Tag Team Tech December 2011

Scratching Beneath the Surface: Digital Storytelling

Sarah Ludwig

December 2011

Last summer, someone at my school asked if I would like to teach a technology course for our Summer Academy. I wanted to offer something special and outside of my usual subjects. So, for some crazy reason, I decided to design a class on Scratch, something I’d never even used myself (and I barely passed my C++ class in college). While this may seem slightly insane, the truth is, I’m really glad I did it. My commitment forced me to learn Scratch within a certain time period instead of putting it off. And I figured hey–it’s a programming language for kids. How hard can it be? My instincts were right: while the learning curve is steep at the beginning, it’s amazing how quickly you can pick up on the language.

Since learning how to use Scratch over the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about how it can be used for projects other than game design. When most people think about Scratch, they think about games. And rightly so: it’s wonderful for building games both simple and elaborate, and teaching game design to students can be a great opportunity to encourage critical thinking skills. In order to design a successful game, students must think about cause and effect, objectives, pacing, and story. That brings me to my next point, which is that many Scratch projects are about storytelling, whether through a game or something else–and it’s the something else that is so intriguing. Many games are just a hair’s breadth away from being a story, and, indeed, a lot of the games you can play online might be considered nothing more than interactive stories, full of choices for the player to make. Each choice leads to different challenges and scenarios. A player begins a game, for example, in a strange town with an empty gas tank and must explore the town to gather the resources she needs to get home. Or a player wakes up in a jail cell and must figure out how to sneak past the guards and escape.

To begin to teach your students the elements of Scratch, you may want to start with non-story-like games, like shooting a target or keeping a bouncing ball from hitting the floor. As you and your students develop an understanding of Scratch, you will find that they are capable of creating projects that can reflect their creativity and understanding of the world around them.

How Scratch Works

To best understand how Scratch works, you have to use it, but the basics are this: Scratch’s programming language is based around the idea of building blocks or puzzle pieces, depending on how you look at it. To write a command, or script, you must select the appropriate puzzle pieces and lock them together. The pieces are arranged into several categories, like motion, looks, sound, sensing, etc. Some categories, like operators and variables, are for more advanced work, and the initial building block for all scripts is control, which contains commands like “when space key clicked” and “if/else.”

The interactive objects—characters, props, even set pieces that can be interacted with—are called Sprites. The background is called the stage. You can create your own sprites and stages, or you can use the numerous pre-made ones that are built right into the Scratch program.

When you first start using Scratch, I recommend going through the ten Scratch Cards (listed in the Resources section at the end of this column) and then building a simple game, like the ones on this site. Even if you don’t fully understand the scripts you’re building, as you put them together, you’ll start to understand how the language works. You will be able to see what adding, changing, or removing different puzzle pieces do to the script.

This leads me to my next suggestion, which is remixing or taking apart already-existing games. Once you have registered for a free account on the Scratch website, you can download others’ games into Scratch to see the code they used, and then it’s yours to do with whatever you want. Find a simple game and see how the user built it. What happens when you pull out certain pieces or add new rules? This can also be great for students who want to build games that are a bit more complicated – find a project that’s similar, and have them take a look at the code. This one, for example, offers the often-requested jumping, scrolling, and lives.

Digital Storytelling

Once you understand the basics of Scratch, you can start exploring how it could be used, either in the classroom or for your teens to write their own stories. To start, here’s a story written by one of my former summer students, who happily has continued to use Scratch (and here’s another one, added simply because I think it’s hilarious). These are very basic, but they might help you understand how Scratch can be used to tell stories. To complete these two stories, my former student did little more than broadcast scripts back and forth from one sprite to the next. These two stories are also non-interactive, meaning they start when you open them and play straight through without any user input.

Stories can also be interactive. A great example of this is the CatLibs project created by the ScratchEdTeam. This Night at Dreary Castle game is highly interactive, with the players making various choices throughout.

Now, imagine the applications:

  • Students could use similar techniques to explain concepts, like this student did with kinetic energy.
  • Student could tell their “About Me” stories, like this one, which asks players to flip through the “pages” of the story.
  • Using characters from different books, students could “mash up” stories in new locations – Jane Eyre meets Katniss, for example. Or they could write an epilogue to their favorite book, change the setting of a book, or write a story from the perspective of a secondary character.
  • Students might like to write creative short stories or personal anecdotes, like this one about shopping.
  • If your student is writing a story, he or she can use Scratch to explore their character, like this student did for her NaNoWriMo project.
  • Those who love music can make their own music videos, like this silly Hamster on a Piano video. This group recorded their band playing an original song, “Don’t Hate Me,” and then animated it.
  • Not a story, but I’m so impressed by this vocabulary game, used to prepare for a test on Jane Eyre.
  • Students can create virtual book reports, like this one for The Red Kayak, which is a report and a game in one.
  • Students can make book trailers using characters they draw themselves. While doing this, students can record their own voices, add soundtracks, or type up the trailer. Here’s one on the popular book The Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson. This could also count for books or stories that students have written themselves: check out this one on a student-penned work, Birth of the Raven-Wing.

A Note on Copyright

Scratch does not allow users to violate others’ copyright. This means you cannot upload copyrighted characters, music, or anything else and pass it off as your own. This is an excellent opportunity to have your students use fair use media, like images found via a Creative Commons or Wikimedia Commons search or music found on Jamendo or Magnatune.


  • The Scratch Support page has a number of excellent resources, including links to the Getting Started Guide (a PDF), video tutorials, the essential Scratch Cards (another PDF), the FAQ, the forums, and the Scratch Tours.
  • Scratch users have created two fantastic resources for users: the Scratch Wiki and the Scratch Resources site.
  • You can also find resources specifically for educators at ScratchEd, where people post lesson plans, sample projects, rubrics, and more.
  • Finally, check out Media Mashup, a resource for “informal educators,” which includes, of course, librarians. Here you can find sample projects to try, excellent screencasts, and lesson plans.
  • For specific resources on digital storytelling:

And if you will be at Midwinter 2012 in Dallas, I will be speaking on this very topic at YALSA’s Midwinter Institute. I’d love to see you there. In the meantime, happy Scratching!

Sarah Ludwig  is the academic technology coordinator at Hamden Hall Country Day School in Hamden, Connecticut. Formerly she was the head of teen, technology, and reference services at the Darien (CT) Library, where she developed the library’s first teen program after serving as the head of library services at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in western Massachusetts for three years. She  is currently the chair of YALSA’s Teen Tech Week Committee. Her book, Starting from Scratch: Building a Teen Library Program, was published by ABC-CLIO in June 2011.


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  1. […] December 2011: Scratching Beneath the Surface: Digital Storytelling by Sarah Ludwig […]

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