Teaching Ancient Indian Religions using MIT’s SCRATCH Coding Program

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Spring is in the air and following Alexander’s army my MS Ancient Civilizations class has moved from Greece/Persia to Ancient India.  Although relatively compressed in many ways this is my favorite unit of the year.  I use the first half of the unit to review everything we have learned over the year and teach an introductory linguistics lesson through studying the Indo-Europeans.  Then we swing right back into the Age of Consciousness/Axial Age through the study of Indian Religions & Philosophies.  We start off watching parts 1 & 2 of the wonderful documentary Story of India.  (Part 1 we watch before the Indo-European activity and Part 2 right before our great Scratch Indian Religions Project).

Our incredibly helpful tech integrator Alan and I came up with this project a few years ago as a way to increase the coding skills of our Middle School students in an authentic way. I realized that teaching the religious stories of Ancient India could be an excellent way to combine relatively difficult curriculum with basic programing in a fun and interesting way.  My focus is the teaching students about the stories and the key concepts of Indian Philosophy, with the basic programing and photo-shopping skills (using GIMP) as an added benefit.  I am very proud of our project and particularly the problem-solving and learning that our students undertake in animating the stories.

Pre-teaching – Day 1: Watch the Story of India Part 2 while answering these questions on the google classroom, We end day 1 with a class discussion comparing and contrasting with the Greek Philosophers we studied in the previous unit.

Day 2: Introduce SCRATCH.  (Project Rubric)

MIT”s SCRATCH has quickly grown into the goto program for teaching introductory coding skills to students for a number of reasons.  It is very easy to use and it is entirely opensource with the basic code so students can very easily mix and match (This is critical to successful projects as it takes too much time to teach everything from scratch…MS students love puns).  Scratch does have a learning curve but it is not a huge one. Most students are able to attain a basic competency after a few days. (If students have any coding experience they quickly become experts).

This year I used a student project from last year, a version of Zoroastrian Creation Story. I am really pleased with this as a great introduction to scratch for several reasons.  First off it’s increcibly creative, the students who did it really took to Scracth and came in afterschool to do some cool effects and it has a great wow factor.  However it does have some minor writing errors which do make me cringe a little, but also serve to let students know that they too can do this same quality animation, and make it even better thorough editing.

Secondly, I love that it gives me 20 minutes to teach a very quick mini-lesson on Zoroastrianism.  After watching the story we discuss it and I give some background to the religion and ask students about story similarities with other stories they might know. Inevitably students make parallels with Christian/Jewish stories (first man garden, light/darkness, devil, etc.) and this gives a few minutes where we discuss the long periods of co-habilitation that the respective religions had.  Gilgamesh and Noah’s Ark always comes up which is a perfect opportunity to remind students of cultural diffusion… (At this point in the year they yell it out. It’s a major theme of my class).

Finally I assign partners and give them stories to find. I choose all the major Ancient Indian Religions/Vedic texts and notable religions (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Rig Veda, Jainism, Buddhism), and then give the students the freedom to find their own stories to animate.  Usually it takes them the rest of the period to decide on a story and then start doing a proper storyboard of 12-15 slides (they usually get about haflway and then finish it as homework, although inevitably it is revised throughout the coding process.

Days 3-5 – Work on the project!  Learn Scratch and create the animated story.

While students are working on their Animations also completing a homework assignment. In their textbook, they read chapter 9, lesson 2 on the history/thought of Indian religions and complete a homework assignment answering critical questions. They also know that they must identify the moral to their individual stories while they are creating the animation.  With some of the moral stories this is easy for them (Siddhartha’s story is always a favorite and the kids really identify the lessons), but some are difficult like the creation myths.

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The hard job of teaching SCRATCH I leave to Alan who created a great template for the project that the students use. This way the plug in their images as sprites and backdrops then modify the code accordingly. I actually love the way they find the sprites as they all do google image searches for the actual characters and then create .pngs out of the files. (We also teach them some basic GIMP photoshop skills so that they can manipulate the images to serve their story line). Searching through the google images leads them to all sorts of interesting cultural links and exposes them to great modern and animated versions of these stories. I really enjoy watching students click on the links and many follow them through to the websites and read or watch the other versions…bonus cultural learning!!!

Because this is a history class I require the students to create a bibliography with the URLs from all websites they take images or information from.  This is a simple reminder of the importance of documenting our research.

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Day 6 – Presentations!  On the day of presentations I write a list of Indian religious vocabulary (Dharma, Moksha, Karma, Samsara, etc.) on the white board next to the smart board.  Together we watch all the story presentations. After each presentation students individually write what they think is the moral of the story using vocabulary from the board.  Then we all discuss the individual stories and decide what the best moral is.  This prepares them for their final assessments where they are tested on the vocabulary and big ideas.

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I think my favorite story that at least one group in each class chooses is The Blind Men and The Elephant.  This story is a classic of Hindu thought, and is often associated with Buddhism and Jainism. Six blind men all feel a different part of an elephant and then say what they think it is. Each man has a different perspective of what they are touching.  Here is one student’s version from last year and a summary of what they think the moral of the story was (quote below).  Needless to say they did excellent and I was incredibly impressed.

“This is a presentation to show how everybody’s perspective can be different yet correct at the same time. This is related to Jainism because they believed that everyone deserved equal compassion and respect in life, so that is what the blind men learned from the king and the elephant.” – Students.

I think they did a great job of summarizing Jainism, although my own interpretation goes a little farther.  I always use this story as my closing lesson to focus on how perspectives matter. Where you are standing, whether you are a mosquito or a Brahmin matters with how you see the world, just like the blind men and the elephant.  I don’t think there is a better explanation of the multifaceted nature of Indian philosophical concepts.  I am incredibly proud of all my great students and the wonderful work they did!  Check out all the projects:

Spreadsheet with all 2015 Scratch Projects 

Spreadsheet with all 2016 Scratch Projects

And the great documentary…

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