Building a Reader with Minecraft by Dana Johansen
I could barely sleep the night before. I couldn’t wait to be back in my classroom! It was August and school was about to begin. However, when I went into my classroom there was a lonely feeling in the space that caught me off guard. I put my keys down on the counter and began removing the butcher-block paper that covered the bookshelves. The loneliness dissolved as I pulled back the paper. I smiled. Here were familiar memories – stories that my students loved.
As I began uncovering the books on my classroom shelves, my eyes rested on a stack of Minecraft books. I smiled again. I thought about the student who loved these books. Her identify as a reader was transformed because of these books, and my identity as a reading teacher was changed as well.
Her name was Lani, and she did not like to read. She didn’t read any of the books in my classroom. And she didn’t read any of the books in the school library. Lani picked up a book, read the first ten or fifteen pages and put the book down. I tried many strategies. Day after day, I tried to help Lani find a book that grabbed her. Everyday I failed. So every day I came to school hoping that it might be the day that Lani found a book that she would read from beginning to end. But nothing seemed to work.
Around January, I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t help Lani find a book. I knew she was frustrated as well. She viewed reading as a chore now more than ever, and she viewed me as the ogre who would ask about her reading. Then one day I visited my students in their computer science class. It was great to see them in a different setting. Lani was building a large structure in the virtual world, Minecraft. I stopped and talked to her about her project. “Well you see, Ms. Johansen, I’m building a replica of an Egyptian pyramid.” Impressed, I asked her about Minecraft. “It’s an online game where you are in different biomes and you can build structures, hide from mobs and Creepers, and try to stay alive.” Hmmm, I thought. I’d have to look into Minecraft.
As I began researching Minecraft online, I came across a variety of Minecraft novels. Wow, there was a LOT of writing surrounding Minecraft out there. Excited, I ordered some Minecraft novels.
When the novels arrived, I knew I had to read one of them because I wasn’t sure what to expect in a Minecraft book. Was there a plot? Who were the characters? Were the books age-appropriate for fifth graders? When I began reading #1 The Secret Treasure: An Unofficial Minecrafter’s Novel by Winter Morgan, I was confused. There were many references to Minecraft that I didn’t understand. I knew that I needed to play the game in order to understand the terms in the novel. So I began small and watched a bunch of YouTube lessons online about how to use Minecraft. Then I tried it. Wow, the world was amazing! I was this little character who was roaming around a huge world. I had a pickaxe, used Redstone to build, and fell down many holes before I got the hang of the game.
When I first showed Lani the Minecraft books, I told her that I had read the first one and had a bunch of questions. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind reading the first book so she and I could talk through some of my questions. It’d be like our own little book club. Then I told her that I tried playing Minecraft and needed a lot of tips about how to use the Redstone to build structures like her Egyptian pyramid. She smiled and agreed.
It was the first book Lani read from cover to cover all year. When she was finished, she asked to read the second and third book. She and I had a wonderful book club together. We discussed how to help our characters climb out of holes, go down mineshafts, and destroy blocks. Lani was a different child in my class because she had found books that connected to her passion.
Lani helped me realize how different each reader’s journey is and how I will never have all the perfect books or strategies all the time. Lani taught me that I need to learn alongside my readers, get to know their interests inside and outside of my classroom, and be open to trying new books. I am grateful to readers like Lani who have come through my classroom over the years and have helped me grow as both a reader and teacher.
Typically found wearing mismatched socks, Dana Johansen spends her time teaching, negotiating with her yellow lab about doggy dinner options, and plopping down on the floor in bookstore aisles to find new reads. She has taught elementary and middle school for more than ten years and currently teaches fifth grade English at Greenwich Academy in Connecticut. Her first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with Sonja Cherry-Paul, combines her love for teaching reading with digital resources. She can be found on Twitter at @LitLearnAct and at www.LitLearnAct.wordpress.com.