Project Author

Stacy Kitsis, MLS Candidate
College of Information Studies, University of Maryland

Introduction

In this interdisciplinary unit, which addresses learning goals in English language arts, mathematics, and school library media, students work in pairs to create short, interactive animations of their favorite poems.
After choosing their favorite poems, students briefly research the poets and create storyboards of their visual interpretation of the text. They learn the fundamentals of Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu), a free software development platform created for young people by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. Scratch is easy to learn (due to its unique graphical interface, no traditional coding skills are necessary) and was designed with 21st century skills development in mind. To prepare for creating their animations, they draw storyboards and learn about the information ethics involved in remixing other people's creative work. The finished animations are shared with a larger community through a project blog during National Poetry Month, inviting further conversations about poetry and media creation.
Scratch is an ideal tool for multidisciplinary, 21st century learning environments. It offers students the opportunity to engage with a rich and authentic participatory culture with "relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices" (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 3). According to the MIT Media Lab developers, Scratch supports the development of 21st century learning skills, including information and communication skills, thinking and problem solving, and interpersonal and self-directional skills (see Scratch and 21st Century Learning Skills for further discussion).

The Topic and Standards

This curricular unit is designed for eighth graders studying English language arts, mathematics, and library media studies in a team-based, heterogeneous learning environment. By combining principles of poetry and programming in new ways, we hope to students a chance to celebrate their strengths in new contexts, while providing an interdisciplinary experience that is in keeping with real-world problem solving.
Although the project has been calibrated for eighth graders in mixed-ability classes, it could be easily adapted to other grades or levels. Scratch has been successfully used with students from upper elementary through college; the standards below are applicable to kindergarten through grade twelve.
English Language Arts Standards
Source: NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts (National Council of Teachers of English & International Reading Association)
As students read and select their poems, they will meet the following NCTE standards:
1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
To present their poems, students will use a combination of written, spoken, and visual literacies. They will write about the poem's meaning to them, record a reading of the poem, and represent meaning through their graphical interpretation. The following standards will be addressed:
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes. 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
Although research skills are not the focus of the unit plan, students will briefly research their poets and share what they learn with an audience:
7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Students who complete the project as well as those in the "audience," will contribute to the project blog, joining together in a new literacy community.
11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
Mathematics Standards
Source: Principals and Standards for School Mathematics (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics)
As students use Scratch, they learn about important mathematical concepts such as coordinates, variables, and random numbers (Lifelong Kindergarten Group, 2010a). This project, however, emphasizes the NCTM standards around mathematical processes. Scratch requires the use of mathematical concepts and language to express ideas; consider, for example, character movement (e.g., speed is modeled through a series of short, instantaneous movements over brief intervals of time, locations are specified using a coordinate system) and other visual effects (e.g., fading is modeled through a series of incremental increases of an object's brightness over brief intervals of time). As they execute their animations, students will identify new challenges that require them to use mathematical skills as they apply and adapt scripting strategies: in other words, they will participate in authentic mathematical problem solving. In the language of the NCTM standards, students will:
2. Solve problems that arise in mathematics and in other contexts. 3. Apply and adapt a variety of appropriate strategies to solve problems. 7. Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics. 8. Use representations to model and interpret physical, social, and mathematical phenomena.
The Scratch interface allows users to test their programs in a pane adjacent to the code, so that each change to the script can be immediately evaluated. Students will also be encouraged to download, assess, and remix scripts created by other Scratch programmers, and to help each other troubleshoot problems. This further addresses NCTM standards around metacognition and critical thinking skills:
4. Monitor and reflect on the process of mathematical problem solving. 5. Analyze and evaluate the mathematical thinking and strategies of others.
Note that Scratch can also be used to teach specific programming concepts.
Library Media Studies Standards
Source: Standards for the 21st-Century Learner (American Association of School Librarians)
Finally, this unit addresses many of the skills discussed in the AASL standards for library media studies. By working in collaborative pairs and participating on the project blog, students will:
1.1.9 Collaborate with others to broaden and deepen understanding. 2.1.5 Collaborate with others to exchange ideas, develop new understandings, make decisions, and solve problems. 3.1.2 Participate and collaborate as members of a social and intellectual network of learners. 4.1.7 Use social networks and information tools to gather and share information.
By reading a variety of poems, selecting their favorites, and creating original interpretations through mixed media, students will:
1.1.6 Read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning. 3.1.3 Use writing and speaking skills to communicate new understandings effectively. 2.1.6 Use the writing process, media and visual literacy, and technology skills to create products that express new understandings. 3.1.4 Use technology and other information tools to organize and display knowledge and understanding in ways that others can view, use, and assess. 4.1.3 Respond to literature and creative expressions of ideas in various formats and genres. 4.1.8 Use creative and artistic formats to express personal learning.
As they research their poets and learn to use licensed images and remix Scratch projects with appropriate citation, students will:
3.1.6 Use information and technology ethically and responsibly.

