Escape Room Exam

I told my PBL/Inquiry-based Modern World History class they they would have a two hour learning experience during the scheduled mid-year exam slot, but it did not have to be a traditional exam. I asked for ideas. After a short discussion, students easily agreed that they wanted an escape room experience. They were really excited by the idea, so I said I would create that for them.

First decision – synthesis of what we have done or new material. I decided on new material. It would be a test of their skills and endurance, since there would not really be a way to study. Also, it would move the curriculum forward. I had hoped to have gotten a little further by exam time.

Second decision – what new material? I chose the Renaissance. It is what we would be studying next, and with so many different people to learn about, it would be easy to craft something with enough different components so that each student would have some individual responsibility.

My first iteration was really more of a video game model with tasks set by increasing difficulty. I was planning to give each student a person to research. Then, the next task would involve each person getting a date that they would have to match with an important event for one of the people researched. The final layer of research would have them each matching an image to the date and person it represented. Then, I was going to break them into small groups and have them write as many true statements about the Renaissance as they could. The final task would be to write a sixteen word history of the Renaissance (in the spirit of the six word novel).

Then, I set out to make my list of names, dates and then images to find. As I was assembling all of this, I thought about how it would play out in the classroom. I had two main concerns. First, I was worried that having everyone doing the same tasks at the same time would lead quicker students to become impatient with slower students, who would then become stressed. I wanted to foster a spirit of cooperation, and I thought I might be setting the students up for confrontation. Second, I was afraid that it would not be fun. Without enough elements of a game, it would be just another class activity.

So I decided to change the plan. I hid all of the clues – people, dates, and images – around the room. They spent the first several minutes gathering the clues. Then they had to figure out what they were supposed to do with them. It didn’t take long for them to realize that sixteen was the magic number – sixteen students in the class, sixteen of each type of clue. Each clue had a paper florin glued to it. I told them they needed to earn 100 florins to unlock the prize (cookies and an A). The final puzzle would be worth 50, and the clues added up to 48. They could earn additional florins for positive collaboration and lose them for negative behavior.

They set to work – each student researched one of the people. Then, they tried to find one of the dates that matched something significant for their person. Finally they looked for an image they could connect. Some got it right on the first try. Others needed to swap dates and/or images. When they thought they had enough information to explain and connect the person, date and image, they came to me to get checked. They earned a florin for each element they got correct. It was magical listening to them putting it all together. Some clues were harder to decode than others, so when students finished their own, they helped others try to decode and complete. Everyone had to complete this process before the class could move on to the final clue.

The final clue said:

Gather a sweet number of components

Combine them together Hemingway style.

Racconta la storia del Rinascimento.

They were to write a sixteen word history of the Renaissance. I had to help them a bit because they were not all familiar with the idea of the six word novel, but once I told them that they figured out what to do. At my suggestion, some students worked on their own and others collaborated on it. With five minutes to spare before the end of the two hour exam, they came up with the following two statements:

Rebirth, old ideas, reformation,

wealth disparity, new information,

literacy, arts and innovation,

betrayal, lies and rejuvenation.


Individuals flourished, innovated, created ties,

then broke them in an infinite loop of betrayal and lies.


It was a great experience, capped off with chocolate chip and Italian lemon cookies. Every kid was engaged. The room was alive with thinking and learning. They worked together and they worked independently. I can’t say for sure that every student loved it, but the room was filled with positive energy. I am looking forward to hearing their feedback on how it could have been even better.


History Heresy

Primary sources are essential to studying history. Or are they? My professional circles tend to see them as the Holy Grail of history. Going back to the actual words people used gets us the real story. Or does it?

Historians go to the archives and make use of primary sources to write their books. I went to the archives to find documents for my Masters thesis and my unfinished dissertation. So, clearly if we want students to do the work of historians they should work with primary sources. Or should they?

My concerns are many. Historians (and graduate students) never go to the sources first. They begin by learning as much of the context as they can. They immerse themselves in the era and the people. Then, they go to the documents.

The danger of holding up documents as “what people thought” is that any one document is woefully incomplete. I cannot imagine anyone piecing together my life, or even my day, from one piece of writing. It is always more complex. Students bring their own assumptions to the study of history, which is to be expected, but they also bring their own understanding of language. Words do not mean the same thing to people across time and space. Translated documents are even more problematic.

I realize that they provide an authentic feel for the past. Or do they? Can my students really get more from reading Tom Paine’s words in Common Sense or would they be better served reading the work of an historian who has placed those words in the context. At the very least, they should read the historian first. And then maybe another historian. Mostly the reaction when students try to read Common Sense is that they have trouble decoding the language and assume that regular people in the 1700s were either smarter than they are or had way too much time on their hands. I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend the limited time and struggle students are willing to give me.

While I think students need to read non-fiction regularly, I think they are better served by reading well-written engaging history. Then, if they are digging deeper with a research project, primary sources might be helpful. The skill of decoding documents becomes less onerous when you actually know enough of the background information. Are we spending too much time on a skill that is too difficult because of the way we design the learning?

To really support historical analysis, a whole series of documents is necessary. It’s not enough to read one newspaper and determine what was important to people in the past. To determine the impact of an event through the media, one would need a more sustained analysis. Historians do this. They also build on the work of one another.

We have held up some as more important than others. When we do that, we skew the history. We acknowledge seminal documents retrospectively. Doing so without the complexity of the context can create a narrow narrative. We like neat, clean, logical narratives. The problem with that is that people’s lives are neither neat, clean, nor logical.

To many of my fellow history teachers, this is heresy. Full disclosure – I am currently thinking of how I will teach the Reformation and Scientific Revolution in my PBL/Inquiry class. That may have something to do with my angst-ridden, iconoclastic, rebellious mindset at the moment.