I’m learning valuable things about Minecraft these days. I’m figuring out the landscape of the game: its parameters, settings and features. I’m beginning to make connections with the MinecraftEdu community. I’m immersed in the language of Minecraft, officially becoming an additional-language learner in my classroom. And I know, I’m only starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible in the game. But it’s not the technical knowledge that I value most. It’s not the lingo or a growing familiarity of the game that is shaping me most. The best lesson Minecraft is teaching me has nothing to do with the game itself. Minecraft is teaching me that it’s worth it to step outside my comfort zone because I’m stepping into something better: the experiences and the expertise of my students. It’s worth it to step aside, let go of the reins and let my students lead.
Part of stepping outside of my comfort zone means having different conversations with my kids. It’s routine to chat about sports, movies, favourite books or weekend activities. But even though most students devote significant amounts of time to social media and online spaces, we don’t really talk about what’s happening in their experiences. It’s not a routine rhythm in conversations, but this is starting to change for me- and it should. As Larry Lessig illustrates in his TED Talk, we need to be able to engage with our kids on some level, trying to truly understand how they speak and think.
A couple weeks ago, a student told me all about her love for fan fiction, something I knew very little about. My curiosity was piqued as she naturally explained how she uses the writing process to create and publish stories. I was amazed at the incredible amounts of learning she was doing on her own time. She wasn’t writing out of compulsion, or for the approval of marks, but because she was invested in the community and loved what she was doing. She was practicing the compelling art of remix, and contributing her talents in an online community. As I peppered her with questions, other students overheard the conversation and joined in, enjoying the chance to “teach” me about something I knew nothing about, and something they really loved. I have felt the same way in Minecraft related conversations with my students. Simply opening up dialogue around their online experiences and interests has allowed me to enter into their reality in a deeper way. These conversations are helping me to understand how they see the world and how they interact with others and technology.
Stepping into the experiences and expertise of our students is powerful. As I have listened to my students share their background knowledge in Minecraft, I sense confidence and pride in their voices. “Miss McMillan, WE are teaching YOU!” I believe these are validating moments for my kids. Their interests, talents and life experiences are recognized and valued. Their eagerness to take on this “expert role” has shifted my role towards facilitation in the learning community. The NMC Horizon Report challenges us to think about how we can bolster student engagement and drive innovation. I can’t help but think that placing students as experts is part of the puzzle.
While we may not always be the technological experts in our classrooms, our role as a guide, coach and facilitator of learning is crucial. I may not be the Minecraft expert, but I am well aware of the need to provide a strong framework for learning in the classroom. And while we may sometimes feel that we are not the technological experts, our students need equal amounts of coaching and teaching in both their online and offline spaces. I agree with Henry Jenkins, who states that our students “don’t need us snooping over their shoulders but they do need us watching their backs”. As my student was explaining her fan fiction community, I asked about the nature of the feedback she received from other members. I could sense, even in that small moment, the opportunity to help sort through these responses in a positive way. Our kids need coaching to navigate all spaces of their lives.
Using Minecraft in my classroom is stretching me. I’m outside of my comfort zone. But maybe that’s a good place to be, because in the process of learning to use Minecraft, I’m learning to become a better teacher. Minecraft likely won’t stick around as a tool in the classroom forever, but learning to listen, and learning to let kids lead? Those lessons aren’t going out of style anytime soon.