Not going to tutoring today for the first time felt strangely disorienting – like it couldn’t be a Friday if I wasn’t going to Lea. Even though the semester has flown by, teaching has become a routine part of my week. Looking back, it’s definitely been quite an experience. Up until the last day, we had ups and downs with the students. Our second to last class got postponed due to a half day that we weren’t informed about. When we were able to hold the class a week later, only seven students attended and were twenty minutes late, so we had to modify the lesson plan on the spot to eliminate the peer teaching aspect. Even the post-assessment was a roller coaster because we had many students in the class who hadn’t come in weeks and several who hadn’t taken the pre-assessment. In a way, it was very representative of the volatility we had faced throughout the semester. On top of that, we felt that the tests were designed at a much higher level so that they would not be an accurate representation of what the students had learned. Despite all the ups and downs, it has been an incredible learning experience for me and hopefully for our students as well. I’ve gotten to know some of the students better, and I now have a better appreciation for the hardships that they face at home and the barriers they face in coming to school. I have a better understanding of what it takes to teach a group of high energy elementary school students and the importance of a well thought-out lesson plan. I’ve met some incredible people from Penn that are part of my teaching team. And most importantly, I feel I have made a small difference in the life of a few children at Lea Elementary.
I found this recent article about financial literacy rates in Texas (http://www.chron.com/business/article/Hendricks-Texas-low-in-financial-literacy-2341505.php), and the author David Hendricks lists Texas as one of the bottom fifteen states in financial literacy and financial behavior (that awkward moment when you realize your state is actually extremely financially illiterate…). First of all, I’d like to address the correlation between being financially literate and financially responsible. There would seem to be a positive correlation between the two, but when I searched online for the most indebted states, I was surprised to see Colorado, who is listed as one of the most financially literate states, also as one of the most indebted (I used this link: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505144_162-36944899/debt-in-america-most–least-indebted-states/). Perhaps Colorado is an exception, but none of the most illiterate states, which are mainly in the South, made it onto the “States Most in Debt” list except for Maryland and Virginia. Texas is one of the better places to live during these tough economic times – the state has some of the lowest unemployment levels and some of the lowest tax rates – so obviously being financially illiterate doesn’t seem to phase Texans’ financial behavior. This makes me wonder if financial literacy actually indicates causality for responsible financial behavior. In my mind, obviously if you’re financially literate, then you will behave financially responsible. But if you’re financially responsible, does this mean that you are truly financially literate?
That leads me to my second point though – I would like to address whether the author’s claim about Texas’ low financial literacy rate is actually true. Hmm… I’m going to have to agree with him. Growing up in Texas, I had access to the standard math and English courses, with history and science classes sprinkled around the curriculum. However, nowhere was I able to find a program or course that taught about financial literacy. So I learned my basic financial knowledge through math courses, since many financial concepts are based in rudimentary mathematical foundations. I was genuinely surprised upon learning some of topics that we would be teaching West Philadelphia elementary school students, such as calculating interest. I probably did not learn anything about interest until middle school or high school – and my school district was one of the best ones in the Dallas area. What I’m trying to say is that I wouldn’t have considered myself financially literate while growing up in Texas, but I knew to be financially frugal, which is more of a habit than a learned concept. I’m curious as to how much of an influence FLCP has on the spending behavior of these kids we teach. Sure, we can preach frugality and budgeting to them, but just because they are aware of such concepts does not mean that they will necessarily demonstrate them. Spending behavior is more habitual than learned, and children pick this trait up from the people who constantly surround them, such as their parents and friends. If parents are financially irresponsible and in debt, would their bad spending habits trickle down to the kids, thus creating an intergenerational gap that financial literacy can only do much to combat?
I’m not trying to discredit the merits of being financially literate here. I think financial literacy needs to be incorporated into school curricula more. A greater number of people should be exposed to the financial literacy movement. However, I think the root causes of financial (ir)responsibility are factors that financial literacy attempts to address but may not necessarily be able to change by itself.
This week at Lea was a bit troublesome. Wednesday class was canceled due to half-day, and Friday class only had 8 students because of an event at the school. Friday’s class was intended to be a total review of what we have taught so far in class so that the students would be ready to take the post-assessment tests the next class, which is the last one of this semester. Suruchi prepared a great Jeopardy game for the review session with prizes for the winning team. Since we had only 8 kids, I expected the class to be more focused and fun. I was expecting a tight race between the two teams of four students. This was not the case. I was taken aback that these little kids were not excited by the prospect of playing a game and winning a prize.
