Minecraft in the classroom, it is not a new idea anymore. A Google search will yield 661,000 hits on the topic. There are even videos promoting the use of Minecraft in the classroom along with the research that supports it. “Gamification,” “Minecraft,” “coding”—it can all sound a bit daunting and unfamiliar. It is a long way from the readers and “new math” that was used when I went to school. Minecraft is an environment that allows the student to creatively express what they have discovered and apply it in semi-real world setting. Should this tool be used in schools? My short answer is, “yes.” My long answer is, “Yes!” Is there a learning curve for a 55 year old librarian? Oh my word, yes. Is it worth it? Most definitely. So how does someone who is unfamiliar with most of these new programs start using them?
Everyone will come to this place in her own way. This is how it happened for me. My journey began with my own children long before Minecraft was even a game. My oldest son, Kevin, was in second grade in 1995 before standardized testing was as prevalent in elementary school as it is now. His teacher was teaching the government unit and the class cleared the floor and created a “box city.” The students were meeting the learning objectives with regard to understanding their community by creating their own city. They planned a town with roads, schools and other government services and built the town on the floor of their classroom. The tables and desks were shoved to the perimeter of the room and everything they learned for the next few weeks was in the context of this city. They studied social studies, science and math concepts along with reading and writing through the lens of the elements of government, city planning and mapping. Learning to get along with peers, collaborating and feeling the satisfaction of creating something larger than themselves were by-products of the process for the students. The principal was a little uneasy with the layout of the room, but my son’s teacher pushed through and the result was an active, engaged community of second graders. I know this because Kevin came home everyday and told me about it. There are only a few projects that my children have been really excited about at school and I remember his enthusiasm clearly.
The project rattled around in my head for years after Kevin had moved on from elementary school. There was no conceivable way that I would be able to recreate this experience for my second graders. In the interest of meeting certain requirements, I could not tear up my room and create a city on the floor and leave it there for weeks as children worked their way through all of the problems we would encounter. And so the idea of a “box city” in my own classroom remained solely in my head.
I have four sons. Kevin is the oldest. The youngest is Adam. He is seven years younger than Kevin and when he was in middle school—he is now a junior in college—he was very excited about a game that he and his friends were playing. It was then that I learned about Minecraft. At about the same time I saw a video of a teacher at the Columbia University Lab school using Minecraft with his second graders. To make a long story short, I now saw how the “box city” from Kevin’s second grade class could exist in the classroom once again. Children could create, collaborate, communicate and build something bigger than themselves, but this time it would be virtual. Minecraft is a game, but it is a game of imagination and play. There are no rules. There is no final level. It goes forever, or at least it seems to, and kids love using it to express themselves.
So how did I go from envisioning the physical “box city” to the virtual “box city” of Minecraft?” To start with, I had help, lots of help. My son, Adam, and a friend built a server so that my students could play offline because I did not want second graders interacting with the Minecraft world at large. Like everything else related to the internet there are wonderful things about Minecraft resources as well as completely inappropriate material. I also enlisted older students in the building to help me and my second graders. Last, my principal was supportive of the move.
I did not use any resources other than those readily available to create the virtual “Box City” for my second grade students. We had licenses and a group of older students who used Minecraft and that was enough for me to get started. When I attended ISTE 2015 many Minecraft users were using a company Minecraft Edu to help implement the program in their schools. Another teacher in my district tried to use Minecraft Edu with little luck. I imagine with the popularity of the game, the company is overwhelmed with business. Those who mentioned the company at the ISTE conference were very pleased with the service. We, however, created our own server to keep kids safe. I think most high school kids who play the game are capable of creating such a server and then all you need is to purchase the licenses from the company.
