Unlocking History: Breakout EDU as a Means to Introduce Primary Source Docs

As a celebration of Constitution Day, my classes have officially jumped_img_8477 head first into BreakoutEDU, and it is fair to say that it was an awesome initial experience that left all involved wanting more.  I have never seen students more excited about analyzing, discussing, and thinking about primary source documents and artifacts from outlets ranging from Gilder Lehrman to the Smithsonian Institute’s Learning Lab.  Have you ever had students screaming with excitement when they received a pocket Constitution?  Neither had I.  Until this past Friday.  It happened. Really. But, before getting to the specifics of the lesson, let me rewind to explain how we got here.

The Background

This summer, I, like many other educators attending the ISTE Conference in Denver, Colorado (thanks again, PBS Learning Media!), was introduced to BreakoutEDU.  Social media was full of photos of colleagues posing for celebratory photos on the “Breakout Bus”, signaling that trendy escape room games have arrived in the classroom.

Intrigued by what I was seeing, I figured that I would go to an evening event that BreakoutEDU was sponsoring with some fellow Apple Distinguished Educator folks to learn more about the movement.  Talking there with teachers from around the United States convinced me to give it a shot, despite not being completely sure how in the world I could tie this into my curriculum from a content basis.

Making the Boxes – Gathering Materials

Back in Pittsburgh, I began to look intoimg_1867-jpg ordering items, seeing delivery times of 4-6 weeks from BreakoutEDU.  With the start of the year falling into the same timeline, I figured I could build my own box(es).  So I broke out the table saw, a 1 x 12 oak board, some screws, and I was in business.  A trip to Lowe’s and an Amazon Prime order quickly furnished the supplies and locks needed to complete one box.  But, of course, I needed some graphics, right?  Using a Harbor Freight coupon, I purchased a wood burning kit for about $5.00, allowing me to now transfer graphics onto wood from an inkjet printer.  (Seeing I could do this, my 3 year old daughter, Julia, also asked me to make her a Disney locked box for her Disney Magic Clip dolls, so her little brother could not get to them.)

Um, Now What? Creating a Game

So after making 1 box, I made another.  But, now what?  What did I want to accomplish? Myself and a colleague base our class on some key principles including students interpreting events to create their own stories based on those interprestatic1-squarespace-comtations of history. Students analyze primary sources almost daily in class, as they provide the unfiltered lens into our nation’s past, allowing students the ability to connect to another person’s emotions, fears, biases, and experiences.

Boom.  My students benefit from accessing digitized primary resources from Smithsonian’s Learning Lab, Gilder Lehrman, Library of Congress, National Archives, OurDocs, and more.  Why not create a Breakout Game that required students to access a “clue” from a document or resource from each of those outlets?  From there, I created a game that is now available on the BreakoutEDU.com website: Commander in Mis-Chief.  (Set-up video here)

Commander in Mischief is based on the story that a new presidentimg_8511 has just been elected who does not respect American History.  As such, this president wants to destroy all primary source documents and artifacts to make sure that his/her own version of American History remains unchallenged.  With the foresight that this may happen at some point, our founding fathers locked away the one item that can stop this tyrant is his/her tracks.  Students have 40 minutes to use the clues left by some of the president’s secret service to open the locks, including 3 and 4 digit numerical locks, directional lock, word lock, and key lock before the president signs an executive order to have all documents destroyed.

My next challenge: what could I have locked in the box thatimg_1754-jpg could prevent a president from abusing his/her power? This answer was obvious: the Constitution.  What was not obvious was how I could possibly provide each of my students with a Constitution.  Enter TeachingAmericanHistory.Org.  I had attended some great events sponsored by TAH, and, after reaching out to Monica from TAH, they generously donated 100 pocket Constitutions to be provided to my students.  What makes this more perfect?  I planned to implement this activity on Constitution Day 2016.

Implementation & Observations

I had hinted to my students to be ready for something different on the day prior to our Constitution Day lesson.  They were broken into 2 groups of about 8-13 students, group “Red” and group “Blue.” After being given the ground rules and a quick lesson on opening directional locks, they got started.  Of my 10 groups that participated, 7 were able to open the box by the end of the time, with 6 of the 7 groups opening it with under 8 minutes left.  Ironically, the first group to get into the box in my first period class, performed with the fastest time of the day with around 17 minutes to spare.

Was this worthwhile?  Really, when I wrote that I had never seen students more excited about primary resource research, I meant it.  What was a bonus, though, img_8520were the collaborations that occurred.  Students divided tasks, brainstormed ideas, read and re-read (and re-read) documents, tested theories, laughed together, became frustrated together, and encouraged each other.  At the end of each period, students asked “when can we do this again?”  That made the summer prep worth it.  As a teacher, this offered the opportunity to get to know my students in a setting outside the norm.  Who is a leader? Who is a follower?  Who steps up when challenged?  Who gets frustrated easily? Who perseveres? These are all life-long skills  that we want our students to develop, in addition to content knowledge.

As I told my students, we will certainly do this again in my class.  I’m thinking an election-based challenge as we get closer to the general election.  But, this time, I, along with my students, will be a little more familiar and comfortable with what to expect. Thanks for reading!

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