Saturday, September 24, 2016

Our First Skype Session With South Africa!

Twitter never ceases to amaze me. In August, my wife and I were enjoying a Saturday clothes shopping trip. I remember we were in JCPenney picking out our new school clothes. (This is an annual pilgrimage for us every August.) At some point during that shopping session, I received a Tweet from Leigh Morris. As I recall, she was asking me about Breakout EDU. When I looked at her Twitter profile and realized she was a teacher in Cape Town, South Africa, I immediately followed her and told her I would love to connect our learning communities together this year. It was a delightful visit via my iPhone Twitter app as I followed my wife around the store. It was easy to tell that Leigh was a passionate teacher, and I was so glad she reached out to me! These are the motivated educators I consistently encounter on Twitter.

Skype Antics

If you have been watching this blog and my social media, you know I love connecting our students and teachers via Skype. Recently, we have been experimenting with Skype Translator using Spanish and Italian. I enjoy opening up our learners' minds to the enormous world waiting for them! There is so much to learn, and Skype connects us to new places and new friends.

Caroline's Request

About two weeks ago, Caroline and one of her friends, both sophomores at LHS, came to me asking if I could help them connect with pen pals in another country. They were working on an EAST project, and the first step was to begin establishing pen pals in distant locations. The fact that their teacher sent them to me for this assistance made me very happy. This shows that some of our faculty know about my Skype library sessions and/ or Twitter personal learning network (PLN). I want to be known as a connector in the building!

During our conversation, I immediately thought of my recent friend in South Africa, Leigh. I sent her a message asking about the possibility of student pen pal connections. She was all for it and within the following week our students were exchanging emails with her students! I offered for them to Skype in the library (if they could work out the time differences since South Africa is 7 hours ahead of us).

The Skype Session

Caroline finally came to me one day to set up a Skype time. We agreed on an open time in the library (I wanted to make sure we could have this session in the library), and she coordinated with her new friend (Megan) in South Africa. The day arrived, and we attempted connecting with Megan. The tries were unsuccessful at first. We continued sending Megan emails to troubleshoot the process. Then Megan's first Skype call to us came through. Caroline answered the call, and the two connected face to face for the first time. From my perspective, it was as if the two had known each other previously. Caroline and Megan talked about similarities and differences of our school cultures during the session. It was wonderful to hear Megan's unique accent, and I am sure it was good for her to hear Caroline's as well. It was a short and meaningful conversation.  I can't wait to see what these two international friends do over the course of the school year. Be sure to watch the video (located below) of their first contact.

Caroline's Reflection

"It was really cool talking to Megan, I learned stuff I never had before. I was also surprised about how similar we both were. She and I had been talking 2 to 3 weeks before we Skyped, we have sent around 30 emails back and forth to each other just talking. It was really exciting to talk to her. It felt like we had known each other for a long time, it wasn't awkward at all."

Next Steps

I look forward to their future connections. Also, Caroline's classmate will be arranging a Skype session with her pen pal in South Africa very soon. Perhaps, we can have them share about their connections and forthcoming EAST project on a future blog article.

For me, this was a very powerful moment. I never stepped in to introduce myself because it wasn't about me. It was about two students in different places meeting each other for the first time. I merely helped Caroline connect with Megan using the technology in the library (and using my Twitter PLN). I want to do more of this when possible. It is important to allow students to take charge when appropriate. This is how they learn to be leaders! I have also learned how valuable a global PLN can be. Since I had connected with Leigh via Twitter, this was an easy task.

It is so good that this event happened in the school library. Think about how Caroline views the high school library at Lakeside. Hopefully, she and her friends will see it as a place to make endless connections with information, technology, and people. These adventures are only just beginning!

This is how we used Twitter and Skype to connect to a teenage inventor in Tennessee!

Reflecting on a year of connections in our school library.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

So Far In September 2016...

