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Teacher with animation background makes learning exciting

Nine-year-old Lev Fishman didn’t really want to leave his old school, but his parents thought Madrona School in Vancouver would be a good fit. Once he got settled, it wasn’t long before he was enjoying his new school a lot. Lev’s parents, Carol Konkin and Jan Fishman, think that has a lot to do with his grade four home room teacher, Paul Felts.

“Mummy, Mr. Felts is fun!”

That’s what Konkin says her son always reports. “I said ‘how so’, and he said in a really incredulous way, ‘well, that just about covers everything’. He makes everything fun.”

One of the ways Felts made math fun for Lev’s class, for example, was having the kids produce a short film about the subject.

“Lev came home with over a hundred hand-drawn slides,” Konkin says. “And each child had drawn the same number of slides in that class. The six of them produced this short film that was fabulous. Lev loves animation, and Mr. Felts is an animator.”

Studying animation in art college in his hometown of London, England was actually how Felts’s circuitous route into teaching began. “It was such a great medium. I like children’s books and colourful images and pictures. I was interested in writing and storytelling.

“When I was at college, I came up with an idea for a mobile animation studio that would visit schools. I guess I’ve always been a bit interested in sharing the process with children, and getting them to have a go at it.”

Yet Felts says he “kind of drifted away from animation. I kept it as a hobby, writing and the drawing.” He volunteered for a street magazine in London sold by homeless people, a “hand up, not a hand out” initiative he believed in. Felts took a job there for eight years, coordinating the expansion of the paper.

Then came fatherhood. Felts was a stay-at-home dad until his first child went to nursery school. That’s when he decided to retrain into teaching.

“I was quite enthralled by the idea,” he says. “And I thought I could do it.”

A year-long post-graduate certificate in education followed. “At the time, people really wanted people like me. They thought I was older, so I was a bit more mature. They got that wrong!”

At the south London elementary school where Felts taught and was nominated for a national teaching award, he soon started bringing film and animation into the classroom.

“I started getting my kids to draw pictures and animating films out of modelling clay and things like that, part of language arts,” he says. Felts eventually became part of the push for media literacy in schools in the U.K., guiding other teachers in how to use film in the classroom.

A 2013 job offer for his wife – who is from Wales and works in the film industry – led them far from home to Vancouver.

After Felts, his wife and children got settled, he set his sights on finding a teaching job. He had to take some courses to harmonize his U.K. teaching education with Canada’s. In the meantime, he spotted an advertisement for Madrona School, which focusses on educating bright and gifted children in very small groups.

“I actually just cold-called the director, sent in my CV and said, ‘Look, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring just in case you’re hiring’. I went in and we had a long chat, and we got on well.” Felts teaches core subjects to his class and teaches art to all of the students in grades four through eight. Colleague Evan O’Donnell says it has been fun and inspiring to work with him.

“He’s got a ton of just nifty, creative ideas I always see and want to steal from him,” says O’Donnell. “Paul has always got some giant trick up his sleeve.” In working together on the end of year school play, for example, O’Donnell says Felts’s ideas for the set were “extravagant”.

O’Donnell says it was the same for the school’s first annual art show, for which Felts had the idea right from the beginning of the year. “It was a jaw-dropping event,” he says.

“Every parent I ran into at the event was just in awe. There were over five hundred pieces of art, collected over the course of the year, then mounted in this glue stick and foam board blitz. It was on either side of the school. One half was kind of the darkroom area. It had all these light features and films. On the other side was the more art gallery-type set-up. It was just mind-blowing.”

Konkin remembers the show well. Rather than just portraits and watercolours, she says the show was a multimedia experience.

“Sculpture, film, stop-action film, advertisements. They had made large fish out of wooden skeletons and crepe paper. There was painting, there was pastel, there was portraits, there was collage, there was building a robot.”

On top of his teaching and role with the art show and school play, Felts runs the school website, is part of the school team redesigning the curriculum ahead of provincial government changes, and runs a design and technology club for the students – an idea he brought from back home.

He says that they build little toys, and also do textile work and cooking. “That’s gone down really well. Another thing I brought was robotics, a LEGO robotic system called Mindstorm. It’s kind of like coding. It’s these robots you can program to respond to sensors.”

Felts, who has recently been promoted to vice-principal of the senior school at Madrona, says teaching different age groups is interesting. “When I’m teaching grade sevens and eights, I can have a real, in-depth discussion about street art. They’re a bit more mature, they can talk about it, a bit more fun. And then you go down to grade four, and the processes become a bit more crazy and they’re more into trying to experiment. And so it’s a different kind of energy that you’ll get.”

“What I like about teaching,” says Felts, “is I’ve got no idea what’s gonna happen when I go to work on a day-to-day basis. You know you’re going to need to engage these different children somehow. Not saying that I don’t plan. That would be terrible! But you never know how something’s going to go, and it really does keep you mentally and creatively on your toes.”

Fun, indeed.

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