Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Productive Struggle

For the last week and a half, my colleague Josh Allen and I have been taking Breakout EDU to the classrooms of our 2nd-5th grade building. It's been an illuminating experience for all of us.

As we've watched students work through the game, one of the most common comments I've heard from the teachers has been, "How can you just sit back and watch?"

Let me just tell you. Sometimes it's hard. Very hard. It's hard to watch as students don't use the resources given to them. It's hard to watch as students skim past clues. It's hard to listen to students who aren't listening to their group members. It's hard to see students who are so close to getting something but are missing a small detail. 

It's hard to watch students struggle.

We as teachers want so badly to see our students succeed. But sometimes we forget that in order to succeed, sometimes we have to struggle. 

The opportunities that Breakout EDU offers are what I'd call productive struggle. 

Breakout EDU, no matter what game, teaches our students to be critical-thinkers and problem-solvers. They must determine what is and what is not important information. They must decide how to use the information they've been given. It teaches them to be good team members. In order to succeed, Breakout EDU requires team work. It requires students to take turns. It requires them to share their ideas and explain their thinking. It requires them to listen to each other. And Breakout EDU teaches our students to persevere. It requires them to shift their thinking when something doesn't work. It requires them to work past frustration and to build off the ideas of others.

Now, of course, we're not completely heartless. We intervene and redirect groups that are becoming toxic and derailing themselves. We don't want the struggle to become debilitating.

One of the most important things that we do at the end of every game is to reflect. Even if groups fail to breakout in the allotted time, we take the time to celebrate and recognize the things they did well. And we always take the time to ask them what they learned about the experience and how they'd use what they learned for next time. Almost always someone brings up the ideas of reading more carefully, of noticing, of listening, of working together, of trying different things.

And we always talk to our students about how all of the things they've learned are things that can be applied outside of Breakout EDU . . . in the classroom, during math or reading, at recess, at home. 

Because in the outside world, the struggle is very real.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Thinking Outside the Box: Breakout EDU and the library

Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, I'm always pushing the proverbial envelope, always challenging my students and teachers to explore new ideas. And I'm lucky enough to work with several brave souls who are willing to come along for the ride, even if they've got no idea what I'm getting them into.

And so goes the story of how Breakout EDU came to the library . . .

As a librarian, I want to provide my students with opportunities that encourage them to challenge their thinking, to take risks, and to provide them with experiences that allow them to apply information and explore their strengths in nontraditional ways. I'd heard about Breakout EDUs and knew it was something I wanted for my library and for my students.

Using my library budget, I purchased three kits from Breakout EDU. I figured since I was a novice at setting up a Breakout game, I'd better start with the experts. By purchasing kits directly from Breakout EDU, I was provided with all the materials I'd need, plus access to numerous games with all materials and set up instructions included.

It didn't take me long to find my first willing participant . . .

One of my 5th grade classes was participating in Global Read Aloud with the novel Pax. When I saw that there was a Breakout game for the book, I immediately approached the teacher to ask if she would be willing to let me use her students as guinea pigs. Despite the fact that she had no idea what I was asking of her, she graciously agreed, especially when I assured her that I would have everything set up and ready to go!

I dutifully printed the instructions, read them over carefully, and began to prepare the materials for the game. I must admit that I was intimidated by the locks. I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to get them set and that I'd be dead in the water. But the worries were unnecessary. Breakout EDU provides a number of video tutorials that walk educators through each step of setting the locks.

With the locks set and materials prepared, I was ready for the big day!

The locks were set, ready for students to break out!

On the day of the game, I set up the library (as instructed via Breakout EDU) and welcomed our students. I gave them the most minimal of explanations of what they were doing, gave a quick tutorial of the locks (I wasn't sure how many of my students had actually explored locks before), and started the timer.

And then I watched.

Students gathered as a whole group to review the clues, often coming back together to share information.
Students often broke off into small groups to work through the various puzzles.
I watched as students took the challenge on. I watched as leaders emerged. Students stepped up to take charge of the various puzzles, while others helped or worked to communicate between the small groups that naturally formed. I watched students play to their strengths. Students who were good with words tackled the word puzzle, while students who were good with math tackled the math puzzle. I watched students work together. I watched students reread clues to each other. I watched students problem-solve. I watched students struggle. I watched students succeed.

Mrs. Hetzel's 5th graders broke out with 12:54 remaining!
For me, the whole experience affirmed the benefits of Breakout EDU. Students who struggled in regular academic tasks were able to find success in a variety of capacities during the game. Students were given an authentic opportunity to problem-solve, to work as a group and to persevere in the face of adversity, to work past frustration and rely upon others. Students had to communicate, students had to think, students had to work together as a group.

Was it perfect? Absolutely not. As with anything, there are always things to improve or tweak to make the experience even better. But ultimately, it was a wild success . . . My students learned to think outside the box.