The first of the school year is always a wild experience full of change and excitement! August went by extremely fast, and now I'm trying to figure out where the first half of September has gone. I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on a few of the library events over the past few weeks. Each of these are programs we have hosted in previous years, but it is the first time we have attempted them in our new library spaces. I will also provide links to detailed blog articles we have written about the events in the past.

The Dust Bowl (Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse)

This is a collaboration we have done with 8th grade English classes since 2012. The program is designed to introduce students to the 1930s (and Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse) by immersing them in a variety of media from the era.

This year we featured four learning centers:

1. FDR Dust Bowl Speech (Audio File)

2. Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Blues (Music Video)

3. Book Check Out/ Artifact Walk Through

4. Chow Tent
(Potato Casserole, Apple Dumpling Dessert, and Water)

Our students always enjoy this library collaboration. Be sure to read this full length blog article about the program. 

Arthur Miller's The Crucible

11th grade English students read The Crucible in class each year. This is the third year teachers have brought students to the library for a culminating courtroom event. The first day, students come in to create pilgrim style costumes from the era using bulletin board paper and patterns. Females created a bonnet and collar. Males created a vest with the paper. Before coming to the library, students received instruction about best courtroom practices from local lawyers. Each class learned to write appropriate opening and closing statements. After this preparation, classes actually held court in the library (based on The Crucible). For more information, read this previous blog post.

Makerspace During Lunch in the Library

We have had makerspace days in the library for over a year now. We had not held a makerspace program since moving into the renovated library facility this year. To introduce it to our learners this year, we decided to put all our makerspace items in a designated area of the library. We weren't sure how all the students would respond, so it was decided to put the various makerspace activities on tables in the library for lunch. The students loved it! There will be additional makerspace items purchased soon for this part of our library program! Currently, we have a 3D Printer station with Sketch Up Make & Makerbot Thingiverse/ Desktop, Jenga, Legos, coloring pages, 2 Spheros, and a deconstruction station (with old computers that students can disassemble).

Be sure to look at the other links embedded within this post for more information. I will be sharing resources for makerspace ideas and library collaborations in my upcoming newsletters. There are always library adventures to tell about and new things to learn together!

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Our First Student-Led Breakout EDU


This school year, we have already had four different Breakout EDU sessions for our learning community. The most recent was created for 8th grade library orientation. We also held a Breakout EDU session for our entire high school faculty. Prior to these sessions, we had a student led Breakout EDU session for our history department meeting. I haven't written about it because I wanted the student who created the Breakout EDU session to share this story through his own voice.

I'm very excited to be joined in this article by an 11th grade student at Lakeside High School, Mr. Nathan Evans. Nathan and I are not related (in case you notice we share the same last name). He has been a regular in the LHS library since his 8th grade year. I should also mention that he has led book clubs in the library for the past two years. I am grateful that he continues to take leadership roles through library programming. I remember sharing with him that I had been charged with introducing the history department to Breakout EDU in their upcoming summer meeting. He offered to create a series of puzzles for them. How could I say no to that? Please, read the following paragraphs to find out what happened next:

LHS student, Nathan, presents to our history department

Our First Student-Led Breakout EDU
by Nathan Evans


When Mr. Evans first showed me the breakout package that had arrived and that he was planning on using, I felt excited. I had gone through an escape room recently, and the interest in that sort of activity had not quite left me. So when he mentioned that he was hoping to demonstrate it to the faculty at some point, I offered to create one for the history department, because I have always enjoyed history, and I knew enough about it that I was confident I could make challenging hints for my teachers. Mr. Evans, of course, being the ever-supportive person he is, immediately gave me the go ahead to set one up. I had about 2 weeks to think up whatever sort of session that fit the history theme.

