Through a generous grant from the Princeton Education Foundation, I was able to acquire MinecraftEDU for my classroom this year. I had heard about this educational version of the incredibly popular game at a workshop (incidentally, the same workshop that led to a bunch of other nifty things I'm doing in my classroom, including this blog!) and I was excited about giving it a try in my classroom. I'll never forget how I found out: I was in the middle of teaching a math lesson in December when several representatives from the PEF came in with balloons and a certificate. When the class found out that the grant was for MinecraftEDU, went wild! One even jumped up and hugged me!
My first year using MinecraftEDU was very much a learning experience. I had a class with widely varying experience levels...some had never played the game before, some were experienced players, and some had knowledge of the game that I didn't think possible for 10- and 11-year olds. This proved to be both an immense help but also sometimes a bit of a liability. My expert Minecrafters would very willingly help their less experienced classmates, but sometimes only after they had gone off on their own and done a bunch of other stuff that wasn't necessarily part of the project we were working on at the time. Likewise, I would have liked to see my less experienced students read posted instructions and try a few more things before giving up and asking for help at times.
Here are some general thoughts about my first year with MinecraftEDU:
What Went Well
Naturally, the students were extremely enthusiastic about using Minecraft in school. They always looked forward to going to the computer lab and getting stared on the day's activity. Also, when challenged with a difficult situation the students readily helped each other out, often leaving their laptop to go assist their classmates. The students shared with each other (and me!) the things they discovered. During a social studies project where they collaborated on a model of colonial Boston, many students went out of their way to do additional research to make sure their construction was accurate. Finally, for me, the amount of resources available on YouTube, Twitter, Google Groups, and MinecraftEDU's website were invaluable for me. I did a lot of learning by doing, and it definitely challenged me this year!
What Needs Work
One of the persistent challenges I had this year was getting to see the experienced Minecraft players that this was a different setting than the one they were used to at home. Often, I would have redirect a group of students who were digging where they shouldn't, or trying to find ways around the boundaries that I had set up in a particular world. I think having MinecraftEDU from the beginning this year will be helpful in having time to establish clear expectations and guidelines for all students. Another issue we had was that the computers in the lab didn't seem suited to handle some of the more expansive maps that we tried to do. We often ran into server lag, and students occasionally lost their connections in the middle of a session. They were able to get back on easily enough, but it was a nuisance. Switching from wifi to ethernet connections seemed to help, as well as having students double up on computers to reduce the strain on the server.
Overall, I know that I've only scratched the surface of how MinecraftEDU can impact my instruction. The game itself is immense, and with all the different mods that can be applied, the applications are limitless. I'm looking forward to learning more!
About a year ago, I decided to implement Genius Hour (also known as Passion Projects or 20% Time) in my classroom. I had no idea what was going to happen, which was a little scary and also a little exciting. I relied heavily on the expertise and resources of some incredible teachers, including Paul Solarz's amazing blog and the staggering amount of Genius Hour materials assembled by Joy Kirr on LiveBinders as well as Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom by AJ Juliani. We launched in October, setting aside 60 minutes every Tuesday, and ran all the way up until the second-to-last day of school (even after our graduation ceremony). Here are some of my reflections on what worked and what didn't work in my first year of bringing Genius Hour to my classroom.
First, it was immensely popular. Genius Hour became one of the most anticipated times of the week. Students would always look forward to this time and would beg for time elsewhere in the week if our regular Tuesday time slot had to be taken by an assembly or missed due to a snow day or delayed opening. As students reflected on their experiences late in the year, Genius Hour was one of the most popular recollections.
The students also learned a lot from each other. During the "pitch" phase, several of my students discovered PowToons and Emaze from looking at other students' pitches. With no real input from me beyond coaching, they taught each other how to use these two tools. They even taught me a few things! Throughout the process, students relied on each others' expertise on how to carry out research, how to shoot and edit video, and how to create and effectively deliver presentations.
Students also demonstrated immense growth in their oral presentation skills. I required each student to present their project to an audience of students, parents, and teachers. We viewed a bunch of TED talks (especially ones given by younger presenters) to examine not so much what they were saying (although it was interesting) but how they were saying it. We also used the "10 Commandments of TED Talks" (especially #4, Thou Shalt Tell A Story) and as a result, the students' speeches, by and large, were some of the best oral presentations I had ever seen from fifth graders. All of my students gave presentations, including ESL students who had come into school speaking no English at all!
