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Minecraft Curriculum Hackjam: Bringing Youth Expertise to the Table

Minecraft Edu Hackjam was a pre-event at the 2017 Games 4 Change Conference. According to advance material, the goal of the hackjam was to “convene 50 educators, designers, and Minecraft mentors to make subject-area curriculum relevant, immersive, and impactful for all students. Based on each group’s strength and interest, participants will turn their expertise into Minecraft: Education Edition lesson plans to be used by educators around the world.”


One of the coolest things about participating in the Minecraft Edu Curriculum Hackjam was the opportunity to co-design learning experiences with young people. I’ve had the opportunity to lead a lot of workshops with and for teachers; many times I suggest bringing students into the mix, but this idea rarely gets traction. So, I was super happy that my friend, Meenoo Rami, not only invited me to this event, but encouraged me to bring young people I knew who were avid Minecraft players. Luckily, I just happen to live with two such young people: Anders (age 12) and Willem (age 9) have both played Minecraft for a number of years. And, keeping with the spirit of collaboration, Anders is joining me in co-authoring this blog post. You can read his thoughts below.

We began the hackjam with a brief overview of what Minecraft is and why teachers might want to use it. Meenoo emphasized that Minecraft was one tool in a teacher’s toolbox. We then had the chance to start playing around in the Minecraft Education Edition (which has some different features than vanilla Minecraft). As a clueless novice Minecraft player, I was grateful for the guided tutorial that taught me how to move forward, backward, and side-to-side. I also learned how to break blocks, stack blocks, swim, and craft. Even though it sounds simple, I needed help with a few skills (like how to pull down levers). If you think that young people are being dumbed down by video games, I encourage you to go and try to learn a new game. The struggle is real. Alternatively, read Gee’s book, What Video Games Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.  

James Gee-Video games

After we completed the tutorial, Meenoo asked us to divide into groups based on our content expertise and then presented us with an open-ended challenge: Create a lesson plan that utilizes the unique affordances of Minecraft: Education Edition to teach a common topic, standard, or lesson in your classroom.

My group quickly determined that we wanted to create a lesson that any teacher with limited Minecraft expertise could use. We also wanted to be sure that the lesson we created directly met a variety of English and History standards. We decided to choose a topic that is sometimes difficult to get students excited about: the U.S. Constitution. Our group had a great mix of Minecraft experts (including Anders, and a preservice teacher, Chris) and experienced teachers. We quickly began brainstorming ideas and came up with the idea to create a simulation in Minecraft where students could experience what it would be like to be in a society without rules. We called our lesson “Why Do We Need Rules?: Introducing the U.S. Constitution through Minecraft.”  The “hook” of our lesson included a mini game.  Students are divided into five teams. The goal of the game is to find as many diamonds as possible in Minecraft. Students have 10 minutes to get those diamonds by any means.  The idea is that students will quickly learn why rules can be helpful. Chris and Anders created a video walk through of the mini game here.

Group collab

I’d never created curriculum with young people before, so I wasn’t sure how the process would play out. In retrospect, I was surprised by how easy it was for us all to collaborate. The young people helped us make connections and think through how to connect academic content to Minecraft in ways that I never would have thought of. Having youth at the table also created opportunities to engage in rapid prototyping of our lesson plan activities. For example, we asked Anders “what would happen if we just let people roam around the world we created? Would chaos ensue?” His answer “oh yeah!” Anders was able to use his knowledge and expertise in Minecraft to help us anticipate what might work and what might not work in the lesson really quickly. Often as teachers, we plan what we think are beautiful lessons, but don’t often get feedback from students until after we have taught the lesson. The Hackjam used a completely different process. As Nikomo, a teacher in our group said, “There’s no way we could have created this lesson without Anders.”

Even though we spent about 3 hours designing the lesson plan, it didn’t feel like work; it felt like play. The joy of creating something together with young people was really fun, and it’s something I hope that I get to do more of in the future.

