Fifth Graders at Davis Thayer School Always Hope the Answer is "Yes!"
Walk into the customer waiting area of any brokerage house and ask the circle of savvy tickertape watchers if they understand how the Federal Reserve works. Some do, and some don't.
But walk into Ms. Rena Heleniak's fifth-grade class at the Davis Thayer Elementary School in Franklin, Massachusetts and every one of her students can tell you who Alan Greenspan is and what the Federal Reserve does. That's just for starters. The kids also know about the FDIC, savings accounts, checking accounts, credit cards, and "smart" cards. They even learn how to prepare a budget.
Are they budding financial geniuses in an exclusive academy? Not at all. The kids are everyday fifth graders, who attend an excellent public school staffed by talented teachers like Rena Heleniak.
Ms. Heleniak has a gift for making even the most challenging subjects come alive for her students, but she has a special flair for economics. "If you present it the right way, you can teach economics to anyone and everyone," says the 12-year teacher who still has all the enthusiasm of someone who just started teaching last September.
One of the keys to her success is that she knows "you have to keep learning yourself." She expands her knowledge by attending teacher workshops at the Center for Economic Education at Bridgewater State College (see listing under Educators' Update), and she recently completed a summer enrichment course at Anna Maria College on multiple intelligence, an educational theory based on the premise that kids learn in different ways - linguistic, mathematical, musical, kinesthetic, visual/spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.
Ms. Heleniak notes that although classroom teaching traditionally has focused on the linguistic and mathematical channels for conveying subject material and assessing competence, some people learn better with the aid of music, physical movement, pictures, or rhyming language. (Think about it. Without "Thirty days hath September," how would anyone remember the number of days in each month?) She emphasizes that multiple intelligence is not intended as a substitute for traditional methods of teaching. Rather, it offers teachers a wider range of options for conveying material, assessing competence, and ensuring that no student gets left behind.
Being inclusive and using every resource to the fullest are traits that Ms. Heleniak applies to every aspect of her work. She recognizes how important it is to involve as many people as possible in the educational process and to acknowledge the efforts of everyone who shares in a successful outcome. "Building bridges between community and school" is a theme she often repeats. She and her school have forged a particularly successful relationship with a local financial institution - Dean Cooperative Bank. The bank and the school are partners in a variety of activities including an in-school savings program. Parent volunteers collect student deposits twice a week in the classroom.
Dean Cooperative also sponsors a yearly essay contest: "If I Were a Millionaire for a Day." First-place winners are picked up at school by a limousine and chauffeured to the bank, where they go on tour and have lunch with the president. In addition, they get to keep the interest earned in one day on one million dollars, and they receive a framed passbook that shows they once had a million dollars in the bank.
As a measure of how much she values the partnership with Dean Cooperative, Ms. Heleniak nominated the bank for the 1997 Chamber of Commerce Award, which it won. She also makes a point of mentioning how much she appreciates the support of parent volunteers who help with the school savings program, and she is quick to credit the principal and staff of Davis Thayer School with creating a climate that enables students to reach their full potential.
That's not just idle praise. The parents of Davis Thayer's students take a keen interest in the education of their children, and Principal Mary Jane Wiles is one of those enlightened and supportive administrators who foster excellence in a school. "Our goal is to provide leaders, to make our students the best and the brightest," declares Ms. Wiles. "Expectations are high and standards are high, but the students rise to the occasion."
One way to accomplish that goal, according to Ms. Wiles, is to seize every opportunity to make a connection between school subject matter and real life applications. To make the point, she tells the story of how school secretary Sheryl Brown once conducted a check writing mini-lesson on the school's playground. Ms. Brown was waiting for one of the teachers to write a check for the school Christmas party, and as the teacher wrote, students gathered round to watch. When they started asking questions, Ms. Brown took the opportunity to explain the basics of check writing.
Making the connection between schoolwork and real life applications is also one of Rena Heleniak's strengths. Every night she programs her VCR to record CNN Newsroom for Kids, which comes on at 4:30 a.m. (That's why they all know who Alan Greenspan is.) Another less cerebral, but equally effective activity is Barter Day. Everyone brings something from home, and the kids trade. Not surprisingly, cookies are always in great demand.
Like every gifted teacher, Ms. Heleniak is always on the lookout for new teaching materials, and she delights in showing visitors her stash of props, which includes a Bureau of Engraving and Printing T-shirt that she dons when talking about money. "You can't just read something boring to them," she says. "They can't see the picture in their heads unless you make things come alive."
The carryover into daily life is one of the things that kindled her interest in economics. She believes strongly that, "Economics is a life skill. It's what you need your whole life."
Ms. Heleniak acknowledges that teachers, particularly at the elementary school level, might be a little apprehensive about tackling economics. There are always concerns over where to start and where to find materials. But she is quick to offer encouragement: "You can be creative. You just need to think about it. And if you're innovative, the kids will respond enthusiastically."
A Good Teacher Can Make All the Difference
Alice Rivlin is Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Donald Kohn is the Director of the Board's Division of Monetary Policy. Al Broaddus is President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. Last year they all served as judges for Fed Challenge, a national competition for high school students.
A more distinguished panel of judges would have been hard to find. Financial markets hang on their every word.Yet perhaps nothing was more impressive or more moving than what they said during their introductory remarks to student contestants at the 1997 Fed Challenge finals. Each of them, in one form or another, expressed the same sentiment: I hadn't started out as an economics major, but one special teacher captured my imagination and helped me to see that economics offers a fascinating vehicle for looking at how the world works.
That's what good teachers can do. Their voices stay with you for life.