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Tech and Textile: An Interview with Gretchen Tanzer of Cape Cod Academy

Gretchen Tanzer’s first encounter with programming was as a textile design major at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “I was in Finland for my junior year in college and one of the big pieces of equipment I used there was called a draw loom. It goes back to the process of automated weaving from the late 19th century that used actual punch cards to create patterns. Back at RIT the next year, there was technology that made weaving a little more automated. It was pretty laborious and slow but you could key in commands and make it work.”

This intersection of technology and textile is where Gretchen discovered and became intrigued with computer programming. “I never took a computer language class, but weaving is pretty much a pixelated grid.”

Gretchen maintained a curiosity for connecting low-tech with high-tech processes post graduation. For her artwork, she writes programs to simulate her pattern designs. “Now I have a computer program I use called Weave Maker. You key in all the variables and then hit ‘draw,’ and it will draw down what the fabric is going to look like. You can change color and where the threads are going and generate a pattern. It's like a structure design simulation. It's good to go in with this program and check my mistakes before I make them.”

Now, a high school art teacher of 23 years, Gretchen is inspiring students to experience creative computing using Scratch. Similar to her background, Gretchen’s students are exposed to programming during school but are given opportunities to take their creativity beyond class. “To automate a motion with this fairly simple freeware appealed to me because some of the programs like Adobe are just so expensive and I really feel bad for the students. It’s important to me that they are able to use the program at home. So that appealed to me -- accessibility.”

Gretchen heard about Scratch through a colleague at the same school, Mary Beth Bergh, who invited her to attend a Scratch workshop at the 2010 MassCUE conference. From there, Gretchen signed up to participate in MIT’s CS4HS summer workshop, where she explored Scratch through hands-on activities and gained strategies for integrating the program into her classes. “I've been fairly traditional, teaching drawing and painting and sculpture and with the introduction of computer graphics, the curriculum is starting to move in that direction. I want to know how to do it too, so I'm learning at the same time.”

At Cape Cod Academy, Gretchen is supporting students to develop similar sensibilities around learning through exploration and hands-on discovery. She encourages her students to see Scratch as a medium for experimentation and self-expression. “I’m open to new ways of doing things and letting kids figure it out for themselves. ‘Here’s a box of crayons. You figure out what you want to make out of it.’ And I think that works well with Scratch because it's got many ways of doing the same thing. You can do the same process in about eight different ways and achieve the same results. So everybody’s got their own work around, and it’s fun to see the kids figure it out, for them to be courageous enough to deal with it.”

Situated as an arts course, feedback and assessment of creative work poses a challenge. “I have a little rubric that I set up with four areas that are: craftsmanship, composition, completion and  concept.”

Regarding feedback, Gretchen challenges students to make their own decisions and take ownership of their creative work. “If they seem like they’re ready to hear it or if they ask me honestly, ‘What do you think of that?’ Then I’ll say, ‘Well, I think this is great and maybe you could work on evolving this a little more,’ because I think that they’ve got to troubleshoot for themselves. I go with the positives, but sometimes I say, ‘I’ve seen work that I just don’t understand out in the great, wide world. And if that's what you want to do with your art work, go for it.’”