Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Unit 3: Descriptive Essay

How many blog writers eventually say, "it's been a while since my last post, but...." Well, here's mine. After my last post on April 4th the funding for the curriculum came through, and the work began. Since then I've gathered over 500GB of student and teacher FRAPS videos - mostly in-game interactions, as well as live footage of several of my own lectures and student interactions in the classroom. We meet twice a week for one hour and fifteen minutes each time. I am quickly finding out that teaching language alongside of Minecraft is a formidable task, especially given the fact that students were not introduced to the game until halfway through the quarter, thus, increasing the learning curve significantly. Despite this, the project has been moving forward, and student essay show engagement in the game and in the target language. Good stuff there. Without further delay, here's a description of Unit 3.

The writing focus of Unit 3 is the descriptive essay. The topic focus is architecture/interior design. Students begin the unit by working to describe a few pictures using some basic adjectives. Each of the pictures they describe is of the interior of a room. The first reading of the unit is an excerpt from "Roughing It" by Mark Twain. We do some traditional language instruction on adjectives and adjective clauses, and then students are free to explore the Minecraft component of the course. The world they are presented with consists of a random seed with three unique houses built in. The first is a tree house:

Each house has three rooms. Some share rooms, while others are different. The tree house has a kitchen, a theater room, and a bedroom inside. The water house has a kitchen, a bathroom, and a music room:

The last house is a house built into the ground. The students refer to this one as the "cave house."

Each house is fairly extensive. Students are asked to explore each of the three houses, and to take notes in the appropriate pages of their workbooks. I ask them specifically to use at least two adjective clauses in their essay, and also to be as specific as possible about their descriptions, calling on the five senses for additional detail. We also do figurative language in this unit.

At first the students were confused as to the link between the language and the task. They didn't understand why they weren't writing in a writing class. They only got to explore for about 30 minutes during the first class, though, and were much more warmed up during the second class period of unit 3. After two weeks of running language and in-game activities they each submitted a descriptive essay. The prompt has them writing an article for Creative Design Magazine. Overall, I was very pleased by how their writing turned out. I'll try to share some writing samples soon.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Funding and unit 2: The narrative

The Office of Research and Development here at the university came through this week with news about a grant I had applied for in early March. The proposal outlined a plan for a new ESL course to be designed using Minecraft as a medium for instruction. The news is that the grant has been approved. The school is now funding the curriculum! Up until now I have been using supplementary materials to teach the course as a substitute for the Minecraft curriculum that is being described on the blog here. Needless to say, I'm quite excited that official support is being given, and that the students can begin to play.

In the rest of this post I'd like to share information about the second unit of the curriculum. As I may have mentioned in a previous post, each unit in the four-unit curriculum contains both a writing and a content/topic focus. The writing focus for Unit 2 is the narrative, and the topic focus is survival. The unit is structured with survival in mind, because I have read numerous testimony from other instructors who have had success with 'survival island' type scenarios.

The unit begins with a look at an adapted version of Robinson Crusoe. The language in the text has been modernized to fit the current age, so issues of authenticity aren't as great a concern here. Plus, the text is available in the public domain, which makes it easy to obtain and use. After some vocabulary and reading comprehension exercises, as well as a brief lesson on gerunds and infinitives (which Crusoe uses quite frequently), students are thrust into the world of The Island.

Students spawn on a wrecked ship and begin the process of gathering supplies and making it ashore, hopefully to find solace before night falls. Again, as with the construction project during Unit 1 (see first post, March), students are asked periodically to stop and write or orally express what they are doing at that moment. The idea is to provide them with opportunities to practice using gerunds as subjects and objects of sentences, as well as the present continuous tense. There are many activities that each of the twelve students could be participating in at any moment: fishing, mining, exploring, mapping, repairing a structure, building, gathering, fighting, etc. One of the handy classroom management tools embedded in the MinecraftEdu mod is the ability to freeze students' computers. Every ten minutes or so during the initial exploration period the instructor will freeze students computers and ask them (the students, not the computers) to explain the activity they are engaged in. A list of twenty or so suggested activities are provided for students, to give them suggestions and get them started on their work. For example, students may be asked to "find a shelter for the night," "repair the old lighthouse," "reinforce the unstable mine," or "hunt for meat for the group." Next to each is a check box. Students can check off activities as they are completed. Each one is intended to provide some structure to the overall activity, though students are certainly free to pursue their own quests.

At the end of each day each student is required to write a 1-2 paragraph journal entry about one or several facets of the day's events. This entry is modeled after the readings in the unit. Topics may include interactions with classmates, things that they discovered, what they learned about the society on The Island (there is some back story involved in the unit, to help create a sense of place), the process by which they completed activities, what they did during the night, and others. As they work on these journals they will be asked to make connections between their personal experience on the island and what they have read about survival from the readings. In addition, they will be asked to use the grammar discussed during the unit, in this case, gerunds and infinitives.

It is probably worth mentioning once more at this point that each activity in the book is clearly printed in labeled in the workbook for the course. The virtual world component of this course is carefully constructed to run parallel to readings and activities in this workbook. Sometimes the students work exclusively in the book, while other times they are focused on the game world. Often they work with both simultaneously.

The second reading in the unit is an (adapted) excerpt from the Swiss Family Robinson. Again, this text has made its way into the public domain, and is now available for use by the rest of us. The focus of their work on this text is infinitives. At this point they have spent two or three class periods working on The Island within Minecraft. They begin working with the language of compare and contrast, talking about what The Island looked like at the beginning of their arrival, and then are asked to describe its current state. Again, as they work with this language in-class they are asked to demonstrate their understanding by reproducing it in short journal entries. At the end of the unit they will have written three or four journal entries. The culminating piece of writing is a five paragraph narrative that tells a story about their experience on The Island. Aspects of writing that they are asked to include in their final essay are meant to draw from language learned in both Unit 1 and Unit 2. This includes topic sentences, supporting details, infinitives, gerunds, compare/contrast vocabulary, both the active and passive voice, and expressions of time. The essay will be submitted at the beginning of the first class of Unit 3: The descriptive essay. I'll return with my own description of this unit, as well as an account of how the topic focus, architecture and interior design, is integrated into the curriculum.

As always, thanks for reading. Feedback welcome.


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!