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When she was teaching at Georgetown’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the mid-’90s, Elizabeth Pringle found a lesson in something many teachers are quick to condemn: the video games her students got her hooked on.

“I was learning all the secrets and cheats from 15-year-olds,” she says.

“I would spend whole weekends lost in those games, and I was amazed how sophisticated the kids were with digital technology. I started to see a huge gap between what kids knew about technology and what schools were teaching them,” she says.

But then, as director of MHz Networks’ Education Arts Technology program, Pringle can probably find more learning tools in Grand Theft Auto than most other educators could. Funded by a handsome grant from the U.S. Department of Education—a million bucks over three years—she and her staff are running filmmaking courses for kids, hoping to help ensure that modern kids’ imaginative capacities keep pace with their burgeoning technological skills.

Or, as Pringle puts it, “We’re trying to teach technology through storytelling. We want to keep arts in the forefront and give the kids a sense of their own stories.”

The filmmaking courses are the program’s cornerstone: Over the course of 12 weeks, visiting instructors coach metro-area elementary- and middle-school students in everything from storyboarding and screenwriting to shooting and editing. In the early weeks, writers and playwrights help kids develop plot and character. Technicians then teach students about organizing production task lists and how to use a digital camera. Once shooting is complete, the kids are given a primer on how to cut the footage into a watchable final product.

This past year, 100 students at two Northern Virginia schools—George Mason Middle School in Falls Church and the Jefferson-Houston School in Alexandria—wrote 18 stories and shot four films. (On board for the program next year are two D.C. schools: MacFarland Middle School in Petworth and J.C. Nalle Elementary School in Marshall Heights.)

In addition to the courses for students, Pringle’s staff runs workshops for local teachers interested in strengthening their own storytelling and technical skills. Last year, more than 60 teachers participated; many of them made films with their students and submitted them to the second annual MHz Shortz Student Film Festival, a sister program held this past May at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre in Arlington. The festival screened nine short films—live-action, documentary, and animation—chosen from 32 submissions by 250 students and 25 teachers in the D.C. area. Some of the entries were bizarre, and a lot were delightfully unpolished, but all of them were the products of student imagination.

“A lot of the films have been off-the-wall and twisted, thank God,” says Pringle. But the actress and playwright, who holds a degree in experiential education from the Minnesota State University, Mankato—a program she describes as “full of Outward Bound types”—is committed to the idea that no topic or approach is off limits. Among this year’s films was a live-action short by George Mason eighth-grader Rachel Taylor featuring a poker game between George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein. In the end, Bush accuses Saddam—falsely—of cheating.

Unfortunately, one of Pringle’s favorite festival submissions—a racy animated short called Ken Tries to Get Some Candy, in which a dapper Ken puts the moves on Barbie—proved too hot for a prim panel of judges.

Pringle’s project is essentially unique: MHz Networks, a public-broadcasting station based in Falls Church, was the only TV station among the 11 institutions that received the million-dollar Arts in Education grants in 2002. Most other recipients were school districts.

Along with its benefits, of course, a hefty federal grant brings a healthy share of procedural baggage. MHz received the grant just as standardized testing and the No Child Left Behind Act were becoming hot-button issues, and about 15 percent of the money goes to hire outside help to test the children who take part, mostly using the Standards of Learning writing exam. “As if you could tell over just three years,” says Pringle. For Pringle, the real benefits for kids are incalculable—such as the lesson that technology and drama don’t exclude one another. “For me, the question was whether the arts can be involved in educating kids on digital technology,” she says. “And I think they can be.” —Dave Jamieson