“Make Cycles” of the DigDiscourse Summer Collaborative

Have you heard yet about DigDiscourse and its flexible “Make Cycles”?

The DigDiscourse Summer Collaborative is a free open online experience designed by teachers for teachers in the humanities kicking off for the summer on June 3, 2023. It is meant to support learning at a time where you might have a bit more flexibility alongside a need to do something fun and creative; you can follow your interests and come and go as you desire and your schedule allows.

So wondering how that works? The summer is organized around 3 two-week “Make Cycles,” each designed around a different aspect of using digital discourse to enjoy and explore the literature, art, and materials we love for ourselves and our students. Each cycle has a different focus – one is on Social Exchange (ie. exchanging ideas with each other related to a text), one is about Social Annotation (ie. exchanging ideas with and through a text), and the third is about Social Making (ie. exchanging ideas by making something related to a text).

An infographic of the DigDiscourse Collaborative's Summer Institute Design. It shows 5 puzzle pieces that fit together - the first is a Launch, the second is "Social Exchange," the third is "Social Annotation," and fourth is "Social Making," and the fifth is "Reflection + Closing." It includes the logo and name of the Digital Discourse Project.

What exactly is a “Make Cycle” you might be asking. Well, a cycle of making is really a rough description of a process that a maker goes through when creating something … really, anything! While acknowledging that no one makes and creates in the exact same way, make cycles are meant to describe at least the different aspects of making that most often come into play, whether we are baking bread, building a bridge, or composing a sonata.

Our Make Cycle was developed during the Connected Learning MOOC, or #CLMOOC, and is based on the idea that an open-ended invitation to make, compose, play, learn, and connect is supportive of Connected Learning and professional growth (Smith, et al, 2016). The DigDiscourse Summer Collaborative is organized around these kinds of creative cycles in order to support teachers in having the time and space to explore ideas, to connect and learn from colleagues, and to make things for themselves and their students.

Each DigDiscourse Make Cycle will invite you to engage in creative curricular challenges while tinkering with a range of digital tools alongside inspiration provided by colleagues sharing examples of student work and their own classroom inquiries. Along the way, you will be prompted to do reflective thinking as well as get input and feedback from your fellow makers. And collectively we will build a repository of great stuff for our teaching and digital dialogue practices.

Ready to give it a try? Visit to learn more and join us this summer’s fun.

The DigDiscourse Summer Collaborative is designed and facilitated by teachers from the Denver Area Writing Project and the Philadelphia Writing Project, who are members of the Digital Discourse Research Project, a research initiative funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania and the National Writing Project.

Framing Nature: Prompts for Writing Outside

“Young people, I want to beg of you always keep your eyes open to what Mother Nature has to teach you. By so doing you will learn many valuable things every day of your life.” – George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, a man born into slavery who grew up to be one of America’s most important scientific researchers and inventors, always held a deep love and appreciation for nature. When he wasn’t observing the natural world for scientific purposes, he often painted nature and even painted with nature, becoming known for his pigments made from barks and berries.

Kim Ruffin of Outdoor Afro was inspired to create with and within nature after a visit to the George Washington Carver National Monument and here she walks us through her process of leaf rubbing to create a colorful backdrop for her haiku poem. In the second video. Elizabeth Farris takes you out on a nature observation walk with her family to collect what she calls ‘tiny beautiful things’ to paint with, paint on, and look at closely as she guides you in writing a Nature Observational Poem!

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Kim Ruffin, Outdoor Afro Leader – Creating a four-color leaf rubbing palette for your nature poetry.

Content focus: George Washington Carver’s inspiration to create a leaf rubbing for poetry
Age-level recommendations: young writers, middle writers, advanced writers
Time: 6:00

Professor Kim Ruffin, an Outdoor Afro leader, tells us how a trip to the George Washington Carver Museum inspired her to use nature in creating art just as he did in his lifetime, and she created the four-palette leaf rubbing technique as a background for poetry. A downloadable handout is also available.

