Medieval Japanese Poetry and Minecraft

Poetry Island is the spawn point and contains teleport stations to student poems.

Poetry Island is the spawn point and contains teleport stations to student poems.

I’ve had a strong desire to use Minecraft for learning about medieval Japan for quite some time. I’ve always thought that the environments generated in Minecraft worlds often have a very Japanese familiarity to them. Last December I finally acted on my long held desire and created a unit to teach medieval Japanese history concepts while emphasizing the role of social structure through both visual and written narrative.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the majority of my students enter 7th grade at least 3-4 grade levels below where their reading and writing should be. I always design my lessons with the primary goal of addressing these deficiencies.

After completing the background lesson for this unit,  I asked my students to choose and then research the lifestyle and role of a citizen selected from one of the following hierarchical classes:

  • Kuge Class – Emperor, Shogun
  • Buke Class – Daimyos (Lords), Hatamotos, Samurai
  • Heimin Class – peasants, artisans, merchants, monks, thieves
  • Eta Class – butchers, undertakers, dung haulers, ninja (not the Hollywood version)

They were then to write an original poem from the perspective of that citizen. During this time period, tanka (aka waka) poems were very popular. Similar to haiku, syllables were important. The syllabic pattern in Japanese for tanka is 5-7-5-7-7. Poems written in this form in English do not require this pattern, but I decided to stick with it to add more structure for my novice poets. Tanka poems place emphasis on the environment and emotions – a natural bridge to connect poetic verse and model landscapes in Minecraft.

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Another goal for this unit was to connect my students with the growing Minecraft in education community. Up to this point, we have worked mostly in isolation and I felt it was time to reach out and collaborate with others.

I wanted my students to learn some Japanese words and place them in their poems, so I contacted James York (@yorksensei) because I knew that he runs a very successful Japanese language school in Minecraft. James allowed us to tour the Japanese garden area of his community known as the Kotoba Miners. He also volunteered his students to translate some of our student poems into Japanese for us.

I was also looking to connect my students with others doing a similar project in parallel so I contacted Melvina Kurashige (@mkurashige) about our two classes possibly collaborating. She was very enthusiastic about the idea. Her Japanese culture students in Hawaii would be emphasizing Japanese seasons and festivals in their poems. They would then create their seasons and imagery using Minecraft. We planned to share our poetry and worlds with one another and work with James for translation help.

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 Lesson Outline

Week 1 – Research

Students gathered background information on feudal Japanese society, including geography and environment, Prince Shotoku and the Golden Age, Kanji, the Code of Bushido, warring states period, and the unification of Japan to address the California Standards for history.

Week 2 – Poetry

Students learned to write tanka poems (addressing CCSS) with the help and guidance of author and poet, Robert Walton. Bob was instrumental in helping my students find their voice and connect it to a physical location. You can download his tanka lesson plan HERE.

Example

On the mountain side

hearing the running mizu

watching the fish swim

painting koi fish in river

enjoying the windy path.

 Week 3 – Three steps and reflection

First, each student had to find an appropriate location and landscape that “fit” their poem. I located several possible locations and placed a teleport block near each. I created a teleport station next to the spawn point so that students could navigate quickly to each site. I let students use creative mode to find their location and gather materials to build. When they found the spot where their poem would begin, I gave each a Home block, which would allow them to return to their path at anytime.

Next, they were to design and build a path that would take visitors from the beginning of their poem to the final line. The idea for this was inspired by Adam Clarke’s, Story Path video. They were encouraged to create places where visitors could pause for a moment and reflect.

Lastly, as each student finished their path, I issued them seven Command blocks that they would use along their path to /tell visitors lines from their poem and /give them useful or symbolic items. A few even chose to add sound effects and potions to create the illusion that something was happening. For example, one student wrote about blindness to life’s challenges and created a command to splash a limited darkness potion on the visitor, which lasted a few seconds.

Students created pathways to help visitors visualize the tanka poetry.

Students created pathways to help visitors visualize the tanka poetry.

Students placed pressure plates on top of command blocks at key locations along their path.

Students placed pressure plates on top of command blocks at key locations along their path.

Command blocks were used to share the poem.

Command blocks were used to share the poem.

By stepping on the pressure plate, visitors are teleported to each poem.

By stepping on the pressure plate, visitors are teleported to each poem.

We then spent a day visiting the completed paths and submitting a reflection of our work via a Google Form. I asked students to visit three random poems on Poetry Island. They answered several questions and I found student responses very insightful.

What visualization did you like best? What made the poem come to life in Minecraft?

I can see the samurai sharpening his sword because the builder put a bench next to the path.

The path and the darkness potion.

They gave us a flower and it did look peaceful.

The shadows that were floating in the night.

The sadness in the trees.

What did you like BEST about doing this Minecraft project?

Writing a poem of a Japanese person.

That we get to show our creativity.

That we were learning how to write poems.

I was able to build my poem to show the emotion of it.

We got to play Minecraft while learning at the same time.

 Shining Sun – student created tanka poem in Minecraft

written by Cindy, age 11

Resources

Student Poetry – This Google Doc contains poems written by Melvina’s students and my students.

Kotoba Miners – Learn Japanese in Minecraft!

A Quick Start Guide to Writing Tanka

Poetry Island Minecraft World – Empty [Download]

  • Large (75 MB compressed) map that uses “poetry island” as a spawn point and teleport station where travellers may visit beautiful locations and become inspired to write their own poems. Nagareru resource pack suggested. Map created in MinecraftEDU 1.6.4 s20, no mods. This world does not include any of my student’s poetry, although a few incomplete paths may be found.

Poetry Island Minecraft World – Completed [Download]

  • Large (75 MB compressed) map with numerous poems throughout accessible via a “poetry island” and spawn point. Visitors may teleport to individual poems, then return to spawn to view more. Travellers may also visit the teahouse and transport to beautiful locations where they may be inspired to write their own poems. Nagareru resource pack suggested. Map created in MinecraftEDU 1.6.4 s20, no mods.

Little Japanese Village by umeboshi1997

  • This is the original world I modified and used in this lesson. Includes a beautiful Japanese village on one of the islands.

Tanka for Minecraft Lesson Plan

  • Robert Walton’s free lesson plan.

10 Comments

  1. Check out my Mount Fuji and central Japan re-creation, using geographic data.
    http://youtu.be/sWa9M0LMXYI

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  3. Linda Ulleseit

    After seeing you at CUE, I did an ancient civilizations project with my 6th graders. Each group of six had a different civilization. They each had to create a landmark in Minecraft. They had fun and learned a lot! Here is the result:
    https://drive.google.com/a/eesd.org/file/d/0B3B8JfyBqpRldkUyTmlCWm1SQjA/view?usp=sharing

    • This is fantastic Linda – thank you for sharing. I just love to see students be given the opportunity to create at this level! So much learning going on 🙂

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