Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on January 28, 2015.

If you have children, you are probably aware of the video game, Minecraft. I first became familiar with it by reading homeschool e-mail lists. It’s very popular with homeschool kids, and there are even local groups who get together on a regular basis just to play Minecraft together.

The game is open-ended and allows players to build 3D worlds using blocks. The game can be played on many different devices, including a PC, Mac or Xbox. My sons play the Minecraft Pocket Edition on android tablets.

But it’s not just popular with homeschool kids. Over 60 million copies have been sold across all platforms, and Microsoft just bought Mojang, the company who develops Minecraft, in a $2.5 billion dollar deal. I can’t imagine what will come next.

You can play in survival mode where you have to work to find resources that will keep you alive and help maintain the world you have built. Or you can play in creative mode where you have unlimited resources, you can fly, and nothing can kill you. There is also an adventure mode where players play custom maps, but we haven’t got to that level yet, and it’s probably not available in the pocket edition anyway.

I’m not an expert in Minecraft by any means. When I look over my boys’ shoulders as they zoom around their worlds, showing me the incredible structures they have built – such as a house shaped like a wolf, a railroad that goes on forever, treehouses, gardens, underground houses, and the beginning of a big ship – I get a little dizzy and have to look away.

I introduced my eight-year-old to the game a year or more ago because he loves to build things, and he liked it, but after awhile, he lost interest. The game doesn’t come with tutorials, so it’s hard for new players to learn what to do, although there are thousands of tutorials on YouTube. It’s overwhelming sorting through those.

At first I thought my son just wasn’t going to catch the Minecraft fever, but at some point, he wanted to play again, and ever since then, Minecraft has been all the rage in my house. Little brother started playing too.

My boys only get to play about an hour or so everyday, but when they aren’t playing, they make plans about what they will build next. My eight-year-old tells me how he’ll dig for iron or some other material he needs in order to carry out his plans. He has watched a few videos and talked with a friend about the game, but he has mostly learned how to play through trial and error. He is so crazy about the game that he started building a “real life” cardboard model of the little Minecraft character.

By far, I love this video game more than any other game my boys have played on their tablets. It is educational in many ways, but my favorite aspect of it is that my boys are bonding over it.

The game allows multi-players, so with a wifi connection, one of my sons can create a world and then the other boy can find that world in a list, click on it, and voila, they are in the world together. My boys sit together and have collaborated on building large structures. I watched them build a railroad together – one of them would lay down a cement block, and the other one would lay down a track. They spend hours creating intricate worlds, and then when they feel like it, they create a new one.

They have showed me gardens they have planted together and the animals they have spawned. My eight-year-old has one house where his little brother isn’t allowed to go, and younger brother is fine with that. Sometimes I hear them disagreeing over something, but they always seem to resolve the issue on their own.

Once they played hide and seek in the game. My eight-year-old thought it would be impossible for his younger brother to hide from him in Minecraft, but as it turned out, he never found the hiding place, which was down in the water.

Some child experts write that video games or any “screen time” are detrimental to children. It keeps them from interacting with the world, or building real life skills, they say. Perhaps this can happen when children aren’t engaged in any other activities, but I have seen my kids’ imaginations grow through the games they play, and Minecraft has been the best yet. On the contrary to the naysayers, they are constantly interacting, collaborating, imagining new possibilities, and strategizing. If those aren’t real world skills, I don’t know what is.

New Smart Phone Convert

red maple treeNote: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on November 5, 2014. I don’t have a photo of my smart phone, so I’m sharing an unedited photo I took with my phone — some beautiful autumn foliage I found recently.

Last week I checked off another year and turned 43 years old. For my birthday, my husband bought me a smart phone, and he bought himself one too. Actually, my birthday was just an excuse to finally upgrade our “dinosaur” phones. That is, we’ve never had anything other than a basic, cheap cell phone that could only make phone calls.

Though we love all things tech, my husband and I could never see the benefit in paying high monthly phone prices or spending hundreds of dollars on a phone, but recently T-Mobile came out with some competitive pricing. Also, my husband has increasingly needed texting ability for his work, and he wanted me to have a more portable camera so that I wouldn’t have to lug my Nikon around anymore. (Although, I love my Nikon, and I will still lug it around sometimes.)

