Storytelling, Writing and Computational Thinking

Happy New Year!

2019 was a busy year. I found myself knee-deep in new ideas, exciting projects, the day-to-day of working with kids and their families at the library. As I look back, one of my favorite threads winding through all of it, was digital storytelling and making opportunities for kids and their families to write their own stories using a variety of media, including digital.

Digital Storytelling for Young Children & Their Grownups

In the Spring, five families with children ages 6-8 spent a Saturday morning at the library practicing early computational thinking* skills while creating stories together with ScratchJr. The relaxed and conversation-rich program provided an opportunity for young children and their grownups to learn basic coding together. After a brief introduction to what CT is and how to use the pre-reader friendly, block programming in ScratchJr, each family worked on one computer, co-designing characters, selecting backdrops, experimenting, writing brief dialogue, and animating their short narratives. The low pressure program introduced kids and adults to a new kind of learning media and revealed the expanding array of tools and kinds of learning experiences families can use to support their children’s literacy skills. Families continue to craft stories using ScratchJr. at home or on the library’s iPad digital learning station.

Based on the success of this program, in 2020 I will be offering a 6-week series on computational thinking for preschoolers and their families.

ScratchJr. on the library’s iPad Digital Learning Station. The station includes two headsets and two seats to encourage Joint Media Engagement and ScratchJr. tip cards to help new digital storytellers get started.

From Scratch Coding Camp

This past summer, I lead a 5-day digital storytelling camp for a dozen kids ages 9-12 with the help of Karmen, a community member. Inspired by CS First‘s coding curriculum and Scratch, we gave these authors, illustrators, directors, playwrights, programmers, and voice actors the tools they needed to create animated stories that were funny, complex, and completely unique. We had so much fun creating and learning together. Kids played with story design, character development, dialogue, and genre. The low pressure setting aloud them to apply what they knew about writing, in new ways, to stories that were personally meaningful. They brainstormed, discussed their ideas, storyboarded, explored the technical features of Scratch that would help them animate their stories, and experimented. Mistakes happened, kids got stuck, Karmen and I had to change activity plans daily, but we each applied computational thinking skills and dispositions to the process and found success!

As part of planning, Karmen and I created a paper storyboarding tool (on the right) to help campers plan and organize their stories in Scratch. A paper iteration of different scenes we included in our collaborative demo story is found on the left.

My favorite part of the camp was the successful collaboration displayed in a variety of ways. Collaborating happened side-by-side – one story created by two kids working together over the 5 days on a single computer, by multiple kids on separate computers expanding and altering stories in stages using Scratch’s remixing feature, and as part of real time revisions kids helped Karmen and I make to the story we created for demo purposes and expanded over the length of the camp. On the last day, each creator confidently presented their story to an audience of campers and families who asked thoughtful questions about their process.

Problem solving

FanFic for Teens

While I was working with this younger storytellers, a coworker was meeting with older aspiring FanFic writers who were using computational thinking to crafting new iterations of popular stories they love like the Harry Potter stories. This slightly more traditional writing program incorporated some of the same computational thinking skills – decomposition, algorithm design, pattens recognition – as digital storytelling.

Programming Projected Animations

In October, I attended the Connected Learning Summit in Irvine, CA and one of the personal highlights of the conference was getting the chance to play, in a learning kind of way, with other librarians and educators. The Scratch team co-led a “Playful Projections and Programming‘ session that invited us to create interactive animations using Scratch. It was refreshing to team up and design something just for fun. We weren’t figuring out a lesson plan for a program or class. We were just learning.

While I didn’t go to the session with a library program in mind, I immediately integrated the idea into a regular maker program I host. With a couple of projectors, a few computers, paper, a whiteboard, tape and some markers, kids programmed animations that filled the walls of our meeting room and invited curious onlookers to stop in.

One group expanded and modified the animations I originally created as a demo for the day’s activity (the underwater scene above made with digital fish and paper seaweed) and others worked on brand new animations, including the one below of a basketball player shooting hoops over a unicorn. (The basketball player and ball are digital, the hoop is drawn on a whiteboard and the unicorn is digital enhanced with markers on the whiteboard.)

While this program used coding in Scratch, I never taught coding formally to these kids. I presented the problem – to create an animation using both digital and physical parts – and gave them the tools to solve the problem. Some worked on their own while others worked in pairs. Kids identified what they were trying to do and others, myself or other kids, helped them figure out how to accomplish their goal.

CSEd Week Community Partnership

There are still few opportunities for kids of all ages in our community to dive deep into programming as part of their developing literacy skills. Several of us are developing partnerships to expand the kinds of learning experiences where kids and families can try programming as a tool for self-expression. The most recent one came about during CSEd Week in December. I teamed up with a local elementary school librarian and two of her fellow teachers to introduce digital storytelling to 4th and 5th graders using CS First’s Everyday Hero coding curriculum. The three part project involved brainstorming as a class about what makes a hero, traditional writing activities in class, and animating their heroes while learning some basic coding concepts using Scratch with me.

I lead 5th graders at West Homer Elementary through basic Scratch tasks as they learn how to animate the everyday hero they wrote about in class.

One of the goals of this project included increasing access to both computational thinking and basic coding skills for kids and educators. I also wanted kids who had gained some coding experience at the library to see how coding might be used in other parts of their life, in this case school, and have new avenues for creating reflective, relevant stories. The project was brief, but it was a successful first step towards future partnerships.

A teen near-peer mentor supports two 4th graders creating a program to animate a digital version of the everyday hero they wrote about in class.

