Saturday, December 12, 2015

Recreating a Painting in Minecraft

I've been dabbling with Minecraft for the better part of a year (or, more accurately, with MinecraftEDU, the educational mod that is available thanks to the wonderful people at TeacherGaming) Through our Exploratory program, I've experimented with a wide range of worlds, mainly with students who have prior experience with, and lots of passion for, Minecraft. My main goal, however, has always been to integrate Minecraft into my teaching practice.

This week, for the first time, I had an opportunity to do just that, in the context of grade 8 Visual Arts. The other teachers who teach Visual Arts with me were incredibly open-minded, and let me take the reins (and I think they were as pleased with the results as I was!)

I created a questionnaire for students, asking them to choose a painting that they would recreate in Minecraft, with a group. Their choices were:

Starry Night - van Gogh
The Starry Night - Vincent van Gogh

Tahitian Landscape - Gauguin

Three Cats - Maud Lewis

The Scream - Munch

The Great Wave off Kanagawa - Hokusai

Composition #2 (1920) - Mondrian

Three Musicians - Picasso

Tulip Field with the Rijnsburg Windmill - Monet

After students had made their selections, I assigned them to work in groups of four or five. Surprisingly, only one or two students had chosen the Monet, and none were interested in the Picasso, so those two were not recreated.

Upon entering the Minecraft environment, students found themselves in a room with 8 doors, each labeled with the title of the painting as well as the students' names.

They walked through the door, and teleported to an empty field with these instructions:

And then they got to work. Sitting next to their group members, they decided what format their recreation would take, and then dividing tasks to be as efficient as possible in their building. Several students who generally let others take the lead really stepped into a leadership role at that point, as they have lots of experience in Minecraft. There were two students who had never played Minecraft before, and their group members were patient in explaining how to move around and place blocks.

Here are the results of two days of building (approximately 90 minutes in total) :

Starry Night (work in progress)
Look at all the detail they have included! The tiny houses! The swirls in the sky!

Tahitian Landscape (work in progress)
My newest Minecrafter created that mountain from scratch. I am also quite impressed with their choice to combine a 3D idea with a top down view.

Three Cats (complete)
This group took on the challenge of finding a way to make their cats look fuzzy :-) 

The Scream (complete)
All the detail! The bridge! The sky!

Great Wave off Kanagawa (complete)
These students struggled a bit with their idea and their ability to work as a cooperative group. They became frustrated and destroyed what they had begun two times. As a result, they didn't have a lot of time to create their painting, and it is significantly smaller than the others. However, their use of real flowing water, and the fact that they placed NPCs (non-player characters) in their boats and named them after themselves more than makes up for the size! And in the end, they were very happy with their effort.

Composition #2 (complete)
This one was the simplest, but I was impressed by the amount of thought and planning that went into getting the proportions correct! 

All in all, I consider this first educational application of Minecraft to be an enormous success. Students were engaged, creative, cooperative problem solvers.

On Tuesday, all students will go on a gallery walk through the paintings of other groups. I can't wait for them to appreciate the work that each group put into their recreation, and to show off their own piece of art!

Take a Video Tour!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gaming to Communicate

I like playing board games. And card games. And guessing games. And logic games.

I like games.

I try to use games in my teaching as often as possible. Not the "made for the classroom" games that seem to take much of the fun out of playing a great game, but games like 99 (a great card game that also reinforces Math skills), Word on the Street (spelling! tug-of-war!) or Morphology Jr (an excellent combination of building, charades and guessing). I also really value the days during the year when I have time to play other, less obviously academic, games with my students. Ghost Blitz and Squashed were crowd favourites last year.

This year, I've decided to try something new to build a strong classroom community. I am hosting once-a-month Games Nights for students and their parents. The guidelines are simple : students must come with at least one parent or guardian, parents or guardians must come with at least one student. No cost. No commitment. No RSVP. Whoever shows up can play whatever games they want.

Tonight was the first night. Only one of my students attended, with her mother. Their game request? They both wanted to learn how to play Settlers of Catan. We spent a highly enjoyable time playing together, and I feel as though I know a lot more about that particular student from watching her interact with her mother, and from observing how she plays games.

I am very much looking forward to future Games Nights - sometimes there will be only two guests, other times there may be many more. Either way, I think this is going to be a great opportunity to create connections with parents whose only contact with the school up to this point may have been phone calls or emails about missing homework assignments or discipline problems. If I can get parents to have fun with me, those more difficult conversations may become ever so slightly easier.

