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Never underestimate the power of a good competition.

Meredith Fickes doesn’t, which is why the Mickle Middle School librarian is spending an increasing amount of her time creating boxes with all sorts of locks on them and the puzzles that must be solved to open them.

It’s why, on a frigid Thursday morning, sixth-grade social studies students spent first period in the library using what they’d learned about ancient Egypt’s pharaohs and pyramids, empires and hieroglyphs to solve word and number puzzles that unlock nondescript plastic, black boxes.

And nobody slouched in their chairs, stared off into space or made random doodles on a piece of paper.

No, these sixth-graders were going to get into those boxes before the 40 minutes on the digital timer disappeared, even if the only thing inside was a colorful, handmade sign that said: #CRUSHEDIT.

That and the opportunity to have Fickes snap their picture and tape it to her crowded “breakout box wall of fame.”





Breakout box

Fickes said she loves seeing how engaged the kids become in the game, how they work together to solve the puzzles — a process that sometimes comes right down to the last seconds (a good lesson on not giving up).

“It’s great for working in teams and problem-solving,” she said. “It’s a different way of doing school, of thinking about it and being into it.”

Patterned after the popular escape rooms — live-action games in which groups of people get locked in a room and must solve a series of clues to escape — Fickes’ breakout boxes are a way for students to review material before a test or learn new material.

She found a Facebook page for similar academic breakout boxes and decided to give the idea a try last year, enlisting help from the school’s social studies teachers.

They shared whatever they were studying in a particular unit, and Fickes created the breakout boxes, each of which has five different kinds of locks.

She created two breakout box puzzles last year and shared them at a staff meeting — and before long, every teacher wanted them.

This year she's made them for English, math, science and French, in addition to social studies.

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Her goal for the year, she said, was to make one each month. She’s been doing two to three a month — as well as some for her husband, an English teacher at Schoo Middle School.

Fickes creates a series of puzzles for each subject, and students divide into groups of three or four. Each group gets a folder with the puzzles, a black box and two cards that allow students to get teacher hints.

They have to figure out how the different parts of each puzzle go together, then work together to solve them. There are word puzzles, mazes, lists to match questions with the correct answers and decoding exercises. 

The first one Fickes created last year included tracking John Wilkes Booth along his escape route after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Sixth-graders Stoney Burk and Trevor Vocasek, who were in the first group to break out, in 22.5 minutes Thursday, like the activity. 

“It’s just something different that we get to do rather than sitting in classes taking tests,” Burk said.

Fickes said it’s interesting to watch how different kids take leadership roles during the game. And each breakout box involves more than one subject. The social studies puzzles, for instance, also include math problems. And nobody minds.

“They’re learning without really knowing it,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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