BreakoutEDU: Nearpod Edition

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Creating Breakouts is my favorite way to procrastinate. Many of them incorporate digital tools for clues, like Nearpod. There are two ways to utilize Nearpod within a Breakout: students can try to discover the five letter code to access a Nearpod or students can find clues within a student-paced Nearpod lesson. While you can embed a GoogleForm within a Nearpod, it is not good for hosting digital locks, since it clears the responses if students navigate away, but that is the only weakness. 

You have to use backwards design – the last part of the puzzle has to be created first. In class, I daisy chain the Nearpods, one is interwoven with another one. For the sake of this post, I just created a single Nearpod to host all the examples together. There is also a single Google Form to see how the digital locks work. I apologize that many of the examples involve latitude and longitude, as a geography teacher, that is how my breakout brainstorms work. Don’t worry, there is a Flocabulary video incorporated to give you a refresher and a clue. 


If you are working on clues that will lead students to the five letter Nearpod code, you want clues that can be easily modified for each additional Nearpod Code you generate. Luckily the codes can be extended beyond the original 30 days, but if you use it more than one year or semester, you want to be able to quickly update it. I customize images on Canva, which allows me to edit and/or duplicate as necessary. Other potential ways to share the Nearpod code: 

The final suggestion is also solid justification for why this works. Intentionally misspelled lists: Why should you use Nearpod and BreakoutEDU? 

  1. Creatjve use of the tool and the strategy
  2. Energizing and ezciting competition between groups of students
  3. Interesting probiem solving potential for students
  4. Engaging studemts to think critically
  5. Challanging lesson that is memorable

Once students have “unlocked” the Nearpod, they can find the next series of clues on the Nearpod. Many of the features of Nearpod lend themselves to being clues. Using the Nearpod code above, you can see each clue in action in conjunction with the GoogleForm for locks. If you didn’t figure out any of the four clues above, the Nearpod join code is: IXLNE (it’s invisible, I still didn’t want it to be too easy).

  • Virtual Field Trips – easily recognizable places can be mixed with a blank map, latitude and longitude finder, or even be the necessarily emoji for Codemoji. For inspiration in places to include, check out 360cities.   
  • Fill in the Blank – hidden message in the blanks. It could be a secret word, number, or direction lock. It all depends on the creativity of the message writer.
  • Slide Show or PDF Viewer – add a random letter or number on consecutive pages, it turns into a code
  • Audio or Video – in this case I used a Flocabulary video, but I have also used music videos where the lyrics were important or fake voicemail messages
  • Draw It – give students coordinates to add on grid or a map, it can be a directional lock or a letter lock if the background image already has letters. Most puzzle worksheets would work here.
  • PhET lab or Desmos Calculator – give them some of the parameters, they solve it, possibly for a 3 digit code
  • Websites – like Jigsaw Planet can either be a stand alone clue or information they need to solve the next clue

Obviously this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you wanted to see more of my brainstorm process for BreakoutEDU in general, check out my previous post. It also includes the GoogleDoc Game Flow Template I use to tame the chaos.

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Unlocking Design Secrets for BreakoutEDUs

BreakoutEDU is challenging and exciting. It is a similar concept to an Escape Room, and can involve physical or digital locks (without actually locking the students in the room). I did have one of the original Official BreakoutEDU boxes, but I create my own Breakouts with various additions. There are pre-created resources online or you can get as creative as you want. I love using Breakouts because if done right, all students are engaged; it is not just for the smart kids or the vocal kids. They have to work collaboratively to be successful. Students will request it.

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I love trying to explain my crazy thought process during school professional development or at Edcamps. The first place to start is a good brainstorming document. I use a Game Flow GoogleDoc for each of my BreakoutEDUs. The original document was inspired and shared by BreakoutEDU; however, I have customized it and modified it to adapt to the learning needs of my students. I also have additional notes and anticipated student mistakes / suggestions for hints since I share these with my PLC. I switched from physical locks to digital locks because of frustration with jammed directional locks and sweaty hands accidentally rubbing the numbers/letters away. I often use an actual physical lock for the final clue, because there is excitement when they get to see what is in the box. 

