Monthly Archives: March 2016

No, We’re Not Crazy

I recently had a member of my PLN on twitter – my newest connection because of our love of Minecraft, ask me the following question.  “We’re not crazy are we?”  The reason he was asking this was because he had recently tried to share the possibilities of using Minecraft as a teaching tool to other teachers in his district. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a tough sell because people weren’t as open to it as he had hoped they would be.  Funny enough, I had had the same experience just a few days before when I had done a similar presentation to a group of colleagues within my own district. While they saw the potential, they just were not as open to actually using it within their own classrooms.  So I felt for him because it was a question I could relate to.  He asked whether we were crazy,  just ahead of our time or what.  It was something that stuck with me and I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on what he had asked me and these are a few of my thoughts.

Some will say “I don’t have enough time, I just have too much curriculum to cover and not enough for my students to play around.”.   My response to that is you can gear a Minecraft project so it takes as much or as little time as you need.  My students recently were asked to build a city in Minecraft to show their understanding of arrays – a multiplication strategy they were introduced to in math class.  The project itself took 10-15 min of planning, two 30 minute classes of building and then today they started working through the cities to find out what their classmates had built and share the arrays they thought they saw.  So in total, it took probably the same amount of time it would have taken for the students to do 4-5 worksheets on arrays and then a quiz showing their understanding.

Some will say “How do I assess this?  How do I show the students understand the concept I was teaching”. Well, using my same Minecraft lesson my students showed their understanding in their plan, in the city they built then by the conversations I listened to as I worked through the groups and heard them talking about the arrays they were seeing and writing in their math journals.  They were engaged, they were talking math and they were seeing their math learning come to life in a way that was interesting to them and I could readily see those who were able to see and understand arrays and those who were still trying to figure them out.

Some will say “I don’t know Minecraft so I can’t use it in my classroom.” And my response to that would be that you do not need to be the expert. Do you need a working knowledge – yes, it will be helpful and definitely help you see the potential.  The more I work with Minecraft, the more I see how I can use it better with my students.  But am I the expert, do I know everything about Minecraft – not at all.  I am constantly learning, and my students are the ones who are teaching me.  And this is something that they are so proud of – being given the opportunity to teach and mentor me in something they are confident in, switching the roles has given my quieter students, my struggling students a voice which is a positive thing in my mind.

Some will say “Minecraft is just a game students play, there isn’t any real learning involved.”And to that I will say – my grade three students have had to learn the importance of collaboration.  They have had to make compromises, learn to work together, giving each other jobs to get the task done in the time given. They have learned to communicate – talking about the things they have built, sharing their learning in a variety of forms, written and orally. My students have had to learn to problem solve because the plans they came up with on paper did not translate when they started building.  They had to think creatively, work together to find solutions but as I have mentioned before it is amazing how willing they are to persevere when they are given the opportunity to use Minecraft.  And honestly I think these skills will take them much farther in their learning journey.

So back to my original question I don’t think we are crazy or ahead of our time.  We have just been willing to risk and try something new, something that is engaging our students. And at the end of the day that is who is the most important opinion – are our students open to the possibilities of using Minecraft to showcase their understanding?  The answer to this is yes, so that is the opinion I will focus on as I continue to learn to use Minecraft in my classroom.

It Started with a Pile of Cardboard

I love giving my students an opportunity to make things.  I have maker bins in my classroom – Lego, Knox, Playdough, marble runs and all sorts of other things that involve them working together to problem solve, collaborate and just figure things out.  However, I am also lucky enough to have not only one unit, but two, in my grade 3 science curriculum – “Building with a Variety of Materials” and “Testing Materials and Designs” where they are challenged to build something in the classroom and then test their design to see how it worked.

Last year my grade partners took a chance on a crazy idea I had and we had a giant cardboard arcade unit. (you can read about the experience here –  Our Cardboard Arcade Journey)  It was honestly a great project based learning activity and both my students and I learned a lot from it.

So when the time came around this year, there wasn’t much debate as to whether we would do this project again.  It was more how could we improve it.  The students were actually chomping at the bit to start – it was one of the first questions my students asked when they walked into the classroom, were they were going to be allowed to build their own arcade games this year too. (they had remembered going to the gym and playing them last year). So it was funny how quickly they all hit the ground running with this project.

Many started looking at YouTube videos to get ideas, many talked about how they had seen games they liked last year and were going to make them better this year.  And they were correct in those statements – the quality of the games my students came up with this year were more better than last year. We gave the students the same parameters in our expectations.  Their games had to be firstly functional – potentially over 150  people would be playing their games by the time the afternoon was done so it needed to be in good enough shape to play.  Next the game had to be sturdy – and we had long discussions as to what this word actually meant.  This was something that quite a few of the students found challenging this year – many of them thought that if they added more duct tape, then the sturdiness factor would just come.  The “less is more” conversation came up more than once during the unit.  But in the reflections after the build, quite a few talked about how they would have done things differently when it came to making their games sturdy so this was a good learning experience.  The last piece was the extra add on -making their game eye catching so that it stood out from the crowd of over 60 games that would be in the gym.  It was again a great learning moment when some realized that they themselves could be the eye-catching piece – that if they played their games or called friends over to try, that could be the catalyst that got people to come play their game versus another one.

I will warn you that while this unit is an amazing learning experience – it is not for the faint at heart.  My room was a mess of cardboard, boxes, tubes, tape, glue and much more for over a month.  I had to give up control of the room and just be willing to be okay with the organized chaotic mess (which was hard at times, I will not lie). But again the end result was I had students that were engaged and excited about their learning.  The ones who found things easy in some areas (reading, writing) were challenged by bringing their design to life.  Quite a few the design had to change because what they had on paper did not translate to real life.  Some had to persevere because their designs did not pass the sturdiness test and there were quite a few back to the drawing boards for some. But I saw student after student digging in and being willing to try, even those who if this activity involved doing it on paper would have given up long before.

On that final day when we had masses of students running around the gym trying out games the students had built, I saw happy and excited faces.  I saw quiet students coming out of their shells to talk about how to play their games.  I saw students who might not have been the best writers beaming because grade 6 boys were excited to play the game they had designed and built.  For me, the best moment came when one of my more challenging boys in my class came to life because his dad had taken the time to stop by for half an hour to see his game.  The memory of the smile that lit up his face will be one that I tuck away in my own memory box.

And that is why projects like this are important.  Why being willing to give up control and let my students just build, make a mess and figure things out is essential.  When we do these things we give our students meaningful learning experiences that they will remember.  And isn’t that at the heart of what we are hoping to do in the classroom??


How it all began


Getting kinderbuddies to test