Will they escape?

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Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Under the watchful and somewhat amused eye of seventh-grader Joe Kennedy, Jonathan Alder school board members Bill McCartney and Christine Blacka use a special light to reveal a word highlighted in invisible ink. The word was a clue in a challenge presented at the Feb. 10 school board meeting to illustrate the concept of escape rooms as a teaching tool.

(Posted Feb. 11, 2020)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

You’re given a scenario: You and your team must free passengers from a train loaded with explosives before it arrives at the station. Or you’re tracking a kidnapper, but then you’re caught. Or you’re tasked with finding stolen artwork.

Whatever the scenario, it takes place in one or more rooms. You must find clues and solve puzzles to complete your mission and, in turn, escape from the room(s)–all before time runs out.

This is the basic concept behind escape rooms, an entertainment option that first became popular in the United States about 15 years ago. Now, educators at Jonathan Alder Local Schools are using the concept to engage students in learning.

Megan Brar, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Jonathan Alder Junior High, recently staged an escape room exercise centered on the assassination of Roman dictator, Julius Caesar. She planted clues around her classroom and in the school hallways. From the clues, students had to piece together the circumstances leading up to Caesar’s death and write a police report.

“It’s great. You give them clues on a topic, then they run with it. They take responsibility for their own learning,” Brar said.

The concept also reveals leadership skills some students might not have known they had. Brar said she has watched students take the reins in these scenarios who otherwise wouldn’t in a more traditional educational setting.

Seventh-grader Annie Saxour likes escape room challenges for a variety of reasons. For one, you’re not stuck in a chair taking notes, she said, and it appeals to all sorts of mindsets–from those who like competition (a reward awaits the team that finishes first) to those who are “school smart” and like to apply what they know to a task.

“Everyone is engaged, and there isn’t one person doing all the work,” Saxour added.
Teamwork and communication are central to the escape room concept, said seventh-graders Rebecca Magginis and Joe Kennedy.

“Those skills are important in adulthood, so why not start now?” Magginis said.

Dana Wright, Jonathan Alder’s district librarian, introduced the escape room instructional concept to fellow staff members after learning about it at a conference a few years ago. She is thrilled to see it catching hold as a teaching tool in the district.

Currently, Shelley Conley, the junior high librarian, and Jennifer Danner, a seventh-grade English and language arts teacher, are developing an escape room challenge centered on the book, “Fever 1793” by LaurieHalse Anderson, about the deadly yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793.

“Students will go back in time and become historians and scientists to save the people of Philadelphia from the epidemic,” Conley said of the scenario.

The creative goal with these set-ups, Conley said, is to hit on multiple subject areas. The Julius Caesar challenge combined history and, thanks to clues related to Shakespeare’s play about the dictator, literature. The yellow fever challenge will do the same, with some science thrown in the mix.

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