This Game Flow GoogleDoc is specifically for digital breakouts using Google Forms for the locks. The difference is that it incorporates the custom formatting to create a lock and the custom error message. Learn from my mistake: without a custom error message it just prompts with the answer. HUGE and disappointing fail. It’s so important is it worth repeating – YOU MUST HAVE A CUSTOM ERROR MESSAGE. The Game Flow also includes a space for brainstorming. I often start the process with a single inspiration. I gradually develop the clues around key vocabulary, big ideas, important events, places, people, etc. It is not the type of thing I sit down and design at once… I will admit that sometimes the obsession takes hold and I can develop a game in a single weekend. 

I know there are other platforms for hosting a digital breakoutedu, including the offficial breakoutedu website with a paid subscription – but I’m a fan of mixing Google Sites and Google Forms. There are so many other tools to create hints. Some of my favorites: 

If you are still unsure what this looks like, there are plenty of examples. You can just Google Digital BreakoutEDUs to find resources. There are active Facebook groups of BreakoutEDU teachers who often share their creations. My current BreakoutEDUs include: 

Climate Change in Antarctica Digital BreakoutEDU

Example BreakoutEDU Contract

Election Literacy BreakoutEDU

World Shipping (Globalization) BreakoutEDU 

Winter Holiday BreakoutEDU 

To manage the chaos and the groups staying focused – I employ a Team Contract. This is not part of a traditional breakoutedu, but it establishes clear group expectations. I also include three symbols at the bottom that the students can utilize for hints. When they request a hint, I just cross one off. Students take it seriously and hold each other accountable when they start complaining or threaten to quit. 

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Defining Whiston

For ten years my identity was defined by my job, and I loved it. I created complex lessons like Choose Your Own Adventure lessons with Google Forms or engaging Nearpods or collaborated on global projects. I attended conferences – often presenting my favorite edtech tools – and I planned edcamps and in services. Everywhere I went I ran into Twitter connections who felt more like family than random names online. 

The last three years were full of change. Marriage. Baby. Another baby. Now I am trying to redefine myself. I am defining Mrs. Lisa Whiston. For some reason I envision it being said with the same intonation as Lydia Wickham in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. 

I don’t want to get lost in the endless of laundry or never-ending meal prep. I still value being a reflective educator, part of which is writing out my thoughts to talk through the problems and to remember for future years. The reflections will just take place in the 20 minutes before the laundry needs to go in the dryer or the 40 minutes until the next feeding. 

So defining Whiston will still be a reflection of my classroom, but it will be less Pinterest and more practical. The images will not be custom designed – if any image is included. Each phrase will not be wordsmithed to be witty – and please forgive any errors, I might not re-read as carefully. 

As the baby begins to cry, it signals the end of my first blog post in three years. But I am back and already brainstorming the next ideas I want to share.

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The Fab Flocab

The fabulous thing about Flocabulary is that their passion engages students. This summer they expanded their available features (which you can read about on their blog). What I want to focus on today is the videos themselves from a newer unit.flocab-tweet-new-geography

Two years ago I exchanged a series of tweets with @Flocabulary mentioning that I loved the Week in Rap (and still do!) and that my students were obsessed with it. However, as a geography teacher, the applicable video choices were slim to none at the time. Flocabulary is constantly expanding their high quality video content. Last February a Geography category was added to Social Studies, and since then many videos have been developed that align with geography: Five Themes, Map Skills (which might win for catchiest name: Mappy Map), Continents and Oceans, Landforms and Bodies of Water, Latitude and Longitude, Migration, 50 States & CapitalsRegions of the US, and Urban, Suburban, and Rural. I am a very happy geography teacher now.

Unlike a textbook, students want to interact with the resources multiple times. So the videos can be used at the beginning, middle, or end of a lesson or small unit (or any combination of these). So what will this look like in an actual unit? I will use the Five Themes videos as an example. The Five Themes is the foundation for my geography class, so I was ecstatic when the videos appeared in the Flocabulary library. After a pre-test on Google Forms, I will show the Five Themes video as an introduction. We will watch the video twice: once at the original speed and once slower so they can absorb the lyrical significance of each line.

Based on the pre-test scores, some students will need implicit, small group, teacher instruction. Other students will learn from a flipped model; they will watch the videos independently, and then have teacher guidance on the more intellectually challenging application practice. The components of the Five Themes that have videos are: Movement, Region, Human-Environment Interaction, and Location. Videos, quizzes, and Read & Respond can be assigned if students have their own account. The videos quizzes will be formative assessments to make sure the students understand the content. For the students who learned the content with me, they get to watch the videos afterwards to reinforce the concepts in a catchy way. It does not matter the level of the learner; they are all engaged and ask to watch the videos multiple times.

