QUINCY -- Groups of educators puzzled over clues in an effort to open a locked box in a Quincy High School classroom.
Reviewing what they'd learned, combined with some simple math, revealed the combination to a padlock that led to finding the key to the box and candy hidden inside.
The quick example of teamwork brought to life what Cindy Whiston, education department chairman at Culver-Stockton College, emphasized in a Thursday breakout session on engaging and economical escape rooms at Quincy Conference.
"It's just using more hands-on experience," Whiston said, and the idea works "for any level, any age."
Escape rooms, or escape games in the classroom where students solve puzzles to find a prize, take time to plan but offer a wide variety of benefits for students, including building collaboration, higher-order thinking and working through challenges.
QHS teacher Jackie Stewart wants to make her own escape game using chemistry for the clues. "This give me an outline of a simple start, of what it needs to be," she said. "I think teachers will find a place to start."
More than 1,500 area educators found a place to start with professional and personal development in the first day of the conference featuring 409 breakout sessions.
"We get motivated. It kind of refreshes and energizes you to come here," said Gertrude Young, a teacher for the Illinois Department of Corrections.
QHS social studies teacher Michael Stephens said, "It's just seeing what other people are doing in their rooms and figuring out the best way to incorporate that into what you do. There's always ways to improve what you're doing.
"I'm presenting, too, and hoping somebody can take something away from what I do with classroom strategies to make history class a little more fun for kids."
Lunch keynote speaker Matt Miller found ways to make his Spanish classes more fun after ditching his textbooks along with homework and finding the freedom to create new study guides, develop vocabulary lists taking into consideration his students' interests and using video projects.
"It's easy to do what's been done, to carry on with business, but these days in the classroom, there's a problem with business as usual," Miller said. "We're in this weird place in the history of education where the traditional ways of teaching and traditional ways of doing things just aren't getting the results they used to."
What students know is less important than "what we can do with it and how we can use it to solve problems," said Miller, who encouraged his audience to be willing to take risks and try new things. "Being a maverick teacher isn't about executing a perfect lesson plan. It's about sparking a students' curiosity."
An art lesson in his class turned into a memorable experience with a "field trip" to a hallway in the school displaying student artwork, cups of fruit punch and conversation in Spanish about the exhibit along with a stronger connection with his students.
"Playing it safe really can be more risky than taking some risks," Miller said. "If we lose that connection (with students), it's over. It doesn't matter."
Presenter Tiffaney Rains, a behavioral health therapist and former teacher, urged educators to understand the different ways to communicate love and be able to identify "love languages" in their classroom.
"We all want to feel heard and loved," Rains said.
Adapting any of the strategies requires a mindful approach.
Andrea Hyde, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Western Illinois University, said, "Mindfulness is implicated in all kinds of mental and physical health benefits. It's also the state that is required for readiness to learn. That's why we bring it into education."
Mindfulness also lowers stress, with Hyde proving the point by leading those in her breakout session through a series of breathing exercises, neck stretches and shoulder rolls.
Jennifer Mills, who teaches sixth-grade special education at Quincy Junior High School, said, "I do try to be mindful, to express to the kids how important it is to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings.
"We do a check-in first thing in the morning, to gauge what kind of day we're having so far."