This teacher is using video games in his lesson plan. And kids (obviously) love it.

It all started with a lesson on "Romeo and Juliet" and a student who wanted to show what he learned ... using Minecraft.

Chris Aviles, then a high school English teacher, didn’t even know what his student meant by that idea. But he let him run with it, so Aviles' student re-created scenes and settings using the popular video game — and his classmates loved it.

"Once the other kids saw that he was allowed to do that, you know, it kinda blew up in the classroom," says Aviles.


That moment sparked a change in how Aviles approached education and technology with his students.

Aviles with his eager students. Photo by Katie Smith, used with permission.

Aviles is now the ed-tech coach for Fair Haven School District in New Jersey, where he runs the Innovation Lab, a new kind of learning program with a curriculum that's very in tune with the times.

"We teach students design thinking, computer science, engineering, digital arts like podcasting, video-making, and entrepreneurship," says Aviles.

"It's kind of like a 21st century think tank, maker space, where we really just try to get our hands dirty and give our kids the experience that they need to be successful in the future."

And if the projects are any indication, it looks like his students are having lots of fun learning. "I had kids making music videos, I had kids making raps, I had kids making movie trailers for books, I had kids using Minecraft and building 'Catcher in the Rye' scenes," says Aviles. "Next thing you know, my kids are making, making, making all the time."

Aviles' teaching method is based on two pretty awesome principles: gamification and game-based learning.

Gamification in this case means using game mechanics to engage students, like splitting into teams and scoring points in class activities. Game-based learning is using actual video games like Minecraft to teach and assess kids.

Photo via Microsoft, used with permission.

"There’s a lot of lessons that you can learn in a video game and that lesson is being delivered in pretty much every kid's favorite format," adds Aviles. "And we’re kind of crossing that line where learning is fun and fun is learning."

And at the Innovation Lab, it's all about customization and collaboration.

That’s why Aviles loves Minecraft so much as a teaching tool. It’s a blank canvas where students can create anything their heart desires. On top of that, kids are able to learn at their own pace. Says Aviles, "I can have 25 kids all in Minecraft doing 25 different lessons at varying difficulties while I work around the room and I teach through the trouble."

Photo via Microsoft, used with permission.

The lab is also about empowerment. "Instead of the being the person in front of the room who thinks they know everything, I work alongside my kids, and I push them towards their goal, and we’re now learning together in the same classroom," Aviles says.

He likens this learning process to when he teaches kids how to code. "It teaches them how to attack a problem. It teaches them that it’s OK to fail the first time because you might not get the answer right the first time. And then you go back and you troubleshoot and you squash bugs over and over until you get the desired result. And so that process of thinking like a coder, I think, is really valuable."

Currently, only 40% of K-12 schools across the country actually have a computer programming or coding class, but Aviles says he hopes that will change in the near future.

Getting kids involved in computer science early is especially important given the lack of diversity and unique voices that exist within the industry.

"Whoever is writing the code is going to be controlling the future," says Aviles. "Right now, the field is dominated by white men, and making sure that a diversity of voices is represented in computer science is only going to ensure that the population that this technology serves is equally represented."

Photo by Chris Aviles, used with permission.

The computer science industry is projected to yield 1 million more jobs than students by 2020. So getting kids interested and encouraging them to make their voices heard can only bring forth a more unified and prosperous future.

Adds Aviles, "Every kid has their own background and has their own story and experiences that they can bring to the next product that is going to serve millions of people."

Interested in getting your child to explore the wonderful world of code? Check out Microsoft’s new Minecraft coding tutorial, as well as all the fun (and free) resources available on the YouthSpark Hub.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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