At the end of the unit, all the students will create a project to show the Five Themes of our community. They have choice for what they want to create, anything from posters to videos to photo stories to letters and so much more. The Lyric Lab from Flocabulary will be a perfect addition to the creation menu. There are many ideas for implementing Flocabulary in the classroom, this was just a snapshot of one unit in my class. There are more suggestions and a How To section on the Flocabulary website.

The Opening Day presentation at my district focused on the message that students will be more successful and try harder when they feel they matter. I feel the same way with edtech companies. I embrace and find many uses for tools when I feel that my students and I matter to the company. Flocabulary makes that happen. A big thank you to the fab Flocab family!

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Because I’m sure I have captured your interest and you want to experience Flocabulary for yourself, you can sign up to receive a free 45 day trial AND be entered for a chance to win a teacher license for a year.

    • You need to enter every field in the form to be eligible (it should only take them a minute!)
    • Everyone that enters the giveaway will receive an email for an extended 45-day school-wide trial of Flocabulary.
    • Winners will be drawn at random.
    • Your readers must enter by October 16th at 11:59ET.
* Full Disclosure: I am an MC Educator for Flocabulary… but they approached me to join because I was already super passionate about their company.
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Digital Differentiation Toolbox

1Checks for Understanding

My key to success is frequent checks for understanding that can move students seamlessly from one group to another. I’ve had students move from the remediation group to the enrichment group after having an ah-ha moment where everything clicked. There are a variety of tools I use for pre-tests and formative assessments during a unit. My requirement is that student answers can be turned into a spreadsheet to be analyzed and potentially select data can be shared with the learning support teachers.

  • Google Forms: I do not know what I would do without Google Forms. I use the Add-On Flubaroo to grade and share results with students. I can also set conditions to answers to guide students or direct them to different pages of the form based on their response. That is really useful if I want to give them different instructions based on their answer to a specific question.
  • Quizizz: Multiple choice game for students to respond to questions. It can include images. The questions are displayed on the student device, so they are self-paced. It does include a time limit per question, but that can be set by the teacher creating the Quizizz set.
  • Socrative: I have used Socrative for years. It does not have the visual pizazz of some sights, but it does meet my requirements.
  • Formative:  There are so many options of what you can do with Formative. A student favorite is the draw feature. I can harness that interest into annotating on top of an image of text. Teachers can watch students respond in real time, so you don’t have to wait to see a spreadsheet to know which students need additional practice.
  • Nearpod: If I am already using Nearpods for the lessons, it is easy to incorporate a couple questions using the Quiz feature of Nearpod.

Kahoot is a student favorite, but it is not on my list as a formative assessment tool that drives instruction/groups. I find that the student desire to answer quickly ruins the honest snapshot of what they actually know. I do use it as a fun review game after we have done the hard part of actually learning.

2Student Paced

Student Paced is how I describe the group with general knowledge who can move at a faster pace for the lesson. They will have additional choices with practice options and application of the knowledge. I utilize a lot of resources that give the teacher the option to duplicate, so I can have two or more similar resources, customized for a portion of my class. In a given unit the digital resources will change, but there are some that are consistent for my student paced group. My requirement is that students will demonstrate their thinking in a way that is visible to the teacher through saved work/responses.

