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Building a Working Community in the Classroom: One Teacher's Experience


Elementary teacher Toni Wing captured her students' interest by making them citizen-leaders of a city called Tinseltown. As business people, bankers, and employees, the students kept checkbooks and inventory and found out about the real world. See how the activity made learning across the curriculum relevant for students! Included: Ideas for creating a community in your classroom!

Fifth-grade teacher Toni Wing of Albany Upper Elementary School in Albany, Louisiana, is the founder of an unusual city. The community has a town hall, a lake, and a governing body -- and it exists only within her classroom walls. The citizens and leaders of this unique town are her students, and everyone agrees that Tinseltown is the place to be!

"Years ago, I did a couple of isolated activities with my sixth-grade students, activities such as keeping a checkbook and going grocery shopping to find out how much food costs," Wing told Education World. "In addition, for years my discipline plan had involved student police and holding court, with a judge, on Friday afternoons. I had played with the idea of expanding on those activities, but I hadn't found the time to do it. I had even picked up a book called Classroom City, a simulation activity [available from Interact!], but it wasn't exactly what I had in mind."

Last summer, Wing put full energy into her dream of building a working community in her classroom. "As I got it going, it just sort of grew on its own," recalled Wing. "The kids contributed a lot to it and came up with ideas of their own."

The result of all this work was a village called Tinseltown. Each Friday morning during the school year, students moved their desks around to transform the classroom into Tinseltown, and the town opened for business.

Tinseltown was one of the highlights of the week in Wing's classroom. As she looks back on Tinseltown, it is clear that her students enjoyed the activity; when she once complained that it was taking too much time to organize the desks and set up the community, her students began coming in before school to do it! Tinseltown was a truly valuable learning experience, according to Wing. The students learned a great deal about commerce and government from the experience.

"The class voted on a name for the community," said Wing. "The Tinseltown Theatre had just opened in Baton Rouge, so I think that had an influence on the name. I decided to keep the name this year. Since we are a rural community and most of our students are involved in outdoor sports, they wanted to add an outdoor attraction. Therefore, Tinseltown is located on scenic Lake Tinsel."



The first order of business for Tinseltown students was to design their enterprises. "First, the students chose businesses and used advertising circulars and catalogs to determine what to sell in their stores and how to price the items," Wing explained. "They filled out inventory sheets and added a profit mark-up. They applied to the 'First Class Bank' for simple-interest rate loans and signed paperwork for their loans. They received personalized checks and checkbook ledgers. During the start-up period, they received $350.00 -- minus taxes -- in their 'accounts' each week for completing assignments." The stipend proved to be an excellent incentive!

The second step was to build the "stores" themselves. "The students made storefronts at home," said Wing. "I suggested using project boards but told them they could recycle boxes as well. Most used project boards, decorating the outsides to look like stores and the insides to look like homes. Some did the same with painted boxes. One pair of boys built an incredible storefront from plywood!"

Another part of the set-up was devising the layout of the town. The class determined what the geography of the town would be like and created a map of the area. Students labeled landmarks, such as City Hall, , and a wooded area was included. The map served as a guide for organizing the desks each Friday morning.



City government was another aspect of the Tinseltown experience. "The children made a city charter and registered to vote," Wing said. "There were three parts to Tinseltown: the mall area, the downtown district, and the lake district.

We established rents for the districts and elected councilpersons from each district and a mayor. It was up to each person to register to vote and to vote in the election. Everyone had to purchase business licenses from the city."

After they became more proficient with running their businesses, the students were on their own! "Once they were set up, they quit getting the salary and had to live off their incomes from their businesses," said their teacher. "For the rest of the year, they ran their businesses, shopped in one another's stores, and dealt with problems as they occurred: lawsuits for non-payment of bills, hunting seasons, and whatever else happened. Some businesses changed, some businesses closed down, new ones started.

