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Christmas of 2016 was the most me Christmas ever. My sister got me a laminator, my mother-in-law got me this book about fonts, and my husband locked me in a room for an hour. Not literally, of course; he gave my mother and I a gift certificate to try a new escape room that had opened up nearby. I read the book cover-to-cover in about 24 hours, because I LOVE fonts, and I use my laminator constantly as I create resources for my classes that I want to reuse year after year. But my husband definitely won Christmas that year. The escape room experience, well, let’s just say that has evolved into somewhat of an obsession. I can’t get enough of them. I’ll go to any escape room, anytime, anywhere. (Most recently, my mother and I saved the world from a deadly radioactive leak caused by a major UFO crash. You’re welcome.)

Between my overwhelming love for escape rooms and my penchant for keeping things fun (and maybe even a little bit crazy) in the classroom, you can imagine my reaction when I stumbled across BreakoutEDU and realized that there was a whole group of like-minded teachers out there who had figured out how to adapt the escape room concept to become an educational tool. I immediately filled my Amazon cart with every type of lock imaginable, some UV pens, and a few lockable boxes, and set about writing my first breakout. Since then, I’ve created several of them from scratch, customized to the particular thematic units we’re covering in class, from the Guatemalan economy to Spain’s conquest of the Aztec empire.

“Must. Get. In. To. Box.”

If you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s how it works: Since you can’t lock your students into the classroom, at least not without raising some eyebrows, instead, you present them with a locked box that they need to break in to. This box can have several different types of locks on it, all of which require a different kind of code to open. You give  your students a backstory, some reason they need/want to get into the box. Placed around the room are a variety of materials that, when used correctly, provide all of the information that the students need to crack the various codes. There may actually be multiple locked boxes in the room, some of which your students must open along the way in order to get additional clues to help them open the final box. If your students successfully open all the locks and get into the final box, they win! If they don’t, they still win, because after all, if you had fun, you won!

Breakout days are always the best days of the semester, hands down. It is so rewarding to see my students 100% engaged, and naturally, they absolutely love doing them. I always get lots of comments about how much fun they’ve had, but one of my students last year “got it” on a different level. As he was leaving the classroom, he remarked to me:

“That was awesome! It was fun, but we also actually learned a lot! You don’t even realize how much you’re learning as you do it!”

And that, right there, is why I think classroom breakouts are one of the most effective activities you can do in any class, but especially in a language class. Yes, they are fun, which I am all about, but they are also incredibly powerful as a learning tool. They naturally help develop critical thinking skills and teamwork, and with all the different materials students must interact with to find their clues, they provide an amazing opportunity for practice in the interpretive mode. And of course, you can customize the breakout to cover any topic that you want, making them great for bringing cultural content to life in a memorable way.

Are you convinced yet?

If you’re ready to try running a breakout with your students, welcome to your next obsession! But… now what? How do you get started?

Don’t worry if you feel a little bit like this confused frog at first. There are a ton of great resources out there to help you, from ready-to-go breakout activities available for purchase to websites that are fabulous for creating different types of clues. Below, I’ve collected a variety of tips, tricks, and resources to help you get started. You may want to try a pre-created breakout for your first experience, until you get the hang of how they work, but if you’re ready to go the whole hog and come up with your own, I’ve also outlined my process for creating a breakout from scratch.

Sample Process for Creating a Breakout

  1. Decide on a theme for the breakout, preferably related to the current cultural unit.

2. Create the backstory – What is in the box? Why do students need it? I usually create a draft of their set-up letter/initial instructions at this point, but I often come back and add a few clues later, once I’ve figured out what all of my lock codes will be. This ensures that they actually have to read the document.

3. Search the web for authentic cultural materials related to the theme of the breakout. This may include YouTube videos, infographics, menus, city maps, photographs, brochures, Twitter feeds, websites, art, and/or anything else you can think of.

4. Make a list of the locks you are planning on using. Start looking through the authentic materials you have found for anything that lends itself to a particular type of clue. See below for a list of ideas.

5. Figure out what clues you will need to create yourself, either to point your students to the appropriate information from the authentic materials or to directly encode the information for one of the locks. Type up everything you need.

6. Create a ”road map” of the breakout. How many boxes are you using? Which locks will be on which boxes? Where will different clues be planted around the room?

Tip: If students need to crack one lock in order to obtain clues needed for another lock (ie, they have to get into a box that has the UV lights inside), don’t make the first lock one of the more challenging ones, or they will run out of time to finish the whole activity. It works best to put your most complicated/challenging locks on the final box, and use easier ones for intermediate steps. (I learned this one the hard way!)

7. Print out all of your materials. I highly recommend laminating them so you can reuse them year after year.

8. Set everything up and watch your students have an amazing time! You can adjust the challenge level by placing clues closer to or farther away from their respective locks.