  • Nearpod: Lessons can be duplicated. With a code, students can go through the lesson at their own pace. Other websites can be included in the Nearpod presentation.
  • Google Docs / Google Classroom: Google Classroom automatically creates, names, shares, and organizes Google Docs through the assignment feature. I can have each student open the assignment. I can then customize the task, but adding some extra challenging prompts to select students. For the Map Challenges, I keep track of the different versions of the document by labeling them Challenge 3A, Challenge 3, and Challenge 3.0. To the causal observer, they look identical. For many activities the change to the assignment is just the expected outcome. Higher level students need to provide more than a single word answer; I prompt them through comments to add specific supporting details for their answer.
  • Quizlet: This study app and website has been in digital toolkit from the beginning. With my teacher account, I can see statistics for the students: what they did, how much they completed, which ones they most frequently missed.
  • EDpuzzle: Just because I have students working at their own pace does not mean they are not hearing the information from me. I use some flipped videos to explain key topics. With EDpuzzle I can embed questions to check for understanding. It also displays view statistics, so I can tell if someone skips part or if they go back to watch a part four times.
  • Flocabulary: Flocabulary is more than just videos. They have some new features that will allow students to enrich their learning and boost their creativity. I can’t wait to have students try the Lyric Lab. Writing lyrics is more challenging than it originally appears since they have to master the content and the beat. The Pause & Play feature asks probing questions to prompt discussion. Even working at a self-pace, the students could have a discussion through Google Classroom or respond in writing on a Google Doc.
  • Newsela:  An easy way to extend the learning is to ask students to find real life examples to apply the knowledge. I have them use Newsela to find articles that demonstrate their knowledge.

3Teacher Guided

Teacher guided are the students who will thrive with personal teacher attention. I am able to use duplicated and modified resources similar to the student paced group. With teacher guided there is an emphasis on images relating to the content as well as having students explain their thinking verbally. 360º images are great conversation inspirations. With only 5 or 6 students in the group, I am able to listen to everyone and no one can silently hide.

  • Nearpod: Lessons can be duplicated. With a code, students go through the lesson at the pace set by the teacher. They can not skip ahead. 360º images are easy to incorporate with Nearpod Virtual Field Trips. The draw feature is also a student favorite. It is a good way to see student thinking and I can ask probing questions to get more information. The features do not have to be complex to be effective.
  • Google Docs / Google Classroom: Google Classroom helps with organization; there are no more excuses when the assignment is lost. Just like I can customize specific students’ documents with more challenges, I can also provide tips and hints for students who might struggle. I want them to try to solve the problems on their own, but I can anticipate the misconceptions.
  • Flocabulary: While I mentioned before that Flocabulary is more than just videos, the videos are what grab the attention of some struggling students. They like the mix of lyrics, beat, and images and they are willing to watch the videos over and over again. This helps them remember the content in the long run.
  • Tiny Cards: Study app that is similar to Quizlet, but this builds in what it expects in students. It also allows for slight misspellings of words, which is significant when working with struggling learners.

Breaking into Groups without Heartbreak

Grouping is about the perception. For the small group that is going to work with me, they sit in the back around a low coffee table while sitting on comfortable pillows. Students are often more excited about picking out the perfect pillows than being worried about being in the small group. My personal ah-ha moment came with review games last year. Why would I only have one version of the review game if the lesson was differentiated? It had to be disheartening for the students who were always on the bottom of the leaderboard. Now I use an old Windows Surface to run a second version of the Kahoot (or other review game) for the small group in the back. With only 5 or 6 people playing, they are frequently on the leaderboard. They are proud of themselves and smile a lot more.

Overall Reflections

a-personal-teaching-approach-mb46tln212070t84wegphyaqk8s1wwvuvp35rr13hqA tool that can visually connect the entire differentiated path is Symbaloo Lesson Plans. I just started playing with it this summer and like the potential, especially if a single question can function as a deciding point for what a student should learn next. Digital differentiation is not for the lecture lover or the lazy planner. This requires lots of work ahead of time to work smoothly in the classroom. I consider it a labor of love. I am willing to do it so more students love the content and are confident in their ability to learn.

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TDQ Professional Goal

TDQ CoverEach year we are asked to come with a problem of practice with actionable steps to improve. Last year wasn’t very inspiring, so I want to try something different this year. I’m going to base my goal on TDQ: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading (grades 6-12) by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. This book was recommended by one of my favorite ELA colleagues Renee @rowens1. The topic originally came up during a Professional Learning Committee meeting. The data, and thus the problem of practice, proves that on standardized tests and in everyday life students struggle with supporting claims with evidence. This blossomed into a session at our unconference about cross curricular literacy skills, but my goal is to move from discussion to action.

Non-fiction reading is integrally part of Social Studies and Science, so we are natural teachers and guides for the non-fiction ELA skills and standards. I embraced this concept last year; I used consistent language to ELA when the situation arose in reading passages, but I want to be more intentional. Besides being inspired by conversations with my ELA colleagues, I attended a surprisingly inspiring presentation at the Pennsylvania Council of Social Studies about making TDQ the SLO goal for an entire SS department. Normally that many acronyms in a sentence is an attention killer. But they provided evidence that students will grow if non-ELA teachers purposefully incorporate TDQ into lessons.

