September 30, 2020
By Joe Dillon, Denver Writing Project
As the world sheltered in place during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, stories of youth designing spaces in Minecraft popped up on social media. College students built blocky versions of campus at universities like MIT, Cal Berkeley, and the University of Southern Indiana, and reimagined the events and spaces that had been closed to them by the spread of the virus. These stories likely did not surprise teachers, who undoubtedly have all manner of first-hand experience with young people’s skill and fascination with the sandbox game.
For me, I first understood the game’s hold on the creative imaginations of students in the summer of 2012, listening to three boys discuss their fascination with the game. I was seated on the Auraria Campus, the site of the Denver Writing Project’s Young Writers Camp, and the boys were climbing in the tree boughs above me while we all waited for their parents to collect them at the end of the day. One of the young men described for the others how he had researched the game for a month before playing with the other kids at his school because he didn’t want to look like a novice. When I asked him what kind of research he’d done, all three boys talked over each other about how they used the Minecraft Wiki and YouTube game tutorials to learn more about the mechanics of the game.
The intersection between Minecraft, creativity and learning are plain, but how can educators use Minecraft space for young writers to write, revise, and create while they play?
This was the question Meenoo Rami, a Philadelphia Writing Project teacher-consultant and now a Program Manager at Microsoft, posed to me and NWP’s Christina Cantrill. Seated on the floor of the MIT Media Lab during a lunch break at the 2018 Connected Learning Summit, we were talking about Meenoo’s work at Minecraft Education in the moments between sessions about interest-driven, peer-supported learning. I responded by describing some of the ways I had seen teachers use world-building to support creative writing and thinking in the Aurora Public Schools during some experiments in the classroom and in club spaces after school. The conversation led to a new collaboration between NWP and Minecraft Education Edition.
Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft has led to the development of Minecraft: Education Edition — an educational version of the game with a global reach. Their site offers lessons with accompanying Minecraft worlds, designed for use across the curriculum for all age ranges. With support from Minecraft, I worked with a team of teachers and youth to create 10 ELA writing lessons related to world-building. The process of designing worlds and lessons that could support playful writing and learning was challenging, fun, and rich with possibilities.
Ultimately, collaborating with teachers about writing in Minecraft resulted in unique contexts for youth to engage in world-building. In a post for Minecraft Education, I framed the marriage between Minecraft and composition this way:
Just as a player logs into Minecraft, in the moment before she begins to dig, build, fly, or otherwise explore, she encounters a screen that offers her the choice to create a new world. … Think arctic environs with polar bears. Jungles thick with vines where parrots fly from tree to tree. Aquatic scenes filled with coral, sea creatures, and sunken treasure. For a different game experience, a player can also create a flat world devoid of digital creatures, without flora or fauna — a clean canvas for designing with digital blocks. From the outset, Minecraft asks players, “What kind of world do you want to create?”
The 10 lessons built were co-created with the help of interested educators and youth; each was imagined as a playful interpretation of a concept familiar in English Language Arts, and each asks players to write and build in different ways. Young writers from the Denver Writing Project not only helped test the activities, but a few of them lent their Minecrafting expertise and aided in the construction of the worlds.
The NWP-hosted Minecraft worlds now include:
- Setting in Narrative Writing: Explore the desert and imagine story possibilities.
- Characters All Around: Meet three characters and create a character of your own.
- Diving for Dialogue: Help a group of people stranded on an island rescue resources from a shipwreck, then write a dialogue.
- Exquisite Corpse: Learn about a century old surrealist game, then write and play in this world.
- 6 Room Poem Maze: Tour a maze while writing about a powerful image to get practice with poetics.
- “This I Believe”: To help in the writing of a “This I Believe” essay, study mentor texts from the popular NPR essay series and build things that represent beliefs.
- “Where I’m From”: Inspired by the poem, “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyon, explore digital spaces that illustrate stanzas written by youth, then write stanzas and illustrate them.
- Conflict in Stories: Tour a scene with a few conflicts to think about story ideas and imagine resolutions.
- Narrative in Perspective: The mayor of a troubled village needs your perspective on some troubling issues, your report will help her set things right.
- Settings for Stories: Tour four different environments while you answer some questions fiction writers use to engage in world building.
These activities are meant to inspire innovative lesson planning and playful teaching. Teachers are encouraged to enlist youth and to revise these lessons while you play them. As for the young people who give these lessons a try, NWP hopes they inspire the most creative of writing and awesome Minecraft builds. To that end, I recommend that the teachers who invite young writers into these spaces ask them to be playtesters as well as students. Surely young Minecraft lovers who explore the worlds and the lessons therein will have insight into how the lessons can improve, and how the spaces can better support learning. Students are sure to have playful ideas for new ways to build worlds. And we want to keep learning with you all!
Christina Cantrill and I were invited to describe this work on a Minecraft Education Edition Podcast (22:47) recorded in July 2020. The episode may interest teachers who want to leverage youth passion for Minecraft into innovative work with writing and design.
Special thanks to:
Mali Abrahamsen, student
Andy Burns, student
Keaton Cornella, student
Samantha Cornella, Aurora Public Schools
Stella Cypher, Aurora Public Schools
Hailey and Madison Dillon, students
Jason Dillon, Denver Writing Project
Marina Lombardo, New York City Writing Project
Kevin Riebau, Aurora Public Schools
Maya Robbins, students
Cari Roberts, Aurora Public Schools