Spark from Elizabeth Farris – Nature to Spark Creativity!

Content focus: Creating with Nature and Nature Observational Poetry
Age-level recommendations: young writers, middle writers
Time: 13:23

Kim Farris walks with her family through the Forest Run Metro Park Wildlife Reserve observing nature, taking photos, and finding ‘tiny beautiful things’ that they can bring back home and use in creating art. After they paint sticks, draw cicada leaves and use a buck-eye shell as a stamper for paint, Kim teaches you how to write an Observational Poem based on something found in nature. A downloadable handout is also available.

Related resources

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Traditional Haiku: Poetry of Nature: This open educational resource is meant to support understanding Haiku as a form as well as writing them.

How To Write A Haiku with Kwame Alexander: Author and educator Kwame Alexander at Teacher Created Materials holds a special “Kwame Time” to give a lesson on writing a haiku poem.

First Palette: First Palette is the creation of Sue, a teacher and craft enthusiast who is passionate about sharing her ideas with educators and parents. Here is a step by step guide on how to create leaf rubbings for very young learners.

George Washington Carver: George Washington Carver was an American agricultural scientist and inventor who promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. He was one of the most prominent black scientists of the early 20th century. Learn more here on Wikipedia.

Stop To Smell the Roses – Figurative Language and Other Poetic Devices: Prompts for Writing Outside

“All we have to believe is our senses: the tools we use to perceive the world, our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted.” ― Neil Gaiman

Maggie Vetch, a park guide at the Niobrara Scenic River Park, stands beside the seventy-six miles of free-flowing water and experiences, with her senses, the nature that is surrounding her. Amy Hirzel, a highschool English Teacher and Poet from Northeast Ohio, stands at the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park where the natural world meets the urban and shares a lesson on common poetic devices such as figurative language and how poetic imagery can be created by using our five senses.

In the first video you’ll be asked to find and be with nature (it can be a lush green meadow or a patch of flowers jutting up in a parking lot!) and spend five minutes using your senses to write about your experience. Then, using what you’ll learn about poetic devices in the second video, you’ll be asked to craft this experience of being human in the natural world into a poem.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Niobrara Scenic River Park – Spend five minutes in nature using your senses – write what you hear, see, smell, and feel.

Content focus: Using our senses to capture our experience in nature
Age-level recommendations: Young writers; All ages
Time: 1:47

Maggie Vetch stands beside the rushing Niobrara National Scenic River and asks you to spend five minutes listening, looking, smelling, and feeling the nature around you and then writing about it.

Spark from Cuyahoga Valley National Park – Write a poem using poetic devices such as figurative language based on your senses.

Content focus: Using common poetic devices to craft your poems
Age-level recommendations: Older writers (13 and up)
Time: 13:20

Amy Hirzel reads inspiring poems and gives a detailed lesson on poetic devices while standing where the natural environment meets the human-built environment in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. She has also shared an Example Poem, as well as handouts about Poetic Devices and a Writer’s Toolbox handout.

More about using senses in poetry

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

Writer’s Toolbox Handout: As part of her Contrasting World project, this toolbox handout was created by Amy Hirzel

Poetic Devices Defined Handout: As part of her Contrasting World project, this poetic device handout was created by Amy Hirzel

Lesson on Exploring the Five Senses Through Metaphor from the University of Arizona Poetry Center

Using Common Senses in Poetry from

Wings, Paws and ‘Tales’ in Verse: Narrative Poetry Prompts for Writing Outside

One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns… ―Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop writes a poem about connecting with a seal over their shared love of music. Ranger Casey wonders about the daily lives of the birds living in a park that is sandwiched between two noisy urban areas.

In these two videos you’ll be asked to write about animals, and we suggest that you write Narrative Poems! Narrative poems are poems that tell a tale – like what a seal does when someone sings him a song – but still uses all of the regular elements of poetry, like colors, patterns, and sounds.