The Setting and Context

Parkway East Middle School, located in an urban community in the greater Washington, DC area, serves 850 students in grades six through eight. It is a magnet school for the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The population is racially and ethnically diverse: 29% African American, 22% Asian/Pacific Islander, 35% White, and 14% Hispanic. Additionally, 4% of the population is limited English proficient, 7% receive special education services, and almost a quarter of the population (24%) is eligible for the free and reduced meals program.
This is the third year that PEMS has celebrated National Poetry Month, held every April, by participating in the Favorite Poem Project, founded by former Poet Laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky. The Favorite Poem Project is based on the belief that poetry should be read and shared aloud. Pinsky said, "By reading poems we love aloud, we can learn how much pleasure there can be in the sounds of words. It's as though saying the words of a poem aloud make one feel more able, more capable than in ordinary life" (as cited in Favorite Poem Project, n.d.). The goal of the project is not formal literary analysis, but rather to give students the opportunity to talk about why they love a poem and what it means to them. Each year students audition to share their favorite poems at an all-school assembly, and last year Robert Pinsky was the keynote speaker. Now that the project is in its third year, it needs some fresh life. Teachers from the English department have also talked about wanting to get more students involved, including some who might be too shy to audition for the assembly, and wishing that the project would better engage teachers from other disciplines. Most of the English teachers already schedule poetry units for April to coincide with National Poetry Month, making this project a natural fit.
At the same time, this project offers the mathematics teachers a unique opportunity to address one of their departmental goals: demonstrating the real world value of mathematics. As they use Scratch, students will explore the connections between the skills they have acquired during their time at PEMS and computer science, raising awareness of mathematics related careers.
Scheduling for core subjects at PEMS is heterogeneous (mixed ability) and cluster based, with small teams of teachers sharing groups of students across English language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science. These teams will greatly facilitate the poetry project's interdisciplinary approach by providing both a common group of students as well as common planning time for the media specialist to meet with participating teachers in English language arts teacher and mathematics. Each teacher will take ownership of the lessons most suited to his or her subject area, with the English teacher focusing on poetry and the math teacher focusing on the logical and mathematical concepts needed for programming. In addition to helping to craft the assignments, the media specialist will teach three key lessons (described in detail below) focusing on media literacy and research skills, as well as an introduction to Scratch, the programming language used in this project. The appropriate subject teacher will be present during these lessons, ready to help reinforce key points and provide additional one-on-one support as needed. This model for collaborative instruction requires less planning time than if the lessons were equally co-taught, while involving all three instructors in designing the final assignment ensures common learning objectives. Collaboration frequently requires more planning time in order to coordinate the sequencing of information and negotiate the shared priorities, but the investment will be paid back in terms of a far richer educational experience for students. PEMS uses a modified block schedule, so that core subjects are either 45 or 90 minutes in length; the lessons below can be easily modified to fit either timeframe. Media center time is flexibly scheduled by teachers as needed.
Because PEMS is a magnet school for the STEM disciplines, students are more likely to have an interest in and aptitude for the skills developed by Scratch. Our goal is to use the combination of poetry and programming to reward students for their strengths while giving them a safe and collaborative learning opportunity to stretch outside their comfort zones. Students who are most confident in their technical abilities might take the lead in programming, while working on other skills such as visual literacy or the enjoyment of poetry; time, students who already excel in the language or visual arts may find the challenge of animating their ideas a high-interest context for the development of STEM skills. Teachers at PEMS have variable levels of comfort with new technology. We have addressed this potential challenge by putting the burden of teaching new software tools on the media specialist in the first year of the project (especially the introduction to Scratch, but also Blogger and the Creative Commons search portal). If this unit were eventually to be adopted school-wide, the media specialist might teach a staff professional development workshop so that teachers could teach their own students in the future. Additionally, by focusing on a tool with a rich "participatory culture" like Scratch, students will be able to find technical support not only from the media specialist or classroom teachers, but also (or rather, especially) from each other and the larger Scratch community.
At the present time, the media center at PEMS has 30 computers, and there are two other computer labs within the school that teachers may reserve to provide their students with additional work time. A majority, but not all, students have home internet and computer access; however, the media center is open after school to students. Because of the collaborative nature of the assignment and the possibility of limited computer access, additional hours of work time should be scheduled during the school day for students to work on their projects. This time will come primarily during English language arts, supplemented by mathematics. The English teacher has planned to pace the project out by assigning students to participate in concurrent literature circles (also called "book clubs" or "book groups") that will meet between the classes devoted to the poetry project. Additionally, assignments that do not require the use of computers, such as the project storyboard, can be completed as homework while students are learning Scratch or collecting source material during class time.
Whenever students share their work on a publicly accessible website, privacy and safety must be assessed. The easiest way to share the completed Scratch projects is to upload them to the MIT website and then embed them in a project blog. However, this means that any member of the Scratch community can download, remix, and comment on these projects. To help moderate this exposure, the media specialist will post the projects through a single account and monitor comments, and work with the cooperating teachers to determine the security settings most appropriate for the project blog (see Lesson Three for details). We will also notify the administration and send a letter to parents at the beginning of the project so that they are aware that their students will be sharing work online; we will emphasize the importance of learning to use social media and developing critical new literacies, while explaining that they can contact us if they have concerns or wish to request that their children's work remain offline.
Any teacher who has had a technology-based lesson go bad knows the importance of having a backup plan. The current version of Scratch is not web-based, so will work even if the internet connection goes down (an upcoming version of Scratch, yet to be released, will be online, so this question may need to be revisited in future years). This also means that the software needs to be installed on all computers the students will use to develop their projects, so the school's technology specialist may need to be involved. In the event that the network were to go down, the lesson that focuses on resource gathering is held in the media center where print materials such as books of poetry or author biographies provide an important alternative. If the computers are out of order, students might work on storyboards or start drafting their project reflections. Students will also be participating in concurrent literature circles in their English classes; this will not only help to set an appropriate pace for the project, but provide a meaningful fallback (rather than empty filler) in the case of technical difficulties.
Finally, it is important to note the ways in which this project specifically addresses the school's larger priorities. The PEMS administration has recently identified "21st Century Focus Points Across the Curriculum," many of which this project explicitly addresses, including "Higher-order thinking skills through interdisciplinary learning, analysis, and synthesis of information," "Teamwork in a diverse, multicultural world," "Communication skills" (with a growing emphasis on visual and spoken presentations), and "Math, science, technology, and engineering expertise." The school's recently revised mission statement also emphasizes "learning, connecting, and caring as a community," which this project supports by promoting collaboration and inviting older students to share their work with younger grades.