"My favorite business was the broadcasting group that made commercials with the camcorder and played music during the city time. Some kids gave up the businesses and just went to work for someone else. The most successful was the computer store. We also had a hardware store, a feed store, a bait shop, a bank, Sears, Wal-Mart, a women's clothing store, an airbrush store, a car lot, a four-wheeler and recreational vehicle store, a jewelry store, and a radio station/advertising agency."



How did Wing turn her classroom into a community? Her students were in charge of the preparation and the cleanup. "I kept all Tinseltown materials in a rolling cart. I'd roll the cart out at the start and roll it out of the way when we were done," Wing elaborated. "Students set everything up and put everything away. The desks were in rows or clusters, according to the map of Tinseltown. There was a big paper lake at one side. In front of each desk was the storefront. The computers served as the bank, and desks were set up for tellers' cages. During the council meetings, desks were placed in the front of the room for the meeting."

Wing designed a plan of action she would follow for each session of Tinseltown. "We started with math things, then social studies things, basically," she explained. "We started with money: shopping in one another's stores, balancing checkbooks, making deposits, paying taxes, buying insurance. Then we had a city council meeting, election, or discussion. Each day had a theme in my mind -- such as good citizens or entrepreneurs or supply and demand. I geared the activities to the day's theme. We always closed with a discussion of the concept."

The activity ended with what Wing calls "fates." In this portion of the period, the students selected a slip of paper from a pile of sheets she had prepared for them. On each piece was an occurrence, good or bad, that they would be expected to handle. Examples included winning money, having a car accident, getting sick, and having visitors, which increased food bills. The added element of chance raised students' interest and kept them guessing -- just as in the real world!



Wing expanded the town experience to include field trips and lessons related to subjects other than social studies. Activities were related to Tinseltown and served as research opportunities so students could learn how the real world works. "The kids knew they were developing Tinseltown as much as I was," noted Wing.

Field trips to the supermarket, a bank, and a voting site were among the enrichment activities Wing provided. "We went grocery shopping at a local store to find out how much food cost," she explained. "We walked to the store with clipboards and guidelines for healthful eating. The students walked through the store, made menus for the week according to guidelines, and kept track of the costs.

When we returned to the classroom, they totaled up the cost of one week of food. We also visited the local bank before it opened one day to learn how banks really worked. We went to an election site to see how the voting machines worked and how the process worked. Speakers, such as the fire marshal, visited our classroom to describe what they did in the community. Those activities took the place of the regular Tinseltown activities."

With a little ingenuity, Wing managed to incorporate other subjects into the activity as well. "I integrated science when I polluted Lake Tinsel and we investigated water samples to find reasons. The little paper fish in Lake Tinsel were slowly turned upside down, until someone noticed it," she said. "The city council acted immediately. They closed the lake and hired a team of scientists (my class and me) to investigate. I had planned to come in with a blower and make a hurricane but never got around to it."

There is little doubt that her students would have been surprised to find their town ravaged by a hurricane!



The citizens of Tinseltown were thrilled with the experience. "The students came in early to set it [Tinseltown] up, on Friday mornings. They planned city council meetings when I didn't," Wing says. "One Friday, the mayor asked me what time we were going to start the meeting. I told her I hadn't planned a meeting. She said, 'But we did,' and showed me an agenda. What could I say but yes?"

Joanna, the mayor of Tinseltown, has wonderful things to say about it. "The thing I liked most about Tinseltown was the way [we] could learn how a town works and have fun in the process," she said. "You have tons of fun while learning, and it doesn't even feel like learning! I opened a store called Computer World, which helped me to learn how to operate a small business, doing things like balancing a checkbook. I was also elected mayor of Tinseltown, and I conducted town meetings.

"In Tinseltown, we learned how to set up small businesses and how a town works, all while having fun!" explained Joanna. "We had to do everything as if this town were real, all the way down to keeping up our bank accounts. Some other things we did while operating the town were buying groceries, paying rent, making loans, and solving real problems like the polluted pond. This was a fun learning experience. My town is like Tinseltown because it has small businesses and a town government, much like that of Tinseltown."