Finally, I was amazed at the creativity and courage displayed by my students over the entire process. They developed projects ranging from research on flight, wolves, the history of comics, and beatboxing. One attempted to create homemade Starburst candies. Several students created items to sell in order to donate the proceeds to charity. In one particularly poignant turn of events, one student had been documenting her attempts to train her dog, but then the dog had to be returned to a shelter because it had become hostile to people, likely because it had been rescued from a puppy mill. Rather than completely start over, this student shifted her research to the dangers of puppy mills and how to raise awareness of this issue. The amount of courage displayed by this student in presenting on this topic of such emotional impact was tremendous. Over and over, students remarked how much they had surprised themselves in what they were able to do with their Genius Hour projects.
What Didn't Work So Well
This is not to say that there are definitely some things I'm thinking about tweaking for next year. Most importantly, I didn't start thinking about a deadline until well into the spring semester. I eventually set three presentation dates; one in the middle of May, one at the beginning of June, and one at the very end of the school year. This caused some projects to drag on long after they could have been presented. I had originally thought that students would be able to present whenever they were ready, but I think giving students a more defined end date will help them stay on task. I think this year I'm going to break the year up into two separate project sessions, one where they will present in December and another where they present in May.
I also think that I need to work more with helping the students plan their projects. Several students lost focus over the course of their projects because they weren't clear on the steps they needed to take. I think more work on the pitch phase of their projects will help with this, especially in outlining their process and the materials they will need.
Finally, the one thing that I think needed the most work was the reflective component of Genius Hour. I had made a requirement that students blog periodically about their process, but while a few of them did, that part got largely lost in the process. I think part of it is the fact that students weren't really used to thinking reflectively, and needed more guidance in that area. Next year, I'm going to make reflection a large part of the learning process, and not just for Genius Hour. Requiring at least one blog post a week (and getting feedback) will get them into the habit of writing about their thinking, and hopefully this will carry over into Genius Hour as well.
Overall, I'm really happy with how my first experience with Genius Hour worked out. Now that I've seen it in action, I have an idea of how I can improve the experience not just for my students, but for myself as well!
Here is a playlist of my students' Genius Hour presentations from this past year. Comments and suggestions are welcome!
This is going to be my third attempt at maintaining a classroom blog. I started out with Weebly near the end of last year (you can see some of my old posts here) and then near the start of this past school year, I switched over to Edublogs. Both sites had some great features, but now, I believe going back to Weebly suits my vision better. I thought I might use my first new post to recount a little bit about how I got here!
My experience with wikis and blogs began several years ago when I attended a tech workshop through my school district. I was intrigued by the various uses they could have and the role they could play in a 21st century classroom. My first class wiki was set up through PBWorks...you can still find it here: http://ullman205.pbworks.com. I first used it mainly to post homework, and then started to post resources for various projects and give students their own pages to edit. PBWorks worked really well for me for several years.
I began to shift my thinking about two years ago. My district started using Google Drive, which enabled me not only to post assignments, but to have students be able to complete them online. Then I was introduced last summer to Google Classroom...all of a sudden, the main reason why I was using PBWorks no longer seemed applicable. Now I could post assignments, announcements, and have students turn them in all through these two applications!
The real change happened in May of 2014, when I attended a workshop led by Alan November. It was here that I picked up the ideas for a lot of the tech tools I'm now using in my classroom. I started using Remind as a tool to keep families updated as well as another avenue for making sure students knew their homework assignments. I began using Twitter as a professional development tool. I learned about other online teaching tools like Blendspace and Verso. Most importantly, I started learning how blogging could be a powerful teaching tool and how it could empower students to share their work to a larger audience and for a greater purpose.
Which brings me to now. This past year was the first year I'd blogged with my students, and as the year progressed, I began to get a clearer idea of what I want to do. This year, each of my students will get a space on Weebly, where they will be able to post examples of their work along with reflections about it, creating a "blog-folio." I also intend to make reflective blogging a weekly practice in my classroom and hopefully finding a few more classrooms to share with and to engage in conversation. Let's see how it goes!
5th grade teacher in Princeton, NJ. Passionate about education, technology, and the New York Giants!