On The Rez

A Summary and Review of Gear Up with Alice

Two years ago, Tracy Taylor of Lake Forest College invited me to teach a workshop with her in Porcupine, South Dakota. The workshop, which she calls Gear Up with Alice (GUWA), is a sort of intervention program to help motivate middle schoolers on Pine Ridge Reservation to stay in school. I went with her and another one of her students, Anica Lin, in summer 2011 and had an amazing time teaching art and introductory programming to 11-13 year-olds.

This past summer, I returned to the Rez a second time with a fellow MSU graduate student, Jory Schossau, to teach the GUWA workshop again. Without Tracy to guide the art instruction, the project took a turn toward more computing. The combination of the lack of preparation on our part as instructors and the extremely lax environment of public school on the Rez resulted in a less effective program the second time around, in my opinion. We definitely encountered some troubles with hitting a wall in regard to using Alice as a teaching tool. We also experienced a lot of problems with fluctuating attendance on the students’ part, which is a common problem on the reservation. The computing resources were in disrepair because the tech employee at the school was leaving for a different job at the end of the summer. Two funerals were held during our two-week workshop. Funerals are held in the school since it is the largest place in the community for a gathering; therefore school is closed for at least a day and a half (and the entire weekend following) for funeral ceremonies. Basically, we encountered a ton of obstacles with our workshop, and Jory and I didn’t have enough experience to know how to overcome them.

Below I am including some ideas for directions that I think might be useful to this project.

Learning Objectives

Especially if this workshop is ever going to be expanded to a multi-campus setup, clear learning objectives should be defined. I know Tracy did a lot of curriculum planning when she originally designed the workshop 5 or 6 years ago. I believe the curriculum may have been lost over time. Further, Tracy has started including trained computer scientists as instructors. It would be useful to have the artists and the computer scientists sit down together and draft a list of explicit learning objectives again for the course.


So far, the assessment of student learning in the workshop is relatively nonexistent. Tracy has informal surveys that students complete at the end of the workshop, but these do not allow instructors to modify their teaching on the fly to suit student needs. I highly recommend that GUWA instructors use “minute cards” in the future. Minute cards are a quick and easy assessment technique… Give each student an index card. Have them write one thing they learned in the lesson on one side, and one question they still have on the other. It’s great to gauge the learning in your student audience.


The workshop has existed for some 5 or 6 years now, and technology has grown and changed over that time. In addition, Tracy now has me as a resource for her team, and I have done a decent bit of research on “best practices” for teaching introductory computing. It would be a good idea to reevaluate the teaching tools that the course is using (like Alice), talk about possible alternatives (like Scratch), and even brainstorm other possible modes of teaching (Python? command line programming? web design?).

The Future

As a last note, I want to include some pictures of the kindergarten class learning the alphabet and basic reading skills in the computer lab. I’m hoping that, one day, these will be our students. :]



The class moved amazingly quickly in the second week. We encountered another cut in our classtime due to a second funeral conducted in the school. Between that, a couple of lessons Jory implemented that weren’t centered on using computers but focused on computing-related topics, and the end-of-the-workshop celebrations, we didn’t have much time to work on Alice. We allowed students to finish their Alice projects, and then awarded a couple of prizes to the most advanced ones. The awards (almost by default) went to our students who attended the course regularly, because they were able to spend the most time on their projects.

My favorite part of the workshop this year was watching the students show off their projects to the 5th and 6th grade students in the wopila. It was really exciting to see them teaching the younger students how Alice works, and it was exciting to see the younger students eager to be old enough to take the GUWA class.


At the final lunch celebration, just before dismissal, we were able to hand out Spartan gear to the students as a gift (courtesy of the MSU bookstore).

Weekend Pictures

So, the signage on and around the reservation is very minimal. Jory and I missed our turn off to get to Porcupine, so we had to go the long way. Here are some pictures of a place we stopped when we decided to take a break from driving and look at a map again. :]

If you’re curious…

Here is where we live!

Our sleeping classroom:

Our kitchen:

Our teacher’s lounge/grocery storage:

Where the Donnie Darko bunny lives:

A Half Day

We only had a half day of school, due to the funeral ceremonies taking place at the school after lunch. We went into the day with strictly defined expectations for the students, and it turned out really well. We cracked down on the Scratch projects and insisted that the students all have a finalized dancing animation finished before we dismissed them for lunch. The task seemed a bit overwhelming, since we had some students who had not attended the day before and were completely in the dark about how to use Scratch. It all worked out amazingly though, because the boys actually started teaching each other. It was such a rewarding feeling to see them take the initiative in showing each other how to program and to use GIMP image editing.

I was completely taken aback by their commitment and work ethic, and they produced some really cool final videos (for a halfday project):

We even had one student decide to take her own path in Scratch. She animated a mini basketball game.

