Strategy Share: Stop Motion Filmmakers in the Classroom

Our Strategy Share series features innovative ideas, projects, and approaches from our community of educators. This post was written by Julie Theim after her expedition to Arctic Svalbard as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Art teacher Julie Theim’s expedition to Arctic Svalbard inspired her to create a digital storytelling project for her elementary students. Photo by Julie Theim

How does one even begin to process the professional development of a lifetime as an educator explorer in Arctic Svalbard? Every waking minute was extraordinary, exhilarating, beautiful, and captivating. My experiences included witnessing polar bears curiously checking out the humans, blue whales showing off their flukes, and juvenile Arctic foxes playing with their food.

As an elementary art teacher, I think it is imperative for my students to have experiences that push them to be curious about our wild world and encourage others to care for it as well. Our young learners are often bombarded by social media, technology, and school assignments, so I wondered: how could I transform those things into a positive learning experience? It’s as simple as storytelling.

I drew from my Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship experience to build this digital storytelling project for students, but, as you will see, this strategy could start with any kind of exploration and apply in any academic area. Here’s the process I used:

1. Give Students Inspiration

I created a Google Tour based on my Svalbard expedition. I borrowed our district’s virtual reality headsets, and my students got to go on a mini-expedition themselves right from the classroom. Being able to bring them virtually right alongside me was such a fun way to share my stories with them as they were viewing the magic of the places I visited. Not sure how to create a Google Tour? Check out their extensive help page!

Julie shared polar bear sightings and other Arctic experiences with her students using a virtual reality tour. Photo by Julie Theim

If you don’t have access to VR headsets, Google Tour Creator also works with any computer or tablet. You can view several tours people have made, or create your own, thinking at any scale from local to global. Inspiration doesn’t have to be a travel experience either. For example, if part of your curriculum is an exploration of Greek mythology, sharing those stories and finding visuals to build background knowledge can spark students’ curiosity.

2. Familiarize Yourself with Stop Motion

Stop motion animation has been around since the late 1800s, despite many young learners not believing that something this cool could be this old. If you can click a button to take a picture, you can be a stop motion filmmaker. I used the free version of the Stop Motion app. The paid version does have more bells and whistles, but to stay budget-friendly and still prompt creativity with my students, the free version does everything we need.

To make an animation using this app, we create scenery, characters, and a storyline, then begin filming. We set up a scene, move our hands out of the frame, take a picture, move the scenery accordingly, take another picture, and repeat until the story is finished. We then edit by adding narration and/or sound and adjusting the settings, such as frames per second (FPS). I suggest familiarizing yourself with this process first, and then giving students time to explore the medium before beginning their group projects. They will be much stronger storytellers once they have figured out the platform!

To create stop motion films, students made backgrounds, added their characters, and took a series of still images. Photo by Julie Theim

3. Explain the Guidelines

Then, it’s time to turn the storytelling over to the students. An introduction to stop motion and to the app is helpful to orient them; I used a Prezi. I then gave my students several requirements: their film needed to be a true story, with a beginning, middle, and an end. It had to be 5-10 FPS and at least 30-60 seconds in length. I asked them to think about why they cared about their story and what they wanted their audience to take away.

When students sought a small exception, my answer was generally yes, as long as they were working collaboratively and problem solving. I see students challenging the rules of a project as a way that they further their learning.

4. Action! Filmmakers in the Classroom

Students worked in teams of 2-4 students, and they had two art classes to create their Arctic scenery and characters. Generally, students used one to two 24×36 inch white drawing papers to draw and color or paint their backgrounds. For the next two art classes, they worked as a team to film. 

Team roles included cameraman; director, who followed the “script” to inform how and where to move things; stagehand, who physically moved the pieces for each photo; and editor, who was in charge of adding sound, narration, and finishing touches. In some cases, students had multiple jobs. I gave teams a “film planning page” which they needed to complete together, including the title, group members, class code, iPad ID number(so they remembered which iPad they used to film), number of frames in their movie, and a very brief outline of the film.

Students used a template to plan out their ideas before creating and filming their story. Photo by Julie Theim

5. Mini Movie Marathon

Students all uploaded their movies to a Google Drive account that I created just for stop motion films; you can also upload them to YouTube and keep them unlisted or private so that students can continue to share. We celebrated with a class that we called the mini movie marathon. We watched each other’s films, and, as if it were a movie festival, we even shared critiques and compliments. We used that constructive feedback to deepen our understanding and learning.

I encourage my student explorers to see the power in storytelling. Listening, watching, and learning from other humans can be a catalyst for change. If you can share your “why” in a story, and inspire just one person, who knows where it will take you next? Stop motion is a powerful tool that works well for beginners and challenges more experienced students. Beyond art class, you can tell stories based in literature, science, history, and so much more. When students are actively engaged, they take ownership of their stories and dig deeper without even realizing how much they are learning.

David and AJ, two of Julie’s students, created a stop motion animation showing Arctic foxes hunting puffins. Video courtesy of Julie Theim

Julie Theim is an elementary art teacher in Mukwonago, Wisconsin.

This post reflects a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow’s field-based experiences on a voyage with Lindblad Expeditions. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between  Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education

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