It doesn’t take more than a few clicks to find someone on social media shouting about how personal finance should be taught in schools. Usually, it’s people made cranky by tax time. While that’s definitely a discussion that’s bigger than this post, I did get the chance to squeeze in a lesson on financial independence in my middle school classroom and wanted to share the results.
There was shockingly little math involved.
But there was a YouTube video.
So basically, it had all the trimmings of middle school magic. And it really was some kind of magic. I don’t teach math. I don’t teach Family & Consumer Science. But I still got to teach personal finance because money is everywhere. It intersects with every curriculum and every aspect of our lives. The difference is that I took the time to tease it out and teach it.
Here’s how I shared the idea of financial independence with my 8th graders:
It Started On YouTube
Gone are the days of yore with teachers wheeling in giant metal towers with a TV perched on top. But pulling up a YouTube video still keeps middle schoolers rapt.
For this lesson, we were going to look at a variety of StoryCorps videos as another medium for storytelling in our narrative nonfiction and journalism unit. I cautioned my students that this particular video would move quickly, as someone from StoryCorps interviewed someone else about a snapshot from their lives. After reminding them that something in this video would showcase a bit of narrative nonfiction (our unit of study), I told them we would watch twice and then discuss.
I hit play and “The View From Here” unfolded.
It tells the story of a woman who left her lucrative career to become a bridgetender and has yet to look back on her career change with any sense of regret. In true StoryCorps fashion, I cannot do the story–or its grand finale–justice. You must take a listen!
The Questions They Asked
They started with some really hard-hitting questions, I assure you. Namely, what’s a bridgetender and how did that name come about?
But then they asked other questions, including:
- Is it hard to leave a job?
- Do people leave jobs often?
- Why would she leave a job?
- Is a good view worth bad pay?
- How come people work so much and don’t even enjoy their jobs?
- If you make a lot of money but never notice anything, doesn’t that kind of suck?
- Why did she want to slow down?
- Why hasn’t she gone back to her good job?
- Why do we call jobs that pay a lot good jobs?
- Can other jobs that don’t pay a lot still be good jobs?
One of my favorite parts of teaching middle school is the absolute deluge of questions they are willing to unleash when given the opportunity. Rather than trying to answer them myself, I let them kick around the questions and the answers in small groups (in breakouts on Zoom, if you must know!).
Then, we came back as a whole class and tried to talk through it some more.
The Ideas They Considered
While this video had to fit into a lesson with several other sample pieces, I wanted to devote a little extra time to it simply because it sparked so much more conversation than the other examples of storytelling that we looked at.
These are some of the moments that generated the most conversation for my kids:
“The pay’s horrible, the benefits are worse. But I have the most gorgeous view.”
Students lingered on these lines. At first, some of them questioned her decision making. But in each class, someone pointed out that she could obviously afford it since she already worked the job for seven more years than she planned.
Other students also lamented that their prospective career paths might not have nice views. Or allow them to slow down.
“I’m getting paid to stop and look.”
Middle school life is full of excess and consumerism. While students can be easily lost in the moment, they are also painfully capable of seeing the bigger picture. Many times, they see more clearly than adults.
Students immediately made comparisons to the pandemic and subsequent quarantine–the first time in their lives that many of them experienced true free time. No schedules, no sports, no dinner on the go. Other students called out their own families with adults who are seemingly always on call. Still, other students pointed out how all of them–all of us–rarely stop and look because we are so glued to technology.
“I’ve been sitting in the same exact spot for all these years.”
I was fully prepared to go full Grown Up on them and bust out the “only boring people get bored” cliche that adults love to tout. Surprisingly, I didn’t need to say it. Some students did emphasize how at first they might expect it to be boring, but then they kept circling back to the fact that if she were bored, she wouldn’t stay. After all, she didn’t need the job. She chose it for a reason.
By the end of the interview, I had a few students who were fighting back tears. They realized that the freedom that this beautiful view bought her also helped her connect with people. The fisherman’s tale at the end served as a powerful reminder of what gets lost and overlooked in our frantic everyday lives. It also, of course, made for a really powerful example of narrative nonfiction.
Tips for Teachers Who Want to Teach Personal Finance
One of the biggest reasons why personal finance isn’t taught explicitly in many classes (though I still contend that it’s taught far more than students realize) is because so few school districts and states require it. That means there’s no time and no funding.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. In fact, I think we can all commit to sharing more of personal finance and financial independence with our students.
Here are a few tips that I learned from this lesson:
Keep it short and sweet.
If you’re not a personal finance teacher, you have other standards to hit and curriculum to teach. But you can find small examples that address your standard and speak to the larger picture of life and money like this video does.
Don’t tell students what to think.
Financial independence isn’t for everyone. Slow living and SlowFI don’t mean the same thing at 13 as they do 33. Instead of giving students one absolute takeaway, be content with them asking questions and giving these concepts more consideration.
Look to literature.
If you’re a fellow English Language Arts teacher, there are so many stories that you can interpret through a financial lens. A Christmas Carol is almost too obvious. But there are plenty of other books, short stories, and poems that work as well. Like The Outsiders for example.
As I move through the year, one thing that I plan to do is work with our math teacher and my entire team of teachers to revisit some of these concepts. How fun would it be to do a math lesson that guesses what the woman’s savings was in order to allow her to pursue SlowFI or Coast FI? How cool would it be to bring in the Coast FI calculator from The Fioneers? There are also lots of opportunities for team activities and discussions. Working with other curriculum areas is another way to layer in personal finance concepts without any one teacher giving up a ton of teaching time.
Spiral your curriculum.
One of the reasons why Algebra is so painfully embedded into people’s minds but their one-off required consumer ed class is not (If you live in Illinois, you took this class or tested out, I swear!) is because math curriculum spirals. The concepts build on one another, allowing students to return to them over and over again throughout the year and in subsequent years. Talking about money like that is much more powerful than visiting the topic once. (Though once is better than none!)
Final Thoughts on Introducing Teens to FI
I’m not FI, and most days I’m pretty sure I’m not on the path to the RE part of FIRE. I also don’t teach personal finance. And yet, I keep looking for ways to bring money into my classroom. While it does take some finagling at times, it’s only because it requires me to buck the traditional cannon of texts English teachers love to use and the typical lenses through which they are interpreted. The truth is that money lessons are already there. It’s just a matter of taking the time to tease them out and bring them to the forefront.
So Tell Me…Did you love the StoryCorps video as much as my students? Did anything surprise you? How do you share money concepts with young people?