Beginning last spring, I introduced Minecraft into the community at my school, Quest Academy. After researching and learning about the possibilities from Joel Levin, father of MinecraftEdu, Lucas Gillespie, and Kevin Jarrett. It was at EduCon that Kevin convinced me that I had all of the tools I needed, both in terms of hardware and software, but my personal skills to implement this.
I originally brought Minecraft into an After-School program two days a week. During one of our faculty in-services, where we ran a mini-EdCamp model, I had eight teachers spend 40 minutes learning about Minecraft through playing. They explored the World of Humanities, a MinecraftEdu world created by Eric Walker. They explored many different civilizations and began to understand the possibilities that Minecraft held.
As a result, we have had many curricular projects that teachers are allowing Minecraft constructions as the artifact demonstrating knowledge and understanding. This year, 8th grade students have built monuments for an art project, 7th graders have created medieval villages, a 6th grader created a world depicting the events in Huck Finn, and 5th graders created manipulatives in math class that we then printed on our 3d printer.
One project which I have been partnering with is our 5th grade. The teacher, Heidi Senetra, shared with our parent community the genesis of this project. The rest of this post are her words to show how this tool can be integrated appropriately and thoughtfully into a curriculum, not boot strapped. This is an essential ingredient in the integration of technology into the classroom.
Every year, students in the 5th grade Dragon (homeroom) class begin their school year exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth cosmology through an in-depth study of one of his fantasy novels – either The Fellowship of the Ring or The Hobbit. During their study, the students have the pleasure of reading an amazing fantasy story written by THE master fantasy writer, while at the same time working through the rigorous challenge of learning to recognize and analyze the interconnectedness of its literary elements.
As worthy and well-fitted as this type of work is for my gifted students, my over-arching goal in the introducing my students to Tolkien’s fantasy writing has been more about guiding them in a discovery of the complexity, the magic, and the wonder of Tolkien’s incredible imagination. Year after year, I have found it is the amazing detail of his characters, his mystical settings, ancestral legacies, invented languages, and layered conflicts, that “hook” my students to the point where they become so immersed in his imaginative stories, they truly hunger for more of the wonder of Middle-earth.
But that is only the beginning of their journey, because in the process of learning about Tokien’s Middle-earth cosmology, my students are presented with the challenge of modeling their own creative writings after his and using their own well-equipped imaginations to invent a cosmology of their own – specifically a dragon cosmology!
The process begins with each student inventing an organic dragon, equipping it with its own unique “special abilities:, such as the ability to communicate telepathically with other dragons or creatures on its world, or to cloak itself and become nearly invisible in a variety of home-world landscapes.
Next, each student must design a “home-world” for his or her dragon which, in its uniqueness, gives reason for the dragon to need its special abilities. The “home-worlds” must have “other-worldly” features and unique domains. These domains cannot be found on planet Earth; therefore the students have to stretch their imaginations, think beyond their own realm of reality and invent dragon habitats that are highly-fantastical.
Now, typically, my students begin generating ideas for their dragon cosmologies, they write descriptive stories or Episodes and begin sketching detailed illustrations to solidify and bring to life what they imagined in their minds. The physical products they create – written episodes, or artifacts such as paintings, sculptures, diorama, or fabric banners, challenge the students to make their dragon worlds “real” enough that the class becomes familiar with each dragon character and understands the conflicts or challenges each faces on its “home-world”.
This however is not easily accomplished – trying to re-create images or an idea from your mind, in all its detail and complexity, on paper or through model building, can be frustrating, especially when your young fingers just can’t physically create the perfection you hold in your mind.
But this year, I was introduced to something quite exciting – a means by which my students could possibly bring their images and ideas to life on a computer screen and build animated dragon worlds. Using Minecraft technology, I envisioned my students not only creating individual animated dragon home-worlds, but interactive world where my students would be able to enter into and participate within the entire collection of dragon worlds.
I began to imagine on how amazing it would be if my studnets were able to re-create their dragon episodes, play them out as mini-dramas, in virtual dragon “home-worlds” they created themselves and then share by interacting within the “home-worlds” of their classmates. Well, I became quite excited and, in sharing my idea with my students, I confessed to them that I did not have the expertise nor even a “handful of pieces to the puzzle” to carry out my idea, but they might and so might Mr. Vrotny, our Director of Academic Technology.
As you might guess, my students were all over this and began researching, experimenting, and reporting back to me just what they had discovered about Minecraft and how they might be able to create a virtual dragon cosmology using technology. Feeding off of their excitement and encouraged by their research, I began to feel like Michelangelo – removing the stone to reveal the sculpture within. The next step was easiest – sharing my idea with Mr. Vrotny and what happened next is his story.
Now you know the background to the story. Soon, I will share the story of what we have done and how we have gotten there. I will also be sharing an article being written for the Chicago Tribune, and hopefully share pictures that they shot with this class.
Until the next episode….