When we arrived to the foreign land of Babcock Hall, to the foreign language wing, we were met by a classroom of students waiting impatiently for Ms. Canty to let them in. Much to their surprise, and ours, Ms. Canty had quite the plan for the class. As the door swung open, students were instructed to sit and informed of the bad news: someone had stolen their homework passes from the classroom and placed them in a large black lockbox sealed with four different types of locks. The elaborate plot unfolded as Ms. Canty then informed them that they would be solving clues in small groups to earn the keys or combinations to the locks. Likewise, they would be gathering 5 main clues to help them find the master key to open the box altogether. With the timer set for 45 minutes, groups got down to business.

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Spread out around the room were clues, some written in English, others in French, and groups used their knowledge of French language, culture, and geography to solve the clues. They could also use their cell phones to gather information, had access to maps, and even a QR code to dig deep into their clues.

What was this journey that they were participating in? It’s called a BreakoutEDU and, according to their website, games like this provide an “immersive learning experience…where players use teamwork and critical thinking to solve a series of challenging puzzles in order to open the locked box.” The concept for classrooms is based on the escape room challenges that have sprung up around the country (there’s one right in Mystic, CT if you’re interested). In an escape room, participants are locked in a room and are given an hour to escape using clues found around the room. A BreakoutEDU follows the similar concept, students use clues to open the box and reveal whatever is hidden inside (for further information, check out this article from School Library Journal). For Ms. Canty’s students, that lockbox contained homework passes and there wasn’t a minute to waste!

The experience was powerful and BreakoutEDU activities foster three main practices: active learning, the four C’s, and cultivating grit. Did we see this happening in Ms. Canty’s classroom? Absolutely…we witnessed these three and then some. So let’s focus on how the class played out.

Around the room were five groups of 3-4 students. Each group began by solving a separate clue. Students relied on each other, the tools they carried in their brains and hands, and began questioning the clue within their group rather than approaching their teacher for answers. All groups became incredibly resourceful and applied their knowledge strategically to solve the clue. Some of the clues were written in French and it was awesome to listen to the conversations of students translating them over to English. While translating, one student commented, “that’s not the future tense!” and they looked again, resolved the translation, and gathered up the first of the five major clues leading to the key. The problem solving was non-stop over the course of 45 minutes. It was invigorating to watch the students engage in confusion and authentic struggle.

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We could stop there and that might be enough to show the power of the BreakoutEDU as a classroom practice, but there’s more. The 4 C’s (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication) were also present for 45 straight minutes. Most powerful was watching the students collaborate. What began as 5 separate groups solving clues in isolation soon became 3 larger groups collaborating to solve the bigger clues and then ultimately the whole class coming together to solve the final clues to open the lockbox. Collaboration happened naturally as students discovered that it was more efficient to capitalize on the strengths of many rather than the few. They were all on the same team to accomplish one goal and each student brought a different level of expertise to help the team.

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Finally, BreakoutEDU says their challenges help students “cultivate grit”. Grit is one of the more overused terms in education these days, but what we saw in Ms. Canty’s class through this challenge was truly a cultivation of grit. Students worked for 45 minutes straight. They did hard work, challenging work, got frustrated but persisted. One group was stumped on a clue and every time they thought they solved it, faced the disappointment of a wrong answer. But if they gave up, it would prevent the rest of the class from moving on. They continued, working for almost 20 minutes on one clue as others were moving on to solving their second and third clue. Finally, when the group solved it, they erupted with joy for a brief moment, then joined another group to keep solving. They built stamina to problem solve, learn, and keep going.

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Via School Library Journal

While the BreakoutEDU concept is challenging, Ms. Canty saw the benefit of giving it a try. It was not perfect and trying something new can be nerve wracking. For example, one of the locks that came with the kit didn’t work. Rather than dwelling on this, Ms. Canty herself problem solved and worked around the shortfall. It was a learning experience for her, the students, and for us. We had never seen it done in a classroom and didn’t know what to expect. Ms. Canty was willing to let us in to see something new to her, and so we appreciate and respect the vulnerability in that. Although there were some glitches, the journey students were taken on over the 45 minute period was immeasurable.

We would encourage you to try something new in your classroom, know that it won’t always be perfect, but it will be rewarding for students. Our visit to Ms. Canty’s class was exciting, thought-provoking, and fun and we can’t wait for another challenge!

Thanks to Ms. Wendy Canty and her French students for letting us join them on their adventure! If you want us to see something new and different in your classroom, shoot us an email. And remember, join the conversation via Twitter #bulldoged.

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