Clue Ideas

  • Build a fake Facebook page for a historical figure, novel character, or celebrity from the target culture and hide clues inside. Here is an example of one I created to accompany a conquistador-themed breakout. As you scroll through the entries, certain words have letters that are inappropriately capitalized. When combined, they spell out “MATAR.” (Note: This was a particularly challenging clue, and I recommend starting with something more straightforward until your students are more used to breakout activities.)
  • Use infographics for 3- and 4-digit lock codes. You can find them on any topic imaginable, they are full of numbers (making them great for number combinations), and because of the high level of visual support, even novice students can comprehend them.
  • Give students a map and a series of places to visit as a clue to a directional lock. This works best if the city is roughly on a grid. Subway maps also work well.
  • Have students answer questions on a reading or listening passage, and use letters from the answers to open a word lock.
  • Create a table with a statement related to your theme in each box, only some of which are true. Students have to follow the path from one true statement to the next to get the code for a directional lock.
  • Have students work with foreign currency as a clue to a 3- or 4-digit lock.
  • Use invisible ink and UV lights to hide any kind of clue anywhere in the room.
  • Have students do a sequencing activity as a clue to a 3- or 4-digit lock.
  • To incorporate listening comprehension into a breakout activity, use QR codes to send students to YouTube, Edpuzzle, or a voice message you have recorded on a site like Clyp. (Snapchat can read QR codes, so if you allow your students to use their phones, they can all access the clue. Alternately, you could have a classroom computer with the webpage preloaded as part of your activity setup.)
  • Print out a photograph or piece of art and write a clue on it before cutting it up into a puzzle.
  • Incorporate directional words into a story to create the clues for a directional lock.
  • Create fake concert tickets and plant a clue as to which field(s) they should use to find the combination to a 3- or 4-digit lock (ie, the price, date, row/seat number, etc.)
  • For a key lock, if you have multiple groups, you can either print out pictures of keys that students can bring you to represent having found the actual key, or you can hang on to it and create a password that students must give you to get the key.

Free Breakout Games Available on the Internet

Martina Bex has an excellent blog full of great resources to use in the Spanish classroom, so I highly recommend poking around her website while you’re there! Both of these breakout games are appropriate for novice level students.

Breakout Games Available for Purchase on the Internet

Teachers Pay Teachers is a website where teachers post resources they have created and used in their own classrooms. It’s a fabulous way to get high-quality materials for your own classroom, typically much cheaper than buying from a textbook publisher, and the best part is that you are helping support other teachers when you do so. In addition to pre-created breakout activities, you can search the site to find anything from grammar worksheets to cultural activities.

Other Helpful Websites for Creating and Running Breakouts

  • Breakout EDU Website — You can order a “breakout kit” that comes all of the materials needed to run a breakout, as well as access to their platform, which includes several pre-created games across a variety of subject areas, plus the ability to build digital breakout games on their website. This is a convenient way to get started, though it is   definitely cheaper to order your own materials through Amazon.
  • Breakout EDU Design Videos — While platform access on the Breakout.edu site costs money, everyone can access their game design tutorials with tons of tips and tricks for how to create your own game.
  • Breakout EDU on Facebook — You can participate in this group even if you do not have platform access to the official Breakout EDU site. It’s a great place to ask questions, and members often post ideas and links to other resources they have found on the web.
  • Breakout EDU en español on Facebook — Very similar to the above group, only focused entirely on breakout games for Spanish classes. If you’re looking for a breakout on a particular topic, this is a great place to ask, because often a member will have one they are willing to share.
  • “How to Build Escape Room Challenges” — Blog post with tips and advice from Pathways 2 Success.
  • Breakout EDU on Pinterest — A Pinterest board dedicated to all things related to classroom breakout activities.

Websites for Creating Specific Clues

  • Edpuzzle — A website that lets you take any video and add quiz questions to it. The answers could provide the combination to a lock when given in order.
  • QR Code Generator — You can turn any website into a QR Code. This is especially useful for incorporating listening comprehension into a breakout.
  • Classtools.net — Contains several tools for generating a variety of fake materials, such as Facebook profiles, text message exchanges, breaking news headlines, tweets, and name badges. You can also create different types of interactive quizzes.
  • Clyp — A free digital audio recorder.
  • Snotes — Creates secret messages that can only be read when held at a certain angle.
  • Fake Ticket Generator — A website for creating fake concert tickets.
  • Ransomizer — A website for making any text look like a ransom note.
  • Fake Receipt — A website for generating fake store receipts. Not all of the text can be switched into the target language, but much of it can be customized. The currency can also be switched to €.
  • Eye Chart Maker — Type in any text and have it converted to an eye chart.
  • Big Huge Labs — A website that will let you create lots of custom materials from your own photographs and text.

Have you done a breakout in your class? Leave me a comment and let me know how it went!!! I want to hear ALL your breakout stories!!!