Writing “Sparks”

Spark from Little Rock Arkansas Writing Project – Write a poem about the secret life of an animal that you see, interact with, or are curious about.

Content focus: The many ways we can write poems about animals
Age-level recommendations: All ages; good for young writers.
Time: 2:54

Using her pet rabbit as one idea for inspiration, Heather Hummel from the Little Rock Writing Project explains how most nature poems involve a setting, wildlife, and yourself. She encourages you to go outside and look (or listen!) for an animal and using all of your senses, write a poem imagining that animal’s day or anything else about the animal that you are curious about.

Spark from Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Center –Draw a picture of a bird that lives in your area, then imagine and write what a day in the life of that bird might be like.

Content focus: How a bird’s setting affects its daily activities
Age-level recommendations: All ages; good for young writers.
Time: 3:22

Ranger Casey loves spending time with the birds and other animals of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Center, and wonders how living in this natural world—which is surrounded by two large cities—might affect the daily lives of the birds there. She encourages you to draw a bird found in your area and write about a day in the life of the bird.

More about Narrative Poetry

Below are related resources gathered to further support inquiry and exploration of this topic. If you have additional resources to recommend, please share them online via the hashtag #writeout

How To Write A Narrative Poem: Narrative poems – which simply mean “story poems” – are among the oldest forms of literature. This resource, from Power Poetry, provides tips and examples., Animal Poems: A collection of animal poems from, produced by the Academy of American Poets.

Poetry Foundation, Elizabeth Bishop: About Elizabeth Bishop with links to poems compiled by the Poetry Foundation.

Three Educators’ Approaches to Educating for Democracy

Preparing students to participate thoughtfully and effectively in civic and political life is increasingly important in this challenging time of hyper partisanship, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crises, and struggles for racial justice. In fact, two thirds of people in the United States think democracy is under threat (Vinopal, 2021), and roughly 80% think that Republican and Democratic voters do not agree when it comes to basic facts (LaLoggia, 2018). In addition, seven out of ten find online political discourse “stressful and frustrating” (Anderson & Auxier, 2020).

Educators play an important role in helping young people to learn how to judge the credibility of information they find online, discuss and deliberate with people who have differing opinions, express their perspectives in a variety of mediums, and participate in democracy. To explore the possibilities, visit Educating 4 Democracy website – a collection of videos and resources for educators, leaders, and school districts interested in preparing youth for democracy.

You will find the following topics:

  • Civic Investigation & Research – How do I help students research issues that matter to them?
  • Civic Discussion & Deliberation – How do I help students have productive discussions about current events and controversial issues?
  • Civic Voice – How can students voice their perspective on issues that matter to them?
  • Civic Action – What are effective ways to take action in the digital age?
  • Civic Knowledge – How do I further students’ civic knowledge and understanding?
  • Civic Assessment – How do I assess my students’ civic learning?
  • CA State Seal of Civic Engagement – For educators in California, you will find resources aligned to the criteria for the SSCE to support your students in being recognized and celebrated for their civic engagement

Three Educators’ Approaches

Elizabeth (Liz) Robbins is a high school Social Studies teacher in Chicago, Illinois. One helpful approach she utilizes in the classroom is a Structured Academic Controversy or SAC. This approach is illustrated in this video, “Structured Academic Controversy (SAC): A Strategy for Civic Discussion.” In the lesson, students deliberate suffrage at age 16 through an approach called Structured Academic Controversy. Students read and analyze text, develop respectful group discussion skills, practice building consensus, and write informal policy statements. The strategy practices essential skills and dispositions needed to shift from political divide to discussion. It asks students to suspend their current beliefs and consider varied perspectives on the issue, collaborate with others to ensure a shared understanding of those perspectives, and work to come to consensus for effective policy recommendations despite differing views.


