Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Motivate Students with Real World Learning

Guest blog post by Susan Nunamaker, Ed.S.

I sat down with Lisa one day and asked her,“What is something you are really good at doing?”  It took this struggling third grade student a long time to think of any talent.  Lisa had earned so many failing grades on reading and math assessments over her years in school that she had come to terms with the idea that she was not good at anything.

Lisa finally came back to me with an answer.  “Well, I’m really good at braiding hair.”  So I told her to try it on my hair.  She braided a strand of my hair in less than a minute.  The braid stayed in my hair the rest of the day, and I woke up the next morning with the braid perfectly intact!  There was no rubber band holding it in, only Lisa’s tight braiding skills. She had discovered her gift.

Lisa saved up classroom money for a class business license and proudly opened “Lisa’s Salon.”  She was in such demand a waiting list hung from her desk.  She quickly realized that she needed to improve her math skills to collect payment, make change, and pay her business taxes.  She also needed reading and writing skills to create a business plan and marketing materials.  Once Lisa made the realization for herself that she needed to improve her reading and math abilities, her classroom performance increased.  Lisa found motivation to take responsibility for her own learning and was determined to better herself for the sake of her own future.

When I was in college learning to become a teacher, I pictured myself walking into a classroom full of kids who couldn’t wait to learn and wanted to please me at all times.  You can imagine the shock when I entered my first classroom and realized that kids are, well, kids.  They come into our schools with lives of their own that definitely have an effect on their performance while they are with us.  Realizing that not all students are as motivated as the kids we see in training videos and textbooks, it was now up to me to figure out how to create a successful learning environment for everyone.  So I asked myself, “How can I motivate my students to do their best while they are with me?”

The answer was simple. Professionalism encourages both children and adults to work harder. And daily classroom routines can easily be transformed into real world, professional classroom activities without adding an extra workload for teachers who already lack the time needed to truly reach their students. These strategies are simply a change in the way we do things, not extras requiring more time. One powerful strategy is adding entrepreneurship opportunities within daily classroom activities.

Student Entrepreneurship

Student-run small businesses are an excellent way to practice and enhance social skills, in addition to applying math, language arts, social studies, and financial literacy skills, with the money that they have earned in your classroom. Students will write business plans, make change, calculate sales tax, graph profit margins, create commercials, hire and manage employees, and use their own talents to sell goods and services to their peers. The most amazing effect is the confidence that students build in themselves as they seek out and discover their own personal talents.

You might be asking how this can be used to teach core academic standards.  Here is a link to watch a video containing just one of the many examples from my classroom: https://vimeo.com/70450224. This video shows the end of a graphing lesson in my third grade classroom.  Students are utilizing graphs that they created after collecting data on inventory sold in their stores. Students are utilizing the data in graph formation to analyze sales and determine future action based on sales data, just as corporations utilize graphs in the real world. You will hear my third grade students discussing inventory that they plan on increasing and products or services that they plan to discontinue based on the graphs. This is real world teaching and learning!

(Mathematical Practices: Number & Operations, Data Analysis, Fractions & Decimals, Money, Algebraic Thinking, Counting & Cardinality English/Language Arts: Reading, Writing, Language, Speaking & Listening, Technology Social Studies: Economics, Social Skills, Decision-Making Skills, Financial Literacy)

Susan Nunamaker is a National Board Certified Teacher with a passion to help students discover their talents and a love for learning. She will be presenting a session on real-world learning at the Elementary School Conference in October and is being sponsored by Kaplan Elementary. Susan currently teaches 3rd grade at Clemson Elementary School and is a 2012 finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Learn more real world classroom ideas in Susan’s latest book entitled Backpacks to Briefcases. You are also invited to read fun, oftentimes hilarious, daily stories from her classroom at realworldbehavior.blogspot.com or visit Susan’s Pinterest Board for classroom ideas! 


  1. Love it! It's great when you can find something that "clicks" for a student. :) Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks, Heather. That is the greatest feeling as a teacher, isn't it?!?

  3. Fantastic Idea! I would love to implement this into my classroom. Thanks for posting!

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