So now that I have a sizable goal for this year, what is my game plan? I will harness the power of technology to efficiently provide students with a variety of TDQs at their level. This game plan includes Newsela, Google Classroom/Google Docs duo, and Flocabulary.

NewselaLogo.jpgThe inclusion of Newsela is nothing new. The article selection is appreciated by students and teachers alike. This year I want students to learn how to track and monitor their own reading progress. This will be especially true for my higher level learners who need to be challenged in meaningful ways. The quizzes pull from ELA reading standards, so Newsela is an easy match to my professional goal.

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classroom logoGoogle Classroom / Google Docs is the easiest way for me to provide specific and ongoing feedback to students. The Google Doc is automatically created, named, and shared when the student opens the document. As the teacher I can observe the progress and leave comments in the margin with the first word typed… or encourage them to get started if their document is blank. There are Google Sheets Add-Ons that I love, like Goobric for adding a rubric to a Google Doc.
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Saving the best for last: Flocabulary. I have been a Flocabulary fanatic for awhile, but some of their new features directly align with my professional goal. Last year they introduced a quiz feature that checks for content knowledge. This summer they released a Read & Respond feature, which is currently limited to mostly ELA videos and the new Week in Raps. Since the Week in Rap is 85% of my Flocabulary usage during the year, it works out perfectly. Have no fear, Flocabulary does plan on expanding the feature to other videos. So what is Read & Respond? It is short close reading passages based on the theme of a video. The Teacher’s Guide gives the grade alignment.

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Another new Flocabulary feature that I anticipate using is the Pause & Play feature. You guessed it, you play the video, and sometimes it pauses, prompting with discussion points for the class. Students could use those as the questions, then they would develop a claim and find evidence from the original article cited in the interactive lyrics.

If I wanted to get really crazy, I can mash up the resources. I envision creating a Google Doc with the Pause & Play questions, with links to the article from Flocabulary as well as a corresponding article on Newsela. The Google Doc can be distributed to each student with Google Classroom, so they can edit and respond to the questions. This is just the early stage of the brainstorm. Ideas might shift as I read through TDQ: Pathways to Close and Critical Reading. Since the school year will begin during the height of an intense presidential campaign, they really need critical reading skills … as do many adults of voting age.

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Is it a fad?

Breakout ToolboxRecently when I was excitedly explaining the newest BreakoutEDU I created to reinforce map reading skills, someone asked: “Aren’t you worried it [BreakoutEDU] is just a fad?” They of course were implying that the time and money I have spent developing breakouts to align with my curriculum and to engage my students was not well spent. Last year the students played two: one for Canadian Culture and another for Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas. They loved them. This summer I developed one for map skills, thematic maps, as well as one for teachers to preview the concept. I plan on creating one to go along with Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, which we read in class during Black History Month.

IMG_3769.2015-11-16_205535Last year I also used a lot of Virtual Field Trips through Nearpod to take them to all the places we were talking about. They loved these too. It took time to develop a lesson that included strong content, formative assessment, and visual engagement in one. Students who would rarely talk would take screenshots of the interesting things they saw and ask about them later. Students would be out of their seats because they could not contain their excitement over some of the images they saw and wanted to share with someone at their table. Those were the best questions/discussions. Not bad for a fad.

This brings me back to the question: what if it is just a fad? I do not just duplicate my lesson plans every year. They are constantly evolving and changing to meet the needs of my current students. So what if BreakoutEDU or Virtual Reality or gamified learning or badges are just a fad? If it is something that has research supporting it is beneficial for student learning and I have seen positive student engagement in my own classroom, it is a trend I’m willing to buy into. Which includes dedicated both a reasonable amount of time and/or money. I have a Nearpod library filled with lessons incorporating the Virtual Field Trips that get students out of their seats because they are so excited to explore and a closet shelf full of boxes and locks for BreakoutEDU. I’m looking forward to another year of engaging and exciting fads. I feel better about this trend then the standardized testing I have to administer that does not bring any joy to learning. My students are worth it.JPEG image-6CC82217A144-1

And yes, there really is research that all of these work in education:

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