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Teacher-to-Teacher: Creating Space for Exploration

Dear #CSEdWeek educators,

As a special education teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to facilitate creative computing in ways that are authentic and meaningful. But what does that really mean? Those terms get tossed around quite a bit these days. For me, opportunities to design and create need to dovetail with student interest, while also being directly tied to what is happening in their lives as students. Let me show you how student-led inquiry surrounding an annual field trip led us down that path…

Starting in fourth grade, our students get to perform music on stage at Symphony Center in downtown Chicago. My fourth grade students were excited about the field trip, and they had many wonderings. “Who invented instruments? How are they made? Why are they made the way they are?” Based on their questions and Mitch Resnick’s creative learning spiral, I proposed that my students design their own instruments using ScratchMakey Makey, and lots of cardboard and copper tape. One student was determined to replicate the biggest instrument she saw, the string bass. It played straight tones when using a bow and plucked notes when you used your fingers. Another student created a “whimsical flute” and wrote her own sheet music with notation matching the inputs on the Makey Makey. These instruments were figments of their imagination on Tuesday, and playable prototypes by Friday.


The following year, these two students (now in fifth grade) continued their musical coding and making journey and they wanted to do it up big, literally. They had their eyes set on making a piano like the one from the movie “Big”. The confidence from their prior successes buoyed them as they made multiple prototypes and battled with unforeseen design challenges. For example, they were determined to make a full octave on their piano. Rather than be deterred by the lack of inputs on the Makey Makey, they felt empowered to learn how to reprogram those inputs so that they would correspond appropriately.


When I look at the computational artifacts created by my students for these projects, two highlights stand out to me: The first was the code in the whimsical flute. In her initial design, my student was not satisfied. She had discovered and used the instrument block in Scratch, so that the flute played notes that sounded like a flute — but they weren’t very whimsical. The next day, she began to tinker with the pitches of the notes and how long they played. It was then that she had a breakthrough. She reduced the length of the notes to 0.1 beats and stacked a string of four or five notes together. Voila! The output was now quite whimsical.

The second highlight was the structure of the code when the students built out the piano. As they built prototypes, they realized it was going to be quite a task to wire up the piano — it was going to take up thirteen inputs on the Makey Makey! Their solution was in the code. When they built it, they laid out the blocks in the shape of a keyboard layout.


Mitch Resnick writes that it’s important for us to provide students with “low floors” (easy ways for novices to get started), “high ceilings” (ways to work on increasingly sophisticated projects), as well as “wide walls” (multiple pathways from floor to ceiling, to accommodate diverse learning styles). My hope is that educators work to create learning experiences with “wide walls” for students to explore as they find their own path to experience coding. When you give them that space, they will amaze you.


Nick Giacobbe

Nick Giacobbe is a public school teacher in Chicago. Nick also facilitates Chicago ScratchEd Meetups. To learn more about Nick’s teaching practices, check out this See Inside the Classroom article on ScratchEd.

In celebration of #TeacherLearning this #CSEdWeek, ScratchEd shared a letter from a teacher to the #CSEdWeek educator community each day, on the theme of “Creative Computing: What? Why? How?”
You can still join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, using #TeacherLearning!