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 They're old, they're outdated, they're beautiful.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.


Worksheets: Character sketch, GRAPES

The kids have finished their exploration and settlement in Eric's World of Humanities map (screenshots of houses will be posted once I get around to taking them), and have spent the last two weeks focusing in-depth on the civilization they chose to live in. With much protesting, we've turned off creative mode and gone back to straight-forward exploring, information collecting, and writing.

I'm slowly scaffolding toward two main projects:
1. Create a narrative in Minecraft. I've been having the students develop different aspects of a story centered around the house they built (setting, character, etc). Ultimately, they'll be writing a story starring the protagonist who lives in their house, but I want to push it one level further. A MinecraftEDU update is coming out soon that will let us use mods, including NPCs. These mods, combined with some clever red stone use, should allow us to actually create part of their story within the game. I'm thinking a straight-forward quest involving secrets hidden in, around, and under their house. Dungeons will abound.

2. Create their own civilizations. In groups, students will create their own civilizations and then interact with the other civilizations their classmates created. To this end, students have spent the last two days in class focusing on GRAPES (Geography, Religion, Achievements, Politics, Economics, Social Structures) for the civilization within which they live. This will provide them with a reference for the different elements that need to be present within a civilization, and which they will need to create.

The exploration has gone pretty well. I'm also experimenting with some different structures, so I've had them work two to a computer rather than individually. I've actually had to do less redirecting since partnering them up.

Things overheard: After we'd wrapped up class, the students had a few minutes to talk among themselves. While walking past a group of girls, I overheard them talking about life in the Fairy Tale Forest (Medieval Europe). These are not normally girls who talk about school work in their spare time, being much more concerned with boys, makeup, and making loud noises, but they weren't just talking about their houses -- they were genuinely discussing life in the Middle Ages. In the three minutes I eavesdropped, they talked about the pros/cons of living close to the town walls, waste disposal, threats of invasion by other kingdoms, and the different uses of the town commons. Awesome connections. Eric, I cannot thank you enough for making this map.

Character Sketch:


Code of Conduct

I promised to post it, then did not. Finally, in all of its blazing glory: the Gaming Code of Conduct.

Gaming Code of Conduct
I, ___________________________________, promise to uphold the following standards and expectations while playing Minecraft or any other videogame as part of a club for the Super Duper After School Program.

I will not curse or use offensive language, either in the game or out loud.
I will not purposefully kill other plays in-game.
I will not take another player’s materials when they die, unless it is to return them to the player.
I will not destroy someone else’s property or creations.
I will not shout or raise my voice while playing.
I will not type abusive or offensive messages in the game.

I will help my fellow gamers if they are in need of assistance.
I will play the game fairly and without cheats.
I will work to create a safe and fun environment, both in-game and in the classroom.
I will log out of the game in a prompt fashion when it is time to pack up.
I will play the game according to assignments and tasks given by the instructor.
I will be a model of good gaming citizenship.

I understand that failure to meet any of these expectations will result in an in-game time-out. Repeated violations will result in the loss of my gaming privileges.

____________________________            ______________________
Signature                                 Date

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Class, three weeks in.

I'm now about three weeks into using Minecraft in class, and I'm extremely happy with how things are progressing. The end of every class is filled with groans and shouts of dismay as I shut down the server, which I think is a good sign. And they might even be learning something.

I'm basically splitting out Minecraft usage into three units: A humanities unit using Eric's World of Humanities map, a redstone unit, and a society-building unit tying all of the previous lessons together.

For the World of Humanities map, I put together a handout that requires the students to explore multiple civilizations, taking notes along the way, before deciding which civilization they want to settle in. It's primarily a way to keep them focused while they explore the world and get used to the game. The final task is building a house in the style of the civilization's architecture and writing a 'book' about what life in that society would be like. I'll copy the handout at the end of this post.

Things I've learned:

It's okay for girls to be gamers. This project was probably the most poorly received amongst the girls in my classes (a little more than half of my students are girls), but after a day or two of just exploring the world and getting used to the game, many of these girls have become avid fans. More than one parent has approached me saying, "You cost me 25 bucks," because their daughter went home and asked for a personal copy of the game. More girls have also started attending my after school Minecraft club and playing during my open session on Fridays after school. This might be what I'm proudest of so far.

It's okay to be a gamer. Last week, one of my more video game-obsessed students looked at the 'popular' group in class and said, "You used to make fun of me for playing this, and now you ask me questions about it all the time!" They laughed and agreed.

In all of my classes, the kids who are Minecraft pros have taken the initiative and help out students who hadn't played before. Social groups that normally don't interact are mixing freely and discovering that they all have something to offer. I'm paying close attention to this, as I hope its effects continue to trickle outside of just my classroom.

It's hard to quantify learning. The parts of this unit I'm happiest with so far have nothing to do with content -- it's all either social or general problem solving skills. That's the stuff I blog about the most, and it's the stuff I care about the most. I believe those are the two most important areas to focus on with middle school students, so I'm okay with the inherent ambiguity, but having concrete evidence of skill and standard comprehension is, for better or worse, still a necessity. The students started building their houses and writing their books this week and, so far, it looks like they are genuinely absorbing information about the civilizations they've explored and decided to live in. I'll post screenshots next week and you can decide for yourself.

I need to model better. I should have made my own house and written my own book at the beginning of this unit so the students had a constant example to return to. I didn't, and I think it has led to some unnecessary inconsistency and confusion in their work. 


