To market, to market to learn about math (and economics and science all with a laugh)
story by Meg Ferrante
photos by Angelina Bellebuono
Amid icing and sprinkles, bubbles and discos, movies and popcorn and every other goody at Morgan County Primary School’s “Tiny Town,” can you spy producers? How about consumers? Social studies? Intro to Econ for Kindergarteners? It’s all there. But then again, the best lesson is one where the kids have no idea they’re learning.
That’s why it looks like Mrs. Ginny Kiepper’s second grade is playing with animals. They’re also learning about life cycles for science and had to use oodles of math (counting, budgeting, estimating, purchasing) to gather their “Pennies for Pets” money, and to research, save and buy the pets, too. Now they’re even measuring, as in, how big are our animals growing?
Over in the front hallway, students from Mrs. Latham, Eggers and Jarrett’s classes are selling pencils, stickers, notebooks and other colorful school supplies at the School Store. Profits for the school, yes, but little do these pint-size shoppers and second grade sales associates know—wholesale, retail, budget, buy—they’re smack dab in the middle of a lesson on commerce, too.
Tiny Town Builds
Lara Still, the Gifted teacher and technology coordinator, brought Tiny Town to MCPS from her first grade teaching experiences in Clayton County. “The skill that children this age seem to have the most trouble with is counting money,” she said. “We came up with Tiny Town as a way to practice counting.” Still, who was impressed with the many things students learned beyond just counting, shared the experience with her new co-workers here in 1998. Every February since, the Kindergarten hallways morph into a small village, kicking off an all-encompassing week of learning that touches on nearly every skill area a 5 year old is required by the state to learn.
The math concepts are introduced on a kindergarten-friendly level. The students all start with 40 play dollars to spend throughout the week in the various shops of town. Each student has to budget carefully to divide their money across the 13 classroom shops, but just $3 goes a long way. Buy and ice your own cookie in the bakery or stop by the aquarium for a “swim” in the bubble blower and get a mini aquarium in a bottle to take home. How about a shave or some polish on your nails? In the dollar store, how many items would $3 buy?
There’s a disco, a PB&J café, a nature center… on and on, many of them shops and services not available anywhere else in Morgan County. Each classroom becomes a bee hive of busy producers, making a product they can sell to the other classes. Then when the shops open for business, half the class goes shopping and half the class stays behind to work in the store for an opportunity to earn a little more spending cash.
Kindergartner Zachary Hilsman explained a little more about how it all works. His classroom was the movie theater and screened the popular “Kid Songs: Ride the Rollercoaster” for just $2, complete with ushers and $1 popcorn for sale. “I get to sell the tickets,” Hilsman said. “I take the $2, I put it in a box, I tell them there’s popcorn, I tell them that’s for $1, then they get to sit down and eat popcorn while the movie is on.” He nodded vigorously when asked if it was fun to work, saying (in not so many words) it was the most exciting activity of his Kindergarten career thus far.
“At the end of the day we get to count the profits,” teacher and bakery proprietress Lucy Bennett said. “But this is where they learn about pay and earning money. Because you have to pay your workers. Even though you made money, you don’t have as much as you think because you have to pay the bills.”
Profits are tallied daily, divided in proper piles if a store has more than one product, grouped by 10s and totaled, then proudly posted on the shop door.
Beyond the obvious math, “the children are learning a little bit of everything,” said Martha Welch, teacher/movie theater owner. “First, they have to earn their spending money through good behavior,” she said. “They all start with the same amount, but we take money out if needed. It’s an important lesson in discipline, And they learn that things in life aren’t free. If you run out of money before the week is through, you don’t get to shop anymore.” Welch also pointed out concepts in patience (working first and waiting to go shopping), manners and social skills (welcoming other students to the class, walking them through the store, thanking them for coming), organization (keeping track of rooms still on the shopping list) and community helpers (the workers in each store).
Still said every year when Tiny Town starts to gear up, she hears first and second graders moaning all through the hall, “Aww… I wish I was in Kindergarten again. Can’t we do Tiny Town, too?” It’s an incredibly popular program. “When you can make something real life and authentic that the kids can use in their every day lives, it makes it much more meaningful to them,” Still said.
