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Showcasing Kimberly Rust and the "Credit Card Debt Simulation"

"I searched high and low for an activity like this, and when I couldn't find one, I was inspired to make it myself," Kimberly Rust told Education World. "I can't say it was quick. I probably put 20 hours into creating it, but I loved doing it because I knew it would have significant meaning to my students."

Rust is a math teacher at Raymond S. Kellis High School in Peoria, Arizona, where she moved this summer. In her former position in the state of Washington, she noted the keen and consistent interest her students had in money and how to get more of it. When she taught her students to add, subtract, multiply, and divide integers, she always had them think of the operations in terms of money. Positive numbers represented money they had, and negative numbers were money they owed.

"I created the credit card debt simulation because I saw a real need," Rust explained. "Kids today see how their parents live and assume they will start off with the same [resources]. They never see how long it took their parents to get where they are. Credit cards encourage that instant gratification, and young people get themselves into horrible debt, not realizing that eventually they have to pay."

Rust begins her project by talking with students about credit cards and inviting them to share what they know about them. Most recognize that credit cards allow consumers to spend money they don't have, and that they charge interest. Next, Rust gives students their own blank credit cards that they design themselves. A "Schumer box" on the card spells out such details as interest, late charges, over the limit fees, and more.

"I provide five different cards so not everyone has the same card or interest rate," said Rust. "Then every day for ten days, I hand them a sheet I've created with a year's worth of simulated charges on their credit card. I keep the charges small -- 2-3 charges of $5 to $50 dollars per month. I want them to think it's no big deal."

Using a random number generator and mail merge, Rust has created 50 different pages of charges, so no two students have the same ten years of debt. Their job for ten days is to collect the sheets and total the charges for each month. If any student is absent, he or she receives a sheet the next day with random late charges on it. If any six months has two or more charges, the student's interest rate is raised to the default APR, just like in real life!

"Then we go into the computer lab, and the students create a spreadsheet, in which they list their charges for all ten years, add interest each month, subtract minimum payments, and create a running total balance," Rust elaborated. "We use a Web site that calculates the students' remaining balance and interest rate and tells them how many years it will take to pay off their cards if they only pay the minimum. They finish the activity by writing a reflection paper summarizing how much they spent, how much interest they paid, and how much they have left to pay."

In addition, students share the best online tips they find about managing credit cards wisely. They also tell Rust what they have learned from the activity. All the information is put into a report cover -- the original credit card design, ten years of charges, spreadsheet, and reflection paper.

"My students were only slightly interested during the ten days they were collecting the charges, but once we hit the computer lab, and they started seeing how their balance was growing and growing every month, they started groaning and complaining about how far in debt they were!" said Rust. "They were especially confounded if they had late charges and their interest rate climbed to 25 percent. They also were amazed that a couple thousand dollars worth of debt could take 17 years to pay off with minimum payments. Many students wrote in their reflection papers that they had never done a project so meaningful to real life."

Many parents looked over the projects with their children, which prompted at-home discussions about responsible money management. The parents were excited to see the children learning a practical life lesson.

"I went through the activity once with one of my classes, and I learned a lot while we were doing it," reported Rust. "I then revised the activity, tightened it up, and started the new and improved version with my next class! I try never to be afraid to jump in there and try something, and tell the kids it's the pilot run. They're happy to help point out what's not working, and I revise, revise, revise!"

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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