Creeper, zombie, crafting table, spawning, smelting, command block – these were all words I learned this afternoon from a 6th grader while playing Minecraft. It was amazing!
Today was our first of three student-facilitated MinecraftEDU workshops for teachers. At our school March is Minecraft month and the teachers are learning from individual Minecraft Mentors how to play and craft in MinecraftEDU. The idea for these workshops started earlier this year when some of my colleagues attended Diane Main’s Minecraft workshop at the CapCUE Tech Fest (session recording). Minecraft was that thing we always wanted to learn more about and provide professional development to our staff, but never seemed to have enough time to get to. Around the same time as Diane’s workshop our librarian happened to mentioned to a few students that the IT department was exploring the idea of setting a Minecraft server. That information quickly spread across our middle and high school students. Suddenly, students who I didn’t even know were stopping me in the quad and asking “Mr. Wood, I heard you’re setting up a Minecraft server. How can I help?” That’s when we had an epiphany – let’s put the students in charge of this.
A couple of weeks ago I sent out an email to our students asking them if they would be interested in becoming a Minecraft Mentor. My hope was that 15 students would fill out the online application to provide 1:1 support for teachers during a series of workshops. 50 students applied! I actually had to turn kids away just due to space limitations. Of the 25 students who joined our first wave of mentors ALL of them showed up for an impromptu planning meeting last week (I was hoping for 5) and they pretty much planned out our agenda with the assistance of our IT Manager. Today, our workshop started at 3:30pm. At 2:50pm (the bell rings at 2:45) ALL of them were in the library wanting to know how many more minutes until the teachers arrived. They were both nervous and giddy. One student said to me, “I’m so excited that a teacher wants to learn Minecraft from me! But I am nervous too. What if I go to fast and lose them? I want my teacher to like it as much as I do.” We had to spend some time talking about school and upcoming events just to calm them down. Then the teachers started arriving.
Realize, that the teachers who signed up for the workshop came from all five of our academies and most of the students primarily came from just one. In other words, most of the students didn’t know their assigned staff member. As teachers walked in I literally had to announce their names and each mentor would run over to introduce themselves and together the two selected a place to learn. It might have been one of the cutest things ever. For the next 90 minutes as our IT Manager led the workshop with the support of student mentors our library was noisy – buzzing with laughter, discoveries, and 1:1 coaching.
In my 12 years of being an educator I have attended and facilitated numerous workshops. However, today might have been my favorite professional learning experience and it has nothing to do with Minecraft or even technology. Instead, I loved the workshop for these reasons.
Living in Their World
When I taught middle school science I read the Twilight series. Not because I thought they were particularly good books (I was ready for Bella to act on some of her threats in the second book), but because I wanted to enter my students’ world and connect with them. For nearly two hours this afternoon we lived in their world again. With the exception of our veteran English teacher, IT Manager, and home school administrator most of us walked in with very little Minecraft prior knowledge. We didn’t have the vocabulary or understand the point of the game. However, the kids took us under their wings and brought us into their world. On the way out the door this afternoon a teacher stopped me and said, “You know…I not only learned Minecraft, but I also saw why they are so passionate about it.”
Students as Teachers, Teachers as Students
Everyone (kids and teachers) were very nervous about their flipped roles. Many teachers expressed concerns that the kids would be too advanced and maybe even rude. The students were worried they wouldn’t have enough patience and possibly even make their teachers mad. However, for a few hours this afternoon students saw their teachers as learners and teachers saw their students as mentors. In an era where one might learn from YouTube videos, Wikipedia, books, and teachers of all types I can think of no better model for life-long learning than these flipped roles. Our teachers are all around us. As one teacher posted on Facebook tonight, “Got schooled on Minecraft by my own private 7th grade tutor. Only had my laptop taken over once so we could catch a pig. Loved it!”
Learning Through Play
There is no manual for Minecraft. Workshops will at best plant some seeds, but are far from making you a master. To really understand Minecraft you have to click, drag, and run around the world. Through trial-and-error and a knowledgeable sidekick all of our teachers were able to gather resources, create a crafting table, and build a structure to survive the night. Everyone was fully engaged, so much so we had to create a special hand signal to gather everyone’s attention and as laptop batteries started to drain everyone was scrambling for a plug. No one wanted the learning (and play) to stop.
This afternoon I was fortunate enough to have my 3rd grade nephew join us, so I was also able to see today’s workshop through his eyes as well. As we drove home I asked him what he thought about today and he responded, “Today was AWESOME! Is this what school is like every day at your school? Because if so I really want to go there. I am just going to need my own computer first. I need to work on my mouse and Minecraft skills.”
Fortunately, we have two more workshops and a bunch of student mentors for all of us to build our Minecraft skills. Next time we’re focusing on crafting with a house building competition (suggested by the mentors) and at our final meeting all of us (teachers and students) are going to brainstorm how we want to use this tool for learning.
In closing I have to give a few shout-outs to the people who really have made this happen. First of all to John Miller and Diane Main – thank you for inspiring all of us. Secondly, to Joe Cook, the best IT Manager and natural teacher we could ever ask for (no, you can’t hire him :-)). Third – Ting Sun, our co-founder, Executive Director, and Minecraft learner who has created an environment where these types of things can happen. Finally, a giant thank you to our never-stop-learning teachers and 25+ Minecraft Mentors who were so kind and patient with all of us.
Now time to work on my crafting recipes!