In Louisville, Ky., Minecraft Teaches Math

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The Common Core standards have generated lots of attention and controversy, but what do they look like in a classroom? The NPR Ed team continues its summer series from a fifth-grade math lesson.

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

From NPR West in Culver City, California, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Eric Westervelt. This summer, we're telling the story of the Common Core. Forty-three states, plus Washington, D.C., are now using the new learning benchmarks in reading and math. The standards have led to big changes in many schools. And the NPR Ed Team set out to capture the sound of that change by focusing on a few specific standards. With this postcard from a Common Core classroom, here's Devon Katayama of member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky.

DEVON KATAYAMA, BYLINE: We're using the word classroom loosely because this story is about fifth-graders here in Louisville learning Common Core math wherever they want - at home or even here in the studio with me.

RACHEL MILLER: We are learning, today, about how to graph and where are the coordinates of the graph.

KATAYAMA: That's Rachel Miller who just graduated from fifth-grade at Carter Elementary. She's sitting in front of her laptop showing me how a computer game called Minecraft helped her with this Common Core standard. Graph points on the coordinate plain to solve real-world and mathematical problems. Just to be clear though, Minecraft is not real world.

MILLER: I'm dark angel that has dress at the bottom kind of tore up with brown hair, blue eyes and black and red wings.

KATAYAMA: Everything in the game looks like it's made of Legos.

MILLER: Welcome to ice land. And it's always white snowing and there's this brick castle. And it looks kind of abandoned, but it's not. We go over to this tower, and we have to move these dots by moving on a pressure plate.

KATAYAMA: Elsewhere in the game, Rachel and her classmates built an entire community, putting up houses, stores, even coffee shops. A world she's continued to build over the summer.

JASON HUBLER: We wanted a way to engage our students outside of the classroom. We knew a lot of them already played Minecraft.

KATAYAMA: Fifth-grade teacher Jason Hubler set up this version of the game that Rachel's using. He says it's encouraged his students to think about and grapple with complicated math concepts from lots of different angles.

HUBLER: It's not a series of - give me this answer, give me this answer, give me this answer. It requires the students to think, well, what am I being asked because it's being asked in various ways.

MILLER: And purple was on it because zeros on the corner. If you go in x-axis, it's supposed to be on the letter - number zero.

KATAYAMA: Here's what's happening. Rachel's character is standing on top of a tower looking onto a huge grid. Emphasis on the word grid, remember the core standard. She steps on various plates that light up different colors on the grid. If Rachel needs help and Mr. Hubler's online, she can ask him or she can chat with her classmates.

HUBLER: We're able to sit there and interact with our students and still help reinforce content. And it really helped to build our classroom community because we got to know these students better it was, quote-unquote, "outside of the classroom" even though it was online.

KATAYAMA: Are you talking to students now?

HUBLER: Yeah. (Laughing).

KATAYAMA: Since meeting a Common Core standard by itself isn't cool enough to motivate your average fifth-grader, the game has its own rewards. After correctly answering three questions about grids, Rachel earns this much cooler prize.

MILLER: A sword called, stone spider slayer of the God.

KATAYAMA: For NPR News, I'm Devin Katayama in Louisville, Kentucky.

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