On the morning of Thursday, Nov. 14, a group of Stoner Prairie Elementary School third grade students made squirrels lift acorns over their heads, and get dizzy as their eyes swirled around.

But no animals were actually harmed in the process – the students were working with animated squirrel characters they created in Tina Christenson’s art class.

All grades of Stoner Prairie students are creating a film with traveling artist Mark Jones, and plan to show it for the first time to the students at an all-school assembly next month, and to the public at the school’s Paint Night and Innovation Fair events in February.

The project is funded by the Parent Teacher Organization’s Visiting Artist Program, who held a family Paint Night last April to raise money for the weeks-long project.

Stoner Prairie art teacher Christenson is leading the stop animation project, which she learned about when attending an art integration workshop six years ago, where Jones talked about how teachers could include technology into their curriculum.

The project allows students to express their creativity and embrace their “uniqueness,” while still creating a cohesive work of art, Christenson said.

“Our population is extremely diverse,” she said. “We’ve got students from all different backgrounds. In our project, we’re focusing on diversity and finding a place that you belong.”

Stop motion is also a heavily collaborative project, Christenson said, and is accessible for a student of any age to create.

Each grade level is creating a different part of the stop motion animation movie, which includes animal characters such as jumping fish who hang out in a pond, turtles who are drumming and “sassy snakes.” All students are also working on multiple versions of a Wildcat, the main character of the movie, which will have its “hair” filled in by small signatures of students and staff.

The students make the movies using an iPad to take photos of their animal characters up against a green screen, moving appendages around between each photo to create the illusion of movement. Jones assists students in making sure their animations aren’t moving either too quickly or too slowly.

When students weren’t working on their animations on Thursday, they created trees for the forest background, coloring in the words “Stoner Prairie Elementary” for the opening Star Wars-esque sequence or repetitively signing their names all over the Wildcat.

Jones, who taught art for a decade in Iowa prior to becoming a traveling consultant, said he teaches stop animation in a “scaffold” way, with students learning increasingly more detail-oriented techniques in the older grade levels.

“For the students where this is their first exposure to animation, I’ve built it up to make it possible for a kindergartener to do this,” he said. “You just explain it differently to them than you would a fifth grader.”

Jones added he wants to teach students the concepts in a way they’ll also be able to create animated videos on their own after he leaves, through technology they already have access to through the district, he said.

Christenson said she wants students to realize, over the duration of the project, being an artist isn’t quantified by being good at drawing or painting — it could be a viable career for them in the future.

“You don’t have to be an amazing drawer to be a good artist, there’s all different types of artists,” she said. “Being an artist as an adult is realistic … I just want them to feel like they can connect with it.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.