Karen Richardson
Minecraft: A primer for teachers

Want to strike up a conversation with your younger relatives this Thanksgiving? Ask them about Minecraft.

If they don't play themselves, they'll know friends who do. And maybe, just maybe, they're even using it in the classroom.

More and more teachers are finding ways to integrate game play into their lesson plans. Using an educational and security-friendly version of the popular building game, called Minecraft EDU, teachers are engaging their students in social studies, language arts and engineering. 

In a recent webinar on Minecraft in the classroom, some of those teachers described how their students used the game to recreate book settings, practice geometrical concepts and build interactive historical simulations such as Colonial Williamsburg. Along the way, the kids made decisions, collaborated with their classmates and, in several video clips shared during the webinar, were able to easily articulate what they were doing and why.

Minecraft allows teachers to design collaborative projects that encourage a creative, problem-solving approach to content. It also offers the bonus of connecting to students' lives outside the classroom and drawing upon their real-world expertise.
 
From experienced Minecraft users to newbies who have never touched the program, the webinar participants showed an exciting eagerness to learn more about this tool. The chat room buzzed with questions, comments and ideas as educators shared experiences, brainstormed about practice and wondered about possibilities.

Those who were new to Minecraft asked about how to get started. Three tips came out of that conversation:

1. Dive right in (preferably with the help of a young person).

Create an account at Minecraft.net and download the commercial version. Once it's installed, you can create a new world to explore. 

Minecraft comes in two modes: survival and creative. Survival mode has the flavor of a video game, giving you about ten minutes to collect resources and build a shelter before night brings on the zombies. In creative mode, you start with resources and don't have to fight to survive. If you're approaching the game as a source for content-related activities, creative mode is the way to go, as it lets you start building and creating immediately.

Here's my quick tip for you: If you are going to play Minecraft on a laptop, consider using a mouse. I find this makes it much easier to navigate the game.

2. Consult the Minecraft community.

Once you're in, what do you build? And how? Sometimes a blank canvas can be overwhelming. That's where Minecraft's strong community comes in.

YouTube is filled with videos demonstrating Minecraft building projects and offering helpful tips and techniques. You can spend hours on the Official Minecraft Wiki delving into details about everything from blocks to biomes to circuits. There is also a vibrant professional learning community around Minecraft — start with the Minecraft in Education Google Pus Community

Rumor has it the hottest item on the book fair circuit this year is the three-box set of Minecraft building books. These provide some basic instruction and suggest ideas for extending into more complicated, customized projects. The section about building a maze led me to recreate the famous maze at the Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, using aerial photography of the actual maze.

3. Learn from your students.

Don't feel like you have to be an expert before you introduce Minecraft into your own classroom. Your students will be excited to help you learn.

Minecraft EDU makes it easy to use the game in a protected environment. It includes teacher-friendly features that allow you to add interactivity and monitor your students' progress. Visit the site to learn more about setting up a Minecraft EDU server.

Minecraft has a lot to offer teachers and students: engagement, critical thinking, tinkering, engineering. Plus, it's just fun! Dive in, build something cool and start thinking about all the ways the game could support content knowledge as well as creativity and collaboration in your classroom.

Karen Richardson is an education technology specialist and owner of Ivy Run LLC. Connect with her on Twitter via @witchyrichy.

Image: Minecraft After School (cropped) by Kevin Jarrett on flickr.

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