In 2012, with a class of 30 second graders, I began my journey using Minecraft. Wow. What a learning curve for me. I became a student of Minecraft and my students were often my teachers! I did not wait until I knew all about the game to begin using it in my classroom. I trusted my fifth graders to be honest and help me, and they did. The second graders loved it. The fifth graders loved helping. As I look back on it, at the time I thought it went okay. Knowing what I know now, it was a spectacular disaster. The students did not communicate with each other as well as they needed. I definitely needed to develop the research process to help students understand more about city planning. Students used crazy materials, spawned animals and destroyed each other’s work. Many things did not go well, but that did not change the fact the students did meet the learning objectives to some degree because they were engaged and trying. It was my teaching that needed to improve.
However, if I had not embraced the opportunity and pushed through the failure that was mostly due to ignorance, I would never have been able to use Minecraft the way I do now. I learned. I learned about the bedrock and building materials, about maps and spawning, about “creative mode” and “survival mode,” about the chat feature and the needs of second graders as they communicate online. I learned about flat worlds and skins, and I rediscovered the joy of watching children take responsibility for their own decisions. Mixing the older kids with the younger students was originally so I could monitor the second graders but it became so much more. As I watched one of my fourth graders this year, working with one of my second graders, they reminded me of a couple of city planners—looking at their maps, determining the best location for a road, deciding what would make the most sense for the world they were building. They were not looking to me for guidance. I was only in the room to supervise bathroom breaks. The students were completely immersed in building historically accurate representations of our town—Columbia, Missouri—based on earlier mapping and research. I had to provide the opportunity for them to research and plan for weeks before they actually started building, much as it happens in the real world. Once the building began they were so into it, I just watched.
Using Minecraft to meet the district social studies objectives for second grade was highly engaging. They were also meeting many of the AASL standards for research and information literacy. The students read texts above grade level and learned to recognize keywords to use for further research. Often they were reading old newspaper articles or city council notes. They gathered what they knew, chose what was significant based on criteria we had discussed and then created a world that was a representation of their understanding. While engaged in the research process they met these Common Core ELA Standards:
Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
Describe the connection between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 2 topic or subject area.
The students used primary and secondary sources for their research. Second graders were not the intended audience for most of these texts. Students learned to glean the information they were looking for by using many text features, captions, titles, images and maps and in doing so created an historically accurate, representational picture of a time period of Columbia, Missouri. By the end of the project students were able to read complex texts to determine factual information.
Students met Common Core math standards in the process of creating their virtual box city. Minecraft is a like a set of building blocks. Everything is created in cubes and arrays. As students build to scale, they must be aware of the number of cubes they use and the size of the array they create. They went far beyond the expectations for second grade.
Use addition to find the total number of objects arranged in rectangular arrays with up to 5 rows and up to 5 columns; write an equation to express the total as a sum of equal addends.
Partition a rectangle into rows and columns of same-size squares and count to find the total number of them.
And lastly this project embraces many of the standards that ISTE promotes for students. Some standards were met more frequently than others but in the process of researching, planning and working together the students showed how several of the ISTE Standards were integral to the success of the project.
Creativity and Innovation
1.a Apply existing knowledge to generate new ideas, products, or processes.
1.c Use models and simulations to explore complex systems and issues.
Communication and Collaboration
2.a Interact, collaborate, and publish with peers, experts, or others employing a variety of digital environments and media.
2.d Contribute to project teams to produce original works or solve problems.
Research and Information Fluency
3.a Plan strategies to guide inquiry.
3.b Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media.
3.c Evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on the appropriateness to specific tasks.
Critical Thinking, Problem Solving and Decision Making
Technology Operations and Concepts
6.a Understand and use technology systems.
6.b Select and use applications effectively and productively.
6.d Transfer current knowledge to learning of new technologies.
In the final week of the project students were able to visit the cities that their peers had created. They could compare their experience to that of their peers. They could also make judgements about time periods based on their own research experience, much like peer reviewed journals in academia.
The best moment for me was when one of the fourth graders, who had been in my original group of second graders, commented, that I had learned a lot since I started the project three years ago and that it was a big improvement. It was a good feeling to get an honest comment from a fourth grader noticing what I had learned.
Anne Schoelz, Media Specialist, Columbia Public Schools, Columbia, Missouri Twitter @AnneSchoelz
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