Unlocking Leadership with Minecraft Student Ambassadors at Atlanta Public Schools

At Atlanta Public Schools, Digital Learning Specialist Felisa Ford and her Instructional Technology Team empowered students to co-learn and co-teach through a Minecraft Student Ambassador program. Read about their experience in this guest post from Felisa!

Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools (known locally as APS) is an urban school district with over 53,000 students. We have a student body that is diverse and eager to learn. A large number of families struggle with obstacles such as poverty, and a high percentage of students are identified as coming from low socioeconomic status, with the majority of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches. APS’s central office sits in the heart of downtown Atlanta. The Georgia State Capitol building—gold dome shining—is just a stone’s throw away. The Mercedes Benz Stadium, home of the Atlanta Falcons, and the State Farm Arena, home of Tre Young and the Atlanta Hawks, are also in our back yard. Atlanta Public Schools is surrounded by several prominent universities such as Georgia State and Georgia Tech, which are less than 5 miles away, as is the Atlanta University Center. The Atlanta University Center is home to several historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), including Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University. APS’s Central Office is also a hop, skip, and a jump from the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., who is an APS and notable Washington High School alum.

Among APS’s varied student experiences and demographics are several stark contrasts. Some of the unique challenges faced by our district are a high percentage of students from families with low socioeconomic status and high free and reduced lunch rates. Test scores are on the rise but are still below the state averages in both literacy and math. APS faces the challenge of keeping students engaged while also addressing the literacy and math gaps across classrooms and schools in the district.

I am so excited about one unique and promising opportunity in our district. We have a K-12 initiative called the APS Digital Bridge, which is designed to close the homework gap for students by giving them access to devices, connectivity, or a mix of both. Our 6–8th-grade students received Windows 10 devices. We specifically chose a device that would allow our students to access Minecraft: Education Edition.

A group of students holding Minecraft toys stands in front of a screen displaying a Skype call with teachers

Why Minecraft?

The circumstance that encouraged us to use Minecraft: Education Edition was a desire for our teachers to have access to an engaging resource that was educational and provided the 21st-century learning skills of the 4Cs—communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking—but we also wanted it to be fun and engaging for students. Minecraft met both criteria, and the students were already very familiar with the game. It provided a great way to have students replicate and extend what they’re learning in the classroom. Minecraft is truly the modern-day replacement of the diorama and the trifold.

The catalyst for this change was our desire to take learning to the next level for students. We also wanted to make sure to communicate to teachers that it’s ok if you don’t know anything about Minecraft. We aren’t asking you to be the expert! Just give your students the opportunity to integrate Minecraft into what they’re already learning, and they’ll take it from there. We found that this was exactly what happened.

Minecraft as a Learning and Teaching Tool

We currently use Minecraft in every content area and at every grade level in our district. We wanted to ensure that our teachers and students knew that they had access to Minecraft: Education Edition when we initially started. As we rolled out our Digital Bridge devices, we made sure that all of our middle school students had it installed. Our educational technology specialists (ETSs) have done a great job with supporting teachers and students, as well as providing ongoing training and support.

Our Minecraft journey began approximately four years ago. It initially started with a couple of trainings for our Instructional Technology Team, the official technology trainers and integration specialists for the district. They were energized and excited by the possibilities! We then followed up with a few 1-day trainings just to introduce the teachers to Minecraft: Education Edition. Our Instructional Technology Team brainstormed how we wanted to move forward with introducing Minecraft to teachers and students in the district. We came up with the idea of having some APS Minecraft Mentors among our teachers who could be champions for the platform and help up spread Minecraft in the district. These mentors went through a 2-day Trainer Academy, but Minecraft was still very slow to take off with teachers, despite several trainings.

A group of students poses for a picture

When we first started our Minecraft Journey, we only had a handful of teachers who were using Minecraft or allowing their students to learn with the game. One thing we noticed was that initially, we got more traction with our media specialists and elementary educators, but our usage levels were still very low. It wasn’t until our Digital Bridge Program began that we started seeing our Minecraft usage levels increase. This trend was most pronounced with our middle school students. When they received their WinBooks, our Minecraft usage shot through the roof. One example of how Minecraft is being used in the classroom is a 7th-grade teacher who was not familiar with Minecraft but allowed all of her students to complete their 7th-grade biome project via the program. Two of our APS Minecraft Student Ambassadors attended the school and were able to help support the teacher and demonstrate the platform’s use in the classroom.

APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program

“And the children shall lead them!” This quote has always resonated with me, and it holds true with the APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program. That’s exactly what happened in Atlanta Public Schools. Our initial Minecraft Journey began approximately four years ago in the Fall of 2016 when we introduced Minecraft Education Edition to our Instructional Technology Team and a small cohort of teachers who had previously become MIE Certified Educators. Over the next couple of years, additional training opportunities were provided for teachers throughout the district. However, we were still not really gaining traction with our Minecraft implementation efforts in the district. Finally, in the Fall of 2019, after a 2-day Minecraft training with our APS Minecraft Mentor teacher team, we began to brainstorm how we could get the teachers in the district fully on board with using Minecraft in their classrooms.

We knew that if the teachers just introduced the Minecraft platform to their class, the students would take it and run with it. That’s when the light clicked for us: we would flip our Minecraft PL on its head and let the students be the leaders and train the teachers, and the APS Minecraft Student Ambassadors Program as we know it was born! We wanted to make sure that this program gave students—the true Minecraft experts—the opportunity to be the student leaders they wanted to be.

The APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program is open to all APS students in grades 1–11 (rising K–12 ). The students have to apply to become an ambassador and get teacher recommendations. We wanted to ensure that all students who wanted this opportunity had a chance to be a leader in their class, school, and district, and Minecraft: Education Edition has given students just that opportunity. We informed students that the purpose of the Minecraft Student Ambassador was to be a Minecraft expert in their class or school and be willing to support, assist, or mentor other students and teachers with using the program. The role of the ambassadors is to provide assistance in the form of demos, training, leadership during small-group or one-on-one sessions, and participation in the Minecraft University summer PL Series. The Minecraft Student Ambassadors are on-campus student leaders with a passion for sharing technology with their classmates and teachers. Students were encouraged to apply to become an APS Minecraft Ambassador. This program allows them to gain leadership experience, get access to resources, and develop their technical and 21st-century skills.

From our initial boot camp in June 2019, we designed the APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program to truly support the students as leaders. The students developed the norms for the program, ensuring that it is designed by them and for them. Who better than the students to decide the best ways that they would interact with each other? Not surprisingly, respect was at the top of their list.

The APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program was the direct result of a need for more buy-in from teachers related to using the game in their classrooms. Because we were introducing a 1:1 program with our Middle School students, we wanted to make sure that we had an added layer of support for the teachers so they would feel more comfortable in letting the students use Minecraft.

The Student Ambassador Program had a full schedule of events in the past year. The students participated in several district-wide events as well as two conferences where they demonstrated how they used Minecraft Education Edition in their classrooms to principals, teachers, parents, and community members.

The Student Ambassadors took part in the following events:

We were too excited to have two of our APS Minecraft Student Ambassadors co-host the Minecraft Day for Microsoft’s Global Learning Week. Through the APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program, we constantly empower the students to be confident leaders in any environment.

Minecraft and the Student Ambassador Program’s Impact in APS

As a result of the popularity of our APS Minecraft Student Ambassador Program, we now have parents, students, and teachers constantly inquiring about participating in our next cohort. Making these ambassadors visible in the district and allowing them to function as the Minecraft experts in their school has helped us champion the platform in more ways than we could have ever imagined. Our teachers are now much more receptive to trying and using Minecraft in their classrooms, and every student in the district now knows that they have access to Minecraft. It’s really exciting to see all of the creative ways that Minecraft is being used in our district, and the usage level has gone through the roof!

There’s been another added perk to the increase in Minecraft usage at the Middle School level. Every student in grades 6–8 received a device with the game already installed, and we saw an increase in our overall middle school performance on the state standardized test in both literacy and math. We believe that increasing student access to a device, Wi-Fi, and engaging educational resources aided in these test scores.

Looking ahead

Covid-19’s impact on our school district forced us to take our Minecraft Student Ambassador Program virtual. Like districts all across the globe, we have had to reimagine our entire program for the virtual world. We’ve met with the student ambassadors a few times via Microsoft Teams. Of course, we had to reset and get everyone on the same page with our norms for the virtual world and expectations moving forward. We’ve been able to have our students collaborate in real-time while working remotely. Learners have begun to identify their content for the training they will lead with teachers. We’re looking to bringing our next cohort of students on board when school resumes in the fall. Whether virtual or remote, it looks like our APS Minecraft Student Ambassadors are ready to continue to train and support the teachers and students of Atlanta Public Schools.

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Video courtesy of WE.org

We’re thrilled to see students in leadership positions, empowering teachers and their fellow learners to explore game-based instruction. To learn more about Minecraft: Education Edition and get started at your school, head to education.minecraft.net/get-started.