_________________’s World of Humanities Travel Log

Greetings, traveler! You are about to undertake a journey into a world unlike any place you have ever been. As you travel through past, present, and future, you will explore the civilizations of Ancient Rome, Mesopotamia, Japan, and Mesoamerica, to name but a few. You will train with Spartans, explore long-lost sea caves, scale Big Ben, and visit a towering city of the future.
Like any young Marco Polo, you must write down your adventures for the sake of posterity. This document will serve as your travel log. In it, you will document the civilizations you visit (at least 5), a monument from each civilization, and at least three facts about each culture.
Eventually, you will weary of your travels and decide to settle in one of these fascinating lands. After much deliberation and reviewing of your travel log, you will decide and document where you want to live and why you chose that civilization. Hoping for successful integration with the land’s people, you will then build a house in the style of your chosen civilization’s architecture.
Enjoy the many wonders of the world, brave traveler. And good luck. 

Exploratory Phase







Settlement Phase

Congratulations, intrepid traveler! You have explored and documented at least five civilizations in this vast World of Humanities, and now the time has come to choose where you will make your home. This is not a decision to be made lightly, and so you must consider the following: which culture do you find most appealing and why?  
Your three-paragraph response should include at least three facts about the civilization, a paragraph comparing/contrasting your chosen civilization with another culture represented, and a paragraph explaining what you think life in your chosen land will be like.
You will also need to build your home in a culturally sensitive fashion, so your materials and design should match the local aesthetics. Below, please list the materials you will need to build your home and sketch a blueprint of your design.



Monday, January 21, 2013

Peacemaking in PvP

A strange thing happened Friday. Normally during after school instead of homework time and focused enrichment classes, we have "bonus hour." I'm usually in the PE room refereeing capture the flag or soccer. This week, however, a lot of kids asked if I could play Minecraft with them instead. Ever the nerd, I found someone else to run sports and set up shop in the cafe.

Normally I'm in a classroom and the cafe is full of kids who want to hang out or play board games. As I brought in the computer cart and started up the server, I noticed something unexpected and wonderful. Many of the 18 kids lining up for a computer were the usual suspects, kids who were in my Minecraft Club or who signed up but didn't make the cut off. About half hadn't played before but said they kept hearing about it and wanted to try. A third of the group were girls.

I started up the server, decided that since it was Fun Friday I'd loosen up a bit and allow PvP (the first time all year I've done that), and logged in to happily hunt down my students as they fled across tree tops.

Soon, kids were learning how to play, kids were hunting each other, and I was wandering around lost and alone. This in itself was all very happy and fun, but then a student -- we'll call her S. -- walked up and asked what I was doing.

Now, S. and I have had our troubles. Multiple calls home, detentions and the like. In fact, I'd sent her out of my class earlier that week. I asked if she wanted to play and, after giving me a hard time for being an adult who likes video games ('obsessed' was her exact word, at which I took umbrage), she said yes.

S. and I spent the next half hour side-by-side, busily crafting iron swords and dueling with her classmates. Mostly, we lost. But when her ride came she didn't want to leave and, as she reluctantly shut down her computer, she smiled and thanked me.

I had to play the disciplinarian way too much last week. By Friday evening I was frustrated and tired. Some weeks it seems like mostly, we lose. Then along comes an iron sword, a thank you and a smile. That changes everything.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Teamwork works.

 My Minecraft Club started the new year off on a great note. We jumped right into team-based survival mode, something I was both extremely excited and extremely nervous for. Based on the vandalism and inconsistent gamesmanship before the break, I wasn't really sure if the kids could pull it off. I was wrong.

Groups organically discussed who the team leader would be, they assigned roles and responsibilities, they shared resources and the more experienced players took the novices under their wings, helping with anything from how to use blocks to distracting Creepers so their teammates could reach safety. It was beautiful.

 I split the class into five random groups with five students each. Using a world spawned from the Artomix seed, I placed a teleport block at the spawn site to act as the main hub. I then placed five teleportation blocks around the world and assigned one to each group. As soon as they spawned, the students went to the block and teleported to their home base. The five homebase blocks are blind -- student's can't use them to teleport anywhere -- so, as soon as they leave the spawn site, they can only get around by walking.

For the next few weeks, teams will be competing against each other to complete a series of objectives. The first day's objective was simply to survive the night; if the entire team survived, they got a point. Only one team didn't make it.

On the second day I gave four objectives: Make a suit of armor, a bow, a working minecart track, and a diamond. If anyone on the team dies, one point is automatically deducted. The plan is to build up to objectives that will involve teams working together and, of course, end it all with a massive PvP battle.

Two teams realized that I didn't forbid groups from working together, and so they have joined forces to complete the objectives faster. I didn't expect groups to combine this early, and I'm very curious what will happen as the competition grows increasingly fierce.

I don't think the students are even all that aware of what I'm finding most fascinating about this project -- the social aspect. Sixth, seventh, and eighth graders are all working together to reach a common objective, and they're doing it peacefully and even, dare I say it, like equals. It is cool.

A few tech warnings for anyone else considering doing something similar: On the second day, someone's settings were on 'Peaceful' mode. This prevented monsters from spawning, since Minecraft runs it on the lowest common denominator. If an individual has different settings on his/her account, it will affect everyone on the server. Also, now that all of the students are actively building, mining, and exploring, my server is experiencing periods of major lag. I now have my computer solely run as the server, and I log into it using an extra school computer. This helps a little, but some students still get dropped periodically. All in all, though, things are running remarkable smoothly.

Jail, constructed with border blocks and build disallow blocks. It's on one of the highest points in the map, so jailed students must watch their classmates having fun.

Group Two's shelter. Nothing but the basics.
Group Four's shelter. The inside is a large underground bunker.