Creating Powerful Student Learning Experiences with Escape Rooms

Many of you have probably participated in an Escape Room, the latest in experiential entertainment. If not, the premise is simple: you are locked in a room with up to eight people, and you must solve a series of puzzles to unlock clues that will eventually help you “escape.”

There are all kinds of themes; I’ve been in a Nazi invasion, a Zombie apocalypse, and a murder mystery, and we escaped in two out of three of the rooms. I’m pretty hooked on these rooms because I love group dynamics, and it is very interesting to see who leads, who follows, who goes off on their own and who has the type of mind that sees patterns or reads clues well.

Of course, as soon as I completed my first experience I was dying to make one for my own classroom. I’ve yet to pull this off, but I will be doing my first classroom escape room this spring. As I’ve planned, I’ve found amazing resources to make the process seamless (I hope!). Here’s what I’ve learned:

Teach 21st-Century Skills

Before I started planning this spring adventure, I wanted to make sure that I had legitimate reasons for creating an escape room. Of course, the reason could simply be that it is fun and team building, but I knew that there were plenty of 21st-century skills at work too. As I adapted and developed the puzzles, it was clear that students will need critical thinking, persistence, collaborative skills and the ability to multi-task.

To learn more, check out this podcast, and this great article that expand on what having 21st-century skills really means. The article interviews Tony Wagner, who addresses how these skills must complement what is needed in the workplace. Marie Bjerede writes, “In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner lays out seven “survival skills” that are needed in a modern workplace: Critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and leadership; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination.” The chance to create this level of engagement is exciting and promotes the skills that forward thinking educators are interested in.

Build Real Student Engagement

In some circles, the phrase “student engagement” has started to have a negative connotation. Some are looking at it as compliance, like this piece by author Peter DeWitt. He definitely makes the point that sometimes when students seem engaged–nodding their heads, sitting up straight, and participating–we feel self-congratulatory that our students are engaged. Though I agree with his premise, I think that student engagement is crucial for success in school, even the compliant kind he describes. Students must learn to “do school” with certain mindsets and signs of outward engagement.

However, activities that engage students because of their curiosity and their desire to solve a problem takes engagement to an entirely different, and better, level. If you are starting to wonder about how student engagement can work for you, check out this great comprehensive guide put out by Great Schools Partnerships that details how engagement can be viewed as intellectual, emotional, behavioral, physical, social and cultural. Depending on what type of escape room you use or create, you could be addressing a few of these or even all of them.

Use Existing Resources

As important and timesaving as I know it is, I tend to do everything myself. I’ll look at what other educators are doing, but I just haven’t been able to take someone else’s plan and go with it. That is all about to change!

There are truly amazing, ready-to-go escape room plans that are already aligned to standards, so I’d be crazy to spend hours creating essentially the same experience for my students. Why not utilize what already exists for my first foray into doing an escape room? Then, next time, I can tweak it or elaborate in a different direction.

Jennifer Casa-Todd, an accomplished Canadian educator, has an excellent blog that helps connect the experiences to standards but also includes real-life examples that I am drawing from. This blog by DJ Embry for GoGuardian is helpful because it talks specifically about timing pitfalls, what supplies you need and how to modify the experience for a room full of students. If you have the funding, BreakoutEDU has an excellent array of kits that eliminate the legwork.

The Plan

I’m planning my escape room around the theme of  “Writer’s Block.” The clues will lead them through a circuit that includes brainstorming (they’ll have to come up with something that we don’t list, kind of like the game Taboo), using resources (there will be a computer research component), using figurative language (this will be a section where they have to identify it in a passage and figure out the clue) and finally they’ll need grammar (the escape code will be embedded in a complete sentence) to escape. I’m going to incorporate the tips that I’ve picked up, as well as try to make it my own.

Am I nervous? A little. There are lots of things to think about, but with these resources, I think I’ve got it covered. I have no doubt that my students’ engagement won’t be the compliant kind, but instead an immersive experience that epitomizes why we should work towards student engagement in the first place. We can’t do activities like this every day, of course, but I look at this type of day as a booster shot to ensure a healthy interest as students walk in the room wondering, “What are we up to today?”

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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a middle school teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY.

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1 Comment

Melody Jackson

You could also check out Ridlz Games. They are coming out with an interactive escape room app for students in a classroom setting.

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