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!


  1. Most certainly continue, I am really enjoying reading how others are incorporating real subject specific content into their classes with Minecraft. It is something I try to do in Science and Geography, but I have other staff interested in joining me in using Minecraft as an educational tool in other areas that I am not as proficient in. So it is things like this post that make it much clearer for them (and me) how it can be done in other subject areas. Keep it up, fantastic to read.

    1. Thanks Elfie. Great to hear your feedback on this! Looking forward to your next post, as well.

  2. What a fantastic idea! I don't think it would just help ESL students, but primary students who are just being introduced to the concepts as well. I would love to be able to use this with our lower grade students. I have just started using MinecraftEdu at our school and would love to do this project with our teachers Would you be willing to share your map?
    Mrs. Gielen

    1. Hi Mrs. Gielen,

      I wouldn't mind sharing the map. Your feedback on it and it's use with primary students would be greatly appreciated. Please feel free to view my blogger profile and to send me an email via the link under my picture. We can work out the details from there!


  3. Is there any way that I could nab a copy of this map, as well? Amazing idea. It's interesting to make the concept of action and language specific and concrete using the game.