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Scratch in English and Social Science Classes: An Interview with Rick Ashby of Douglas S. Freeman High School

Rick Ashby is passionate about using Scratch to teach English, History, and Civics. He has introduced Virginia middle school and high school students to Scratch through storytelling projects, kinetic poetry, and simulations of historical events, to name a few. He even started the early critique groups on the Scratch website forums. Since we often get asked for advice on how to incorporate Scratch into Humanities and Social Science subject areas, we invited Rick to share some of his experiences with the community. Read on to discover how Rick helps students engage with the curricular material, finds time to experiment with new ideas, and aligns Scratch with English and History standards.

Inspiring Investigations
Rick mentions that one way he supports students’ learning about historical events is to inspire their natural curiosity and allow them to take ownership over the material. He tells us this story about a student whose Scratch game turned into a personal investigation of European History.

I had a student who was making a game that represented the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so the idea of the game was to destroy bricks in the Berlin Wall while avoiding the guards that were walking back and forth across the screen. As he started working on it, he felt invested in it and wanted some authenticity in it, so he started asking me, “Well, what color uniforms did they wear?” So he did some research about the Berlin wall and the types of uniforms soldiers in Germany used to wear, and kind of, in a very tangential way, discovered, “Did you know that they had this kind of weapon?” and “Did you know that they used to treat people like this?” And he collected a ton of information as a result of that one question. He learned a lot more about the subject and felt interested and proud, rather than sitting down to memorize a list of facts for a test that he would then forget the next day. And when he shared the video game with his friends to play, he couldn’t stop telling them all of the background knowledge he had gathered.

Starting a Club to Pilot Lessons
Rick says that an initial challenge was estimating how long students would need to design and develop projects. Looking for a time and space to experiment with new lesson plans, Rick started an afterschool Scratch Club.

Probably my biggest challenge when I first started trying to implement Scratch was the amount of time the projects would take. Projects would stretch out for a really long time and tended to take two to three times what I expected. So one of the things I did when I released Scratch at the very beginning of school was that I started an afterschool club that focused on game design and used Scratch as the primary tool. I used a lot of the experiences working with the afterschool club as a way to try things out for my classes. I’d see what the kids were interested in and what kinds of problems they would encounter and that helped me design lessons. I already had a chance to troubleshoot and think about how to teach the things I wanted to teach the kids in bigger classroom situations.

Reflecting on Standards
After integrating Scratch into his class activities, Rick faced questions from his colleagues and administration about its relevancy to the English and History curriculum. He shares how he turned this challenge into an opportunity to help students be aware of their learning processes and to be transparent with them about course expectations and standards.

Convincing my colleagues that the projects we did were actually relevant to the English curriculum, that was a challenge. That is one of the reasons why I have put such an emphasis on students writing reflections. I show the students the English and History Standards and in their reflections, they consciously relate the work that they have done in Scratch with the standards. They give specific examples of how they’ve done it, and then, it’s really difficult for my colleagues to say that it doesn’t have anything to do with English or History. I have the papers to show that the kids have not only understood it but have some metacognitive understanding of having understood it.