Creepers, Zombies and Teachers: Minecraft as a Classroom Tool

Mar 16, 2016

If you’ve got middle schoolers, chances are you’ve heard of Minecraft. It’s a video game with blocky graphics, a single level and no story line. But it’s also an obsession for millions of kids — and many adults — who will happily spend hours digging for resources, building houses and fighting off monsters. If that sounds to you like just another on-screen waste of time, WMRA’s Emily Richardson-Lorente has some good news for you.

Since this is radio and you can’t see the Minecraft world I’m walking through, let’s just listen for a sec.

[Zombie sounds]

That’s the sound of me fighting a zombie …

[Arrow sounds]

Shooting a few arrows …

[Drinking & eating sounds]

Drinking and eating …

[Explosion]

And blowing something up. All of those activities are pretty common in Minecraft’s survival mode, though none are happening here in this class at the moment.

STUDENTS IN CLASS: “Isabella, do you know whose this is? It looks like a big old mansion.

In this classroom at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, kids aren’t using Minecraft to fight zombies and creepers. They’re using a special version of it to recreate great architecture like the Louvre.

[in class]

“It’s an art museum.”

“Oh!”

“In France.”

“Ohhh! In France? ”

This architecture project is the brainchild of Mia Shand, the resource teacher here at Agnor-Hurt.

MIA SHAND: Because it’s just such an incredible tool, I love it and I was slowly fighting to get the license.

[in class]

“I’m trying it. One second!”

Now that she has it, her school is one of 15 in Albermarle County that are integrating Minecraft into the curriculum. Kids in this class are working on the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, and of course the Louvre. Fourth grader Isabella DiCarlo and her teammates decided to research and reconstruct the Paris museum, complete with paintings, sculptures, and the iconic glass pyramid that serves as its entrance.

ISABELLA: I found out that it had the Mona Lisa in it, so I liked that. And I also liked that it was in France.

EMILY: How difficult is it to build the Louvre in Minecraft?

ISABELLA: Pretty hard, but also not super hard.

[in class]

“Somebody made this?”

“Yes, it’s amazing.”

“Wait, where’s yours?”

Mia Shand is using this lesson to teach her students about a variety of subjects: history, geography, art. But other teachers are using Minecraft to teach verb conjugations in Spanish. To stage virtual field trips deep inside microscopic cells. Even to recreate the fictional worlds found in the books their kids are reading.

GENE OSBORN: I'm having to edit a pirate ship into a Minecraft world to support a Robinson Crusoe curriculum.

Gene Osborn is Albermarle County’s Minecraft guru. Technically, he’s a “Learning Technology Integrator,” but he spends about 30% of his time on Minecraft — training teachers, supporting the network, and helping kids with special projects.

OSBORN: Every week a new piece of curriculum comes out in Minecraft. And one of my jobs is to make that incredibly easy for a teacher to access.

Before this gig, he taught for 14 years, and he says there’s a BIG difference in how engaged students are when they’re using Minecraft.

OSBORN: Our level of engagement just spikes when we’re using this platform. Whatever it is — whether we're accessing content from a world history curriculum, science, English, I mean literally all content areas can embed those themes into a Minecraft environment.

[in class]

“Yes you did, but I can’t get out of my room.”

SHAND: You see? This is what I love about it. Because I think a lot of parents think that once they get on to the screen, that it’s going to be silent. And this is anything but silent. Like this is literally like constant problem solving, arguing, working together, I mean it’s incredible.

There’s another reason both kids and teachers like Minecraft. Because the line between teacher and student can sometimes blur — in a good way.

OSBORN: Teachers are the ones who are setting the goals and really delivering that instruction to kids. But when a kid can say "oh let me show you how to do it," that’s an awesome moment because it builds esteem and that's really — that’s huge.

[in class]

“Here. But I can get you to mine.”

This semester, some Albemarle County teachers are using Minecraft in kindergarten for basic building projects. Others are using it high school for advanced design work. It would seem that Minecraft is good for just about anyone, right Mom & Dad? One big caveat though:  The version of Minecraft that Gene Osborn works with is called Minecraft EDU. It’s a schools-only version that allows teachers to integrate lesson plans, limit access and set some ground rules.

[in class]

“One minute warning!”

Unlike the version your kids play at home — this game is monitored closely by a teacher.

SHAND: I control every single student's computer from my computer. So I have the ability to freeze students individually. I can teleport them to where they need to go. I can change the weather... whether there's fire, T.N.T., monsters, and then of course night and day.

EMILY: So you control all those features? You’re like the god of Minecraft.

SHAND: It’s very powerful. (laughing) I have to be careful.

[in class]

“Ms. Shandy?”

“What?”

“Could you teleport me?”

Luckily, Mia Shand isn’t alone. According to Microsoft, Minecraft EDU is being used in more than 40 countries, by more than 5,500 teachers.

[in class]

“Okay guys, everybody’s been frozen, go ahead and shut down the computers. I will save it.”