Mentors of the Week – Ben Spieldenner and Simon Baddeley
Five Tips for Creating ELA Lessons in Minecraft Education Edition
Cross Pond Collaborations
Video games are one of the fastest growing narrative entertainment mediums on Earth. They involve Hollywood sized budgets and teams numbering in the hundreds in their production. Professional scriptwriters, voice actors and directors carefully craft the narrative. Minecraft stands almost uniquely within this genre; it has no narrative of its own. Players all over the world have seized upon this opportunity and become story writers, actors and cinematographers themselves using Minecraft as the medium for their art form. This presents the Language Arts teacher with a myriad of opportunities to use this rich and vibrant platform in their own programs of study.
Here are some words of advice to help you on your journey:
1. Create lessons in M:EE that students couldn’t experience in real life
Minecraft gives teachers the ability to create experiences that can only happen in a digital world. This is something we educators should leverage. In the ELA classroom, the possibilities for map creations, digital world explorations, and narrative expression are endless. A strong M:EE lesson is one in which students can freely explore, with a purpose, while developing a traditional or emergent narrative. For example, in the Verona Adventure, students must explore the world of Verona in order to piece together the narrative of what has taken place since the story of Romeo and Juliet. Students could not do this activity any other way other than in Minecraft. The exploration, interactions, and visual clues are unique to the Minecraft platform and it is these unique elements that make the Verona Adventure just that…an adventure.
2. Focus on the learning outcomes
Learning outcomes should drive every educational decision in the classroom. A solid M:EE lesson is no different. When creating an M:EE lesson begins with the end in mind. In our experience, Minecraft creates situations that make for excellent writing scenarios. In fact, descriptive writing, narrative writing, and opinion writing can be done without much map work on the teacher’s part. If students spend any time at all exploring a world they will be able to write about their experiences. However, argumentative writing and persuasive writing can also happen within Minecraft in a powerful way. These types of writings require a lot more work on the teacher’s part. The lesson here is that Minecraft can be a powerful writing tool, but only if the lessons created focus on the learning objective and not on simply using Minecraft.
3. An immersive narrative can lead to a lot of lessons
One of the strengths of Minecraft is that one world can lead to a thousand possibilities. If you have spent time looking around the lessons on the M:EE website you have discovered there are a lot of really amazing worlds. Our advice is to use these…for ELA purposes. Benjamin Kelly, Minecraft Global Mentor, developed a series of maps around images from the Mars rover. These maps are great for science, but they also make for a unique setting for a narrative. John Miller and his students create a map of the Chang’An during the Tang Dynasty. Clearly, this can be utilized in the Social Studies classroom, but this map could be the setting of a mystery or an explanatory writing about Chinese architecture. So, when making maps keep in mind that the world you create may have multiple uses. The more immersive the narrative the more varied the possibilities.
4. Don’t be afraid to mix media
Minecraft is a powerful and immersive learning environment that can bring literature and language arts to students using a language they are familiar with and therefore less threatened by. When exploring a particular pathway of learning, however, there are many opportunities that present themselves outside of Minecraft and several problems that are difficult to solve entirely within it. One of these is assessment. Whilst it is quite easy to set up mini-games as assessment for learning at various checkpoints, it is quite difficult to produce a written response to a controlled, standardized assessment. Never be afraid to mix media based on the best platform for the job. Just because students are exploring narrative structures, creating their own settings in-game and reenacting parts of their story in Minecraft doesn’t mean they have to produce their final assessment piece in the game.
5. Assess the story, not the Minecraft
One of the biggest mistakes I see from classes using Minecraft in Language Arts is when teachers assess the use of Minecraft and take their eye off what they should have been learning. For example, a class is set the task of describing a setting from a story. It would be good for them to explore the natural setting, explore a prebuilt setting or even create a setting in the game. The writing that this stimulates is often more rich and detailed than that resulting from other stimuli simply because the student has “lived it” in the first person. If however, the quality of the building put into the setting forms part of the outcome, the assessment has shifted away from what was originally intended. If part of your preparation for writing was for students to sort vocabulary choices into categories according to how powerful the words are you wouldn’t assess the sorting process but the vocabulary choices resulting from it. The same advice fits in Minecraft. Don’t assess the build quality of the character’s house, assess the description written as a result of it.
Creating lessons in Minecraft can feel a bit overwhelming at first. Take your time and ask your students for advice. In fact, creating M:EE lessons is a great way to collaborate with your students on a project. Don’t be afraid to take some risks and jump into a world of immersive learning. If you find yourself in over your head or you get lost in the process, feel free to contact us for advice, we would be happy to Skype with you or your class. Good luck on your journey and happy building.
Simon Baddeley is a Global Minecraft Mentor and a secondary phase English teacher in Castleford, United Kingdom, with over 15 years of experience in the classroom.
Ben Spieldenner is a Global Minecraft Mentor and teaches English and is an Educational Technologist for Ashland High School in Ashland, Ohio.