We pose for a photo with Bismarck School District Teacher Librarians
(they visited our Breakout session)

Step 1 

The first step, for me, was deciding which tools I wanted to use. If you are creating a breakout for a classroom activity, you would most likely need to keep it all in that classroom unless you have a wonderful media director like Mr. Evans helping you and giving you more room somewhere else. As such, you would need to make sure your puzzles are more of the mental kind, as in riddles and the such, rather than activities that make your students move around a lot. Of course, since it was summer and I knew I would have access to all 3 of the library rooms and the Computer Lab right next door, I decided to make my set up more interactive and hands on to show the History department teachers the full potential of what they could do if they had access to the Library on a specific day. After I decided I wanted to make my session more hands on and that I wanted the teachers to move around a bit, I had to decide, more specifically now, what tools I wanted them to use. After much careful thought, I decided that I wanted to have some clues already hidden in certain areas around the rooms that they would have to find and take advantage of at the proper time. The first was a map. I wanted the teachers to find a map that was hidden and then follow it based on some historical knowledge, and then put their passage into the directional lock we had to open a box. I also decided I wanted them to have to scan a QR code hidden on a paper taped to the wall, I would have a laptop set up in advance already pulled up to a computer screen, I wanted them to have to walk through a Minecraft world in some way, and I wanted them to use a blacklight (UV flashlight) reader and a hidden message.

Let the games begin!

Step 2

Now that I had the processes that I planned on using in my head, I needed the actual clues to go with it. I needed some riddles to help guide them to use the tools, and of course since it was for the History department teachers, they needed to be historical riddles. So, using my natural born genius :^) over the next few days, I devised several riddles that were of varying difficulty (at least in my opinion). Of course, I kept in mind that these were HISTORY teachers, and as such I had no clue whether they would actually be difficult or not and brought them up to Mr. Evans and the rest of the wonderful library staff at Lakeside, and they helped me tweak a few unclear lines here and there to make them perfect. Here they are:

In our government’s history,
It’s unique as the one.

Eliminate it
Watch it continue to grow
Scratch that, bad idea.
(These were a pair that led to the same answer, the 21st amendment)
Such a great man was he,
That he was forced to travel over the sea,
All of his life,
Was filled with much strife,
And if you were to ask him what he should rue,
He would surely say ____.
(This one was Waterloo, he=Napoleon.)

history is a set of lies agreed upon
l'histoire est un ensemble de mensonges convenu
.-..  .----.  ....  ..  ...  -  ---  ..  .-.  . / .  ... - / ..-  -. / .  -.  ...  .  --  -...  .-..  . / -..  . / --  .  -. ... ---  -. --.  .  ... /
-.-.  ---  -.  ...-  .  -.  ..-
(This was a hint that devised in Morse Code to help them on the Napoleon riddle if they got stuck.)
Pull out a dollar, and what do you recognize?
Ancient dead words, and those are to be your prize.
If you knew of his works, you would say, “here comes ___.”
(this led to Charles Thomson, the man who decided what latin words would go on the dollar bill, and “here comes truth” a known saying said about him)

One team works together to solve the clue

Step 3 

Next was deciding on how I wanted the teachers to solve it. After thinking over it and talking with Mr. Evans, we concluded that the best setup for this event would be two teams of teachers, each working the same puzzles, which meant that it was a sort of competition to see who finished first.

