Learning underground

In my recently adopted US history class, we’re thinking about the price of colonization. After comparing and contrasting some before and after pics of New York, we’re painting our own unspoiled landscapes based on photographs found online. Thereafter we’re going to make lists of everything that we’d bring along with us to start new colonies. Then we’re going to paint those objects on top of our landscapes. Finally, we’re going to review the before and after pictures of our art to analyze what we’ve lost between paintings and to imagine what indigenous people, wildlife, and colonists lost through Western European settlement of the New World.

Here’s a before painting that I especially like; it makes me question my wisdom – and rights – in asking students to paint over their work for the sake of a lesson on colonization.

A lake and some light painted by a middle-schooler

Regarding games: at the beginning of the colonization unit, only a few students began playing Civilization IV: Colonization. Moreover, since only one student who started the game geeked out enough to enjoy it, it’s been shelved in favor of Minecraft. (Next time we paint Minecraft landscapes! FTW!)

I heart Minecraft more than any other game I’ve taught. It’s easy to learn and difficult to master, even on peaceful mode (no zombies at night means no lost student work). It lets students craft their own narratives along with their homes and tunnels and train tracks. It is intensely personal and sculptural and communicates in a visual vocabulary of consumption, crafting, and reuse that gives kids genuine feelings of exploration, economy, and accomplishment.

You have to play it. If you love it, you can buy an account – accounts are transferrable and allow simultaneous use on multiple machines. Use the wiki for help. Check out a tutorial video. Imagine what kids can do with the game, as well what they can learn and show through it. With a little more coding to increase the number of variables under user control, Minecraft could be a more ludic hybrid of Scratch and Second Life that puts students into the flow of learning-by-making more quickly than either of those other platforms.

So what are we doing with it?

First, we’re exploring. Every instance of the game builds a different world for its player that runs as deep underground as its mountains reach into the sky . One student gasped when he found this “Natural Bridge.”

A student-discovered "Natural Bridge" in Minecraft

Here’s a view from the top:

Looking down from the top of a student-discovered "Natural Bridge" in Minecraft

Second, we’re settling. The student who found the bridge is going to build his colony here. Students generated a list of buildings that they thought early colonists needed, and I asked them to build any five near spots in their worlds that were well resourced for human life and industry. Students suggested that they build homes, fences for defense, farms, blacksmith shops, lumber mills, barracks, ports, and town halls. It’s been cool to see students figure out how to make furnaces for their blacksmiths’ shops and crafting tables for their lumber mills.

My brilliant TA is busy figuring out how to set up a server on which all of our students can play and settle together. We’d like to host a world in which our kids can launch and record virtual expeditions and create New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies as part of our history classes; we’d also like to host a world of shared responsibility for a virtual economy in our civics class.

In language arts this week we’re working on topic, main idea, and supporting details – the sacrosanct trinity of standardized informational text reading comprehension questions. I’ve been attempting to differentiate for my boys by throwing in excerpts from passages about the new Tron movie and our invisible pal, dark Jupiter. Apparently I failed horribly because somehow today we wound up watching videos about volcanoes.

I figured, eh, what the hell? Reading, making, playing, and communicating matter more than my best guesses at engaging material.

We’ve decided to complete our own topic, main idea, and supporting details organizers on volcanoes and to use Minecraft to model what we learn. Each participating student is going to complete an organizer on one type of volcano – shield cone, cider cone, or stratovolcano. Then each boy is going to outfit his Minecraft avatar for an underground expedition with torches, ladders, blank signs, and brown floor tiles crafted by the students in-game. Each student will dig down to the magma layer, channel the magma to illustrate the inside of a volcano, lay down brown floor tile to model the outside of the volcano, and then post his topic, main idea, and supporting details on signs around the volcano. (If only they knew, “You shall not pass!”)

Descending to find magma in Minecraft

Outfitted for an underground inquiry adventure in Minecraft

We’re writing inquiry reports underground in a 3D engine and illustrating them with in-engine 2D volcano mosaics.

I love my job. I hope the vinegar and baking soda come next – and that the Skyping with volcanologists follows shortly thereafter.

We shouldn’t needlessly complicate instruction with technology, but we should definitely follow students’ learning underground when the stuff on the surface of schooling only amounts to so much dross.

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