Sunday, October 16, 2011


Yesterday at Edcampto  I had my most interesting conversation about Minecraft yet.  A teacher described what happened with Minecraft in his classroom. It was a powerful story.

In his class students built a Minecraft multiplayer server and then spent the entire year building and playing in that world.  Their heart and soul went into it.  For non-Minecrafters I don't know if you can fully understand what this means, but players will get it.   For Minecrafters the world they create is as real as the world they live in.  In some ways it is more real because players have a level of power, control and creativity that they do not have in everyday life.

One student played  for the entire year but never shared with the rest of the class what he was up to. At the end of the school year they found out.  The student had spent the entire year collecting enough dynamite equivalent to the force of the bomb that fell on Hiroshima and then he used it.  He blew up their world.  It took over 7 minutes and the entire class watched as their creation was destroyed.

I am in shock just hearing it.  That day in class ... what was it like?

I am looking for some insight into this part of Minecraft and what happened. Could players comment?
Keep in mind this is an educational blog seen by students.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Grades 4 and 5 Arrive

Minecraft for grades 4 and 5 has begun. I'm just going to record what I hear.

How do I build?
Who's building? Go watch him.

Ready. I've got the TNT. Watch this. (and the pure pleasure of destroying and rebuilding)

Can you help me? I forget how to...

(and from everyone a running record describing their decision making as they play)

I just found lava.

What is that?

Hold down the mouse. Go to.... put the wood here ...

Several students suddenly get up and gather around one all chatting in excitement.

It's starting to get dark.

How do I switch between two?

You need to go to options.

You have to update the Java.

Dude you're in ... there's a brick that turns purple.
Maybe it's obsidian
No it goes purple up and down.

You're launching.

One boy gets up to help another make a portal. Everyone leaps up to observe and then try it themselves.

Constant questions, teaching, observing, learning and celebration when someone masters a new technique.

The ebb and flow of natural learning.

I've got a portal. I've got a portal! I'm going through.

I've found a duck taking a bath.
No, that's just a chicken clucking around.
(disgust) He can't even swim!

And one boy who tries computer after computer trying to get into the game. Finally a girl suggests that he's trying to load the wrong version. Success.

Friday, September 23, 2011

And so it begins ... again.

This is our first true day of Minecraft Club. We ended up splitting the club into two sessions: one for grades 6 and 7 and one for grades 4 and 5.  Most students in the club are already Minecrafters and many have their own accounts.  Several, though, are playing on the free version.  While playing almost all players are describing what is happening on their screens while they play. They verbally identify a course of action and even though many voices are speaking at once ... if an interesting plan arises, it is heard because neighbouring students will pause and watch.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Back at It!

This summer I took a break from Minecraft, but now that the school year has started, I am back at it. Clearly, my students' return to Minecraft has been eagerly awaited; the one question that I am asked most frequently when walking down the halls of my school is, "When is Minecraft starting?" often by students that I do not even know! 54 students have signed up to date. For a club, those numbers are staggering. I think our original group was 4 and we could play in my classroom. I now may have to run 2 sessions per week to accommodate everyone. Gaming is social though and part of the process is gathering in groups, discussing, problem solving, suggesting - the conversation is as important as the playing and creating. Not everyone needs to be at the keyboard at once. This weekend I am participating in a global classroom for Minecraft. I signed up for two reasons: 1. I would like to learn more about the game 2. This represents a new model of learning: students logging in from around the world to participate in a self-selected class. I believe the event is running out of Australia, but I could be wrong. The event targets adults who wish to learn more about the virtual world in which their children create. This event once again demonstrates the power of twitter. Thank you @MissionVHQ for tweeting it; I would never have known otherwise.

Friday, May 27, 2011

I am in the Club!!!!

I don't know what is more exciting: that 3 grade 6 boys invited me to join their team to design a mod for Minecraft or that I understood what they were asking!!!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Grade 6 Girls Talk About Minecraft

Today I had the pleasure of sitting down with five grade 6 girls in our Minecraft club during Nutrition Break to discuss why they game.  I was stunned by the level of maturity in their discussion as well as their insights. I will blog in detail about what I learned, but I promised them I would post the interview today.  It lasts about 20 minutes and is well worth a full listen, particularly near the end when the girls discuss self-image. They blew me away!  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Voices of Gamers

There were over 20 students, male and female,  in the lab at Nutrition Break today playing Minecraft.  For those who think that gaming is an isolating activity, you're wrong. Gaming is intensely social. Players remain focused, on task and in constant conversation as they work to help each other achieve goals. New learning spreads rapidly and calls for help are immediately answered.  There are frequent moments of success and satisfaction as players continuously work to solve problems.

