Yes, I am a Minecrafter: ISTE 2014 Made Me Do It

Hi my name is Iram, I am 39 years old and I might have a little problem called Minecraft.

I blame Marianne Malmstrom’s (@knowclue) ISTE 2014 Session, Minecraft: Learning Blocks for pushing me over the edge.

Before this session I had no desire to actually play Minecraft. No matter how much my son begged me to, I just couldn’t do it. As I was thrown into the amazing ISTE 2014 experience, I thought I’d dabble in it and learn to play so I can connect with my students and my son. In no way did I see myself ever SERIOUSLY playing let alone ENJOYING it, but who wouldn’t want to try to create an amusement park with farm animal roller coasters, right?!!!

You know you are fully immersed in the game when you are on a family road trip and you are actually having an animated conversation with your 6 yr. old fellow Minecrafter about all the “biomes” you are driving through, the different types of trees you are whizzing by, what kind of rock the mountains are made of, where we could possibly find coal and diamonds and the government’s role in primary resource management. Also, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I knew this game playing was getting out of hand when I shut my eyes to go to sleep and all I could see was rock as I mined myself to sleep.

I’m currently on a husband sentenced Minecraft “break” (ahem, rehab)… I should be okay. As anything for adults and kids, it’s all about moderation folks!

Malmstrom hit me hard when she stated,

Minecraft isn’t the ultimate TEACHING tool, it’s the ultimate LEARNING tool.

Sometimes educators unintentionally can ruin a good thing by focussing on what they can make students do. As with any tech we need to be careful to remember that tech enhances learning by acting as yet another tool. It doesn’t magically teach curriculum and it doesn’t magically engage students. It needs to be thoughtfully integrated, but not necessarily integrated. It all depends on your students and their needs and learning styles.

In a recent blog post My Beef With the Gamification of Education, Bill Ferriter writes:

As most of you know, I’ve been arguing that technology DOESN’T motivate kids and that our goal SHOULDN’T be to engage learners for a long time… to suggest that students will only willingly embrace those skills when they are working through “exciting worlds full of monsters and magic juice” is a cop out for teachers and an insult to kids. Imagine how much more meaningful learning could be if kids were failing and planning and strategizing and sharing and collaborating with one another while trying to address a REAL problem facing REAL people in the REAL world?

As Howie Diblasi stated at another ISTE 2014 session I attended,

Gaming and simulations work well where kids can try new things. It’s a safe place to fail and persevere.

I believe that this is where Minecraft can play a role in schools. It provides a safe, non-judgemental outlet for students to learn and practice skills. From this point we can then step forward to link the skills learned from games to real life… to things that are actually going on in this world and to help students to step up and confidently play their part in changing the world.

I was inspired by Malmstrom to play Minecraft because I realized how important it is for everyone involved (teachers, parents and students) to have time to “play” before making judgements. It has been wonderful for my son and I to play together in a simulated world. We worked together to mine for resources to craft tools to survive. The 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creating were working over time. We got to a point in our game playing to be able to have the rich, real conversations we had on our road trip.

I have learned that Minecraft has connected my own child to real life issues in this world and I plan to help him explore them beyond Minecraft. I also have learned that it has allowed us to connect more and become closer. It has been a winner in my life and I am excited to see what it will do for the students that I work with. Thank you Marianne Malmstrom and Howie DiBlassi for pushing me into seeing that there is more to gaming than meets the eye.

Great Literacy and Numeracy Apps for Early Learners

As a part of our school’s tech team I am often asked questions that begin with, “Do you know any good apps that…?” So here are some early learning apps that I use in my class regularly for literacy and numeracy centres. Now, I don’t really like recommending apps because I know that apps can be learner and teacher specific.  What works for me and the learners in my class may not work for you and your learners.  Most of these do not cost that much (with the exception of the first one that I talk about, but it is so great that I can’t not talk about it!). So, play around and keep an open mind!

Smarty Pants School allows you to assess students’ reading abilities then opens up fun activities for them to do related on areas that they need extra practice in. This app focusses on letter recognition, letter sounds, recognizing sight words, and spelling sight words.  You can enter many students in the app and it saves each of their progress.  Levels are not opened up until students master the level before it.

