And here's why the love/hate relationship with this course matters: It proves exactly why differentiation in instruction is so important in K-12 classrooms. As a junior high/high school English teacher (and sometimes-teacher-of-other-subjects, as is true of anyone in a rural Alaskan school), I taught what I loved. And I taught it with gusto! I taught in ways that I hoped would appeal to most of the students in my classes, and I was lucky. I had a great success rate with students. Most students. There were students each and every year who struggled with the content, who wouldn't get quite as excited about poetry and essays and grammar as I could, and who hated (dreaded, loathed, and despised) the novels we read. I did the best I could to tailor and modify and differentiate learning experiences for each of them ... but I couldn't win every single time.
However, I still expected them to work hard to learn the content and master the standards we were focusing on in class, even if they didn't personally LOVE what we were doing.
I have lain awake at night this semester worrying about Minecraft. I have enlisted the help of junior high students who think my inability to "get" the game is hilarious. I have whined on the phone to my college-age daughter about how I just don't have time to figure out how to play a game. I have avoided one of the primary activities for this course by investigating every other tool in the known universe that could possibly be used to differentiate instruction in an attempt to excuse myself from learning how to use the one tool I was really supposed to learn.
I'm embarrassed to have worked so hard to avoid learning how to play a game that is clearly used for meaningful instruction and enrichment in classrooms around the world every single day. On the other hand, I "get" the game enough to realize that there has to be more to it than just playing the game. Minecraft itself is engaging for students, but without intentional connections to content, it's just a game.
Case in point: Throughout the semester, I read my colleagues' blog posts with awe as they described tools and supports they were building for students within Minecraft. They were being very intentional, and it was awesome. Then I happened upon a classroom (not a classroom participating in Givercraft or SurvivalCraft) where the teacher was allowing students to spend huge amounts of time playing Minecraft ... but without any academic purpose or intentional learning objective. Sure, it's important to have fun at school, but we're talking about huge chunks of time here without any specific learning objective for the students (other than to get crazy-good at building stuff). I was irritated and appalled. In another classroom, however, (one that was participating in SurvivalCraft), I observed as students engaged in Minecraft play in a very different way. While it was possible for students to build without having read the text, it wasn't the same if they hadn't; furthermore, the students who were keenly familiar with the novels were far more savvy in the way they approached the scenarios because they knew details from the reading...which encouraged students who had not read (or at least hadn't read as carefully) to get back between the pages to better understand the story. The glaring differences between these two classroom observations brought the intentional and purposeful application of Minecraft and the time-killer, just-for-fun use of the game into sharp, contrasting focus. The differences were startling and sad, and the "just for fun" scenario brought to life exactly what gives games and gamification in education a bad name.
So, for an entire semester, I have been engaged in my own personal struggle with knowing what I needed to do in this course, and trying to figure out ways around it that better fit me as a learner ... and that felt like more appropriate "fits" for me as a professional. I reviewed dozens of tools, I imagined applications for all sorts of software, I worked with teachers to build fairly elaborate plans for differentiation through blended learning (a district-wide initiative for the coming school year). I really did work at it, and I really did focus on the subject of the class: Differentiating with Technology.
But I didn't learn how to play Minecraft. So, did I fail? Maybe yes; maybe no.
On the other hand, maybe what this semester has taught me is far more important than a letter grade: Sometimes the most appropriate tools for differentiation are those that I, as an educator, would never choose for myself because they aren't "me." But I'm not educating "me"; I'm educating students and I'm orchestrating engaging experiences for learners to grow and become more knowledgeable than they were when they began my class. If Minecraft is a means to that end, then I need to get on board and ride that Lego-looking, pixel-laden train right on down the tracks some student probably built with his eyes closed...and figure out how to pull in literature and writing and math and science and social studies and whatever content I want them to learn. Because that is my job: To help differentiate instruction so that all students can engage...will engage...long enough to learn what it is I need them to know.