Nathan's map clue

Step 4

Now that I had riddles prepared, and tools in mind, all I had to do was connect them together and set everything up. Of course, not every puzzle had riddles. The first station, the one the teachers started at, was a puzzle where there were a certain number of knots on small pieces of rope, and they had to scan the QR code hidden on the piece of paper to go to a site that showed them the proper order of the knots, giving them the code they needed for the first box. Of course, since both teams of teachers started out with the same puzzle, once one team figured it out the other was not far behind, but it still made sure the first team had an advantage. When they got into the box, they had to use a blacklight to scan a piece of paper  to find the words “W. B. Hannibal.” I made sure to label each puzzle with a room number, so they would know where to look for the next clue. When they got into the next room, the goal was for them to figure out that W. B. meant World Book, Hannibal entry. In that book the team found a map leading to the next clue. The map was just a map I got of the Internet of Hannibal’s travels on a Word Document, with a scroll like yellowy picture in the background. I printed it out, reprinted it so that the yellow was on both sides of the page, and then cut the whites parts out. I also left instructions for them to go to the next room and follow Hannibal’s footsteps. I forgot to mention, I set it all up so that the first group to make it to the room with the map got two minutes alone in there to find it, then the other group would get a chance to look around. That way the groups wouldn’t see each other just this clue and follow them. When the group got to the next room and followed Hannibal’s footsteps (which meant turning left towards a table, going forward to another table, all the way right until they hit the wall, then turning back towards the original wall to find a box hidden behind a computer. In other words, left forward right down. They put those directions into the directional lock, and the box opened. Here is where I wanted the groups to split up: I put two different riddles in the box, so that they would each do a different puzzle. One was the 21st amendment, and they had to find a sticky note hidden behind a XXI on the wall, and the 2nd group got to go to Minecraft. My friend had created, in Minecraft, the Mayflower replica for them to walk through, and a replica of Plymouth. They had to, using some clues set up in the world, figure out that they were in Plymouth. Once they figured that out, I gave them the next clue. The two groups then flipped places, the 21 led to Minecraft and the Minecraft led to 21. From there, whenever a group finished I gave them the same riddle, the Truth one.  A page on Charles Thomson ( was already open on 2 computers, and they could look there and find out the saying on that page. When a group put the word "Truth" into the lock of another box, it opened and inside was their last clue, the Napoleon one. If they were stuck, I gave them a morse code hint with a quote of Napoleon’s to help link the riddle to him. Once they solved it and figured out Waterloo, I gave them the lock code for the final box, where chocolate candy prizes waited inside.

Nathan explains the Minecraft puzzle

I had fun setting all of this up, and making my teachers think for 40 minutes (that’s how long it took them to solve everything.) It would have been a lot harder, though, without the help of Mr. Evans and the library staff. Of course, some hiccups happened. I had to take the 21 picture down temporarily because some people thought it was part of the first rope puzzle. They went through the first 3 riddles with blazing speed, which brought me into a panic, but thankfully slowed down a bit after that. I didn’t always communicate as well as I could with all of their questions during the adventure.

Teamwork is key during Breakout EDU

Closing Thoughts

I am sure that after reading all of this, you are probably thinking this would be impossible for you to do at your school. It’s a bit easier than you would think from this, I just made it harder on myself for personal pride. Since you are in a classroom, you would not be able to have the students move around nearly as much, so you would have to have more mental problems, and have them use online tools. You could have the students bring the answer to you when they think they have solved whatever puzzle they have, and if they have solved it you could give them the next clue, therefore removing a lot of the moving around I had the teachers do. You don’t have to create the riddles from scratch, you could easily find some online. You also, of course, don’t have to create a whole world from Minecraft. All of those steps would save you quite a bit of time, making it so it’s not the impossible task I’m sure it seems like.

Great job Nathan!

Next Steps (Stony Evans)

I'm very grateful to Nathan for taking the time to create the Breakout session for our history teachers. I think this was a great way to introduce a new method of sharing content with their students. The fact that it was student led made it more powerful. My hope is that we can have our learners take a more active role in delivering content using Breakout EDU, Minecraft, and other methods. What I discovered through this exercise is that our students have wonderful ideas that are innovative to the classroom. I want to look for more ways to empower our students as classroom leaders. Nathan had to master historical content at a much deeper level in order to create the Breakout puzzles. I would also assume that he will never forget this specific content becuause of the deeper thinking required. I look forward to additional student created professional development in the future. Let us all look for ways to encourage and empower our learners!

