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Innovative Economics Courses Far From Dismal

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The 3rd graders in Penny Fox's class at Asbell Elementary School in Fayetteville, Ark., began their study of economics by learning some basic principles.

By sharing the responsibility for classroom tasks--taking care of the gerbils, for example--they learned about the division of labor and how each person plays a role in the economic process.

By the second semester, they were ready for a more in-depth study of economics. Concentrating on rice and poultry--two of the state's major products--they learned about where the two come from and how they are used elsewhere in the world.

Then, translating their knowledge into drama, the students wrote a play, with music, about "their" products. The enormous maps of Arkansas that they had constructed became stage sets; the children became actors, producers, and directors who applied the principles of economics to the development of their own product--the play.

By the time they finished, Ms. Fox said in an interview last week, they had learned a great deal about the theory and practice of economics--including the rewards of productive labor.

"It was quite evident that they understood," Ms. Fox said. "They were willing to switch parts [in the play] to get a better product."

National Awards Program

Penny M. Fox is one of five first-place winners in a national awards program for the teaching of economics. The program, now in its 21st year, is administered by the Joint Council on Economic Education (jcee), a nonprofit organization with a network of state and university affiliates. Ms. Fox is also one of a growing number of teachers who have discovered that economics is not a dismal science, but rather an interesting and useful subject for students at all grade levels.

As of late 1981, 24 states required that economics be taught at the high-school level. Nevertheless, many teachers remain leery of teaching economics, often because they have a weak grasp of the subject themselves.

Others may be confused by the plethora of materials offered to them by various industries.

"From our perspective, it's no wonder that teachers shy away from teaching economics," said William J. Hill, executive director of the Wisconsin State Council on Economic Education, one of the jcee's 50 state affiliates. "They're afraid they may unsuspectingly be presenting a very narrow special-interest perspective."

The national council's award program is designed, according to council officials, to encourage improvement in economic-education teaching practices, to encourage teachers to put their programs on paper for others to see, to recognize outstanding teachers, and to foster a continuing exchange of successful teaching practices.

For the past nine years, the contest has been sponsored by the International Paper Company Foundation.

Many Entries Received

This year, the council received 298 entries, down slightly from the 350 it received last year, but up from earlier years when they received an average of 250 entries, according to Anthony F. Suglia, director of affiliated councils and centers and director of the awards program for the New York-based council.

From these, a panel of judges selected five elementary- and secondary-school teachers for first-place awards in five categories: kindergarten through 3rd grade, 4th through 6th grade, 7th through 9th grade, 10th through 12th grade, and an open category for other educators, such as principals and librarians.

The winners, in addition to Ms. Fox, were: Mary Kathryn Bourbonnais, a 5th-grade teacher at Bethel Elementary School, Bethel Acres, Okla.; Eric Hyler and Linda Hyler, 8th-grade teachers at Penny Middle School, Penny, Kan.; Carl Jette, a high-school teacher at Nicolet High School, Glendale, Wis.; and Nancy Mayner, who works with 4th-through-6th graders at Morrison Elementary School, Fort Smith, Ark.

In the 21 years that the council has sponsored the awards program, Mr. Suglia said, program officials have identified some qualities that make for the successful teaching of economics.

"Good teachers look around them and find ways of relating economics to what's going on," said Mr. Suglia. The ticket sales of the high-school football team or a city's decision to close its zoo can be used to show students that "economics is something right around you," Mr. Suglia said.

An important characteristic of successful economics teachers, Mr. Suglia said, is that they do not lecture. "They offer activities; they allow the kids to experience economics." Some have students form companies and learn about capital, profit, and loss.

These teachers, Mr. Suglia said, "are highly creative. They will take an idea and adapt it to their own local interest. They study local products and see how they travel throughout the world."

Carl Jette, the high-school teacher from Wisconsin, taught his 12th-grade economics students about capitalism by first acquainting them with the theories of four economists: E.F. Schumacher, George Gilder, Milton Friedman, and Adam Smith.

Then the students wrote imaginary dialogues between the economists.

Some students set the conversations in heaven; others had the gen-tlemen conversing while cruising Milwaukee's Wisconsin Avenue after a baseball game.

"They wrote some very interesting scripts of how these people would talk to each other," Mr. Jette said. Moreover, he said, they learned about the different economic theories.

Next, Mr. Jette and his students created a game, "Economic Prosperity," which was modeled after the board game, "Life." Students also wrote a players' manual. They used various economic theories--supply- and demand-side economics, for example--to develop their game.

By the time they had finished, Mr. Jette said, "They knew how politics and economics deal with each other."

'Challenging' Methods

Mr. Jette, who has been teaching for about 11 years, said the students found his methods of teaching economics "challenging."

"At first, there's some sort of fear," he said. But once they've gone through the course, "they seem very grateful that they were forced to learn how to learn."

Of the teaching itself, he said, "It's fun, when you approach it from a creative point of view and don't try to indoctrinate people. Let them decide their own way. Make it enjoyable. For many of these kids, it's their only exposure to economics."

"It's not just fun and games," he added. "I cover the basics. My students can perform with the best. But at the same time, I think they have fun doing it."

Mr. Jette draws his material and methods from a wide variety of sources, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher and educator who advocated learning by experience. "He believed that learning was experiencing, and developing a love and passion for learning." It is that love of learning for its own sake, he said, that he tries to inspire in his students.

Mary Kathryn Bourbonnais of Bethel Acres, Okla., also believes that the key to successful economics teaching lies in bringing the material alive.

Her project focused on the "promises and challenges" of natural resources. "I have been disturbed that we take too much for granted," she said.

The project's goal was to make her 5th-grade class aware of the world's resources--where they come from, how they have come to be used as they are used today. Beginning with early humans, she and her students worked their way up to the present. They crossed the mountains with the American pioneers and built a trading post, where students learned about barter and early equivalents of money.

"I like to do a lot of activities," Ms. Bourbonnais said. "The children are involved, and they're motivated to learn. I think we have a larger response than if we just stuck to the textbook."

Like Ms. Fox in Arkansas, Ms. Bourbonnais chose a local resource--oil--with which her students were familiar. But she didn't just tell them about oil, she arranged for them to correspond with the captain and crew of an arco oil tanker, the Anchorage. The captain, who turned out to be an enthusiastic correspondent, wrote several times a month.

"It brought it down to what the world was really like," Ms. Bourbonnais said. "It brought it alive."

Deciding that they wanted to share what they had learned, her students wrote a 20-minute cantata, which they presented before civic organizations. In their composition, they traced the development and use of natural resources.

"I was really touched by what they'd learned and the way they pre-sented it," Ms. Bourbonnais said. "They had people laughing, and they had people crying."

Had it not been for extremely tight security, the class would have presented its cantata for President Reagan during his recent visit to Oklahoma. Instead, at the request of the White House, they sent the President a videotape.

Ms. Fox of Fayetteville agreed that the emphasis on local products made the study of economics more meaningful to the children. Many had first-hand experience with the products they were studying.

"The children are primarily rural children," Mrs. Fox said. "It brought their family and home into a place of well-being and dignity."

"I think it will carry over into real life. I really do," Mrs. Fox said.


Applications s awards program, due before July 15, 1983, are available from: National Awards Program for the Teaching of Economics, Joint Council on Economic Education, 1212 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10036.

In addition, all of the programs entered in the contest are placed in a repository and are available to all educators. For more information, write to Economics Education Awards Depository, Milner Library, Illinois State University, Normal, Ill. 61761.

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