Scratch Fever

A couple of years ago, Dante decided he wanted to learn more about computer programming. Now, when I learned to program, it was in BASIC, with a bit of Logo thrown in for good measure. But I guessed that in our brave new century, there are better alternatives available, and a bit of googling showed me that I was right. We found and downloaded a programming language called Scratch. Scratch was created by a group at the MIT Media Lab, with the intention of making a programming language for kids that would eliminate the frustrating syntax and compilation errors that can afflict new programmers.

They did this by using a “block programming” paradigm — rather than typing in commands, the Scratch programmer drags prefabricated command blocks from a staging area into a kind of “code corral” associated with a particular sprite (graphical image). Blocks can grow or shrink as needed, so you can drag new stuff into your code block and it will automatically accommodate whatever it needs to. Everything is graphical, mouse-oriented, and intuitive. It’s quite cool. It also helps that the Scratch logo, and default sprite, is a kitty. Within a few hours, 7-year-old Dante was making that kitty run around, meow, and respond to keyboard commands.

Dante’s interest in things tends to ebb and flow, and Scratch is no different. He would lay it aside for a few months, then return to it for a few days with new ideas for stuff to try, or just new motivation to poke around some more. At one point, Laura brought home a cool book from the library that rekindled his interest for a longer period. We even did a bit of Python programming over the summer, thanks to a different cool book.

Well, Scratch has enjoyed a big renaissance this fall, and this time we have Stargate to thank. Dante read the book Flipped in his literacy class, and was assigned a presentation project, to demonstrate his knowledge of the first half of the book. The teacher allowed a lot of latitude for the format of this presentation, so when Dante proposed making it in Scratch, she signed off. He ended up doing two different Scratch presentations on Flipped, one for each half of the book. These presentations featured stick figures, animation, dialogue, drawings done with a mouse, and adorability.

A few weeks later, he was assigned a larger project as a part of his social studies curriculum. They’re studying Colorado history this year, and the kids were to make a diorama depicting some early historical period of their choosing. The rubric for the assignment included showing people doing an activity, animals, plants, housing, tools, and so forth. As it happens, his literacy teacher is also his social studies teacher, which perhaps paved the way for him to propose doing a Scratch diorama instead. The teacher agreed, so he created a project called “archaic colorado” (capitalization is his arch-nemesis) in Scratch.

Wanna see it? Well, you’re in luck, because Scratch allows its users to share their projects on the web. I can’t embed it, but here’s a link to the project — click the green flag to start the presentation. It’ll loop forever, so you don’t have to stick around for the second showing. I think it came out pretty well — hope his teacher agrees. 🙂

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