Students in my 2/3 and 4/5/6 classrooms have been excitedly using Piper for the past couple of months. We built one box over a couple of morning sessions, when students arrive at school between 8 am and 9 am, and can use the time in flexible and personally meaningful ways. After building, the students involved in the build were disappointed to find the “Minecraft computer” didn’t work, only to discover that they hadn’t plugged the screen into the battery. Once they jumped over that hurdle, and booted up the computer, one of them selected SANDBOX MODE without hesitation. All of them were excited and intrigued by the fact that I was allowing them to play Minecraft at school, and didn’t quite believe it when they saw the familiar 16-bit imagery. They were eager to use it. But questions emerged when they couldn’t get to the inventory, or move forward. I didn’t say much about why there were roadblocks to using Minecraft in the usual way, but listened as they talked about what they should do next. Rebooting, they decided to try a different route in STORY MODE and found out they’d have to do some building before they got to use Minecraft in all the usual ways.
A few students used the Piper on a regular basis, but I had the chance to give all the students an opportunity to try it out when Tommy from Piper came for a visit at the beginning of this month with enough Pipers so that every student in the class could try it out with a partner. In watching a few students work with Piper as I had over a couple of months, I’d noticed that some kids were curious about playing Minecraft but didn’t realize there was more to the experience. They wanted a turn playing, and not necessarily creating in the way Piper had intended. I hoped that with two students using each Piper and every student engaged in exploration and creativity, I would see some other behavior and get some ideas about how to use Piper more regularly in the classroom.
The behavior that I noticed most during Tommy’s visit was collaboration. While many of my students who used the Piper on a regular basis were usually happy to work on their own, it was striking to see how much more they got out of the experience working with one another. They asked questions to solve problems, debated the best course of action for their next challenge. Students who had more experience with the Piper encouraged less experienced classmates. By the end breadboards, jumper wires, LEDs were not with the Pipers they came into the room with. Kids shared ideas while trying to make the buttons on the Piper as readily as they shared jumper wires. At the end of the visit in our class it was a little hard to clean up, but to me this was evidence of the free flow of ideas, as much as it was about the way that things develop legs in elementary classrooms.
Making a Piper work is not an easy task, and I witnessed some frustration among my students. Sometimes their was blame, and occasionally there was defeat. Tommy and I really encouraged perseverance. We coached the kids by asking them to think about what to do instead of being defeated. Many of them figured out they could ask questions, not just of us, but of each other. That led to an incredible amount of cooperation and collaboration. Students had the experience of problem solving by working with peers. Students often think that if you work together to solve a problem it means you are copying, or that it is not fair. I see this a lot in my math workshop, when we are working with paper and pencil. Somehow, though, working with the hardware and software of the Piper it felt natural to cooperate to solve problems and persevere through frustration. I saw the benefits of collaborative problem solving, as did the students who got the immediate and wonderful feedback of seeing their Piper become more functional.
There’s one last thing to note about my experience of using Piper in the classroom. I have one student who works hard to keep the Pipers in our classroom in working order. He takes pride in reaching new levels and building more functionality into the box. He is happy that his hard work benefits his peers, who are also interested in using the Piper. He can teach them what he has learned, and that makes him feel proud and excited. He also feels very responsible for making sure the Pipers work for other students, and that they have all the materials they need for other students to have fun using the Piper. As we use the Piper more in the classroom, I’ll be interested to see if more kids take on the role of caretaker and steward. As a teacher, I talk a lot to students about having to take care of the things that we have in the classroom, but I haven’t had to talk much about taking care of the Piper with this particular student. I wonder if it is because he gets so much positive feedback from using it, that he wants to see it continue to be something he can use on a regular basis.
I am looking forward to learning more about what it means for students to be co-creating the a gaming and technology experience with Piper. In the amount of cooperation and problem solving I saw kids display during our visit from Tommy, I can see that using Piper provides a different experience than using a computer that is a mysterious black box. Maybe the act of co-creation will help students to see that they can and should have control over how, when and why they use computers and related technology