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Constraints and Creativity: An Interview with Janet Dee of Reading Memorial High School

In an elective computer class in Reading, Massachusetts, high school students wore expressions of both frustration and fun while making Hangman games in Scratch.

For Janet Dee, a teacher and Instructional Technology Specialist, combining effort with the enjoyable was precisely the intention she had for the Hangman project she had just assigned her students. “Hangman isn’t really all that exciting until you see how difficult it is, and then you start to appreciate it. And I think Scratch helps the students do that.”

Working with a diverse group of students motivates Janet to get creative with her curriculum design. “I teach a range of different abilities each class period and I’m trying to make this a really interesting subject for kids who have never explored it. I want them to be excited about what they’ve created and what they’ve accomplished, and not too frustrated because, as we know, that’s probably what turns off a lot of kids from computer programming in school.” Hoping to broaden interest in computer science with her students, Janet’s style of teaching introduces programming as problem solving. “I don’t want anybody to leave class and say, ‘I’m not good at programming,’ or ‘I’m not good at this.’” 

Janet’s approach supports students to develop problem-solving capacities through a combination of constraints and open creativity. During the interview, the ScratchEd Team asked Janet to explain how she integrates structure with openness. Here are some of the strategies that she shared:

Project Requirements

Janet challenges the students with specific project requirements but leaves the end result up to them. “They’re all responsible for doing every assignment, but they may do it a little differently. For the Hangman project, the requirements were to use variables and lists, to use the stage backgrounds and change the backgrounds, that the project would work, and that the project would reinitialize when the green flag was clicked. Then I let them loose. And their solutions are all different. Their Hangman stages certainly don’t look the same, some get very elaborate, and some would rather spend time on the other part of it so their Hangman stages are simple. I leave that up to them.”

Tight Deadlines

Time is another constraint that Janet employs. Students are given strict deadlines to encourage incremental practices and allow time for feedback between drafts. “I give them a date and say, ‘By the beginning of class tomorrow, everybody has to have their projects uploaded and then we’re going to spend a couple of days looking at them and commenting on them. Take one and see what you can do to either fix it, build on it, make another level, whatever it is.’ It helps them understand that it’s okay to put something out that’s not all packaged perfectly, and maybe somebody else can shed some light on it. It’s a fun opportunity for them.”

Minimal Instructions

Janet also limits when and how much scaffolding she offers to the students in order to give them room to explore. “The very first thing they learn in this course is problem-solving steps and how to identify what you know and what you don’t know. So we talk through the problem, ‘What do you need? Well yes, you need this Hangman stage, so how would you do that? I don’t tend to give them too many hints before they get started, I’d rather have them get started and get stuck and then help them figure it out.”

Janet’s model of purposeful open-endedness empowers students to make decisions about what design challenges to take on and how to address them. Throughout the process of developing final projects, students felt, at times, both stressed and satisfied. “Part of it was to throw them into that environment where they realize that it’s a lot harder than it looks but then they can’t back out because they’re so into it. I have kids who didn’t realize how difficult it is to do a checkers game because you have only two colors. It’s a real struggle. They start programming and they’re trying to figure it out and it’s hard, but then they end up with these beautiful checkers sets. A course like this shows the students that there’s a way of understanding the procedure, not just calculating the solution. It speaks a lot to problem solving, computational thinking, much more than just writing the script. And that to me is very important.”


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