Thursday, October 10, 2013

Success! (sort of)

My students are smarter than me.

We have a cart of old (5+ years) MacBooks. I struggled with them for a few hours and couldn't find a way to get Minecraft to run. The OS, I believed, was too old. And it is, kind of.

Last week one of my students brought me a piece of paper with 18-step directions for getting Minecraft to run on the computer. Several of them involve writing a batch file from the console. I didn't really believe him, so it joined the large stack of random papers scattered around my desk. He asked about my progress multiple times a day and so, eventually, I figured I had to try so that he would stop bugging me.

I tried it. And it worked.

The student and one of his classmates stayed after school for two hours on Monday and installed Minecraft on all of the other computers -- we now have 22 beat-up MacBooks that run Minecraft 1.4.8 and MinecraftEDU 0.984. They're old, they're outdated, they're beautiful.

Tomorrow the eighth grade math teacher is starting a stairwell and roller coaster project on Minecraft for the kids to practice ratios. We're talking about creating a cross-curricular project. More details to come.

Hopefully, many more projects to come.

Friday, September 6, 2013


Things are looking up. We might be able to get our hands on enough computers to make this work.

If not, some kids are threatening to just show up with computers and get things started themselves.

Either way, I actually think we'll figure something out within the next month or so.

Sunday, August 25, 2013


I can't get Minecraft to work.

LAUSD took most of our MacBooks away this summer, since their schools need all of their computers in preparation for the big Common Core push coming our way. We switched to Chrome Books, which I think will open up some great opportunities this year. Unfortunately, getting Minecraft to run on a Chrome Book appears to be a lengthy process that I don't currently have the time for.

It shouldn't have been a big deal, because we also have a cart of older MacBooks that actually belong to the school. But the MacBooks' OS is too old to run Minecraft.

Last week we looked at maps of the map (there must be a better way to phrase that), hooked my computer up to a projector and wandered around the map as a group for a while. The kids are extremely excited about this America Expansion project. I'm not sure what to do.  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Hello, 2013-2014

It's been a while.

I became a very bad blogger at the end of last school year. In fact, just as the Minecraft project became exciting, I stopped. I hope to avoid doing that this year.

(Sidenote: If you want to skip my musings, just scroll down to the next two posts. One is an outline of a Minecraft project I want to try this year; the other is the curriculum outline & handouts for the Civilization project from last year)

It's been a busy few months away. While working at the same school, I now teach 8th grade humanities. This means I have a lot less time and freedom to incorporate games into my class. We have tests to prepare for, standards to cover, and around 100 years of American history to get through. I'm excited about quite a few projects my partner teacher and I have planned -- essays about revolution, a spoken word poetry performance, pen pals in the developing world -- but I will, as much as possible, keep this blog close to its central theme of games in education.

My view of the role play-based-learning & games can . . . play in education has expanded drastically over the last several months. I started working with the wonderful USC-based CollegeologyGames team and their games designed to help prepare under-privileged for the college application process. A couple of my friends started the summer camp Learn By Gaming, and interest is high enough for them to continue the program every Saturday throughout the school year. Over in Playa Vista, The Incubator School, a middle school with a mission based on entrepreneurship and 21st century learning,  is starting its first ever school year just a few short weeks after hosting a professional development in conjunction with the Conney Center that I attended with a few other LA-based educators. And, last week, I was on Southern California Public Radio talking about Minecraft.

The times, it seems, are a-changin'. Game-based learning isn't a mainstream practice, but it is becoming a part of the mainstream conversation about education. The values of play are gaining recognition, a "gamer" philosophy is something the majority of people can relate to, at least tangentially, and the tools at our disposal are getting better by the day.

I want to try a few things this year. I'd like to extend my use of games and gaming concepts beyond activities with Minecraft or Games for Change, and make them more of an integral part of how my students and I approach learning and problem-solving. I don't want game-based learning to be perceived as something that only exists on a computer or tablet -- far too many schools and children don't have access to those luxuries (well, except for cell phones, but that's a whole other fascinating conversation) -- so much as an active, creative and joy-filled way to interact with the world. I have no idea how this will look. I don't know how to achieve it. Let's try to figure it out together. 

The Civilization Curriculum

One last bit of house cleaning. Here is a very rough curriculum for the Civilization project from last year.


By the end of this project, students will be able to . . .
  • Describe the process by which societies rise and fall
  • Describe the importance of agriculture in the development of civilizations
  • Compare/contrast various civilizations throughout history
  • Compare/contrast different forms of government, including examples and strengths/weaknesses of each
  • Explain the different aspects of civilizations (using GRAPES) and the interactions between the various components
  • Create their own fully-functioning civilization within Minecraft and compare it to actual world civilizations
 By the end of this project, students will understand. . . 
  • the importance of agriculture and technological in the development of civilizations
  • the role of geography in the development of a civilization
  • how the Age of Exploration affected the global economy and power balance
Common Core Standards:
 Writing 2.b, c, d, f; 3.a, c; 4;
 Writing-Text Types 3.a
Comprehension & Collaboration 1; 2

California State History Standards:
 7.1.1, 7.2.2, 7.2.4, 7.2.5, 7.3.4, 7.4.1, 7.6.1, 7.6.3, 7.7.1, 7.7.2, 7.11.1, 7.11.3, 
Students worked in groups of four-five to create their own civilization, going through all of the stages of a developing society. Each group was placed on a different island equidistant from a mysterious "New Land". Each island was the same size, but had a completely different geography and biome. This had a profound impact upon how the students' civilizations developed. The group living in a desert had sand but no stone, the group in a forest had wood but no sand, etc. These differences rippled throughout all of the decisions the students made, including the development of their religion and architecture.