Teresa Chin works with youth in downtown Oakland, California at YR Media — a media production company driven by young people. One thing she works with youth on is the development of first-person commentaries. She wants them to learn how to draw on their life experiences in order to share their perspective on a societal issue with a broad audience. As Teresa explains, “Commentaries are a really powerful tool for civic engagement. Your story is how you can get people to build empathy and understanding.” Here is a video of how Teresa does this as well as related curriculum materials: Writing Commentaries: The Power of Youth Voice.


Chela Delgado teaches high school in Oakland. She has her students research an issue they find compelling and study its root causes. They then develop a theory of change, engage in an action project, and present their findings to the community. As part of this effort, she has her students learn to create infographics. She wants them to develop skills to communicate their perspective succinctly and to clarify their theory of change. Her broader goal is to help students come to see themselves as informed and effective actors in their community and beyond. See how Chela makes this happen and check out her lesson plan in Infographics for Change.

Liz, Teresa, and Chela are focused on different kinds of civic media skills. But, they share a core commitment — preparing students to be active participants who can help strengthen our democracy.

Preparing Students to Participate in Democracy

To be sure, the civic and political challenges we currently face have multiple roots and will require action on many levels. But, as educators, it’s incumbent on us to ask what we can do. And countless educators, like Liz, Teresa, and Chela, working in schools and in youth organizations, are doing just that. One thing that makes these efforts exciting is that many educators are recognizing that educating for democracy can and should be accessible to all youth whether in after school programs or as a part of the core curriculum during the school day. Supporting youth to build the critical skills and capacities needed to participate thoughtfully and effectively in their community and society is not easy, but its import is clear.

The Educating 4 Democracy website provides a collection of videos that show a range of ways to do this in a variety of contexts. There are also related resources and background information to help educators learn more. This site was developed by the Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG). The videos on this website have been developed by CERG through partnerships with school districts and, at times, with other organizations such as the Teaching Channel. New content will be added on an ongoing basis, so follow @Ed4Democracy on Twitter and sign up for the Educating for Democracy newsletter for regular updates.

Place-conscious education, Nebraska style

We are flying less this summer. Air traffic has decreased 95% worldwide. So perhaps it is a good time to re-examine the concept of “flyover country.” And “drive-through country” won’t be any better.

At the Nebraska Writing Project, teachers and students reject those epithets entirely. Since 1995, Nebraska teachers and Writing Project siteleaders have been working on their own models of place-conscious education. Following the advice of Nebraska poet and “provincial” Don Welch, they have been working to “bring back a sight that can co-create meaning” and to cultivate that sight in their students.

Now, in a seven-part audio series released this July, Robert Brooke, director of the Nebraska Writing Project, and several Nebraska teacher-leaders introduce their place-conscious approach and discuss several projects and partnerships that have expanded and deepened the approach over the years.

In the meantime, begin your own place-conscious writing with this exercise from Robert using the Don Welch poem above. Listen to the 5 minute audio below and #WriteNow.

NWP Radio · Robert Brooke’s Place-Conscious Education Exercise

Literature, Identity, Agency: Civic Engagement in the Classroom

I was recently asked, “What is a current trend in education that has shaped your teaching?” My immediate response was civic engagement. Knowing the “why” of my praxis guides my choices in lesson design. As I ponder this question and my response more deeply, an unsettling feeling takes over.

How could civics learning be considered a trend? How can preparing students to actively participate in our democratic society be seen as one of the many here today, potentially gone tomorrow, initiatives in public education?

Shouldn’t developing skills to help our youth contribute, question, and make informed decisions about what goes on around them be at the heart of public education? Shouldn’t part of helping learners articulate their voices be focused on engaging in real-world challenges? If not, all the number crunching, all the empathy lessons, all the increased awareness of our histories, all the hypotheses and experiments… Why?

Connecting Literature to Identity

One benefit of civics learning is student engagement. Recently, my ninth grade English classes studied Romeo and Juliet through the lens of understanding the fine line between love and hate. Students can relate to the idea of loyalty, young love, and sacrifice.

