Today we launched the first of what I hope will be many monthly workshops over at our Delmas28 location. A total of four of our most experienced teachers – Fefe, Dyna, Jeanide, and Ruben – worked with a group of 18 students to help them produce a story using Scratch.
As you might have gathered from the number of teachers needed, this activity is more advanced than the stuff we typically do to introduce the kids to the computers. Scratch is a programming language developed for kids by MIT. You click and drag on blocks to give the commands. With the ability to manipulate appearance, sound, and interactions between objects, you can make games, animations, and basically anything you’re willing to put your mind to make happen.
Our theme for the day was “a time when something hurt me.” I came up with it the day my phone got stolen – I was messing around on Scratch to prepare for the workshop, I needed the story to tell, and that was the first thing that popped into my head.
One of the older orphanage boys, Peterson, had been watching me program the thief’s gaze and movements towards my cell phone. I asked him to tell me his own story about a time when something hurt him. He immediately launched into an account of a time he got into an argument with his father. “Wait, wait,” I found myself saying. “Go over it more slowly. Who were the participants? What did your father do, and how did you react?”
Once we had all the characters in place, we typed out the dialogue for each one, tweaking the timing for each one to make sure the text was on screen long enough for someone to read. We drew two pictures of Peterson’s birth certificate – one whole, and one torn in half – and had it switch from one to the other at the story’s climax.
There’s a satisfaction to reducing something painful to its bare elements. By programming, you get some measure of control over the situation. I was a little nervous about choosing something so heavy as a topic for a kids’ workshop, but it turns out they were ready for it. Most stories are about someone in trouble, after all, and adults can be wrong when they assume kids crave Disneyfied happy endings. Kids have a strong sense of right and wrong – ever try to cross over the lines of a hopscotch game? They understand that bad things can happen to good people, and they want to know why.
Physical punishment is part of Haitian culture, and quite a few kids told us about a time when their parents beat them even though they didn’t feel they deserved it. We also had several tales about dogs on the street stealing meat or biting people. Others wrote about pets that died, fights with friends, and motorcycle accidents.
Our job was to bring each and every story to life. We started out by asking the students to fill out a simple form, listing characters, actions, objects, and reactions. Then, they had to find or draw a picture for each one, along with a background.
It was the students’ first time using the computers, so they needed a lot of help and encouragement. One boy wanted to write about his cell phone being stolen, but he couldn’t find a phone in the list of preloaded images. I showed him the option for drawing one, but he seemed a bit daunted. The guy next to him had a picture of a person and a picture of a bicycle, but he couldn’t make the guy sit on the bike because they were facing opposite ways. I told him to play around with the rotate and flip options until it looked right. The girl next to him had chosen all of her images already, but she needed a belt in her father’s hand as the finishing touch, and refused to try to draw one.
It was extremely rewarding to watch them all figure it out. When the boy with the cell phone called me back over, I saw he had drawn not just one but two phones, and also added a laptop. “I had all that stuff sitting with me on the bench while I was studying, and then I fell asleep,” he explained. I helped him program a thief to come in and swipe one of the phones. Watching the finished product, he shook his head and commented, “Hey, at least he didn’t take my laptop and the other cell phone.”
His friend with the bicycle had finally gotten all the pieces facing the right way. He showed me a second drawing he had made, with the guy falling over the bike. “I want the bike to move for a little bit, and then I want it to change to the accident.” I showed him the Movement category and asked him to choose which ones would work.We tried a couple, but kept on having problems because the “person” object wasn’t turning at the same time as the “bike” object. Eventually, we made it easy on ourselves by just combining them into one object that moved with one set of commands.
The girl next to him was busy typing out some text. She’d found a “repeat” block and set things up so that the belt moved up and down three times while her father said, “I told you not go to outside.” She may not have been comfortable with drawing at first, but she was creative enough to do something much more complicated – animation.
There were some mishaps. Everyone laughed when one girl forgot to program a Coke bottle. On the screen, her character moves over to another character and says, “Here is the Coke” but the Coke bottle itself stays behind in the corner. Not everyone got a chance to finish their story. They took longer to adapt to the computers than they’d bargained for, so we ran out of time. The teachers themselves were sometimes confused on which commands to choose. They hadn’t had much time to practice with Scratch, and each story needed something different. I liked the simplicity of “character, action, object, reaction” for these stories, but it might be better to constrain things even more. Have everyone write about transportation, for example, so everyone’s using the same set of movement commands to program everything, whether they’re talking about a plane, train, or ship.
The good news is, next week we get to try again – this same group will be back for the next three Saturdays to do some more work with Scratch. And then next month, we’ll start another workshop, on a new topic. Can’t wait to see what people come up with.