The biomes were:
  1. Desert
  2. Jungle
  3. Forest
  4. Mountain
  5. Ice land
  6. Plains

Each day, every student had to complete an entry in their "survival log". Here they would list how many times they died, challenges they faced, and their plans for the next class.

The project revolved around the completion of the "Civilization Packet". This packet is where students wrote down all of the different aspects of their civilization and island, from a list of resources to the leisure activities of their civilization's inhabitants. Each aspect also had a physical representation on their island. So, for example, if a group decided that their society valued swimming, they needed to construct a swimming pool on their island. If their religion included ritual sacrifice, they should include a sacrificial alter of some sort. 

Phase One: Survival - Students had to learn to work together and use the resources at their disposal to complete two objectives: Establish a stable food supply and build shelter. Many students initially killed all of their animals, resulting in starvation during the next class. By the end of this process, every group should have a system for breeding animals and/or growing crops. They must be able to protect their animals and crops from raiders.

Phase Two: Growth -- This is the heart of the project. Now that the basic needs are met, the civilizations can begin to grow and flourish. Students should spend between 1-2 hours developing each feature of their Civilization Packet. Each time you move on to a new page, go over the section as a class. Identify key terms and draw connections to curricular content and prior knowledge.

Phase Three: Trading -- In this phase, the class will develop a global economy. Each group will identify desired materials and set a value for what they have to trade. The "merchant" from each group then moves to a separate area, both in the game and in the classroom, and the bargaining begins. After around 3 rounds of this, a fairly stable economy will have developed.

Phase Four: Age of Exploration -- This is the phase of global conquest. Students are told that there is a large, untouched land past their borders. They then work together in a race to be the first group to reach the territory. This land is a giant city full of materials, items, and food. Once reaching the city, students could claim territory, pillage buildings, and make/break treaties with other groups. During this phase, connections to the actual Age of Exploration naturally develop. Students almost always either identify with Spain, the Native Americans, or England, and they are not shy about saying which group is which. Additionally, since this can be a very frustrating process, it also lends itself to teachable moments about the frustrations of the different groups and just how dangerous & scary exploration during this age actually was.

Phase Five: Archaeology -- By this point, students have created civilizations that rose, grew, and, in some cases, toppled catastrophically. Now it is time to jump far into the future. Students visit each others' islands and, based solely on their observations, make predictions about the civilization (their type of government, what life was like, etc). They then compare those to what the group actually developed. I somehow lost the handout for this phase. Sorry.

Download the handouts:
Survival Log
Civilization Packet

This Year's Minecraft Project: Manifest Destiny

This is from a handout I'm sending home with kids next week. We'll see how it goes.

This year in Humanities class students will learn about America’s expansion from a small group of colonies on the east coast to an expansive nation that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the coasts of California.
Students also have the option to experience this journey in the game of Minecraft. Students will play on a model of the North American continent built to scale. This model is a geographically accurate replica of an untouched America and includes rivers, mountains, and biomes for the different regions of the country (desert, plains, forests, etc). There are no cities, towns, or roads.
The students’ goal throughout the year will be to “civilize” this land. They will develop paths, towns, and stable food supplies all with one goal in mind – to be the first to reach and settle on the Pacific coast. The student(s) who reaches the coast first will receive a prize, yet to be determined.
Mr. Thalkar will run Minecraft sessions once a week after school and host a server that students can access from home if they have a personal Minecraft account. This server will only be accessible to NewLA students. Mr. Thalkar will maintain logs to keep track of who access the server, when they are on, and everything that is typed in the game. Please see the back of this form for a Code of Conduct that every participating student must sign.
THIS PROJECT IS COMPLETELY VOLUNTARY AND WILL NOT COUNT AS A GRADE OR EXTRA-CREDIT. It is simply an opportunity for students to have some fun with Minecraft and compete against their classmates for the opportunity to win a cool (TBD) prize. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Future

I'm working on several new game-based projects. I'll sketch out two of them here and keep you updated as things progress. The next few months are going to be extremely exciting.   

Summer Camp
I am organizing a game-based summer camp for 8-12-year-olds. It's looking like it will be held in West LA. We're going to do Minecraft, Portal, basic computer programming, and numerous fun/nerdy outdoor activities. This is in the very early stages, but I have a fair amount of the curriculum planned out already. It will be educational, challenging, and hopefully by the end of two weeks kids will leave as better digital citizens, budding computer programmers, and all around more awesome and educated human beings.

A lot of details will be sorted out by the end of this weekend. Many more details to follow next week.

Game Theory
We've started up a new round of after school programs, and this time I'm teaching a class called Game Theory. No, not that game theory. We study video games.

I'm approaching this the same way I approach a media analysis class -- if you don't analyze the media you consume, it will mislead and misuse you. Going into the first class, I expected discussions to be a fight, since the kids would want to play games the whole time. I underestimated them. These kids genuinely want to learn more about how video games work and affect them.

Throughout the course, we're going to play like game designers. Videos from the fine folks at ExtraCreditz  will be our guide (though with caution, since some include profanity). I'm extremely excited to get this rolling and start analyzing games, so I'll start including Game Theory updates on this blog as well. I think the students are going to make some powerful connections and observations.