Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Breaking Out at the End of the Semester

I had to check my math because I could hardly believe it myself, but this spring was the NINETEENTH TIME I've taught science methods! This course is officially titled "Teaching Science Pre-K through Middle School"--which is pretty audacious--and it is, as they say, in my wheelhouse. I started adjuncting this course in 2007, and have basically taught it 3 semesters out of four since that time. That's a crazy thought!

I've found that when you teach a course that many times, there are three dangers to watch for, and keep in mind:
  1. It's easy to assume that students know what you are talking about, because YOU (as the instructor) definitely know what you are talking about.
  2. It's easy to accidentally tell the same stories over and over...or to think you've already told a story, because it can be hard to keep track.
  3. It's easy to feel like you've got this one in your back pocket, since you've practiced it so much.
I'm continually working against these. It happened a few semesters ago in this course...I was a little too complacent, and because I had other, newer courses I was giving more focus, time, and attention, I fell into all three of these dangers all at the same time. Since then, I've tried to prioritize keeping science methods fresh, because--obviously--while it might be old hat to me, it is new for this group of students.

But one of the fun things about having a course that you feel very confident in teaching is that keeping it fresh means you can continuously tinker and experiment with things that you've never done before. Through out this semester, I tinkered with several lessons, trying new activities or different approaches to my lecturing/storytelling. I reworked parts of several lessons dedicated to teaching controversial topics in science, and invited colleagues to sit in--that keeps you on your toes! And, I decided I really wanted to try something completely new (for me) for a summative lesson at the end of the semester.

And so, my latest adventure in pedagogy: incorporating a classroom breakout!

Are you familiar with the escape room phenomenon? The basic idea is that you get together with a team of fellow adventurers, and pay someone to lock you in a puzzle-laden room. Your goal is to solve the puzzles, crack the codes, intuit and reason your way out to escape. Fun, right?

And then, the twist: innovative educators have begun adapting this approach to the classroom, which resulted in the concept of Breakout Education. The teacher plans a lesson involving codes, clues, puzzles, and an engaging "escape" scenario, and sets groups of students to work. Many use Breakout EDU kits, that include lockboxes with different kinds of locks (numbers, words, directional, padlocks with keys, etc.)  Recognizing that not every school or every teacher has the financial resources to purchase the hardware for these games, however, enterprising educators also develop digital breakout games that work in similar fashion.

And that is where I went for my summative lesson in science methods: I created a digital breakout game to provide a review of the big ideas that I hope my students will carry with them after our work is concluded this semester.

If you're interested in checking out the game I made, you can give it a whirl here: Escape the Lab!

Screenshot of my first attempt at creating a breakout game...

I created my breakout using the new Google Sites (okay, it's been out for a couple years now, but it's still "new" compared to the clunkier, long-running version that Google had available for about a decade prior to this refresh.) This was a pretty sweet way to develop the game; I created a folder in my Google Drive and put all of the game-related files in one place. The graphics, the Google Forms embedded in the site, my planning documents: everything all in one place. And the great thing about Google Sites is that you can drop anything in your Google Drive right into the site you are developing. I also was able to use embed codes from a few external tools, including Haiku Deck (which is my go-to tool for making beautiful presentations) and Jigsaw Planet (a pretty spiffy digital jigsaw puzzle creator) to include interactive elements in the site. A little playing around to adjust the layout, style, and graphic items, and voila, a site ready to use with my students.

How did it go? Well, for the first attempt at this, I was very pleased! Students seemed highly engaged and into it, collaborating, trying things, sharing ideas, reading and re-reading for cues and clues. And even though they are grown-ups, not elementary or middle school students, you should have heard them cheer for themselves when they solved the puzzles and got the "You broke out!" message at the end of the game!

Speed demons! This group broke out in just 15 minutes!

I'm sold on the value of this approach. Like any teaching strategy, I think if you over-use it, it would become less effective, less engaging. But as an approach for inquiry-infused learning, it has real merit! I'm envisioning different ways I might use this in other courses as well:
  • As a preview of learning at the beginning of a new unit (which could even be a pre-assessment for me to get a handle on what students already know about a topic?)
  • As an replacement for a lesson that I might have otherwise lectured about, but could instead make it a more interactive, engaging approach to the concept, or
  • As I did in this lesson, a summary and synthesis of learning, to help students review.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few people and resources who gave me the confidence to give this approach a whirl:
  • My friend and former colleague, Laura Van Ravenswaay, who shared her success story with middle school age students doing breakout lessons.
  • My friend and current colleague, Dr. Gwen Marra, who experimented with breakouts in one of her courses earlier this semester.
  • The team at Breakout EDU, who have lots of helpful ideas and advice on their website for getting started with this approach in your classroom--whether physical lockboxes, or digitally.
  • The many educators who are networking and sharing ideas and resources for breakout education games in the Elementary Teachers Breakout EDU group on Facebook. That is where I found this amazing set of breakouts about each of The 50 States. (My own breakout game was influenced by the design and development of these ones.)

What do you think? Can you see ways you might use breakout games like these in your own classes? Comment below with your ideas or questions

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