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Library Orientation Breakout EDU

I was first introduced to Breakout EDU while attending the Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert Forum in Denver, Colorado this summer. After experiencing a session at the conference, I knew it had lots of potential for library programming. I shared it with Kaitlyn Price, my new partner teacher librarian at Lakeside High School. We couldn’t wait to try it out for 8th grade library orientation! I am grateful she is joining me for this blog post.

Planning (Kaitlyn & Stony)

We actually started talking about this potential early in August. Tiffany Whitehead even brainstormed with us in a webcam session prior to school starting. She gave us many good pointers (she had done several last year with her students). Then school started, and things got very busy.

Brainstorming session with Tiffany Whitehead!
Fast forward to the end of August. Orientation meetings were upon us! We didn’t find any library orientation breakouts that we could easily use in the short time period available to us. Kaitlyn and I both knew we had two days to present library orientation to approximately 300 8th grade learners. We decided to create two separate breakout sessions; one for the fiction side of the library and the other for non-fiction. We brainstormed skills that we wanted the learners to experience. It was decided that we would cover library hours, sign-in/ sign-out procedures, circulation information, makerspace services, LHS library web page, game room guidelines, and our OPAC (online public access catalog). The next step was to decide which locks we would use and build our puzzles around them. I took non-fiction, and Kaitlyn decided to create the fiction breakout. It took us a full day of working to complete our puzzles and set up the event.

The Event (Kaitlyn & Stony)

We brainstormed what the event would look like with classes of up to 28 students in each of our sessions. We decided to have two large and two small breakout boxes in each room. This would make it easier since we could split the class in half to have two teams of 10-14 students. We decided to give a very brief introduction and only give students a hint as to which box to unlock first. It was estimated that the session should take about 30-35 minutes to complete. After that, we would come back together to allow students to share what they had learned. The goal was for them to discover the library orientation content through the puzzles without us having to “stand and deliver” the material.

The Fiction Breakout Design (Kaitlyn)

For the fiction side, I chose locks that made sense with what I wanted our students to learn about the library. In all, I chose the small 3 digit lock box, the 4 digit number lock, the 5 letter word lock, and the 4 direction directional lock, and of course the large Breakout EDU box with the hasp attached to hold the locks.

Items used for the fiction breakout
The fun part of creating your own puzzle is that you can play to your strengths to make this a better experience for the students. Before being a library media specialist, I was a 9th grade ELA teacher. Because of this, I chose to create rhyming riddles/cryptic messages for most of the clues.  Each room was split into 2 groups, so I created some differences in the two boxes. Although I did keep the clues the same if the clue gave vital information that I needed the students to know.

I began the breakout with the small 3 digit lock box. For this box, the students had a rhyming riddle in which the answer was the media center’s opening time. After the students opened this box, they found a UV flashlight and a flash drive. The students then oftentimes split their groups in half with one half walking around the media center shining the flashlight on everything they could find and the other half finding a computer to insert the flash drive into. The group with the flash drive would then find a document that contained our game room guidelines, and the rest of their group would join. As the students read they would begin to notice that there were many numbers in the game room information (how many students at once, how long they can play, etc). All of these numbers were either blue (3 numbers) or red (4 numbers). Once they realized the number lock had 4 numbers they would use the red numbers.

After the students removed a lock, they were to send 1 team member to me to get the next clue. Once the number lock was off, the students got a clue with a call number on it. After locating the book, the students would find a slip of paper with a riddle that would lead them to use the UV flashlight. On this paper in invisible ink, I wrote “Go ask Mrs. Price for your decoder”. I would give the students the decoder and a code. Once they cracked the code the word they should get was LEARN. This word would unlock the word lock. Some groups really had to work together to figure out how to use the decoder in the first place. Some groups even looked up directions on the internet. I encouraged them to use any resources around them to solve each clue.

