Alexis Cobo, a Lower School Computer Science Teacher working with students in grades 2-5, gives us a look inside her classroom at Pine Crest School, in Boca Raton, Florida.
Classroom Culture: Relationships are key
When Alexis designs learning experiences, she always thinks about how learners are relating to technology and how they’re relating to each other.
New technologies can often feel like they exist in a vacuum, especially when they’re presented as the focus of a learning experience. Alexis avoids these pitfalls by helping students draw connections to their lives. For example, once students successfully remix their own Scratch “Dance Party,” Alexis invites them to create “All About Me” interactive stories. These stories are used to build upon the foundational computational skills & concepts learned in the Dance Party lesson—such as events, infinite loop, and sequence—while allowing the students to share their personal narrative with their peers and teachers.
Classroom teachers can also benefit from making these kinds of connections. For example, to help teachers feel less intimidated by Scratch, Alexis modeled her Scratch mini-lessons off of the Readers Writers Workshop, a format familiar to teachers. As a result, her colleagues were able to see how they could augment their curricula with Scratch because they felt comfortable with the format.
Creating a space where learning feels social—not sterile or controlled—is also crucial to her practice. “The culture of the classroom really sounds like friends communicating.” And this applies to classroom and online interactions.
For example, to help students connect with concepts of digital citizenship, such as the “Rings of Responsibility”, Alexis facilitated an honest conversation about social media use, something most 5th graders aren’t usually invited to talk about openly. To increase student comfort, Alexis started by talking about her own social media use and from there students began sharing their own stories and reflecting on their habits.
And one great place to practice digital citizenship is the Scratch Online community. In their first lesson with Scratch, students learn how to search the site, remix an existing project, and iterate the code to make it their own. The students expressed their love of the social aspect of the Scratch community and referenced their “responsibilities to the greater community” in givng credit to Scratchers whose projects they remix.
Scratch In Action: Storytelling through Scratch
When she found out that her students were avid video gamers, Alexis decided to use video game design to complement the writing curriculum, specifically a unit on genres and Historical Fiction. To hook student interest, she opened the unit with the iTunes U course, the Art of Videogames. As they learned about the game design process, students began to see game designers as writers, of a sort, who tell stories through their design decisions. Alexis described the connections they drew: “To tell a story, you have to write a story, graphically develop and code the story, and then play the story.”
With this new lens on storytelling, students used Scratch to create video games that brought their historical fiction essays to life! The students wrote essays based on one of the three novels read during Readers’ Workshop: “Glory Be” by Augusta Scattergood, “A Long Walk to Water,” by Linda Sue Park, or “Behind the Bedroom Wall” by Laura Williams. The students were encouraged to draw upon the major themes/setting/plot of the books as inspirations to bring their work to life in visual form with Scratch.
Alexis provided very little direct instruction, with just two mini-lessons on Scratch concepts. Instead, she supported students to iteratively adjust their stories and games—keeping track of their thinking in design journals, to help one another, and to identify and seek out the help they needed. “I wanted them to test, and fail, and iterate.” This philosophy led students to lean in to process. “Not a single student said ‘I’m done’.” In fact, many of them spent the entire year working on their projects, despite the unit only being two weeks long. They were so eager to share updates and question that many of them would show up before school clamoring, “Mrs. Cobo, can you help me debug this!?”, and Alexis would get emails from classroom teachers with links to project updates that students just couldn’t wait to share. When teachers saw students students so engaged in deep thinking–in testing ideas and feeling safe– they became champions of this kind of learning, both with this project and beyond.
At the end of the school year, the faculty at Pine Crest School present their experiences enriching student learning at an annual in-house professional development conference called The Innovation Institute. This past June, teachers were encouraged to present brief “Inspire Sessions” to share their process working with Computer Science & Innovation Specialists integrating computer science and maker content into core curricula, and the 5th Grade Reading & Writing teachers shared their experiences along with a student on the Historical Fiction Video Game unit. Nate Pritzker, now 6th grade Pine Crest Boca student, faced a room packed of seasoned educators from across the country and shared how using Scratch changed school for him. His teachers not only beamed with pride at how advanced this first-year coder’s final video game was as he demonstrated it during the session, but also how he, a student who would rather shine behind the scenes, found his voice and an avenue to tell his story through Scratch & technology integration. Here's a link to Nate's Design Journal.
Alexis presenting with her student, Nate, at the Innovation Institute.
Take Away from Alexis:
“The way I teach with Scratch has changed the way I learn. I wish I had teachers that understood that learning isn't by the textbook. Every student has a gift and they can take that gift and create with it. And you don’t have to tackle everything in your first year doing this. It’s not about you and your skills, it’s about how you can help kids discover what they can learn.”