Belle Cawley, one of the bakers in charge of spreading icing in Mrs. Lucy Bennett’s class, seemed to get that Tiny Town was about selling, buying and even math. But she dispensed with all of that for yet another lesson, one that will probably come in handy even more than her elementary school math. “My favorite part was getting to help people,” she said.
Pennies for Pets and Keep the Change
Second grade teacher Ginny Kiepper was fresh from an educator’s symposium at the Georgia Aquarium and wanted to talk about fish. In no time, her enthusiasm spilled over into a class project. Mission: clean and restock the slimy, empty tanks in the gym. Objective: get money, count money, save money, budget money, spend money wisely on new fish and turtles. Means to an end: fundraiser! And thus “Pennies for Pets” was born.
The class worked together to write a commercial for the morning news and draw advertisement posters to put up around the school. Notes about the project, compiled from requests each student wrote for a daily assignment, went home to each family in the school. “And the pennies just started rolling in,” Kiepper said.
With each day and each emptied bucket of change, the math became more intense for the students. Fortunately one of the room parents, Scott Baldwin, came in weekly to help sort and add, check and double-check. Current totals stand at over $400.
Kiepper had her class research fish, based on the South American River Tetras she saw at the aquarium. They went online and found similar fish, printed out some choices, budgeted $25 toward fish purchases and chartered a bus to Wal-Mart. Now one tank in the gym is brimming with ghost shrimp, and head and tail light and black fin tetras. Another is home to some pond slider turtles. And as soon as the weather warms, the leopard geckos in residence in the classroom will migrate to the gym as well.
“In our new science curriculum, there’s a life science component,” Kiepper said. “And as I came here from Zoo Atlanta, I just feel it’s really important for the kids to learn about life cycles by watching a pet or plant grow.” She also likes the idea of kids replacing possible fear with an appreciation for the reptiles.
Each student has taken a turn building that appreciation—and responsibility—as Pet Keeper. That’s the “feed ’em and clean ’em” job as class member Derianna Jones describes it and it includes taking care of her favorite, Pumpkin, the class rabbit. “She just loves people to scratch her on her head,” she said.
James Cagle has enjoyed the pets so much he saved all his Christmas money and bought a leopard gecko of his very own. “I named him Speck,” he said.
Local aquarium-supply manufacturer, Seachem, donated some chemicals and other provisions, so now Kiepper’s class has a budget surplus. That’s a good thing. Because the kids are already back online, researching finches for the gym bird cage and, to replace the lizards they’re sharing with the school, they’re looking at bearded dragon lizards for their classroom.
The School is Alive with the Sounds of Cha-Ching
There’s a whole lot more commerce happening in the hallways. The monthly school store—selling snowmen items in winter, hearts for Valentine’s Day and gearing up for shamrocks at this point—has been another busy industry. And it turns out to be a not-for-profit charity, too. The money raised—$618.50 so far—is being donated to the school behavioral management program.
Under the program, students earn Panda Paws for positive behavior and can trade them in for items like toys, candy and surprise bags, all purchased by the money raised from the school store. According to second grade teacher Monica Semrad, the store’s profits are also paying for seat cushions and decorations in the brand new Panda Café, organized by Semrad’s class and on stage now in the primary school cafeteria. Students cash in a whopping 50 Panda Paws for a chance to eat at the fancy café with a chosen friend. Earning, saving and good behavior all become intertwined.
“I don't think the cost fazes them a bit,” Semrad said. “They are really good at saving those Panda Paws when they want something.”
Setting—and Meeting—the Standards
Morgan County Primary School Principal, Dr. Betsy Short said it takes a lot more effort for teachers to organize inventive projects that cover so many of the Georgia Performance Standards—grade-specific skills that the state has deemed necessary to advance.
“Certainly, it is more ‘work’ than having students read about concepts in a textbook and then completing a worksheet,” Short said. “However, teachers are not interested in doing less work. Teachers are concerned about providing in-depth instruction so that children can make connections to their lives and develop true understanding of the performance standards that comprise the curriculum.
“When they see their students engaged in learning tasks, and hear them exclaim in delight when they understand a new concept, they know their work was well worth any extra efforts. That is what quality teaching is all about. At MCPS, our motto is ‘Together, we will learn.’ We view this motto as much more than a catchy phrase. For teachers, it is a statement of commitment to their students.”