Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Reflection on Minecraft Game Design summer school class

This summer, I taught a two-week Minecraft game design class for the first time. This was an elective class as part of our school's Summer Institute. I taught two sections: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The students were aged 10 to 13, and were incoming 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Out of 37 students in the two classes combined, only seven of them were students who attend my school during the school year. I normally work with high school students and teachers, but I have a lot of past experience with middle schoolers. This was a refreshing opportunity to return to working with kids this age.

This Custom NPC teleports you to Nathan's and Matthew's game.
Now, I say that I taught this class. However, it's more accurate to say that the class taught me. I decided early on that I would not try to be the authority on anything in this course. Compared to most kids who play Minecraft, I really don't know all that much about it. I have only dabbled with things like command blocks, Custom NPCs, and redstone. Who has the time to devote to learning how all of these things work? I'll tell you who: 10 to 13 year olds.

I also don't have all that much experience with game design. I mean, there was that one class on games and simulations in my master's program, but that was a long time ago. I happened to find a really good article at GamaSutra that talked about thirteen essential principles of game design. I used this article as a basis for explaining important things to consider in my students’ game design. They knew a lot about the types of games that one could create in Minecraft and the kinds of activities people like to do in Minecraft. So, of course, I let them take the lead there too.

Several games required that you change from creative mode to survival mode before playing.
We started off by playing a tutorial world together, and then changing that world’s server to survival mode. On that server, they could build their community, and learn how to work with each other, and find opportunities for collaboration. I inadvertently found out that the way they behaved on the survival server gave me a sense of how much I could trust them with on our creative server for each class. Whereas the one group of students behaved respectfully toward one another on the survival server and showed me that I could trust them with PVP, fire and TNT, and other dimensions on their creative server, the other group struggled to be respectful to one another in their survival server. They snuck into each other's houses, took each other's things, and destroyed each other's creations. So, for most of the two-week period, the latter group was not allowed to have as many privileges on their creative server. We had many discussions about how they could earn back my trust and gain those privileges; however, as a group, they struggled to come up with creative solutions to this problem.

As the students began to generate ideas for their games on the creative server, I was introduced to new terminology for me, such as spleef games, and the concept of creating an escape room that players would have to solve puzzles to get out of. Although I knew their ideas came from watching YouTube videos of others’ creations, I was also delighted to see the unique spin they would put on each different game they would try to create. Most of them did not want to be seen as ”ripping off” something that everyone else had seen on YouTube.

Many students used Custom NPCs in their games. This one provides the player with help.
We didn't have too many mods on our servers, but we did have Custom NPCs. We also had ComputerCraft and ComputerCraftEDU, and the students got a chance to play Turtle Island by Mike Harvey. This gave them a chance to see how Custom NPCs and command blocks and other functions were used in a game setting. This also set the students up for new problems that they wanted to solve. For example, a student wanted to be able to have a player's game mode change from creative to survival when they entered the game area, and then change back to creative at the end of the game area. This led to discussions about how to do this with command blocks, and a lot of collaboration from the students solving the problem together. I just sat back and listened. When they had come up with a solution, I described the process as I had observed it. I also pointed out to them that I did not know the solutions to their problems, but that I had confidence in their ability to come up with it themselves.

This pattern continued throughout the remainder of the two-week period. A student wanted to create a Custom NPC that would teleport a player from our spawn area to that student’s game that he had created. Again, I was going to be no help here. I described the problem, we talked as a class about some ways to solve that problem, and I referred them to what we had seen in Turtle Island. Before long, one student had spent some time experimenting and had created the Custom NPC we needed. I was then able to direct the students’ attention to this Custom NPC, and show them how to inspect it to find out how the student had done it.

By this point, the kids had gotten into the habit of talking to each other to find out how someone had done something. They could all see each other's creations, so they got ideas and then new questions from one another. I kept reminding them that I was not going to be very helpful, but that I wanted to learn from them as well. So I would present questions to them, asking if they knew how to solve a problem. I ended up finding out that there were several students in the class who were much better teachers than I was.

A parkour game created by one of the pairs of students
I also talked to the students about the concept of engagement in the learning space. I informed them that I had gone around the room recording audio with my phone for short periods of time. The students had not even noticed me, as they were so focused on what they were creating. I told them how excited I was to see how engaged they were in what they were doing. I asked them to compare their experiences in this class with their everyday experiences in classes during the school year. I asked them if their traditional classroom situations were as exciting and engaging as what they were doing here. They did not want to seem to throw their regular classroom experiences under the bus, as it were. But they admitted that everyday school is not as engaging as self-directed, self-driven, project-based problem solving like they were doing for this class.