Ian Chia suggested I put a mic in our lab so everyone can hear what I am privileged to hear. I used audacity to record bits and pieces of our conversation and then uploaded the podcast to to get an embed code in order to post it in blogger. We are noisy, learning and having fun!  0

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

If You Could Hear What I Hear

I truly wish that all educators could be in our lab at Dundas Central listening to students discuss Minecraft.  It saddens me because I realize that in my 20 years of teaching, I haven't spent enough time just listening to my students.

YOU!!!!! Play Minecraft?

Still the most common reaction I get from students. Minecraft is spreading into homes. Siblings are beginning to play. We're in the cloud.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I Have Spawned Minecrafters

Today, in the lab at nutrition break there are suddenly 7 new minecrafters excited about the game. The longtime group is teaching the new group. Students working on other subjects are whispering and asking questions. Interesting. The best thing of all is that I get to observe how gamers teach each other.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Two Kinds of Teachers

Now that I am a student, I realize that I have two kinds of teachers and both are necessary.  One group of my teachers are the excited visionaries. They see my future and are eager to show me all that world of Minecraft can become. They enthusiastically race ahead into the realm of possibilities.  I frequently am unable to follow where they are going but I sense that their ideas are worth pursuing and am willing to persist because they know something that I want to know.

Then there are the logicians.  They are the calmer, sequential thinkers. They can shift down to my level and clearly explain my exact next step.  I rely on them to guide me and turn to them when I have questions.

I need both.

This leads me to consider just what a misguided effort it is to attempt to standardize the delivery of education.  The idea that one size fits all or that if we just develop the right program we can finally put an effective education system into place is a waste of time.  Just as students require differentiated instruction, teachers require recognition that different teaching styles exist and that one is not more valid than the other.  I would not want my own students to have a teacher like me every year.  I know my weaknesses and am grateful that there are other teachers in the school who compensate for what I am unable to do.  And I know that the way I engage with my students compensates for the weaknesses in their systems.   Each teacher has something unique to offer. It's time that the world of education recognized this.

I Can't Believe I'm Having This Conversation With You, Mrs. Siwak

This week, we've been back at Minecraft in my classroom.  I have some excellent teachers who are enthusiastic about helping me learn. I've made a craft table, collected wool, and now have a bed so that morning can come faster. I've learned the benefits of collecting cobblestone and of building a very tall tower so I can find my way back. I am the proud owner of, a spade!

Today we decided to move out of my classroom and into the computer lab for our Minecraft club as our group is expanding and there are not enough computers in my room.  In the lab, two grade 8 students were working on a language assignment and joined our conversation once they realized we were playing Minecraft.  The best way I can describe what happens when students discover that I am gaming is that an ignition fires and they come to life - the passive, uninterested, meaningless conversation that passes for dialogue between teacher and student is eliminated and real discussion occurs - the kind of discussion they might have with someone outside of school.  It is at a much more sophisticated level than anything I have experienced previously with students - and I have been teaching for 20+ years!

I learned a great deal from these students.  When one of them explained how to access the game from a different computer, I was pleased that I was able to follow in my head the sequence of steps he was explaining. There, tick it off the expectation list: student is able to give directions. Level 4 - the explanation was sophisticated, complex and sequential. It made sense.  Why should he have to bother writing directions for an invented assignment when he can do this already?

As the conversation continued, this student recognized the role reversal and remarked on it - that I was just another student learning to do something.  His estimation and respect for me went up, as did mine for him.  We were connecting on a level that does not usually happen in "school".   "I can't believe I'm having this conversation with you," he said.  I invited this student to join us on Day 5's at first and second Nutrition Breaks and to bring anyone else who might be interested.  Once again I am moving into new territory.  I am learning how to build relevant relationships with students - relevant to them and me!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Survive My First Night

My teachers (they're 11) said I should really get the Beta version of Minecraft, that way I could save my game.  Always listen to your teachers!

