Sneak-a-nomics: Why Economics Lessons Engage Struggling Students
In the first episode of Sneak-a-nomics, Erin Boettcher, a fifth grade teacher at Newark Charter School in Newark, Del., and Bonnie Meszaros, associate director of the Center of Economic Education and Entrepreneurship at the University of Delaware, discuss the value of teaching economics and personal finance in the elementary school classroom as well as how you can “sneak” concepts such as saving, decision making, goods and services, productivity, and opportunity costs into the subjects you’re already teaching.
This 27-minute podcast was and released Jan. 17, 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 the first episode of Sneak-a-nomics. We can't wait to share with you all sorts of tips, tricks, and stories that we hope will inspire you to sneak a little economics into your lesson plans. I thought a great place to start would be introducing you to a new teacher friend of mine, Erin Boettcher.
Erin Boettcher: I spend my days growing as many brains as possible. I teach fifth grade at Newark Charter Intermediate School. And I've been doing this, in the business of growing brains, now for 20 years.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: She says it's a passion that came to her early in life.
Erin Boettcher: I was lucky enough to have a father who was an educator, and the best one I've ever had the opportunity to see in action in all of my time.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Erin's father taught high school economics and civics. As a child, she would watch him in the classroom, amazed, not just by how well he could teach, but how well he connected with his students.
Erin Boettcher: I didn't realize it at the time, but I decided, that's what I want. I want to be able to connect with students. I want students to want to come in the classroom and grow their brain with me. I want students to be happy to see me and learn and grow with me.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Even though Erin literally grew up watching economics being successfully taught, she tells me the thought of bringing the subject into her own classroom didn't bring up the best feelings.
Erin Boettcher: It was intimidating, a little overwhelming. Definitely, I felt insecure and unprepared.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: But Erin worked through it. She found extra resources and participated in professional development. With a boost of confidence and a few more tools in her teacher toolbox, Erin decided to give it a try. And just like her father, she found bringing real-world economics lessons into her classroom not only unlocked young minds, it opened doors for the kind of student-teacher relationships that inspired her to become an educator.
Erin Boettcher: And especially struggling students, you know, they're watching everything, and they're taking in everything. And so when I'm pulling that into a lesson for them and all the sudden, oh, I know this, I can talk about this, I did this in the store, or I had to make that choice, it really kind of invigorates them and gives them a feeling like they've never had before in the classroom. Which is, I'm a part of this, and I can add to what's happening right now. And I think, to be honest with you, that's one of the things that drove me to continue seeking out opportunities to become a better economics teacher in the elementary classroom, because of what it did for all my students.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: On this episode, Erin will share stories straight from her own classroom about how hands-on lessons in economics can unlock the potential in all your students. And we're so excited that the amazing Bonnie Meszaros is also going to join us. If you're not already familiar with Bonnie's work, she's a professor at the University of Delaware, and a go-to expert on helping teachers bring economics into their lesson plans. She'll give us a big picture view of what it takes to successfully teach economics and point you towards resources you can start using today. We also want you to think of this as professional development on the go, fitting into your busy schedule. This episode is paired with detailed lesson plans you can use to bring economics into your classroom. And with that in mind, I would like to include a few objectives. Reflect on the real-life examples shared by our guests on how sneaking a little economics and personal finance into your literature and math lessons could bring out engaging opportunities for students to learn and interact with economics and personal finance content. After listening, access the lessons and related content shared in the post for this episode to see how they fit into your current curriculum. Make economics and personal finance a part of what can bring your classroom to life through storytelling and real-world application. And be sure to listen all the way through, answer the short quiz, and earn your Sneak-a-nomics pioneer badge. You're listening to Sneak-a-nomics, helping you sneak a little econ into your everyday lessons.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria [promotion]: Hi, everyone. Before we dive deeper into this episode, I want to make sure you know about all the great resources available through Econ Ed. Go to St. Louis Fed.org and you'll find an amazing collection of tools to help you bring economics to life, whether you're a kindergarten teacher or a college professor. Or maybe you just like to better educate yourself on economics, Econ Ed has a curated list of materials for you. So if you haven't already, check out Econ Ed today by going to St. Louis Fed.org/education. Okay, on with the show.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: We're going to get into a lot of exciting examples in this episode that highlight how teaching economics can unlock every student's potential. But before we get to all that great stuff, I asked Erin to be real with us. We've all had a handful of students who let's just say don't have the best attitude in the classroom. I know I did. But here's the thing. Erin says the hands-on nature of teaching economic concepts can make life a little easier for teachers and bring the best out of even the toughest student.
