Imagine a 13- or 14-year-old with a new apartment and $4,000 to spend. A 48-inch television or a wall of the newest compact discs might be the first purchases one imagines. Diana Rogers, who teaches seventh and eighth graders in Carmel, New York, introduces reality right away as part of this lesson in personal finances that she teaches in the spring.
All of the students are told they have to furnish the apartment with their $4,000 in savings and then get a "job" and "pay bills" for six months. Students are given checks with their names on them to pay the bills, according to Rogers. They also have to put some money in a savings account and reconcile their checkbooks every month.
"They are always surprised about the amount of money that has to go out and the amount they make at jobs,'' Rogers told Education World. "I always hope this unit will encourage them to begin thinking about what courses they should be taking in high school so they won't always be at entry-level jobs.''
Called "checkbook math,'' "personal finance management,'' or "real-life math," such lessons about budgeting money, using checking accounts, calculating interest, and paying bills can serve a number of functions, several educators told Education World. According to those teachers, real-life math lessons help students improve basic math skills and overall responsibility.
Gavrielle Levine, an associate professor of education specializing in mathematics education at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University in Brookville, New York, said these types of programs tie in with national standards for mathematics education. A prominent part of the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics is that mathematics should be meaningful, and students should be taught to use math in a meaningful way, Levine said.
"Of course, everyone needs to know how to multiply, but it's as important to know when to multiply,'' Levine told Education World. "The teacher can use [real-life math] as an opportunity to teach what math operations mean. That way students can understand the concept as well as the computations.''
Frequently, this type of curriculum is taught at the middle school level, when students are gaining more independence and may have their own spending money, said Mari Muri, a mathematics consultant with the Connecticut State Department of Education.
"They are able to think a little bit more about money and can work with decimal points,'' Muri said. "They are coming into an age where they may have to cover some of their own expenses, like lunch.''
The Connecticut State Department of Education, in fact, has a guide for a personal finance curriculum for fourth through eighth graders that is designed to tie in with the overall math and social studies curriculums, Muri said. Lessons on using a checking account and balancing it mesh with social studies discussions on economic systems, according to the state curriculum.
All middle school students do some kind of personal finance activity, Muri said. "It's putting math in a real context.''
Diana Rogers agrees and said her spring personal finance unit keeps students' interest at a time of the year when they often think school is over and lets them employ a lot of basic skills.
For extra incentive, some teachers include a reward program in the lessons. Students can earn money in various ways and spend their "savings" on items at the end of a marking period or the year.
Sixth-grade teacher Lynn Greco, who works at Unadilla Valley Middle School in South New Berlin, New York, said the program there for sixth graders, called Mad Money, has helped students with math skills and improved student behavior.
Students earn "mad money,'' different colors of paper bills, for good grades and for extra community or school service, such as filling in for a sick friend on the safety patrol, Greco said. Students also can lose money for bad behavior, she said.
Youngsters save their money for auctions at the end of the quarter, when they bid on items that have been donated to the school, according to Greco. Many of the students do not have their own spending money, so they are excited by the chance to earn some, even it if is only in the classroom, Greco noted.
"Students work harder for better grades, turn their work in on time, and do more good deeds than they did before this program was in place,'' Greco told Education World. "Teachers have fewer discipline referrals and classroom disruptions.'' Greco also reports spending less time reviewing the math skills sixth graders already should have mastered.
In some schools, students gain skills participating as bankers as well. Frederick J. Smith, a sixth-grade teacher at Dr. Edwin E. Weeks Elementary School in Syracuse, New York, created The Savings Bank, a lesson that takes about 20 class periods and involves students in all aspects of banking.
Smith recommends first surveying the class to find out how much students are saving and recording it in a database. After setting up "savings accounts'' in a computer, hire some students as bank employees. The whole class is paid every two weeks, and students must fill out deposit slips and record the transactions in the database. Students are required to keep a record of transactions and interest. A field trip to a bank also can be scheduled.
At the end of the semester, students can be surveyed again to see how much they have saved, according to Smith.
Though the personal finance programs sound positive overall, Levine said, she has concerns about some aspects of them.
A student who has to make a lot of payments early in a program -- for whatever reason -- might get discouraged, she said. Teachers might consider building in a "grace period'' for certain offenses or developing ways students can earn back money so they are not bankrupt early on, Levine said.
Some students also may not be comfortable with the level of math required, and to help them, teachers can tie the program in to lessons on using calculators and computer spreadsheets, she said.
Still, a real-life lesson has real value, said Levine. "It makes sure students have adequate skills and can help generate interest in math,'' she said. "It's a gentle way of inviting them into the world of mathematics ... and it dispels some of the magic of the adult world.''
Ellen R. Delisio
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