This time it was easy to create a world and begin moving through it.  I was fascinated by all that I saw, but was primarily focused on motion control, which is thank goodness rapidly improving now that I'm using a mouse instead of the keypad.  After exploring this new world for a while, I knew that I needed to begin building and thought that I should start to place blocks. To my horror, none of the methods that I had learned in the first version of Minecraft worked. I was right back to square one.  This time though, I knew that there was a logic to the control panel and I just needed to figure that out.

I went back to the first tutorial I had watched on how to survive your first night in Minecraft . This time it made perfect sense.

All I needed to do was gather a few resources such as wood and coal, build a workbench, make some tools and find a place to shelter for the night before the night creatures found me.

As you can see from the bottom, I am gathering wood.

For those who have followed my struggle to determine simply how to move in this game,  you can imagine my sense of satisfaction that I had reached this point. After chopping down a number of trees,  I went on to find coal in order to make torches before it became dark.  It was so exciting to find the hillside with a large vein of coal. I proceeded to dig away, but unfortunately, did not pay attention to the time.  It suddenly began to darken and stars appeared.  It was really quite beautiful, but I knew I still needed torches and shelter. I began to feel anxious. What would happen?

I had no option but to continue to problem solve.  I returned to my craft centre and that's when I found out that I hadn't been gathering coal at all!  No! I had been gathering ...


I could not make a torch.  I had not built shelter. I had no other tools.  What to do?  

My husband who has begun to take a keen interest in my progress and is thinking of becoming a player too, whipped out his phone and looked for assistance - Minecraft Buddy.  He scrolled through asking what resources I had. Minecraft Buddy confirmed that I was stuck.

I thought that I might as well continue exploring this world at night and ventured forth.  The moon appeared; it was quite lovely, but then I spotted a Zombie. Panic. That's it. I ran for cover and hid in a tree; it was nerve racking as I had no idea how long night would last or if I would live to play another day.   It felt real and lonely. Eventually the sun appeared and it was with a great sense of relief that I saved my game for tomorrow.  


It is the not knowing what to expect that makes this game so captivating.  As adults, it is not often that we put ourselves into unfamiliar situations where we need to problem solve without schema to draw upon.   Usually when we encounter a difficulty, we apply  previous knowledge  in order to work through it.  In Minecraft I have very little schema. Every move I make, I am making it for the first time.   I have to say though, that I am hooked!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Minecraft has been Unblocked

I looked for the reason why Minecraft had become blocked.  It stated: games. I kid you not.  Fortunately, a simple email request was all that was needed to rectify the problem.  

Always Blame the Equipment

That was a piece of advice my brother-in-law offered my daughter when she began playing hockey many years ago.  It popped into mind today as I realized that part of my difficulty in advancing in Minecraft was due to my equipment.  Instead of using a mouse for maneuvering, I've been using the keypad on my laptop which made the task unnecessarily difficult.  I discovered this by accident when sitting down to a PC to play - with the mouse I was able to be more accurate in my movements. Such a simple thing. With the right tool, learning can now proceed.

This also made me think of how having access to the right tools allows learning to proceed among a group of students that we've really not been able to serve well in the past:  the learning disabled.  What a phrase!  It implies that these students are unable to learn. A more accurate description would be that these students learn differently and that traditional educational tools do not meet their needs. This, however,  is no longer the case as assistive technologies become more common in classrooms. Speech to text word processing, digital readers, and a host of other tools are slowly becoming integrated into teaching practice. Students no longer need to sit helpless and frustrated while everyone else moves forward..  The right tools are allowing them to get on with their learning independently.  Always blame the equipment, indeed!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Minecraft is Blocked????!!!!!!!!!!

I sat down with my 11 and 10 year old colearners (oh, let's be honest, teachers ) at Nutrition Break today only to find out that Minecraft has been blocked. I don't know why quite yet, but my students believe it is probably due to discussion forums using inappropriate language.  Discussion forums?

My learning was stymied. This was very frustrating, but led to an important question: if we are going to open our classrooms to multi-player collaborative on-line gaming, can the games not be designed from the outset to accommodate a school's needs.  Could there not be word recognition that automatically logged out players who begin using inappropriate language?  Surely with all the analytics being gathered a simple tool could be designed with this purpose in mind. If this happened, would it change the nature of the gaming experience?

Fortunately, my board has a fairly flexible unblocking policy.  I have sent in a request to have the site unblocked for my school and am optimistic this will occur.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rousing Cheer: Blocks in Place - Oh Yeah!

Got it!

