Saturday, February 9, 2013

Minecraft during school hours

Usually, I try my best to limit this blog to the games my son and daughter play (ergo Family Gaming). However, this anecdote bears repeating in several venues and it fits here.

Last year, my school was one of three that participated in the TDSB Multi-School Minecraft server, with server space provided by Ryerson University's EDGE Lab. Along with Liam O'Donnell and Denise Colby's respective schools, we ran after-school Minecraft Clubs that targeted (but were not limited to) students under-performing in literacy, numeracy, and social skills. This year, because of various factors surrounding the provincial government, Bill 115, and contract negotiations, it was not feasible to use Minecraft in a club setting. Instead we lobbied for (and after many months, finally received) permission to open the ports during the instructional day for use during school hours.

I chose to use Minecraft with a Grade 3-4 class as part of their media time. Prior to yesterday, small groups had the chance to play the game on one of my student accounts in single player mode. Friday, February 8, 2013 was the first day that all the students could interact together in the same virtual world. It was wonderful to see how thrilled they were to work together and there were several things worth recording.

The students were the ones to decide to use Minecraft. In the fall, we intended to make "What Is Media?" instructional videos to post on YouTube. Each class could decide what format this video would take. One class used claymation, another used stop motion animation with Lego, and a third used traditional actors and costumes. This class voted that they would use Minecraft. Because we didn't have access to the multi-player server, we postponed this project. They were able to pick skins (of recognizable mass media characters from different media texts) and become familiar with how to move in the game. On February 8, four groups logged in. It took a while to find each other (the portals were malfunctioning) but by using the warp command, we found each other and posed for a group picture.

The students said their first task was to begin building the sets they needed for the movie. I scouted out an area that were far from other schools and their construction sites and we flew to our location. Together the students cleared the land.

What I loved was all the problem-solving going on, and how they turned to each other for answers. The "go-to" group was comprised of two ELL/ESL boys sharing a character. The fascinating thing was that the other students didn't yell out their names when they needed them - instead, they used either the avatar's name or the skin:

"Mario, can you show us how to place a block?"

"Hey Pondergrim, this isn't working - can you help me?"

I'm amazed by how quickly they adopted the character and identified with them. I guess I shouldn't be that surprised; my own children reacted strongly when I first suggested I "give away" their Minecraft characters. In fact, one of the other groups asked if they could use one of the "female avatars" next time instead of the one they used - the Incredible Hulk.

The students were having so much fun and working so hard that (with their regular class teacher's permission), I let them stay an extra period (during my own prep time) to let them continue. I tried to stay quiet and out of the way - I filmed them as they played. When I asked why there were so many torches placed on the ground, they explained that they needed the light so they could continue to work through the night. All the students were in creative mode so they could access all the block types they needed for building the movie sets. This was very different from last year, when we stayed in survival mode until near the end. This turned out to be useful for another reason: one player hit another player (on purpose or by accident, it's unclear) and because they were all on creative mode, no one got hurt.

When lunch time came, there were many groans when I announced that we had to go. "Team Mario" ran up to speak to me after the class.

"Miss Molly, when I finish my lunch, can I come to the library and go back on Minecraft?"
(Unfortunately, the answer to that was no.)

"Miss Molly, thank you! Thank you for that class!"

These boys were the experts, the ones the others turned to for assistance. They aren't often in such a position because they are still learning English. Minecraft leveled the playing field and it's a field they want to return to play on as soon as possible. (I'll try to upload some of the short video clips I took. Apologies if it doesn't work - I'll do it through YouTube in a separate post if it fails.)

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