And, of course, I'm just always looking for someone to play games with me ;-)

Photo credit:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Fun With Physics

As the year winds down, it can become more and more difficult to maintain students' interest in day-to-day school activities. My classroom environment is pretty much "organized chaos" throughout the school year, so the mood doesn't change much at the end of the year, although I do end up with more flexibility in my scheduling. As a result, I am able to integrate some activities that take up more time than a standard sixty minute class.

Last week, I started laying the groundwork for "The Challenge". On Monday, I informed students that they would be attempting a challenge on Thursday morning. They would need to bring items from their lockers and from home in order to complete it. Following my usual classroom rules (nothing stinky, nothing dangerous, nothing illegal), I told students that they were permitted to bring anything at all.

"But what is the challenge that we have to complete? How will we know what we need??" students were quick to ask me.

"More information to follow..." was my mysterious reply.

On Tuesday, I reminded them to coordinate with their groups in order to bring a large variety of items.

On Wednesday, I gave them the information that they would have to cause an object that I would give them to have an effect on another object that I would give them. And that the only materials they would be permitted to use would be the few items I supplied them with, and the items they brought from home.

Students arrived on Thursday morning with all kinds of items. A rubber boot, a Newton's cradle, a Lego airplane and a magnifying glass were all in evidence, along with many other supplies.

The Challenge? To create a Rube Goldberg machine that would use a marble as the impetus for causing a balloon to pop.  I provided them with :

- 2 large sheets of paper
- 2 metres of masking tape
- 6 desks
- 6 chairs
- 1 thumb tack
- 2 paperclips
- 6 straws
- 1 marble
- 1 balloon (for testing purposes - if they popped it, they were out of luck! They received another one when they demonstrated their machine to the rest of the class)

And..... GO!

Groups began by taking stock of the items they had in their inventory.  (I put the tape on the floor to confine them to their own area - they were only permitted to use the items that were inside the rectangle)

Next came the planning and trial stage.

Students were engaged in building their machines for just over an hour, tweaking them and trying to improve upon them. It was inspiring to see their collaboration and perseverance on this task!

What I particularly like about this activity, each time I do it with a class, is the creative thinking and collaboration it calls for. Students become so reliant on teachers to tell them exactly how to perform a task (and teachers become so used to providing the structure and steps necessary to achieve the "correct" result) that they (and we) forget what it is to experiment, rework, possibly fail, and enjoy the entire process! 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Teachers, We Need to do Better

Teachers, we need to do better.

For the past ten days, I have been on tour with Xara Choral Theatre, bringing a show called Fatty Legs (based on the book by the same name) to schools and communities around the Maritime Provinces.

The show deals with the reality of the Residential School System in Canada, which is something that we are just starting to teach about in schools. For a long time, this practice of removing Aboriginal children from their homes, and placing them in schools with the aim of erasing their culture (“Kill the Indian to save the child” was the official wording), was not acknowledged – even given the fact that the last school of this type closed in 1996. I only learned about this part of Canadian history when we first did the show in 2011 for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Halifax. Since then, I’ve made sure to teach at least my homeroom about it each year, by reading and discussing the book Fatty Legs.

I was thrilled that we were finally able to remount the show and tour it to schools. We performed for over 4000 students during our ten days of touring.
Performing in front of a rapt audience of students in grade 2 through 6

Most schools were very receptive, particularly at the elementary and middle school levels. We were prepared for students to have questions about the performance, and about the residential schools. We were prepared for people to express anger, sadness, confusion – and those reactions were present when we did our Q&A sessions after each show. Opening honest and constructive dialogue was one of the main goals of this show.

However, we had some very negative experiences in the last two days of touring. In two separate high schools, students exhibited a complete lack of respect for both the subject matter and the fact that 15 people were attempting to perform in front of them.

In one of the schools, students openly mocked the dancer by mimicking her movements. They were spoken to by a teacher after about 20 minutes of this behaviour. Other students were making jokes (either about the show, or about something else entirely) and laughing loudly. Several of them were eventually asked to leave by another teacher. I am grateful to those teachers who took action to stop the disrespectful behaviour, although I wish it hadn’t happened in the first place.

In the final school, a student THREW A ROCK onto the stage during the performance. As the saying goes, the show must go on. One of the singers took it upon herself to move the rock out of the way so that nobody would be injured (the show is performed in sock feet). To my knowledge, no action was taken by teachers in response. One minute before the show ended, the bell rang to signal the start of the next class. Approximately 40 students, scattered throughout the audience, stood up and left. When I asked them if they could stay for the last minute of the show, they told me they had to leave because they had a test. According to the students, their teachers (two different teachers, from what I understand) told them that if they arrived late for the test, because of “the play thing” (students' words), they shouldn’t bother coming at all and they would receive a grade of 0 on the test.

