(If you can read this title, thank a forward thinking teacher)
Sitting with a team of my co-workers during our common team time:
“WHY are the kids just playing around on Minecraft during computer class?! There are so many other things they should be doing!” My teammate loudly complains (I only recount this story because this particular teammate now lives and works in a different state).
“When it’s done right, Minecraft EDU teaches kids collaborative skills, critical thinking, and digital citizenship” I remind her.
“Who cares? They don’t need games. They don’t need coding! They need to be learning things that are actually useful–how to set up a spreadsheet, format a formal paper, type on the home row!!”
IN WHAT UNIVERSE ARE ANY OF THESE THINGS A VALUABLE USE OF TIME AND RESOURCES?! That’s what I want yell. But I don’t. In over a decade of teaching, I’ve learned when a fight isn’t worth starting. Sometimes you’re not going to win and you’re not going to change someone’s mind.
But let’s think about this: what did you do the last time you had to format a document or create a spreadsheet, follow APA format, embed a picture or a link or a video? If you didn’t already know how to do it, I bet you either googled it or looked it up on YouTube. Right?! Why then, should a computer teacher spend class time teaching something any able-bodied person can figure out on his own? Exactly. That would be madness.
My former teammate is not alone in her view of gaming in class. All you need to do is walk into any teachers’ lounge and listen. You’ll hear very nearly that exact conversation. (Reason number 587 to avoid the teachers’ lounge–it’s the place where good attitudes go to die). Sometime between years 5 and 10 of teaching we hit our stride as educators. We’ve figured out some things that work. We’re confident in our content. And that’s great. But it’s also a very dangerous time. It’s so tempting to close ourselves off from new ideas; we’re comfortable and we’ve been doing this longer than a lot of new teachers manage to hang in there these days–how dare anyone suggest we change what we know is best!
We all have that handful of moments that defined us as educators and what I’m about to share was one of those moments. I was trying Genius Hour with my classes for the very first time–my English classes are leveled (don’t get me started–that’s another post for another time) and I was launching the projects across the board from the lowest to the highest. I had just finished a particularly exciting brainstorming and planning session with my class that contained most of my GIEPs. They were politely filing out of the room after class, as those kiddos often do and a boy stopped to talk to me. He was a bright young man, kind and helpful, a real people pleaser–one of those kids who masters “the game of school” early in elementary school.
“Mrs. Daubert,” he said in a way that made me think he thought I might be a little simple in the head, “This is very nice of you and all and it seems like it’s going to be lots of fun. But it’s not your job to entertain us, you know!”
It was a moment of extreme clarity that hit me so hard, I felt a knot form in my stomach. How many teachers over how many years had said that to him how many millions of times–so many times that the words parroted themselves right out of his own mouth?
It’s not my job to entertain you.
I didn’t know what to say. I wished him a good day and went about my business. Later when I bumped into my building principal, she asked how the projects were going and I told her about what the young man had said. She immediately had words where I’d had none: “But yeah, it kind of is, isn’t it? If we’re not entertaining them at least a little, what in the world are we doing?!”
That boy’s words and my principal’s response have stayed with me closely ever since.
But Video Games, Mrs. Daubert? Why are you talking about those things I benevolently, if not VERY occasionally, allow students to play when they’re finished with ALL of their regular classwork?!
Ever watch a group of kids play an 8-player round of Halo (or another similar multiplayer strategy game)? If you haven’t, I HIGHLY recommend it. If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. It is some of the most focused, creative, true collaboration I’ve ever seen. Why wouldn’t we want to harness that in a classroom?
Two years ago, the year after my first experiences with Genius Hour and with a whole year of blended learning under my belt, I felt confident enough to try gaming as part of my regular instruction. Before I did, though, I turned to a local expert, Mr. Daniel Figueroa, civics and government teacher at Lebanon High School, Lebanon, PA (follow him on Twitter).
Um, excuse me, Mrs. Daubert? Isn’t he your childhood friend?
Yes. Our mothers are friends, we grew up a half a block away from each other and he had a TOTALLY BOSS treehouse in his yard. Sorry that I’m NOT SORRY.
None of this changes the fact that he uses Minecraft EDU in his civics classes like a beast.
