Are Your Students Paying Enough Taxes?

cover incredible silverRight after Spring Break is when many teachers implement The Checkbook Project in their classrooms, so this week I’m foregoing my usual spiel about reader’s theater to instead offer some checkbook tips.

If you’re not familiar with The Checkbook Project, it’s a classroom incentive program, a behavioral management system, and a math-heavy financial literacy unit all rolled together. It’s completely free, kids love it, and it’s relatively easy to manage.  In my classroom we kick-started our economy three weeks ago by giving each student a $50 “Spring Stimulus.”  Already I have kids aspiring to be slumlords. “Mr. Lewis, can I buy that desk at the back of the classroom and charge kids a bunch of money to sit there?” asked one student. Another wanted to know when she can take out a mortgage, and a third was already asking about a business license.  Still others are already borrowing money from their friends just to make rent.

You can download The Checkbook Project by following this link. Once you do, the following tips will get you off to a good start.

1. Provide help with tax reports.  Though not as complicated as the Form 1040 you and I file each April, completing the Friday Tax Report (a key element to the program) is initially challenging for the students. Be sure to file taxes at the end of the very first first week, allow extra time (45-60 minutes), have extra adults on hand if you can, and use a simple 10% tax rate. Once kids get used to filing, you be able to file every other week, you’ll only have to assist your neediest kids, and you’ll be able to raise the tax rate to more complex figures like 17.86%. Their moans and groans will spark a great discussion about how taxes in the real world pay for things like schools, police protection, and sewers.

2. Don’t be too generous. Keep your rewards low and your penalties high. I hand out a $5 bonus for a quiet class, but a $10 fine for a noisy one. I start the project paying fifty cents per percentage points on tests, gradually raising the rate of pay as the trimester continues.  For example, if a student gets a 70% (the minimum) on a vocabulary exam, I pay out $35. I raise the rate when I need to increase motivation, but I also decrease it when students are accumulating too great a stash in their checkbook.

3. Charge for everything. You want to strike a balance between student income and expenses. If the balance in their checkbook is growing too rapidly, you’re paying out too much or not charging for things you should.  I charge for pencils, snacks, special seating privileges, having to reprint homework, leaving chairs untucked, messy desks, and more.  I have a yoga ball in my room students can rent for a day at a time. When it’s in high demand, I charge thirty bucks or more—and all I have to do is say the words, “Deduct $30 from your checkbook.”

4. Phase-in other elements. In Week One we learn how to keep track of our income and expenses and complete our first tax report.  At the end of Week Two the kids begin renting their desks.  During Week Three I let them begin selling their own items at auction. I wait until weeks Four and Five to let them mortgage their desks, open businesses, and apply for classroom jobs.

5. Don’t be in a hurry to raise desk rent.  “Should I buy or rent?” You’ll want kids to wrestle with this question when you begin offering mortgages, but if rents are already excessive, your entire class will become “desk owners” too quickly. One of the richest “teachable moments” is when half the class—the desk owners—have burned their mortgages, while the other half are subject to ever increasing rents.

6. Collect checkbooks every Friday.  Doing so makes the student feel more accountable about keeping accurate entries. The only record keeping I do is to write down each student’s ending balance on Friday’s.  In so doing I’m able to spot oddities. I can also quickly skim through questionable accounts.  When I find one, I usually make an example of him or her with a full audit (and some hefty tax penalties).

For more on The Checkbook Project, visit MackLewis.com and click on The Checkbook Project tab. You’ll find more tips and all the forms you need to make the project a hit with your parents, students, and admins. And in case you came here today looking for information on great Read Aloud Plays, please take a few minutes to explore my site, ReadAloudPlays.com and my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.  Happy directing!

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