Curriculum Newsletter

Benton School District

December 12, 2016

Breakout EDU

BreakoutEDU: The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn

By Jessica Herring

Originally published on December 5, 2016, by Jessica Herring in her blog Wisdom from the Middle.

TODAY WAS SO FUN! I've been wanting to try a BreakoutEDU game in my classroom since last spring, and this fall, I talked my librarian into purchasing five BreakoutEDU boxes. I've been looking for opportunities to integrate these games into my American Literature curriculum all semester, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn felt like the perfect opportunity for students to flex their problem solving and communication skills!

If you've never seen a BreakoutEDU box, the idea is pretty simple. Buy a box and a bunch of locks, and build a series of clues and riddles that guide students to open each lock and, ultimately, open the box. On the BreakoutEDU website, they provide an open source list of everything you need to build your own box, and all the games they've built are FREE to use, which is always great! The escape room games that are popping up in cities around the country have a similar premise. With the game in class, you're just asking students to break IN to something rather than OUT of it.

I searched Twitter and the internet in general and couldn't find a pre-made game for Huck Finn, so I decided to make my own. I was a little nervous to dive into this since I'd never built a game before, but I think it helped a lot that I was working from a piece of literature. I was able to create codes for the locks that related directly to the text. This required students to go back into the literature and do some close reading and problem solving to determine the codes for each lock.

I also met with our district's technology coach, and she gave me some pointers, based on games she had built for other classes. All of my lock codes were linked to QR codes that I hid around the room. Students had to scan the codes to gather clues, complete quizzes, view resources, and puzzle out the meanings and significance of each clue. This was hilarious to watch! I had 7 foot tall basketball players sprawled out on the floor to scan codes hidden under desks.

What was probably the most awesome about this activity was that literally EVERY kid was engaged and excited. I had students that I've been struggling to engage all semester that were running around the room to make sure their group hadn't missed any clues. Students really had to work together and encourage each other in order to solve all the clues and open the box. And even though they didn't all complete the challenge, they didn't give up and quit. They worked through their frustrations. In each class, I had at least one group break into their box, but I had more students that were not able to complete the challenge. It was awesome to see the way these groups were still proud of their hard work, even if they were a little frustrated that they couldn't work their way through all the clues.

In past semesters, I've implemented the Spheros in our study of Huck Finn, but this semester it felt right to do something a little different. We had used the Spheros with both early explorer narratives and Hamlet, and I really wanted to see what would happen if we used this strategy. What happened is that students dug more deeply into Huck Finn, worked together, dealt with frustrations, and had a lot of fun. I'd say that's an end-of-semester success!


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Learning Like Socrates

Jenny Parnell

Benton Middle School 6th grade English teachers used Socratic seminars in their classes this fall as a way to encourage voice in the classroom. Called Socratic seminar for its use of questioning to generate thinking and ideas, this instructional strategy is a way to encourage students to think deeply about a text through a collegial conversation. Student-directed conversations develop students’ ability to think critically about a text and encourage students to talk to each other, listen to each other, and accept other people despite differing opinions and perspectives (Copeland, 2005). An added bonus to this strategy is that research shows student-led discussions help students develop ideas for writing (Dougherty, Billings, Roberts, 2016).

Before discussions begin, teachers instruct students on how to write Level Questions: Level One – literal level questions, Level Two – interpretive level questions, Level Three – beyond the text questions. Students bring these questions to the discussion to guide them in the process; however, they are not limited to simply asking and answering these questions. Students are encouraged to comment, share, and ask other questions that arise during the conversation.

During a Socratic seminar, students sit in two circles, an inner circle and an outer circle. Students in the inner circle bring questions about the text to the circle and use those questions to guide discussion and to generate more questions. Students in the outer circle listen to the discussion and then provide the inner circle students feedback on the quality of their discussion and participation. Then the groups switch places, and the discussion continues. Sixth grade English teachers paired an inner circle student with an outer circle student so that each student received specific feedback to help him/her grow and improve his/her discussion skills and participation.

During the Socratic discussion, the teacher does not lead or participate in the conversation. Instead, the teacher is outside of the two circles, observing and tracking who is participating and assessing the quality of the discussion. Students must keep the discussion going on their own.

Sixth grade students enjoyed the chance to talk in class and share their ideas. “It was fun. You could give your opinions and talk,” said Casey Lamont. “People didn’t get mad at you for sharing your opinion,” said Kate Calaway. “ We got to interact with each other.”

