Making Learning Relevant

CC licensed image shared by Flickr user Steve Heath

CC licensed image shared by Flickr user Steve Heath

What is the purpose of K-12 schooling?

Think for a moment before coming up with an answer. Consider what you believe truly matters. Is it preparation for college? Preparation for a career? Support in growing to be an individual who is morally and ethically grounded? Is it guidance in the development of core skills and habits of being needed to successfully navigate the complex, rapidly changing realities of the world our children will inherit? Is it all of the above?

While I venture most educators would answer “all of the above” and even share additional goals, most K-12 schools seem in practice to focus almost exclusively on college preparation or perhaps college preparation and character development. While many schools are grappling with ways of personalizing learning to meet students’ individualized needs and supporting students to set and strive for their own goals, so much more is possible.

Early in the year, my first year as Head of School at Solomon Schechter School of Queens, a father of a child in our middle school challenged me, stretching my thinking and sending me on a quest to consider ways of making learning more relevant. Why is it, he asked, that schools don’t teach financial literacy? He explained that to him, the need for finanical literacy in any profession or vocation a child might choose is self evident. He questioned me as to why financial literacy skills are not a staple of K-12 education. I didn’t have a good answer or a ready solution. And so I began to explore, learn, and imagine. I wondered ways to prepare children for responsibly managing their own finances, and beyond that goal I wondered  ways of helping children consider and prepare for the complex, rapidly changing world of work. I wondered ways of helping children recognize their own strengths, talents, and interests and consider careers or vocations that might be meaningful to them. In time, I came up with what I feel is a start; a two pronged approach to making learning more relevant and taking “career readiness” seriously: a financial literacy curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade and a career related electives program for  seventh and eighth grade. The complementary programs aim to instill both the critical thinking and critical action skills essential to setting life goals, as well as the motivation, self-discipline, adaptability, resilience, and courage necessary to put ideas into action in order to achieve life goals. These two cornerstone programs are, I hope, just a beginning; first steps to implement, assess, evaluate, and build upon.

Financial Literacy Curriculum for Kindergarten through Eighth Grade
Our school’s Financial Literacy curriculum, to be implemented next year, is modeled after a program created at the Ariel Community Academy in Chicago through the efforts of then Chicago Public Schools CEO and current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and John Rogers, CEO and founder of Ariel Investments, featured in Edutopia’s Schools That Work. Surprisingly, despite the tremendous success of the program at Ariel Community Academy, in the almost two decades since the program’s inauguration very few schools nationally have adopted similar learning experiences for their students.

While our school’s financial literacy approach is based on Ariel Community Academy’s experience, we have substantially modified the curriculum in order to meet the needs of our student population.  Our financial literacy curriculum includes five primary components:

  • Economics
  • Personal Finance
  • Entrepreneurial Skills
  • Investing
  • Philanthropic Giving

Students in kindergarten, first, and second grades will gain a basic understanding of economics and personal finance including earning income, saving, spending, credit, and money management. Their learning will be supplemented by an interactive classroom economy including jobs in which students earn “salaries” (consisting of play money), ‘bonuses”, have required expenses, and have choices of ways to spend their discretionary income remaining after their expenses have been paid. Philanthropic giving will be among the choices for spending discretionary earnings and students will be required to consider ways their earnings can make a positive impact for others.

Students in third and fourth grades will delve deeper into a foundation in economics. Third grade students will explore public finance, taxes, and ways that communities and municipalities make spending choices. They will have the opportunity to speak with local politicians about the ways in which public funding is utilized and they will determine a project in which they can be involved to enhance quality of life within the local community. In fourth grade students will learn about currency and monetary policy, exploring what the Federal Reserve system is and its role in helping currency circulate throughout the United States as well as the value of different currencies. Students will collaboratively determine a fundraising/social action project that impacts an international community of their choice.

In fifth grade, students will engage in substantive learning about investing. The grade will receive $20,000 in an imaginary portfolio, which they will manage through the end of eighth grade. We hope in the future to potentially be able to secure actual funds for the students to manage as is done at Ariel Community Academy. Students will be actively involved in making investment decisions for their portfolio and will receive mentoring from an investment professional. When the students are in eighth grade, they will analyze how their portfolio has done and collaboratively determine among themselves and with the school administration the way in which they would want their funds to be spent to enhance the quality of the school. If in the future, these are ever actual rather than imaginary funds, even in a smaller amount, the funds will truly go to the project designed by our students. Students will present their funding proposal, offering a compelling case for the ways in which their contribution will improve the school. They will also describe and analyze what is happening in the stock market, sharing what they have learned through the experience of investing  funds over the course of the four years of managing a stock portfolio.

Middle school students will explore world economic issues and engage in learning entrepreneurial skills. They will analyze current events of economic import and consider the impact of economics within local, national, and international arenas. Students will have numerous opportunities for ongoing learning about investment as they continue to manage their grade’s stock portfolio. They will also gain knowledge and understanding of entrepreneurial skills and will have the opportunity to create their own business plans. Each year of middle school, students will determine a worthy philanthropic project to which they can contribute based on economic needs they identify through their study of current events. Integral to their project will be a business plan outlining ways they will raise the funds they will donate.

Some of the resource materials we may use for our financial literacy curriculum include, but are by no means limited to:

Financial Fitness for Life

My Classroom Economy

The Secret Millionaires Club  financial literacy and entrepeneurship resouces and learning activities

Money As You Learn

Financial Education In The Math Classroom

Online Economic Lessons

Lessons To Include Financial Literacy In Math

Lessons on Entrepreneurship

A Mobile App Lesson on Financial Capability

Games To Support Financial Literacy

Free online and mobile games to improve financial capability, confidence, and knowledge

Financial Educational Games

Genirevolution: online Personal Finance Game and Genirevolution supplemental materials for teachers

Banking Game

Lesson Ideas and Games on Financial Literacy

Career Related Electives Program

Our school’s career related electives program will give our seventh and eighth grade students the opportunity to explore the world of work in an interactive, engaging manner. Each semester students will choose between a range of elective courses, focused on a particular career. In each course, students will learn about the career and participate in a collaborative project, completed during class time, incorporating skills needed for the career and focused on making a positive impact for others. Electives will be taught two periods a week. The courses will be pass, fail, or pass with distinction. Students can stay with one course for the entire two years, or switch each semester. Offering a range of course options will both enable us to provide a variety of choices for students to explore, while also keeping each course small thereby providing substantial attention and mentoring to each child. Our career related electives, are (in alphabetical order): Business, Education, Graphic Design, Health and Fitness Science, Medicine, Psychology/Social Work, Technology, and Theater. In the future, we will seek to add even more options.

The combination of a financial literacy curriculum and our career related electives offer an opportunity for our students to achieve far more than the foundation for success in high school and college. We hope these learning experiences will inspire our students to set potential goals for themselves, and to gain skills, understanding, and positive habits and qualities needed to achieve their goals.

What else might we consider as we seek to make learning ever more relevant? 

Cross Posted in Sharing Our Blessings by Shira Leibowitz

3 comments for “Making Learning Relevant

  1. June 10, 2014 at 11:17 am

    Hi Shira, Thanks for writing this post. I added it to my math study and teaching thread for consideration as I plan next year’s program. I appreciate your research and ideas.

  2. June 10, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Thank you not only for the amazing resources and ideas, but for sharing how someone else’s questioning led you on a path to improving your students’ learning in a very meaningful and relevant way! We are looking at how to incorporate more financial literacy into our learning environments, so I will share this with others.

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