Minecraft spawns classroom lessons

March 14, 2013

Do you dream about books of enchantment? Do you know the difference between sandstone and cobblestone? Does the word “creeper” give you, well, the creeps?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you are probably a Minecraft kid. And you’re not alone. More than 9.6 million people have downloaded the video game in little more than a year.

Would you be shocked if your teacher assigned you to play Minecraft at school? At a few area schools, teachers are doing just that. The Lego-like building game has become a popular tool for classroom lessons as well as life lessons.

History in the making

Hank Lanphier and Amy Yount, social studies teachers at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, experimented with using Minecraft this year to transport students to an ancient Roman city.

Lanphier built the city’s sandstone block walls and then assigned each sixth-grader a plot of land on which to build a home.

During a recent class, Espeana Green, 12, was using a computer to create an insula, a kind of ancient Roman apartment building. She had drawn a floor plan and had a builder’s checklist.

“Every house needs to have an entrance,” Espeana said, reading over the list. Check. “The first floor needs to be made of stone.” Check. Then she moved on to placing wood blocks to form the upper floors.

Mac Johnson, 12, was also working intently on an insula. Mac had played Minecraft before and wasn’t surprised that his teachers decided to use it in class.

“Mr. Lanphier said the reason that we’re using this is because it’s an accurate way to build things without just having to write down all this stuff,” Mac said. “You still have to make floor plans, but it’s more interactive and more fun.”

The students play in Minecraft’s Creative mode, which means that they don’t have to search for building materials. But that didn’t mean the students didn’t face challenges.

“We need mud brick,” Lanphier said. Minecraft doesn’t offer that building material, which was common in Roman times. “So what are we going to do?” he asked.

Lanphier said the ability to tackle that kind of problem-solving is part of why he likes Minecraft. He plans to use the game again for next year’s sixth-graders, many of whom are already excited about the project.

Piper Phillips, 11, had a warning for her younger schoolmates.

“It’s not all fun and games,” she said while making adjustments to her insula. “There’s actually a lot of work involved.”

From game to lesson

When St. Patrick’s teachers decided to use the game, school technology coordinator Jonathan Fichter contacted TeacherGaming, a company that helps schools set up Minecraft.

Joel Levin, the company’s co-founder, had been using Minecraft with his students at a New York City private school for months before the game’s official release. The first lesson for his second-graders was about online behavior, Levin said. They had to work together and show respect while playing the game, just as they did in the classroom.

“They were used to winning at all costs,” he said. “It was the first time they had done something like this with limits . . . setting expectations on their behavior.”

Levin then started a blog to share ideas with other teachers. He got questions and lesson plans from around the world.

“There’s a science teacher in Australia who makes giant models of cells,” Levin said.

The blog’s popularity prompted Levin to launch TeacherGaming with a partner in Finland and the support of Minecraft’s creator, Mojang, which is located in Sweden. Levin’s company has solved many technical problems that had frustrated teachers. The next step, he said, is to provide teachers with ways of working Minecraft into history, math, reading or art classes.

“Before Minecraft, I tried to use video games in class, but I always had to change my lesson to fit the game,” Levin said. “Minecraft was the first game that came along where I could change the game to fit my lesson.”

Building together

Brian Eastman hasn’t tried using the game in his math classes at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, but he thought it would be a welcome addition to the school’s after-school programs.

“I was looking around at the other clubs,” Eastman said. “A lot of them are competitive. This is cooperative. A group of kids could build something together.”

So Eastman started a Minecraft club in January. The first week, about 50 seventh- and eighth-graders — mostly boys — showed up for 30 spots, he said.

Sean Collins and Xavier Taylor, both
seventh-graders, were among the first 30 to show up for a recent Monday meeting. Both said they play regularly at home.

“I usually play Survival,” said Sean, referring to the Minecraft mode that includes creatures such as zombies and creepers. In Survival mode — which is used during the club meetings — players aren’t given tools or materials at the beginning of the game. They chop down trees for wood and dig into the ground for minerals.

“It’s so cool to be starting with nothing,” said Sean, who is 12.

“You can shape your own world — literally,” added Xavier, also 12.

Eastman has a few rules (no bad language, no breaking what someone else has built), but he makes no assignments. The students form small groups, and as they build and search for supplies, the buzz of conversation fills the room.

Eastman walks around, offering help and acknowledging students’ creativity. He said he doesn’t expect them to lose interest anytime soon.

“I think the appeal for the kids is a sense of ownership. They attend school, but it’s not theirs. In Minecraft, they can say, ‘This is mine. I had to work for it, and I’ve created it.’ ”

READ: The basics of Minecraft

Christina Barron

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