Coupling Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with Citizen Films’ documentary American Creed challenges learners to investigate their own identities. Students contemplate how this universal question of the intersection of love and hate affects them on a personal level. They explore shared values of what it means to be American (or part of American society) and what happens when these values are not always supported by actions and policies. In short, learners investigate how love for, and pride in, aspirations of a country can at times translate into acts that may be considered hateful by others, when said aspirations are not met.

Today’s youth struggle with multiple identities. They are one way at home, another at school, another with friends, another online, and so many more. It’s no wonder they have no time to contemplate the meaning of being part of American society. But their participation in voting and decision-making hinges on knowing what they value as being American.

Learners first need an opportunity to explore and express their own values. Because many of my students had never reflected on their own national identities, in this lesson, they were invited to read historical documents, poems, and other texts about the American identity. Choosing what resonated with them, students created spoken word pieces by combining words and phrases they found in their reading with their own thoughts.

Students were asked to curate symbols to accompany their ideas and create a digital story. With the help of my digital media co-facilitator Kat Saucier, learners used iMovie to sequence the images to coordinate with the narration of their spoken word pieces.

This initial taste of discovering and discussing cultural identity was an entry to a deeper dive into what it means to be part of American society. Students revisited their values and beliefs. Some were surprised at what they found. Still, others doubted the impact of a national identity on their life as a whole. What they did recognize was both common threads and differences through the American landscape. They began questioning what quelling the tension of shared aspirations with varied results looks like in action.

Making and Writing Our Future

Having viewed the film, learners are now creating short films of their own, responding to prompts created by National Writing Project’s initiative Writing Our Future.

Learners have selected topics that connect to the following questions:

  • What is your American creed?
  • How does your family and community history connect to the American creed?
  • How do symbols, words, or rituals express the American creed?
  • How do diverse Americans understand the American creed?
  • How can you express your American creed through action?

Topics range from exploring the genealogy and immigration stories of diverse Americans, the role of youth in movements for social change, an intergenerational look at biracial marriage, and many more compelling discussions that demonstrate civic agency. In essence, learners are equating being American as needing to be an active participant by recognizing and amplifying their voices on particular issues.

Teaching is a privilege with much responsibility. Scaffolding learners on their quests for managing their identities, without guiding in one direction over the other, (no identity is superior to another) is challenging. Still, this investigation is both worthy and necessary.

In my eyes, at the heart of education is civic engagement. It is not a trend. It is fundamental.

Related resources:

Digital Civics Toolkit: 5 Resource Modules for Educators

As we come to the end of another school year, it’s often a moment to pause and imagine what new and innovative things we can experiment with next year. Given our interconnected lives and the many urgent and contested issues facing our world today, reconsidering how to prepare our students to participate in democracy and in society seems warranted.

What skills, capacities, and dispositions do your students need to thoughtfully and productively navigate the world around them — and how might you support them in new ways?

Of course, students often have many skills when it comes to using digital platforms and tools. But they may not feel confident about using them to learn about issues they care about, engage in productive online dialogue, voice their perspectives in powerful ways, and take informed action.

Enter the Digital Civics Toolkit. This new toolkit is a collection of resources for educators to support youth to explore, recognize, and take seriously the civic potentials of digital life. It draws on the research and work of the Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) Research Network.

The Digital Civics Toolkit is organized into five distinct modules that each capture a key practice associated with digital civics:

  • Participate—Students explore their identities and communities, identify civic issues that matter to them, and consider how they might use digital media for civic participation.
  • Investigate—Students work to understand and analyze civic information online and consider what information they can trust.
  • Dialogue—Students navigate diverse perspectives and exchange ideas about civic issues in our interconnected world.
  • Voice—Students consider how, when, and to what end they can create, remix, and otherwise repurpose content that they share with others in online spaces.
  • Action—Students consider a broad range of tactics and strategies for acting on civic issues.

We invite you to explore the modules and choose the resources that best meet the interests and needs of your students, classroom, and community. Each module contains a conversation starter, several activities, and a closing reflection to support students to synthesize their learnings.

