How a Penny Made Me Feel Like a Millionaire

Good Monday Morning! As usual, I have a lesson to share with you on Math Talk Monday. The great thing about today’s lesson is that it could actually be used in any subject, at almost any grade level, because there are no specific calculations. This is a discussion stirring activity. It helps set the “personal” tone for a personal finance discussion. So whether you are about to teach budgeting in a math or business class or discuss identity in an English class or the history of labor unions in a Social Studies course, this lesson can help students connect to the content and help you connect to your students.

Lesson Background & Considering Blindspots

The school I taught at was part of the Facing History and Ourselves network, and the curriculum focuses on ethical choice making and understanding how individual choices build history. The first thing a unit of study should always do is tap in to student identity, asking them, “What do I think? How do I relate to this idea the teacher is introducing? What is my identity via this subject matter?” So this lesson allows students to really consider what their own experiences have been with money and what they believe about this tool.

This lesson was the first one that I designed after I sat in an adult learning group run by the Facing History and Ourselves organization. We were discussing blind spots and I admitted to having blind spots when it comes to students and money. I knew that I didn’t want to preach to my kids and that we came from different backgrounds. I knew the way I was raised was just one line of thinking about money, no different than being raised in a particular religious tradition. The problem, I explained to the group, is that I really don’t know what the other ways of thinking about money are. I have picked up on ideas, but I know I have a deficit point of view. If your students are different than you, you may be thinking the way I was, consciously or subconsciously. It is so important not to assume that your way of thinking about money is the only way of thinking about money. This activity lets students set the tone by generating individual and group beliefs.

Ted Talk Video

The lesson is based on a Ted Talk called “How a penny made me feel like a millionaire.” It’s very simple on the surface. You watch the video as a class and then run a discussion protocol. Except that the discussion protocol is a silent one. This can be very challenging for students depending on the group, the time of day (do some yoga first for your after lunch class), age/maturity level. Do a practice round first if you think they will struggle with the staying silent piece. The silence is important so that students are not pressured out of doing their best work.


First, watch the video. Have students write notes on a note card or scrap piece of paper. As broad as “key ideas” or as specific as “write three things you like about the video,” whatever works best for your students.

Get in Groups

Then have students move into groups to run the protocol. They will need to bring their notes from the video. The protocol is called GoGoMo, short for “Give One, Get One, Move On.” Ideally you will have students sit in 2-3 groups of 9 students, because the protocol has 9 squares. You can adapt it for fewer students in a group, but not more. The goal is to have a text based discussion.

Run the Protocol: Keep Time & Keep Quiet

You as the teacher have to keep time. Give them about 45 seconds to write something in the first square. They can write an interesting fact or ask a question. Do not allow students to talk or pass their paper or look at someone else’s paper before the time is up. After 45 seconds, cue students to pass their paper to the right. Have them read what is in the first square. Give them 45 seconds to write in the second square. They should respond to or build on what is in the first square. Then, have them pass their paper to the right. They read what is in squares 1 and 2, then they write in the 3rd square. Keep this rotation up until you have gotten through all 9 squares. You will have to add more time in as more squares get filled in. Remember to keep students quite as this goes on. Students will be tempted to rush or become lazy in their responses if there is socializing going on. At the end of the protocol, everyone should get their own original paper back. Have them read through it.

Then run a class discussion.
  • What stood out to you in the conversations that took place on your paper?
  • What are some of our beliefs about money that came out in this activity?
  • Was anyone surprised by something someone wrote in the discussion?
  • What connections in your own life did you discover in this video and/or the following discussion?
  • Did you like or dislike this activity? Why or why not?

I save the protocol papers because kids have great conversations when they put their minds to it. I found several great quotes on protocol papers the first time I did this activity. I don’t have them anymore, but I hang up a few in the classroom throughout the project. I remember learning that a lot of my students feel quite strongly that money isn’t everything. They knew in their bones that money has nothing to do with happiness. They did want to learn about money and what to do with it, but it was going to be OK if they didn’t have much or any at all. Love is more important.

Share your thoughts!

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