After exploring numerous online resources, 14th century Birmingham, England and its residents were faithfully reproduced using Minecraft by my students. They spent ten class periods living and working in the village while being witness to the arrival of the plague.
Over the past Christmas holiday while doing research for the next large unit I would be working with students to create in the spring, I came across this wonderful blog post by Sarah Hayes. It is one in a series she wrote describing an exhibit at the Birmingham Museum she helped put together. I read each post enthusiastically and watch the video tour of the associated and incredibly detailed model of the village and was enthralled. I contacted Sarah and asked her several questions and her helpful responses further inspired me to undertake what has become the largest and most detailed unit I’ve ever attempted with Minecraft.
The Big Picture
Expanding upon the model I’ve been using most of the year, this unit emphasizes reading and writing historical narrative, role play in an immersive world, character development, and research within primary and secondary sources.
I covered four units within this build.
- Students experienced feudalism and medieval social structure.
- Explored the role of Christianity and the Catholic Church.
- Investigated English legal practices.
- Documented the spread, arrival, and aftermath of the plague.
My students struggle to read and write at grade level, so I target the following Common Core Standards in every unit I do.
- textual evidence
- determining central ideas
- vocabulary development and sentence structure
- text analysis and annotation skills
When I introduce the literacy element, it builds upon previous lessons. For this unit the focus was on:
- Writing dialogue – extremely difficult for my students, we did a two-day lesson at the midpoint.
- Writing in the “horror” genre – the plague arrives in Birmingham and I wanted students to write part of their narrative exploring this genre.
- A crafted prologue – we spent almost three days writing a one sentence prologue, but it was worth it as my students wrote amazing sentences.
After the initial time to build the village and insert the interactive NPCs, this unit took 18 class periods. Ten of those periods were spent entirely in Minecraft, with students living out their character’s life. The rest of the time was spent reading and annotating, researching, and writing their story.
Setting the Stage
Recreating Birmingham accurately on the scale used in the video needed careful planning. In previous builds I’ve had my history students create cities and villages, but not to the level of accuracy that I wanted to see in this project. With 150 students with varying degrees of Minecraft experiences I felt that it could not be done, at least not this year.
I do, however, have an elective period at the end of the day and have hand picked a student team of advanced builders and designers. They call themselves the Random Goats Build Team. I created a spreadsheet and laid out each build task or NPC coding challenge and together, we built out the village, complete with interactive residents, in four weeks.
In the design phase, we created opportunities for the rest of my students to create and build and embedded it within the unit objectives. My “build team” came up with several brilliant additions and challenge ideas that we incorporated into the map and lesson.
Welcome to Birmingham
With the stage set students spawned into the world on the road to Birmingham. They would later write their prologue based on this moment. They had two class periods to explore the village, playing the role of a visitor (a freeman) looking for work. Each day they took notes for themselves about who they met and street names and got used to the layout of the village. The non-player characters (NPCs) were friendly, but offered no advice at this time to strangers. Some characters were interested in, and bought items students had in their inventories.
Beginning on day three, the kids were able to rent a home if they could afford one. For the next several days homes were rented out as students began to settle into their chosen profession and earn money. The village filled up by day six and those without a cottage of their own, moved into shared space in a barn.
After a week of buying, selling, trading, building and interacting with village residents, the storyline began.
Each unit I do in the second semester has a storyline developed by myself and good friend and retired colleague Robert Walton. It’s been an incredibly successful partnership. Working together we develop a storyline that includes historical details of the time period. We work to embed history content into a narrative written at my student’s level that target multiple writing skills, vocabulary and text complexity.
At the completion of this unit my students were to write about:
- Birmingham itself, using descriptive terms for the village, important locations, and citizens (1),
- their jobs or role in the village and who they interacted with to make a living (2),
- rumors of the plague and the precautions Lord Birmingham and the Church made (3), and
- the plague’s arrival and devastation (4).
The storyline focussed on the arrival and repercussions of the plague in 1348-49 – part three above. Bob wrote three short stories of about 400 words each. A summary of each story is below. We read each story together and annotate before hopping into Minecraft where the kids experience the scene which includes additional details. They record their interviews and interactions ingame using book and quill.
Bertha the Healer – Bertha, a talented young woman with healing skills passed down to her for generations works with Father Cadfael to save a man’s life. During the treatment, Bertha informs Cadfael of a rumor of plague she heard at the tavern via a traveller from the south.
Lord Birmingham – Lord Birmingham has a secret meeting to discuss his plan for the arrival of the plague. Working with Father Cadfael and the blacksmith, they prepare a series of cottages outside the village to house expected victims.
The Plague – the plague arrives outside the village and is described in vivid detail. Father Cadfael and Bertha are called upon to see what they can do.
We leave out key details and transitions between each story so that my students can use their imagination and background content knowledge to tie them together. We also purposefully left out any hints of the aftermath, leaving the fate of the village and its characters entirely up to them.
