About Whitney Kaulbach

I teach High school and middle school students World History, AP World History, Reading Instruction, and Literacy Specialist.

It has been a long time since I started my high school class with this opening, “Today I’m going to tell you a story… and only you have the power to save the world…” My gaming team of devoted educators advised me to take a plunge into an all-out game experience with Breakout EDU.  While it wasn’t a plunge like I initially expected, it was a deep dive into solving puzzles that unlocked boxes that held more clues, that linked to hidden objects in a classroom, that needed translation, that required assembly. The company, BreakoutEdu (by James Sanders) provided locks, a pet urine detector, a thumb drive, lockboxes and a template for setting up clues and the site links for you to see  sample “Breakouts”.

Before you read any further, I must warn you that my intention with this article is to outline my own preparation for designing a game and it is possible that you will be led to similar obsessions because it is difficult to pull yourself away from the heroic euphoria of problem-solving.

Step one- Start by practicing a Breakout with friends and colleagues. Our gaming group leader purchased a kit, chose a session from the online site and then set it up in a nearby pub where no students could take over or laugh at us. As a group, we struggled through the Shakespeare puzzle while enjoying tapas and adult libations. The waitstaff happily participated in providing clues and hiding lockboxes. It felt like an episode of the Amazing Race. Two colleagues immediately became hooked on the experience. They went home, played other sessions and then designed their own for classroom use.

Step twoThen invite more problem-solving experiences into your own practice. I love the idea of sorting clues, but I’m admittedly easily stumped. I could never figure out these Breakouts on my own, which is why this is a great collaborative activity. Luckily, our same team of educators discovered an actual Escape Room in San Diego with EnigmaHQ.com when we attended . The designer gave us a thrilling, fast-paced hour of skill challenges that kept us locked in a room until we found enough clues to unravel a story, rescue a magic crystal and saving the day. This model experience of being in a space devoted to mystery gave me an experience  that students would share. I loved pulling books off of shelves or deciphering hidden codes in paintings, finding secret compartments that held actual puzzle pieces. the addition of flat screens sending partial or full clues was the added touch of being in a model, professional space.

Step three– attempt “winging it” privileges and design a game for students. My husband jumped right in and began designing activities for each lock on our lockboxes. I spent a couple of days making a list of all possible images, propaganda posters, postcards paraphernalia, books, in our possession and then an outline of what I planned to have students learn about Russia and its history. We used the Breakout Edu template which we modified several times. We took our set up into my classroom and looked at ways in which we could use this space as well as other areas of the school.

Cyrillic propaganda posters hung on the walls were perfect for working into decipher clues. And the invisible ink was fun to use both in the creation of red herrings and real hints.  Do not underestimate how excited students will be when they put together the pet urine detector light and shine it everywhere. We also realized that there is an incentive in having a clue that leads to another site. My husband came up with the idea of letting students find and sort a pile of Russian leaders. Chronologically sorted a call number appears and the context of the library gives students the realization that they are staring at the direct location of a book. A book with a hidden key and secondary clue. Students ran to our library, unlocked a lockbox revealing a solitary thumb drive and thus hurried to our computer lab for uploading, printing and deciphering more clues.  

It was this sort of collaboration that led us to consider designing our last clue to unlock an iPad passcode. The code corresponded with a famous event. More importantly, the iPad held a Chatterpix video of Rasputin croaking out a final mission. (I wrote the script, my husband created the voice). Making the video left me weeping with laughter and my husband rolling on the floor. I haven’t had this sort of fun designing lessons since… ever? We were able to coax our guidance team into hosting the mission as a Russian tea ready for students if they made it to the office and spoke aloud Rasputin’s coded phrase to the right person.

I was fortunate to have small classes pilot the Breakout.  For a larger class of 26 students, I decided to engage most of the class in a separate game while a select six were chosen to represent the class. They really rose to the occasion and appreciated the responsibility of delivering the tea to the class. I’m hoping that others will want to be chosen for the next breakout and that it will motivate students into responsible behaviors. Immersive learning happens when an hour of class passes and students are still devoted to the problem solving. This type of learning becomes the impetus for making connections to the outline I presented in the follow-up class. When I posted a homework list of terms about the Russian Revolution, all of my students completed that assignment. Something so foreign and so long ago was now a piece of their real world experience.

That kind of time travel almost  never happens.

Breakout Edu




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