There were about 3 to 4 students who were not willing to participate in the game respectfully and disrupted the class by talking, standing up and yelling at times. Since this was about half of the class, the other students who were actually willing to learn were adversely affected. They could not focus and listen to the teachers because of the rowdy classmates. Some of them talked back to teachers in a disrespectful manner. I think this behavioral issue has been the single most difficult problem that jeopardizes the class. We have sometimes controlled the behavior issues through candy rewards, but we should also emphasize ‘respect’ and take it seriously to fix some of the attitude problems.
On the bright side, we were able to confirm that some students are not only excited to participate but also retained a lot of the information. I think this is a great sign that shows that FLCP is indeed making progress. We just need to control the behavior issues more effectively to foster learning for all the students.
The semester at Lea has come to an end and I am extremely thankful for a wonderful experience, an amazing lead teacher, a supportive teaching team, and the fun kids in the Lea classroom. This has been my first experience teaching in a classroom and it has given me fresh perspectives on what it means to be a teacher and what FLCP leaves behind for the schools in West Philadelphia.
For a while, I thought being a teacher means standing in front of the classroom and being a good speaker. However, reflecting back upon my first teaching lesson on interest rates and percentages, the experience was slightly nerve-racking at first. It put me outside of my comfort zone to compete for attention with 16 other nine and ten year olds, to try to make connections with kids I have very little in common with, and to motivate some of the kids who didn’t want to be there. I grew up as an only child and was home-schooled for a while before I went to a normal school. In my upbringing experience, I had limited experience forming deep connections with people who are much younger than me. And frankly speaking, one of my biggest challenges I faced as a teacher was knowing how to connect with the kids at Lea and speak in a language they are receptive to. I’ve realized that being a teacher at Lea wasn’t about knowing how to structure your speech, being persuasive, or giving the right takeaways. It’s about connecting the dots.
Sometimes I visualize the classroom as a bunch of random dots – representing the kids, the teachers, the CSSP mentors, and all others present – jumping all over the place. They all have their different positions and roles, and they can vary slightly depending on the classroom dynamic. On some days (particularly the ones with misbehaving and difficult kids), the classroom can seem hectic because the dots are jumping all over the place. My job, especially as the lead teacher, is to connect the dots in an orderly fashion to form an apparent shape. It’s about making connections with the students, with the support teachers, and among the students. On days I felt the most gratification from teaching are usually the days I feel most connected to my students and teaching team.
On Friday we had a jeopardy game that serves as a review lesson for all the things we covered this semester. It has been a very interesting class because we saw both extremes of positivity and negativity. A few students in the class were being absolute angels by answering the questions, writing down the questions, and demonstrating all they’ve gained this semester. Through these students we were able to see the progress we made this semester and we take gratification in giving them these pieces of financial knowledge which they’d definitely benefit from later on. However, there were also a few more difficult kids that behaved in the other extreme. One of the more difficult kids, Alfonso, mentioned that all he gets in the class is the candy we give them every week and the class is stupid. These kids, by contrast, give us reminders that to be a success, FLCP needs to continue over subsequent semester to reinforce the importance of financial literacy. It still has problems to overcome as some kids are not as receptive of financial literacy as others.
Overall, I can honestly say that Wednesday and Friday afternoons have been my weekly highlights over the past semester. Even in my busiest weeks, I look forward to getting in the “almost-always-over-crowded” van to 47th and Locust, arranging and rearranging the desks, experiencing a slight sense of terror when I hear kids in the hallway ready to swarm into the class, going through the ups and downs of the lesson, and walking back on Locust with my teaching team. The experience was about learning how to be a teacher and understanding what the educational environment is like at Lea. Mostly importantly, it was about forming connections, meaningful connections with the kids and with my wonderful teaching team. I hope the next group of teachers can have faith in sustaining the efforts we made this semester and have as much fun as we did.
Our semester at Lea is quickly coming to an end. Giving the spirit of Thanksgiving, here’s some looking back upon this past semester. I’ve realized that teaching little kids can present a lot more challenges than teaching older students who understand the basic rules of a classroom. Having taught and observed lessons over the past semester, I have to say that classroom dynamic is one of the most interesting elements I found about teaching these 3rd and 4th graders. Classroom dynamic goes through its ups and downs during the lesson, wavering between cooperative and chaotic. It provides the base for a positive and engaging classroom environment. And that’s the fundamental pre-requisite to a good lesson with primary school kids.
Over the course of the semester, our teaching team has tried so many things to ensure a cooperative and engaging classroom dynamic – ranging from candy rules, to penguin dances, to countdowns, to pulling kids out of the class. As this semester comes to end, I thought it’d be interesting to do a tally of all the things we’ve tried and which ones worked particularly well.
