Resistance: Decoded

Over Christmas break I designed a new Breakout activity based on the Mayans. Breakouts (which really are more Breakins) are based on the Escape Room concept. Students solve a series of puzzles to open locks until ultimately they open a final locked box to win the challenge. The puzzles are usually content based, though some only very loosely. They can be a ton of fun and are a great way to inject play and competition into your classroom. Here's a spoiler of the reaction for the final results of this one:

I'm very picky about Breakouts. I honestly find most of them to be pretty bad. They are either too content-light or just not fun. Often they just seem to be the wrong tool for the job. I frequently see Breakouts where the topic is shoe-horned in when another lesson type would have been more appropriate. Imagineers wouldn't design a roller coaster for Winnie the Pooh! I do recognize and accept that sometimes they are done strictly for team building or fun and I'm plenty fine with that. However, if we are trying to teach content through them we need to be careful with our topics.

I figured the Mayans would work well because they are mysterious and their glyphs are perfect for code-breaking. I've also done an activity for years where students attempt to decypher Mayan glyphs and solve math problems using Mayan numbers. I figured those ideas could easily be turned into puzzles.

Since "everything starts with a story" I first built an intro video to set up a simple narrative.

I expanded the narrative with the written introduction. In this case, the Department of Timeline Security has recruited agents to crack the Mayan codes so they can hunt down the source of their knowledge. The DTS fears that a time-traveling terrorist is trying to empower the Mayans to the United States is never born.

Now I needed locks and puzzles. I always do the majority of my locks digitally using Google Forms. You can use physical locks but I have two major problems with them. First, you need enough for every participant. If you're playing in groups for me that would mean at least 6 full sets of locks. That's not cheap. It's also a pain to reset each period. Digital locks mean I can make an infinite number for participants and they automatically reset.

To turn a question on a Form into a lock you just click on the 3 dots in the bottom right corner of the question and select "Response Validation." You type in the answer you want and set the question to Required. Until the user inputs the exact answer the Form remains locked and will not advance to submission.

I typically aim for 5 digital lock puzzles for a period-long Breakout. Those 5 locks lead to another page of the Google Form that gives a link to one final digital puzzle which will provide the code for the physical lock box in the room.

For these puzzles I quickly had my first 4. I made two based on decoding glyphs that I lifted from the previous activity. I made one based on decoding Mayan numbers - also from that activity. For a 4th I had pictures of Mayan gods. The players would have to figure out what they were the god of to solve that puzzle. For the 5th puzzle I wanted something physical. I'm not a fan of Breakouts that are all digital. They just turn into a series of reading sheets with very low-cognitive level questions attached. I wanted to do something to highlight how the Mayans aligned their buildings perfectly with celestial events. But, how? Something that shined a shadow in the just the right spot would be awesome but I have no idea how to do that. After some random Google searching for "escape room puzzle ideas" I came across a 3 piece spinner. That could work! If I put different planets on each layer and then gave a clue on aligning them that would at least simulate the effect.

I went through multiple variations and ideas. At one point I had nearly given up thinking maybe it wouldn't work after all. Then I randomly found a clipart piece of a Mayan temple that had the Mayan symbol for sun on one side and moon on the other. That art became the center circle of my spinner. "When the two most important planets align in the day, then truly the night will light the way." Perfect! Done! Physical puzzle complete!

It felt good but still a bit text heavy. I was out of ideas so, oh well, it's done. A few days later I met with a colleague and shared it. He agreed that it felt text heavy. He had a great idea about having the final challenge be an actual building challenge. We found a simple wood block puzzle on Amazon and it was perfect. That would be the final Survivor-style tribal challenge activity.

Build done, now let's do it!

I always start my Breakouts with a tease. I put the lock box in front of the room with a message counting down the days until it will be opened.

I printed out 6 copies of each clue sheet and the 3 pieces of the spinner and put them into a TOP SECRET folder for each group. I posted a link to the digital lock Google Form on our class webpage. I broke the students into 6 groups and gave each one packet. I very briefly explained that the lock page would provide clues as to which reading sheet went with each lock. I said "go!" and they were off the races. This was our first Breakout but even with almost no instructions the students quickly dove in. It took a few minutes but they figured out how each paper led to a clue they could use to break one of the locks.

I simply got to do my favorite thing as a teacher - walk around and help. The beauty of an activity like this is that with the right group of kids it ensures engagement. When I noticed a group starting to get frustrated I'd give them a hint to get them going again. I will say that I did not do this activity with my last class of the day. I have many struggling readers and a handful of behavior problems in that period that prevent me from trusting them with an independent activity like this. I considered doing it as a whole class activity but ultimately decided to do a more focused reading activity instead.

This is what engagement looks like!

The timing was a little tight for my on-level students. I ended up giving them the answer to the final puzzle so they could have time to work on building the block pyramid. My two honors classes timed out perfectly. In both cases, a couple groups managed to finish the pyramid in time and most groups at least got into the box.

The pyramid puzzle, despite being only two pieces, proved to be challenging in exactly the way I wanted. The boy in period 5 who solved it quickly became the center of attention!

Students loved the activity and, more importantly, learned. They truly grappled with the Mayan number system and came away impressed by the Mayan's abilities. That was the my goal from the beginning so mission accomplished!

The Breakout model is a great one when used appropriately and with the right topics. Hopefully this inspires you to try to create your own for your students.

Bring on the magic.

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