I've placed several blocks by accident thorough experimental use of key sequences,  but this is the capture of the first time I understood and deliberately placed blocks.  In hindsight I have no idea why this seemed so difficult, because it is really quite easy.  I suspect my students have found me somewhat peculiar as I asked for yet another demonstration of how to place blocks. Once I understood the logic and was able to complete the task,  I let out a rather loud cheer.  This was way more satisfying than any external prize could be.

Implications for teaching:  learners must be allowed enough opportunities to repeat a learning experience until the knowledge and skills have been internalized.  There really is no point moving forward to a next step when the previous step has not been solidified. Perhaps learning of skills needs to broken down into much tinier steps.  This is where I see a true usefulness for blended on-line learning. In-class time could be devoted to rich, highly engaging higher level thinking activities;  on-line time could be used for the individualized practice of  skills and concepts.  Just a thought.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Insight # 4: Gaming Alters One's Understanding of Location and Movement in the Real World

I hope this makes sense.

I've been very caught up with simply moving through space in Minecraft.  What I wasn't expecting was for this to alter the way I experience movement and location in the real world.  Suddenly, I'm not just driving in my car, but I am on an xy axis  within a cube and I can easily visualize myself at exact locations within it.  I am relating to my world in a different way.  I don't know if this is truly a new pathway in my brain or that it's simply that it has never occurred to me to relate to my world in this way.  Whatever has caused it, I am relating to and thinking about space differently. And, it seems very natural; I'm not being "taught" formulas for the cube;  I'm not using manipulatives to make discoveries about cubes; mentally, I am visualizing myself within the cube and that is new for me.

My hunch is that children who have grown up as gamers experience space and location in a different way from non-gamers.  They probably are not aware of this difference, but it has enormous implications for teaching.  If gamers experience space the way I am now experiencing it they should easily be able to understand concepts like area, volume, vertices, angles. They should have a natural ability to visualize these concepts and teachers need to approach learning by tapping into that innate knowledge. Does that make sense?


Oh, there's a hashtag for #Minecraft?   Sigh. I'm such a beginner.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

To Proceed in Minecraft I Need Some Brain Construction

Trying to orient myself and move through space in Minecraft feels odd, unfamiliar.  I haven't experienced space in this way before and it is difficult to connect the movement of my fingers to my brain and then to my screen.  I almost feel as if there is a pathway missing in my brain and that once it gets built I will able to move effectively.

 I am becoming somewhat better, but my primary strategy for movement is to blast things out of my way. A life skill perhaps, but one with limited benefits. I haven't yet figured out how to move up to higher terrain. Tried jumping with the space bar. Up. Down.

I've blasted out a hollow cube and now can only go round and round which means that I'm trapped.   Why isn't the tree falling on my head? I've taken the base away.

Why doesn't the tree fall?
Insight number two: gaming forces me to problem solve.  There are no shortcuts, no easy ways around the problem.  I can't even pretend that I've solved the problem and go on to do other things.  If I am to proceed, I must figure this out. Abandoning this process is an option, but not one I'm prepared to take.

I will need to develop strategies, and I really do not have a great deal of schema to apply to this situation.  My main strategy so far has been to ask my students for assistance, but I would prefer to figure this out on my own.  Where do gamers go to get assistance with their problems?

I looked at a video for beginners on Youtube, but it wasn't truly a beginner video.  The producer had made all kinds of assumptions about the viewer's knowledge that did not apply to me.  Again, I think of my own teaching practice.  What assumptions do I make about my students that prevent them from learning?  That is truly an uncomfortable thought!

It seems I need the prequel to the introductory video. The one that shows the keyboard and how to use it to move through space in Minecraft.  Does it exist?  

Insight # 3: Teaching Math Through Physical Movement, What Lies Ahead

I am fortunate to live with an innovative thinker.  In our discussions on my recent foray into gaming we realized that mathematical instruction has the potential to radically change if it adopts gaming technologies. It can break free from two-dimensional expression using pen and paper into the multi-dimensional world of virtual reality and movement thanks to tools such as  microsoft's kinetics and Nintendo 3DS. Children will be able to understand complex mathematical expressions even at the kindergarten level.

