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Pilot Perspectives: Reflections on the Scratch Curriculum Guide by Judy Hoffman of Stephen S. Wise Elementary School

After releasing the Scratch curriculum guide draft in the fall of 2011, the ScratchEd Team was interested to see how the Creative Computing curriculum was being implemented across different settings. We invited ten K-12 educators from across the U.S. to pilot the guide in their classrooms. We asked them to let us know what happened – what worked, and what didn’t. In this special ScratchEd Story series, pilot participants share their experiences and provide feedback about the curriculum guide.

We hope that these vignettes will help illustrate the range of possibilities for using the Scratch curriculum guide in K-12 settings. We encourage anyone who is using the Creative Computing curriculum to share feedback in this discussion forum

Scratch Educator: Judy Hoffman 
School: Stephen S. Wise Elementary School

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Guide Usage: Six-Month Unit (October 19 – April 20, 2012)

I piloted the Creative Computing curriculum with my three fifth grade classes. Each class has computer lab for 45 minutes each week. In the past our lab time has focused on integration with academic content, internet research and desktop publishing. But, after reviewing the pilot with our Director of Curriculum, we thought that introducing creative computational thinking to our technology program in 5th grade would be worthwhile. (And it was!!)

Having a vehicle to teach computational thinking skills got our interest from the start. The idea of getting our students to think like computer scientists and use programming vocabulary to explain what they were learning received lots of support from classroom teachers and parents. I made posters that were displayed in the computer labs and classrooms to reinforce vocabulary words such as incremental or iterative and descriptions of computational practices. This particular group of fifth graders had some previous experience using Scratch from when they were in 4th grade. I think it was important that they had some basic understanding of the program going in, but it’s not a prerequisite to teach this curriculum to elementary school students. They can learn as they go along.

One of the most gratifying reasons to use this curriculum in the classroom was to help young learners realize that they might have a talent or affinity for programming or computational thinking. I used to think that only programmers knew what it meant to have a coding problem get stuck in your brain until you went into hyper-focus mode to figure out the solution, but that can even happen to a ten year old. Many students would be in the computer lab before school or at lunch working out solutions to their Scratch coding challenges. Lots of metaphorical light bulbs were going off in the heads of my students during the pilot.

Without a doubt one of our favorite lessons was Lesson 3: Instruction and Sequence. It’s a little surprising that one of their favorite lessons did not even include using Scratch. In fact, one of our classes didn’t even come into the computer lab for this lesson. But that was actually one of the hidden surprises in this curriculum. The genres of art, storytelling, dance, music really were universal. It’s not an accident that elementary school students learn how to follow instructions and identify sequencing across subject areas, they are important things to know.  This lesson was a great experience in trying to understand how to give precise instructions and how to understand sequencing – especially since the dance videos got harder as they got longer. 

For session 9: Debug It, the students organized themselves into groups of four. A few pairs of children had to be gently nudged into a group of four, but that’s normal for this age group. There were some groups of only boys and some groups of only girls, which worked well actually. Each group received a packet of five Debug it worksheets, we didn’t finish all of them, but they got the idea.

For the most part, they were able to work together to figure out what the problem was, but maybe because they were working on this together, when they got to the fourth question,  “Did others have alternative approaches to fixing this problem?” They all responded no. I think they might have been able to find an alternative solution if the question had been worded differently (Was there another way to solve this problem?) but, they figured it out together, so they didn’t identify an alternative solution.

Regarding design journals, I played around with digital notebooks and paper notebooks. For elementary school students, I think a printed design notebook is the way to go. From my point of view, it was easier. They had a place to draw and write and the questions were already there AND they seemed to take it more seriously. I’m not sure why, but the responses written on paper, in general, were stronger than the responses that were typed.

And here are some reflections from my students:

The thing I like about Scratch is:

  • “That you could be creative.”
  • “You can make anything, there is no limit.”
  • “It’s your world and you can do anything.”
  • “That you could make almost anything and you can be as creative as you want.”

On working in groups: 

  • “We brought together our ideas.”
  • “Working with someone is different than working alone, because you discover new and different things about Scratch from your friend.”
  • “With other persons we have more ideas, and we can have some laughs, too.”

Debugging strategies:

  • “Look at all your sprite’s movements and move them around.”

Figure It Out Time: Make time for students to figure things out themselves. When I first started teaching this curriculum, hands would shoot up soon as students started working. The first strategy they would try was to ask the teacher. Now, I use “Figure It Out Time.” They have to spend 15 minutes trying to figure it out by themselves. Students need to learn how to become persistent problem solvers. When “Figure It Out Time” ends, THEN they can ask other students or a teacher. In fact, this worked so well with my 5th graders that I tried it with all my other classes (K-6) and now other teachers are using this technique, too. 

Use the vocabulary: I modeled using terms such as “incremental” and “iterative” so that my students would get a better understanding of computer science terminology. They were encouraged to use these terms in explanations as well.

And finally, have fun. Even if you might be a little intimidated by the words, “computational thinking” having that cute, little, orange Scratch Cat with you along the way makes it a great program to use with young learners.