Meet the Educator: Dr. Sam Patterson

Empowering all students to be creators with ScratchJr

By My Nguyen

Dr. Sam Patterson’s road to ScratchJr has been a winding, yet likely path.

As he tells it: “I came to teaching tech through being an English teacher. I became an English teacher because I loved writing. Writing is about creative self-expression. Programming allows that to happen, too.”

Four years ago, Dr. Patterson switched his vocational focus and became an elementary school tech coach. He started out using Scratch with his students, who ranged from kindergarteners to six graders. Shortly thereafter, the ScratchJr app came out.

“ScratchJr was an amazing gift to me when it was released, because I was dedicated and determined to get all of my kids programming — including the ones who were not yet reading.”

Now, Dr. Patterson works with students in Pre-K through six grades and uses ScratchJr primarily as a storytelling and comprehension tool across subjects.

In addition to being the resident Makerspace and STEAM Coordinator at Echo Horizon School, Dr. Patterson is a blogger and podcast host on Teachercast.net, an educational professional development network focusing on STEM education and educational technology.

He also recently authored the book Programming In The Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code, which refers to the global movement to get students coding for one hour during Computer Science Education Week. With it, he hopes to support and encourage teachers to include programming in their classrooms year-round.

The Scratch Foundation recently spoke to Dr. Sam Patterson to learn why he views ScratchJr as a tool for literacy and empowerment.


Who are you and what do you do?

I am Sam Patterson. I work as the Makerspace and STEAM Coordinator for pre-K through 6th grades at Echo Horizon School in Culver City, California.

Dr. Patterson and a 3rd grade student build cardboard armor.

Why do you use ScratchJr in the classroom?

From the standpoint of recovering English teacher, ScratchJr gives my pre-literate kids the tools they need to demonstrate the fluency that exceeds their literacy. That is actually the magic sauce with ScratchJr — it’s a storytelling tool that allows me as a teacher to experience students’ fluency without their literacy getting in the way. I can have my students explain what they understand about just about anything by having them do something in ScratchJr.

As a makerspace and STEAM coordinator, how do you work with teachers?

I find that I have the most success when I can come to the teachers and say, “What are you currently doing? What kind of things are you learning? What stories do you want your kids to tell?” If a teacher is doing programming only because someone has told them they have to, they are much more receptive when we can arrive at a lesson plan or an idea together.

When you say “tell that story,” does that relate exclusively to writing and literacy, or do you use ScratchJr in other subjects areas, as well?

For example, I was working with second graders, and they were learning about honey bees. We had them create a dialogue between two characters about honey bees. They were using ScratchJr as the platform to create that dialogue. It was pretty much a science lesson because they were recalling and explaining what they learned about honey bees through that activity.

How do you introduce ScratchJr to students?

I have a strategy that I call “under-instructing.” I teach them less than they need to know. As a teacher, I step back, and I choose not to say everything about this program. When they figure it out, they feel great because learning feels great. They share it with their table mate, and their table mate is super jazzed because someone just showed them how to do sound effects. The process of discovering how something works and sharing it with a neighbor is incredibly empowering and rewarding for students — it inspires them to stay with the task longer.

Many times, the students who figure it out most quickly are not necessarily the students who wave their hands to answer math questions, or who feel super-eager about reading out loud. ScratchJr can really change the knowledge economy in the classroom. I love so many things about ScratchJr, but that aspect of it is what I find most powerful.

How does empowering students to be creators benefit their learning?

When you make kids the creators or composers in a multimedia environment, they can express a great deal more of their understanding. When they are done, they know whether or not they have done a good job. For example, when I worked with students on standard writing, they were never really sure if they had done a good job. They become confused when they are asked to do more work, because they feel like they are done.

When a student makes a computer game and they play through it, they can immediately see all of the mistakes. They know where it goes wrong, and they want to fix it.

Sixth grade students at Echo Horizon School work on connecting Scratch to the physical world.

When a student or a class walks away from these experiences, what do you hope they have gained?

There is a social aspect. Whenever I work with the younger kids, I hope that they have gained some more insight to the other people in the class. We do a lot of programming, but we also do a lot of sharing.

In addition to that, I hope they gain an understanding that the world is full of things that are open to their control. With ScratchJr, they are creators from day one. That blows my mind, because I am an old man. These kids are like, “Oh yeah, that device has apps on it that I can control, that I can compose in, that I can use to tell my story.” That is what I want them to take away.

You recently wrote the book, Programming In The Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code. Can you talk about the motivation behind it?

I wrote Programming in the Primary Grades: Beyond the Hour of Code to help teachers see how computer programming can be used in any subject area — especially in primary schools — as a mode of creative self-expression.

The work that Code.org is doing is great. It is important for students to learn computer science. However, as a person and a human living in this world, I do not care that there are 20 million new tech jobs. That does not get me out of the bed in the morning. That doesn’t make me say, “I know what I need to do with my life now — I need to fill that void.”

The issue isn’t that I want our kids to have the best jobs — the issue is I want these kids to be empowered to share their understanding of the world and to take responsibility for that understanding and develop it as they want to. That is what Beyond the Hour of Code is all about.

How can schools and educators go “beyond the Hour of Code”?

Code.org has worked hard to create a very accessible entry point to coding. The good news is the accessibility doesn’t have to end there!

Suddenly, we have schools that are willing to do the work needed to get all kids coding for a day. Well, if you can get them coding for a day, then you can get them coding throughout the year. I believe that teachers do not need to know anything about programming to use it as a means of expression in class.

Do you have any tips or advice for parents who want to extend the experience of programming in their homes?

Yes. Hand over the tablet. Let your child be in control. Ask your child questions and give them challenges. It can be as informal as, “Hey, you have a cat there. Can you make him dance?” Then, you can come back a little while later and ask, “Is there any way to make more cats? How do you make the cat bigger? What color can you change the cat to? Does it have to be a cat?”

Any final thoughts?

I think ScratchJr is a great tool not only to get kids started programming, but to get teachers thinking about what programming can do. The learning curve is so low, and what kids can do is pretty amazing. Once teachers become comfortable with that, they will realize that most of the platforms out there operate similarly.

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