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Elena Malpica-Vargas made a movie Tuesday.

Not a feature film, not a documentary, not even a short. In the end, the final product was less than 10 seconds long but it featured characters battling and stumbling and Malpica-Vargas loved it.

"We got to explore, just have fun with it — fighting and saving people and fun," the fifth-grader said.

The filmmaking and storytelling done Tuesday in both Keri Pugno and Sheila Chako's fifth grade classrooms at Gravenstein Elementary School were part of lesson one of three in the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts' "Artists in the Schools" program.

Next month, four classes of fifth-graders — two from Gravenstein, one from Liberty Elementary and one from Luther Burbank Elementary — will go the performing arts center to see the musical "Four Score and Seven Years Ago" about an unlikely friendship forged in the wake of the Civil War.

The "Artists In the Schools" program brings artists into select classrooms for a series of lessons that expound upon themes from select performances that students see during field trips.

In the current three-lesson segment, students will create on iPads short stop-motion films that will be screened after the performance of "Four Score and Seven Years Ago."

Under the tutelage of Jessica Ruskin, education director at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, students will be instructed on plot, setting and characters. Their final piece must reflect a real event from history.

"They are making their history curriculum come alive for other people and for themselves," she said.

Focusing on lessons from the play in different media allows students who may have different aptitudes to access the material in a variety of ways, she said.

"Someone may be very visually oriented and the performance just moves them and that's it, and that's wonderful. But maybe for someone else, it's the hands-on experience," she said.

The hands-on experience has been a key component of "Artists in the Schools" since the program was formalized in 2006 after years of less structured outreach programs. Approximately 40 percent of the $37,000 annual operating cost is covered by the Community Foundation Sonoma County, and the remaining expense is covered by the center's general operating budget, said Kyle Clausen, director of marketing and communications.

"My goal is that they are making history fun and alive," Pugno said Tuesday as her students at Gravenstein made their way through stations of creating zoetrope strips, thaumatrope flip pictures and stop-motion films.

The final project will focus students on creating a piece of art that follows the historical theme.

"It's important that it does fit — they are not stand alone art projects," Pugno said.

Even better, she said, is for students to learn from people other than their regular classroom teacher and through different media — computers, drawing and collaborating.

"Learning does not have to just be 'Read a book, answer questions,'" she said. "There are other ways to demonstrate competence, to demonstrate excellence."

The small groups allow students to take academic risks, Chako said. Trying out an idea on one or two peers isn't as intimidating as raising your hand in the middle of class, she said.

"Allowing them to create a scene, draw — it will make them absorb that social studies content better," she said. "Plus, it's different than what we do in class. Instantly they are excited. It takes learning to another level."

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