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Pilot Perspectives: Reflections on the Scratch Curriculum Guide by Melissa Nordmann of Cranford Burns Middle School

After releasing the Scratch curriculum guide draft in the fall of 2011, the ScratchEd Team was interested to see how the Creative Computing curriculum was being implemented across different settings. We invited ten K-12 educators from across the U.S. to pilot the guide in their classrooms. We asked them to let us know what happened – what worked, and what didn’t. In this special ScratchEd Story series, pilot participants share their experiences and provide feedback about the curriculum guide.

We hope that these vignettes will help illustrate the range of possibilities for using the Scratch curriculum guide in K-12 settings. We encourage anyone who is using the Creative Computing curriculum to share feedback in this discussion forum.

Scratch Educator: Melissa Nordmann
School: Cranford Burns Middle School

Location: Mobile, Alabama

Guide Usage: Two semester-long computer courses

Cranford Burns Middle School is home to approximately one thousand students in grades six through eight. It is a Title I school. A great majority of the students are low income. The demographic breakdown is about 70% black, 25% white, and 5% Asian and Hispanic. Mobile is a city of about 350,000 people.  Our school system has about 65,000 students and is the largest in Alabama. 

I teach Project-Based Strategies to eighth grade students. We use computer technology to complete activities in a project format. I use Moodle, an online classroom, for students to have access to class resources, upload finished projects and write in their journals. This is the first year we have had this particular class at Cranford Burns and this is also my first year at this school. The class is one semester long so I had the opportunity to teach the class material twice during the school year to two different groups of students. I had between 22 and 30 students per class. The classes meet every day. There are three 50-minute classes per week and two longer periods per week. We have a rotating schedule so that all students have extra time to complete projects during the longer class periods. 

Part of the focus of the class is careers. I introduce children to a number of uses of technology hoping to interest students in a future career. We use the format of project-based learning to introduce students to other skills needed for a multitude of careers – teamwork, project completion, and inquiry-based design. 

I began the Scratch unit with introductory videos and sample projects. The first semester group was very difficult to motivate. When we did the About Me project, I was lucky to get any information out of them. Some students did a project but refused to talk about themselves. I got replies like, “You don’t want to know about my home life!”, “Why are you being so nosy?”, and “I’ll do a project but not about myself.” The second semester I was very careful to let them know that I didn’t want “private” information – just general information that their friends already know, like what sports they are interested in or if they like to go to the movies. I had much better results second semester. As this was my first year at this school, this also taught me a lot about the kids I was working with.

Dance Party really got everyone motivated and let them know what programming was all about. The principal walked in while we were looking at the videos and dancing. He had a very confused look on his face about all the noise and dancing. Once he understood the lesson, he was okay with it – Noise is okay as long as it is productive noise! Dance Party was definitely a favorite lesson both semesters. 

The journals were also a learning process. First semester, I spent a lot of time making paper journals with cute covers and they went over like a lead balloon. These kids could not stand putting pencil to paper! The second semester I used the journal feature in my Moodle online class. I could not believe the difference in the results! I think they are so used to texting that entering text in an online journal is second nature to them. I will definitely use the digital journal in the future. 

Moodle has a Scratch filter. As a final journal entry I had the students post their favorite Scratch project in a forum. Then other students looked at all the projects and voted for their favorites within classes. This was an easy way to share projects without me having to post all of them on the Scratch website. 

The “remix” activity in Session #7 was also a stumbling block. First semester, the students did not want anyone “messing up” their project. We decided on saving the project twice – once for the remix activity, and once for a clean copy for the student. Second semester, I knew the issue might arise again so we began by saving twice and didn’t have the same objections. The kids really learned a lot from getting input from others in the class. They also learned that they didn’t always have to come to the teacher when they were stuck. Sometimes kids have much better insight into solving problems in a creative way and come up with more unique story ideas than the teacher does. 

By the time we got to the Maze project, the students were ready for it. I had several students that created Pac Man like mazes and had sprites that opened and closed their mouths by changing costumes. We had sprites that were “eaten” bite by bite with costume changes, like bugs eating leaves and creatures eating pizza. The first semester students had more surprising twists like trap doors and levers, but second semester students had more surprising costume changes. 

