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Scratch in Math Class: An Interview with Jennifer Junkin of The Carroll School

Jennifer Junkin has taught for six years, the last one and a half in the ninth grade Math class at The Carroll School in Lincoln, MA. And it was just a little over a year ago when she was introduced to Scratch through a colleague, Colin Meltzer. He encouraged her to incorporate the program with her Algebra and Geometry curriculum.

“I was introduced to Scratch at the same time my students were introduced to it, so that was kind of a challenge.”

Jennifer and Colin collaborated on designing a sequence of lessons for the Scratch class, which ran twice a week, fifty minutes each session, as part of the Math class. “We started with a series of challenges that Colin had developed which led the students through the basics. The students were able to work at their own pace. Some of them got through ten challenges and others got through twenty. Some got through the challenges and wanted to do some experimenting on their own and asked for us to come up with project ideas for them to try out, so it was very much like each student was working at their own pace. The class culminated with a project where every student had to come up with their own project, like a game or an application, and there was a presentation in front of a panel of judges. That was a lot of fun.”

Giving students the opportunity to work autonomously gave Jennifer a chance to cater to each student’s needs. “I had 17 students, which I’m sure for a lot of people sounds like a breeze, but the school is for kids who have diagnosed language-based disabilities. Most often they are dyslexic, but they all had very different learning profiles. Many struggled with decoding and the reading. There were a few who really struggled with numeracy, and many of them struggle with abstract concepts in general.”

Using the Scratch visual programming environment proved useful for not only reinforcing Math concepts, but also for assessing students’ understandings of them. “We kind of tricked them into thinking about an abstract concept by using something visual. So, for the kids who were having a hard time with abstract concepts, it was great to have them work with the variable block. For some, it was the first time that they ever understood what the coordinate plane was. For them, this was a very relevant application which was wonderful. We also created an assessment for our class last year. For example, one of the problems had the students draw a rectangle or square with a specified perimeter, so that was a great way of assessing their understanding of Geometry.”

Grades aside, Jennifer found Scratch to be more than a Math-booster. She noticed that the students’ confidence levels were being bolstered as well. “That’s why we called [our presentation for the Scratch Conference at MIT]  ‘Unleashing Logic’, because we thought of Scratch as a great way to let students who had confidence problems trust themselves a little bit more and kind of unleash their problem solving skills and their logical reasoning skills. Many of my students really had trouble with their confidence and would quickly get discouraged and give up and just not try their Math problems. Scratch was a great way of showing them that they were capable of analyzing and solving problems. Every one of my students had more confidence working with Scratch than working with more traditional Math problems. And then, if they were struggling with, say, graphing an equation of a line or something, I could say, ‘Don't get frustrated. Think back to that problem that you had in Scratch. You thought you couldn’t do it and you worked through it.’”

The list of challenges is very interesting!
I am curious: how many classes did the students spend solving all those challenges?