Extrinsic Incentives – Little kids are intrinsically motivated to go out, move around, and have fun. Their brain isn’t prewired to intrinsically motivate them to sit at a desk with a calculator and learn about percentages / interests. Luckily, their brains do respond well to extrinsic rewards – candies. One of the tactics we implemented at the very beginning of the semester is a “candy bucket rule”. The idea is that the bucket starts with a certain number of candies that ensures everyone in the class gets one candy. During the class we take out a candy when they misbehave and we put in a candy when they do behave. At the end of the class everyone gets candies if the number of candies in the bucket exceeds the number of students in the class and no one gets anything if the number of candies in the bucket is smaller than the number of students in the class. This way the candy bucket ties their fate together as one big group. Why did this work? The things that worked aren’t pieces of treat-or-trick material chocolates that cost $2.99 per bag. It is the idea that you get properly rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad behavior. It’s the idea that your behavior affects your peers’ classroom experience. Most importantly, it’s the idea that you are allowed to make mistakes but only if you realize what you’ve done wrong and make effort to improve upon it.
Questioning – The 3rd and 4th graders at Lea love answering questions raised in class. Regardless of whether they’re certain of their answers, they’re eager to raise their hands up in the air when a question is asked. During our lessons, questioning and answering are always a key part of classroom interactivity, creating a sense of excitement in the class. For a few of the lessons, our teachers also asked some students to go up to the board and write the answers down. It is very amusing to see students fighting over the opportunity to go up and being extremely disappointed when they are not called on. Why did this work? Ever since we’re little kinds, we all develop the instinct for express ourselves and demonstrate what we know. It’s the same case for 3rd and 4th graders at Lea. Sometimes I wonder if it’s also because they like getting attention – the attention of being asked for their opinion.
Physical activities – In a few of our lessons, when we felt that the classroom dynamic starts to become chaotic, the teachers asked the students to all get up, stretch, move around, and then sit down. In one of our earlier class, our head teacher taught a penguin dance that asked all the kids to dance around the classroom. The vast majority of the kids really enjoyed these activities and they’re worked surprisingly well in the course of numbers and fractions. As college students, we sit in two hour exams, insanely long group project meetings, or three hours classes. However, we sometimes forget that little kids have very limited attention span. When I was a kid, I couldn’t focus on one particular thing for longer than 30 minutes. This is why physical activities during class serve as a “time-out” or “break” for students. It pumps oxygen into their brains, lets them have a little bit of fun, and refocus their energy afterwards.
Repetition – A general rule of marketing is that the more complex the idea, the more times we need to hone into people’s brains for them to perceive as their own. The same applies to the classroom. Financial literacy is a very challenging topic for 3rd and 4th graders at Lea. Some of the kids haven’t even fully grasped fractions and addition so calculating interest rates and total loan payback can pose challenges. Therefore, repetition of the same concept over and over again really played a key role in hammering the idea into their heads.
Games – Kids love fun – anything fun. Games are no exception, even when they are about loans and interest rates.
On behalf of the Financial Literacy Community Project, I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and enjoyed the weekend with family and friends. This year more than ever, especially after my experience teaching at Lea Elementary School these past two semesters, I have much more for which I am thankful. First off, I want to thank you – our supporters and readers – for being with us throughout this entire process. Your support and ideas inspire and drive us to do better each day in the classroom. I also want to thank those who have helped Katie and Mimi get FLCP off the ground. To Keith and Stacy in the Wharton management department, thank you for all your help in getting us the institutional resources that have allowed FLCP to grow so rapidly. We are so honored to be a part of your initiative to bring greater Penn involvement into the West Philadelphia community, creating a meaningful outlet where both the college students and the students we work with have the opportunity to grow, learn and explore. Without your support, I know that we wouldn’t be in the schools that we have the privilege of teaching at. On that end, I’d also like to thank the after-school coordinators at all the schools that incorporate FLCP as a meaningful way to introduce financial literacy into the education system, in particular Sterling who is at Lea Elementary. It’s not easy to convince a bunch of elementary and high school students to give FLCP a chance, especially when they could be spending the time shooting hoops or going to the mall, and you have greatly allowed us to reach those students to bridge the financial literacy gap. To greatest teaching team, your enthusiasm and dedication both inside and outside the classroom continue to inspire me, and I would not be able to get through the frustration that sometimes can occur without you. And finally, I want to thank my parents for giving me every opportunity in my education growing up. I’ve never truly appreciated all the resources, both financial as well as time, labor and sweat, you have poured on me, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without you having my back every step of the way.
