Lonely To Leadership with Minecraft Education
A Canadian Story That Could Have Happened Anywhere
“Let’s start a Minecraft server for all of Atlantic Canada” said Brilliant Labs’ Jeff Wilson just days after our school systems closed for the foreseeable future. Six weeks later I admit looking back that I was outwardly enthusiastic but inwardly panicking at the thought of an initiative that large. But Jeff had said the magic word “Minecraft” and I was hooked. The goal was to create an educational Minecraft server operating during the regular school hours, and for students of all ages in our Atlantic region of Canada consisting of four provinces.
Brilliant Labs did the heavy lifting with server setup, choosing Minecraft Pocket Edition in the end for maximum engagement in students’ homes dominated by the tablet supported version of the game. My role was to establish an engaging, safe and educational world experience for the diverse students who would be joining us. Using a portal system at the point where players spawned into the world I was able to turn one world into many, essentially multiplying how impactful the Minecraft experience could be. Six zones were established thousands of blocks apart and included Sustainable Development Goal, Dream Home, Community of the Future, School of the Future and Free Play zones. Students would choose a zone, teleport out and teleport back to spawn in a super easy fashion for all ages. The stage was set for success but what happened next was extra special.
Students started pouring into the server to check it out. What became apparent early on was that the students attracted to the server were mainly those who, while stuck at home, had lost their friends network that school had once supported. In some cases, these were students who hadn’t established any real friendships. One morning while in the server a child contacted me in confidence saying privately “I don't have any friends!” After some dialogue I determined that the child meant in real life and not just in the game setting. I responded swiftly by saying “We’re all friends in here now!” The student came alive hearing that and grew from a lonely disengaged visitor into a thriving young leader with a solid friend network in just a few weeks!
Now, six weeks in, this student receives cheers when entering the server and he now greets all who enter the server in polite and inviting fashion. Waiting at 9am daily for the server to open he is usually the first one in, and the last to leave. He’s organized incredible events like fireworks shows for all in the server and invited others to trade and build together. He’s helped in spotting trouble makers and alerting us as managers, he’s helped so many other children by providing a peer group audience for their endeavours, and most importantly, he’s contributed to the success of the in-game community.
This isn’t a blog about how educational Minecraft can be. This is a modern anecdotal account about how a game environment like Minecraft and a little empathy can radically transform a child’s life during a pandemic, and forever, for the better. There are no stats here, but to this one child it mattered. Brilliant Labs had the vision to create the atmosphere needed by so many children during this pandemic. I am glad that I could help make it engaging and educational but I’m grateful that I was present that day to provide what that child needed most. Empathy and encouragement can go a long way! Perhaps the Community of the Future exists in games like Minecraft? The team at Brilliant Labs who are managing this space have truly built a community of which I'm glad to be a member!
In late September 2019 the Minecraft Education Edition team ran a specific command in real life. It was “/tp @BBTNB @Nashville” and before I knew it I was teleported onto Broadway, the main street in a city that doesn’t know that parties have to stop eventually. I was not only going to live out the dream of being in the audience of Minecon Live, but along with a very special guest in Deirdre Quarnstrom (Lead of Minecraft Education Edition and Block by Block Board Member) I was going to be on the show! Just like in Minecraft, my time in Nashville didn’t move slowly and I found myself walking into memorable experiences one after another.
Before I even had a room at the hotel I decided to get breakfast at the restaurant. Sitting alone, still not having met Deirdre, I glanced slightly to my right and to my surprise sitting five feet away was Jens Bergensten @Jeb_ the creator of the most popular video game ever made…Minecraft! Having grown up in a town in Canada frequented by celebrities I knew best practice was to let him eat breakfast. But…. I also knew my students and my son wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t meet him. I simply said “As a father and a teacher I want to thank you for creating Minecraft” and went back to my breakfast wondering how foolish I had looked.
I was in town for a reason. The Sustainability Shuffle, my Minecraft Education Edition project focused on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, had just finished two years of travelling the planet with students from Kindergarten to Post-Secondary Education building a better future collaboratively within a single Minecraft world. Deirdre and I had been kindly given a window of time to share the idea, the progress, an example and to compliment the brilliant effort by teachers and students all over the world. Through the ample rehearsal time Ireland emerged as the most relevant build to mention on that specific day, due to their Goal 15 Life on Land build which, featured bee sustainability but also resulted in “Cow Farts” becoming a focal point of what was to be otherwise an upbeat but less laughable segment.