All in all, I was very, very proud of them. I am usually scared to push them too hard in fear of losing their interest. But it seems that pushing them to work harder was exactly what they needed this time.

They got a bit silly toward the end, since they were all so excited about the dancing animations we had created with pictures of themselves:

I joined the boys for lunch so that I could pass out reward prizes for a good day – just simple things like Spartan keychains. I ended up talking to them about a lot of different topics. Most interesting was probably their advice for how Jory can have “swag” – it’s sort of like being cool, if you don’t know what it means. How he can get all the ladies, basically. They suggested that he sag his pants, hang some Spartan basketball logo boxers out of the back of his pants, wear an oversized Nike shirt and a belt with some sort of flashy buckle, and don a hat with a flat brim (slanted to the side, gansta style). Jory doesn’t seem convinced that this will get him any dates, but the boys assured me that it would work for him. They also talked a lot about which high schools they plan to go to. And one mentioned a pregnancy scare that he had with a girl in the past, which worries me because they are only 13-15 years old.

After lunch, the students went straight home, and Jory and I packed up to head to Rapid City for the weekend. We ended up driving through a storm, and it took much longer than expected. The sky seems huge out here, and the storms are even bigger than in Chicago (where the winds are always impressive). We found a hotel in Rapid and planned to stay three nights there, just doing tourist-y things in the city since we needed to be out of the school.

The Boring One and the Ugly One

Day 3 turned out to be really rough. This sort of day happens every year, and I knew to expect it the second time around. I think the kids’ attitudes caught Jory off guard, but he managed to keep himself together nicely.

In the morning, Jory took the girls out to retake pictures for the comics, since theirs did not turn out properly the first time around. I took the boys and did an introduction with Alice. We created a scene which I thought they would find amusing: asking a girl out on a date. To keep it interesting, we made the characters a snowman and a snowwoman. Here is the assignment I gave them originally: snowmen_assignment.

I encouraged them to make the animations their own, to interpret the scenario creatively, and the boys really ran with it. I saw astronauts, snakes, dolphins… All sorts of creatures were asking each other out. In the plotline I gave them, the snowman was supposed to ask the snowwoman out, she blushes, and he runs away shyly. The boys added all sorts of dialogue to their animations, which I was very excited to see. Below I am including some of their work, which was really good for a first attempt in Alice.

Aiden’s animation:

Ira’s animation:

Buzz’s interpretation of the assignment:


At the same time the boys were doing Alice, the girls were making their comics. They really got into the project, since it was the second year in a row they were in the class. [This year, all of the girls are repeat students, all of the boys are new students.]

Here is some of what they came up with:


While I was walking around and helping out, Chanda stopped me to tell me that three of our students from last year got into Red Cloud High School! Red Cloud is the high school for advanced students, and they have to test into it. I am so very proud of the kids who are going there; it means that they will be getting all of the attention that they deserve to be. I wish that all of our kids could go, cause they are all really very bright, but many of them just won’t put in the time or effort required. Three is a lot to be chosen from one middle school, however, so I’m still really happy!

Chanda also gave me some bad news: a community member died this week. That means that school will be closing early on Thursday and canceled entirely on Friday, because funerals are held in the gymnasium at Porcupine Day School. It’s the only place where all of the families can gather for a 2-4 day wake. Apparently it’s a common reason for schools to close, and none of the kids were surprised. They had notes to the parents printed out for the students to take home by lunch time, and that was that. We have been asked to leave the school for the duration of the funeral, as much for our sake as for that of the grieving community members. Chanda is particularly concerned about us staying in the school while there are active spirits there. I have heard that the natives do not say the name of a person when they die, because saying the name would be to call their spirit. I plan to research this a bit more later. It’s so interesting to see how integrated Porcupine is, that school is put on hold when there is a death. Everything runs as if it is all part of one big creature, not independent units.

After lunch, Jory brought all of the students together for a tutorial in Scratch. Scratch is an alternative (competitor) to Alice developed by MIT, and has a very different feel to it. In particular, it makes 2D animations, and it is easy to import pictures that you take in to the program to animate. We had a couple of the girls whining about having to use Alice again. Despite the fact that these were the students who never really tried Alice in the first place last year to give it a fair chance, we decided to oblige them and change up our plans.

Following this tutorial, we hoped to get the kids to animate pictures of themselves (or each other) dancing. The boys were shy about taking pictures of themselves to make into a dancing video, but the girls got some really good poses to use. Jory showed them all how to edit pictures in GIMP to cut out just the dancing figure and exclude any background. He then taught them the basics of Scratch, so that they could import new sprites (characters) and give them different costumes (dancing poses). Add a bit of code, and the animation is set.