Endless ABC is a charming app that was created by the creative team at Callaway Digital Arts. It introduces children to the meaning and spelling of fun words like bellow and flop.  As you drag letters into their appropriate spaces, the letters come alive and repeatedly speak their sound.

Syllable Awareness Animals is a simple app that flashes animals and asks you to tap out how many syllables the animal name has.

Word Wall HD encourages word recognition and word building through simple games that highlight word families. This app allows you to set up the games for different reading levels.

Bugs and Buttons is another app that covers many areas and can be suited to varying levels of abilities. Visually stunning images encourage users to practice skills involving sorting, patterning, number recognition, subitizing, problem solving, and basic ipad gestures.

Friends of Ten: There aren’t many apps out there that use ten frames at an early learner level.  I found this app does a good job of providing practice using ten frames for counting objects to ten, subitizing, counting on from a higher number, partitioning of objects to make 10 and recognizing more and less.

Adding Apples is a motivating app that provides practice solving addition questions from 1+1  to 9+9 and counting from 1 to 18 both visually and verbally. Students can earn trophies for the number of equations they answer correctly.

Animals Counting Writing Game is a very simple app that students can use to practice writing numbers, counting, and recognizing number words.  There are many apps that do this, but I liked that this one had the number word associated with the number.

Happy Mother’s Day!

mothers day card

Mother’s Day is just around the corner! Are the gifts that my students are making going to wow, the moms? Well, the marigolds we planted are mostly dead (I should have just done the tried and true hearty bean plant instead). We also painted hand print flowers (yawn)… but, here’s the clincher, I’ve got one thing that will make moms cry!

Every year, we write a letter to our moms, walk to the mailbox and mail them. What a surprise it is to get a letter from your own 6 yr. old child! One year we were on a field trip at the beach, minding our own business when all of a sudden there was a lady running towards us crying. I soon realized that she was a mom of one of my boys. She ran to us with tears streaming down her face, picked up her son and told him that she got his letter in the mail. She could not stop hugging and kissing him. She got his letter 30 minutes before, jumped in her car right away and drove all the way to the beach to let her son know that she got his letter in the mail and that it was the best thing ever. She then went off to buy him some well deserved ice cream.

This boy had FAS, and had struggled in his short school career. You can imagine how much guilt this mother had as a result of the roulette she played while she was pregnant. We even caught her helping her child cheat on a spelling test once by writing words on a hidden cheat sheet (note: spelling tests, I don’t give ’em anymore!). This letter showed his mom for the first time that he was actually learning how to write. Mom told me later that after reading his letter, she knew she could relax. With all the support he was getting and all the love he received from the staff at our school, he was going to be okay.

I don’t know how any other mother has reacted to receiving their Mother’s Day letter in the mail, but this one reaction has encouraged me to keep doing it year after year. These kids are learning how to write! What an amazing process! I also love doing it because you get so much insight into your students’ relationships with their mothers and what they love about them.

Here’s a printable of the letter that I sent out this year. Depending on the grade level, you can add more questions or take some off. I also get them to draw and colour a picture of them and their mom on the back and decorate the envelope we send them in.

mothers day pdf printable

One more thing, I know many of you are planning Mother’s Day teas. I myself have participated in many over the years. This year, though, I have a son in preschool… my son’s Mother’s Day tea was this morning, and because I work at school I could not go. My son was the only one whose mother was not there. My husband went in my place, but it was not the same. I’m hoping that my four year old just rolled with it, as most four year olds usually do, but I can’t help feeling guilty and sad that I wasn’t there with him. I missed a special event with my son. It’s hard enough being a working parent; missing this was heartbreaking. Now, I know I’m going to be missing a lot more throughout the years, but it upsets me that special school events more and more these days are not being held outside of school time. Parent teacher interviews, Christmas concerts, Mother’s Day teas… Many of us got into this job knowing that it was not a regular day job. We work before and after hours prepping, meeting with parents, meeting with colleagues, and planning and attending events. I’m afraid of the new “normal” that is sweeping across schools. What kind of a community are we creating when working parents have less and less opportunities to connect with schools through these events? Don’t we want parents to be “involved”? These events are a way to get parents in schools plain and simple.

So, I will not be having a Mother’s Day tea this year and I will never, ever have one during school time. Now, someone get me some tissues!

Happy teaching!

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