It is hard to be treated like “The Talent” when you are familiar with granola bar lunches and photocopying everything yourself. I had makeup artists, catered food, microphone assistants, wardrobe suggestions, a Green Room, and even free run of the entire set throughout my stay. I shared the Green Room with Jessica Chobot our segment host who works very hard and is super congenial. Deirdre was there with me the entire time too and as we were talking early on the first day there was a knock at the door. Behind me was Jens but also Agnes Larsson @_LadyAgnes who had come for a more formal greeting. The entire Mojang team had the Green Room next to ours! I had the wind in my sails after REALLY meeting these legends and the experience only got better. I got to meet Quinn Richter from the Marketplace Team, Cory Scheviak, whose passion for sustainable development in Minecraft rivaled my own, Jason Major who was a key component in the developing of the game we know today and many more of the talented people who make Minecraft so special. Lydia Winters was just as energetic and kind backstage as she is on camera and Vu Bui couldn’t help but noticed how stoked I was about the coming Minecraft movie as we laughed about how it has got to do better than The Angry Birds Movie. Right? All interactions left me feeling as if this entire team cares what the community thinks about the game right down to this single teacher backstage.
On the big day, Deirdre rocked the pre-show and we did our best to focus on the effort and talent in our Global Minecraft Mentor community. Cow Farts were mentioned many times but you’ll have to watch the segment online (Give us more views) to see the context. I really think educators will find creative ways to use the augmented reality app Minecraft Earth with students as well as the coming Minecraft board game! The Nether update will prompt some very interesting student writing in Language Arts classes. Relations with the Piglins will open the door to further empathy and international relations education, and as a father, I know that the new emotes and character creator will be a hit once implemented. Cory’s “Bringing Bees into Minecraft” video is great for students of all ages too! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4waBSLyhoU
I am very excited for Minecraft Festival in Orlando in 2020 although I hear you have to be very fast when getting tickets. I do hope I can attend with my family and meet many more Global Minecraft Mentors and more of the Microsoft/Mojang family as well. I want to thank the Minecraft Education Team for taking a risk with the teleport command mentioned above. I will remember this experience forever. Thank you!
Tradition. That’s what Skype-a-thon or its newest moniker the Microsoft Global Learning Connection (MGCL) has become at our school. What can appear as a superficial international Kahoot game about pop culture, is indeed an event that inspires a sense of school pride, belonging and even strength. Our girls finished first and second last year in the Kahoot World Cup event and wished to defend their title this year during the Global Learning Connection. They not only recaptured their international title but three friends joined them in completely winning the leaderboard for Canada. Sure it was pop culture as a topic, but when you get every single question correct and quickly do so, well, that’s intelligence and confidence displayed in a pressure situation. The five winning girls are right to be proud.
It is our mission however to use the annual Microsoft Global Learning Connection is a much deeper way than just games. As Canadian Remembrance Day approached we decided it would be ideal to have a chat between Canadian students and students in the Netherlands. The Dutch and Canadian societies have been forever bound together since World War 2 and with our day to remember coming we wanted to solidify the meaningfulness for our students. Microsoft Innovative Expert Jorne from the Netherlands aided us by having his students present Dutch culture and then ask our students questions about Canada. Despite the age difference in the two groups of students all of the students left the connection feeling better about our relationship and more informed about the other nation.
The timing of the MGLC this year was perfect and we are already thinking of what we could do next year (outside of defending our global Kahoot crown) to empower students further through global outreach. Thanks Microsoft for organizing such an event.
I remember getting the phone call on a Sunday night from Ottawa telling me I would be receiving the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Teaching STEM for 2019 from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. My response was funny looking back. I immediately replied "You're not government because government doesn't work on a Sunday night!" After the patient PM Award team jumped through my hoops and proved they were indeed government and I had indeed received this honour it all began to sink in. I bolted to the press release on the day the profiles went online and began reading the other recipients' profiles. I turned to my wife upon completion and said "I don't think I deserve this. These people are amazing!" Being the supportive wife she is she replied "Yes you do! Now turn the light off and go to sleep!" I was off to Ottawa to meet the Prime Minister for efforts in teaching STEM in Canada! This was the 25th anniversary year of the Prime Minister's Awards for Excellence in Teaching and the celebration would not disappoint.
