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Minecraft Party to Raise Money for Technology in Philly Schools

bh-3-blog.jpgPhiladelphia

The city's mayor and superintendent announced plans Thursday to bring 2,000 children together this September for the "largest kid-safe Minecraft gaming event in the world," with the aim of raising $50,000 for new technology for the city's schools.

The "Block By Block Party" is being organized by Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a regional advocacy organization. The plan is to ask teachers and principals to submit applications for grants of up to $5,000 apiece for classroom technology and projects, said Donna Cooper, the group's executive director.

"We want projects that will really impact teaching," Cooper said. 

The new grant program will be modeled on PCCY's 17-year old 'Picasso Project,' through which the group gives small grants to Philly teachers to bring fresh arts projects to their classrooms.

In an interview, Philadelphia schools Superintendent William Hite described the initiative as another element in his attempt to promote innovation across the 130,000-student district.

Since the beginning of his five-year tenure, Hite said, the district has seen "a lot more examples of project-based learning, a lot more examples of inquiry instruction, a lot more examples of competency-based [education.]" That includes efforts to bring 1-to-1 computing to schools and introduce coding classes for elementary students, he said, as well as the creation of a network of public schools experimenting with new educational models. 

Back in 2013-14, Education Week took a year-long look at one of Hite's earliest efforts to expand and scale such fresh approaches, through the replication of the city's highly regarded Science Leadership Academy.

Hite acknowledged, though, that such efforts have proceeded slower than he would have liked, citing the challenge of "pushing against systemic and age-old structures, like assessments and state requirements and standards." A lack of sustained, predictable funding from the state has also been a challenge.

Bringing kids together to play Minecraft is a perfect hook for catalyzing something different, Hite said. Like the other speakers at Thursday's announcement, the superintendent highlighted the game's power to engage young people in critical-thinking and problem-solving activities.

"They're already doing this one their own," Hite said. "Just think how ineffective we would be if made them put this away, and said they can only listen to one person with all the information who tells them how to do everything."

In addition to raising funds for PCCY's new grant-making program, the September Minecraft party was also pitched as a vehicle for encouraging the city's business and technology leaders to be more invested in supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and mentorship.

"I'm convinced that over the 40 or 50 years, most high-level employment will be in technology, will be in innovation," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said during his remarks. "We want all of our children, from every zipcode and neighborhood, to have access to those opportunities."

The new campaign is expected to be funded in part by corporate donations; Wells Fargo bank and the Goldenburg Group, a nonprofit consultancy, have already signed on.

The mayor and superintendent then took time to play Minecraft with roughly a dozen area children who were
on hand for Thursday's announcement. The game—essentially a 21st century version of Legos in which players use 3-D digital blocks to build and explore an open-ended universe—has proven uber-popular, including in schools. In 2015, Education Week explored the creative ways that teachers are using Minecraft in their classrooms, including to teach everything from city planning to literature to physics.bh-2-blog.jpg

Hite and Kenney even got their own Minecraft avatars.

The superintendent said he's played the game before—when his grandson will allow him to take over.  He said he saw the same engagement and passion for creation in students like Archie and Teddy Albright, brothers who attend a local charter school and who were on hand to teach the old folks a few things.

Teddy, a rising 2nd grader who said he's been playing Minecraft for 3 years at home and wishes he could do so in school, summed up the game's appeal.

"I like building a world that I can go on my own adventures in," he said.

Photos: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William Hite got their own Minecraft avatars as part of an announcement of a new fundraising initiative to support technology in the city's schools (top.) Mayor Kenney gets a Minecraft tutorial from a local student (bottom.) -- Benjamin Herold for Education Week


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