Erin Boettcher: For students who struggle, sometimes they make it difficult to teach and make it difficult for others to learn. And what I found is this was that motivation that I needed to really get them pulled into and be a part of our classroom. That student that's popping in my mind, my friend Aaron, he's from a couple years ago. But, you know, every -- school was really hard for him. He really struggled. And he had a lot of things that impacted his ability to be successful in school. But when it came to social studies time, or when it came to doing our economics, there was no stopping him. And I would call it Fun Friday. So they knew that this was a sacred time for us. And, you know, we were going to have our Fun Friday afternoon where we were going to actually do a lesson. And it just happened that something ran over, and I can still remember him standing up and saying, no, we can't miss our Fun Friday time, Miss Boettcher. Just thinking about those moments and the fact that that was something that he wanted to participate in and wanted to be a part of. And the reason is because he was learning from his classmates and helping them learn as well.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: That's an awesome story. But we're teachers, and we need more than anecdotal evidence. So now is a good time to bring Bonnie Meszaros into the conversation.
Bonnie Meszaros: I see my role as trying to help teachers not only understand the discipline of economics but how we can relate this to children K-12 and make it an exciting experience for both the teacher and the students.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Like I mentioned at the top of the show, Bonnie is a professor at the University of Delaware, and is a legend when it comes to bringing economics into the classroom. I've taken a class with her, and trust me, she is amazing. Bonnie says Erin's experience is pretty common. That's because economics lessons lend themselves especially well to active learning.
Bonnie Meszaros: Active learning can be many things in the classroom. So obviously, yes, anytime we have a simulation or they role-play, for example, in a production activity to figure out how they can produce more with the resources they have. But active learning can also be giving the students lots of opportunities to work in groups and to work in pairs and to get up and share their information, to analyze each other's work. Some kind of activity where the students put their group work on a large poster paper, and then other groups come up and make suggestions on how it can be improved. I think anytime we give students an opportunity to interact, not just with the teacher, but interact with their peers -- and this also helps I think what Erin was talking about that, you know, our lessons are great for kids at all academic levels. And I have seen students, as Erin said, who do not perform well in a traditional ELA class or a traditional math class, but in our economic lessons, they can shine. And that just warms my heart.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Even as a high school teacher myself, when I would use some lessons, I would bring a concept to life to see the kid that would just sit there all grumpy. But once they see everybody else having a good time and really learning, they want in on it too, right.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: And seeing, you know, as you mentioned, just to kind of reinforce, the joy on their faces when they're like, I get this, I can do this. I think that's really great. And would you agree or maybe elaborate a little more on how students learn from each other. Or sometimes they learn best when they try to figure something out together versus us up there and like, you know, okay, here you go, here's how you figure it out, let me tell you how to figure it out. Put the power in students, you know, helping each other to figure something out, right. And creating an opportunity for it to be with no judgment, right. Not that, you know, one knows more than the other. But just in creating that opportunity for students to feel that, you know, I can learn from, you know, my classmates without feeling any less, you know, smarter than them. So what do you guys think about that?
Bonnie Meszaros: Well, I'm going to let Erin answer that because she is a pro at this. If you ever get an opportunity to sit in her classroom, you will see this in action. And so, Erin, you might want to talk a little bit about how you -- I mean, I know you start at the beginning of the year, it's how you organize your classroom. But your students are very successful at learning from one another.
Erin Boettcher: Yeah. So I think that the first thing is that the classroom is a safe and a comfortable environment for them, that they all feel like they can take risks, and they can be wrong. And that's expected, and that's okay. I tell kids often all the time, you know, if you knew all the answers, I'd have to send you to sixth grade, and that'd be a bummer, because I really like you. When we're in a lesson, really it's a lot of me being quiet. It's really a lot of me not talking. Which is hard and is unnatural. But giving them that space and giving them that opportunity to talk about what's happening, talk about questions they have. And if I don't answer it, eventually someone else will for them. It's a process and it's a thing that takes practice. And, you know, sometimes we do even a lot of, you know, when you're working with a partner, when you're working with a group, this is what it looks like, and this is what it sounds like. And these are all things that are okay. And what starts to happen, and I touched on this a little bit earlier, which is why I feel so passionate about really getting economics into all elementary classrooms is the access it gives to all students. And what starts to happen is the students who lack a lot of confidence maybe to speak up or maybe to share in ELA or math class, gain that confidence during our social studies or our economics class, and it carries forward with them.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: I'll always be a teacher at heart. And hearing stories from Erin makes me miss the classroom so much. I also appreciate how much work she's put into honing her craft. And she'd be the first to tell you, it's not always easy. While teaching economics can be rewarding, it can also ask you to stretch in ways you might not with other subjects. And both she and Bonnie say it requires adopting a mindset that can be tough for us in education.