In fact, the pilot project has led to a next iteration planned for Spring 2020. We are currently co-designing a combined oral and digital storytelling unit that will take place over multiple days and allow for more exposure to coding with Scratch and computational thinking skills.

*Find out more about computational thinking by searching this site with the computational thinking tag. A team of us are also coauthoring a white paper with the PLA Family Engagement Task Force in 2020 about computational thinking with young children and their families at the library. Sign up for my blog mailing list to hear about the paper release.

Feltboard Algorithms in Storytime

As part of #CSedWeek 2018, I included activities (and grownup tips) that support Computational Thinking (CT) skills in my storytimes. One of these activities was feltboard programming.

I first tried feltboard programming about a year ago and I continue to tweak the activity here and there depending on the group, the topic and the context. This week I found myself gravitating towards a lot of snow books, despite the warm weather. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. To go along with those books, I decided to have kids help me make an algorithm for building a snowman. 

Here are the books I shared:

  • The Snowy Day (Viking Press, 1962) by Ezra Jack Keats
  • Snowballs (HMH Books for Young Readers, 1999) by Lois Ehlert
  • Froggy Gets Dressed (Puffin Books, 1994) by Jonathan London (author) and Frank Remkiewicz (Illustrator) or Ten in the Sled (Sterling Books, 2010) by Kim Norman (author) and Liza Woodruff (illustrator)

I prefaced the feltboard algorithm activity by telling the kids that I forgot how to build a snowman. I then explained that I needed their help to know how to build one. When it finally snows again, I want to be ready, even if they are not around to help me. What follows is the process I used with the kids to create a feltboard snowman.

I have two feltboards so I used one for the “algorithm” and one to actually build the felt snowman using the algorithm. I made image cards that acted as symbols for the different parts of the snowman. (I only made cards, or blocks, for the actual objects. We talked a lot about where the objects should go as we applied the algorithm to the building process.) Before storytime, I had organized the cards on one felt board so kids could see what parts they had to work with. I told them they did not have to use all of the “blocks” (cards) and that they could choose where the objects were placed and the order in which we added them.

I told grownups that this type of programming was similar to the coding older kids would be doing later in two different CSedWeek programs: <HPLCode> Unusual Discovery using CS First and Scratch or <HPLCode> byte sized using ScratchJr. 

Next, we built the algorithm. To get things started, I asked the kids what we part we should add first and everyone wanted to begin with the body by having me move 3 snowball cards. Note: We read Snowballs before this activity and talked a lot about the parts of the snow people, whose bodies are all made up of 3 snowballs. Looking at the materials Ehlert uses, and the body parts she includes, was useful for this activity and the art project kids worked on after stories.

We built the algorithm from top to bottom, acknowledging that this how we read and write in English. Kids articulated what they wanted to add and in the order they chose. I moved the cards from the board above to the board pictured below, as they made decisions, because I wanted them to use words to describe what they were referencing; all the while practicing turn-taking and compromising, or at least considering others’ suggestions. Here is the algorithm they helped me make.

And here is the snowman we built based on the algorithm. Different kids took turns adding the different felt pieces after we talked about what would come next and where the object was supposed to go. This activity and process emphasized the sequence,.an important concept in CT, literacy and math. 

When the first child went to put a felt piece on the board, she wanted to put the first snowball on top, instead of on the bottom, to reflect the order we created with the cards. So obvious, right? Some preschoolers think this way and some are able to think more abstractly. It’s all ok and we move gently through this process, keeping it fun.

We talked a bit about gravity as a group- what would happen if we tried to put the first snowball on the top (in mid air). As a group we figured out that the first ball has to go on the bottom to give support for the others. What I love about practicing this process in storytime is that we already figure out the names of letters, how things work, what to read next, etc. as a group so we did this as a group. I emphasize that it is ok to try, even if what happens is not the intended outcome. If it doesn’t work, we just try again. That’s what happened here.

Below is what a child made later while I was busy helping families with the craft. She wanted to practice making an algorithm based on the felt snowman we built. It’s fascinating to see how kids think. It’s a great example of the CT skill decomposition in action.

I don’t expect every kid to get new concepts or skills right away so we’ll try this again and continue to talk about sequences, patterns, and all things CT, early literacy, math and more.

And here are a couple examples from the art project! I gave kids a bunch of materials and challenged them to create a snowman or snow creature out of them. Some built snowmen out of three blocks of foam with lots of accessories and appendages and some went this route, using the foam blocks as stand for the snowman pieces. I think the kids found this project so much easier to dive into than the adults…

This kind of art activity, open-ended but with a design challenge, gets kids thinking about the process, and sequences, in a creative way. There were a lot of proud artists leaving the library today.

Throughout the week, I have this display (below) in the kids library (for ages 0-12) so families can consider how they might support CT skills with their kids, small and big, at home.

#CSed Week 2018 is here!

Computer Science Education Week is December 3-8!

For the past several years I have been offering a special coding program (as part of the worldwide Hour of Code event) or another learning experience that supports Computational Thinking (CT). Why libraries? Kids and teens need CT skills, along with traditional literacy skills, to be able to effectively communicate and express themselves in the Digital Age.

Want to know more about the connection between CT and early literacy? Join Paula Langsam (DC Public Libraries) and I for a free webinar on Tuesday, December 4th called Thinking Sideways: Computational Thinking and Early Literacy. It is hosted by the Public Library Association. (Registration required.) 

Here are some of the activities I will be including in CSed Week 2018:

Looking for program ideas and other resources? The Libraries Ready to Code collection (aka toolkit) is now live!