Sunday, March 02, 2014

Minecraft homeschooling: pro and con

I will start out by saying I looked at their class offerings a while back and don't feel strongly either way, but I did want to address some of what Amy Milstein of UnschoolingNYC had to say on her blog.

I don't strictly love the connection between Dickens and Minecraft, partly because I've never been a great reader and never been all that into Dickens, to be honest.  But I get why one thought led her to another: it's not uncommon for the schoolification of something to completely ruin it.

So that's where I want to start: why do we let school ruin stuff?  It doesn't have to be that way.  If something becomes sucky because we do it in school, then we need to stop suckifying stuff when we schoolify it.  That alone, if we could make it happen, would change everything.

But let's look specifically at Minecraft.  I counter that using Minecraft in schools could be one of the ways we eliminate The Suck and bring in The Awesome.  I'll come back to this.

Clearly, Amy writes a blog about Unschooling, which I completely respect.  School as we know it does not work for MANY kids.  Hence the growing popularity of homeschooling and unschooling.  I'm all for that.  But don't the folks involved in those alternatives need some accountability to prove that they're doing their kids a favor by opting out of their local public schools?  I think that is what Minecraft homeschooling is trying to provide.  I won't say (because I don't have any actual experience with them) whether they do it well or not, but it seems to work for some people, so yay for them.

What got and kept my attention though, is the idea that making Minecraft a school thing would somehow ruin it.  First off, you can't ruin Minecraft.  It's just. so. good.  But even if you could, it wouldn't really be Minecraft you'd be messing with.  It would be how your kid is spending her time, what kinds of learning experiences you're encouraging, etc.  You don't ruin a state park by taking kids on a field trip there.  You don't ruin computer programming by giving kids a ton of different ways to experience it.

If you're homeschooling or unschooling, and you've eschewed tests and grades, then rock ON with your bad selves and don't grade the Minecrafty experiences either.  Give students as much choice as possible in the videos they find and watch, in the goals they set for themselves, and so forth.

When I use MinecraftEdu in my Digital World classes, which for the record are at a private independent high school, I do provide some guidelines and requirements as well as student choice within those guidelines.  We make our MinecraftEdu world an extension of our classroom, and I'd have to argue that I provide a respite of non-suck from the purely academic experiences my students are immersed in the rest of their school day.

Wouldn't these kinds of experiences, if they were spread throughout our public schools, encourage some (not all, and I am cool with that) of the current homeschoolers and unschoolers to consider coming back?  People have a lot of reasons for opting out of public schooling.  Whether they choose private (for religious, philosophical, or other reasons), homeschooling, or unschooling, sometimes their main reason is they don't agree with how public education is DONE to their kids.  Most of the awesome stuff happening in public schools, in my opinion, is being perpetrated by those who are getting around the stupid things and seeking forgiveness later rather than permission up front. (Hi Karl!)

So why not bring in fun, awesome, engaging stuff from the world where our kids are already spending a ton of their time?  Just don't suckify it.

Sigh. This whole MERIT application process is HARD.

Last night, I started seeing #MERIT14 tweets before I had even seen the official (internal) list of who was invited to be in the 2014 MERIT cohort.

The entire application and selection process is a bit of a mystical art-science, really.  I wanted to write a quick blog post to address the excitement and disappointment inherent in the days that follow the announcements.

With that in mind, here's a little Q&A.

Q: How do you decide who gets in?

A: We don't, really.  We use a number of factors to rank the applicants and then we cut up that ranking into accepted, waitlisted, and not accepted.

Q: What factors are considered?

A: First, we obtain a raw score based on responses to the long-answer questions on the application.  The raw score is based on an aggregation of scores from a large number of scorers from our MERIT faculty team and former (usually most recent or two most recent) cohort members.  We get several people to score each question's responses from ALL applicants.  We then use that data (which I believe is very fairly obtained) to get the raw score.

From there, we have points for all sorts of things: principal recommendation, attended an info session, previous relationship with KCI, applying as a team, etc.  Now we rank the folks based on the new adjusted score from highest to lowest.  We have an initial cut-off somewhere after the top 20 or so.  For the next 20 to 40 people below that first threshold, we have to consider a bunch more factors.

We try to maintain a balance of participants from different types of schools and districts serving different students.  We look to have a balance of grade levels.  Sometimes we have to consider specific donor requirements on how their funds are used.

What the process IS NOT is PERSONAL.  We can only accept about 40 to 45 people.  When there are a hundred amazing applicants, some have to be turned away.

Q: How can I have a better chance of getting in next year if I was not accepted this year?

A: First and foremost, focus on your students.  It is SO not about you, the teacher.  Your focus comes through in your responses.  So to start off with a strong raw score, make sure you truly address what the questions ask, with a student-centered focus, and keep to the word counts.  Also, SERIOUSLY, proofread.  Spelling and grammar mistakes affect the reader's perception of your ideas.  Period.  And that question where we give you a chance to tell us about yourself? Do it.  FREE. POINTS.

Beyond that, make sure your principal is able to highly recommend you with absolutely no reservations.  Come to an info session before the application is due.  Don't finish the application at the last minute. (We don't consider WHEN you submitted, but we all know that rushed work is seldom our best.)  Consider applying as part of a team if you didn't before.  Learn a lot about the program so you know what you'd be getting into.

And be understanding when we can't accept everyone.  Your attitude on that front goes a long way.

While you're waiting for next year's application window, what can you do to better prepare yourself for a future MERIT experience?  PD out the wazoo.  EdCamps, PlayDates, and local events (free and cheap, especially) are a great places to start.  Catch the self-directed PD bug.  Don't wait for a personal invite.  Sacrifice some Saturdays if you can to attend local educator-run professional development and you'll meet a lot of people who are in or have gone through the MERIT program.  What better way to understand what it's all about than to spend time talking with people who've been there?

Join your local CUE affiliate or similar organization so you can keep updated on what goes on in the EdTech world where we live.  Get on Twitter and follow #MERIT13, #MERIT14, and #CAedchat.

That's what I would do if I wanted to make myself a stronger candidate for a future MERIT cohort.