Again, I do not take credit for this. All I did was to set a problem before the students, give them a platform in which to create solutions, and get out of the way. Of course it helps that they were using Minecraft as the platform, and this was something they were already excited by. Almost all of the students had played Minecraft before, and for many of them it was their favorite game. I know this because I gave a survey on the first day of class asking about their experiences and comfort levels with various things we would be doing in the class. I also took a survey at the end of the class. In it, I asked students to rate how much new learning they had gotten on each of a number of topics. On a scale from 1 (“no new learning”) to 5 (“AMAZING amounts of new learning”), both playing Minecraft in survival mode and playing Minecraft in creative mode averaged 3.03.  Other notable results were ratings of 2.81 for redstone, 3.61 for command blocks, and 3.75 for custom NPCs.  I felt pleased that students, overall, felt they had learned a lot.  Many students said that what they would change about the class was that it should be four weeks instead of only two. (Give me strength!)

This team used signs to remind players to use the command blocks to change their game mode and return to the server's spawn point.
All in all, I found it to be a very rewarding experience for my own Minecraft learning, and the kids really got a lot out of the experience.  Next summer, I hope to offer the class again, but I will likely hand it off to someone else to teach, simply because I don’t really have the time to devote to it.  Also rewarding for me was the positive energy I felt from the kids as they learned on their own terms.  The adult in the room (I guess that’s me) didn’t try to take over or get in the way of their own discoveries or efforts.  This reminded me that I want to be more like that during the school year with my older kids.

Images are all screen shots from screencast videos, made by students in the class, in which they shared the games they created.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Every Picture Tells a Story, Don’t It? (Chapter 1: June 1997)

Last month marked twenty (20) years since I got my first tattoo.  I decided I would celebrate this anniversary by telling the stories of each of my tattoos.  If you talk to anyone who has ink, they can relate how each piece has its own story.  There’s some person, place, or incident tied to each permanent piece of body art for most people.  That’s the case with me, so here begins a series of blog posts recanting those tales.  Get ready to learn a lot about my personal life.

Most people have never seen this tattoo, as it is on my left hip.  It’s not really something that shows in polite company, unless we are at a pool or the beach and I am partaking of swimsuit-wearing activities.  There isn’t just a story behind the artwork itself, but also how it came about.

In March of 1997, I left my now ex-husband.  At some point in the months leading up to that ultimate split, I had mentioned the idea that I was considering getting a tattoo.  My then-husband declared, “As your husband, I FORBID you getting a tattoo.”  Yeah, he forbade it.  So it was sure as hell going to happen once those words were uttered aloud in my presence.  This marked the turning point in my decision to leave in a lot of ways.  I’m definitely more vocal and steadfast NOW in my feelings that my body is MINE to decide what to do or not do with, but I think this little interchange sparked that idea into my 26 year-old mind.

I knew I wanted a Tasmanian Devil.  Now, this goes against what I fundamentally believe regarding tattoo art.  Don’t get your face or neck inked.  Don't get something offensive and/or that you will end up regretting. Don’t put someone’s name unless it’s your parent, maybe a sibling, or a human you created/helped create. Don’t pick something that is trendy or tied to a certain period of time in pop culture.  These are my rules.

But Taz was my nickname in the co-ed fraternity I co-founded, and the Tasmanian Devil was our mascot.  So I pretty much felt like that was what I wanted.  Never since have I gone with such little firm idea of what I wanted permanently affixed to my epidermis.  But hey, I was a baby in the body art world at the time.

So I talked my girl Smitty (my college BFF Chris) into going with me, and we looked in the phone book and stuff (hey, it was 1997, and Yelp was not yet a thing) for a tattoo place.  We went to one close-by in Bound Brook, NJ, but we didn’t get a good vibe there.  I can’t remember how we ended up settling on Tattoo 46 in Dover, NJ (I thought it was on Route 10, but it turns out it was this one on 46) -- given that she was in Manville and I was in Clinton, so it was quite a hike by car -- but that is where we ended up.  I also can’t remember how Smitty decided she would get her navel pierced.  But she did.  And I didn’t like any of the Taz art they had on the wall or in the books, so we actually left and went back a couple nights later, because I realized I knew which depiction of Taz I wanted.

You see, some years earlier, when I was in college I think, my mother had bought me these pajamas that were a t-shirt and boxer-style shorts, and the shorts were festooned with all these Tasmanian Devils, arms crossed over his chest, wearing stars-and-stripes boxers.  So when we returned to the tattoo place, I had those with me.

I held the little mini-tail of hair (it was 1997, after all) at the back of my head, and I whined “ouch, ouch, ouch” the entire time the guy did the tattoo . . . until he finally said, “Shut up, Diane.”  (Later tattoos didn’t hurt nearly as much.  But of course, in the intervening period, I’d had a c-section and some yucky follow-up surgery related to it, so my pain threshold was in completely new territory by then.)

