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Scratch 1.4: Beginner's Guide
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When personal computers first became popular in the 1980s, every school in the country taught computer programming to every student. That was a bad idea. Students should not be forced to learn computer programming. Programming can be immensely fun and engaging to those students who have a temperament for programming. For other students, programming can be dreary, dull, and mind-numbing. Forcing computer programming on such students can leave on them a lifelong bad taste about computers--something no educator ever wants to do.
So it was a good thing that schools shifted away from having every student learn computer programming. Unfortunately, they shifted too far in the opposite direction, offering very few programming classes and opportunities at the elementary and middle school levels.
The good people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have stepped in to fill that void. A few years ago they created a free computer programming tool, Scratch, which appeals to a wide variety of students. You can use Scratch for digital storytelling, animations interactive games, and, yes, computer programming. Scratch is free download for Macintosh and Windows computers--and will be available for Linux sometime in the next year, too.
Scratch is excellent in many ways. Children take to it like a duck to water. Adults who want to encourage children to use Scratch need a guidebook to help them develop some skills using Scratch. This new guidebook by Michael Badger is just what the doctor ordered.
Here is what I like about this book. The book has lots of screenshots showing and explaining Scratch. Although Scratch is quite colorful on screen, all the screenshots in the book are in black and white. I like that--because black-and-white screenshots make this book more affordable. The pages are attractively laid out--so readers don't feel overwhelmed. This book takes a project-based approach to teaching. By following along with the projects described in the book, you'll have a good basic knowledge of Scratch.
Another thing I like about this book is that it gives me the language I need to use in talking about Scratch with young people. That language includes words like: blocks, script, sprites, the stage, costumes, control mechanisms, forever loop, random number generator, sensors. After reading this book I'm better able to understand questions about Scratch from the young--and I'm better able to guide them in using the right words to formulate their questions.
On page 96 and 97 of this book, I laughed out loud as the author explains how to create a talking horse in Scratch. The horse can say whatever you want it to say with the words showing up in speech bubbles on the stage. You choose the duration of the speech bubble, too. This opens up a million possibilities for Scratch users to write dialogue--some serious and some silly.
Earlier this year I helped organize a Scratch Day in my community, Takoma Park, Maryland. The other organizers of the event, Sylvia Wu and Denise Lewis, were both quite comfortable with Scratch and went around the room helping students with their Scratch questions. If I had read this book before the event, I could have been more useful to the students who showed up.
I asked the first student who showed up for the event, a fourth-grade boy, whether he was creative. His answer, boldly declared in the presence of his dad: "I'm ALL creative." Another youth attending this event was a seventh-grade boy who explained to me that he had created over 400 Scratch projects. A pair of twin girls in eighth grade told me how much they loved Scratch. One of them was a Scratch animator and the other a Scratch programmer. I love the way that Scratch appeals to different personality types. The twin who loves to program in Scratch explained to me how she is registered into the technology track at her high school. I could plainly see that Scratch was an important tool in getting her to think of herself as a computer programmer.
Mitchel Resnick and the other people at MIT who brought Scratch to life ought to be immensely proud of their achievement. They have opened the minds of thousands and thousands of youth around the world. And Michael Badger, the author of this Scratch guidebook, has now unlocked Scratch for community volunteers like me. With Michael Badger's help, I'm now able to give more of myself to my community.
This book is a highly recommended purchase by school and public libraries. It will also be popular with homeschooling families. Down the road, I hope Michael Badger might make one or more DVD videos about Scratch that I could purchase, too. With his explaining abilities, I'd gladly pay $50--even $75--for such a video.
The production of this book is nearly flawless and the proof reading and editing team have done a fantastic job, although I'm not sure who was responsible for the little message at the bottom of page 99: "I learned how to use some additional markup tools in acrobat!." My money would be on the proof reader. Oops. The fact that that was the only error I could find worth pointing out is a testament to the quality of this work.
The frequent Pop quizzes are a good and, although for the most part, the questions are quite easy, on at least one occasion I would have liked a list of answers to check against rather than having to skim back over the text I had just read; but these are minor niggles and I'm sure Michael could easily put a list of answers on his [...] site.
Reading this book won't teach you how to write video games (at least not the sort I'm used to playing), but it is a great introduction to the world of programming and will give you the basic understanding you'll need to get started. If you want your kids to get more from the internet than access to mindless Facebook games, YouTube video blogs, and Tweets, I recommend you give this book a go and get Scratching.
I'm a big fan of Scratch and this is a fantastic book. I'm looking forward to working through the exercises once more with my daughter when she's a little older.