Our Spotlight series continues this week, where we talk with teachers who are making a difference in the field of economic education.
In today’s installment, we’re talking with Jonnie Fenton, who teaches economics, world geography, AP art history, and ancient medieval history at Hanford High School in Richland, WA.
How long have you been teaching economics? What do you love most about it?
I have been teaching economics for 16 years. I love that economics engages students in important issues of the day, from how the Federal Reserve works to the characteristics of capitalism. I do a special unit at the end of each semester that changes depending on current events – last year we worked on the use of economic sanctions.
What are your biggest challenges in teaching economics?
Teaching economics at my high school provides two major challenges. My juniors and seniors vary widely in their intro knowledge. I have students taking calculus who love the news and students who are in algebra II who never engage in current events. Pulling these groups together in meaningful activities is a challenge.
My second challenge focuses more on myself and keeping up with the changes in economics. I am the only economics teacher in my building (a pretty common occurrence for economics teachers), so I don’t often have a colleague to work with.
You’re currently serving on the SF Fed Educational Advisory Group (EAG). How has the experience changed your teaching and/or your professional development?
One of my favorite things about being with the EAG group is multiplying my network. Serving on the SF Fed Educational Advisory Group has been an amazing professional experience. We have met twice in San Francisco and each time were blessed with great professional development opportunities.
We have learned about economic bubbles and banking capitalization and even more about monetary policy and the cash operations at the Fed. I have come to use more of the resources at the Fed, including DataPost, and better understand how to access Fed resources. Sometimes I take videos produced at the FRBSF and create a lesson. There was a video on unemployment and “brain hubs” that I used for an introduction to a lesson on demographics and how cities become education/technology centers.
In Washington, part of our teacher evaluation process involves our work with cohorts and professional development communities. The EAG provided unique chances to work with other teachers, get great professional ideas, and develop new lessons. Right now I am working on a lesson using the CPI and student goods and services. I got the idea from my colleagues through our discussion board.
What economics education project or topic are you working on that excites you? Why?
I always like developing new lessons because it gives me a chance to learn new concepts. I’ve taught about the CPI for years and discussed the market basket with my class. Making a new lesson means digging more deeply into a concept – what exactly is in the market basket, and how are good and services measured?
As far as a more long-term project, I have become interested in economic development and extreme poverty. I have recently read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. During my reading I kept coming back to ways to use this information in the classroom. He does case studies of individual countries which I think would be turned into great group projects.
What has been a recent impactful experience that involves your students and economics education?
Last spring, we did a new project on economic sanctions looking at the types of sanctions the U.S. uses (terrorism to narcotics). I put students in groups and had them access government sites on sanctions. We had an amazing discussion that went on for two days in one of my classes about the usefulness of sanctions and options other than sanctions. It was great to hear thoughtful discussion from 11th and 12th grade students on a key issue. Over this past summer, economic sanctions against Russia were often on the news, and I hope my students thought about what we had discussed.
On a lighter note, we had a Fed Centennial “birthday party” last year! We had been studying about the history of the Fed and the timing worked out perfectly. We celebrated the Friday we got out for Winter Break and wished the Fed another good 100 years ahead. It was my third period economics class.
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What advice would you give you teachers (of any subject) who would like to insert more economics into their lessons but aren’t sure where to start?
I think there are many ways to insert economics into lessons. For Language Arts teachers there are great articles about economics – from essays to news. I pull in items from the New York Times and Newsweek often for discussion. I also think that some economics issues (example: minimum wage) make great topics for debates.
I already teach economics in my World Geography classes – topics such as resources, economic development in Africa, growth and jobs in Asia. In U.S. history there are topics from the development of central banking to changes in U.S. money standards from gold standard to fiat standards. There are good history lessons in economics. Clearly math teachers also have chances to insert economics lessons.
If teachers are nervous because they worry they don’t know economics or that the math is hard, I like to remind them we are all economists. We make economic cost/benefit decisions every day. Also, economics is really part of our political life (budget deficits come quickly to mind) and discussing these important issues is key to developing prepared citizens – something I consider a core issue in education.
Anything else you’d like to share about your experiences teaching economics?
I really love teaching economics although one of my colleagues makes jokes about the “dismal science.” I very often get incredibly bright kids who are interested in business and economics careers. I now have a set of guest speakers who work in places ranging from Google to investment firms on the East Coast. They visit my classes via Skype and it impacts my students positively. I love the chance to talk to these people who now have experiences that are broader than my own.
Thank you, Jonnie, for talking with us!
And in case you missed it, check out previous posts in the series:
Cheryl Shea of Pinnacle High School (Phoenix, AZ)
Stan Herder of Hawaii Baptist Academy (Honolulu, HI)