#bulldoged Spotlight: Breaking Out with Ms. Canty

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


#bulldoged Spotlight: Blending and Personalizing in the Resource Classroom

In our first post, we boiled down the various degrees and jargon that fall on the spectrum moving toward and within personalizing learning for our students. As we look around at practices in classrooms, it is evident that this work truly falls within a spectrum and is a practice we can explore by opening our doors and learning from one another (“How Pineapple Charts Revolutionize Professional Development” by Jennifer Gonzalez, Cult of Pedagogy). While education cycles produce new practices and models, one thing that remains the same is what good teaching and learning looks like. You can hear it, see it, feel it when you walk into a classroom. Best practices are evident without having to look at a checklist on a rubric and student engagement is measured by the smiles on their faces and willingness to put their best foot forward.

One open door that Amanda walked through this year was Liz Sanfillipo’s resource room. The timing fell just as Mrs. Sanfillipo began the class with the day’s agenda, projected on the whiteboard. The agenda presented students with the options they needed for the day. It was also clear that Liz’s students were aware of the Blended Learning practice of station rotation.

For many teachers starting out with blended learning, the traditional station rotation has three zones; a small teacher instruction station, a tech station for content delivery/assessment, and a small group collaboration station or independent work station. Students move in carefully created groups through each station within one class period to receive the content, reinforcement of skills with the teacher, and an opportunity for collaboration with classmates on extended projects or application of skills through games.

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Highlander Institute, “Blended Learning Models”

Because of the small group in Mrs. Sanfillipo’s resource room, she has adapted this model to meet the needs of each individual student. Mrs. Sanfillipo says that reflection is a big part of her daily routine. She has students struggling with emotional issues, academic concerns, and organizational needs. She said stations provide room to be productive so that students are not overwhelmed. Because of this reflection, stations look a little different but follow the same premise; students self-select their stations and move through each within a class period to complete tasks and assess skills. Some tasks are focused on work from core classes, others are designed to work on student’s executive functioning skills, build communication and collaboration, and allow them an opportunity to take ownership of their own learning.

Sanfillipo’s Daily Agenda, March 9, 2017

All students complete the MMS Rubric/Reflection, then move onto the Station 1 together. This takes about 15 minutes. Mrs. Sanfillipo also builds in an activator at the start of each class. This is a quick, hands on project to get blood flowing, build communication and problem solving skills, and challenge students to engage in higher order thinking skills. (For more information on using activators in the classroom, see Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything) Once complete, students select 2 out of the 3 remaining stations to work through and complete, with about 15 minutes at each. Mrs. Sanfillipo describes the stations as “loose…students choose where they want to be and what they want to be doing.”

The big question: Does this practice improve student learning? Formal research is still being conducted on the impact of blended learning practices in classrooms, however, some feedback from Mrs. Sanfillipo’s students might provide a glimpse. When asked about their experience this year, one student commented, “I like how Mrs. S does resource because you get to work together, but you also know what is expected of you. It’s helped me stay organized for other classes.” Another student was equally as positive. He stated, “Last year resource was just straight work but this year we do different activities that keep us up on current events and get us hands on. The stations help break up the work and are unique to each student, so that helps too.”


While we can’t pinpoint one concrete answer to improve student engagement and work production, blended and personalized practices provide options. But what this all boils down to is carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on student needs and interests to provide them the best means of instruction. Although technology is infused in Mrs. Sanfillipo’s classroom, good practices that can be done in every classroom with or without tech are evident. Student choice, high expectations, and a shift of activity every 15-20 minutes kept the students focused and the room energized. These practices are alive and well throughout WHS, and by opening our doors we can learn from one another, reflect on our own practices, and grow alongside our students. Figuring out ways to blend a little technology into the mix makes Mrs. Sanfillipo’s classroom one to pop into if the door is open!

We would like to thank Mrs. Sanfillipo and her students for opening the door and allowing us to come in, observe and ask questions! If you would like to share a practice you’re using in your classroom to shift toward personalizing for students or would like to share student work as models of personalization, please email Amanda abmurphy@westerly.k12.ri.us or Erica edevoe@westerly.k12.ri.us