Tuesday, February 19, 2013

How Do You Fit Play in the Junior Classroom?

While you may not actually learn everything you need to know in Kindergarten you do learn a lot.  One of the best things about kindergarten is that much of the learning is play based.  Students go thought the inquiry process and a variety of ways.  Much of the inquiry is not coming from the direct teacher instruction, but from the students themselves.  This inquiry is not about achieving levels or getting stickers, but more about the interests and curiosity of the children in the class.  Student lead play that goes to both places that teacher can see coming, and to surprising places of discovery that no ever expected.  I know my friend who has been teaching kindergarten for 20 years never expected her building blocks to inspire an inquiry on how to create a better Beyblade and Beyblade stadium, and yet there was a lot to learn, many experiments, written plans, and class discussions on the topic.  A rich topic that came from the students and linked with many curriculum expectations.

I know there is value in play based learning, I'm just not sure where to fit it into a junior class.  With 6 curriculum documents (not including French), CASI, assemblies, and other interruptions to learning, it is hard to find a way to fit play into the classroom.  I have had my students play Minecraft in the class, but the only free play they have had is during class party time.  Otherwise the 'play' has been task oriented.  Which isn't a bad thing; I am confident that the bridges my students built in game were at least 10 times better than anything they could have come up with using Popsicle sticks and glue.  But I don't think all that is enough.  I am trying my best to incorporate inquiry into the classroom, but how do I balance play too?

Is play still important in grade 4, 5 and 6?  When does play become unimportant?  Does play ever become unimportant to education?  I believe the answer to the last question is: play never becomes unimportant, but is that really true or just idealistic?  As an educator in a junior classroom how can I justify 'play' to my colleagues, Principal and parents?  So much of the education field is driven by data.  What data do I collect about play?  How do I balance play with everything else that I need to do in any given day?  I know there is a lot that my students can learn from playing: social skills, communication, science, connections to social studies, art, music... but without knowing what exact expectations they will met how much time can I invest in 'free play'?   These are things I wrestle with more and more these days.

I guess I will have to play with these problems myself for a while and see where my inquiries takes me.  If anyone out there has any articles or experiences they have had with play in the junior grades please feel free to share.  I will share too.  (I learned that in kindergarten.)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Bridges over the River Lava

Just under two weeks ago the TDSB opened a port allowing students from Highland Heights, Agnes Macphail, and the Girls Leadership Academy (GLA) to access the multi-school Minecraft server house at Ryerson University's Edge Lab.  Liam, Diana and I went on to the server and set up our class meeting areas, Liam set up a central square with ports to our different school areas so we can go between playing among ourselves or together.  The fun has just started!

My grade 5 students (GLA) had a task to design a model bridge that was suppose to span 30cms and be able to have 2 cars travel across at the same time in opposite directions.  Since the server was up and running I decided to give the task a bit of a tweak.  I told my students that their task would now be to build a bridge that spans approximately 20m (in Minecraft one block equals 1m squared) and go over a river of lava.

What surprised me was how seriously -most- of the students considered the materials they would use, the height they would have to make the bridge (so that people would not be effected by the heat from the lava), and the dangers of travel in Minecraft (zombies, skeletons, creepers and endermen).  Before students entered the space they made detailed sketches of dimensions and materials they would need.  One of my students even went back to her drawings after starting to build to update them with changes she had made to her structure after actually being in the space because her original drawing did not match the terrain of the actual lava river.  Another student, continually went back to add new features and more detailed dimensions to her plans.

The problems solving, communication, and the sense that their construction actually mattered was incredible.  There were problems that were connected to the task: "How do I make an arch?" and problems that were more social: "You're building too close!"  These problems led to conversations, conflict and compromise and both type of problems led to great learning opportunities.  The students are still working on the finishing touches to their structures, but I included a video (below) of what they have done so far.

 I plan on writing up a lesson plan for the task and posting it on www.gamingedus.org