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Code Breakers Unite

It was part scavenger hunt, part puzzle, part riddle, part hide-and-seek but a recent coding activity was all fun for a group of advanced math students and their teacher at Southwestern Middle School.

Math teacher Tiffany Barton has been an educator for 26 years and has spent the past 21 years sharpening students’ minds at Southwestern. She recently told her eighth-grade algebra class about a former Southwestern student who invented an alphabet and would write notes to Barton that she had to determine the code in order to decipher the secret messages. Feeling inspired, some students in the algebra class began devising codes and invited her to participate in a coding scavenger hunt in early April.


There was one caveat: If Barton didn’t break the series of codes, then the students would not be assigned homework that day. So, the stakes were pretty high.

“Some of the kids did Morse code, there was a number code and there were also a couple word codes using uppercase and lowercase letters,” says Barton. “It’s neat because for so many of them in their classes, the push is coding.”

Using lined paper, pencils, pens and their brains, the students collaborated on a series of letters that Barton had to solve in succession in order to determine the answer. Each message had instructions that led her to another letter to get the next clue.

In short order Barton was searching for codes under a stuffed Rudolph toy in her classroom, requesting information from other students and even calling fellow teacher Tim Becker down the hallway to get the next clue.

In the end, it took her the better part of 90 minutes to break the code, the final part of which was an anagram that had her solve the puzzle by spelling the word BISHOP.

“I was teaching class so I couldn’t concentrate on it the whole time,” Barton says with a laugh.

Barton likes to engage her students with hands-on activities and games to help them make connections and enhance their lessons. Her bag of tricks has evolved and grown over the years to a large bin jam-packed with puzzles and no-batteries-required games intended to inspire young minds. It even includes some of her own childhood toys and even a box puzzle that once belonged to her father. Her students enjoy the variety and they can often be found playing with numbers during Educational Enrichment Time.

A couple of her students have been writing programs with their graphing calculators and doing some basic programming. One student used the calculator to write codes for the Pythagorean Theorum, how to determine area and also to play Rock, Paper, Scissors.

“It’s been neat to see them want to do something puzzling,” says Barton. “It was fun for us all.”


Teacher Tiffany Barton with with Justin Vanstrom, Jacob Lawton and Dustin Hendrix.


Southwestern Middle School math teacher Tiffany Barton students with code-writing students Justin Vanstrom, Jacob Lawton and Dustin Hendrix.