READ. It changes your life! by Tracy Craft
Getting the right books in the hands of students takes a lot of organization, attention to reading identities, and money…a lot of money. How, I wonder, do my fellow teachers manage to build their classroom libraries, especially with newly released titles? We know that new is good, and the ability to get hot new books is an important aspect of cultivating a love of reading for many students. I don’t know about you, but my book budget usually dries up within a week of receiving my monthly paycheck. Sometimes all it takes is one trip to the bookstore to wipe it out! As a literacy teacher, I have grown to accept that there will never be enough money to fill all the reading needs I see in my students. I talk openly with those who repeatedly visit the classroom library wish list because it is important for them to understand that money does not grow on trees at school any more than it does at home, but I try my best to feed their new book love anyway. Come to think of it, I really make it worse on myself by following other Nerdy Book Lovers like you who are always recommending great books to add to my “Must Buy” list. Sometimes I have to run out while my students are at lunch to buy a new book on its birthday. I love to get my students all excited about the book and then take it home myself that first night to read it in the wee hours of the morning before I wearily put it in the eager hands of a student the next day.
Near the end of last school year, I found myself in discussion with one of my students, talking about a series of books that our class was “desperately in need of…” and I wistfully mentioned my wish that we had hundreds of dollars available to go out and buy books whenever we needed to. The next minute, we were tossing around ideas about raising money for books. BAM! A seed had been planted. We could raise money. But how? The idea first came to me when one of my students complimented my new staff t-shirt, wondering if she could buy one for herself. Don’t all kids and teachers love t-shirts? The idea blossomed. We could make and sell shirts (maybe with a motivational reading slogan, perhaps?) and use the profit to buy new and exciting books for our classroom library. Not just any old books, not the $1 used books from the awesome book warehouse in our town, but fresh, crisp, new, never been cracked open hard back new releases. After talking to my math/science teaching partner and our principal, we decided that yes, this was a great idea that needed some exploration by student minds. And so, the READ Economics project was born.
We created guiding questions, rubrics, and loose parameters for the project before we introduced it to our combined homerooms. We talked about businesses, projects, goals, and responsibility. We shared job descriptions for the executive, marketing, advertising, accounting, and journalism teams. Our goal was to help our students experience a glimpse of reality through this project. What do real people in these sorts of jobs do? How much money do they make? What challenges do they face? Our students “applied” for the position that sounded the most interesting to them, and after much consideration, we placed them in teams with two student executives in charge of each team. Each team researched their jobs and the executives met to solidify the goal of the project, create a company name, and plan the approach for each team’s role in creating the shirts. The goal: to design and sell t-shirts to our students and staff at a profit that would be used to buy books chosen by the 5th grade students. The team decided to name the company “RR T-shirt Company” and focus on the slogan “READ. It changes your life!” After meeting with the CEOs (5th grade teachers), the teams planned timelines and assigned tasks to their workers, with the expectation that all questions and concerns would funnel through their student executives in charge of their team before approaching a CEO. This experience of following a chain of command was a struggle for some students at first, but it became a well-oiled machine by the time the project was finished. We allowed life to take its course. There were disagreements, conflicts, frustration, and even painful “terminations” from the teams. Some students learned the hard way the importance of living up to performance expectations and pulling their own weight.
The Marketing team surveyed classes and teachers to determine colors, styles, and realistic costs that would still net a profit. Our most popular color, tie-dye, was a result of this process, as a recommendation from an early elementary student that was enthusiastically supported by subsequent survey responders.
The Advertising team created many posters to get the attention of students, video commercials for our daily school broadcast, and visited the cafeteria in person during student lunch times to raise awareness and excitement. They wrote parodies of popular songs to help their jingles stick in the mind. The favorite became “Do You Want to Buy a T-Shirt?” a takeoff, of course, from the beloved “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” song released earlier in the year. I still find myself singing the wrong lyrics when the song comes on months later!
The Accounting team handled the organization and tracking of printing company bids, student orders, and finally, the income/profit as the orders began to pour in. They created spreadsheets, checks and balances, and elaborate systems for organizing orders by size, color, and class. These tasks were, by far the most stressful for the team. It took a lot of trust and accountability to place the responsibility for the money in the hands of 5th graders, but they rose to the occasion, and handled it with the utmost care and organization.
The Journalism team tracked the processes of each team and reported on their wins, challenges, and lessons learned. Collectively, they came to understand that people don’t always like it when you report on all the details, especially when the going gets tough. They learned that it is easy to get in the way and that that journalists have the ability to make people look good or bad, depending on their approach. This team was also responsible for creating a wall display to chronology the entire process, including photos, articles, a timeline, and samples of items that were created.
We were all a bit surprised by the immediate responses and orders we received the first day. As orders rolled in the students basked in the realization that their idea had worked, that people wanted to buy their goods, and that their marketing and advertising efforts were a major success. They also realized that it is difficult to keep track of all the details when there are too many hands in the pot. They learned that it is hard to focus if too many people in the room are talking at the same time. They learned the importance of accuracy and keeping good records. They learned that it is important to correct their peers gently when they make mistakes and that it is critical to have good communication to keep things from falling apart.
I have to admit that it was difficult at times to stand back and watch the life lessons occur without intervening. It was challenging to let them figure things out for themselves, but in the end, that is where the most profound learning took place. There were mistakes made. There was laughter, joy, hurt feelings, apologies, and even a few tears, but all things combined equaled a real world learning experience that will stick with our students. When it was all said and done, our students had made over $1000 in profit, placed a second order due to the interest created when the first order arrived, and purchased over 150 new books to date. We even had enough profit to set some aside for the long list of new releases that come out in August and throughout the fall semester. The only question now is, how will we top a project like this next year? I am sure our new family of 5th graders will be up for the challenge.
Tracy Craft is a 5th grade literacy teacher at Reagan Elementary School in Rogers, Arkansas. She shares responsibility for her students with Traci Rhoades (who is thankfully a math expert), and they both love every minute of it. You can reach them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. You can also find Tracy Craft on Twitter @CraftTracy.