As there are some topics in the math curriculum that it might be hard to get authentic buy-in from teenagers, we sometimes have look past the content to help to find ways to leverage interest and attention. Middle and high school math teachers have lots of techniques in our bags of tricks, from meaningful and satisfying classroom structures to “gamifying” the class to writing problems based on the latest memes.

My Grade 10 students came in to class super excited about a birthday party they had attended, where they had participated in an escape-the-room game, and I wondered how I might leverage this excitement in my class. I searched around a bit and found some “crack the safe” activities from Dan Walker via Tes, and used this model to create a series of 5 worksheets to practice using the correct order of operations for my Grade 8 students.

The idea is that students need to answer a series of problems, and add the solutions together to form a 3-digit number. The number is the combination to a lock, and when they open the lock, they get the next worksheet. The first team to solve all 5 locks gets DJ privileges the next time we play music in class (…which I use judiciously). I had students work in groups of 3. I have 55 minute classes, and 5 worksheets turned out to be perfect – In one section one group finished with two minutes to go , and in the other section, I had three groups on the last worksheet but no-one finished. They stayed motivated and there was urgency to work for the whole class.

I had planned to put together a toolbox to lock, maybe a hasp on the closet door, and a locked drawer with a locked box inside. But other things got in the way of this extensive prep – including an epic battle with the printer – so it was all I could do to get the worksheets ready and the lock combinations set. But it turned out that this was all that we needed. When I explained that there were some 3-digit combination locks that could be opened by getting the correct solutions, my students were dialed in from the moment I said go, and didn’t want to leave when the bell rang. I didn’t have to redirect a single kid to stay in task, and it didn’t matter that the locks were just sitting on a table at the front of the room – not actually locking anything. I think that I’ll add these other pieces as I have time and accumulate more/ different kinds of locks – it can only add drama, mystery, and more fun.

Students knew that they were basically just completing a practice set on a worksheet, but they were super motivated. And maybe the best part was that they needed to attend to precision. The locks wouldn’t open unless they completed every problem correctly. If a group was really struggling, I would check their work against the key, and let them know how many problems they had gotten wrong – but not which ones. I definitely plan to use this structure again – I think that it would work well for older students as well as middle schoolers.

Here are the worksheets for Order of Operations “Escape the Lock.” Let me know how you use these and if you improve on this process.