Materials and Technology Tools

  • Computers with internet access and sound recording capabilities
Ideally one computer per student, but a minimum of one per pair. Internet access will be required at all stages to collect visual resources, conduct research, access the project blog, etc. At some point during the project students will need access to a computer with sound recording capabilities to record themselves reading the poem aloud. This can be most easily done by recording each clip directly into Scratch. If the entire poem is recorded as one audio file, sound editing software may be required to break into shorter pieces to work with.
Scratch was chosen because it offers a high degree of both accessibility and flexibility. As the developers write, "Scratch offers a low floor (easy to get started), high ceiling (ability to create complex projects), and wide walls (support for a wide diversity of projects)" (Lifelong Kindergarten Group, 2010b). Many other tools could be used to create a multimedia presentation of poetry, if the unit were redesigned without the interdisciplinary mathematics component, such as Voicethread, Photo Story, iMovie, etc. However, Scratch offers a unique opportunity to integrate media consumption with media creation, logical skills with literary ones. We hope that students will find the Scratch platform and its vibrant participatory culture something they might want to continue to pursue in their leisure time. Finally, the Scratch platform is free and makes it easy to upload and share finished projects.
  • Instructor's computer with projector
  • Books of poetry
  • Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Christopher Myers
This picture book re-imagines Lewis Carroll's classic nonsense poem in an urban playground setting; rather than being literally slain, the fearful Jabberwock is bested at basketball. It is used in Lesson One as an example of how poetry may be visualized in unconventional ways.
  • Handouts of the "Jabberwocky" poem printed in plain text
  • Scratch cards (printed in color and assembled in advance)
These short tutorials show what you can do with Scratch and how to script it in small, accessible steps. They should be printed in color so students can match the blocks of script to the correct palettes.
While not necessary, a document camera could be used to project and share the illustrations in the Jabberywocky picture book or project storyboards for discussion.
  • Optional: Snacks, drinks, soft music to play up the "cybercafe" theme and lend a celebratory mood to this capstone project
None of the items below are required for the success of this project, and having them could even prove distracting. However, the project could be made still more multidisciplinary by inviting students to create original visual content, rather than finding their material online or in the Scratch library.
  • Optional: Image capture and creation tools (e.g., digital camera, scanner, graphics tablet)
  • Optional: Image editing software (e.g., Photoshop)