This was not just a photoshoot type of trip. It was nearly a full week of professional development and sharing of best practices from coast to coast. Due to flooding in the region we were put up in the crown jewel of the Hilton Hotels in Gatineau Quebec which was just a short drive from Ottawa. Getting to bring my family and mother (A teacher of 30+ years) to such a classy hotel and experience was priceless. I expected meeting the Prime Minister would be the highlight of the entire trip but in the end it was meeting the PM Award staff and fellow recipients from across Canada that was the true win. From educators who thrive with their classes outdoors every day in Western Canada to educators who dominate coding and robotics events internationally every story inspired more from my own future practice. I got to share how I believe that STEM and Empathy are the most important skills for my students and show how I put those beliefs into practice each day.
Field trips were eye-opening. We got to visit the Canada Science and Technology Museum and experience countless hands-on demonstrations. We were guests at Question Period and had a view of the official opposition as they did official opposition things. Elizabeth May also got to introduce a new MP to the group. The whole event was interesting to put it as politically correct as I can. We took a short walk to the Innovation and Science Office in their award winning building with stunning views of the river and Parliament.
The day arrived when I would shake hands with the Prime Minister of our country and it didn't disappoint. I bought a suit far above my pay-grade and waited my turn to receive the honour. My MP Alaina Lockhart took time away from a crazy busy day to show up and say congratulations in person! It was so cool to see a New Brunswicker in Ottawa and it made the whole experience feel a little more grounded despite it being overwhelming in scope. After a brief profile video arranged without my knowing by my colleague at school I was called to the stage and my son who was seated next to the Prime Minister got to watch his dad smile the biggest smile possible and give a thumbs up in the proudest professional moment of his life. It was important that my son was there to see it but also my mom who in many ways inspired my career choice. The 15 seconds with the Prime Minster on stage felt like 15 minutes and in the video I see myself trying to bolt off stage as soon as possible. It was however, the most proud and inspired moment of my career. I encourage everyone to recognize an educator who excels beyond the call of duty for this recognition. That day I received one of two national awards for STEM education but there were many others who received the national award for general education and early education. We arrived as strangers and left as a team. I wish them all the best as they continue their hard work and magic with students. It was to put it simply a super classy event run by a super talented and kind team in Ottawa who work Sunday nights :)
In the late Fall of 2018 I handed an iPad to a student of mine and asked her to try Apple Education's Everyone Can Create Drawing resource. I did so after noticing her passion for drawing and illustration. What happened next was an eye-opening experience. After just one class of work into the dense but engaging program the students asked if she could take my precious iPad home at nights and on the weekends to continue working on the program. I reluctantly agreed as these iPads represented the first full-sized iPads I had ever had in my career and the smell of "New" wasn't yet off of them, It was the best choice I ever made.
Eleanor returned day in and day out with new creations inspired by the chapters of the iBook simply called Drawing. She would start by showing me her designs and then when I asked why I was seeing what I was seeing she would explain in depth the concepts she learned and mission established in the chapter. The program gave real flexibility as to what she chose to draw while keeping her focussed on the goals of the skill at hand. She blazed through the work with her added nights and weekend effort and gripped the iPad firmly when I said "Okay, you're done. Can I have the iPad back please?"
It turns out that Eleanor had an idea. As she was working through the program and due to the season we were approaching, she identified a real problem that she wanted to solve, Eleanor wanted further enrichment. She wanted to finally, for the first time to her knowledge, bring to life the toys for the Who girls and boys from the classic story How The Grinch Stole Christmas. YES! The HooWhunkers, Trum-Tookers, Tar-Tinkers, and even Zoo-Zivver-Car-Zay! Even though the toys were imaginatively named there was never any visual evidence illustrated for each of these favourite Who Christmas Activities. She was going to communicate her understanding of these toys to the world!
Using the Apple Pencil and new iPad she drew a full collection and using the Werble iOS app the drawing came to life with something a little extra. Her she is introducing her work and below are her rough work sketches early in the process. This will truly be a project she remembers years from now and I hope she remains inspired by the process as she chooses her post-secondary education life. All of this success caused me to created a new program at my school called Everyone Can Graduate where ALL of our students complete one or more of the Everyone Can Create programs and of course the Everyone Can Code program. I teach all of the students so in a way, Everyone Can Create and Everyone Can Code have become graduate requirements at Caledonia Regional High School. I can't wait to see students develop skills through engaging learning content on the iPads. I hope to have much more soon!
I'm an experienced Global Minecraft Mentor, Published Educational Researcher, Microsoft Innovative Educator Fellow, Apple Distinguished Educator, TeachSDGs Ambassador and grade 6-12 technology teacher. @BBTNB