Another citizen of Tinseltown, Jared, also enjoyed the experience. "I like how we learned about how our parents have to write checks and pay bills," he stated. "I also liked owning my own store. We wrote checks, paid bills, shopped for groceries, gave and got tickets, held court, had penalties, and had police officers, judges, and bailiffs. We made commercials, helped clean up Lake Tinsel, and kept Tinseltown safe. We went on field trips to different places like B&M Grocery Store and the bank to learn about how they ran theirs and compare it to how we ran ours. We learned about what grown-ups do."

Tinseltown had special appeal to Jared because it was so like real life. "You can be the boss of your own store," he said. "It [Tinseltown] has banks, grocery stores, police, court, cars, a lake, and bills for water and electricity. We also had to pay rent on our property. If we didn't pay our bills, our store would be closed until we paid them!"

Timothy's favorite part of the Tinseltown experience was getting to own and operate a business. He wrote checks, balanced his checkbook, and sold merchandise. He sees comparisons between his own town and Tinseltown. "It [Tinseltown] is small, there aren't many people, and everything is locally owned," Timothy observed.

The participants aren't the only people who have been wowed by the success and relevance of Tinseltown. "So many, many times, students said that this was something they could really use," Wing remarked. "They told of parents' comments about how good it was. They were proud of their businesses."



The overwhelming positive response from her students is one reason Wing plans to continue Tinseltown during this school year -- bigger and better! She has written a grant and hopes to obtain funding for some items that will make the activity even more interesting for students. She intends to add a school-to-work component as well. She has also been hard at work on improvements she can make independently. "I created a spreadsheet for the bank but would like to use some kids' banking software," she said. "I want materials to make street signs. I'd like to provide [students] with project boards and plastic pocket folders in which to hold all their materials."

Wing also plans to implement some procedural changes this year. "I am not going to spread the set-up experience over a one-month period, as I did before. I'm going to complete it over a couple of days because it is so hard to remember from one week to the next," she explained. "I'm going to open the town to other classes, such as the third or fourth graders, so they can go shopping with play money. That will help them with money skills and provide my students with a chance to have all the stores open at once."

A new language arts aspect of Tinseltown will include having students write journal entries. Wing will also be rearranging her social studies curriculum so that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will be discussed at the start of the year, rather than the middle. That will allow the Tinseltown government to be developed in the context of real government structure.



Activities like Tinseltown give students a feeling of investment and responsibility. "I think you have to be a bit like a good pre-kindergarten teacher when you do an activity like this," Wing advised. "A good pre-kindergarten teacher isn't afraid to follow the lead of the children in a classroom. This is greatly enhanced if children feel ownership for the activity."

When students believe in the process, they take the meaning, and the learning, to heart! "It amazed me how into the fantasy the students became," Wing said. "When one storeowner sued someone for non-payment of debts, one student called me over to his desk as he listened to testimony. 'I'm scared,' he whispered. Alarmed, I asked him why. 'Because this is all so serious,' he answered. It was serious work to them."

Wing has found in her years of teaching that activities like Tinseltown are essential to promoting student interest in education, especially at the intermediate level. "I think fifth grade is critical," she explained. "The kids who have previously failed in school really stand out in fifth grade because they look so much older than the others. They are likely to give up at this grade. Developmentally, most fifth-grade children are beginning to peek at adolescence and adulthood. They are starting to question convention and what they've always been told. They are really just becoming capable of truly working with others. They are seriously starting to make important decisions, such as what roles they want to play as adults. School must seem relevant in order for them to take it seriously in years to come. I want my classroom to be a stepping stone to relevancy. I want it to be alive, vital, involved. I want kids to go to sixth grade feeling that school makes sense and that they have much to learn because they have a true contribution to make to their communities, the world."


Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2001 Education World


Updated 1/29/2013