TEACHERS instructed students that they were to get up while a performance was in progress in order to be on time for a test.

Teachers devalued a show about a terrible part of Canadian history that has been shrouded in silence for over 100 years.

Teachers, we need to do better.

We need to explicitly teach our students about respectful behaviour during performances, and model that behaviour ourselves.

We need to intervene when students engage in disrespectful behaviours.

We need to take a step back and realize that the test students are writing in our course may not be the most important part of their day. Or, at the very least, we should not use threats to indicate to students that it is acceptable to behave disrespectfully.

Teachers, we need to do better.

We need to prepare our students before we take them to see a show that deals with serious subject matter. How (or if) we pre-teach our students sets them up for success. It also instills in them an understanding that there are behaviours that are appropriate in certain situations that are not acceptable in others.

I am so honoured to have been part of telling this story, of bringing this show to so many students. I burst with pride when I think about how our dancer, narrator, and singers persevered in the face of adversity to always give their all on stage.

But teachers, we need to do better.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

MinecraftEDU Take Three - 1.6.4 Fail

Yesterday was the final session with my Exploratory group. I was all set to have them explore this fabulous Escape from Everest map. I had 1.6.4(20) installed on all of the computers, ready to go. When I had students log in though, only half of them were able to launch the program.

Time for Plan B.

Luckily, I had wavered between using that map, and the Water Challenge map (which is in 1.7.10). I set it up, and we were off!

I required all students to do the farming tutorial at the beginning, which was beneficial because it really showed off who was reading instructions, and who was simply trying to bash their way through as quickly as possible.

Once most students were through the tutorial, I made sure they were all in their individual sections (by colour) and explained that the objective was to survive as a group.

This particular world has only one water source, and very limited food resources (note to self: turn off animal spawning next time around) Students are expected to use the knowledge they gained in the farming tutorial to grow enough wheat to sustain themselves. Within the first 15 minutes, nearly all of them had died of starvation at least once. I froze the group, and we had a quick debrief about what needed to happen in order to ensure that all members of their group survived (for example, we determined that searching for diamonds was not strictly necessary...) We created slightly larger groups, I reset the world, and they tried again. This time, they chose specific roles aimed at providing enough food for all 5 members of their group, and most of them survived for the 20 minutes or so that they were logged on.

What I learned from this experience:
1. Always have a Plan B!
2. When students are in teams, arrange it so that they are also sitting near one another. I wanted to ensure a good mixture of students the first time around, so I assigned their groups starting at one end of the row and alternating between the three colours. The second time, when we regrouped, I assigned the colours in chunks so that students could communicate more effectively with the other members of their groups.
3. It's alright to reset the world in the middle of a session in order to redirect the activity and refocus the students on their objective.

My computer was struggling yesterday, so I wasn't able to grab video of our time in the world, which was alright as students were divided into three separate, fairly large areas so it would have been difficult to capture much of visual interest. Next time, I will set up teacher-only teleport stations so that I can quickly move between the areas.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

MinecraftEDU - A World of Creation

I had my second session with my MinecraftEDU Exploratory group yesterday afternoon. We fiddled around in the Tutorial World for a little while, but it quickly became clear that students wanted to free-build. So I started up a flat world, set them on creative, and let them at it.

The first thing we discovered was that the world was only 4 blocks deep... I'll have to look at the settings, and see what that's about, as students wanted to include underground elements in their buildings.

Next, we paused for a reminder that school Minecraft is different from home Minecraft, and that the use of guns would not be appropriate. We compromised on bow & arrow and crossbows, as one student wanted to build a target shooting game.

As students built, I flew around and commented on their buildings. One student built a secret tunnel, another a giant person, and another a trap using redstone and pistons.

For the last 15 minutes of the session, we toured each student's creation, even though they weren't quite finished! Students briefly explained their build, and they were all very complimentary about what they saw.

Next week, we will continue to free-build for a while, and then I plan to have them complete a challenge in small groups. I haven't quite decided which challenge to set them, but I want it to be something they can accomplish in about 45 minutes, so nothing too complex.

As a teacher, I think it is important to "read the room" in order to switch up activities that aren't working. Although I really wanted students to explore the Campground in the Tutorial World, they just weren't that into it. Good teaching isn't confined to a traditional classroom setting - change gears when it's not working!

Here is a video of the tour at the end of the session. I need to find a way to have students' voices be more audible on the recording...

Exploratory Session - Touring Students' Creations

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Trailers - A Wider Audience

Over the past month, my grade 7 English Language Arts class has been exploring the idea of theme in children's picture books. With the help of our former librarian, who also happens to own an independent bookstore, I chose 16 picture books and brought them to class. Students had an opportunity to read books independently and with partners, as we narrowed the list down to eight books.

