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About the author: Agnese is an Italian teacher and education activist. She is very active on social networks and is an active part of the Italian codeweek.eu group.
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I tell you what happened at the Scratch Conference 2015 in Amsterdam
It was a year ago when I attended my first Boston Scratch Conference. The trip was arranged hastily between one commitment and another, in hangout between Rome and Bologna with another CoderDojo champion, without any funding or sponsorship but with the only possible resource: a huge motivation. In fact, beyond our passion for Scratch, the truth was we were dying for visiting the MIT, the Institute of Technology, the most famous in the world and especially the Media Lab.
Despite the jet lag, as soon as we arrived we ran to see the temple.
You could think I’m overstating, but knowing this institute releases daily such important researches and such excellent scholars, gave us both curiosity and awe. This feeling has vanished soon, thanks to the more admirable prerogative of Americans: the absolute absence of formality.
We entered the building of Amherst Street 75 like we were home and we took a ride snooping here and there (with discretion). The glass elevator at the Media Lab lets one see what happens on every floor; even the walls of laboratories and experimental workshops are made of glass. Then I realized that physical and real transparency might also be metaphorical. A natural transparency of intents, purposes, sharing and routes that take shape there every day.
On the fifth floor, we met the huge orange Scratch cat, made of Lego bricks, which seems to be the guardian of the Lifelong Kindergarden entrance. This name clearly defines the spirit of this group for development and educational research, coordinated by Mitch Resnick.
The Media Lab is a highly advanced laboratory, created by Nicholas Negroponte (famous for the One Laptop Per Child initiative, which visionary spirit is summed up in a beautiful TEDtalk). Today led by Joy Ito, it develops researches in disciplines, summarized by the acronym STEAM, Science-Technology-Engineering-Art / Design-Math.
The conference opening already breathed something special. That evening, I met many people from different countries: Irish, French, Brazilian, Austrian, Scottish ... I also met some Italians who I already knew and others from the online community, I had never had met before.
The three-day conference opened me up a world, literally: Scratch was the glue among many people who were there to learn
I would like to say something to those who criticize Scratch, maybe just after a superficial analysis and don’t consider some features (fundamental ones for me) in the process of code learning, to those who snubbed it because it’s a Flash application (MIT is developing solution for this), to them I would say that, in each case, the strength of this language lies in its accessibility and easy use. As Mitch Resnick says, you do not learn how to code, but you code to learn. And that should be accessible to everyone.
Giving space to creativity, to challenge, never being afraid of making mistakes and learning how to handle the errors, looking, reading, trying, listening, sharing: this is the sense of the Scratch creative community and of all those related to it. I experienced this idea in Boston a year ago and it was confirmed in Amsterdam, this year.
In Amsterdam the Creative Communities were the protagonists, those grown with and around Scratch: from the scholars at MIT and Harvard University to those who collaborate with them in various ways, to the students, the enthusiasts, the makers and developers of extensions, educators and teachers, mentors of CoderDojo or schools of coding. To the entire world, in short, that every day gravitate on a website in which have already been uploaded and shared over 6 million projects.
Last January, Joek van Montfort, aka xota, one of the most active disseminators of technology and also very present on ScratchEd (the community of educators organized by the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University), invited me to join the organizing team for the Amsterdam Conference. For me it was an opportunity to participate in a unique experience with a great group, so I accepted.
The work ahead was huge - and I felt sorry for not helping more than I did - but we enjoyed it: our meetings were held each time in a different city, since we were from many parts of Europe. Some hotshots had joined our team, such as Mitch Resnick, but you can imagine my expression when I found myself, in hangout with the legend Alan Kay.
The Dutch group handled the logistics wonderfully; I must say that the touch of class of the Dutch creativity and design were shown in many occasions, from the fusion kitchen with a cold beer served at Waag during the teachmeet, to the splendid masterpieces of design thinking of the Dutch graphic facilitators group, Getekend Verslag.
At the beginning I said I attended the conference, although the Scratch conferences don’t follow the most classic sense of the word “attending”: one can immediately breathe a sharing and spontaneous harmony atmosphere, being continuously invited by others to try, put the hands on, experience, listen and speak.
Every moment, every space is an opportunity to learn and deal with others. No one is afraid of making mistakes, even those who come from the most remote countries in the world and speak English with difficulty, even those who are not programmer or researcher or professional educator. Everyone is willing to listen; everyone is ready to have a chat with you, even to help you.
There are no hierarchies or academic status to mark the distance between people
The conference lasted three days, preceded by two days of Masterclass: one on Beetleblocks, based on Scratch and Snap! for modeling 3D printable projects, conducted by Eric Rosenbaum (one of the creators of the Makey Makey); the other by Andrea Meyr with Turtlestich, a very creative way to use machine for embroidering fabrics directly from code. The opening party was held at the Openbare Bibliotheek theater, the beautiful public library that has also hosted workshops for children. The first two days of the Conference were held at the Science Park, the center of science and technology at the University (the largest in Europe), and the last to Zuiderkerk, a former church converted into a space for cultural promotion.
In these three days I have seen funny circuits, very funny with LittleBits and an authentic group of nerds playing extensions like Snap!, 3D-printing in Waag a fractal tree disguised as innocent tree shaped with Beetleblocks, people using the sewing machine to translate code on a t-shirt with Turtlestich or controlling the movement of an object with the thought, physically disconnecting the Arduino from its cables, building a computer made of cardboard, listening to the author telling Hello Ruby. We could see a book splitted in chapters because the author did not have enough copies for everyone!
I carefully listened to some CAS English members (Computing at School, the UK school curriculum for technological education), the story of the birth of the LOGO programming language by Cynthia Solomon which, with Seymour Papert, has developed and tested it at the Media Lab in the '60s.
The real discovery for me was the Waag Society, which hosts the FabLab Amsterdam. I knew about the FabLab activities, but I had no idea that they had their headquarters there, a kind of castle, actually the old weigh station and citizens corporation, which lies at the heart of the city center, right in the Nieuwmarkt. The association, besides being one of the sponsors of the Conference, hosted all the so-called unconference moments, those in which, thanks to the maximum informality and by the pretext of an aperitif, you could come back to follow what was lost during the day. Real replicas, even less formal, which animated the teach meetings within the Anatomy Theater, the beautiful room on the second floor of the octagonal vault painted with symbols of corporations and that was the backdrop to the famous The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt.
It was the first time I heard talk about technology, programming, education, sitting in a circle on the ground, in such evocative place
On the Conference site they are gradually gathering the video materials and documentations, from keynotes to ignite talks. The adventure of Amsterdam ended by the 15th August 2015, but I’m continuing to search in the web, tweets and blog posts of those who participated, because each one has a different point of view. It remains the taste of something unique that unites everybody, an experience I was lucky enough to take part.
At present, the friend who was with me at the MIT Scratch Conference last year, is starting his Master of Arts at the Lifelong Kindergarten, after having taught hundreds of children the joy of programming with Scratch; I remain in Italy and a bit through the world and at school too, with CoderDojo and more, with the certainty that there is still much to do, to know, see and learn.
I do not know if I will return to Boston next year to attend the Scratch Conference, already announced by Resnick at Amsterdam. For two years now, I have learned to think and handle things that happen to me day by day, and up to now, my life changed a lot.
Now I really know that any "peeking" around teaches me something. I was and I am the first of all a great curious. After all, I learned from an orange cat!
Agnese Addone Rome, September 4, 2015
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