Breaking Breakout(EDU)

In case you have not yet had the pleasure of familiarizing yourself with BreakoutEdu, let me start by saying that it is ahhhhh-mazing! Similar to activities such as Exit Strategy, the goal of Breakout Edu is for students to solve a chain of clues that will reveal combinations to multiple locks in various configurations. You might have a bunch of locks on one box, or you may have a bunch of boxes with one lock each– it just depends on your audience and your purpose.

The site itself is fairly straightforward– you can search pre-made games that cover any content area and grade level you can imagine (password is “showyourwork”) and get the materials as well as a video made by the game creator that shows how they set it up. All of this for FREE! But wait! There’s more! Check out the Facebook groups– there’s one for general discussion, and three others divided by elementary, middle, and high school. There you’ll find lots of great discussions and ideas on playing the pre-made games as well as people sharing the games they’ve created. This year, my position has me working with kids in grades K-5 so I have had the opportunity to try out different games on each grade. The first one I tried was called “Teamwork” and it was intended for grades 4-5 with modifications for lower grades. I’m going to be honest: It was really intimidating to get started on this. I had been lurking on the site and clicked on a few game descriptions and their documents and I felt very overwhelmed and confused. I knew the best way to combat these feelings were to schedule some classes to do this with because I didn’t want to face the embarrassment of cancelling, so that’s what I did. I printed the materials and sat down with the notes provided by the game designer, and didn’t talk to my spouse and children for the rest of the day. Seriously. I worked through each clue, spent time organizing everything, made a cheat sheet for myself with the combinations for me and the class’ homeroom teacher to use, and went over it several times to make sure I understood the process. I also gave the teacher I was working with a heads up that they were part of a grand experiment and this could be awesome or it could crash and burn. Thankfully, it turned out amazing.  All the kids (4th graders) participating were excited. They didn’t use the hints because they wanted to figure it out themselves– they worked together, included each other in discussions, and disputes were relatively easy to resolve. There were a few that were disappointed that there wasn’t a stack of cash in the box when they got it open, but overall they were proud of themselves for persevering through it. (note: all that was in the box were some stickers saying “I broke out using TEAMWORK” and a sign for them to be photographed with.)

Some groups got their lock open before others, so I split them up and put them in new groups, and I did this with 18 different classes. Reflection conversation highlights included:

  • One group insisting they didn’t need help even though they were clearly struggling: We talked about the importance of being brave enough to ask for help.
  • A group member not participating: instead of getting mad an tattling, we talked about the importance of finding out why they weren’t participating. Did they feel like others weren’t listening? Were they too intimidated to speak up? This led to…
  • Being open to other’s ideas, no matter how crazy (within reason!) they may seem: This activity didn’t require the participants to be strong in math or reading. What counted was their ability to function as a team, and it exposed some behaviors that may have otherwise not been addressed.

This year, I have played several other Breakout Edu games with all the grade levels in my school. We’ve done Pirate Pete with second grade, Help the Cat Find his Hat with grades K-4, There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Turkey with K-1, and Turkey Trouble with grades 2-3 to name a few. All successful, all age appropriate. What I love about them is that I can usually customize them to meet my students’ needs, and with almost 900 kids in my school that is a whole lot of needs! With any super-awesome new tool, though, I have to be careful about burning kids out on it (I’m looking at you, Kahoot!). I have yet to have a child give negative feedback based on the activity itself, though, so I will consider that a win.

Stay tuned for the next post where I share the joys of creating my own Breakout for the first time. Thanks so much for reading– I’d love to hear about your experience with Breakout Edu, or answer any questions you may have! Happy learning!



