Escape into Learning: using 'escape rooms' in ELA

Sep 24, 2019

If I could have one wish in my classroom, it would be for my writers to approach their essays the way they do their video games.

Gamers will die a thousand deaths and get right back up again as they fight relentlessly to secure that next ‘save’ spot.  But when they put down the joystick and pick up their pencils, unfortunately, our writers leave that mindset next to their gaming consoles.

You can call Writer’s Circle all *week* if you want, but if there’s no intrinsic driver calling those students to duty, forget it.

But if we combine this knowledge with what we know about today’s students, we just might find space to pivot, after all.

Game On

In Holly Clark and Tanya Avrith’s text, The Google-Infused Classroom, they outline 10 important characteristics of today’s learners, two of which are key to this post.

Today’s learners:

  1. prefer hands-on and interactive projects, and they
  2. want to win; they (use strategy and) expect do-overs.

Simply put? Our students like a challenge! 

And they want us to *challenge* them because it’s how they learn. But we’ve got to do a better job of designing instruction around who they are, not who we expect them to be.

"We need to design our instruction around who our students are, not who we expect them to be."

Jill Pavich

The good news in all this: 

Albert Einstein recognized play as the highest form of research, and he saw games as the most elevated form of investigation.

So if this be the case?! Pssshtt...challenge accepted. 

Game on.

Gamification, as it’s called, is swiftly finding its way into the classroom.  Horizon Report identifies this method as a ‘driver of educational change’. Simultaneously, it’s gaining steam in the professional world in fields like marketing, training, and consumerism.  

So while you might have some reservations about a game-y approach to learning, rest assured: this isn’t child’s play!  The real-world relevance + transfer are literally undeniable. 

By adding in those gamified elements they love so much--such as storytelling, role-play, reward systems, and the ability to re-do--it allows us to tap into students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as their ability to collaborate.

But here’s the craziest part...  

According to this article in edSurge, studies consistently show that those who generally perform the worst in schools--those who are economically disadvantaged, male, or minority students--are also the ones who play the most video games.  

Think of how a gamified approach to learning could bring the bottom of your grade book back to the top...  

If you’ve ever been on a sports team, you know well how preparation for the ‘big game’ builds social skills as we collaborate and interact with our fellow team members.

Our classrooms don't just need groups. They need ‘teams’ (or 'guilds', or ‘troops’, or ‘leagues’!) because simply put, “learning is not a spectator sport.”

“Learning is not a spectator sport.” 

Arthur Chickering and Stephen Ehrmann, educational research experts

All of this certainly got me thinking about how I can hack into this approach myself. But as a non-gamer (unless you count those two-dimensional days of ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ in which I excelled), ditching my grade book for complex leaderboards or transforming whole units into ‘quests’ would be neither wise nor feasible.

So what’s one step I could take to begin this journey of a thousand leaps toward a 'higher warp zone' (i.e. a more engaging lesson plan)?

Why, pulling off an Escape Room!

Escape Rooms. I’d heard of these--I’d even seen them on Instagram

And I definitely got the sense that this instructional concept could give students all the gamified feels, but that teachers could still collect valuable data in both formative and summative ways.


I also got the sense, though, that pulling one of these together for the first time was not for the faint of heart.  In fact, it looked downright intimidating.

So like any good (non) gamer, I dialed a friend.

Insert Beth Rubin, a fellow colleague, mentor, and friend of mine, who happened to be in the midst of pulling together a DIY edu-Escape Room of her own.

Beth Rubin (left) and Jill Pavich (right) presenting at the Advanced Placement Annual Conference (APAC) in Anaheim, CA, circa 2015-ish.

And like any good teacher, she was all about sharing her experiences thus far and her materials.

So I sat down to interview Beth about her experiences in creating and launching her first ‘break-out challenge’ (as Escape Rooms are sometimes called).

Jill Pavich, CCO of, interviews edu-Escape Room DIY'er, Beth Rubin ;-)

[By the way, following our nerd-session, I totally geeked on more research and made an e-book to follow up, putting all our moving parts in one spot:

Click here to join our Free Resource Library and get a FREE copy of the 'Getting Started with Educational Escape Rooms in the ELA Classroom' e-BOOK!

Beth got herself started by asking the classic series of teacher-prep questions:

  • What kinds of materials do I need?  What do I need to buy?
  • How will I organize this?
  • What learning targets do I want to hit?


Next, she hit the digital pavement and started researching.  

At the top of her search results, Beth stumbled upon a company who creates escape-room-style kits for the classroom, called BreakoutEDU.

Sounded like a hit at first, but...the price tag was pretty hefty for a first-timer. Pre-packaged kits are great if you're short on time...

(And if you wanna use your ‘LEAD’ (supply) money, you go on with your bad self!)

...but Beth was after a more customized approach, plus she's a DIY'er at heart: "I can do it cheaper + better.'

* winks *

Before we dig into the do-it-yourself details, though, let’s take a step back to establish just exactly what an Escape Room is.

Escape, what?

