Breaking out: Vector novel style

In the summer, at iFLT in Chattanooga, TN, I attended a session by Leslie Davison on BreakoutEdu.  I had read all about breakout boxes but I’m a visual learner and something just wasn’t clicking for me.  I needed to experience it to really understand!  Leslie gave us just the experience I needed.  My team didn’t break out in our 45 minute time limit but we had a great time trying!

Knowing what a breakout looked like helped me see its place in my classroom.  I went to and got the list of supplies for a DIY breakout box, I ordered from Amazon and started working on our first class breakout.


A breakout box has a hasp with four locks: One 4 digit code, 1 directional lock that can have a combination up to 6 different different directional slides, 1 5 letter word lock, and a key lock.  In addition, there is a small box with a three digit lock code.

I wanted to create a breakout as a final activity for my Vector novel.  Making the clues and making them hard enough but not too hard is the trickiest part of a breakout!  Let me tell you a little about our breakout and the feedback I got from my class.  These are the things that will guide my writing in the final breakout that I create!

I started with the word lock.  The problem with the word lock is that each of the five spinners has a limited number of characters.  I went through the text considering all of the key words that contained 5 letters.  My choice of words “canal” was impossible with my word lock so I tried several other combinations.  Of my list of 8 choices, only one worked: “panel”.  Now that I had a word, I needed a way to give the clue.  I settled on a code.  I created a code of symbols, one for each letter of the alphabet, and then made wrote the clue (in Spanish) using the symbols.  Decoded, it said “you read this to get information in the museum”.

I locked the symbol key in the 3 digit code box and put the clue to decode in an envelope with a note that explained the problem.  The students were going to try to stop the worst premature explosion in the canal construction.  The explosion at Bas Obispo on December 12, 1908.


Now that I had important information in the 3 digit box, I needed a code.  I found out that ships brought 60,000,000 pounds of dynamite to Panama to be used in the construction.  I also found that a ship could carry as much as 400,000 pounds of dynamite in a shipment.  I printed these clues out (in Spanish) labeling the first A and the second B.  I also placed an equation in the room: A/B=?  Students had to figure out that they needed to divide 60,000,000 by 400,000.  150, the answer was the code of the 3 digit box.

I hung a series of images from towns along the canal in the early 1900s on my board.  Behind the image of Bas Obispo, I hung the key to the lock box.  I put dates on each image to give some possiblities for 4 digit codes.

I also hung a poster advertising jobs in the canal construction zone.  It was dated 1908 and invited workers to Bas Obispo. My hope was that between the photo museum and this poster, students would google Bas Obispo and find the date 12/12/1908. The date of the explosion.  I think I made the clues too easy because they didn’t have to use their technology to figure it out.  1212, the code on the four digit lock.


Finally, I had to give a clue for the directional lock.  I was determined to find a video that showed a transit of the canal with clear turns north, south, west, and east… but there were way too many twists and turns to use any of the videos.  What about a map?  I found a map, drew in some arrows, and gave some written instructions on how to navigate the canal.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be my worst clue.  The combination of arrows and written instructions was confusing.  I had to give an extra hint to help them get through this clue.  Definitely needs reworked!

The group broke out with 23:27 to spare!  We spent some time discussing the good and bad of the breakout.


Here is some feedback I’ll be working with as I redesign this breakout.  I thought it might be helpful to share as you’re designing your own breakouts.

  1. Our class of 24 is big so we didn’t all have something to do all of the time.  Some of the class was just watching.  Maybe we could break the clues up into groups in order to solve the locks.
  2. The clues were almost all too easy.  We figured the first ones out so fast that it might be nice to have to do research or figure more out on our own.
  3. The directional lock is really hard when you don’t know the number of movements in the combination.  Maybe this could be a clue in invisible ink.
  4. It would be fun to have the clues depend on us looking them up with our iPads.


  1. Carrie, glad you have ventured into the world of Breakouts! You always have such creative ideas and wonderful materials to supplement your novels.

    In looking at your final reflections, I thought of these ideas to ponder:
    1. With bigger classes, I’ll run two different boxes at once (two different teams) so there aren’t as many kids just observing. I will have two sets of clues around the room and they have to figure out if it’s for their box or the other team’s box. There has been some interesting negotiation going on. I just ask them to not be vindictive with the clues they find. lol
    2. Easy clues: Usually the ones I think will be super easy are the ones they really have to think about and vice versa. As you start reflecting on how to up the ante with this one, perhaps one clue leads to another (and to another?) that will end up with the final opening clue. Consider links to google doc that you create, QR codes to websites, etc.
    3. Depending on your clues, the directional locks could be used in conjunction with a map (route with invisible ink/black light), arrows listed on a wall-sized map or even on the floor or identified locations in the room that relate to the book.
    4. Wow, I’m intrigued by this idea! Please share more. What would this look like? Did you have all paper clues for this one?

  2. Carrie – I attended the ICTFL session at Mohomet-Seymour in September and fell in love with your teaching style. I am a Spanish Ed student at ISU, and would love any lesson plans or activities you found successful with your novel instruction. I have the Google docs you shared with us from that day, but I am creating a Thematic Unit on Panama based on your Vector book for class…hoping to share it with my peers and use it one day in the real world! I’m having trouble finding some good authentic additions to add to the reading to open the students up to Panama culture and the building of the canal… any resources would be greatly appreciated!
    – Lora Carrillo

  3. I just wanted to stop by and thank you so much for the amazing Vector teacher’s guide! I’ve never purchased a more thorough product. I absolutely love the range of activities and have even been able to use some of your ideas in other levels. This stuff is gold I tell you- GOLD! We’re going to try The Breakout after spring break. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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