Teachers appreciated the insights students brought to the class discussion. “This was a great way to get students involved in class discussion,” said Jennifer Clayton, 6th grade English teacher.

Socratic circles can be used in any subject. All that is required is a passage or a problem that generates both discussion and critical thinking and a willingness to let students take the lead.

For more information on Socratic circles, consider the following resources:

Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic circles: Fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school.

Portland, ME: Stenhouse. Dougherty, E., Billings, L., Roberts, T. (2016). The better writing breakthrough:

Connecting student thinking and discussion to inspire great writing. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Hale, M.S., City, E.A. (2006). Leading student-centered discussions: Talking about texts in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


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Unlocking the Minds of 4th Grade Students to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Angie Grant Elementary

The past four weeks the fourth graders at Angie Grant Elementary entered a “muggles” attempt of creating Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This year is the first year for the fourth grade students at Grant to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a whole group. It has been an amazing unit including the creation of wands and troll boogers and being sorted into houses! The teachers have done their best to incorporate STEM activities throughout the reading of the novel. They have also worked hard crafting lessons that work hand in hand with the curriculum maps that were carefully created by the fourth-grade literacy committee. The lessons have had intense value and have given the students the engagement piece to learning which has been apparent to everyone in the building. It has also given many of the students at Grant the ability to understand the more difficult reading skills due to the excitement and engagement. The hallways are filled with photographs, projects, and writing having to do with the book. It has been such an incredible creative outlet for many of the students, but also has the intense rigor that is needed to be successful. The teachers have loved the unit as much as the students. “When you are teaching something you enjoy as much as the kids, it just makes coming to work that much better! We have loved this unit and we have seen such positive progress.” -Grant 4th grade teachers. The hope was for the students to find a series of books that would challenge but also engage them. The goal has been met as the staff has seen not only the fourth grade students involved loving the Harry Potter series, but so many other students throughout the building. With an author as impeccable as J.K. Rowling, it also gives the students a role model and the ambition to become great writers that persevere like she did. The teachers were very proud of the captivation this book has had on the students and the excellent work and learning that has been seen throughout the entire unit.


More Talking Allowed: Conversations in Math Class

Intentionally asking students to talk more in math class? Sounds like an invitation for chaos, but research shows that intentional talk during math class results in higher student achievement. When students engage in purposeful mathematics conversations, their learning is enhanced in several ways. They are able to hear and analyze the ideas and strategies of their peers. As students share, everyone in the class is exposed to different ways of solving problems and possibly more efficient ways of recording their thinking. They also engage in the Standards for Mathematical Practice that should be present in every classroom. Two of those standards, specifically, “reason abstractly and quantitatively” and “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” are practiced when students are given the opportunity to share their ideas and question the ideas of others.

More intentional conversations in math class can also improve students’ math writing skills. When students take the ACT Aspire assessment, they are required to write explanations and justifications for their answers. One of the mathematics reporting categories for the test is “Justification and Explanation”. In the past, writing an equation and an answer was an adequate explanation. Now students must write a thorough and ordered explanation for the steps that were used to solve the problem and explain why the steps were chosen. The opportunity to voice explanations in class helps students organize their thinking when they put their thoughts on paper. The fifth graders at Howard Perrin have been experiencing this over the past couple of months. They have been involved in cooperative group activities where they are solving problems individually and then coming together in a small group to share their ideas and reasoning. After they orally share, the students work together to create a written explanation and justification for how they solved the problem. Their teacher, Kristen Bowling, shares, "The fifth grade students at Howard Perrin have been using the 'Stick-It-Together' activity and they have learned a lot! This activity has really shown the students how to best answer math problems using both words and numbers. The students have learned how to work with a group in order to answer math problems together. They have then learned how to use their individual answers to formulate the best answer possible by pulling from all of their individual answers. This activity has helped these students solve problems numerically, verbally, and pictorially. I would highly recommend this activity to all students of math!"

According to Megan Franke, contributor to “Intentional Talk” by Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz,, “We know that students who explain the details of their mathematical ideas, engage with the details of others’ mathematical ideas, and have others engage with their own mathematical ideas achieve mathematically. We also know that engaging in mathematical conversations in productive ways can help students see themselves as smart and competent in mathematics. We have seen that students … also learn to others, ask insightful and respectful questions, and reflect on their own understandings. For these reasons and more, we must make the most of and continually improve our classroom mathematics discussions.”

Critically planning conversations and collaborative activities that will lead to productive types of conversations is a skill than can be developed. The Benton School District math facilitators are available to share more information and to model discussion techniques with individual teachers or in grade level settings.