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Teacher maps out Alberta in Minecraft to give hands-on history lessons

Mon, 9 May, 2016

News item: Teacher maps out Alberta in Minecraft

Nine-year-old students Sophia and Ryleigh use landmarks to pinpoint the location of their birch-tree shelter, navigating across rivers and through forest to rejoin their Woodland Cree community.

The Grade 4 students are getting some hands-on lessons in social studies as they and their classmates establish virtual societies across a pixelated version of Alberta’s landscape.

Their teacher, Jared Galbraith, spent weeks building the first map of Alberta within the wildly popular video game, Minecraft. Lynnwood School in west Edmonton uses the education version of the game, which is designed with customizable features for teachers.

“If you give purpose to it, it’s an amazing learning tool,” Galbraith said of the game.

Building virtual communities

Watch: Grade 4 students at Lynnwood School use the video game Minecraft to establish virtual societies across a pixelated version of Alberta’s landscape. 

To start the project, Galbraith laid out Alberta’s terrain, plotting mountains, foothills, rivers, trees, plains, parklands and grasslands on his map.

Then his students began populating the province with communities from the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s, researching to make the game as authentic as possible.

Galbraith’s students learned which tools and resources the Dene people used in Alberta’s north and the Blackfoot people used in the south. The kids built in-game First Nations tipis and set up European forts, farms and trading posts. They figured out where to build Fort Edmonton, Fort Chipewyan and Rocky Mountain House, and which plants to grow in their gardens.

Sophia and Ryleigh are Woodland Cree characters in the game, so they built a shelter from birch in the boreal forest as their home.

“We had to move twice because one time we weren’t in the boreal forest, even though we’re the Cree and the Cree usually live in the boreal forest,” Ryleigh explained as she and her classmates worked together online in the Lynnwood School computer lab. “We were part of a tribe, but me and Sophie wanted to move because we just didn’t feel like it was the right tribe for us.”

The Woodland Cree live in the boreal forest so they can use the trees, which are a valuable resource, Sophia said. “You can burn them and build with the wood.”

Students delve into 'virtual historic life'

Galbraith’s students love the interactive history lessons. They work together in the game and deal with issues that arise.

Now, the kids have started fur trading, pretending that the chickens in Minecraft are actually beavers so they can trade feathers as beaver pelts. Students are exploring how First Nations life was impacted when Europeans arrived, Galbraith said.

“It’s essentially virtual historic life,” he said.

“The coolest part of the project, I think, is being able to have an entire class working on a single thing, at the same time, in a smooth, equitable, collaborative and deep-learning way. I can’t think of another project where everyone could be working together in such an effective way.”

Community connections

Galbraith’s class isn’t just studying Alberta history in game format. The kids have read about residential schools and examined social-justice issues. They have reached out to a group that uses the Twitter hashtag #craftreconciliation, challenging First Nations and non-First Nations students to discuss reconciliation online in creative ways, including through the game, Minecraft. Galbraith’s students took a field trip to Fort Edmonton Park. And Galbraith has worked to add more layers to students’ learning by bringing in community experts, such as a student from the faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta, a hoop dancer, and a student’s father who is a Cree descendant.

“We actually learned that the tipis for the Plains Cree were not colourful, which completely changed our thinking. So a whole bunch of students went, ‘Oh!’ and they went and fixed it in-game, which is awesome,” Galbraith said.

The Alberta Minecraft assignment has given the five First Nations, Métis and Inuit students in Galbraith’s class a strong voice in the project, Galbraith said.

“It makes them proud of their heritage. It makes them experts in the project. Like the dad that came in. You should have seen my student’s eyes just glowing all day when his dad was presenting. You couldn’t replace it.”

Watch: Grade 4 teacher, Jared Galbraith, spent weeks building the first map of Alberta within Minecraft. Take a tour through Galbraith’s Alberta world.

Download Galbraith’s Alberta world and explore the map.