Monday, March 26, 2012

TESL-EJ: Minecraft review/how-to

Hi all,

Busy getting the classrooms set up for MinecraftEdu this week, but wanted to take a break to announce the publication of my first article in Teaching English as a Second Language - Electronic Journal. It's a review piece and how-to about Minecraft in the second language classroom. Be sure to check out the resources included at the end of the piece. Many of the folks involved with Minecraft and education are listed. My contributions would not be possible without the inspiring work of these other individuals and groups.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Unit One: Summary

The current curriculum at the university requires that we teach our ESL students how to write a summary paragraph. We start with topic sentences and main ideas, and move to supporting details. We talk about how summary is not plagiarism. We provide students with a reading and have them underline/discuss the topic sentence in each paragraph of the reading. We have them look at multiple readings and have them give us the central idea. We slowly scaffold them into writing an entire paragraph. This is the introductory level of ESL writing. There are three in the sequence before English 101.

The question I found myself asking was, "How might this process look in Minecraft?" To answer it I began designing a world that links facets of writing that students are supposed to learn about with activities in the game world. To do this I used one of the key features of the MinecraftEdu mod, the information block.

These in-game lessons are also present in the textbook for the course. The explanations in the textbook are slightly longer and go more in-depth, and are also supported by supplementary readings and activities. In the screenshot above the student is asked to turn the page. The paragraph on that page talks a bit about trees -- what they are, what they look like, and their function in the environment. This is all background information for the student, because after they complete the reading and the short activity in the book, they will have the opportunity to work with trees in Minecraft.

Each student will be instructed to retrieve an axe from a chest and to chop on some trees, collecting wood for what comes next. They will then travel to a crafting area of the map to make wood from the trees. They will take the wood planks up a hill to a cabin in disrepair, and will work as a class to put the structure back together. These tasks are process-oriented. There are multiple steps in the process that support another important facet of language: expressions of time (first, next, then, after that, etc.). These expressions are an important part of summarizing events and experiences in chronological order.

The main grammar focus for Unit 1 is active vs. passive voice. "I jumped over the fire" vs. "The fire was jumped over by me." Passive voice is used frequently in academic writing, so it is important for students to be familiar with its use and structure. The traditional way to teach this language is to model it for students, and to present them with sentences written in either voice, which they then change to the voice not in use. This method is still present in the workbook for the course, but I think the retention of the lesson can be enhanced dramatically by activities in Minecraft.

I created a series of basic scenarios in the game that students, upon completion, will write about. For instance, one of the first obstacles students come in contact with is a strip of eternal flame made of netherrack (a block in Minecraft). Students must jump over the flame and into a pool of water. Not only does this teach students some of the basic controls required to navigate the game world, but having them write about their experiences creates authentic opportunity for language use. Students jump over the flame and are asked, "What did you just do?" The answer to this first obstacle is modeled in their workbook in the active voice, and they are asked to turn that sentence into the passive voice. They follow this pattern through several events. By the time they have worked through each exercise they have written several sentences in both the active and passive voice, and have seen how these sentences can both be used to describe situations in the "real" world. They see how the language is reflected in their actions and how their actions can reflect the language they use.

The final component of the first unit is focused on expressions of time, which they have already been introduced to in previous activities. To reinforce this language students will be getting in groups, planning, and executing small-scale construction projects in the "construction zone" of the map. To scaffold them into this assignment they are asked to do some cloze paragraph (fill-in-the-blank) activities in their workbook, and to spend a few minutes planning their project on graph paper. When they are ready, they'll head into the construction zone to build.

To reinforce the notion of summary, students will be periodically "frozen" via the handy class management tools integrated into MinecraftEdu, and will be asked to summarize what they have done. The culminating project of the unit is a 1-pargraph summary of their experiences with the unit, either focused on the repairing of the cabin or the construction of their group project.

That's a basic summary of the first unit of the course. If there's some interest, I'll continue to do this for the other units as well. Thanks for reading, feedback is welcome!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

First Curriculum: Teaching English as a Second Language with Minecraft

Hello Everyone,

This post marks the first of what will eventually be a series of journal entries focused on an English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum project. I've been working on the planning and research behind the idea for quite some time now, and am now entering into the implementation phase. I'll be teaching an introductory course on academic writing to a group of international students at a large Midwestern university this spring.

The basic premise behind this curriculum lies with the field of Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) and theories of task, project, and content-based instruction. Scholars in these fields frequently talk about how important interactive and collaborative learning are to students in the second language classroom. The video game Minecraft affords numerous opportunities for language use, and centers around activities of task completion and project-based work. Basically, students build things together and talk about them.

I will be incorporating a number of language lessons, seen above, and related activities into the curriculum that students will accomplish under the guidance of the instructor. This screenshot, in particular, showcases the information block feature of the mod MinecraftEdu. Take a look when you get the chance. The busy team at Teacher Gaming LLC is hard at work providing classroom management tools, world building tools, and other useful implements that enhance the stock features of the game. I'll be talking about them periodically as I update, as their work is central to mine!

As I work on building the world I'll post updates, screenshots, and videos along the way, and will be sure to share my experiences after classes start again in a couple weeks. Looking forward to seeing Minecraft in the context of higher education!