each other –

Me and you.

I want to be somebody –

You were like that too

If you don’t get given you learn to take

And I will take you.”

It’s a chilling and horrible mentality. And we need to start sending the message that we don’t care about the gunmen. That our society doesn’t have one ounce of time or energy to spend on thinking about them or the troubles they’ve seen. That by taking life, they annihilate their own individuality, rendering them faceless criminals. Their names and the memory of them vanish; they become the equivalent of Untouchables in the Hindu caste system.

I believe we are not powerless to fight this epidemic of killing. We may live in a country where violence is embedded into society. But also embedded into it is freedom of speech. We have the power to lobby our lawmakers to ban semiautomatic weapons. We have the power to lobby our communities and government to turn our schools into holy places. And we have the power to pressure the media to make murderers not into Somebody, but into Nobody.