Each fall Monarch butterflies, not unlike many humans, migrate south and west to escape winter’s icy grasp. Their two month journey, which for most leads to the mountains of central Mexico, allows the butterflies to hibernate, reproduce, and survive as a species. The fantastic tale of their migration and metamorphosis is widely studied and well known to school children throughout North America.
This year, in an effort to incorporate more interdisciplinary, thematic experiences into the curriculum, our fifth grade team participated in and received training from the Monarch Teacher Network. Their program, which began in 2001, has enabled more than 3600 educators to “teach essential skills in literacy, math, science, geography, technology, Spanish, the arts and social studies… through the captivating story of monarchs.”
Using science and Spanish as the anchor disciplines, students acquired caterpillars, observed them transform into chrysalises, and later released the adult butterflies into the wild. In addition to studying the life cycle of this unique insect, they also learned about Mexican culture and acquired key vocabulary words and phrases in the target language. As a capstone for the experience, they created stop motion animations, narrated in Spanish, of el ciclo de vida de la mariposa Monarca.
Stop Motion Animation
Stop motion animation, in which objects are moved in small increments between individually photographed frames, has been used since the earliest days of film. While those of us who grew up in the 1970s may recall watching classic stop motion holiday specials such as Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or Santa Clause is Coming to Town, the technique has made a comeback with today’s youth thanks to popular features like Wallace and Gromit and Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken series. Although these technologically sophisticated animations are the result of large teams of creative professionals working in concert, simple yet powerful tools like SAM Animation make stop motion viable for even the youngest of learners.
Animation projects can be made with free tools like Windows Live Movie Maker, but the benefits of using an application dedicated to the task are well worth the nominal expense. Live onion skinning, chroma keying, time lapse photography, and multiple audio tracks are just a few of the features that SAM and other animation programs offer. As shown in the clip below, getting started is literally as easy as 1-2-3.
Like any project, stop motion animation requires careful planning and preparation. To make the endeavor manageable for teachers and successful for students, here are a few points to consider:
- Because animation is multifaceted, cooperative learning groups of 2-3 students are ideal. Creating and moving models, capturing and arranging images, and recording audio are all tasks that can be shared and/or rotated.
- Provide students with a storyboard so they can organize their thoughts prior to starting the project. Having rough sketches and snippets of dialog in place before building or filming can save hours of time.
- Modeling clay (even Model Magic) can be expensive and difficult for students to manipulate; not everyone is a sculptor. Legos, plastic figurines, even drawings made with colored pencils can be effective alternatives.
- External web cams are a must. Integrated cameras, though seemingly convenient, face the user and thus can’t be consistently positioned to capture images on the wall or floor. The cameras we used cost less than $20 each and proved extremely capable.
- Don’t just judge the product, evaluate the process. The thinking and learning that occurs during a project of this nature does not always come through in the final video.
To learn more about how stop motion animation can enhance your teaching, visit the SAM Animation homepage and download a free trial version of the software. The possibilities, made one frame at a time, are truly endless.