So this is my final post of the semester, and having just benefited from a much-needed and also much-appreciated Thanksgiving break, I think it’s appropriate to assess how far we’ve progressed since our first sessions in the classroom a couple of months ago.
First, on myself as a teacher: as I’ve said before, I’m usually pretty shy and reserved, but spending time in the elementary school classroom has forced me to come out of my shell. Straightaway I realised that a lot of the pupils were very forthcoming and not at all shy to ask questions despite the fact that they had never met me before. While this was at first difficult for me, as we got stuck in with the various activities as support teachers, I noticed myself starting to open up as we became engaged with the material and I learnt more about the specific areas the kids found difficult. For me, the culmination of this was when I taught my lead lesson a couple of weeks ago: my voice isn’t at all loud, but, having built up confidence over the course of the semester, I really felt that I could create an effective learning atmosphere in the classroom. But, most of all, I’ve learnt that one really has to be patient and responsive to unexpected changes in order to be an effective teacher: the main goal is for the kids to learn, but this is impossible if one isn’t willing to spend time with the necessary concepts while still being able to adapt quickly to ever-changing circumstances which were not in the original plan.
Second, on building relationships with the kids: it took a bit of time for our teaching team to get to the stage where it is now. At first, the kids saw us as strangers and so didn’t really relate to us at all. Consequently, we could not be effective teachers because the kids didn’t see us as such. We rightly decided that it was important for us to invest ourselves more in the classroom, as we had learnt in training, so that the kids would feel that they could learn something from us and that we weren’t just lecturers standing in the classroom talking about strange foreign concepts called ‘financial literacy’. So we began to converse more with the kids, learning about their personal backgrounds while also letting them in to our own lives by telling them about ourselves. This was great, but the issue here was that the kids began to see us more as friends rather than as people they could learn from; in turn, we saw the beginnings of a fundamental lack of respect in the classroom. As a team, we reflected upon this and decided it was necessary to strike a balance between the two extremes: we wanted the kids to get to know us, and we wanted to get to know the kids, but at the same time, at least in the context of the classroom, we had to maintain an effective distance so that they could still learn something from us. We therefore brought in incentive measures such as the ‘candy bowl system’, and I think the combination of reinforcing discipline while still remaining friendly and personable has enabled us, as a team, to build relationships with the kids which allow for effective learning. It was certainly sometimes difficult to enforce discipline, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these issues (some of them still aren’t resolved). However, I think we’ve done pretty well on this aspect, even if it was a tough learning curve; after all, there is no substitute here for real experiences in the classroom.
Finally, on building an effective teaching team: I’m really thankful to our lead teacher, Ben, for building such a great team and always being so approachable and understanding. I think we now understand as a team where each of our individual strengths lie, so much so that when we get to the classroom in Lea now, we straightaway settle into our individual roles. The routine of walking back to campus after each session and debriefing on how the lesson went has been really helpful, and has really helped define the experience of the Lea teaching team, in my opinion. A number of us have become close outside of FLCP over the course of the semester, and I think the joint classroom experiences of the team have helped build these relationships. Moreover, since we have got to know each other, the whole experience has been made a lot more fun and at the same time we’ve become better teachers. I want to thank everyone in the Lea teaching team for making our sessions together truly memorable.
I’ve been really thankful for how well it has worked out for us at Lea this semester. We’ve certainly had our ups and downs, but overall I feel that we have come a long way and addressed a lot of the initial goals that we had set for ourselves. I hope that we’ve also made some discernible difference while having a lot of fun and learning plenty about ourselves, about teaching, and about the local community along the way.
This Friday, we had unusually high teacher absences. There were only 5 teachers present out of 9 total. By now, however, we were feeling comfortable with all the procedures, kids and teaching. Thus, I felt independent going in as a lead teacher without the head teacher and some support teachers. I felt we were realizing how familiar and prepared we were by now.
The lesson went exceptionally well today. I added a new 5 second rule, in which I count 5 seconds for the kids to be quiet before I take out a candy from the candy box. It was truly effective.
In addition, I think today’s relatively easy topic helped students focus. Instead of working on complex interest equations, we learned about some concepts including budgeting, earning and expenses and also revisited the past concepts of needs and wants as well as how they tie in with the budgeting concept. I was impressed by how well the students retained these concepts and were actively answering the questions. Furthermore, I think the students felt empowered by the budgeting activity because they were given money to design their own budgets. They could think about how much they want to spend on what and how much they want to save. Everyone worked diligently on the activity. Even Alfonso, who had been disruptive all along, quietly participated and smiled at the end, giving me thumbs up. This really made all the teachers happy.