Fully understanding that not everyone grew up with a classroom gaming expert practically in their backyard, Dan also suggested the work of Mr. Glen Irvin, Spanish teacher in Sauk Rapids, MN (follow him on Twitter). Mr. Irvin is a true gaming pro. He created the comprehensive document, Gamification-Game-Based Learning For World Language Teachers Resource Document- Lesson Plans
This document is an incredible, downloadable resource for teachers anywhere who wish to incorporate gaming into their content.
After speaking to Dan, my own school’s computer tech teacher, and some local heroes in my district’s tech department Zach Musser, Ben Brewer, and Shawn Canady, I was ready to pitch a gaming experience to one of my classes.
Important side note: if you want to try something new but are nervous to do it on your own, reach out directly to your school’s tech coaches and tech department. They LOVE helping teachers try new things–and they love teachers like me who have a touch of the crazy. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten jealous comments from colleagues who see how much support I get from my pals in the tech office. Dude, ALL YOU’VE GOT TO DO IS ASK! Helping you with awesome classroom tech in your room, is far preferable to them over processing repairs on student devices and the rest of the hum-drum monotony of the day-to-day in the district tech office. They are probably just waiting for you to ask!!
Anyway, my classes had just finished reading, The Diary of Anne Frank and it was nearly the end of the school year. I was ready to do Genius Hour projects with all of my classes and decided I’d be open to student ideas involving gaming. As luck would have it, the Genius Hour gods smiled upon me: one of my classes wanted to do a split project–half of the class wanted to build a tabletop model of Auschwitz 1 and the other half wanted to build a virtual model together using Minecraft EDU. Both would create presentations to go along with their models.
Fortunately, my classroom is located next door to my school’s one and only “spare” computer lab. Still, I can’t split myself in half so I reached out to my friends in the tech department–they were more than happy to take turns team teaching with me to keep both room adequately manned by a responsible adult (I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect they may even have fought over whose turn it was–room 307 is typically a super fun crew to hang with). As adults switched between rooms so that I could monitor the progress of both, I noticed some truly incredible developments.
Initially, old lady that I am, printed the entire class a detailed paper layout of Auschwitz 1. As I check in with the Minecraft group, I stand back and watch the project unfold.
One student calls out to the others from his computer, “Hey guys! That map Mrs. Daubert gave us? I found a PDF and imported it. Can everyone see it?”
Mice click, tabs open, and there is a steady chorus of “Got it!” “Yup” “Right here!”
Another student calls out, “Who’s going to build each part?”
Answers follow, “I’ll take the perimeter” “Hector and I will build the barracks together” “I’ll build the guard tower” until all parts of the map are accounted for.
They were doing every lick of this together and totally without help from me or any other adult. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful! Awestruck as I was, I at least had the wherewithal to snap some pictures of the process:
Well, Mrs. Daubert, that’s a lovely story. It’s easy to pilot a new idea with your highest level class, of course!
Except this wasn’t my highest leveled class. On paper, it was my lowest. They were collaborating in an authentic way I’d never seen from any other class in all my years in education–regardless of the level assigned to them in their course enrollment (which if you haven’t already guessed, I clearly don’t put much stock in, anyhow).
If that doesn’t make you a true believer in classroom gaming, I don’t know what will.
A taste of success always makes me want to push things farther. Using premade games in the classroom is valuable in its own right, but I wanted my kids to create something others could play to learn. This year, I went way outside my comfort zone and, at the suggestion of one of my in house tech gurus, had my 8th graders remotely collaborate with a class of 1st graders in my district. The 1st graders sent us story ideas and illustrations. Again, with the support of my tech department friends, my 8th graders worked in teams to use the stories to craft interactive, digital choose-your-own-adventure stories we could send back to the 1st graders. The final results were stunning. They are creations that will make both groups of kids proud for years to come. Take a look at the two best products of the bunch:
I hate to tell you this, Mrs. Daubert, but these are just Google Slides presentations…
Are they, though? Look closer. They are carefully crafted programs that rely on simple coding and linking pathways in order to create an engaging, interactive learning experience for younger children.
Bet you didn’t know Google Slides could even DO that, huh?
And isn’t that really the spirit of gaming in the classroom? Taking something ordinary, tweaking it and playing around with it until you figure out how to make it do something extraordinary.
We know how important play is for the learning and development of young children. Far too infrequently we fail to recognize how powerful play can be in the learning process of older children and even adults.
Where do you stand? Are you a gamer? A skeptic?
For my part, I believe that playing is good, hard work!