I knew this day was coming because my husband has been researching phones for, well, years, but recently the conversations about cell phones had been increasing. Since I had no interest in doing that kind of research, I usually just nodded and said, “Whatever you think, dear.” But even though a big part of me wanted a smart phone, another part of me didn’t.

I certainly didn’t want to become one of those people with their faces always buried in their phones. I was afraid it would be too tempting to always check my e-mail on the road, or see if anyone has tweeted me. When I’m outside, I don’t need to know those things.

Now that I have a smart phone, however, I understand why people’s faces are always buried in them. First, there’s a huge learning curve trying to figure out how to use one. I have spent the past few days with my face buried in my phone not because I’m wasting time on social media but because I’m trying to figure out how to make a phone call! And how to get to the things I’ll really use like the camera – which I found easily, but then where do the photos go? And how do I get them to my computer?

I’ve never had the ability to text someone before, and it is fun, but I also don’t see why it’s so popular. It takes so darn long to type out a message on that tiny keyboard that it would be much quicker to just call the person. But while I was typing, I discovered the emoticons available on my phone – those little smiley faces and pictures that you can insert into your text. There must be hundreds of them to choose from! No wonder people have their faces buried in their phones.

I’m still not sure how to use all the features on this phone, but now that I’ve had it a few days, I’m glad to discover that I check my e-mail and twitter about as much as I used to. But I’ve also discovered that it’s fun to have access to these things while I’m waiting in the car for my husband who is in the store, or I’m waiting at the doctor’s office. I’m a smart phone convert now.

I’ve also realized that when you look at someone with their nose buried in a smartphone, it may look like they aren’t connecting to the world around them, but actually, a big part of our world is online and we connect to each other on these devices. While sitting waiting somewhere, I have caught up on interesting articles and my friends’ lives…something I couldn’t do at home because there’s always more pressing things to do here.

This afternoon my husband and I were trying to make calling each other on our phone a little easier, and we played around with the ability to make a different ring tones depending on the person who is calling. We were sitting on our bed with our boys, and we were all laughing at the silly sounds the phones can make. My eight-year-old especially likes it when my phone croaks like a frog each time I get a text message.

Yes, we have finally joined the club of smart phone users.

Post Script: Using E-mail in Home Education

When I wrote my last column on using e-mail in our homeschool, I didn’t realize how beneficial one aspect of it would be, so I thought I’d add a little more about that.

What I’m referring to is sending my six-year-old articles that I find on the web that he might be interested in.  Sometimes my husband finds them too.  Mostly these are science-related articles having to do with animals because at six-years-old, that’s something he can wrap his head around.  The articles always have photos, and my son likes for me to read the text.

Sometimes I put it in more simple language, if I feel that is necessary, but sometimes I read it just as it’s written.  Even if some of it goes over his head, if he’s interested, it’s a good way for him to build his vocabulary and hear how articles are written.  Sometimes he asks me the meaning of a word, or we might do a google search for more photographs of the subject.  Perhaps in the future, these articles will spark an idea for a longer-term project!

I should also mention that we watch a lot of educational television, so my son is used to some of this scientific language and imagery.  If you want to try this, you’ll have to judge for yourself what you think your child is interested in and ready for.  You might want to experiment!

Here are some recent articles that my son received from my husband and me.  Feel free to snatch the link and show them to your children!

Feel free to leave more ideas on how to use e-mail or other technology to spark a child’s interest in learning.  As I come up with more ideas, I’ll be sure to share them with you too.  Thanks so much for reading my blog.

Using Technology in Home Education

{Homeschooling and Technology}

Note: This column was printed in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, October 10, 2012.

My husband told me I ought to listen to an episode of a podcast called Mac Power Users: Episode 93. This episode is an interview with Fraser Speirs, a mobile education consultant.  He works for the Cedar School of Excellence in Greenock, Scotland, and he’s also a writer and does public speaking about using mobile devices and technology in schools.  The Cedar School of Excellence was one of the first schools to give macs and then iPads to all of its students.

