Ex­er­cise helps free stu­dents’ imag­i­na­tion

The Detroit News - - News - BY JEN­NIFER CHAM­BERS The Detroit News

Belleville — Gabrielle John­son’s sixth-grade stu­dents are not half asleep at desks or mind­lessly star­ing at the clock. They are on their feet try­ing to break out of class.

John­son has set up an es­cape room in­side Owen In­ter­me­di­ate School as part of a les­son in English lan­guage arts that fo­cuses on id­ioms, those phrases that don’t mean ex­actly what they say.

Bor­row­ing ideas from adult ver­sions of the game, es­cape rooms are an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar style of K-12 teach­ing that ed­u­ca­tors say of­fer a creative way to get stu­dents en­gaged with ma­te­rial and ex­cited about prob­lem-solv­ing.

They in­clude the clas­sic game com­po­nents — team­work, clues and prizes — with an ed­u­ca­tional twist aligned to tra­di­tional class­room lessons and cur­ricu­lum stan­dards.

John­son and the school staff cre­ated the es­cape room from scratch, spend­ing hours trans­form­ing an empty class­room into a col­or­ful Willy Wonka candy fac­tory where teams of stu­dents hunt for id­iom clues at candy-en­hanced sta­tions around the room.

They must use the in­for­ma­tion to win their way out of the game in a lim­ited amount of time.

“Your goal is to get out of this Candy­land. You have to an­swer ques­tions on story struc­ture, set­ting, the cli­max, the ris­ing ac­tion. You will an­swer those as a team,” John­son told her stu­dents.

Armed with in­struc­tions, stu­dents ex­cit­edly took off in teams and ran to sta­tions around the room, mov­ing quickly to open jars

of pre­tend candy, look un­der­neath boxes of treats and through candy-col­ored bot­tles of fluid to find the phrases such as “It’s rain­ing cats and dogs!”

Af­ter lo­cat­ing the hid­den id­iom, one stu­dent yells: “I got it! I got it!” while a nearby group quick­ens their pace to search for more clues around the room ablaze with color, fab­ric candy creations and pre­tend sug­ary drinks.

Stu­dents take clues back to a lap­top com­puter where they must read and an­swer ques­tions. Cor­rect an­swers lead them to a “golden ticket” and even­tu­ally a way to es­cape.

Melissa Lloyd, prin­ci­pal of Owen In­ter­me­di­ate School, said the es­cape room cre­ates unique learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ences for stu­dents and al­lows them to find a deeper con­nec­tion to the un­der­ly­ing sub­ject at hand, which is part of a larger les­son aligned to the state’s English lan­guage arts stan­dards.

“We have to make learn­ing high-end and tap into their in­ter­est, learn to tie it to those things we are try­ing to teach. This is in­vig­o­rat­ing for teach­ers and of­fers a 21st-cen­tury ap­proach to learn­ing for stu­dents,” Lloyd said.

The class­room is a lab that changes ev­ery few weeks de­pend­ing on the sub­ject mat­ter. It is used by mul­ti­ple teach­ers at Owen across sev­eral sub­ject mat­ters. Stu­dents spend the ma­jor­ity of their time in tra­di­tional class­rooms learn­ing lessons and the es­cape room is used to ce­ment the in­for­ma­tion in a fun way, ed­u­ca­tors say.

“There is a sense of ur­gency with this that they don’t have in their class­rooms,” John­son said. “And it shows what great team­work they can do.”

Owen stu­dent Bryan Smith, 11, was in the can­dythemed es­cape room. One of the id­ioms he and his team found that led him to an es­cape was “Get your head out of the clouds.”

“Me and my friends, we were look­ing for clues and all tak­ing a part in this,” Smith said. “We an­swered ques­tions. We co­op­er­ated and there were no ar­gu­ments.”

Ear­lier this fall, the class­room was turned into a Fear Fac­tor room where math and sci­ence con­cepts such as iden­ti­fy­ing mat­ter and mea­sur­ing prop­er­ties were ex­plored. Teach­ers used the pop­u­lar “What’s in a box?” chal­lenge in which a stu­dent must put his or her hand in­side a box and feel an ob­ject or ma­te­ri­als with­out see­ing it.

The next room will be a glow room with black lights con­nected to sci­ence and an­other sub­ject, Lloyd said.

More teach­ers across the United States are us­ing es­cape rooms as teach­ing tools, in­clud­ing Los An­ge­les-based teacher Rachel Zon­shine with Aspire Pub­lic Schools, a pub­lic char­ter schools sys­tem.

Zon­shine, a teacher for 11 years, said she started us­ing the con­cept last year af­ter her prin­ci­pal en­cour­aged teach­ers to step out of their com­fort zones.

“It’s su­per en­gag­ing; the kids just love it. They still talk about it; its a magic-mak­ing mo­ment for them,” Zon­shine said. “They col­lab­o­rate, use crit­i­cal think­ing skills, use en­gi­neer­ing skills and think­ing skills. They are re­vis­it­ing those so they get re­in­forced in their brain.”

Brian Peter­son, pres­i­dent of the Michi­gan Sci­ence Teach­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and a fifth-grade sci­ence teacher at Rochester Com­mu­nity Schools, said es­cape rooms give ev­ery stu­dent a voice, es­pe­cially those in­tro­verts who are of­ten not heard from among the usu­ally out­spo­ken stu­dents.

“Be­cause it’s not a ques­tion-an­swer re­gur­gi­ta­tion, you have to do some deeper think­ing. It al­lows some kids the time and op­por­tu­nity to speak out. They beg for it. Lit­er­ally,” he said.

Peter­son just started us­ing es­cape rooms in his lessons this school year, cre­at­ing them from ma­te­ri­als he finds or gets for free. This fall, he has one for biomes that gives stu­dents 45 min­utes to search for codes and clues us­ing lock­boxes.

“It does re­in­force things like crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills with each other,” he said. “It re­ally takes con­tent and prac­tice and in­ter­twines it. You can re­ally make it fun.”

The es­cape room ap­proach also re­in­forces team­work and prob­lem-solv­ing and teaches time man­age­ment, he said.

“With th­ese kids, it seems like more and more things are solved for them,” Peter­son said. “When they reach a dead end, they give up. You can’t in this.”

Pho­tos by Clarence Tabb Jr./ The Detroit News

Fifth-grader Ab­dul­lahi Ibrahin, 10, finds a clue at Owen In­ter­me­di­ate School in Belleville. The Belleville school cre­ated a Candy Land-like es­cape room for learn­ing English lan­guage arts via id­ioms.

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