So, within three months of leaving my ex, right around Flag Day of 1997, I had a new piece of body art.  Smitty later had to ditch the navel piercing, as it kept getting irritated and infected when her short self would spend summers on ladders painting houses, as poor teachers like us were sometimes found to do, for, like, the foods and the rents.

Shortly after this incident, I moved out of my apartment because I had decided to move to California.  My stuff went into storage, and I slept on my folks’ couch for a few nights before my parents, my aunt, and I headed to England for a trip.  On my first night on the couch, Dad had already gone to bed, and Mom and I were up talking.  I said to her, “Can you keep a secret?” And she eye-rolled, because she knew this meant “can I tell you something you can’t tell Dad?” and she remarked, “Do I want to know?”

So I showed her the tattoo and she eye-rolled again, remarking that we would not be telling my father.  And then, after a pause, she asked, “Is that from those pajamas I bought you?”  And then I think she eye-rolled again when I told her it was.  I think she felt somehow complicit in my “crime.”

It gets better.

We went to Britain, and I showed all my friends and family members, except my Dad, one by one, my new tattoo.  This involved pulling one side of my jeans down to reveal my left hip.  I even showed my two aunts (Dad’s sisters), the older of whom was scandalized.  That was my Auntie Reta.  A proper English lady if ever there was one.  My other aunt, Dad’s sister Eileen, was the opposite personality.  She was bawdy and loved to laugh -- LOUDLY.  She was usually saying things that left the rest of us scandalized.  So, we were all having a meal at the local pub, The Old Oak in Coupe Green, Hoghton, Lancashire, when my Auntie Eileen suddenly says, “So you might as well tell your father about your tattoo, Diane.”  Oh, the looks around that table just then.

So I had to take Dad outside the back door of the pub and show him my new ink.  I don’t think he was happy, but he didn’t really say much.  I think part of him was proud it was a patriotic image.

And here it is, having taken up residence on my left hip for two decades now:

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Resistance Under the New Regime

Friday was a hard day for me.  I wore all black, from head to toe.  I had planned to do so since the day after the election.  Despite making the conscious effort to avoid all coverage of a certain person (whom I will not name) getting a rather highly-publicized start to a job in Washington, DC that day, I had to listen to parts of the coverage being played in a classroom near my office.  That was unpleasant.  I ended up spending part of my day chatting with students and a counselor who stopped by my office.  Another colleague stopped by to check in on how I was doing.  That felt good, but the day was still somber.  Let me tell you why that is.

Almost twenty years ago, I left an abusive marriage.  I then moved across the country, from New Jersey to California, to make sure I never had to bump into him anywhere.  I wanted to start a new life, far removed from everything about him.  I’ve kept tabs over the years, and seen more evidence to support my decision to get as far away as possible.  Let me tell you about my ex.

He bankrupted himself, and me, and has since filed bankruptcy at least one more time.  He has been taken to court by the government for tax evasion.  He has made his money by tricking other people out of theirs, with empty promises.  He was a womanizer.  He cheated on me.  He was emotionally and financially abusive.  He overspent and was extremely irresponsible with finances, and didn’t seem to care about who would have to clean up his mess.  He touts himself as a deeply religious Christian man.  He forbade me to get a tattoo (I now have five.)  He body-shamed me and any weight I gained, despite being more overweight than I was.  He tried to cheat me out of half the proceeds of the sale of our house, because when we married, he lied about putting my name on the title of the house.  There are other things that happened that are far too personal to share here.  But you need to know that his facial expressions, mannerisms, and vocal patterns were hauntingly like a certain person who just moved into the White House.  The sneers, the gestures, the voice raised in perpetual anger: I am all too familiar with these tactics.  I know what someone like that is capable of behind closed doors.

Every time I have to see, hear, or watch the new occupant of the White House, I am forced to face my abuser all over again.  I moved across a continent to get away from that, and I have been very successful in establishing my new life free from that horrible burden.  I learned from that experience what I would never put up with in my life again.  I started from less than nothing (thanks to that bankruptcy) and I have done very well for myself.  I have a family and a great career.  I overcame the effects of my abuser.

So like I said, Friday was hard.

Saturday started out quiet.  I walked to the light rail station alone, wondering how the march in San Jose would go.  I wondered how many other cities in America would also host marches.  As I approached the station, I saw the platform full of people.  My heart raced just a little.  That’s a lot of people, I thought, and while I am not a fan of large crowds, I’m not phobic, so I walked on.  As I got closer, I found that people were figuring out how to buy tickets, and there was a line.  I’ve never seen so many people on that platform, and I’ve never seen a line so long to buy light rail tickets.  Everyone was friendly.  There were a bunch of pink hats and signs with lots of different messages.  Everyone was helpful.  I was starting to feel really good about this.  A train came by.  It was too full for any of us to get on.  Another train went by, southbound, and it was clear that people had gotten on farther north to ride to the southern terminus (one stop beyond mine) to just be able to get on a train.  Uh oh.

