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Pilot Perspectives: Reflections on the Scratch Curriculum Guide by Tyson Spraul of Twin Chimneys 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: Tyson Spraul
School: Twin Chimneys Elementary School
Location: O'Fallon, Missouri
Guide Usage: 45 minutes/week

I am a regular classroom teacher of fourth graders (nine to ten year-olds) that has been teaching in a large suburban district for five years. Most of my students have ready access to a variety of technology at home, yet their previous exposure to technology in our school is relatively limited. Our district does not have technology teachers, coaches, or curriculum, so technology integration is mostly left to the classroom teachers. Teachers have an optional 45 minutes a week of computer lab time to use as they wish, with an implicit expectation that it be curriculum-related. I had begun using Scratch with third and fourth graders a few years ago during this computer lab time as an extension to the status quo of desktop publishing, internet research, computer-based assessments, playing games, etc. With our school's recent acquisition of a mobile laptop cart and my growing appreciation for the versatility of Scratch, I was eager to explore ways of integrating Scratch into the regular curriculum. The Creative Computing curriculum guide pilot presented me with a great opportunity to dig deeper into the possibilities of Scratch for my classroom.

One great aspect of the curriculum guide is the variety of learning experiences it offers. Project themes include art, music, storytelling, and games. And beyond programming with Scratch on a computer, there are opportunities for students to write, draw, move around, watch videos, work in a group, work with a partner, or work alone. 

One of my favorite sessions that represents this well was Session #7, where students create a collaborative story while exploring the practice of remixing. As a connecting activity, students are asked to draw a “creature” in three parts. Each student begins by drawing a head for a creature, then passes it on to two other students in succession, who each get a minute to add a middle and bottom for the creature. This was a fun and engaging activity for elementary-aged students. For the next activity in the session, students apply a similar collaborative structure to designing a pass-it-on story in Scratch, a project that is started by a pair of people, and then passed on to two other pairs to extend.

During the second activity, I did make a slight alteration to what was suggested in the guide. Instead of letting the kids work on whatever part of the story they wanted during each rotation, I structured it more like the creature construction, where during each rotation I specified the aspect of the project for the kids to work on. I was concerned, based on my class’s past experiences working with Scratch, that during each rotation the kids would spend most of their time creating sprites and adding to the stage, and never get around to adding any programming blocks. So I made the first rotation about working on sprites and background, the second rotation about adding motion, and the third rotation about adding dialogue.

This is definitely a Scratch activity that I will do again with my class next year (third graders!), but I’m going to consider a few changes and extensions next time. I liked the idea of specifying the goals for each rotation, particularly at this age, but I can imagine other ways of possibly doing this more effectively. For instance, the teacher could hold up a card at the beginning of each rotation that specifies a story element (eg. character/sprite, setting/stage, etc.) or computational concept/block (eg. loop, conditional, event, etc.) to add to the project. As a fun variation, you could make this a collaborative project between classes, passing the project around the globe. The seemingly endless variations and modifications that can come from this simple activity is what makes this such a great lesson idea for any age or ability.

The variety of project themes and instructional strategies resulted in an overall learning experience that allowed multiple entry-points for most every one of my students to begin thinking computationally. It was amazing to see them begin with essentially no programming experience and end up creating an array of projects in just twenty sessions. My students would not have created such a diversity of projects or engaged in such higher-order thinking if I had introduced Scratch via direct instruction tutorials, as I have previously done.

That being said, the language used in parts of the guide was challenging for nine and ten year-olds. There were blank faces at times when first introducing some of the design notebook questions or final project handouts. I often had to restate ideas in different terms to spark understanding in students. A couple of my students on IEPs grasped few, if any, of the concepts, and needed extensive one-on-one assistance in order to create projects. Nonetheless, most of my students were able to grasp many of the computational concepts and apply most of the practices.

The variety and creativity of ideas young people express while working with them both surprises me and never surprises me. Using Scratch as their medium of expression was no exception. Some were most excited about being able to easily add their own images and voice, while others were simply eager to make their own games. The projects that they gave me permission to share can be found in a gallery on our class Scratch page. You can also read some of their reflections about their final projects on our class blog. Feel free to leave comments!

The guide offers some great pedagogical strategies including interactive notebooks, cooperative learning, peer feedback, and time for reflection. I would caution against cutting any of these parts out, as they are integral to the guide. But also consider the routines or protocols already established in your classroom (eg. think-pair-share). Could any of those be added or substituted while still achieving the desired results? Using practices that are already part of classroom could help lessons go more smoothly, and help you and your students focus more on the computational thinking practices/concepts.

Be thoughtful about the exemplar projects you show the class, particularly in the beginning. Some of my kids became very frustrated during the earlier sessions when their actual capabilities with Scratch could not yet match their aspirations. This was at least partly due to the sophistication of some of the Scratch projects I demonstrated.

Introducing Scratch to elementary school aged kids is likely going to be a different experience than using it with older kids. Be prepared to continuously adjust your goals and expectations. Your primary goals might look different than a high school CS teacher. I chose to focus less on computational concepts (i.e. programming) and more on computational practices (i.e. design process, habits of mind, cooperation and collaboration). You will also likely need to allow more time for students to work on projects than is suggested in the guide in order for younger kids to complete them, or at least feel successful about their progress.

As an elementary teacher, don’t worry if you do not have much (or any) programming experience -- your students probably won’t either. Just be ready to become part of the learning community. Be excited when you’ve learned something new about Scratch. Celebrate when a student has taught you, or someone else in the class, something interesting. Student-experts will soon emerge and become valuable resources for both you and other students in class. Encourage your class to use each other as resources, and not rely solely on you as a teacher (eg. Ask three, then me.)