If you’d like to dig deeper into concepts, there are also links to extension activities. For more information on the ideas in each module, we provide teacher background information with links to articles, blogs, videos, and further resources.

Listen in as we discuss the Digital Civics Toolkit on NWP Radio; this discussion includes the authors of the toolkit, including:

  • Erica Hodgin, Associate Director, Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG) at University of California, Riverside; Research Director, Educating for Participatory Politics Project
  • Carrie James, Research Associate and a Principal Investigator, Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education
  • Sangita Shresthova, Director of Research, Civic Imagination Project, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at University of Southern California

NWP Radio · The Digital Civics Toolkit: Supporting Youth in Civic Engagement

We hope the Digital Civics Toolkit offers you engaging and relevant resources to explore over the summer as you plan and prepare for the coming school year. Let us know what you think in the comments below.

To find out more about preparing youth for civics and politics in the digital age, visit Educating 4 Democracy for more videos, resources, and readings.

Using the Film True Justice in Your Classroom

True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality follows 30 years of the Equal Justice Initiative’s work on behalf of the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. The film won the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications’s 26th annual Vision Award, the Peabody Award, and an Emmy.

True Justice Film Image

On June 25, 2020, the National Writing Project in collaboration with the Kunhardt Film Foundation hosted a special online screening and discussion of True Justice for educators (See the trailer here). The synchronous free online screening was followed by a conversation and Q&A with Anthony Ray Hinton, author of The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row. The follow-up discussion was moderated by Jameka Thomas of the Red Mountain Writing Project.

Teacher Resources

The Kunhardt Film Foundation has created lessons, engagement guides, and interviews to support educators in teaching the film and the social issues highlighted in this documentary.

Visit the resource collection here: 

Our Discussion with Anthony Ray Hinton

Full Discussion (Duration: 44:54)

Mr. Hinton’s Advice to Teachers (Duration: 3:39)

Mr. Hinton on Books (Duration: 10:47)

Mr. Hinton on Writing, Love, and Forgiveness (Duration: 17:57)

More About True Justice

In the last half-century, America has become the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, authorized the execution of hundreds of condemned prisoners and continued to struggle to recover from a long history of racial injustice.

For more than three decades, Alabama public interest attorney Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, has advocated on behalf of the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned, seeking to eradicate racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. An intimate portrait of this remarkable man, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality follows his struggle to create greater fairness in the system and shows how racial injustice emerged, evolved and continues to threaten the country, challenging viewers to confront it.

Creative Writing and World-Building in Minecraft: Education Edition

As the world sheltered in place during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, stories of youth designing spaces in Minecraft popped up on social media. College students built blocky versions of campus at universities like MIT, University of California Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Southern Indiana, and reimagined the events and spaces that had been closed to them by the spread of the virus. These stories likely did not surprise teachers, who undoubtedly have all manner of first-hand experience with young people’s skill and fascination with the sandbox game.

For me, I first understood the game’s hold on the creative imaginations of students in the summer of 2012, listening to three boys discuss their fascination with the game. I was seated on the Auraria Campus, the site of the Denver Writing Project’s Young Writers Camp, and the boys were climbing in the tree boughs above me while we all waited for their parents to collect them at the end of the day. One of the young men described for the others how he had researched the game for a month before playing with the other kids at his school because he didn’t want to look like a novice. When I asked him what kind of research he’d done, all three boys talked over each other about how they used the Minecraft Wiki and YouTube game tutorials to learn more about the mechanics of the game.

The intersection between Minecraft, creativity and learning are plain, but how can educators use Minecraft space for young writers to write, revise, and create while they play?

