“Through My Eyes” is a series of posts that will highlight strands of the Minecraft Math experience from two unique perspectives: my eyes as a teacher, and Terri’s eyes as an administrator. We are hopeful that our shared yet unique experiences and perspectives will add interest and strength to our overall project. This is our first installation in the series. In this post, I will share some background behind the WHY and the HOW of Minecraft Math, while Pt. 2 will highlight reflections on the experience and effectiveness of Minecraft Math in my classroom.
I’m no gamer. I have never shown much interest in video games. I was always terrible at all of the Nintendo games my friends played. I clearly remembering struggling with Super Mario. Duck Hunt was pretty bad, too, and so was any attempt at Tetris. My nieces and nephews destroy me on the Wii. The one game I really enjoyed was the old-school, highly-pixelated Olympics games on our ancient computer. The only version of game-based learning I have really cared about happens on playing fields, in gyms, parks, or hockey rinks. I share this so that you understand that my background knowledge, as well as my interest level, in regard to Minecraft is very minimal. It wasn’t genuine interest or curiousity that drew me towards using Minecraft in my Math class; it was something closer to desperation.
Last year brought its fair share of ups and downs. I transitioned from 8 years of teaching in affluent communities to my first year at MTMS, an inner city school. More than any other content area, I felt out of my element teaching Math. Everything felt slow and painful, and I know it felt slow and painful for my students, too! They struggled with independent work habits, and I struggled to find ways to help them feel positive, engaged and successful as Math students. Strategies and assessments that worked well in the past were missing the mark in this new learning and teaching space. I found that many students brought negative experiences and a fixed mindset to Math, something I hadn’t noticed to the same extent in previous schools. The Math vibe was hurting, my students were disengaged, and my frustrations around teaching Math were mounting.
Something needed to change. Luckily for me, I have an administrator who frequently wanders into my classroom and leaves a trail of positivity and possibility behind. As she often does, Terri helped me to see my students with a different lens. We noticed a handful of students had started to independently create Minecraft paper-nets. They were completely engaged in the task. As we chatted about their sudden devotion to cutting, folding and gluing, we started to wonder about the possibilities of connecting the paper-nets to Math outcomes. And thus began the Minecraft Math journey…
When I started, the only thing I understood about Minecraft was its pixelated nature. That’s it. I began by downloading the game and then I hired the experts: kids! Terri’s son and my nephew were my first teachers. I think they were both quite pleased to show me the ropes. I started to gain a very basic understanding of the game, just enough that I could see how Minecraft could be used as a hands-on approach for teaching Math.
Minecraft provided a theme and tool for inspiration and engagement, but it was the shift to small-group instruction that provided the foundational framework for a more engaging and effective learning space. This has actually transformed the way that I teach on a day-to-day basis. I can’t see myself going back to using primarily large-group instruction because there are just too many benefits to working in small groups with kids (but that’s another post!).
I used five stations throughout Minecraft Math. Depending on the day, I chose four of the five stations for students to rotate through in their teams:
- Math With Miss M- This was my opportunity to teach strategies related to the Geometry and Measurement outcomes. I would often incorporate the Minecraft themes into my station. Sometimes we played the game to reinforce concepts such as perimeter and area. Using the iPad, we projected the game so that all students could observe. I also used the various characters, blocks and items of Minecraft to explore polygons. Many of the graphics and some of the assignments I created throughout the unit are available in this shared folder– help yourself!
- Math Talk- Terri led this station and focused on developing and strengthening students’ understanding of Math content vocabulary.
- Math Tech- Students completed online assignments and activities posted on my classroom blog that supported our Geometry and Measurement outcomes.
- Math On My Own- This was an important station because my students were experiencing limited amounts of success as independent learners. Slowly and with significant scaffolding, I wanted to see growth in learning stamina and independence. As a result, I knew they would also grow in confidence.
- Math Build- Here is where creating process came into play. Students worked in teams to brainstorm and design a Minecraft world. They used online resources, such as the nets available at Pixel Papercraft, to print bricks, creatures, characters and items from Minecraft. They used signs to show their understanding of the Math outcomes.
I had a lot of fun letting the Minecraft theme work its magic in learning spaces beyond Math. To launch the unit, two students made a musical entrance with Minecraft boxheads. We had a Reading challenge and the final celebration was a Minecraft-themed lunch. We enjoyed the many musical parodies of Minecraft while working throughout the unit. Our Writing bellwork was made up of Minecraft-themed sentences to edit. As with most themes, Minecraft brought excitement and enthusiasm to our classroom community.
This was how Minecraft Math started in my classroom. In the next post, I will share some reflections on the highs and lows, successes and not-yet successes of using Minecraft as a tool for learning in the classroom.