Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Rethinking Lois Lowry's The Giver with Minecraft EDU

In embarking on the challenge of leveraging Minecraft in an English classroom, Lisa Waxman, 7th grade English teacher, and I, learned and realized that the basis for the project was to focus on a culture of innovation and exploration. Structuring a culture of innovation requires a focus on certain principles. One of the main principles we focused on is summed up well by Soren Kaplan in an article titled “6 Ways to Create a Culture of Innovation”: “Giving up control when the pressure is greatest is the ultimate innovation paradox.” Thus, a huge aspect of this project was to turn over control to students.

By challenging our own interpretation of an “English Project” we discovered the benefits of thinking beyond simple tools and challenging ourselves to integrate something new. We debunked the myths that students need a specific rubric to follow in order to produce a well-thought out assignment. Rather, we forced a close reading of the text by giving kids less structure, again relying on principles of cultivating innovation: “ A better option: Give just enough structure and support to help people navigate uncertainty and tap into the creative process without stifling it, ” (Kaplan from FastCo 6 ways to Create a Culture of Innovation) .

Using the principles of connected learning, we decided to tap into student interest in Minecraft as a way to bring students more deeply into the world of the Giver. Moving through a variety of stages in production, we originally thought about having students adopt roles in a dystopian society and then switching halfway through the project to have them operating in a utopian society.

In this, we thought it would be fascinating to use Minecraft as more of a player versus player interactive game rather than a sandbox building game as it is so often used in the education setting.

However, as we drafted the world, we thought about what draws students into Minecraft. Realizing that the way into the game for kids is through the building, we shifted our strategy and simply laid out gray spaces for the buildings in a flat world.

Then, students were challenged with the task of figuring out what squares corresponded to what buildings in an open class discussion. This in and of itself was a bit tricky as students all interpret text slightly differently based on the author’s description. Therefore, this act on its own forced students to take a close reading of Lois Lowry’s text and infer based on relationships of buildings what would be next to what.

Prior to building, students drafted a set of parameters within which they would all act. Actions that were unacceptable in Minecraft, for example griefing or destroying others buildings, students would face a consequence.

When building started, students at first were hesitant to admit their interest in the project. Having taken about 45 minutes to move through the tutorial world, students were at a variety of levels of comfort. That being said, students were very willing to help and to work with others to build their skill set up.

As we progressed over the course of three weeks with 5 to 6 hours of building, the speed of the students and the uniqueness of their creations were incredible. Rather than giving students a rubric with requirements, we left the details and the justification of their building decisions up to them.

Checking in throughout the period with hints and suggestions about color and material use, (the world of the Giver is gray, uniform, etc.) students began to understand the need to draw upon a close reading of the text in order to construct their buildings accurately.

With five different periods, it is incredible to see the variety of buildings that students create, each depicting a personal touch while still relying upon the novel. Every building session, students came in eager to craft away, many even brought in their own external mice! Their dedication to the tasks at hand solidifies the importance of meeting students where their interests exist.

Students did decide to launch firecrackers and build underground trap doors and tunnels during the project, but kids are kids right? And lets be honest launching firecrackers in Minecraft is pretty sweet. So we simply had individual conversations with them and kids were incredibly responsive as they were eager to not lose the privilege to play in Minecraft.

As the project came to a close, we used our final two sessions to have students write about their building as well as take on a role from the book. During the first of the two sessions, students used an essay block from Minecraft EDU to use textual evidence to justify the aspects of their building. Rather than writing out an essay, students were able to write within Minecraft.

During the second session, students will take on an assigned role. Students will be prepped with a task they need to complete. During the course of the period, students will take a two to three minute quicktime video of their interaction with the building where their character spends most of their time. If we had more time to complete the project, ideally we would drop the screencasts into iMovie and add in title slides as well as tim the video and fix the audio.

Finishing up the project, we will conclude with a survey to collect data on how students interacted with the unit and where we can make improvements for next year. Additionally, they will self-evaluate using guiding questions we create.  We decided that because the outcome of the project was to encourage students to focus on their own justification of their buildings and interactions, that a self-evaluation would be most suitable.

Overall, the project allowed us to look at Minecraft through the context of the Giver which allowed for a unique experience for both the students as well as us as instructors.


Day by Day basic Schedule


  1. This looks awesome! I have taught The Giver with 6th graders for many years- always a great experience- and I try something new every year. Last year I connected the playing of the online game, Quandary, with the reading. I would love to try connecting Minecraft next year. I know students love it, but I'm not familiar with using it. How much of an expert do I need to be? How and when did you present this project? Do you have a day-by-day schedule? Thank you so much!!

    1. So glad you are interested! I think that playing with Minecraft EDU on your own first is always a great idea before pulling kids in. We worked on this project in a junior high class. I just added a basic day by day schedule. Also, Lisa Waxman will be presenting on this topic at a conference LASD is hosting in the fall. Check it out:

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