The students seemed to enjoy GIMP more than anything, which was a bit frustrating to us. They were also really out-of-it and cranky. At one point, a guy laid down on the floor and just took a nap. A girl made a farting noise with her mouth. I tried to make her stop, but eventually gave up. She made the noise for nearly ten minutes straight. Finally at the end of the day, with about thirty minutes left, Chanda came into the room and noticed the chaos and the refusal of the students to pay attention or work on assignments. She set them straight, and promised to spend some more time in our room doing classroom management. The students know that we have no real disciplinary powers, so they don’t take us seriously when they aren’t in the mood to do so.

Finally, it was time for them to go home, and we were all relieved. Oh, I forgot to mention. At one point, the boys informed me that I’m the boring one, but that’s okay, because Jory is the ugly one. Sigh. Haha.

Here are some extra pictures of the kids or taken by the kids:

After we were finished with school, we went straight out to Red Cloud (near the high school) to see the heritage museum. They have an amazing art gallery in the summers, filled with art made by people on the reservation. I can’t even describe the beauty there, and I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, so I made a list of all the different mediums and types of art that I saw: spirit dolls, birch carvings, masks made of gourds, giant oil paintings of buffalo, willow dreamcatchers, drawings of warriors, chiefs, women of all ages, stars in quillwork, fertility charms shaped like turtles, beaded outfits for full-grown adults and babies alike, statues made of bronze, mixed media with newspaper and postcards cut into fragments, prayer feathers carved from poplar, an Iktomi sculpture where he is depicted as a spider (which is what “Iktomi” is translated to from Lakota), a mural dyed onto a bedsheet in black ink, elk and buffalo hide guitar straps, “daksi akehega” (yellow turtles) sewn as a pattern in a quilt, handmade paper, charcoal, pastels, pencil, photography, art glass mosiacs, carvings in Utah alabaster, medallions made from beadwork, stonewear, red clay pottery, buffalo wool stuffed dolls, medicine wheels, peace pipes, sweet grass and sage, calligraphy, broken mirrors arranged into a blooming flower, spray painted spirits, embossed paper, and gold leaf. A few different pieces stuck out to me:

  • “Not for Sale” – a simple drawing in pen on paper of the Black Hills, titled “Not for Sale”
  • “The Visionary” – a gigantic oil on canvas painting of a native man wearing 3D movie glasses
  • “I thought we had problems” – a comical sketch of native men sitting on toilets, reading newspapers like The Enquirer and looking at each other in surprise

Lastly, here is a stormy sky in the distance:

Click on the pictures for close-ups on the impressive clouds. :]

Sheep Mountain

I got the Sheep Mountain pictures off of Jory’s camera from when we went a couple of nights ago. It is so beautiful up there; I think it’s my favorite place to be in the entire world. Chanda has been up only twice ever, and both times she has seen an eagle (the same one, perhaps?). It’s fitting, because her name is Chanda Spotted Eagle and her Lakota name was brought to her by an eagle. We didn’t see the eagle, but we did see a really, really big snake crossing the road.

Had we seen the snake at first, we would not have gone out into the tall grass! At least we were naive and we got to see the Badlands from the overlook like I wanted. :]

And Jory took a sneaky picture of me sleep back at the school:

ComicLife and the Donnie Darko Bunny

Day 2.

We had a couple more students today; Terri Dawn brought some of the girls with her so she wouldn’t be the only girl in the class. In the morning, we worked on explaining what functions are and how they work. We used a game where each student was allowed to draw one type of object, but could only do so while wearing a blindfold. Another student had to direct the blindfolded student to execute the drawing, specifying where and what to draw.

In the end, we had a complete picture capturing the major players in the Iktomi story we are working with, although the drawing was rather messy – as we expected. We hope that they took away from the game the following ideas: a function is isolated, can be called by a “main” function (or any other), can be executed as many times as desired, and can be passed parameters (in our case, colors).

Then we moved into storyboarding with the Iktomi story we read the day before. Storyboarding allows them a creative outlet and some time to draw, while also teaching them to outline their plot/scenes before they begin to animate them.

The students used the storyboards as a guide for acting out the legend and photographing each other in different scenes. I asked them to make props for their photographs, and we ended up with the boys all wearing hot pink warrior feathers in their baseball caps, while the girls had a handful of red paper berries and a water bottle which they soaked each other with. The boys wore their feathers the rest of the school day. For example, here are recess pictures:

Finally, we took them up to the computer lab and imported the pictures into ComicLife to make a comic version of the Iktomi story. The boys really took to the activity, which surprised me. Usually it is difficult to keep them invested in their computer work. But they seemed to like editing the pictures of themselves, adding the dialogue, and adding filters to the photos to make them look like comics. The girls were in the same group as they were last year for the activity (but with a different Iktomi story this year), and they liked seeing the comic they made last year and comparing it to the ones from this year. Apparently it’s really embarrassing that they didn’t all have contacts a year ago. They kept telling me “I was such a kid then!” as if they aren’t kids now…

In the evening, we just had a quiet night and made pizza. We got access to the life skills room finally, so we have a kitchen and a shower, thank goodness. We will see how long it lasts before someone locks us out again because of the “structural damage.” Jory says that it’s impossible to accidentally blow up the school with the oven here, so I’m counting on his judgment.