Escape Rooms are, more or less, ‘organized fun’ events, where you pay to get locked in a room with friends or colleagues and you work as a team to literally reason your way out before time expires.  

Game design involves anything from the simple (a puzzle to put together or a riddle) to the extravagant (a medieval door to unlock or a movable brick wall).  And themes range from finding antidotes to reverse diseases, escaping apocalypses, finding buried treasures, and more.

In short, it’s imagination and play at its finest.

One of the first escape rooms surfaced in Japan in 2007, and there have been literally thousands cropping up worldwide ever since.

Because of their fun-for-all-ages appeal, it only made sense that this high-intensity, game-style concept found its way into the classroom.  James Sanders, former White House Innovation Fellow + founder of Breakout EDU was more or less the first one to do it.  

According to Sanders, a shift in the educational paradigm is necessary because, at best, ‘the current K-12 system is obsolete.’

Getting Started with Escape Rooms

Educational escape rooms might not be as elaborate as the originals (though they can be!), but they’re just as effective in encouraging problem-solving and teamwork.  They’re also great for amping up engagement by approaching learning in a fresh way.

To design one, you need to create a series of challenges, which are organized under a specific theme, then students work against the clock to complete these tasks in order to restore the ‘problem’ to its resolution.

For Beth Rubin, this involved a zombie apocalypse, a highly infected campus, and a crucial antidote to reverse the chaos.

More on that in a moment...

Whether you’re using a fancy breakout kit you purchased, or you’re designing your own like Beth did, there are a few, basic terms worth familiarizing yourself with:  

Locks and Keys

First of all, when 'talking shop' about educational escape rooms, you’ll hear the words ‘lock’ and ‘keys’ a lot.  

Your students will reason through different puzzles, tasks, or challenges as they maneuver their way through your escape room.  The answers they come up with--if they’re right--become the keys to the next clue.  

In essence, the lock is the question, and the key is the answer!

During our interview, Beth mentions that clues can be locked up either physically or cognitively, so let’s unpack these two:


At one of your stations, imagine you have one of those lockboxes people collect money in at events such as a fundraiser.  Well, go figure, it’s locked.  

But...there’s a clue next to the lockbox, or some sort of puzzle or task to complete.  

Now imagine that the answer to the clue/puzzle/task happens to be 3.14, or the mathematical ‘Pi’, which your students are then able to use to unlock the 4-digit money box to claim their next clue (after realizing they need to make it 0314 to fit, *wink*).   


This variation simply removes the physical lock from the equation.  So when students arrive in one of your stations, there’s a clue, a puzzle, or some sort of task to complete.  Once they do that, a new clue magically reveals itself, which then leads to the next station (no padlock required).

During Beth’s escape room activity, her students had to piece together a puzzle.  Once they did, a clue appeared on the back of the puzzle.  

So clap your hands + say ‘Yeah!’ because you don’t need to buy or put on borrow a bunch of literal locks and keys!


Next, let’s talk about the term ‘cipher,’ which involves those encrypted messages that need a good ‘hacking’.  Using these as part of your tasks or challenges can give your escape room that genuine, Sherlock Holmes, problem-solving vibe.  

(Plus, the more *advanced* ciphers involve some mad skills in critical thinking!)

There are tonzzz of ciphers you can challenge your students to unlock, so I included a list and further resources in the 'Getting Started with Escape Rooms' e-book which is located in our Free Resource Library

But in quick example, Beth has her students decode hieroglyphic symbols in one of her activities as her starting point in testing out ciphers.  


For ‘clues’, these give your students a sense of direction either once they get to a station and are met with a puzzle, task, or challenge, OR to help them move from one station to the next.  

So let's go back to those puzzle pieces Beth's students had to put together, and how the new clue appears on the backside of the puzzle.

Well, the clue lists all the names of the minions from the Despicable Me movie series.  As students realize this pattern and begin scanning the room, they suddenly discover a gigantic ‘Bob’ minion, which becomes the next station!

So the clue is what nudges them in the right direction.  Riddles, by the way, work well as clues, too.

Alright, let’s put these terms ‘all together now’:

Imagine your students arrive at a station.  They need to crack a cipher. Specifically, it’s a message encrypted in Morse Code (hello, Google machine: ‘morse code translator’...boom!).

The message is a 5-digit code they use to unlock the box on their station desk.  Inside the box is an essay cut into strips that they have to put in the proper order using its transitional cues.  

Once they do that, a clue then presents itself on the back-side of the essay.  This clue--once cracked--sends them to the next station.

(Getting the hang of this yet?)

Now that we’ve got some of the language of the escape room clarified, let’s take a look at how it worked for Beth.  

How it Works

For Beth, she plans to use her Escape Room as a way to hook her students at the beginning of the year.  Specifically, she wants to:

  • engage them,
  • build their trust,
  • and set the conditions for her classroom culture.


One of her learning targets for this activity, therefore, involves her students’ ability to understand the difference between cooperation and collaboration.

So Step 1, establish the benchmark(s), check.

