We’ve all the seen the photos of groups of our friends who worked together to try and get out of an escape room—some successfully and some not so successfully. Librarian Maddie Powell decided to see what the idea might look like in the school library in Frisco, Texas. Her goal with the escape room was to engage non-readers and bring them into the library. Students had 10 minutes to figure out whether a character in the story had jumped or was pushed out of a window. A series of clues and riddles led students to find a black light in the sock of the dummy on the floor, which was used to uncover the answer on the walls. There was a high rate of participation and excitement that got many non-readers into the library space. Demand was so high that teachers began bringing whole classes in together. School Library Connection’s own Carl Harvey talked to Maddie about the experience and her tips for others hoping to try their own escape room.
Carl Harvey: What was your motivation or inspiration to do something like this?
Maddie Powell: Escape rooms seem to be popping up everywhere! I’m always looking for some sort of programming that my students might like. It’s hit or miss and you never know what will catch on. When the escape room idea hit me, I knew I had to try it.
CH: Was this a collaboration that started with one teacher or a project in the library?
MP: I have a good librarian friend, Allison Stone, who is very supportive. We talked about it with another librarian who was very hesitant to try this with high school students. The three of us decided on a 10-minute time limit to solve the mystery and decided to take a risk.
CH: What was the student’s reaction to this?
MP: The students were stunned. They couldn’t believe we had an escape room and they could attempt it. I had about 5 students who kept returning and dragging their friends to try it while they waited outside. Since it was October, I made the room scary and had a stuffed dummy on the floor that scared them when they walked in. The room was completely dark, so they could only see with their flashlights. There was also a motion activated noise machine that rotated scary haunted house noises that scared most of the groups, too. I had teams of teachers coming down to try it also. They were the most unsuccessful surprisingly. I had some clues that weren’t used to solve the mystery and the teachers kept getting hung up on those. There was a group of ESL kids who completed the room with just a little extra time! Seeing them feel successful was so rewarding, and I felt like I was sharing in their achievement.
CH: Was it hard to come up with the story? What tips and tricks do you have for writing your own story?
MP: This was the hardest part. Luckily Allison Stone, my collaborator, did the writing. She based it on a novel that was coming out, The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee.
CH: What obstacles did you have to getting students or teachers involved? What have been some of the takeaways for you from doing this? What impact has it had on students and teachers?
MP: The biggest obstacle was time. Free time during the school day is limited. I had some elective teachers send their entire classes down in groups of 4 to do it as team building! Students would come during their lunch and before and after school, and during our tutorial period. Some of the takeaways have been that students like interactivity. They want hands-on, current activities that are fun and new. It brought a lot of new faces to the library and hopefully they will keep coming!
CH: What kind of budget did you have?
MP: Like most libraries my budget is small. I spent about $35 on this entire operation. I covered the room in black paper from top to bottom to make it dark and found temporary fencing in the trash can in the mail room that I put up around the walls. I made the dummy from my old clothes and used boxes from around the building. The things I purchased were blank puzzles ($10), a black light ($15), a highlighter, and a noisemaker ($10).
CH: What are your recommendations or advice for others to try something like the escape room?
MP: Do it! If you don’t have time, buy a kit. If you don’t have money, do it yourself! If you don’t have money or time find some students and let them do it! Let them do creative writing to create the background story. Escape rooms use problem-solving skills and backwards planning which are hard for students. They’ll have to use parts of their brain they haven’t used before!
CH: Do you see potential in providing professional development via the Escape Room activity?
Yes, if it is done as a station or activity piece during the professional development. For example: I can see using the escape room to teach Google Docs basics. I would place some technology in the room and have the participants collaborate on a Doc with a facilitator involved. The facilitator can ask questions that lead to clues. Some clues would be accessed via QR codes and recorded voice clues. Participants are always led back to the G Suite to collaborate/discover the next clue. Some clues may involve digital images that would be incorporated into Docs. Through the use of the GSuite, participants walk away with hands-on knowledge of Google Docs while experiencing the escape room atmosphere.
We agree with Maddie Powell’s advice to just “do it!” See what the potential might be in your school.
Maddie Powell, MLIS, is a librarian with Justin Wakeland High School in Frisco, TX. She received her bachelor’s in history from Abilene Christian University before receiving her MLIS from the University of North Texas.