Bella Vista teachers embrace outside-the-box teaching method

Nicole Naditz gave her students a mission: Work as a team to decipher clues that will help open six locks on a wooden case in just 45 minutes.

And do it all in French.

The Bella Vista High School teacher has joined a growing number of educators who are looking for ways to keep students engaged while learning. Many of them have found this through Breakout EDU, a company that provides a large wooden box, with a small metal lockbox inside, four locks, a flash drive, a black light, a pen with invisible ink and basic instructions, as well as a website that includes more than 70 games designed by teachers for all grade levels.

Naditz said the lessons require students to use critical thinking and teamwork, key tenets of the new Common Core State Standards.

“It has them thinking in a different way,” she said.

Naditz started class at the Fair Oaks school on a recent Friday by giving her French 4 students a back story. An inventor named Claire Levine had been kidnapped and the robot she created stolen. A jealous colleague planned to reprogram the robot to to destroy a hospital. Their job was to solve clues that would open the locks, so they could activate a kill switch inside the box.

Then she started a giant clock projected on a large screen.

The students scurried around the room looking for clues.

Imani Smith, 17, was among the students who found an article about the solar system on a table. The group quickly found clues that allowed them to open the lock on a box on that table. The box contained a black light and scannable bar code. The bar code led to an online survey about technology, which once completed revealed the title of a book. The students ran to the bookcase in the classroom and discovered a key in the book. The key opened one of the six locks on the Breakout EDU box at the front of the room. The black light revealed a message written in invisible ink that lead to another clue.

“It was a good experience,” Smith said. “I enjoyed teaming up with my classmates and working together.”

Meanwhile, Laura McDonald, 18, Andrew Shade, 17, and Grecia Maldona, 17, were among a group that followed a map to a nearby physics lab. Once there, they completed an experiment using eggs, salt and water. The group hurried back to Naditz’s classroom and decided the word salty in French would open a combination lock using letters on the Breakout EDU box.

One by one the locks were removed from the box until only one was left. There were no more clues and the clock continued to tick. The students started going over the clues they had already used. One student said that the map that had led students to the physics lab, if followed, might remove the directional lock. It did.

“They succeeded together – dividing and conquering,” Naditz said.

There were 23 minutes, 54 seconds left on the clock.

“It was a way to combine the language they are trying to learn and to tie it to content,” Naditz said of the lesson.

She had asked for a grant from the Bella Vista Parent Teacher Association, and the group agreed to pay the $99 it cost to purchase the Breakout EDU kit. Then she set about designing the game herself, because the online cache of games didn’t include any in French. She added more locks so students would have to do more tasks.

PTSA teacher representative Susan Sloan watched as the students solved puzzles and sought clues. She liked the interactive aspect of the games, as well as the critical thinking skills it required. “I think it’s amazing,” Sloan said. “It’s money well spent.”

James Sanders, chief innovation officer at EdTechTeam and a former middle-school teacher, invented the game just over a year ago after visiting an escape room with a group of students and teachers while at a conference in Canada. Escape rooms are entertainment venues where customers are locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to escape.

EdTechTeam, a California corporation and network of educational technologists, offers custom professional development for educators.

“We were struck by how engaged the students were,” Sanders said. “We reflected on how we can make learning more fun in the classroom.”

The visit resulted in a prototype of the Breakout EDU kit, which is now used by more than 5,000 teachers around the world, Sanders said.

“With the problems the world faces today, students aren’t going to be able to solve problems answering questions on a multiple-choice test,” Sanders said. “We need a generation of students who look at a problem and figure out unknown variables and work collaboratively with peers to solve the problem.”

Sanders said he is surprised by the game’s success. “We have been completely caught off guard,” he said in February. He said the two-person company has been scrambling to fill outstanding orders at their production facility in Fresno.

Naditz said she and other Bella Vista teachers plan to continue to use Breakout EDU in their classrooms.

“I really feel like essentially it’s an amazing way for teachers to engage their students in whatever subject areas they want to work on – critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills,” she said. “They are huge pieces that are hard to do in a classroom without it feeling contrived.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert