Sneak-a-nomics: How Creative Lesson Writing Starts with Teamwork
In this third episode, Mary Suiter, former assistant vice president of economic education at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Mike Raymer, executive director of the Georgia Council for Economic Education, share their journeys and advice on writing lessons that bring economics to life for students in the classroom. They discuss how having a great community of fellow educators can help generate good ideas and make teaching and learning economics more enjoyable.
This 15-minute podcast was released July 18, 2023, as a part of the Teach Economics podcast channel from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Hi, everyone. I'm Andrea Caceres-Santamaria, and welcome to Sneak-a-nomics from the St. Louis Fed. We’re so happy you’re with us. Our goal is to empower you with insights from some of the sharpest minds in economic education. Today, we’re going to spend time thinking about the creative process. We’ll be joined by two of the most creative economics lesson writers in the country. Mary Suiter just retired from the St. Louis Fed after serving as an Assistant Vice President in Economic Education.
Mary Suiter: Really, I’d like to think I helped create econ evangelists. We’re building their language of economics.
Caceres-Santamaria: I can speak from experience when I say that Mary is truly an inspiration and I learned so much from working with her. And if that’s not enough, she’ll be joined by Mike Raymer, executive director for the Georgia Council on Economic Education.
Mike Raymer: Any student I ever had, I could really tell them or say to them, you know, you’re going to be using this every day of the rest of your life starting right now.
Caceres-Santamaria: As educators, you know we love learning objectives. So, here are some to consider while listening. Think about the most creative lesson plan you currently teach. What makes it so special? How is it different from other lessons, and what elements can you borrow when considering developing lesson plans of your own? If you’re feeling stuck, who could you collaborate with? Think about your circle of fellow educators and who among them might help spark your next idea. And lastly, if you would like a digital badge for professional development, go to stlouisfed.org/education. From the St. Louis Fed, this is Sneak-a-nomics, helping you sneak a little econ into everyday lessons.
Hi there, Sneak-a-nomics friends. I want to take a moment to make sure you know all about the great interactive economics and personal finance resources available at our website, econlowdown.org. It’s totally free, and no matter what grade level you teach, you’ll find tools to help bring or sneak economics into your lesson plans. And while you’re there, be sure to sign up for our newsletter and get updates on all the latest resources we have available. So, if you haven’t already, check out econlowdown.org. Okay. On with the show.
We're fortunate to not have one, but two creative minds on this episode. We'll learn about their process, and they'll tell us about how they started their lesson-writing journey. This is going to be a great episode, so let's get started.
Suiter, who as I mentioned before, just recently retired from the St. Louis Fed as assistant vice president in economic education. She caught the lesson-writing bug long before joining the Fed back when she was at the Center for Economic Education at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. At the time, she was tasked with writing economics and children's literature lessons.
Suiter: I can remember reading a story with my daughter when she was in fifth grade, and she was reading some and then I was reading. And I remember jumping up off of her bed and going, "That's demand. I could teach about demand using this book." And she was like, "Who cares, mom?" You know?
Caceres-Santamaria: One of the many things that continues to make Mary so special is that she thinks about the whole student and not just the learning objective. So, in addition to a great story, Mary says she also searched for material with good life lessons.
Suiter: Because often, characters are making decisions in the stories, and there's opportunity cost, or they're using resources to produce something. And we read these good stories, and they're wonderful and, you know, we engage students and they help teachers develop important language arts skills. But it also presents an opportunity for us to interject some other life skills.
Caceres-Santamaria: Once she has a good story and an economics concept in hand, Mary says it doesn't take that long to get an idea on paper. Sounds simple, right? I know as someone who worked alongside Mary that it can certainly seem like her creativity is effortless, but she says that's not the truth at all. Remember at the top of the show when I asked you to think about who in your circle of educators can help you workshop ideas? You're about to hear why that's so important. Let's all listen in as we hear Mary explain how she's always learning from others.
Suiter: I think creativity, for me, usually happens when I have the opportunity to really chat with a colleague or several colleagues about something we're trying to do, so that notion of brainstorming. And frequently for me, brainstorming happens with a person I write with frequently, and that's Bonnie Meszaros (associate director of the Center of Economic Education and Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware). But also on our team at the St. Louis Fed, when we would sit down to chat about how we could do something and we start thinking about the content and discussing what we want to do, ideas then, kind of, bubble up on things that I think would work. And being able then to throw that out and say, "Andrea, I think that we could have the kids walk three steps forward and jump over this and that would demonstrate X," and you say, "I'm not sure if that'll work." Right? And so, that back and forth often helps me hone an idea. And once I have that idea, it's really pretty easy to get it on paper, at least the first draft, and then see how it's going to go.
So, an example of a recent lesson that we did on monetary policy and how it transmits through the economy, I wanted an activity that would be simple for the non-AP student to understand. And in talking over that idea with colleagues, I recognized I didn't want to use cards. I didn't want it to be this very formal kind of thing. And talking with colleagues, it occurred to us that we could have the kids form a human chain and have them transmit the interest rate through that chain. Right? And you know, that came out of discussion about that concept.
Another way that I see these things happen is I might observe something that someone else is doing in a completely different context. So, one example is the name tent, watching a teacher have their students produce name tents so that she'd have them for guest speakers. And I saw that name tent activity and out of that came a lesson called "Investing Yourself" and the "It's Your Paycheck" thing. So, I saw that being used, and I thought we could use this to teach about human capital. And that's what came from that.
