Thunder Bay

Microsoft invites Thunder Bay teacher to share how building new worlds in Minecraft keeps students connected

Microsoft invited a Thunder Bay. Ont., elementary school teacher to attend an international online education session and share how he's using a popular video game to keep his students engaged in learning, and connected with each other during the pandemic.

Kris Sandberg shared how a video game encouraging collaboration, conversation helps fight pandemic's isolation

Kris Sandberg, a teacher at McKellar Park School in Thunder Bay, told an international Microsoft education session how he uses Minecraft to keep his students connected even when they can’t be in the classroom. (Kris Sandberg/Lakehead Public Schools)

Microsoft invited a Thunder Bay, Ont. elementary school teacher to attend an international online education session and share how he's using one of the world's most popular video games to keep his students engaged in learning, and connected with each other during the pandemic.

Minecraft is like "virtual Lego", explained Kris Sandberg, who teaches grades six and seven at McKellar Park School. Players use blocks to build everything from houses to ships to whole new worlds in a variety of different ecosystems, including tundra, savannah, forest and jungle.

"There's endless possibilities," he said. "You just put the blocks in front of you and let your imagination and your creativity take hold."

But another key feature of the game is that it encourages collaboration and conversation between players.

"They can be in the same world together, they can work with other people, they can talk with them and...decide how to spatially put things together that fit best in that world."

'It's really super cool' 

Sandberg has been using Minecraft, for years to help kids improve their reading, writing and math skills.

The game emphasizes spatial awareness,and demands players think about concepts like measuring perimeter, calculating an area, or estimating volume and "how much water you need to fill in your little swamp."

His students also keep journals, writing about their daily adventures and survival tasks in the virtual world they've created.

When the kids are working in Minecraft, it's always "very noisy", with the students "talking about how they're going to build this and 'come, look and see what I just did right now, it's really super cool' and so there's a lot of really rich conversations going on and you can just see their excitement and their enthusiasm."

A way to connect while disconnected

But when schools were suddenly dismissed to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Sandberg and several of his colleagues realized the chat function of Minecraft was a way to bring their classes together again.

"We knew this was going to be a way for kids who are feeling isolated to get connected because once you're in the Minecraft world you can start talking with your friends, and interacting with your friends and ... this was going to be a way for them to be connected when we're so disconnected."

The Lakehead Public School Board also helped some families improve their internet service to make sure their children could participate with their classmates.

.Sandberg told the Microsoft education session about the strong social and emotional connection this weekly Minecraft task provides.

'This is just so great, my son is smiling' 

"We've got students saying 'Wow, I can't wait to try this, I got an idea already,' and then I've had stories from teachers saying that this is just great because the kids come and play Minecraft for an hour in the morning and then they're doing their online tasks after that because we've already got them engaged in the online world and parents are saying 'this is just so great, my son is smiling, he's talking to his friend, he's creating, we have such good conversations about the build'."

Nearly 200 "enthusiastic'' educators from around the globe heard Sandberg's presentation Wednesday. Since then, Sandberg has received many requests for advice, assistance and information on how other teachers can use games like this to enhance remote learning.

"We knew we had a hit here."

You can hear the full interview with Kris Sandberg on CBC Superior Morning here.