Cool Tools for School: Thing 15, BreakoutEDU

While I have participated in a few Breakouts at trainings, workshops and conferences, I hadn’t been brave enough to try creating my own and/or doing a pre-made one with my students. Part of the problem was that I was overwhelmed by the idea of how much work I imagined it would be-and while creating one certainly took some careful planning, I’m happy to report it wasn’t nearly as cumbersome and challenging as I had pictured!

In late January, one of my 6th grade teachers approached me about doing something fun with her students to go along with their Ancient Egypt unit prior to them going on February break. With this Cool Tool topic in mind (and our district’s recent purchase of six breakout kits), I suggest we try doing a Breakout with them!

Since our district also purchased full platform access to the BreakoutEDU site, I immediately checked out the website to see what they already had for ancient Egypt. While the two games available looked fun, I wasn’t sure how they matched up with what the students had been learning in the classroom. Instead, the teacher and I looked at the Ancient Egypt centers and activities students would be doing leading up to the Breakout so I could understand their learning goals and the teacher left me with my own copy of the packet for further brainstorming.

Ultimately, I decided that the pre-made games would be fun if the purpose of the Breakout was to introduce students to their ancient Egypt unit but, if students were going to be using the Breakout to review their unit before a test (the teacher’s stated goal), I would need to design my own Breakout based on their center activities.

Using the game design worksheet available on the BreakoutEDU site, I started brainstorming puzzles that could be created using their center activities from the week before. At first glance, the length of the game design worksheet looks overwhelming but, it was incredibly helpful when it came to organizing my thoughts and making sure the puzzles were coming together in a way that would be solvable (and make sense) to the students. It also proved to be a handy cheat sheet for my library clerk and the classroom teacher on the day of the breakout. If students needed help and wanted to use one of their hint cards the other adults in the room had all the information they needed to guide students through their roadblock without everyone having to come to me, the main puzzle designer.

Some things we did that seemed to help the day go smoothly:

  • Color coded the clue sets- I made 6 identical puzzle sets (we have 6 Breakout kits in our district) and made sure that each clue in each set had the same colored dot on the back. That way, if things got messy and crazy, we could quickly sort the clues and make sure that each set was complete again.
  • Setup cheats- in addition to the color coding, each puzzle piece also had a small letter on the back, either an “H”, “B” or “T”. Clues with an “H” on the back needed to be hidden in the Breakout area. Clues with a “B” on the back needed to go in the Breakout puzzle box and clues with a “T” on the back were meant to be handed over by a teacher after a team successfully accomplished certain steps in the Breakout. This made setting up the puzzles between 6th grade rotations much quicker and meant that someone besides me could help with setup as well.
  • Clearly defined work zones-We used colorful tape to mark out on the library rug separate, distinct areas for each team. Teams knew they were not to leave their area and that all clues and puzzles they needed to unlock their boxes were located in their area. This helped teams focus their search efforts and kept teams from accidentally grabbing the wrong clues and getting their puzzle sets all mixed up.
  • A fun video introduction!-To introduce the setup for the Breakouts, I brought back a character our 6th graders meet earlier in the year, famed archeologist Professor Nordlaw. The kids loved seeing Professor Nordlaw again and the big twist (she realizes midway through the video that they’ve mistranslated the hieroglyphics and instead of sending us lucky gold that gets luckie the faster they solve the puzzles, she’s sent us cursed gold and if we don’t solve the puzzles in time we’ll be locked in school forever) definitely got them excited to get started on the puzzles!

One thing I’d do different:

  • Give them a checklist-The Breakouts were set up with half the clues and puzzles locked in their Breakout box and half hidden throughout their work area. To successfully open the Breakout box and get the rest of their clues, they needed to find all the hidden clues/tools and figure out which clues worked together to open the first Breakout box. In hindsight, it would have been helpful to give them a checklist of clues/items they needed to locate in their zone so they would know when they were done searching and could focus on solving their first puzzle/riddle.

Overall, this was such an amazing and fun day! The kids loved it and they really blew us away with how well they worked together. Plus, it was great to see their faces light up when they were able to access their prior learning to solve the puzzles and put it all together. I would definitely do this one again next year and will absolutely be making more of my own Breakouts to use in the future.


Off We Go to Archeology Camp!

I was approached by one of our 6th grade teachers wondering if I had any ideas on how she could liven up their unit on prehistory and early man. After some looking around for ideas and sharing back and forth, we landed on the idea of doing an Junior Archeology “Camp” for one of the days, a hands-on “dig” during the follow up session and then, a sharing and reflecting day.

For our Junior Archeology Camp we broke the kids into 3 groups and had them rotate through 3 stations:

  • Station 1: Guided Tour of the Lascaux cave paintings in France– I’m lucky enough to have both a SmartBoard hooked up to a projector as well as a second projector that can be hooked up to a laptop and used with a pull down screen we have in the library. We used the laptop and screen to display the virtual cave walk through on the pull down screen and discussed the images we both saw and didn’t see in the caves and what that might tell us about early man. My clerk ran this one but if, you didn’t have a third person, you could probably set this up as a self guided experience.
  • Station 2: Fossil Exploration– This interactive website shows different fossils and walks you through what archeologists were able to learn by examining the fossils. At this center each student viewed the site on their own iPad while being guided by their classroom teacher.
  • Station 3: Identifying a skull– This interactive site lets you examine skull fossils of known types of early man and then, gives you mystery skulls to try to identify. I ran this one and we used the library SmartBoard to view the skulls so everyone could see them and the details we needed to be looking for could be projected on a larger scale.

For the hands on dig, I used this lesson on trash can archaeology. I picked 3 different classrooms in different parts of the building and collected some of their “artifacts” every day for a week or so. I made sure I didn’t collect any perishable food waste, tissues, or papers with students names and/or sensitive information. We also all wore gloves during the activity because a) hygiene and b) that seemed like something good scientists would do. Instead of having them record their findings on the worksheets included in the lesson, I had them use the iPads and the Seesaw app to record annotated pictures and videos on their findings and providing the answers to the questions. There was some hesitation when I first showed them the cans of artifacts and began explaining what they were going to do but they got over it fast and seemed to really enjoy themselves. Students I normally don’t hear much from in class were so excited for their turn to be in a picture of video for their team’s Seesaw journal.  

*Optional for crazy people like me* I spent the entire day of the archaeology dig pretending I wasn’t me and was instead Prof. Aneras Nordlaw, archaeology professor from Cambridge, visiting to get the junior archaeologists help on an important dig site (unfortunately, Ms. Waldron couldn’t be there that day because she had to take her car into the shop). I refused to answer to Ms. Waldron and introduced myself to every class as Prof. Nordlaw. (The last 6th grade class was so mad at their teacher because she told them when they got to the library a special guest speaker who waiting for them). Also, I did my best to dress like a smart professor who also maybe doesn’t have to dress up and do presentations very often-I even snagged a visitors badge from the main office and rolled my hair under so it looked shorter. And you can’t see it in the pictures but that cardigan has (sequined) elbow patches.  

Finally, the last day they came down I pulled up each team’s Seesaw journal on the Smartboard and they shared their findings with the rest of the class and we had some whole class reflection time. Overall, the lessons went really well and all the classes got into it! I think having a deeper understanding of what archaeologists do helped them bring a new layer of meaning to their prehistory and early man unit and allowed them to connect with the material in a deeper way.