At OETC 2015, three educators from Bay Village Schools, Ohio—Char Shryock, director of curriculum and Instruction, and fourth-grade teachers, Chris Dlugosz and Patrick Kelly, from Westerly Elementary—and Dr. Linda Seiter, professor of computer science from John Carroll University, discussed the value of integrating Scratch into the district’s fourth-grade curriculum.
Scratch, which is found online at scratch.mit.edu, is a computer coding program developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology that allows students to create their own interactive stories, games, and animations and share their creations with others in the online community. Shryock emphasizes that Scratch offers more than just computer programming skills. “It’s really a program that can be applied across multiple classroom settings and multiple grade levels,” says Shryock. “What’s good about Scratch is that it really stresses creative and computational thinking, and it helps students start to organize their ideas and gives them a voice to explain their thinking in ways that our traditional classroom methods may not allow.”
Two years ago, Dlugosz and Kelly first used a series of web tutorials developed by Seiter to introduce Scratch into their fourth-grade classroom. Because Scratch accounts are visible to others using the software, the teachers shared information about the initiative with parents and requested signed permission for students to participate. “When we first got started, we built all the accounts under our own email addresses,” said Dlugosz. “This year, I asked the kids to do that on their own.” The lessons can be found at scratchisfun.weebly.com.
Seiter, who has been collaborating with local school districts to study children and computers, developed the lessons with the goal of integrating computer science into the educational pipeline, particularly in the primary grades “before stereotypes kick in” to inspire students to pursue a career in computer science. Although fourth grade may sound a bit young to introduce programming skills, Seiter said the timing is perfect for the development of children’s cognitive abilities. “Right around the fourth or fifth grade is the very critical boundary between totally clueless and really awesome programming,” she said, noting that children at that point are suddenly capable of abstract and algorithmic thinking.
“Scratch is a real programming language. It’s similar to Code.org. It’s all block-based, but it lets you do more than Code.org. With Code.org, you’re restricted to playing whatever game they’ve implemented. Whereas with Scratch, children can animate any story and experiment with any kind of game they might want to build. You’re basically putting together little scripts. These characters are called Sprites. And, a script tells the Sprite what to do.”
Seiter’s lessons slowly introduced the students to basic mathematical concepts and practices in Scratch and leveraged the power of trial and error to foster student learning. “We start out with pretty simple lessons, beginning with the individual blocks and learning how to sequence them. Very quickly we get into motion, which has them working with X and Y coordinates,” Seiter explains. “The first couple of weeks, the children really struggle with it. With the X-Y coordinate plane, you’re working with positive and negative three-digit numbers, which are pretty tough for a fourth grader. They immediately make a lot of errors, and they very quickly learn the importance of that negative sign and that every digit matters. So in building these animations, the importance of number signs is being reinforced. And, by the fourth or fifth week, they are comfortable with X-Y coordinates without having an official math class. So, they are learning math by actually applying it.”
Through the series of lessons, Seiter says the students grow in their understanding of more and more tasks. They also learn the engineering process of taking a very large problem and breaking it up into little pieces. “As we move forward, we start to notice the lessons get longer and longer and longer in terms of the number of steps,” she explains. “So, you don’t solve something all in one shot. You learn how to engineer a solution to your problem.”
As they integrate Scratch into their mathematics curriculum, the Westerly Elementary fourth-grade teachers use it to foster mathematical practices emphasized by the Common Core State Standards:
- Don’t give up
- Choose the right tools
- Think logically
- Be precise
- Use evidence to support an argument
- Use patterns and structures
- Model your thinking
- Make predictions
Dlugosz said the practices of logical thinkers are naturally amplified through the use of Scratch. “We had cards on their desks that have these eight mathematical practices, and we just call them the skills that good problem solvers use. Scratch is good at teaching these things,” he said. “The students look at the list when they get stuck on the project and say, ‘Remember what good problem solvers do. Think logically. Don’t give up. We can get through this.’
“When you try to have some sort of an outcome in Scratch, and it doesn’t work the way you want it to, you have to go back in and troubleshoot why it’s not working. Scratch only does what you tell it to do,” Dlugosz said. “So if you don’t tell it to do something properly, Scratch is not going to give you the outcome you want. This forces the kids to go back and think about the problem that needs to be solved and tactics to employ in order to do it.”
Dlugosz said Seiter’s lessons provided the framework for the initiative. After the students completed the task, they then had some time for some exploratory learning. “We usually worked with her lessons for about an hour a week. Maybe the lesson would take 40 minutes for the majority of the kids to get through and, after that 40 minutes was over, the kids had some free time to do some creative stuff. A lot of times, they would take what they learned and use it in their own projects. This was a great time for peer-to-peer work, which allowed the student to become the teacher. In the first couple lessons, we were running around making sure that everyone knew what they are doing. But as the weeks passed, that slowed down because the students became the ones to troubleshoot for us.”
Through the community-based network, students also have the ability to look under the hood of other students’ projects and see how they are built. “When a kid comes up with a really cool idea, other students will ask name of that project. They then look it up, hit the remix button, and pull it into their own account. Then they can play his game, or they could decide to build their own game using some of the ideas that he came up with. So the students are constantly innovating based on each other’s ideas.”
Kelly noted that Scratch worked well with all levels of learners—special education to gifted students. “Through the full spectrum of learners, they are all able to access this and all able to have success with it,” he said. “Kids enjoyed this, not realizing that they were thinking mathematically. There was some carryover between what they were doing in their Scratch work and what they were doing in the classrooms work.”
After the first few sessions, Dlugosz began to integrate the tool across the full spectrum of his curriculum. “Once students acquired the basic coding skills, we could use Scratch not only for problem solving but also as a new medium for teaching the standards,” he said. “For example, we were doing silly prepositional phrases, so my students started building silly prepositional phrase animations in Scratch. ‘I saw six hippos running across my yard.’ Well, they would build that entire script. So, we took the coding and turned it into a new medium. Instead of working on a worksheet for a lesson in English, we’re going to do a Scratch project.”
Kelly said it added a new dimension to his classroom. “It kind of reinvigorates your creativity as a teacher,” he said. “I found myself doing what I call digital storytelling. For example, we read a chapter in a book. Let’s see if we can animate that scene using Scratch. See if you can rebuild the scene, pulling the characters in. Remember the details of the story on the screen. Make it have live action like you read in the chapter. Basically create your own living animation.”