I gave this question a lot of thought this past September. This is my first year in a new district, and my third year as a certified school librarian. With over 300 highly diverse freshmen in our school, I felt overwhelmed by the idea of creating an orientation that would cover the basics of the library while also engaging my audience. After some digging on Pinterest and blogs, I discovered BreakoutEDU. BreakoutEDU sells kits that allow educators to design and customize learning experiences that resemble escape room games. While they do offer many games that teach library skills, I decided to design my own game. The cost of one kit is $150 through the website, but a quick Google search for “DIY BreakoutEDU kit” yields plenty of ideas for creating your own kits with toolboxes and common items if you’re on a tight budget.
When designing this type of activity, it’s easy to get caught up in creating the various puzzles and clues that students will solve. But in order to make the experience worthwhile, it’s important to keep your learning objectives in the forefront of the planning process. I knew from the start that I wanted to establish connections with each student and allow them to become acclimated to the library (and high school) in a fun way. To that end, I decided that the primary focus of the orientation would not be learning about library policies. Instead, I created a series of group activities that would test students’ prior knowledge of basic library skills and allow them to explore the space with their classmates. Once I had my vision in place, the next step was reaching out to teachers and determining how and when students would participate. Since every freshman student must take English, it made sense to pair up with that department. I invited each English teacher who taught freshmen to schedule a time for each of their classes to visit the library.
The next step was the fun part: getting creative and planning the game itself. I needed to create a plan that was flexible enough to accommodate differences in class size. So, each class was broken into four teams, with each team named after a famous author. The teams were tasked with a learning activity that, once completed correctly, would lead them to find clues hidden somewhere in the library. To ensure teamwork and cooperation between teams, I decided to have the final clue - the location of the key that opened the Breakout box lock - only be revealed once all four teams had completed their tasks and found their individual clues. With 18 English classes to work with, I decided to market the orientation as a friendly competition between classes. The class that completed the game and “escaped” the library quickest was rewarded with a bag of candy and homework passes. The tasks themselves included searching for books in the catalog, navigating a database, arranging books in correct Dewey order, and matching library terms to their definitions. Students were provided with links to Google Forms in order to submit their answers, which meant that they couldn’t move on to the next clue until all their answers were correct. This isn’t to say that the game was perfect. A few smart cookies from the first class were able to find loopholes that allowed their team to skip over certain steps. If you are planning a game for your own library, I would recommend doing a test run with a small group of students or colleagues to work out the kinks.
The best part of this orientation experience was witnessing the incredible level of student engagement. My role was that of referee, gently guiding students through especially tough clues and encouraging teamwork. Students were instantly excited by the idea of playing a game in the library, and their enthusiasm was infectious. As soon as I finished giving instructions, students were up and running, literally. Nearly every student participated fully in the activity, and I received positive feedback from teachers and students alike. I was also impressed to see students communicating with each other, pushing through challenges, supporting their teammates, and delegating tasks based on individual strengths. Even the principal, who happened to walk through the library one day as orientation was happening, noticed and commented on the social-emotional skills at play. At the end of every orientation, I made sure that each class had a few minutes to reflect on the experience by asking each team to describe their favorite task or clue from the game. One student made my day when he walked out of the library saying to his teacher, “I never knew that librarians could be awesome!”
I can say with confidence that until a better idea comes along, I will continue to use and improve on this breakout game for future freshman library orientations. However, there are several factors worth considering if you are thinking of redesigning your orientation as an escape room. The initial planning process requires a lot of time and hands-on work, and your plan may need to be tweaked depending on your students’ needs and space configuration. I would also caution against scheduling more than a 2-3 classes in a day. Some time is needed to reset the game and ensure that all the clues are back in place. I am lucky enough to have an aide that was able to supervise the other students in the library, but you may need to close your space while running an orientation if you are a solo librarian. Also, learn from my mistake and take lots of pictures or video of the game in progress! I got so caught up in watching the students work that I only snapped a few action shots.
Overall, the results are definitely worth it. My freshmen left with a sense of ownership, and associated the library with being friendly and welcoming. Did they know every library rule by heart? Did they become experts at advanced database searching? Absolutely not. But what they did learn was my name and my location in the building, which is a crucial first step in their journey through high school. Even now in January, I still hear from freshman asking for more games in the library! I’d call that a win.