Implementation and Assignments

The project is scheduled to take place in April as a part of National Poetry Month. A team of one English language arts teacher and one mathematics teacher from the same cluster will work with the school library media specialist to integrate the study of poetry with an introduction to computer programming through Scratch.
Students have begun a three-week study of poetry and been exposed to a variety of poets and poetic forms (including Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"). The poetry animations are the capstone project for this unit, and to some extent the capstone project for students in their time at Parkway East Middle School, as they will be graduating shortly. In addition to celebrating literature, the project will demonstrate the real world value of mathematics and raise awareness of careers in the STEM disciplines. It also comes after the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) in English and mathematics, a time when many teachers are looking for something a little more creative and fun in their lesson planning. The entire project is expected to take two to three weeks, depending on the aptitude of the students, so that the final assignment will be due approximately one week after the poetry unit has essentially concluded.
The lessons detailed below will be taught by the media specialist, with the English language arts and mathematics teachers conducting additional instruction and providing more computer lab time for pairs to collaborate during the project:
  • Lesson One: Resource Roundup. This lesson is scheduled for the second week of a three-week unit on poetry. The English language arts teacher has previously introduced the poetry animation project and will now accompany students to the media center for an introduction to resources. These include databases, websites, and print resources for poems, information about poets, and visual resources to use in their animations (the latter with a focus on Creative Commons licensing). Google Docs is briefly introduced and recommended for collaborative note taking.
  • Lesson Two: Scratch 101. Scratch is formally introduced, ideally within a few days of Lesson One. The mathematics teacher has taught conditional logic in a previous lesson and will accompany students to the media center. Students learn basic programming concepts through direct instruction, experimentation with Scratch cards, and remixing existing content. The mathematics teacher will subsequently build upon this introduction with smaller follow up assignments, such as having students model basic algebraic functions or principals of geometry, to reinforce programming and mathematical problem solving skills in the context of existing curriculum.
  • Lesson Three: Poetry Cybercafe. The "poetry cybercafe" will be held after the poetry animations are completed, around the time of the all-school Favorite Poem Project assembly in late April. The classes that created animations will complete a modified version of this lesson, but the primary audience is other classes, especially from the sixth and seventh grades, who will come with their English language arts teachers as an authentic audience with which the older students may share their creations.
Core assignments for this unit include:
  • Project Storyboard. Before creating their final projects, students will storyboard their poems on paper. It is important to think through in advance how image and text will work together, where transitions will be planned (i.e., how to break up the audio recording of the poem), what visual content will be gathered or created, and what scripting concepts will be required to achieve the final vision. Storyboards will be assessed by the English language arts teacher for completeness and clarity, as well as evidence of teamwork. The storyboard assignment is an opportunity for students to receive feedback prior to creating the final project.
  • Scratch Project and Presentation. The final project is an animated remix of the poem using images and an original voice recording of the text. Longer poems may be excerpted in consultation with the English teacher. Students will also contribute a blog post that introduces their project and provides a brief biographical note about the poet. The project will be assessed by the English teacher on creativity, organization, effective audio, and the ethical use of information; the Scratch code will be assessed by the mathematics teacher for completion and effectiveness. The math teacher will provide students with a checklist for their Scratch scripts explaining the specific criteria (e.g., the script contains a minimum number of sprites, costumes, or background changes; the script uses advanced features such as broadcasting or variables; commands are expressed clearly and efficiently). View the assignment sheet and rubric and sample project for details.
  • Cybercafe Blog Community Participation. This may be graded as informal class participation by the accompanying teacher (for example, students may be given credit for staying on task and making appropriate comments) or by the quality of their individual contributions to the blog (for example, they might submit their best comment to be graded for ideas, style, and mechanics). See Lesson Three for details.

References

American Association of School Librarians. (2007). Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/aasl/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf
Favorite Poem Project. (n.d.). Giving Voice to the American Audience for Poetry. Retrieved November 25, 2010, from http://www.favoritepoem.org/principles.html
Jenkins, H. (2006). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Chicago, IL: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from http://newmedialiteracies.org/files/working/NMLWhitePaper.pdf
Lifelong Kindergarten Group, MIT Media Lab. (2010a). Programming with Scratch. Retrieved November 22, 2010, from http://info.scratch.mit.edu/sites/infoscratch.media.mit.edu/docs/Programming-with-Scratch.pdf
Lifelong Kindergarten Group, MIT Media Lab. (2010b). Learning with Scratch. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from http://info.scratch.mit.edu/sites/infoscratch.media.mit.edu/docs/Learning-with-Scratch.pdf
National Council of Teachers of English & International Reading Association. (1996). NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from http://www.ncte.org/standards
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (2000). Principals and Standards for School Mathematics. Retrieved November 20, 2010, from http://www.nctm.org/standards/content.aspx?id=322