An escape room for the classroom — I’d heard about it, read about it, considered it. It sounded interesting, but I wasn’t really finding anything out there in the ready-made products that seemed like a great fit for my students. After a little research, I decided I’d take a run at designing my own escape room plans, and I’m excited to share the process and student outcomes with you here.
Establishing a Theme
The first thing I did was take WAY too long to pick a theme. I wanted it to be directly relevant to our learning this semester, fun, easy to decorate for. I was looking for the unicorn of themes. I finally hit a little useful inspiration on the Cracked It! blog. As I looked through their list and saw “Detective” and “Murder Mystery”, our Edgar Allan Poe mini-unit instantly came to mind, and so the concept was born:
Planning the Plot Arc
After I had my theme, it was time to plan the actual puzzles and challenges of the escape. Like all real writing, this was messy. I sat in my empty classroom with my Poe anthology and biography, and I looked. What’s in this space that links up with Poe? What can I add to this space (for free) that will contribute to the theme? It started with the clocks. I had a reference to “ebony clocks” in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and a variety of Dali’s melting clocks in various places around my room.
It all expanded from that one clue-to-object pairing, but I ended up with several scribbled plot revisions before I finally committed something to a typed document.
Building the Puzzles and Challenges
The possibilities are pretty limitless when it comes to building in obstacles, but I tried to stick with challenges that I was confident an 8th grader could tackle successfully. I’ll also note here that in each class period I divided the students into five teams. With that in mind, I customized as much of the challenge as possible to send each of my five student groups on a different path using different clues. One group’s clue might send them to find a key hidden behind a wall decoration, while another group had to find their key in my bookmark holder. I didn’t want one team following around another, cheating the system.
Clues, Codes, and Puzzles
Throughout their journey, students were moving through the plot arc using the clues I strategically hid around the room. In some instances the clues were riddles that I created using Poe-related content.
Other times the clues were buried in messages written in a code that had to be deciphered. I went with an alphanumeric code for one clue and a hieroglyphic code for another. (Note: I shrank the size of my hieroglyphic clue and the my alphanumeric key to create situations where students needed a magnifying glass to read, but you could skip that if you don’t have access to magnifying glasses.)
The actual puzzles in the game offered the greatest challenges during the escape. The acrostic pictured above is comprised of key vocabulary from our lessons this year with the clue embedded in the vertical box. The jigsaw puzzle I created below featured clues that students had to record and re-order to determine the final escape code.
I also used a Google Form for one of the challenges. Using the multiple choice format for a series of questions, I set all wrong answers to return the group to the start of the form, as depicted below. (Note: I had a more difficult form for my high ability students.)
Upon completing the form, the last screen informed students that the code to a locked box was Poe’s birth year and Poe’s death year. Then, they were off to find the box.
Containers to Open
Like I said before, I was working on a teacher budget so when it came to the locked elements of this experience, I just decided to beg, borrow, and use what was already in the space. The cabinets, closets, and drawers built into my classroom were heavily used in several parts of the escape, but I wanted to bring in some locking items that the students weren’t expecting. I was lucky to already have a small digital safe at home that I could bring in (pictured below).
I was also able to borrow these locking money bags from the local bank to house the jigsaw puzzles.
Setting the Stage
The final step in preparing for the escape room was setting the stage for the event, which mostly involved hiding all of the clues and props, moving the desks into five groupings, and turning out the lights. In a perfect world, I would have provided each group a lantern to navigate the darkness in tribute to “The Tell-Tale Heart” but instead each group was given a mini flashlight and a taper (stolen right out of my Christmas decorations).
Was It Worth It?
Uh, yeah! I can’t wait to design my next escape game, and my students encouraged me to get started ASAP. However, if all of this seems like a bunch of playing around, and you’re not sure why a teacher would implement this type of learning experience, let me give you a quick run-down of what this experience offered my students:
- Genuine motivation: Some days I have to coax and prod my students into being part of the learning community, but not on escape room day! They walked into a dimly-lit space that didn’t feel like a classroom, and the energy changed immediately. They were ready to solve the mystery and outsmart the other teams in the room along the way. Afterward, several students asked if I’d create another escape room for them next semester. They were hooked.
- Productive struggle in a collaborative setting: Because I broke each class into five teams that were competing against each other to escape first, each team rallied together to solve the puzzles. The work wasn’t easy for them, but they were actually talking through the evidence in front of them, thinking critically, using their resources, and generally kicking butt.
- Engagement in literacy: The escape room gave me a platform to reinforce what we had learned in class while (more importantly) inviting students to apply the reading skills we’ve practiced all semester: using context clues, making inferences, supporting an idea with text evidence, the list goes on. My students probably didn’t realize it, but they were talking through the close reading process several in their groups, analyzing a message through multiple readings to determine WHAT, HOW, and WHY. When the lights came up for the last five minutes of the period to debrief the experience, their clue pages were covered in text annotations that I didn’t assign. (Important: I did NOT use the words literacy or close reading or lesson or learning targets with my students at any point on escape room day. This was a day for them to enjoy the magic, and I did my best not to draw attention to all of the rigorous work I had orchestrated for them.)
I hope you’ll try out the escape room experience in your own classroom. If you have questions, feel free to ask me for more detail in the comments!