Here’s Anders take on the day’s events:

When I first learned about this program I thought it would be a fun way to associate Minecraft with education and I was very excited for the future with that. I wasn’t sure if I would stay [at the hackjam] the entire time because I didn’t know what to expect. Before we entered the workshop people were not shy to say hello and interact and we already had many developing friendships. We went into the classroom and first learned what Minecraft was in summary form and then Meenoo said that she sees Minecraft as one of the tools in a teacher’s toolbox and can’t be used to solve every problem. Next we did a tutorial on Minecraft Education Edition, which has some features taken out and some new features to help teachers to be able to control the students. The tutorial teaches players how to use the basic functions of Minecraft in a step-by-step process that gets more advanced as you move along. The tutorial would be helpful for a novice player but there are some parts where the road splits and it may be confusing which way to go, otherwise stupendous. I thought it was fun to work with teachers and get to know what’s happening in the teaching world. It was cool to work together and to create something new with teachers, and to get students excited about the U.S. Constitution. group shot.png

Teaching English with Music

After several years of writing, talking, planning, brainstorming, editing, revising, and editing some more, my edited book (with Chris Goering), Recontextualized: Teaching English with Music, has been published! It was great to work with so many of my friends and colleagues on this project.  The quick origin story: the book began with a graduate course I took at The University of Georgia called “Popular Culture in Literacy Classrooms,” taught by Donna Alvermann.   In that course, I wrote a paper about my experiences using pop music in my English classroom. That paper led to an NCTE presentation, which Chris happened to attend. The rest is history.

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After we wrote the book, I asked Donna to write the foreword. Luckily, she agreed and wrote the following:

“Recontextualized: A Framework for Teaching English with Music is written for teachers and teacher educators who understand that knowing about something is only a small part of the learning cycle. It is what learners do with content—texts, images, music, films, videos—that can lead to perceptions of self-worth and engagement with others in the pursuit of further learning. Experiencing social connectedness while engaging collectively in music can also enliven the most traditional of English classrooms as well as bring greater curricular focus to unconventional learning venues.

For all this to work, editors Lindy Johnson and Chris Goering wisely sensed the need to rethink certain assumptions about teaching English with music. That, and the need to invite chapter authors whose pedagogic expertise blends seamlessly with their artistry and activism. Together, this editor/author team has produced a book that virtually vibrates with possibilities for engaging youth in ways that speak to their interests while simultaneously maintaining the rigor expected of English classes.

 Recontextualized: A Framework for Teaching English with Music is the book I needed ln last semester’s methods course for preservice middle grades teachers and the current semester’s graduate level seminar on integrating popular culture in literacy classrooms K-12. The contents of the chapters speak to a range of teacher preparation levels by offering concrete ideas for entangling and disentangling situated meanings that are both cognitively and socioculturally demanding. And this is as it should be, especially given the increased emphasis on literacy practices that mediate (and are mediated by) seemingly endless curricular reforms.

Diversifying is central to much of what teachers and teacher educators do in the name of providing relevant learning activities for students in their classrooms. It is also central to what motivates literacy researchers and theorists in their efforts to better conceptualize the learning process.   A case in point illustrates why Recontextualized: A Framework for Teaching English with Music is not only up with the times but actually leading by showing.   Leading in the sense of acknowledging the critique of the New London Group’s multiliteracies framework for being too text-centric. Showing in the sense of providing chapter-length exemplars on how to use music to energize the English curriculum—think passion, sensation, affect. For why else would one choose to become a teacher, a teacher educator, and most certainly a learner?” (Alvermann, 2016).

Yeah. What Donna said. That foreword was totally the icing on the cake of this project. You can find the book here and on Amazon here.

NCTE 2013

I’m really looking forward to NCTE this year.  It’s going to be great to go back to Boston (where I taught high school English) and catch up with friends and colleagues. I’ll also be presenting at the sessions below, so please come by and say hello if you get a chance.

(Re)Inventing English Teacher Education: The Research and Practice of English Education Graduate Students

Forthcoming Chapter

I’m happy to announce that I have a chapter in the new book Exploring Multimodal Composition and Digital Writing Edited by Rick Ferdig & Kristine Pytash that will be coming out this summer!

Exploring Multimodal Composition and Digital Writing

Release Date: July, 2013. Copyright © 2014. 352 pages.