Another one is, you know, watching my grandchildren, my grandson at a Lego camp, and, you know, they're creating Lego machines. And I haven't written this lesson, but what occurred to me is that we could use that activity, him building machines, to teach cost of production, revenue, and profit and loss because we could price the bricks. And once they've assembled their module, they could figure out what that was costing to make. We could give them a price at which they could sell that and then see if they're making a profit or a loss and then have them rebuild and try to improve in terms of the manufacturing of the product. So, that would be a starting point.
So, things like that, I think, are sparks for creativity. And then, there's just the driving down the highway and it occurs to you, "Hey. We could do X, and we could teach opportunity cost." The excitement of coming up with a way to make this activity work, whatever it is, and possibly have lightbulbs go off for kids, right, because that's what we're all striving for is for that lightbulb to go off that says, "Hey. This stuff's important. This matters. I know why I'm studying this. It does have relevance to my real life." That's what we're all looking for, and so, I think that's what I'm motivated by. And so, once you and I or you and Mike, Mike and I come up with an idea, I'm going to go with it because I want that lightbulb to go off for kids.
Caceres-Santamaria: I know, as a former teacher, that Mary couldn't be more right about the value of getting out of our classroom bubble and working with others. So, whether you're the person with the next big idea, the master editor, or the super organized veteran teacher who can map out an entire school year with your eyes shut, there's a role for every kind of person in the creative process. We're going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we'll hear from Mike Raymer, executive director of the Georgia Council on Economic Education.
Hi, everyone. Before we dive deeper into this episode, I want to let you know about all the resources you can find at econlowdown.org. You can create a free account and find a whole universe of economics teaching resources, put together a syllabus and even monitor student performance. So, if you haven't already, sign up today at econlowdown.org.
For our next inspiring story of creativity, we'll need to start by traveling back in time to the early 2000s. That's when Mike Raymer, currently the executive director for the Georgia Council on Economic Education, was a classroom teacher and working towards his master's degree.
Raymer: I was coming up after work. I teach all day long, drive to Atlanta to get my master's, and I was in a class where the teacher was just, sort of, lecturing, but showing notes on an overhead projector. That's some old-school technology there. And I was just, I was like, "I'm so bored. Like, this is just killing me that I'm doing this and I'm paying for this." But then, I said to myself, "I did this to my students yesterday." And I was like, "I'm never ever doing this again." So, literally the next day, I got back at school and I took my overhead projector and I put it away, and I never touched it again.
Caceres-Santamaria: But Mike was taking two classes that semester. Well, one taught him how he didn't want to teach. The other had the opposite effect.
Raymer: A different professor who had a background in economics, we were talking about lesson plans and writing lessons, and I had an idea that, to me, seemed, kind of, out there and wild and, like, this is, kind of, nuts. And she says, "Well, why don't you do it? It'll be fun. Like, fun's legal in school." And I was like, "Oh, my God. You're right. It is." And I knew that, but I just needed someone to tell me. It changed my life and how I taught, right? So, that point on, I really tried to find creative things and use creative ways to reach my students.
Caceres-Santamaria: Since then, Mike has developed countless lessons that lean just as heavily on active learning as they do economics. He says once he has an economic concept in mind, Mike goes back to that key value he learned in grad school.
Raymer: What's the fun thing going to be? Like, what do I want my kids doing, moving, seeing, debating, whatever it's going to be? And I write from there, right? The whole thing starts at the end. Like, yeah, they're going to be doing this, and it's just a matter of then just getting them to it. And for me, the writing process, boy, it's difficult. You have the great idea. To me, that's the easy part, and then, it's like you sit down at a computer and you've got a blank piece of paper in front of you and you're like, "Oh, crap. Now, I've got to actually do this." Right? And the typing process and you're going through it, and, for me, I needed a deadline. I, sort of, like to push myself up against a deadline. Otherwise, I'm going to procrastinate and not do it.
But eventually, I'll be in a room by myself where it's quiet just banging it out. An ideal lesson you, the kids can then, you're, kind of, going over, "This is the concept we're going to talk about." Give them a little background. You do the thing where they're actually living and experience the economics, and then, you, kind of, debrief it at the end to, kind of, point out, like, "That part of it was this economic concept." You know that this first draft is, in my mind, it's part great and perfect, but the minute someone else looks at it, they're going to find, you know, 28 things wrong. And that's good. Like, I want them to. I hate when you'll send, you know, a lesson to someone and they'll approve it for you, and they'll send it back and say, "Oh, it was great." Like, no, it's not. Like, you didn't, you need to give me some feedback. Right?
And I think we have a great community of educators who are honest with each other and aren't afraid for feedback. To me, it only makes you better, right? So, the whole process, it's a fun process when it's done, but to me, it's, kind of, like, it makes me nervous when I'm just starting out. Because I think, "This is going to be the coolest thing ever." And then, I'm also thinking, "What if nobody likes it?", like the whole way through. But ultimately, you know, it's rewarding. I think it's a great experience when you hear someone use your lessons or your materials and they liked it and their kids learned from it. That's fantastic.
Caceres-Santamaria: That's such a great thought to close out this episode. You have to have the courage to bring something new into the world and be open to ideas for improvement. It's the network of teachers, collaborators, and learners who will ultimately bring your ideas to life. So, get out there. Don't be afraid and start creating. From the St. Louis Fed, I'm Andrea Caceres-Santamaria, and you've been listening to Sneak-a-nomics.
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