For the final project, some of the students were starting to slow down a bit. I made some specific requirements to keep them from turning in a quick project without a lot of thought. They had to make a game with three levels or a story with three background changes. They also had the option to do something of their own choosing if they got it “okayed” by me first. First semester, the girls tended to lean toward the stories. The boys really like making games. Second semester, the project type was not so divided by gender. 

Second semester, I added a new element to the final project. Earlier in the semester, the students had worked on a Google SketchUp project. They followed the design guidelines for a pop-up café in New York City. The quality of the projects dramatically rose when they realized that the project was “real”. I tried the same approach with the final Scratch project. I asked a select group of students to work on a game or learning activity for the special education class across the hall. The class has a large touch screen called a Tap-It. My students were really excited about creating a game that was really going to be used! They talked to the teacher and received suggestions for ideas to go along with the curriculum for those students. My students had to consider that way that the special education students would be using the games. They could not use a keyboard or a mouse. The quality of the work went way up! One student redesigned a maze game so that the sprite could be moved with a finger instead of the arrows on the keyboard. Another student designed sprites in the shape of a four-way arrow and you tapped on the direction you wanted to move. A third student gave auditory directions instead of written directions. The player then tapped on the picture with a positive sound for a correct answer and a negative sound for a wrong answer. 

I ended with the Director of Technology for our school system coming out to talk to the students. He congratulated them on their hard work. (He is a programmer and realizes how much work the students put into the games.) He wanted to know why the students liked the class so much. The students really like the hands-on, project-based approach to the class. They liked the interaction between students as they debugged and re-designed projects. The Director would like to create a space for these projects so that special education and early childhood classes all over our school system can take advantage of the hard work from these programming students. My students felt appreciated, noticed, and were thrilled that other people would be seeing their work. Many of these students are at risk of dropping out of school. They really needed this boost to their self-esteem and Scratch was the vehicle by which this was accomplished! 

I really enjoyed being part of the pilot program. Although I knew I wanted to teach Scratch in my Project-Based Strategies class, having the lessons prepared for me was a huge time saver. 

There are things that I would tweak a bit. My students did not like being limited to a lesson at the beginning. They wanted more time to just explore. I think there are also some techniques that I would directly model, such as getting a sprite to move up, down, left, and right, and how to have a conversation move between sprites. In Session 6, parallel events are discussed in “reflecting” but I think my students needed more direct modeling. The Scratch curriculum is very open to adding your own input. 

Some techniques needed more information for the teacher. “Broadcast” and “When I Receive” were an issue. I really needed more information to be able to explain broadcasting to my students. I finally figured it out and I did a much better job teaching it second semester. 

“Debugging” was especially helpful. I worked through the debugging examples but I learned new solutions to the problems from my students. I also was relieved to get help from the Scratch Team and other pilot participants with problems that came up during the program. 

Reading about other pilot participants’ experiences gave me insight into how others were implementing the curriculum at their own schools. I asked for help with issues and got suggestions from other participants and the Scratch Team. 

The Scratch curriculum is an excellent resource for teaching Scratch. Consider using it. The lessons were well thought out and easy to accomplish. The students found several of them exceptionally enjoyable which added to the enhancement of the unit. 

Don’t let lack of programming knowledge stop you from teaching Scratch. I did not know anything about programming or Scratch before I decided to teach the class. I did spend the summer preparing by going through all the lessons and becoming as familiar as I could with the material. The more familiar you are with the material, the easier it is to teach. 

Become familiar with the Scratch website. Students love to see that you uploaded their project to your gallery. The forums are also helpful. And, even though I hate mentioning it, I had two students that downloaded projects from the website and submitted them as their own. Being familiar with the website helped me to track down the website projects.   

Let students help each other. I spent a lot of time running from student to student first semester trying to answer all the questions. Second semester I got smart and encouraged students to walk around and help each other as they finished their work.  

I want to commend the Scratch Team on the resource materials. I had the Scratch Cards printed and laminated them. I punched a hole in one corner and put a ring through the hole. I made a set for each work station. I will reuse these cards for years to come. The videos were very useful. I also ran three copies of the Reference Guide and put these materials in binders. The binders were placed on a table for everyone to use as needed. Anyone getting started with Scratch should take advantage of these materials.