Teaching Geography With Skype

This is a post that appeared on my previous, now defunct blog a number of years ago, updated for your reading pleasure!
We were a few weeks away from a unit centered on the 5 Themes of Geography, and my options were looking like either a) pull the info from the textbook, or b) do something the kids would be excited about.  So I started doing some research and some thinking and this is what I came up with:

We would still use the 5 Themes framework, but I wanted them to branch out beyond the borders of North Carolina.  I also wanted them to work collaboratively while sustaining interest in a project that was going to span a few weeks. I began with a regional map of the United States:


*Disclaimer! There are about 100 variations of what states are in what regions– I wish I could say that I chose this one scientifically, but honestly I liked the colors.
Anyway, I split up the kids and let them choose their regions.  Each and every group was excited about their region because someone had some connection to a state, so we were off to a great start!  The next step was to figure out a way to organize our information, so as a class we developed this graphic organizer:


And, yes, I am aware that this only covers 4/5 of the geography themes– I decided to omit the “movement” theme for the purpose of this unit, as we will be learning about it later in the year.  We discussed the themes as they related to Charlotte, North Carolina, and began with Location.  They immediately realized that finding the absolute location of their region was going to be tricky, and after some discussion as a class we had a group suggest using the absolute location of the state capitol building in one of their states. For relative location, some groups chose to describe it for the capital cities, some chose to focus on the region itself. I wanted to make sure they understood the concept, so we were able to have some flexibility with that.

We went through each of the remaining themes like this: I modeled, they applied. I assessed them with a simple rubric of 3 (mastered), 2 (partially mastered) and 1 (not mastered), and provided support where needed. I expected to be tearing around the room with my hair on fire, but the kids were really into this and did an amazing job of working collaboratively.

We finished our graphic organizers (this took about 4-5 class periods of 45 minutes each) and I was (fairly) confident we were ready to set up our first Mystery Skype. I found a list of jobs and tweaked it to meet our class needs. What we ended up with was this:

  • 1 note taker (records the clues on paper)
  • 2 tweeters (to live tweet the event, of course!)
  • 3 moderators (the faces of our class– asked the questions from the inquirers and relayed answers to the mappers)
  • 4 state experts (answered the questions from the other class)
  • 3 inquirers (asked questions based on the mappers’ notes)
  • 4 mappers (used maps of the U. S. and Google Earth to narrow down the other class’ location)
  • 2 photographers (used iPads to document the experience)

For the first few calls, I assigned the jobs but in subsequent ones, I have had them pull them out of a hat (a fancy word for “quart-sized storage bag”) and given the option to trade.

To set up the call, I turned to the Great and Powerful Twitter.



Within hours, we had three classes wanting to connect. I learned quickly that scheduling can be a challenge with our regimented days, but with some creative rearranging we managed to find a time to connect with a class in Iowa. I told them from the get-go that we were completely new to this in case we breached some Mystery Skype protocol or etiquette that we were unaware of. We took our cues from them and we were off and running! Their first question asked us if we were in the U.S. and where we were in relation to the Mississippi River. It took all I had to restrain myself and let the kids figure out the strategy! I’d like to say that everyone stuck to their job and their assigned classroom area the whole time and everything went perfectly… However… we had sound issues which made it all much more difficult than it should have been. We couldn’t get skype to work on our desktop, so we were using an iPad. The speakers I had weren’t working, so the only audio we had were the tiny sounds coming from the iPad speakers. In a room full of excited 8 year olds, this is not ideal. At one point, I was leaning in to the speaker to listen, not realizing my face was right in the camera. Not exactly the big screen debut I was hoping for, and I’m pretty sure I reappeared in a subsequent nightmare or two because that was one intense close-up. Also, the kids were SO excited that they were (of course) all over the room, talking over each other, doing each other’s jobs, and often doing everything but paying attention to the clues. BUT, we made it! After 45 minutes, they had guessed our location and we figured out theirs (with a little help).
This process has evolved for me over the years– now we do a couple of practice calls by dividing the room in half and assigning each group a mystery state. We also use a shared Google Doc to record the questions we ask the other class and those that are asked of us and use them in a whole class reflection. Our jobs look a little different, and we will sometimes use TodaysMeet for a backchannel discussion to learn fun facts about their school and area (without giving anything away!). You can also go to the Microsoft in Education program site to connect with other educators doing Mystery Skypes (as well as learn about a host of other creative ways to use Skype!)
The bottom line is that the kids L-O-V-E this activity almost as much as I do. It breaks down the walls of our classroom, gets them problem solving, thinking critically, and collaborating. Once we did a few calls, my 3rd graders were able to manage it almost completely on their own and that was probably the coolest part of it all.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far! I’d love to hear any questions you have, so please feel free to leave a comment! Happy Skyping!