A couple weeks ago I did my first BreakoutEDU with my students. Essentially it is an "Escape the Room" game with an educational twist. I loved the idea of what is essentially a mini-Alternate Reality Game (ARG.) Breakouts combine game-based learning along with story-based learning in a very unique and exciting way. Solving puzzles, especially those with a good mystery behind them, is fun. Still, I was hesitant.
There are a good amount of pre-made games on their site and I've been watching it off an on for about year. I just couldn't pull the trigger because I just didn't see enough of an educational component to them. This summer I started designing one for my AVID class (where doing things just for the sake of community, fun and inquiry is encouraged.) I bought all the locks and boxes basically to force myself to make it happen.
At the same time I was watching through Turn: Washington's Spies about George Washington's Revolutionary War spy ring.
Cue the lightbulb moment. What better topic could there be for a series of cryptic puzzles than a spy ring?
Two months later I had my BreakoutEDU ready and chock full of educational value. Here's the folder with everything you'll need to use: BreakoutEDU: Washington's Spies.
Here's the guide to the various locks and puzzles (kids no peeking): Washington's Spies Guide
My biggest change from the Summer plans to the final version was the switch from physical locks to digital ones. I ended up using just a few of the physical locks and instead used Google Forms to create digital locks. This way I could have different groups working on the same puzzles without having to fight over the locks. All the fighting would be saved for the last few links in the puzzle chain when I knew they'd be so amped up that they'd be ready to battle to win.
I started the whole thing with this:
I had this set up on Wednesday - 5 days prior to the planned activity. It originally said "Monday" instead of "TODAY" but was otherwise the same. Almost immediately students started trying to crack the code. They asked me what year I was born, what my favorite year was and all sorts of weird questions. Some even tried important historical years like 1776. Just by putting the box out early I was building excitement and interest.
On Monday I split the class into 6 groups. Each received a manila envelope with the printed clues and a link to the digital locks (which linked them to the remaining digital clues.) The clues all came from readings about the workings of the spy ring. I've never seen kids read with such purpose! We've all heard of close reading but this was really CLOSE reading.
The excitement and interest was truly unbelievable. My classroom is often full of energy but this was another level. When one girl yelled out "Oooh, I got it!" her partner quite literally jumped out of her seat to go see her computer screen. Even she noted 'Wow, I actually just jumped out of my seat!" At another point one of my kids called out excitedly, and rapidly, in Spanish. He never does that. He started laughing immediately. His guard was so stripped away by the activity that he dropped into "home mode" right in the middle of learning. That's the feeling I always want them to have.
Ultimately the final clue led to a 3 team mad dash to the last puzzle. One group literally had their hand on the clue more than once. Finally, one figured it out and successfully broke the final lock.
Notice the group in the back still frantically trying to break their locks as well...
This point did lead to some frustration among my more competitive non-winners but they got over it quickly enough. Maybe next time I won't just have one winning group. I don't know. I don't mind them recognizing that not everyone wins every time.
There were some other minor weaknesses that I'd fix on a next go. I think I'd change the lockbox clue. I made it purposefully vague but it just led to them randomly guessing years between 1776 and 1783 which is not what I wanted.
Overall though, it was great and I am excited to start planning the next one (Jefferson's secret code cipher to Lewis and Clark? Civil War coded telegrams? Mayan numbers?) for my students. I do kind of wish I hadn't spend so much on the locks as the digital version seems much better. I'm glad I had some but probably don't need all 10 I bought. I especially am happy with the Dictionary Safe. That part was awesome. It did take awhile to figure out how to make the digital locks work but BreakoutEDU has some great tutorials on their site showing how to set it up. I also think I might try building one for the whole class to do together. I do worry about kids not participating and the more enthusiastic kids driving everything too much (which wasn't an issue here when they were in small teams) but I love the idea of them succeeding or failing together.
The main thing, which I think the team at BreakoutEDU is starting to come around on, is that the educational component is key. If I'm going to justify using time in my class for games I have be able to point to very specific learning goals. Providing clues through informational (and primary source!) texts is a great way to do that. You just may need to make them yourself.
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