Classroom Economy

Dollar Bill

I have been meaning to write about a rewards/management system that I use in my classroom for the last couple of years. It’s math money. I have heard of other teachers that use fictitious money in their classroom, but mine has interesting and meaningful twist: students pay taxes and file tax returns for all the money they earn. I cannot remember who I got the idea from, but I remember it was an elementary or middle school teacher. If I can find who it was, I will post the link.

A few years ago, I had one of my (now) former students create some $1, $5, and $10 math money “bills” that I use for currency. He created it in Photoshop (they’re somewhat elaborate) and gave me the files. The little I actually know about Photoshop allows me to update them from year to year.

The students earn money for lots of things. It’s all about positive reinforcement. I especially prize participating in class and collaboration – and will usually pay students for these things. Attendance, homework, hard work, Student of the Week, exam scores, etc….these are also things that will earn a student some dinero. We also have various paid positions that students must be elected to (attendance taker, runner, etc.), each of which receive a weekly salary.

Students spend their money during auctions every two weeks. I auction off candy, dollar store items, homework passes, positive calls home, among other things. We even have 50/50 raffles every now and then. The possibilities here are endless, plus its where all the fun is! It’s crazy, students love to compete to be the highest bidder and spend their money.

As students earn their money, I keep a simple tally of how much they earn. Other than Student of the Week payments, all income is taxed. Students can choose to withhold income as they earn it – they simply give it back to me (i.e. the government). Each class elects a treasurer that will take my tallies and enter them into our class database (Google spreadsheet), which sums all taxed and untaxed money each student earns. At the end each marking period I take this spreadsheet and mail merge it into individual W-2’s for each student, which I print and give to them.

I have created a tax form that students complete on tax day. We literally spend an entire day doing taxes. They ask questions, get confused, and eventually learn (like most people who do their own taxes). Students itemize their deductions and compute their taxes using our tax rate table. I used to have adjustable tax rates, but it got too complicated. Deductions include high exam scores, donating to a class pencil fund, seeing me for extra help after school, and other “good” deeds. After they submit their income tax forms, the treasurer examines them to ensure there are no discrepancies. Some students will receive a tax refund while most others will owe taxes.

The whole process really does mock the tax-filing process. I like to think that after students take part in this process six times every year, they have a pretty good understanding of how the IRS does its thing. It’s also an effective way to promote positive behavior in my class. Using money in my classroom has afforded me loads of flexibility in terms of classroom management and allowed me to mimic the real world in countless ways. Plus, its just plain fun.


The First Two Days

So the first two days of school year 2014-15 have now come and gone. Here’s what I did.

Day 1: I really try and get away from the whole class expectations, syllabus, parent information thing on the first day. I have never really liked it because I feel it doesn’t set the right tone for the classroom. First impressions are huge for students, so besides taking attendance and having whole group get-to-know you discussions, I decide to do some sort of fun competition on the first day. It usually is indirectly tied to math, but directly tied to problem solving. It helps set the tone for the year.

This year I did an activity that I experienced this past summer at a workshop. I don’t know the name, but I’ll describe it. If someone knows the name and has a link to it, please post it in a comment. I moved all my desks to the sides if the classroom and set up the chairs in two circles. Each circle had about 10-15 students. I gave one person in each circle a little ball and had them say their name and then throw it to a non-adjacent person in the circle. That person would then say their name and throw it to a different non-adjacent person. This continues until everyone has caught the ball. I point out that each student needs to remember who he/she threw the ball to. And herein lies the challenge: to repeat the same sequence as fast as possible while I time them. The only rule is that the sequence of how the ball travels must remain the same.

The hope is that each group finds an efficient way of getting the ball through the sequence of people. With a little bit of scaffolding, most groups throughout the day found a pretty good way of completing the task.

Day 2: This is when I hit the students with most of the expectations for my classroom. I discussed the grading policy, overall expectations, seating charts, and the like. I also introduced them to a couple of things that I absolutely love.

1. Math money. My students and I run a pretty robust classroom economy. I plan on posting about this eventually, but it includes students earning money and spending it on various things that I present to them. The kicker is that it also includes the student’s paying and filing taxes on their income. We also elect a class treasurer and the whole nine. The kids have a ball with this.

2. Friday letters. I got this idea from Rebecka at TMC14 and I am stoked about doing it this year. I’ll post about it in the coming weeks.

3. The impossible shot. This is just fun. I found this online this summer and thought it would be fun to implement in my classroom. I have a line on the floor on one side the room and I taped a box to the opposite wall close to the ceiling. One student per week will have a chance to make it. I’ve added a pretty sweet award to any student that can sink the shot, too. Talk about motivation! I allowed one student to take the shot and they were instantly hooked. (I also had several of my colleagues trying to make by the end of the day!)

Next year, I hope to be a little more “mathy” with first couple of days. Here’s a couple of ideas that I have found that I would like to try:

  1. #Mathis Tweet Strips
  2. Something with Tangrams or IQ Circles
  3. Lesson on fun facts about me and a “test” afterwards (from John Mahlstedt) (still not mathy, but really cool)
  4. There are others that I can’t find at the moment, but if I do, I will post them here…

Looking forward to an awesome year.



Change at the top


Today, about one week from the first day of school, I learned that my principal is leaving our school. He came into at our school six years ago as an assistant principal. After a couple years he was promoted to principal. Now he will be promoted to a superintendent position in the New York City Department of Education. He will no longer be my supervisor.

I couldn’t be happier. But not for the reason you’re probably thinking.