With the word lock off, I would give the students a note that sends them to find one of our library assistants. She would be waiting for the students at the circulation desk where she would show them the sign-in/ sign-out process using our iPads. We had previously recorded a quick video of students explaining how to sign-in and sign-out using Aurasma. Then the students would be given their final clue which included the directional lock code in riddle form. The directional lock was the final lock. Once a group broke out, they held up their breakout sign with pride!

The Non-Fiction Breakout Design (Stony)

I decided to use the small 3 digit lock box and the large Breakout EDU box for the non-fiction puzzles. In addition to the 3 digit lock box, I also selected the directional lock and a 4 digit lock (both placed on a hasp locking the large Breakout EDU box).

Items used in the non-fiction breakout
I created minor differences in the two puzzles so both teams wouldn’t be going to the same places solving the same things. I designed it so students first had to solve a word problem that presented our library extended hours closing time on Tuesdays-Thursdays (our library assistant, Peggy Schaeffer, created this for us). When they figured this out, they were able to open the small lock box which provided them with a UV flashlight, a paper revealing our library circulation information, and a flash drive which led them to an online HyperDoc with clues. The circulation information contained numbers that allowed them to open the 4 digit number lock on the large Breakout EDU box.

The flash drive and HyperDoc gave them books to look up in the OPAC. When they went to the shelves and retrieved the books, they found blank sheets with invisible ink (the UV flashlight was used to view the secret messages). These sheets led them to an article in our encyclopedia sets. After they progressed this far, the teams had to come report what they had learned to me. I asked the teams about our hours, the OPAC, and our circulation information (how many materials can be checked out, length of time items are loaned, etc).

After they reported to me, I gave them one last puzzle that would reveal the final lock solution. When students opened the box, there was a celebration breakout sign. We took photos of student groups when they completed all puzzles.

Check out this video to get a snapshot of our Breakouts

Improvements for Next Time

Students suggested that we have more breakout boxes in each room so the participating teams can be smaller. This will allow more students to be engaged instead of 2 boxes in each room. Next time, we want to try 3 or 4 in each. In addition, we had some students experiment with the four digit number locks after they were unlocked. One class actually changed the lock combination after they had unlocked it. The solution to this problem will be for them to give us the locks after they are opened.

Future Possibilities

I hope we can have 8th grade students help us design the orientation Breakout EDU sessions for next year. Perhaps we can have them work on this in April or May after they have used the library for various research projects and have built on their experiences. This could be a wonderful tradition to begin.

It would also be interesting to have small sessions during lunch in the library to introduce breakouts to older students. This might get them asking teachers to incorporate the activity into the classroom. I’m also interested in trying the new digital breakouts that are online. There are many possibilities to explore this year!

Student Survey Highlights

We created a short survey for students to complete the day after our sessions. Here are some of the comments they shared:

“I liked (this) instead of just listening to you talk, you could actually do something fun and learn the rules of the library.”

“It was kind of like solving a crime or a mystery. It was very interesting.”

“I liked that we didn't have to sit for an hour and watch someone talk. I liked that the different teams had different puzzles, so we couldn't cheat off of each other.”

“I loved that this was a hands-on learning experience. There were clues we had to figure out, and they all had to do with the library. If I am involved, then I retain information easier and faster. I also liked how the answer wasn't laid out for you. My team had to explore the library and really think about it to find out what the answer was.”

“Having smaller teams and more boxes would make the Breakout program more efficient and interesting.”

“Let us students be able to use more devices to discover clues/hints and learn more about the devices that can be used in the library.”


It was a lot of work to prepare for these breakout sessions, but it was totally worth it after seeing how engaged our learners were in the library. Breakout EDU was a priceless first impression of the library for our 8th grade students. We encourage you to investigate the resources available on the Breakout EDU website. We believe we have only just scratched the surface on the future potential for content delivery with the escape room theme.

If you want a link to our materials for both the orientation sessions, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter below. I plan to have links to these resources and many other Breakout EDU items on my September 2016 edition that will be published next week.

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