Mixing Minecraft and California History
By David Goldberg
It was time. I had to give something new a try. Every spring for the last decade our fourth graders have been tasked with writing a comprehensive research paper about the California mission system. In their studies of the Spanish exploration and eventual settlement of California, the students had been playing “The Galleon Game,” an interactive simulation designed in 1980.
For many students, these activities were memorable, but I questioned whether or not they were teaching the 21st century skills that were needed in today’s world. The games were fact based and the paper was focused primarily on the details of the mission structure.
Engaging 21st century 4th graders
With each passing lesson, many of my students became more and more restless. The gathering of facts, while interesting at first, had lost its mystique.
The students seemed in need of more. I reflected each day, debating in my mind how I could create a unit that provided more space for students to use critical thinking skills, evaluate choices, and analyze perspectives of historical figures. In my heart I believed that changes needed to be made.
While I contemplated the necessary changes, I read all the blogs, reviewed the Twitter-sphere, and analyzed loads of research. Minecraft was the buzz. Described as “A Lego-style adventure game…[that] puts players in a randomly-generated world where they can create their own structures and contraptions out of textured cubes” (The Telegraph, “What is Minecraft?”), Minecraft seemed like the perfect way for me to connect history and today’s world.
Melding Spanish exploration & Minecraft
I would start by studying the Spanish exploration to the new land. The students would analyze the motives of Columbus and Cortes, evaluate the factors that led to exploration, and then embark on their own 21st century expedition to my teacher-created Minecraft planets. The students would arrive on these planets, build a rover out of “stuff,” and eventually settle the land using Minecraft tools.
It felt like a genius plan; it was incorporating components of STEAM and was both innovative and inventive. The change was also a first step on the road to adjusting curriculum to reflect 21st century skills.
Each passing day, the chatter of Minecraft grew louder. Talks of spawns and obsidian dominated every free moment. I was growing anxious that I was about to enter a domain that was so far out there I couldn’t manage it. When late April finally rolled around, our experiment in technology began. We entered the media center and the pulse was palpable; the roars of excitement were deafening.
I knew I had something special in this unit. Students that were often disengaged, challenged by reading texts, and reluctant to think critically were ready for their mission. The student’s authentic expedition was set to begin!
Unfortunately, the game did not go as planned. The same students who were reluctant to think also refused to build. The students that had a previous history with Minecraft were too consumed with the differences between “the school game” and “their game” that they could not transfer the historical concepts. Students would start to build their settlement, only to have another group of students build within feet of their camp. The classroom, as well as the creative world, was in chaos.
While I was no less committed to the idea of this change in the curriculum, I knew that I would need to iterate the process so that it could be more effective. It was during this reflective moment that I realized I could integrate an authentic learning moment into the game. I froze the game, and called a “democratic camp meeting” (a term my students were quite familiar with from our study of life in a mining camp) to discuss the issues at hand.
Enthusiastic play, questionable learning
The students came to the floor, prepared for some ground rules to be set. After a brief brainstorm, students agreed that once fencing or a moat was built around your settlement, no intruders could enter this space. If a student violated this agreement, they would be asked to leave the game.
With new rules in place, the race was on. I watched as students rushed to stake their claim. I watched as students experienced in a virtual world the intensity, excitement, and disappointment the forty-niners experienced during the California Gold Rush.
However, the students didn’t seem to make this connection as I would have hoped. This lack of connection became more evident as the game progressed. I watched as students fought over territory just like the Native Americans and the Spanish did. I watched as commanders (student leaders) met to discuss strategies about how to make their empire stronger and more powerful.
Alliances formed and enemies grew. Yet the connection to history was never made. Although the students were virtually experiencing historical life, they didn’t seem to see the parallels.
My search for answers
So, that brings me to where I sit today. Back at the drawing board, looking for answers. How can I use Minecraft to simulate the Spanish colonization of California and the building of the missions? How can we as educators help students experience history, virtually?
Might it be helpful to implement journal writing similar to the explorers of the past? Are games even necessary in supporting students’ connection to a historical era? It is these questions that linger as I think about the fall and how I can create thoughtful and meaningful lessons that teach my students 21st century skills while integrating valuable historical information.
If you have ideas for David, please share in the comments.
David Goldberg is a fourth grade General Studies teacher at an independent school in the Los Angeles area. He earned his teaching credential in the DeLeT Program at Hebrew Union College as well as his B.A. in sociology from California State University – Northridge. His twitter handle is @davidgoldber.