Many teachers despise, or at least dislike, their administrators. Administrators are stereotyped by teachers as being overreaching, bossy and dominant. No matter where you work, it can be hard to ‘get along’ with the person who is in charge. I mean, essentially, they have to tell you what to do. They do this by making clear their expectations and goals for the company/organization. Often times conflict arises here for obvious reasons. The same things apply to the teacher-principal relationship.

In that regard, my experiences with my now-former principal has been utterly atypical.

I’m happy because I realized today that during the past six years I have experienced immense growth, both personally and professionally. This is due in large part to my now-former principal. In some unbelievable way, he always pushed my professional career to another level. It was like magic. I don’t know how this guy did it. I swear, just when I thought I could give no more as a teacher, he constantly found a way to maximize my strengths which then allowed me to dig deeper. And there was never any pressure. It was all about development; being a better teacher, better collaborator, better role model for our students. He inspired me to see things differently, be imaginative, and never be satisfied. His tireless drive, constant need for improvement, keen leadership, and overarching transparency will have an everlasting effect on my career. I’ve learned so much. He came through for me in ways that he will never know.

I got certified as a teacher long ago. But I feel like I truly became a teacher under his guidance. I cannot be the only teacher that feels this way. I guess this is part of the reason why he’s being promoted to superintendent.

I will surely miss not having a daily, working relationship with him. But I’m incredibly fortunate that I’ve had one during the last six years. For without it, I am confident I wouldn’t be who I am today.



#BikeSchoolBuilt: I’ll never look at my students the same way again

Bike School
At UBI overhauling a bike

Following a passion of mine, two weeks ago I ventured to Portland, Oregon and attended United Bicycle Institute (UBI). I took their Professional Repair and Shop Operation course and learned a good deal about bicycle mechanics, but learned even more about myself and my students. Because of this course, I will never look at a bicycle the same again. At the same time, I’ll never look at my students the same way again either.

Let me provide a bit of background. The course, and school, is highly specialized. You don’t go there unless you have a undying love for the bicycle. The tuition is not cheap, but you pay for what you get: a world-class education. They are only one of two schools that do what they do. People travel from all over the world to go to UBI. Out of the 19 people in my cohort, there were two students from China and two from Chile. The bicycle mechanic certification United Bicycle provides is recognized by most bicycle shops as a prerequisite for employment as a mechanic. In other words, if you want to learn about bikes, you come here.

With all that being said, I went into my two-week professional repair course with limited knowledge about bicycle mechanics and virtually no background in the field. I’m a high school math teacher. I mean, I do minor work on my own bikes, but that’s it. There were folks in the class not only with far more bike mechanical knowledge than I, but also much more hands on experience with regards to bicycle repair. Many of the people in the class were already bicycle mechanics, they just needed to be UBI “certified.”

I say all this to say the course was very challenging for me. Let’s get real. Simply put, I struggled.

I really didn’t expect to struggle with some of the concepts like I did. Before the course, all the wrenching I did on my bikes was fairly straightforward. When I enrolled in the course I said to myself, “Okay, you’ll learn some new things about bikes and you’ll apply them pretty smoothly.” My expectations were met with a cold, hard reality. I found myself falling behind the rest of the class and I got frustrated because I couldn’t keep up. I worked slower and needed extra time to process almost all of the procedures. Everyone else seemed to breeze through it all. I worked through breaks and after class to catch up. Despite my extra effort, I still felt like I wasn’t on the same playing field as everyone else. I constantly asked for help from the instructors and peers. On several occasions, I wondered wether I would ever “get it.” I also found myself questioning whether I even belonged in the class…I was obviously not as skilled as most of the other students.

In the midst of all my frustration, there was a instant moment of clarity. Being over 3,000 miles away from my classroom and taking a class that on the surface had nothing to do with my career, it struck me hard. I realized that my deep-rooted, I-want-to-quit frustration was what some of my own students experience on a daily basis.

I knew, in that moment, I would forever view my struggling students differently. Reflecting on my eight years of teaching in New York City, in that instant I suddenly understood that I never truly knew. I never knew what it felt like to struggle to the point of giving up. I never understood how it felt to be the one always falling behind. I never understood how it felt to have the course material flying by at the speed of light and barely being able to grasp the concepts, if at all.

Thankful for the struggle

Now I understand. As I sit here, I’m wondering how I taught for so long without knowing this. I’ve always been faced with challenges, but somehow the obstacles I faced at UBI were more personal than all the others. This is why they hit me harder and stand out like they do. In my classroom, I always tried to be sympathetic with my struggling students in years past. I always tried to do whatever I could to help them succeed. But its different now. I literally know how they feel. I can now relate to them in a profound way. That fact alone trumps many other teaching strategies I could employ in my attempt to reach them.

Despite my struggles during the course, by the end I felt much more confident in my ability to diagnose and repair a bicycle. After the culminating exam on the last day of class yesterday, I actually feel confident that I have earned UBI certification as a professional bicycle mechanic [UPDATE: I did receive certification!] Although, as important as my personal growth is, I know that I have a responsibility now to instill such confidence in my struggling students. They too can learn to persevere and battle through frustration. So, just as my ability to repair a bicycle has been enhanced, so has my confidence in aiding my students to use failure as feedback.

I don’t think one of the goals of United Bicycle Institute is to positively impact the students at a small public high school Brooklyn, but they did. I must give a huge amount of credit to the instructors at UBI Portland. Rich, Craig, Dan and Steve were amazingly patient, incredibly competent, and endlessly helpful. They were upmost professionals who wanted everyone in the class to succeed no matter their ability level. They did a masterful job. I learned a great deal from their approach that I will certainly take back to my own classroom. My students thank you guys in advance.

Oh, by the way, anyone need a bike mechanic? ;-)