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ND teacher brings escape room concept to classroom

Children at a Duluth library work together on an escape room scenario. Now, one Dickinson, N.D., teacher has incorporated escape room scenarios into her English classroom. File photo.

DICKINSON, N.D. -- For some students, a classroom can be a place from which they can’t wait to escape. Dickinson High School English Language Arts teacher Sheila Hlibichuk’s escape-room activities, however, just might make them want to stay.

Hlibichuk is using escape room-type puzzles and manipulatives to engage students with her content. She recently received a grant from the Dickinson Public Schools Foundation to allow her to make those activities more hands-on with multiple types of locks (arrow locks, number locks, word locks) UV pens, blacklight flashlights and locked bags.

“It’s not an escape room in probably the true sense of an escape room,” Hlibichuk said. “The students won’t be locked in, and they won’t get a key in order to get out. Their end result, or whatever it is they’re working toward, will be locked in a bag.”

Students unlocking the bag might receive bonus points or the answer to an upcoming test question, Hlibichuk said. “Something they have some stake in, something that they want.”

These activites go beyond regurgitating content. They create opportunities for collaboration, problem-solving and risk-taking. When the activity is over, she’ll ask her students to discuss how these ideas and skills could be used in the real world.

“Research shows that experiential learning helps students retain (information) because you’re engaging the brain in another way,” she said.

Hlibichuk thought of the idea after a vacation in Iowa last summer with her family. They participated in an engaging escape room scenario.

“The set up was there were scientists trying to create a new animal, so they were merging all these other animals,” she said. “We had to figure out what they were doing so we could stop them from some diabolical thing. We had an hour to do it. First you had to solve a puzzle, and then the puzzle led you to words or numbers that you would have to use to unlock a lock, which led you to another clue.”

Hlibichuk said she was fascinated by the idea of using a person’s existing knowledge with knowledge they were learning during the project to get an end result. So she started searching teaching sites for templates, and she found a pen and paper one.

“It’s not as engaging or fun for the students because they don’t have the locks to manipulate or the black light secret messages to decipher,” she said. “They enjoyed the process, but I could see where adding the manipulatives would help them be more engaged.”

Hlibichuk also tried it as an online activity for her Beowulf unit in which the students entered answers onto a Google Form, which unlocked other pieces of the puzzle.

“That was okay, but some links were broken by the time they had gotten to use it,” she said. “It just wasn’t as satisfying as the hands-on part with the locks and hidden keys and combinations and passwords, all those things.”

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