Lowell — With the lights turned off in Lowell High School classroom A106, the only thing illuminating the space was the soft, filtered light from the cloudy skies outside.
At the front of the room, a countdown clock ticked off the seconds ominously.
On the floor were several locked treasure chests and a globe; on the walls, caution tape and pictures of a menacing-looking stuffed monkey. Playing over the hushed voices of students huddled in small groups was a steady drumbeat of music, the notes and tempo suggesting a sense of urgency.
Suddenly, the music intensified, growing louder and changing in tone. Anxious eyes around the room glanced up at the clock.
From one corner, a voice piped up: “¿Cómo se dice…stress?”
For those not enrolled in Spanish 4, that’s “How do you say, ‘stress’?” in that language. But this was a room full of Spanish 4 students, and they understood the question instantly. They laughed. Yet they were also feeling that stress, and so they got right back to business.
After all, they only had 45 minutes to solve the puzzle — and the puzzle wasn’t in English.
For one class period, teacher Sarah Ellis’ classroom turned into an escape room, complete with an evil villain, coded messages, black-light discoveries, word puzzles and clues to unlock along the way. The twist? The game was entirely in Spanish.
“It’s kind of overwhelming at first, to see a paragraph in Spanish and you need to figure out what to do,” said junior Colin Baas. “But you know you can read it, or at least most of it, so you, like, decipher the words that you know and you figure out what’s going on.”
Ellis got the idea for the escape room while living in Spain a few years ago, and applied for a mini-grant from the Lowell Education Foundation to pay for the supply kit. When students were learning at home due to the pandemic last year, she made an online version for her classes, but this was the first time they had the opportunity to actually play the game in person as intended.
“In Spanish 4, the objective is that we’re speaking and listening and reading and writing 100% of the time, or near 100%, in Spanish,” Ellis said. “This group has been working really hard to do that, and they deserve to have a really fun day. And (the escape room challenge) gives them motivation to just go with the whole (language) process and not be afraid of it.”
The premise for the escape room was the story of an evil monkey who threatens to destroy the world’s banana trees — and possibly the whole world, too — unless participants can solve the clues and unlock the treasure at the end. Working in small groups, the students rushed to solve clues and find keys hidden around the room. Some of the messages were only visible using a black light, while other clues needed calculators or other tools to solve.
As the teams worked through the puzzle, they collected codes by conjugating Spanish vocabulary words. The final clue required every team’s code to be correct to unlock the treasure.
“(The game) has quite a bit of vocabulary that we’ve been learning, and we’ve also been going over subjunctive tense, which is in there for a little review,” Ellis said. “Some of the clues involve speaking and listening, where they have to talk to me for the answers. It’s really a whole immersive experience in one class period.”
For Colin, the escape room activity was eye-opening in that he discovered how much Spanish he’s actually retained from his years of study in high school.
“There’s a certain change that happens in learning Spanish, where instead of, like, looking at the word and translating into English, that word starts to just have its own meaning in my mind,” he said. “It just clicks more and more. It’s fun to put that into practice, like doing the escape room — there’s a bunch of weird applications I can do with (Spanish) now.”
And, for all those concerned, it appears that the world’s banana trees are safe, at least for now — the Spanish 4 class did manage to solve the puzzle. Inside the final lock box they discovered a treasure trove of KitKats and Jolly Ranchers, a fine reward for an afternoon of difícil (difficult) but muy divertido (very fun) work.