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Reading, Writing, Remixing: Programming Non-Linear Stories with Scratch

Friends and family of Ji-Sun Ham, a Master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate school of Education, will tell you that she’s a bit of a meandering storyteller. “A lot of my friends and sisters keep telling me that my stories just take too long. They're not short and concise. And I keep going back and forth to do things. I'm, like, ‘Well, sorry. I just remember things suddenly that I need to tell you that are important to the story.’”
She’s not a fan of writing stories either. “I actually don't like writing that much. I find writing is a pain at times. The way I write is very non-linear. But I remember, growing up, I had to write a beginning, a middle, and end. And I had to have my thesis first. And it was probably not until AP English, my senior year of high school, where they were, like, ‘Don't write your thesis yet.’ And I was, like, ‘That's what you've been telling me my entire life!’”
As a writer of non-linear text in high school, Ji-Sun then discovered a preference for non-linear programming in college. While pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Development from at Tufts University in Massachusetts, Ji-Sun taught an afterschool enrichment program for ELL elementary students in the Chinatown district of downtown Boston. She introduced students to programming through LEGO Mindstorms and Scratch. Hoping to learn more about the software she was using, she signed up for an introductory programming course at Tufts. “I was lost immediately and I got pretty discouraged throughout most of it. There was this looming theory in my mind, that programming was strictly linear.” Reflecting back on her own frustration trying to learn programming using a linear approach, Ji-Sun wondered if her students felt the same way. “I was curious as to what would happen if we taught it through a non-linear way. I understand the reasoning for linear storytelling, especially for programming, but I had been very confused. Was programming really just linear?” Ji-Sun decided to conduct a short research project to find out.
She started with a survey of current software developers, asking if they thought programming was a linear or non-linear process. “The surprising result was that the more number of years a programmer had under his or her belt, he or she was more inclined to say it’s non-linear versus those with only one to three years, who would say that it's more linear than non-linear. I wondered how that could affect those wanting to learn how to program but then got discouraged because they can't think that linearly. Since it was always presented that way in school, how might a non-linear way encourage more students to learn programming isn’t so intimidating?”
Ji-Sun had another opportunity to learn to code with Scratch at Harvard during her fall course T550: Designing for Learning by Creating, taught by Karen Brennan. This time, she got it. “Within Scratch, there's just so many different ways that people can start and finish, or to go back and remix something that they missed.”
Inspired to create a Scratch curriculum that took advantage of non-linear forms of storytelling, Ji-Sun played with the approach of starting in the middle. “Then some would go to the end and some would go to the beginning to get the idea of, ‘Okay, you don't have to start always at the beginning. You don't have to always start there in order to figure out the next step.’” The first session introduces students to book excerpts that employ parallel stories, flashbacks, and other non-linear storytelling styles. Activities are varied for hands-on or off-computer, and incorporate reading, writing, and remixing. Remixed from the ScratchEd Team’s Creative Computing Curriculum Guide, Ji-Sun’s curriculum encourages a loose, remix-able structure, abiding by her non-linear approach to storytelling and learning. Throughout the guide are posted little stop signs to signal to facilitators that sessions are flexible enough to be broken down into several separate activities.
Ji-Sun believes that the combination of technology plus non-linear storytelling could be especially helpful for ELL students in elementary or middle school settings. “It’s important to empower them as a student, ‘You are a person in this classroom that I want to make sure you are heard.’ And not only taking consideration of ELL students, but actually really harnessing what they have had to offer to the classroom, through their experiences and the ways they tell stories at home. I don't think I even read more than one or two African-American writers and that wasn’t until my senior or junior year of high school. Bringing those experiences earlier into the schools so that children are more exposed to different cultures, as well as different styles of writing, I think is very important in terms of honing and building those skills for kids as they grow older.”
Ji-Sun’s experience learning with Scratch and creating for other’s learning with Scratch has challenged her assumptions about programming, storytelling, and personalized learning. “Programming isn't scary, and it’s not only a certain group of people can really program. Programming isn't as linear as you think it is, just as storytelling really isn't as linear as you think it is.”
Download Ji-Sun’s Scratch Story Sessions curriculum at