This was the question Meenoo Rami, a Philadelphia Writing Project teacher-consultant and now a Program Manager at Microsoft, posed to me and NWP’s Christina Cantrill. Seated on the floor of the MIT Media Lab during a lunch break at the 2018 Connected Learning Summit, we were talking about Meenoo’s work at Minecraft Education in the moments between sessions about interest-driven, peer-supported learning. I responded by describing some of the ways I had seen teachers use world-building to support creative writing and thinking in the Aurora Public Schools during some experiments in the classroom and in club spaces after school. The conversation led to a new collaboration between NWP and Minecraft Education Edition.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft has led to the development of Minecraft: Education Edition — an educational version of the game with a global reach. Their site offers lessons with accompanying Minecraft worlds, designed for use across the curriculum for all age ranges. With support from Minecraft, I worked with a team of teachers and youth to create 10 ELA writing lessons related to world-building. The process of designing worlds and lessons that could support playful writing and learning was challenging, fun, and rich with possibilities.

Ultimately, collaborating with teachers about writing in Minecraft resulted in unique contexts for youth to engage in world-building. In a post for Minecraft Education, I framed the marriage between Minecraft and composition this way:

Just as a player logs into Minecraft, in the moment before she begins to dig, build, fly, or otherwise explore, she encounters a screen that offers her the choice to create a new world. … Think arctic environs with polar bears. Jungles thick with vines where parrots fly from tree to tree. Aquatic scenes filled with coral, sea creatures, and sunken treasure. For a different game experience, a player can also create a flat world devoid of digital creatures, without flora or fauna — a clean canvas for designing with digital blocks. From the outset, Minecraft asks players, “What kind of world do you want to create?”

The 10 lessons built were co-created with the help of interested educators and youth; each was imagined as a playful interpretation of a concept familiar in English Language Arts, and each asks players to write and build in different ways. Young writers from the Denver Writing Project not only helped test the activities, but a few of them lent their Minecrafting expertise and aided in the construction of the worlds.

The NWP-hosted Minecraft worlds now include:

  • Setting in Narrative Writing: Explore the desert and imagine story possibilities.
  • Characters All Around: Meet three characters and create a character of your own.
  • Diving for Dialogue: Help a group of people stranded on an island rescue resources from a shipwreck, then write a dialogue.
  • Exquisite Corpse: Learn about a century old surrealist game, then write and play in this world.
  • 6 Room Poem Maze: Tour a maze while writing about a powerful image to get practice with poetics.
  • “This I Believe”: To help in the writing of a “This I Believe” essay, study mentor texts from the popular NPR essay series and build things that represent beliefs.
  • “Where I’m From”: Inspired by the poem, “Where I’m From,” by George Ella Lyon, explore digital spaces that illustrate stanzas written by youth, then write stanzas and illustrate them.
  • Conflict in Stories: Tour a scene with a few conflicts to think about story ideas and imagine resolutions.
  • Narrative in Perspective: The mayor of a troubled village needs your perspective on some troubling issues, your report will help her set things right.
  • Settings for Stories: Tour four different environments while you answer some questions fiction writers use to engage in world building.

These activities are meant to inspire innovative lesson planning and playful teaching. Teachers are encouraged to enlist youth and to revise these lessons while you play them. As for the young people who give these lessons a try, NWP hopes they inspire the most creative of writing and awesome Minecraft builds. To that end, I recommend that the teachers who invite young writers into these spaces ask them to be playtesters as well as students. Surely young Minecraft lovers who explore the worlds and the lessons therein will have insight into how the lessons can improve, and how the spaces can better support learning. Students are sure to have playful ideas for new ways to build worlds. And we want to keep learning with you all!

This work is also described via a Minecraft Education Edition Podcast (22:47) recorded in July 2020. The episode may interest teachers who want to leverage youth passion for Minecraft into innovative work with writing and design.

Special thanks to:

Mali Abrahamsen, student
Andy Burns, student
Keaton Cornella, student
Samantha Cornella, Aurora Public Schools
Stella Cypher, Aurora Public Schools
Hailey and Madison Dillon, students
Jason Dillon, Denver Writing Project
Marina Lombardo, New York City Writing Project
Kevin Riebau, Aurora Public Schools
Maya Robbins, students
Cari Roberts, Aurora Public Schools