By Ali Veatch

In elementary school I did not make it into the gifted program due to my inability to complete a simple fire truck puzzle, so the idea of creating and utilizing a Breakout Box in my various classes of ninth graders was terrifying. My Professional Learning Team (PLT) for ninth grade English Language Arts is an incredible group of educators who are always striving to engage students in critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and various other 21st century skills. One of my favorite units we do is a Dystopian Literature Unit in which we focus on writing summaries, making meaningful connections to help understand various texts, and determining themes in texts. In order to do this effectively, students need to understand the characteristics of a dystopian society and be engaged in their dystopian book of choice, enter Breakout Boxes.

Instead of purchasing a pre-made set of clues, locks, etc., we checked-out the two Breakout Boxes available at our building, Battle High School, and two others from the district level. These each included one large box, one small box, a lock with a key, and various other locks. Some of these locks were made up of letter combinations, some were number combinations, and some even had a dot of color and various numbers. In order to save time and effort we decided to make all of the boxes the same. They had identical scenarios, clues, and combinations. Although the variety in locks allows for differentiation, we wanted to play it safe the first time. Clearly with different types of locks, boxes, etc., there are multiple options when it comes to creating a Breakout Box.

Step 1: Find the “why”. First we had to give the students a purpose to solve the box. Students were told they were living in a dystopian society and must prevent the government from gaining full control of their citizens. A letter from a rebel group told them how to stop this from happening and led them to their first clues. One clue led to a code taped to the bottom of the water fountain which was a password at the end. The other clue led students to find words describing a dystopia in a dictionary. Each dictionary had a key under the word “restricted” which unlocked the first lock to the large box.

Step 2: Thinking Inside the Box. Inside of the large box was a small box. On that small box was an opener with six holes, four of which had locks on them. In order to open the small box, all four locks had to be opened. Each lock was associated with one clue, all of which were available upon opening the large box.

One clue was associated with a word displayed on a short dystopian film clip. Another clue was a dystopian-themed poem that noted a telephone, which led students to the class telephone, and under the phone was a lock code.

Another numerical lock had the code “1984.” One clue mentioned how students needed to be careful because the others were always watching. Some students immediately got the Big Brother reference, others looked at cameras and windows. On one window “George Orwell” was written, so students then researched him and found the title of one of his famous dystopian novels.

The last clue came from a puzzle that students had to piece together. It was a black-and-white photo of a sign that said, “ living in fear is not living at all.” The word “fear” was in grey, but the rest of the writing was in black. The code on the lock was a black dot and the numbers“3327,” which is “fear” spelled out on telephone keypads.

Step 3: The Final Step. Inside of the small box was a URL code to a Google Form. This prompted students to enter their email, group member names, and a password from the rebel group. The password was the first code found on the bottom of the water fountain. This allowed us to see which students completed the task. Students were to be finished with roughly 15 minutes left in class. Each student then completed a reflection sheet which was discussed and turned in as an Exit Slip. There were numerous questions about dystopian characteristics that were identified, what each student contributed to the group, and the level of difficulty of the box. The last question asked students if they would like to do another Breakout Box in the future. This gave us meaningful and quick feedback.

The students were extremely engaged during the entire class. They worked on collaborating with their peers, problem solving, using resources, and thinking outside of the box (pun intended – although joke not appreciated by students). I would absolutely do Breakout Boxes again and I feel more confident about my ability to create a meaningful Breakout Box with engaging and standard-related clues to help further learning. Next time we do a Breakout Box I will definitely have some sort of reward for the group that finishes first. Although my students were really motivated by bragging rights alone, prizes may be helpful to keep the motivation strong and consistent in the future.

What worked for my PLT was working together with a clear theme and purpose. We utilized free resources and make the codes based on what resources were available and easily accessible. I can see us utilizing bigger or more complicated materials in the future, but we like to take calculated risks, reflect on the learning, and grow based on data and lessons learned. Even my most shy students were smiling and contributing during the activity, and they strongly indicated on their reflections that they want to do another Breakout Box sometime soon.

Although puzzles have always been a downfall of mine, I am eager and empowered to work on another Breakout Box to further learning, increase engagement, and promote collaboration and problem-solving in my classroom. I would strongly encourage any educator to at least try this in their classroom. If I, a person once incapable of completing an elementary-level puzzle of a firetruck, can do it, so can you. Trust me, your students will thank you!

Ali Veatch is the head speech and debate coach and teaches language arts at Battle High School in Columbia.

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