The finalists were (links are to :

And Tango Makes Three

King and King

Desmond and the Very Mean Word

Ten Birds

One Hockey Night

Lost Teachings

The Road to Afghanistan

It's a Book

Using a Google Form, students indicated their top three choices, as well as communicating two or three others with whom they felt they could work well. From there, I created groups of two, and assigned them their book.

They used iMovie to create their trailers, as the technology was readily available and very user friendly. When I do this again, I will encourage students to choose (and "claim") the template so that we don't end up with multiple trailers using the same format and music. Students loved creating these trailers, in part because they could embrace the creative side of the activity without becoming frustrated by technology troubles.

As a way to further engage students, I let them know from the outset that their trailers would be passed along to the bookstore owner mentioned in the first paragraph, and that they would be on display in the store window. Students were nervous and excited about the prospect of their work being viewed by "real people."

I took the flash drive to the bookstore last Friday, and heard from the owner today. Our trailers are up on her Facebook page and will be shown in-store as soon as the screen is hooked up to the computer! I was able to show students the Facebook page in class today, and the excitement was palpable. Score one for the power of sharing with a wider audience.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

First Foray into MinecraftEDU

I've been waiting for a few months to try out MinecraftEDU with a small group of students. I originally received a grant in November to purchase a server license and 25 student account licenses, but didn't have an opportunity to run it with a group until this past Wednesday (scheduling, snow storms, and technology all got in the way)

My middle schools runs Exploratory activities on Wednesday afternoons, and I thought that would be a perfect opportunity to try things out with a group of 15 students. I hand-picked students who I knew were already really excited about Minecraft, and had played it before. I deliberately chose some students who I knew I could rely on for excellent feedback, others who I knew needed something positive at school, and still others who I thought would benefit from being put into a situation where they were expected to collaborate rather than compete. Long story short, I did not only choose students who would follow instructions in a docile manner ;-)

I spent time ahead of Wednesday in the computer lab setting up each computer, configuring the launcher file to omit certain options for students when the were logging in, and making sure things were working properly. I had students fill out a survey so that I had an idea of what platforms they had previously played on, as well as their interest in mining, building, fighting mobs, et. We started our session with a discussion of how school Minecraft would be different from home Minecraft, and the importance of not engaging in griefing in MCEDU. I mentioned that this version of Minecraft would be run on a local server only. We also talked about the fact that this was a trial run of something I want to eventually run as an afterschool club, and use as part of my curriculum, so I would be looking for some feedback from them. Of course, when it came time to log in, I was faced with the fact that I had 15 grade 6, 7 and 8 students who were not able to read my mind. It took a while to get them all to navigate to the proper location on the computer, and to log in.

And then four of the computers would not connect to the server. Two of them, I immediately identified as being a problem with mods not having been installed properly. I sent a student to get the USB from my classroom (note to self - just bring it with you next time!) and swiftly solved that problem. The other two computers, however, just would not connect. I was feeling a little anxious at this point (about 10 minutes after most students had successfully logged in to the Tutorial World and were complaining about the fact that they were still frozen by me), because one of the students whose computer would not connect was what we call a "red-zone" student at my school. When faced with frustration, this grade 6 boy often begins shouting, throwing items, slamming doors, or running away from the classroom. I could see his frustration level rising as the noise levels rose, and as he realized that everyone else was already online.

Instead, the most magical thing occurred. Through the noise, he spoke up, "Mme [I teach French Immersion], I have a suggestion for fixing this problem. What if the two people who can't connect went and sat with someone else, and then they could take turns controlling the keyboard and mouse?"

I was ecstatic! Despite the fact that all of the other students were rowdy, and excited, and frustrated that I wasn't letting them run off into the distance, this student was able to see a solution and propose it, rather than shutting down.

The rest of the session passed smoothly. Students ran around, sped through sections (and then went back when I told them there were secrets to find!), and eventually learned that when I froze them it was not necessary to exclaim about their frozen state but that it was a signal that I wanted to give them some information or ask them a question. Some were more adept/practiced at cooperating than others, and that will be the focus of our next Exploratory session. I will also remember to turn on the microphone, so that my screen capture will include audio (as it stands, it is currently about 50 minutes of complete silence, which does not in any way reflect reality!)

All in all, I am very pleased with my first use of MinecraftEDU with a group of students, and I'm very much looking forward to continuing this journey, and bringing it into my classroom!

Oh, and the two computers that wouldn't connect? The ethernet cables were unplugged....