Adam Newell

How would you describe student engagement? Do you look at your students and wonder if they truly understand? Creating deeper learning experiences can often be challenging for educators, but our September Featured Educator has a winning formula. We recently had the chance to chat with Adam Newell and his secret to success in bringing math to life through coding.

As a middle school algebra teacher, Adam wanted to bring computer science (CS) to his classroom. With no background in CS, he began learning about bootstrap, a coding language where students could develop responsive apps and websites. “I discovered that coding was problem-solving with fun and wanted to bring this to my students” said Newell.

Fast forward six years where Adam’s students engage in the bootstrap curriculum he has brought to his school. “The class is not rigid, but instead more open-ended to students’ interests.” Newell, a self-described life-long learner, sets the example for his students in his own excitement to learn alongside them. “It’s always new & exciting! My kids see me learning and trying new things, tweaking code just enough to challenge me to continually learn.”

Newell admits that he does not know the answer to every question and finds his acceptance of a growth mindset to be rewarding. “Everyday educators have challenges we don’t expect and we need to be comfortable with that. If I can show students that I’m ok not knowing all of the answers, they will trust me more and take more risks themselves. It’s a life skill.”

The students are connected to their learning through choice in their coding projects. To this end, what they work on matters to them. Their first unit, Bootstrap Algebra, involves development of a video game. Newell allows his students to decide on what type of video game they will create, but asks them to incorporate a positive message into their work. For example, a game could be about nutrition and proper food choices or perhaps be about sea turtles and the importance of the environment to sustain their life. “My students work within parameters but shape their creations into what they want them to be,”states Newell. Also a 7th and 8th grade algebra teacher, he often makes connections to concepts in his CS curriculum when students struggle. “I remind them of a successful project in bootstrap that correlates to a problem they are trying to solve in algebra to encourage them.” says Adam.  “In a math classroom, everything’s a process until 7th grade algebra where concepts are more abstract. I see that my students are capable of thinking abstractly when developing video games, but flounder in math class. Making these connections helps students to understand and solve problems.”

When asked what makes his class fun and personable, Newell is quick to answer on the importance of relationships with his students. “I enjoy conversations with my students about their perspectives and get to know each of them as individuals,” he says. He believes it is important to acknowledge each student individually and recognize what each brings to the table. “I find something in common I have with my students and let each know that I appreciate them as a person,” states Adam. Newell is also sure to build community within his classroom.  “Students talk among themselves and become comfortable with each other, which builds confidence and communication skills about how they accomplished their projects.” Newell likes to keep things lighthearted, and let’s his students know that failure is ok.

When developing innovative ways to engage students using technology, Newell’s biggest takeaway is that the technology we embrace today will be changing, so we should always keep our eyes open for that change. “I can give the students a glimpse of the moment, but it’s like a moving sidewalk: once you jump on you’re not stationery; you’re still moving.” Newell tells his students about the tools they are using and why they are using them. “If it doesn’t fit anymore, then we find something else,” he says. “I like using tech with math because the kids can see the math happen. An example would be how functions work in real time by a video game calculating the distance to a collision,” states Newell.  His students realize that algebra is not a concrete process, but a conceptual understanding. “If you can explain what you know to a computer, it’s capable of doing it faster and with accuracy,” says Adam. Math is an incredibly powerful language with substance to it and computer science makes conversations about math more meaningful to Adam Newell’s students.

Adam Newell teaches Computer Science and Algebra at the Pembroke Community Middle School. He also moderates his school’s Nerds in Training (NITS) club, where students provide technology and a/v support for his school. Follow him on Twitter @@mr_newall

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