Monday, April 30, 2012

Goals and server safety

More than anything else this year, I am coming to realize that at one point I did not know many of the things I take for granted today.  Speaking English, for example, or being able to navigate a video game world.  Last week I found yet another skill that must be taught and learned: setting realistic and meaningful goals.  Since the first foray into survival mode had been fairly aimless and confused I thought it would be good for the students think before getting in game about what they hoped to accomplish in their 45 minutes that day. They were to write down three goals in their journals before logging into the server, and at the end of the day they were to look at their goals again and see whether or not they had accomplished what they hoped. Most of the goals involved building a house, constructing weapons to fight zombies, or exploring the world. Maybe I am being picky, but I was hoping for more specific goals. The goals they came up with were very vague, and easy to accomplish. But the more I consider it now, the happier I am with the goals they set. Sure, they weren't specific, attainable, short-term goals, however, they did give the students a sense of self-direction. One goal that stood out to me was to have unrestricted exploration. This is the way I run things already in survival mode with the students, but it is a good reminder to me to keep things that way and let the students be the creators. My conclusion from last week is that if I want students to accomplish a specific goal, I shouldn't set that expectation unless I give them that goal and the means to accomplish it. Maybe this week I will do the goals assignment again, only this time I will supply one goal while the students come up with the other two. Ooh, maybe I could give each of them a different goal...a sort of secret mission...they could get into that. We'll have to see.

My main takeaway from the architecture group was that I need to find a new location for our server computer. Half an hour into our time someone accidentally unplugged the server's power strip (this is in a different room from where we actually played the game). Thus 30 minutes of coordinated lighthouse construction was lost. So the server will have to move to a safer location. But beyond that, I'm concluding that the current architecture project is too big of an endeavor for what we can do the rest of this school year. I'm going to let them finish the lighthouses they have been working on, but after that I decide what sort of direction to take the group. Maybe they would be more into building a model of something they know, like our building, instead of a lighthouse they have never seen or heard of before.  Any ideas on other sorts of projects that can be done in Minecraft?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Mister, how do you spell zombie?"

Sometimes I am not sure who is learning more here at the after-school program, the kids or me. This week I very intentionally used what I learned last week about different kids having different needs in planning what we would be doing in Minecraft. I gave each student in the first group a journal and let them loose in survival mode, while I started an architecture project for the second group. Planning separate lessons does mean extra work, but I like what I do and it gives the students a better experience (at least that is my hope).

For the survival group I first found an area in our creative map far away from any student's previous work to strand the students and let them have at it. Because the vast majority of our time in MC has been spent in creative mode, most students needed a refresher in crafting and gathering resources. I wanted to give as little guidance as possible during this time to keep as true as possible to the survival theme. A couple of the students were asking me to just give them tools and resources, but I had to tell them they needed to pretend that I wasn't there.

This was working well for a while, until night fell. The students were braced for a zombie apocalypse, but it never came. Lesson number one for me of the day: Always test EVERYTHING beforehand. Sure, there is a button that allows monsters to spawn, but does it actually work? Maybe it didn't work because the world had already been started in creative mode. After that disappointment I had a brief conference with the students and they decided that they would be ok with starting in a new world to get the complete survival experience. So I restarted the server in a fresh world with monsters enabled from the beginning. Things were going well, night fell, but still no monsters came. I couldn't even spawn monsters into the world. Not to worry, I was able to release the hoard simply by disabling and enabling the “Spawn Monsters” option in the MinecraftEDU option box. As I was saying above, I was giving kids as little guidance as possible. They were not prepared for night in Minecraft. Luckily, they didn't stray too far from the spawn point so they could recover most of the resources they had gathered during the day. Day came again and they started right away on a shelter. We ran out of time at this point, and I had the students pull out their journals to make Entry #1. I hadn't planned the writing portion of the activity particularly well ahead of time, so I gave the students a chance for a free written response to what happened in the game, at least three sentences. I was not sure at all how this request for extra writing would go – I braced myself for complaints and whining, but there was none. They all eagerly wrote their names in the journals and started on their entries. Granted, they were pretty short, and I didn't really have an idea of how confident any of them were with writing. The thing that surprised me most during the day was when one student, bent over his journal, asked, “Mister, how do I spell zombie?” Believe it or not, I had given them something to write about. Sure, they got destroyed in the game, but they all had something to say about it. I'm excited to see where things go from here with the group, and what else I can do with the journals.

This is getting to be a pretty long post. But here is how things went with the architecture group. Looking back, I put way too much into this lesson. In preparation for the lesson I printed off pictures of famous buildings along with their measurements; found pictures of work others had done in MC; made a blueprint and started my own reproduction of the pyramids of Giza. In order to finish the project, students need to do historical research on their building, make a building plan on graph paper, scale the dimensions appropriately, and spend a good amount of time just placing blocks in-game. This was too much for one day. I did understand that the project would take time to complete, I just did not appropriately space out the content for the project. Instead of working on one element at a time (first researching a building, then figuring out how models and scales work, then working with graph paper to make a plan, etc.) I expected them to just go and do it all elements simultaneously. Needless to say, it didn't go as I planned. I realized this fairly early, and was lucky to have a smaller group than usual (some kids were out on a field trip), so we focused on the buildings I had already researched, and the students ended up starting their own interpretations of the lighthouse at Alexandria. Once they got going, they were fine, and we were able to talk about the lighthouse, why it was important, and what happened to it. I'll have to do some more thinking before next week comes on how to proceed with this group.

Well, thanks for getting through this lengthy narrative of what happened yesterday. Comments and new ideas are always welcome, especially any thoughts on how to better run the architecture project.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Different students, different needs

This week's goal was for students to learn a little about redstone, what it does, and how to use it.  For this goal I set up an indestructable room (using the MinecraftEdu mod's "build disallow" blocks) with an iron door, and gave students a chest of materials and instructions to find five different ways to get inside the room.  My two groups handled this task very differently.  The first group needed very little assistance before they set up a line of redstone with a lever leading up to the front door.  They even made the line of redstone too long to activate the door, so I was able to pass out redstone repeaters and explain what they did.  The group eagerly wrote down the different methods they used to open the door, after which I activated the teleporter inside the room which took them to the village they had started in the previous weeks. 

Group two did not do as well with this task.  While they did figure out that you can put a button or lever right next to an iron door and get it to open, they did not have the patience to see what they could do with the redstone.  They did not want to work together on the project, so they started wandering and exploring the world around the room on their own.  Eventually I got them back around to the room and activated the teleporter, giving them some free time. 

I'm learning that I need to tailor my lessons to the group I am working with, and not just assume that one lesson will work for all. Also, when the planned lesson does not work with a particular group of students, they are still engaged in playing the game.  I need to pay more attention to what it is that engages them when they wander from the planned activity and use it to my advantage, instead of just teleporting the explorers back to the lesson area and asking them to stay focused on what I want them to do. 

So  where do I go from here? The students in the first group have been requesting some time in survival mode.  I want to put together a survival scenario for them.  They even responded positively when I mentioned I would ask them to make a survival journal of the experience.  As much as I would like to do a Rube Goldberg project with them, I want to take advantage of their motivation in this area and see where it goes from there.

The second group would not do as well in survival mode, I think.  They are more interested in building and exploring.  Maybe I could take this group in a more architecture or mapping focused direction.  We'll see.  Any comments or suggestions are welcome.