Next, she’ll ponder a theme to nest the learning experience in.  So this is the part where she asks herself:

‘Well...what do high school students like?!   … Zombies!’

So Step 2?  Select a theme, check.

Now it’s onto the next one: *planning*. 

As it goes with teaching, this is the part where the hard work comes tip-toeing in (so you’ve been warned!).  

But based on Beth’s results alone, it’s well worth it. 

(Hint: ‘they LOVED it!’).

Questions Beth found herself asking:

  • What kinds of activities can I have them do to build teamwork and reinforce the distinction between collaboration and cooperation?  
  • What kinds of materials will I need to carry it out (and how much might it cost?!)


With a 90-minute block, Beth figured 4-6 puzzles, challenges, or tasks (i.e. station activities) would serve her escape room well PLUS leave time to introduce + norm the activity AND reflect on learning at the end.

For the station activities, she would need to come up with a variety of lock-and-key pairs, so she started sketching out the activities she wanted to do at each of these check-points.

Because physical locks are just. so. irresistible. , she sought a cheap solution to include a few via dollar-store and thrift-shop purchases.  She built tasks/puzzles/challenges around these and then filled in the other station activities with cognitive locks.

[For a slick list of cheap-n-easy lock-box ideas,'s in my nerdy e-book in our Free Resource Library.

 This part is especially time-consuming because not only do you need to map out the design and order of each task, you also need to come up with clever clues to fuel the fluid-yet-challenging movement from one station to the next.

But as Beth points out in the interview, once you do this the first time, it makes the next time around *so* much easier. 

For her Week One zombie apocalypse, it took Beth nearly a week to pull together her system...

But when she went to design the next one for her core learning unit on the theme of Water, it only took her two days.  Not too shabby, and again...worth it when you see your students’ response!

To kick off the escape room, Ms. Rubin added in a few special effects to really set the tone and get her students excited:  

  • She had Student Services call into her classroom with an alert.  
  • She had the classroom next door banging on the walls to heighten the sense that danger was imminent.  
  • She took to her role as Game Master (t-shirt and all!) in issuing the first clue.


After that, the kids were onto their escape.  And it was a classroom TKO, indeed!

At the end, Beth left time for reflection, which is where the most magical insights materialized.  

Her students were able to use examples from their experiences during the escape room to delineate between cooperation and collaboration, for instance.  

And they learned a lot about teamwork, too.  Beth’s students reflected on how being in a group of 5 did not necessarily mean ‘power in numbers.’  It was actually the team of 3 who succeeded, so the students decided to set ~groups of 4~ as the norm for future collaborations. 

What I Love about it

After Beth walked me through her escape room design, we got to talking about the many ways you can apply this instructional method to other units of study.  She pointed out that you can create an escape room around the events in a novel, which totally got my wheels turning.

I had originally envisioned my escape room to revolve around argumentative writing, but the thought of immersing students *into* the setting of a book like To Kill a Mockingbird just sounds SO much more exciting!

Play is the highest form of research, right?!

We tossed around the idea of using the items in the tree nook or Jem’s pants that Boo Radley mends.  These are the kind of artifacts that can be inserted into the design of the game to make them stand out three-dimensionally.  

The tasks at each station challenge students to think critically about the items.  And you can use Socratic Seminar as your reflection thereafter to take your students into the deeper levels of inquiry.  

Best part?  They’ve probably never studied a novel this way, and they’ll likely never forget this experience because of it!

Other things I love…

Since it’s the beginning of the year and the students are getting to know Ms. Rubin, she included ways to share who she is as part of the process.  

From her love of all-things-Disney to specific characters like the Minions and Winnie the Pooh, Beth’s students got to know her as a human being, which will have a huge impact on their willingness to trust and learn with her.

And my favorite takeaway about escape rooms...listen up...

Students may have been racing toward the outcome, but they got totally lost in the process.  

They were literally learning for the sake of learning!

In other words, they had *no idea* what to expect once they broke out of the zombie room (i.e. what’s the reward?), but they worked together like crazy anyway! 

And though I didn’t get a chance to ask Beth this, *bet* that not a single kid asked, ‘Miss, is this for a grade?’


To wrap it all up

I want to thank Beth Rubin for sharing her classroom experiences with me as I plug away at researching escape room design.  

As a result of our conversation, I’ve pulled together an e-book that compiles some of the most inspiring and creative ideas I gained from her and that I could find online in order to make your Escape Room DIY dreams a reality.

Click here for a FREE copy of 'Getting Started with Educational Escape Rooms in the ELA Classroom' as well as all access to the Free Resource Library.

Best of luck with your DIY designs, and if you do go for it, you’ve *got* to share your good times with this funky bunch of awesome teachers here!  

Post your comments below, and let’s celebrate your classroom wins! 

Looking for a full escape room for your classroom! You are in luck! Click here for my DIY ESCAPE ROOM KIT!


Connect with me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram! See you there!


50% Complete

Ready to bust through the ceiling of your writers’ usual, classroom experience and never look back?!


Download this FREE project-based writing activity + get started TODAY!