We were able to get on the next train, but it was tight.  For the next several stops, people got on to what was already a packed, standing-room-only train.  It was mostly white people.  Lots of women, but quite a few men too.  It occurred to me that a majority of them had never used public transit before.  There was this one black man in my car, next to whom I stood for most of the ride in, who had to be feeling a little weirded out.  He just looked like he wanted to get where he was going.  But after a few stops, he spoke to a few of these first timers.

When we finally poured out at the Santa Clara Street station, it was clear people didn’t know where to go.  But I did, so I stepped around people, some of whom were trying to find the friends they had come down with, who had gotten into different cars of our train.  I thought about getting a bottle of water somewhere, but I also just wanted to get to City Hall.  it was amazing.  The police and volunteers were all friendly and helpful, and worked really hard to keep people safe and within the designated areas.  It was PACKED, but everyone was so cool.  No one got out of hand.  Everyone made room for each other.  We read each other’s signs and shirts, snapped pictures, smiled, high-fived total strangers.  We joined in with each other’s chants.  Parents tried to keep their kids from getting cranky.  Friends spotted each other.  Lots of people were on social media, checking in, trying to share the moment or their location or both.  Instagram couldn’t handle it for a while there.

A friend from work texted me and I tried to find him, but I ended up finding another friend instead, so I walked with her and her friend, and met two of their students.  No one was violent.  No one was angry . . . just fired up for change.  I no longer felt the somber despair of the day before.  I felt hope, for the first time since November 8th.  I was surrounded by tens of thousands of people who I could tell are committed to not lying down and just taking whatever the federal government tries to throw at us.  We chanted “Si se puede” and “yes, we can” and “this is what democracy looks like” and “this is what a feminist looks like.”  We walked along 4th and through El Paseo de San Antonio.  When an ambulance needed to drive through a street we had to cross, my new friend jumped out and helped the lone traffic officer by yelling “ambulance!” and using her body, arms stretched out, to let everyone know why we had to stop for a minute.  People were like, “yeah, priorities.”

Store windows had posters in them too.  Kids and parents stood along the route with signs.  A few bemused folks leaving a gym were like, “okay, that’s a lot of people…”  But no one was scared.  No one felt threatened.  I felt empowered.  “America,” I said to myself, “we are going to be okay.”  As long as we keep at this, of course.

We got to Plaza de Cesar Chavez amid the fitting cries of “Si se puede,” and there were speakers and poets and local politicians, sharing their vision for how we can spread this energy into action.  Along the paths that only weeks before had been lined with Christmas trees and holiday decor for Christmas in the Park, there were now easy-up tents with tables full of local activism groups, sharing information and helping people find out how they can make a difference locally.  I stopped by LGBTQ+ Safe Place for Youth to pick up some materials for my school’s GSA. (Gender Sexuality Alliance)  There were a few food trucks.  Along the route, I had met up with several colleagues from the school where I work.  I briefly bounced between them and my friend I had been marching with.  Later, I just wandered alone for a while, listening to the speakers, taking pictures of signs, petting a dog I met, and taking it all in.

This is not typically the way I spend a Saturday.  I’ve never really been an activist before.  I thought of my parents a lot throughout the day.  My Dad, always a Republican, would not have been okay with how things have gone.  My Mom, always a Democrat, would have wanted to march.  Part of me, sadly, was glad they were not around to see the past year in this country.  Part of me was sad that my Mom was not walking beside me.

I thought of my students, many of whom are the children of immigrants.  Most of their parents arrived here on work visas.  Some of them walked here and were undocumented.  I thought of the kids I know in the GSA.  It’s hard enough for them to be open about who they are.  Some can’t outside of the safe spaces in our school.  They must be so worried for the future, on top of their very real everyday anxiety.  I thought about my Muslim students.  I never know what to say to them.  How much do they fear?  How much support do they believe they have from the rest of us?  I thought about all the students of color I know.  How can they pretend they don’t know about all the terrible things a certain “politician” has said about them and their families?  How much must it hurt them to acknowledge that they heard him? That they’ve read what he’s said and done, and they see all these other Americans telling them to “get over it” and “you lost.”

I am in a position of immense privilege, and I know it.  I am a heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, white American female.  I was born here.  The only “strike” I have against me in the New Regime is my gender.  It could be so easy to just go along with things and pretend that it won’t affect me.  But the very thought of that turns my stomach.  I look into the hopeful faces of our future every day when I go to work.  I have to stand up.  I have to march.  I have to find a way to make a bigger difference than I already do.  But most of all, I have to keep loving these kids, and their families, and the strangers around me every day.

We can’t let the evil and the falsehood win.  Yesterday helped me believe that I can be a part of the resistance.