In traditional learning we use abstract terms, for example: multiplication, addition, division and subtraction. We symbolize them two dimensionally with  pen and paper or perhaps or even three dimensionally when using manipulatives.  A cube is a x a x a.  Tools like kinetics allow us to take our expression from two-dimensional symbology into a 3-D interpretive medium based on movement.  When a child is moving, the movements can be interpreted by kinetics to carry mathematical meaning.  An arm pointing diagonally means multiplication:  3 X 4. A movement horizontally is addition or subtraction. As the child moves,  their movements becomes interpreted  as a series of mathematical expressions.  A child can use his or her body to write a mathematical story.

A child can also receive immediate feedback on whether they have used the most efficient expression to articulate mathematical thinking. The number 24 could be expressed as a series of 12 horizontal gestures of 2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2+2.  Technology can provide them with immediate feeback that a more efficient expression of 24 might be a diagonal movement of 6x4 or 2x12.  Technology interprets and  records their mathematical thinking.

We know that children learn best when moving.  A dance becomes a series of  mathematical expressions.   Lending this idea to creative arts, at its most evolved level an interpretive dancer becomes a free-thinking mathematician.

Thank you Jeremy!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Minecraft is in My Classroom Already? Oh. Embarrassed Face

My First Day of Minecraft.

All I Can Do is Make Holes!
Can't even remember how to choose and place a block.

Some of you may find this amusing, but I actually have gamers in my classroom at Nutrition Breaks playing Minecraft.  Students from one of the classes I teach turn up regularly and ask to use my computers. Not once have I thought to ask, "What are you doing?"

I regret not having asked sooner.  All it took was a simple expression of interest on my part for them to welcome me into their world. They sprang into engagement, happy and eager to demonstrate; articulate, expressive, knowledgeable and skilled.  With me as the learner and my students as the teachers, we have forged a much more interesting relationship. We are on new ground - shaky for me, firm for them.  I am the new kid in the class, uncertain how to proceed and desperately attempting to understand norms.

One student helped me open my account and showed me the fundamentals. I now know that W, A. S, and D are not just letters on a keyboard.  This small step represents enormous learning on my part. One student showed me how to move  and how to choose and place blocks.  Another showed me her world: breathtakingly beautiful and full of surprises.  I must thank them for their patience as they attempted to instruct me.  I think I'm one of  "those" students.

My first insight into gaming is that I'm not just learning to play a game, I'm learning to think differently. On my first day I struggled tremendously to complete a very simple range of motions: move through the terrain and place blocks.  In my students' eagerness to help me understand the amazing world of Minecraft they overwhelmed me with information - information that was completely logical and self-evident to them, but which was an alien language to me.  As I sat there I wondered how often have I done this to my own students? How often have I moved through what I perceived to be simple tasks and left my students in the dust?  Probably more often than I would care to admit.

I've realized that as I move forward in my teaching practice, there really is no point in conducting lessons unless I have first determined the next step of learning.  That process must be participatory.  If a student has not been involved in identifying the next step, learning most likely will not occur.

I went home at the end of the day and attempted to replicate what I had learned.  I could move through the terrain, but could not for the life of me remember how to place a block. All I could do was dig holes!  Very frustrating. Unable to accomplish any of my goals, I blasted dozens of holes into the terrain. Take that Minecraft!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

And So it Begins

A second blog? I need a second blog? Who knew that my journey into reinventing my teaching practice would bring me here?

Melanie McBride, I hold you fully, well ... maybe not fully ...  responsible for this outcome.

Back in January, my students decided that the unit we were studying would be an excellent basis for a video game.  I agreed and set out to determine how we could accomplish this.  My first thought was to go to the top. I want game design?  I might as well speak with the experts.  I tried contacting a prominent gaming company in Toronto for advice, but alas, my email was ignored.  In hindsight, this was probably a wise decision on their part.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

I came across an interesting article by one Melanie McBride, a Canadian educator, researcher and writer focused on situated emergent learning, transmedia and affinity culture in virtual learning environments and gaming spaces. Perfect, I thought, she can point me in the right direction.  I contacted her, requesting some advice on teaching my students how to design video games.  

And so began a lengthy series of emails between Melanie and myself in which she very patiently helped me understand why my approach to this task was incorrect.

 Melanie was adamant about three things: 

1.      Introducing game design into my classroom without having experienced the culture and world of gaming myself was bad pedagogy.  

2.     I needed to talk with my students who are gamers and let them teach me what it means to be a gamer.

3.    I needed to become a gamer.

And so it begins.  I've decided to become a gamer.  My game of choice is Minecraft.  This blog will document my learning process, insights and discoveries as I enter this alien world. I hope what I learn will be helpful to others.