We are both scared of the bathrooms when we are alone. I’m afraid I’ll see the Donnie Darko bunny in there, and Jory is afraid that he will find a dead body that someone stashed and then have to deal with the hassle of calling the police. What a strange fear.

Is this summer school or summer cleaning?

This year we have all of the students ranging from those who just finished 5th grade to those who are about to enter high school – up to 49 registered students. How many showed up today? Well, 15. And only 7 of those were 7th/8th grade students who we will be teaching to program. That’s okay though, Jory and I will make the most of it.

The day started with Jay (who is usually the social studies teacher) having the students all clean off their own desks. As he handed out paper towel and sprayed their desks with 409, I hear one of my students from last year loudly complaining, “Is this summer school or summer cleaning?”

Every day they have to do about an hour of algebra in the morning for strengthening math skills. They hate it. But that means that we get our students after an hour of sitting still in the classroom, so they are excited to do whatever we have to give them.

We started the day with having them piece together an Iktomi story called Iktomi and the Squirrels. Iktomi, in case you don’t know, is a well-known Lakota legend character. He is a trickster and a shapeshifter, often taking the form of a spider. Iktomi stories generally consist of him getting into some sort of trouble and experiencing the negative consequences as a result.

We cut the story into pieces and had each student draw a fragment of the story out of the center of the table. They went around attempting to piece together the tale, each reading his or her part out loud. When we were finished, we talked about the main parts of a story – setting, characters, introduction, plot, climax, resolution, etc – and then had them attempt to write their own stories in their journals.

Writing their own stories didn’t go as well as we hoped. We spent a lot of time talking about different stories that they could write, different plotlines, but they all seemed hesitant to actually commit anything to their notebook. Jory and I need to brainstorm ways to get them to write their own stories, because I think they will prefer animating their own stories rather than a simple Iktomi tale.

Recess, and replanning:

We spent the afternoon introducing programming and the concept of writing an algorithm. Jory first outlined the idea using a peanut butter sandwich example. Basically, he brought a loaf of bread, peanut butter, a plate, and a knife to the table. He then said “I’m a computer. I want you to direct me to make a peanut butter sandwich.” The kids were all hyper since it was right after lunch. Immediately, someone shouts “Open the bag of bread!” So, Jory does just that: he rips open the bag of bread, and crumbs fly everywhere. Instantly, understanding flashes across all six pairs of eyes. They start to give Jory much more specific, thought-out instructions. In the end, they had a mangled excuse for a sandwich.

Then the students split off into pairs and wrote their own peanut butter sandwich making algorithms. They spent about twenty minutes doing this process. Then, we switched up all the partners. One person read their algorithm out loud to the class, and the other person acted as the computer following the instructions. The sandwiches were better than the first that Jory made, significantly so, but only one was considered edible.

For our last activity of the day, we had the students play Light Bot. Light Bot is an Armor Game, which instantly earned the students’ approval. They spent about half an hour working through the first three main levels. We noticed the most trouble using functions, which will be an important part of Alice, so we have to make sure to clarify what functions are and how they work.

In the evening, Jory and I went out to Sheep Mountain. I was really excited to share it with him. We drove all the way out there and trekked to the edge and then just laid there and enjoyed the air. It was amazing. On our way back out, though, we saw a *huge* snake crossing the road, which makes me super nervous to walk back out into the tall grasses again.

We stopped at Sharp’s Corner, the gas station, to grab some frozen groceries on the way back in, since we haven’t had access to anything other than a microwave for cooking. I was really sick (from traveling perhaps?) and ended up just taking some anti-nausea medicine that we found in a first-aid kit and going to bed.

Chanda sent me this:

Caitlyn, The class came in asking where you guys were this morning even though they were there at Chili’s when we went one direction and you went another. I’ve just went through and shared your blog with the class. I loved seeing everything through your eyes, very awakening! These are some of the comments from the class:

Weldon Jr. likes the pictures

Moses likes the pictures of the horses

Terri Dawn likes your dialogue

Nami misses you

Aidan likes the history

Chris liked Alice

Chelsea liked your descriptions

Chrissa liked the pictures

Tiny liked the animation portion of Alice