All in all, it was a great day for both the students and the teachers.
Teaching at Lea has been going really well and has steadily been improving over the past few weeks. The students are learning a lot. However, we have faced a large problem along the way. We have been unable to fit in all of the lessons and teach as much information as we had hoped for at the beginning of the semester. We had planned to discuss simple interest, compound interest, the costs and benefits of both and more. However, to put it simply, we were a bit too optimistic.
This can certainly be a bit disappointing when we would get to the end of a class and realize that we had only covered a third of the material. It took us 2 or 3 times as long to cover what we had hoped for. However, I try to take a much different perspective. I think that it is a great accomplishment and that there is something to be said for how we were able to improvise given the circumstances and get to a great outcome. The first point is that we simply overestimated what we expected to teach. When a vast majority of American adults are unable to calculate compound interest or determine the mortgage on their home, it is no wonder that 3rd and 4th grades are lagging a little behind what we set for them.
Understanding the principles of simple interest includes a fundamental background in a number of different topics including percentages and multiplication. The students had very little experience in these subjects and we were required to spend multiple lessons focusing on these topics (that we expected them to already have an understanding in). It took us four lessons to teach what we had planned to teach in one. The children were frustrated when we talked about new topics like percentages that they had never seen before.
However, it was worth it in the end. We persevered through the difficulties of uneducated students and in the last class, it clicked. They were able to calculate the interest on a multi-period loan. They understood the concepts that you are required to pay more back to the bank in interest when you hold the loan for a longer period of time, are given a higher interest rate or take out a larger size loan. Seeing the look on their faces when it finally came together was priceless.
For our team, I am proud of our ability to change course creatively and artfully with very little time to prepare. We realized that we didn’t get to the end point and needed to communicate the lesson in a new way for our next visit. We tried different games, different methods of teaching and new strategies for keeping the students engaged. We changed course mid way through instead of sticking to the plan. We used our creative instincts to manage the classroom better and ensure at the students first had a proper footing before moving forward with more complex concepts.
I think that this boils down to one of the key issues in teaching. It is journey. It never turns out to be as easy as you think and you never get done as much as you had expected. People run into obstacles along the way. But that is the fun of it. Students will misbehave. Students will not get it on the first try. You will need to spend more time explaining a concept that you hadn’t even thought of in your preparation. You will need to repeat the same concept three or four times more than expected. However, that is the way that it works. It is necessary to build in much more time that you expect…and then add twice as much to that. The fun comes from problem solving in the classroom to figure out what works and what doesn’t and do your best to get a good outcome, regardless of how long it takes.
Today, we unfortunately didn’t have the calculators that we had planned for. Instead of focusing on the problem, we audibled and changed around the lesson plan. The students didn’t do the activities that we had planned for. Yet, we were able to spend even more time explaining the fundamental concepts and they came away with a fairly concrete understanding of the lesson for the day, taxes.
It is a game that rarely goes according to plan. But that is the fun of it.
One of the training sessions at the beginning of the year was on classroom management. The first speaker, instead of focusing on said “classroom management,” he instead talked about “classroom investment,” a term I had not really thought about. Instead of trying to manage the kids, he said, we should instead try to get them to feel some sort of investment in the lesson and to get them to feel more than just a student. As teachers, if we are able to make them feel they have more in it than normal, management won’t even become an issue.
Last Wednesday was definitely a testament to that. One of the students, Q, was a “problem child” from the start. He would come into the classroom with a disruptive attitude, move his seat around until he sat next to his friends, and was just a general distraction to his peers around him. In the past, it was difficult to “manage” him. Having him stand in front of the class didn’t help. Speaking to him outside in the hall only worked for the next 10 minutes. A trip to office lasted but a day. Obviously, something wasn’t working.
Wednesday’s lesson was a review on simple interest and fractions. It was day 3 of covering the material so most the students already had a good grasping of the concepts. However, when the worksheets were passed out, Q gave up after the first question and refused to continue. Instead of going about what we had done in the past, I instead walked over and had a quick 30 second pep talk, then gently nudged him to try the next one, with me walking him through the problems step-by-step.
Fast forward 10 minutes, the worksheet, front and back, is completed. After he saw how easy the first problem was, he went through them one by one with ease. All he needed was that ounce of positive encouragement and empowerment. It was all done from then on. These kids know how to do this stuff. They just need the correct form of encouragement from us teachers.
When we finished, I asked him three questions.
“Was this hard?”
Was this fun?”
Do you think we can do this every class?”
I know he will keep his promise because now he feels he has a stake in it and doesn’t want to disappoint himself.
Interested? I’d say so.