They Escaped!

A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram enjoying photos of babies, food, and Kaelin’s cat when I saw a momma friend post about an “escape the room” review lesson she had hatched for her history class. Immediately, I became obsessed with the idea! My ninth graders have been killing it this year raising the bar on their writing, content comprehension, debates, and analysis. Wouldn’t it be fun to approach the end of the Civil War unit in a playful way for them? This question led me deep.

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Deep into a hole of puzzle making and code ciphering that had me babbling “sic semper tryannis” and buying Mexican Cipher Wheels from Amazon. What could the topic be for the escape? Would the escape the room help them better understand history or would it just be a distraction? I racked my brain through these questions and reached out to faculty across the building for help thinking through the objectives and meaning behind the escape. The topic came the easiest. The class would need to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In the past, this topic was always covered by reading a textbook and doing a little discussion about the magnitude of the assassination before moving on to something else. But what if instead of this very small/insignificant approach, we jazzed it up and got the students to feel the rush of emotion to prevent the event and the confusion of following the manhunt? The scenario thus became:

“You are group of elite army special service officers. You have just witnessed the signing of the Articles of Agreement in which the Southern Confederate Army officially ended their hostilities against the Union. You have been tasked to deliver the formal documentation to the White House. While traveling from Appomattox Court House to President Abraham Lincoln, you are ambushed by a group of hooded riders who blindfold you and take you to an undisclosed location. Along the way there, you pick up bits of their discussion from the front of the wagon about plans to “Cut off the Head” of the Union so that the “South May Rise Again.” Left alone in the holding cell,  you need to uncover how to get out, where the surrender document is hidden, and what plans you need to stop in order to secure peace and protect the United States of America!”

And then I stopped blogging for two weeks because it was time to create 10 missions, clues, red herrings, objectives, ciphers, puzzles, and everything else in between. It felt like an incredible undertaking and I lost myself to the process all the while hoping that on the day of execution the students would be challenged, would gain deeper knowledge of the events leading to: the assassination, the timeline, the co-conspirators, the manhunt, the plot, the motivation, and all else in-between. And using technology would allow students to visit the locations with Virtual Reality. My framework then became for:

  • Students to work in collaboration with another to problem solve and work together towards a common goal
  • Students are able to review key concepts, themes, battles, and events leading up to, during, and immediately following the Civil War
  • Goal for students to be engaged in the content in a way that is respectful, motivating, and team-building
  • Have students understand the timeline of events leading up to the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, learn about the motivation, the assassin, visit the physical space of Ford’s Theater, and learn about the co-conspirators
  • Have students reflect on their approach, reflect on their default collaboration behaviors/mindsets, and discuss how they were challenged in the process


The process was maddening. I am thankful David is still married to me once I climbed out of the craziness. On the morning of, I arrived to school an hour in advance to set up the room, played Civil War themed music over the speakers, and welcomed in the students. It took them the full hour to work through the puzzles. They laughed, they struggled, but ultimately they escaped.

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