Like many 11-year-olds in Texas, Ethan had to build a model of the Alamo as a school project. Often, students make their dioramas out of paper mache or popsicle sticks, but Ethan’s teacher gave him permission to build his project in Minecraft, the popular sandbox software game in which players build structures out of blocks. With his dad’s help, Ethan recorded a video tour of his scale model of the fort, complete with explanatory signs, and posted it on YouTube. A few minutes into the tour, it started raining unexpectedly over Ethan’s diorama, but Ethan noted, "This is exactly what happened during the battle of the Alamo—it rained." To his dad—and, presumably, his teacher—this comment revealed Ethan’s familiarity and knowledge with the subject matter that he might not have had otherwise shown.

With more than 18 million downloads to date, Minecraft is the best-sellingcomputer game of all time; the game’s free-form structure has made it popular with kids and adults alike. But little by little, teachers, parents, and students have discovered that the game can be used for educational purposes, too. Former teacher Joel Levin and his colleagues founded a startup called TeacherGamingthat aims to bring Minecraft into classrooms everywhere, helping students and teachers of all disciplines use their creativity to design projects, free from the kinds of limitations they would face using traditional methods.

"Teachers already want to use these games in the classrooms," Levin said. He and his colleagues work to make the software more intuitive and suited to their needs so that teachers—and students—can use the games in classrooms and have fun while they’re at it.
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Levin, now 40 with a sandy beard, glasses, and ponytail, first played an early version of Minecraft with his 5-year-old daughter in 2010. He was amazed at how much his daughter was learning from Minecraft; she solved problems on her own, developed a spatial understanding in the game, and accelerated her reading and writing skills because she wanted to be able to interact with other players, he said. At the time, Levin was teaching technology classes at a private elementary school in New York City, so he decided to try out some Minecraft lessons with his second graders. As a self-identified "gamer" who worked with an Internet service provider before the dot-com bubble burst, Levin saw that teaching with Minecraft combined his interests perfectly.