Erin Boettcher: There's a lesson that has to deal with the three types of economies, and it's about production. And the students have to produce based on each type of economy. And they're producing necklaces and bracelets. And they are living and breathing and experiencing production based on the rules of, you know, that economy, whether it's the market, the traditional, or the command in this lesson. And it's really a joy as a teacher to get to sit back and watch it and pull out the things that I want to talk about, because it's happening naturally in the classroom. And that's a hard thing to sell I think to teachers. You have to experience it to trust it and believe in it.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: As teachers, we always want to help. We always want to guide. We want to keep them from making mistakes. And so Erin is right, you have to step back and let them solve the problem themselves. And then I think what a really skilled teacher does is they can do what Erin's talking about and they can watch that activity, that simulation, and decide what are the key points here I want to talk to the students about. And from my perspective in working with teachers, I need to provide them with that kind of guidance. What kinds of problems might the students have? What should you be looking for? Because that's what really makes a simulation or an activity rich and something that the students are going to remember.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Now is a good time to recap what we've learned so far from Bonnie and Erin. Teaching economics can be scary. But if you stick with it, the real-world lesson plans can help engage even the toughest students. But let's be honest, even if you know as a teacher how economics can lead to the kind of aha moments we live for, maybe it still feels daunting. Don't worry, Bonnie says, you're not alone. We're going to take a quick break. But when we come back, Bonnie tells us about her experience teaching teachers about economics. And both she and Erin highlight areas where you can sneak a little econ into the lessons you already have to teach. So stay tuned, we'll be right back.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria [promotion]: 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. At this point, we've walked through some of the amazing outcomes that come with sneaking econ into your lesson plans. So for the rest of this episode, we'll focus more on practical application. For many teachers including myself, the journey starts by participating in a professional development course. And Bonnie says, encouraging teachers to take this first step can be let's just say a tough sell.
Bonnie Meszaros: I often go into a professional development, and they don't really want to be there. They can't imagine that I'm going to give them anything that's going to help them with their kindergarten students, with their fifth-grade students. And so it's my responsibility to change that mindset. And I think I've gotten better at it over the years. But I still run into teachers, and they're telling me, I'm here because the state mandates that I teach economics. So we have to go from there.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: So you kind of have to deal with that, I dare you to teach me.
Bonnie Meszros: Yeah. And, you know, I was there at one point. Early in my career when I was teaching, I had no intentions of ever teaching economics. And my husband was transferred to the state of Delaware, and I found out that I couldn't teach middle school because I had never taken economics. And that was by design. I didn't want to take it. I didn't think it would be very useful. My husband was an econ major. And that big old Samuelson textbook didn't speak to me. But I had a great professor who showed me that I was really doing my students a disservice by not teaching them some economics. And from there, the rest is history. I've been doing this since 1974.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: I think as educators, we can all appreciate a facilitator who has been a teacher before and faced some of the challenges we know all too well. One of my favorite parts of our conversation was when Bonnie and Erin talked about the importance of making sure lesson plans don't just look good on paper. A reminder that you can find a curated list of specific lesson plans in the "resources for educators" module. Now, let's listen in as Bonnie and Erin talk about developing lesson plans that have to first pass a classroom test.
Bonnie Meszros: One of the things that has really helped me in writing lessons for young children is taking them in and watching a teacher teach them. So, you know, I can sit in my office and write what I think is a spectacular lesson. But then I go in and I watch a second-grade teacher or a third-grade teacher and I think, oh my gosh, what was I thinking? This isn't going to work. And it's not because the teacher isn't a great teacher. It's because I haven't figured out how to make that activity something that relates to a five-year-old or an eight-year-old. So as many times as I write lessons, I like to have teachers actually use them and provide me with feedback. And I'm going through that right now. We're writing a curriculum for seventh-grade teachers in the state of Delaware. And there's a wide range, from kids who are coming in with very little background, with low skills, up to kids that are, you know, at the top of their class. So how do you write a curriculum that can be used state-wide? We have to get it out into the hands of these seven teachers that are going to field test it for us. And I know we're going to have to make changes. And I also rely on a lot of classroom teachers who will just say, oh, I read this great book, you know, and it'd be really wonderful if you could write a lesson for it. So I have one right now, it's called Jazmin's Hammer, to teach human capital. And, you know, I would have never heard of that book if a teacher hadn't said, do you know about this? So sometimes it's a two-way street. I can sit in my office and write, but I also need those teachers who can be brutally honest, just like the students, this isn't going to work.
