It is, I’ve been informed, illegal to lock a bunch of high school students in a room and force them to use their critical thinking skills to get out. And, if not illegal, it’s definitely not best practice. But Escape Rooms continue to be incredibly popular so there must be a way to use them in school or library settings, right?
Breakout EDU is the academic version of Escape Rooms. It’s been around since early 2016 and was quickly adopted by schools as an interactive way to assess students’ knowledge. Students break into a locked box rather than escape out of a room, but otherwise they employ the same skills, techniques, and challenges used in an Escape Room. Breakout Boxes are frequently used as an end-of-unit alternative to a test, requiring recall of concepts as well as critical thinking and teamwork to open the box and get to the prize. Some teachers take it another step further, having students design and implement Breakouts for their classmates. This creation turns the students into teachers, and is an excellent way to assess mastery of a concept.
Mary Jane Lyons, the librarian/media specialist at Upper Dublin High School and Philip Vinogradov, UDSD’s technology director, get all the credit for introducing me to Breakout EDU. I was visiting the high school for some unrelated event right after they received their first kits and was immediately intrigued by their pile of boxes, locks, invisible ink pens, and hasps. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate on a number of Breakouts with MJ and Brad Lieberman, a technology instructional coach for the school district. We designed a Breakout to test students’ knowledge of how libraries work and another to reinforce poetry and drama vocab. I also went on to work with an AP Language teacher at Hatboro-Horsham to create a Breakout that took the place of a traditional test review. I’ve watched students solve riddles, gather clues, and cheer with triumph when they finally opened the box. I would have thought that the academic aspect of a Breakout Box would make it less engaging than a more traditionally themed Escape Room, but I’ve been amazed by how excited students are to prove their knowledge.
This week I was a collaborator on one of the largest Breakouts I’ve ever experienced. UDHS math and computer science teacher (and UD resident!) Chris Hayden decided he wanted to do a Breakout with his AP and Computer Science students. He went to MJ for guidance and asked me to come observe a demo. Chris took to designing his Breakout like nothing I’ve ever seen! He incorporated binary code, early computer creators, programming loops, small lockboxes that look like dictionaries, and Twister boards to create an amazing challenge for his students. Not did it require them to use information he’s been teaching since the beginning of the school year, it was also a lot of fun. Not content to only have one of his classes break into the box, Chris made sure that all of his students, from all of his classes, got to complete the Breakout at one time in one space.
So this past Wednesday, we set up four identical Breakout challenges in the UDHS media center. Fifty students, broken into four teams, had forty-five minutes to solve the challenges. The event was attended by UDSD administration and school board members, UDHS principals, teachers, students, and me! The adults in the room were impressed by the students’ knowledge, but also by their ability to work together as a team under pressure from the clock. There was no doubt that they knew their stuff, but also that they enjoyed showing off what they’d learned. A good grade on a test may be satisfying, but getting to show your principal that you can decode binary? That just might be priceless.
Dr. Steven Yanni, UDSD superintendent, asked the teachers, administrators, and students to tweet about what made them thankful on Wednesday since it was the day before Thanksgiving. I may not be an official part of his staff, but as a member of the Upper Dublin community, I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to collaborate and work together with the UD students and teachers!