Connected Learning Teaching Writing

How Computational Thinking Altered a Language Arts Classroom

Remixing Work, Deconstructing Learning, Abstracting Thought


Laura Beth Fay shares her teacher inquiry exploring the implications of using Scratch and computer science skills with her students in her English classroom. Originally published on August 2, 2011

I walked into a computer lab at The College of New Jersey with cynical thoughts about whether or not the journalism summer camp project that three professors—Ursula Wolz, Kim Pearson, and Monisha Pulimood—had created would work. What I saw in that room changed my life as a teacher and is a memory I draw on even now in times of doubt.

Spread throughout the room before me were my eighth grade students, completely engaged and engrossed in the process of researching and writing, working together as teams and giving each other feedback that was meaningful and respectful. I was dumbfounded. These were the same students who, only a few weeks ago, had complained and moaned at the mention of writing a complete sentence. They were excited and better yet, they were learning. What was the magic that made my students embrace the writing process that we had been molding and shaping in class with such enthusiasm in the middle of summer? It was Scratch, a programming language designed for use by children, and I knew right then that I had to have it in my classroom.

When I started my career as an English teacher I never would have imagined that I would be researching computer science and the ways that it relates to my classroom. Through this process I have learned that in order for my students to succeed in a world that has digital literacy as a prerequisite, they must be able to create tools for themselves instead of just using the tools that have been created by others. Jeannette Wing recognizes this reality in her Viewpoint, 2006 .pdf article,

Computational thinking is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just for computer scientists. To reading, writing, and arithmetic, we should add computational thinking to every child’s analytical ability. Just as the printing press facilitated the spread of the three Rs, what is appropriately incestuous about this vision is that computing and computers facilitate the spread of computational thinking.

I can think of no better environment in which to teach children how to create in the digital age than the Language Arts classroom. As we teach children to write, we teach them to invent, to craft, to mold their own realities. The times and tools that we use have changed and will undoubtedly change again, but the process remains the same. If we embrace this new fundamental as Wing wants us to, we have the potential to open channels of authentic learning in the digital age for our students.

Scratch Work Leads to Further Research

As I reflected on my first experience with the Scratch poetry project in my classroom, I realized that there was more going on than just writing poetry or my students and I getting to know each other. I wanted to know what other benefits I could provide to my students by using Scratch in my classroom. I went back to the source and approached the TCNJ professors who had created the summer camp where I first learned about Scratch. They introduced me to the concept of computational thinking. I was intrigued by this and started to research the idea further.

In a 2006 article in Viewpoint, Jeannette Wing defines computational thinking as “…solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science.” As it turns out, those concepts of computer science—collaboration, deconstruction, abstraction, pattern recognition, algorithm creation, and recursion—are the elements that allowed me to create so much excitement in my classroom during Scratch creation.  The video featured above gives a great explanation of how Scratch brings computational thinking to the students through a natural process of development.

Expanding Uses for Scratch in the Classroom

Since that first experience with Scratch in my classroom nearly three years ago, I have continued to develop ideas for ways that I can maintain the excited atmosphere that I am still driven to achieve. For example, every October my students participate in Violence Prevention in Schools Week by creating stories and games that teach elementary students to avoid violent situations by making the right choices. I use this unit to teach plot development and audience recognition, but just as I did with the poetry unit, I realized that computational thinking skills continued to materialize.

On one occasion in the lab I decided to try out an experiment to see if these computation thinking skills really had an effect on my classroom environment. I created a simple example of the interactivity that is possible in Scratch programming and I gave this example to the programmer of the example above, Jim, who was struggling with coming up with an idea to grab the attention of his audience. Jim liked what he saw of my programming and immediately started to remix the code so that he could recreate it in his own program. As he was playing with his program to see if it worked and check for bugs, other students in the room started to notice that he had done something different and they began to ask for instructions on how to do the same thing. I interrupted at that point just to remind him that he was certainly allowed to help out other students, but that my rule is he has to do so without touching the other student’s mouse.

This was a frustrating concept for Jim. He wanted to just take over the mouse and create the code for his friend, but since he knew I was watching he was forced to find a way to deconstruct and verbalize the learning process that he had just been through. It took a few tries, but eventually Jim was able to get his ideas across so that his friend understood how to make his program interactive. Jim was visibly excited by this success and began to travel the room showing other students how to create interactive buttons.

The process that Jim has just gone through is one that has occurred during writer’s workshop before. The idea that he observed a model of writing, emulated the model to create his original writing, reflected on the process that aided him in his writing, and then shared his experience with other writers is not new. What is new in this situation is the way in which I view it. as the facilitator of the experience. By changing the vocabulary about Jim’s experience, I was able to see that he was utilizing computational thinking skills. Now that I have learned more about what computational thinking is, I would say that Jim has remixed the work of another programmer, deconstructed his learning process, and abstracted his thinking in a recursive manner in order to assist other programmers.

I continued through the rest of that week seeding these same types of peer interactions. It did not always work out as well as it did with Jim, but for the most part the students were interacting with each other about their programming in very meaningful ways. As I reflected on this at the end of the week I realized that this idea of seeding peer interactions could be a new way to handle mini-lessons within my writer’s workshop sessions. Seeing these interactions has changed the way that I view peer conferencing and the level of interconnectivity that exists in my classroom.

Poetry Through Scratch: A New Twist on an Old Standby

The first unit I developed using Scratch centered around an activity I have done in my classroom for years. In September I always have my students create Name Poems. It is a simple activity that the students have probably done on numerous occasions in the past, but it helps me to learn their names and also to get them used to the writing and sharing environment of my classroom. The students wrote their poems and then we moved into the computer lab where I introduced them to Scratch. In Scratch, the students gave a visual representation to their poems and then animated these representations with movement and sound.

The results of this first interaction with Scratch were amazing. The children had produced the same type of poems that my students have been producing for years, but when transformed into Scratch projects, their writing came alive. I learned more about my students from viewing their programs than I ever had before from just words on the page. For example, Jacob, who created the project above, was able to illustrate not only his passion for art and his silly side, but the type of media and content he is drawn to through the visuals and movement that accompany his work.

What amazed me even more was that it wasn’t just the end result that got me excited. The process of creating the programs was something that both the students and I were immediately addicted to. I finally felt that the excitement level of my students while writing matched my own while teaching. As I walked around the room and conferenced with students who were writing and creating in Scratch, I saw that spontaneous collaboration was happening. Also, students who were usually quiet or felt uncomfortable contributing to discussions started to take on leadership roles, showing small groups of students around the room how to make something cool happen in the programming.