Erin Boettcher: You know, so much of what we do in the classroom is a process, and it's lengthy. And, you know, we have a scope and a sequence and we follow it. And then we have, you know, formative and summative and all kinds of assessments. And one of the most appealing things that I found when I started utilizing some of the econ lessons in my elementary classroom was that they had a start and they had an end, and then, I could move on. It wasn't a grand, you know, presentation that I needed to put together and plan out. It was something that I could pick up, I could share the book with the students. And whoever wrote the lesson did the hard work of making that connection for the kids. You know, if it's about bartering or if it's about saving money or if it's about opportunity costs, these are all things they see in their world. So it was right there in front of me to pull that out of the book for them and have that conversation, do the activity, have the discussion, and then be done and I could move on.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: As teachers, we can tell, right, when somebody is aware of what is going on in the classroom. So Bonnie, did you want to add something?
Bonnie Meszaros: Yeah, there were a couple things. I've worked with Mary Suiter, who you know well, at the St. Louis Fed for years. And I think we've developed a model that works for writing lessons. And I think the other thing Erin touched on is there is a beginning and an end. And one of the things we try to do with elementary teachers in Delaware is give them everything they need, you know. So if they need the book, let's give them the book. If they need manipulatives, let's provide the manipulatives -- the cards, the game board, whatever it is -- so that they have everything at their fingertips ready to go.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: Bonnie and Erin have helped us cover a lot of ground. But perhaps there is one very big question that's in the back of your mind. Will this meet the district and state standards for what I have to teach? While we all know standards change from district to district and state to state, both Bonnie and Erin say the answer is, yes. And helping teachers make this connection is at the core of what they do.
Bonnie Meszaros: The important thing is to help them see how it relates to what they're expected to teach. So if you have state standards, then you need to figure out how that economics is going to fit into the ELA or the Common Core or the math standards. And teachers don't always see that connection. And I know when I first started out, I could teach anything that professors gave me, but it wasn't always clear to me how I was going to relate that to American history. Which I was required to teach. So I think it's important that we help the teacher see, when you're teaching math, econ is a great application that you can use, or when you're teaching ELA and you need to use informational text, use an econ example in that. And then they naturally begin to say, oh yeah, I see how I could do that. But I think we're responsible for helping them figure that out.
Erin Boettcher: And I think time. Time is always the thing. When are we going to do it? How are we going to get it fit in? How am I going to make this work in my classroom? And I think -- and this is more of a trend that I'm seeing too as I'm hearing more and more, not just in Delaware, but, you know, outside of Delaware as well, is ELA and social studies in general go hand in hand in a lot of ways. And almost like they can be taught side-by-side and, you know, integrated in simultaneously. For me in getting started, so many of the lessons that I was utilizing and doing in my classroom focused around the literacy standards, to be honest with you. And it was a perfect match for me to be able to use, you know, ELA, or, you know, other time throughout my day to talk about this with my students. And I've transitioned. I've taught first grade, and I've taught fourth grade, and I currently teach fifth grade. And that's one of the things I will say about a lot of the lessons are so versatile for wherever you are at that moment to be able to be used for, you know, differing age levels of students. The other thing that I find constantly is, you know, we expect our students to be able to read tables and charts and maps and all of these other things that aren't traditional text for students to read. And they're all over in economics. And so that's another opportunity for me to work with students to read graphs and charts and tables and all of those other things that we expect of them but maybe don't necessarily have a perfect home in our ELA class. And the other thing that work like just beautifully, seamlessly together is with math. You know, when I do lessons and I talk to the students about, you know, compound interest, and even with the little guys with saving. And even when we talk about things like opportunity costs and they have so much money and this costs this much and what the choice is. I mean, it's just naturally embedded right in there for them. But naturally is the key. So it keeps them engaged in it. And we're sticking in a little math and they might not even realize it.
Andrea Caceres-Santamaria: We know bringing or sneaking economics into your lessons can feel like a big step, and we're grateful to be a part of your journey. You can find detailed lesson plans you can start using today in the resources for this episode. And don't forget to take the quiz, earn you Sneak-a-nomics pioneer badge, and show it off to all your friends on social media. I'm Andrea, and from the St. Louis Fed, this is Sneak-a-nomics.
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