Students write their stories over four intensely creative class periods. I write alongside them and we each follow the outline mentioned above. I require that they include details about the characters they met, use proper grammar, and emphasize the use of sensory details. They are to write 400 words minimum, not because I care, but because they demand a number. Yet, they usually blow past that on the first or second day of writing. We use Google Apps to create our stories and I monitor and suggest edits as we go using Google Classroom.
I can usually hear a pin drop and am still impressed at seeing 150 middle schoolers, most of whom struggle with writing, typing thousands of words of a truly original story. Grading these is always a pleasure because everyone writes a story with a different interpretation of the events and include unique and creative details of a life led in a long ago time and place.
Details to Explore
A place called home
Students had opportunities to earn a few coins and other objects in the previous unit on the Dark Ages. They could sell items to merchants and trade with each other in the game. During the medieval period, social rank existed even amongst the peasantry, so economic wealth of player characters determined who was able to afford to rent living space in the village.
Student tenants with the most cash were allowed to move in first. There were enough homes for the majority of kids, but when space ran out, the remaining students became serfs and moved into shared spaces. Inside each home I placed “build allow” blocks under the floor which allowed for kids to add chests, beds and other items they could buy or craft. Some students undertook the common medieval practice of boarding livestock inside their homes as a source of income.
On the day they were to move in they were each issued an iron door and a pressure plate. The doors were placed by the kids from the inside of their chosen home. Pressure plates were then placed against the door and I gave everyone a Home Block which enabled them to teleport inside their “home” anytime they wanted. A curfew was ordered every night and kids had to be inside. Most passed the time crafting or making diary entries using a book and quill they were issued.
As new residents of Birmingham students were required to work. There were no free rides in the middle ages for the peasantry. I designed four options for the kids to self discover and emphasized the importance of generating enough income so that an “inheritance” could be passed along to their next character in Renaissance Italy.
Farmer: Several plots of farmable land were made available. To avoid student griefing and stealing crops throughout the day, this farmland was placed behind double-sized stone walls. Student building options were turned off in the world, but I placed build alloy blocks underneath and within the walled compound. Kids were able to plant crops and raise animals.
Merchants: Students learned the principles of a market economy. They were able to buy some items at wholesale prices and resell them elsewhere in the village. As the teacher, I was able to build in a lesson on supply and demand. When the market became flooded with an item, prices collapsed and new opportunities for profit opened up elsewhere.
Craftsmen: Items were available for purchase that had no resale value, but with the use of a crafting table they could be crafted into useful and needed resources. For example, Birmingham had an abundance of clay which students could craft into pots that could be sold at a profit. Other resources used by craftsmen included wood and smelted iron.
Builder: Catherine the Master Builder was hiring apprentices to build cottages. Birmingham was expanding and prosperous. I placed build allow blocks in a countryside setting. Catherine teleported apprentices she hired to the building site. They each had to supply their own tools and were tasked with chopping down trees and building a cottage to meet Catherine’s specifications. They were paid in coins for completing their job.
I’ve used NPCs before on many builds, but the majority have not been based on actual people. This build was different. As part of the Birmingham Museum’s project, a teacher resource guide was created which included the names and occupations of several residents of 14th century Birmingham. It was a goldmine that my students and I used to write the most detailed historical narratives we’ve done all year. Here are a few examples of using actual citizens within the storyline.
Simon the Archer – he was a gambling man that challenged students in an archery contest. If they bested him, they earned a few coins. This activity was frowned upon by the Prior of St. Martin’s Church.
Roger le Maul – a wealthy merchant who had a penchant for good food and fine living. He paid handsomely for some items.
Richard the Tanner – plays an important role as an accident victim. His life is saved with the help of two central characters written into the unit by Robert Walton.
Several female characters were developed as wives, merchants, and farmers. The main character in our fictional storyline is Bertha the Healer who faces serious challenges with the arrival of the plague.
The Surprise Ending
Without the knowledge of my student build team, I created an elaborate ending to the unit which the kids thoroughly enjoyed. As the story “ends” Bertha may, or may not, have a remedy for the plague. The problem is, that she is not in the village, but on the road back from Coventry. On the final day, students were teleported into a “plague cottage” where Father Cadfael informed them that they had the plague.
I used command blocks and slash commands to change the gamemode to survival and induced periodic nausea and blindness upon the kids. Cadfael informs them that they may save themselves if they can get to Bertha with an ingredient she needs to make a remedy. They must first take a note to the apothecary who exchanges it for the needed herbs. They were then instructed to look for Bertha at St. Martin’s Church.
When they reach the church, they discover a mass grave containing several of their neighbors and the plague infected gravedigger tells them to seek out Bertha on the dangerous Coventry Road. To get there, they get to tackle a parkour challenge through the (newly converted) village. Will they survive the plague, or die on the road? It was a wonderfully fun day and fitting end to an amazing unit.