Obviously, it would be not be feasible for most schools, especially publics schools, to offer an iPad to every student.  The Cedar School of Excellence is a small, private K-12 school, but my husband knew I would find the ideas behind the use of technology useful in our homeschool.  I did, and I also think it could be useful for any parent who is involved I their child’s education and working with them at home.

Listening to Speirs talk reinforced my opinion that technology is not something we should shield children from. I know parents have different views on “screen time,” and I respect that. We need to set up boundaries for our children and use technology as a tool and not as a babysitter.  But our children are in a unique position to grow up with technology (something we never had), and someday they will be competing in a world with more advanced technology.  We parents need to assist them in acquiring useful skills.

I was impressed to hear that children as young as kindergarten age use iPads in the Cedar School of Excellence.  The device follows them throughout their education at the school, and the way they use it changes as they get older.

Speirs said they expected the younger grades to use the iPad more as a tool in which they would work through certain educational programs (called applications or “apps”) and that it wouldn’t be until grade Primary 5 that kids would use it more as a productivity tool.  However, they were wrong. Kids as young as Primary 2 – that’s 1st or 2nd grade here in the U.S. – used the iPad to create their own stuff.

Speirs observation of how young children can use an iPad does not surprise me. At two, my six-year-old was a master at my iPod Touch. Now I think he could use a device like the iPad or a computer for creativity, especially since there are so many educational apps for children available.

At one point Speir states,

“…we very much look at the iPad as a tool for expressing: for creativity and also expressing your understanding. So, if I’m teaching about some science topic, let’s say the planets, then one of the ways I can assess what the children have understood is that I can have them express their understanding through various creative tasks on the device.”

He goes on to explain that they also do assignments off the device.  They are not a paperless school.

I wish Speirs spent more time talking about exactly what young, primary-age children do on the iPad, but he did make it clear that teaching the children presentation skills at every level was a priority.  This is something I feel strongly about too, and his explanation was right on target.

When thinking about the office applications people use today, he and his staff look at word processing as something that is used solely for the purpose of printing on a piece off paper.  I don’t think this need will ever go away completely, but I do agree with him that it is becoming less necessary as our world becomes more and more digital.  I also agree when he states that learning today’s current word processing programs is not important.  Because twenty years from now when these kids are in the work force, who knows what kind of programs they will be using?

Speirs states,

“…we thought, well, in the end of the day, [word-processing is] a secretarial-level skill, whereas presentation, and persuasion, and communication is a CEO-level skill.”

This is the idea that captured me behind this interview.  I have been thinking a lot about the necessity of teaching our children entrepreneurial skills and other high level skills that they typically don’t learn in a traditional public school.  We shouldn’t be preparing them for the world as it is today – we have to prepare them for the world they are going to enter as young adults.

Speirs says,

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the future.You’ve got to realize how far ahead you have to think in education because quite often you end up, in education, where you’re sort of fighting the last battle, whereas you’ve got to be fighting a much longer game than that.”

I agree.  Right now, we have countless college graduates with higher degrees and school loans to pay off, but there are no jobs for them.  Some say this might be the next bubble to burst.  I don’t know exactly what the job market will look like when my boys graduate, but I know that letting them have some daily control over their education will go a long way in teaching them how to take charge of their lives as adults.

This is also what attracts me to project-based homeschooling, which I have written about before.  In project-based homeschooling, the child chooses what he or she wants to study, and they do their own research to complete the task.  Then they present their findings in a format of their choosing such as book, poster or other form. After listening to this podcast, I’m thinking in terms of what the Cedar School of Excellence might use – Keynote (PowerPoint) or mind-mapping (they use iThoughtsHD).  I could also throw in ideas such as photo slideshows or video.

As you can see, this interview with Fraser Speirs has got my wheels turning, and I’m thinking of different ways to incorporate technology in my son’s education.  At six years old, I can start by introducing him to different programs on our computer and showing them what they do.  My first endeavor to do this was to give him his own e-mail address.  We also gave him a point and shoot camera for his sixth birthday, and we’re using it as an educational tool too.  I’ll write about all of this and more in upcoming columns.

How do you use technology in your home education? What do you want to learn about technology so that you can pass this knowledge on to your kids?