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Why this Chicago teacher believes smart money lessons could help break the cycle of poverty

On a recent afternoon in Chicago, seniors in Bogan Computer Technical High School Room 216 are weighing the meaning of two charts. One depicts tuition; the other shows the percentage of students who will earn a degree at each of the four fictional colleges within six years.

Their teacher, Christine Laadimi, poses a question: Which college is the best deal — and why?

The students — who’ve all applied to a minimum of five colleges to complete a required postsecondary plan — start peppering Laadimi with questions.

“Why are none of the graduation rates 100%?”

“Why are tuition rates so high?”

“Why is the price on this one so low?”

Laadimi patiently walks the students through the concept of value, how graduation rates and scholarships should factor into decision-making, and, ultimately, why cost shouldn’t be the sole data point students evaluate.

A senior who has been slumped down in his chair in the back of the classroom perks up: “The price may be low, but if you are never going to graduate, it’s not a good deal. Right, Mrs. Laadimi?”

That’s exactly the lesson Laadimi is trying to impart on her students, many of whom live in the working-class areas around this school on the city’s Southwest Side. For the past few years, she has relied on a semester-long financial education curriculum called FinEdge that was developed by the University of Chicago. The lessons cover personal finance topics such as budgeting and credit scores, postsecondary costs, even debt, interest, and investing.

“I’ve taken algebra, and some geometry, but this is the first class I’ve ever had where anyone talked to me about debt,” says Kenyatta Marsh, a senior.

Laadimi teaches global politics, civics, and 20th Century World history at Bogan. Chalkbeat asked her to weigh in on her approach, why she believes financial education belongs in the classroom, and how she hopes her lessons inspire her students, many of whom are low-income, to break the cycle of poverty.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have always wanted to be a teacher. I remember the teachers that I had in high school that were not the best, and I remember thinking that I wanted to do better for my students.

How do you get to know your students?

First I tell them my life story about my family and then slowly I build that relationship. I tend to think of students first as teenagers and not just students, I have a desk that is set up with lotion and cologne, for the days that they feel ashy or smelly. I ask them about their family, I remember and ask them follow-up questions.

My students are juniors and seniors. As I teacher, I remember being young and how it was to think and act impulsively. Because of this, I rarely yell at them and when there is a problem, I talk to them, and we try and fix it.

My classroom is also open during lunch periods three times a week, and they study and talk. They also stay after school and do work. I am also the debate and decathlon coach. So I see them outside of school. (When they complete a certain amount of debates they get a hand-crocheted scarf made by me.)

I treat all of my students with respect, which is something that not all people do, and I tell them the truth where I have gone wrong financially and how to fix those issues.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

One of my favorite lessons is personal budgeting. I’ve been working with a program called FinEDge, which is a financial literacy curriculum developed by the University of Chicago. The lessons cover everything from credit cards to credit scores to paying for college.

When I teach personal budgeting, I start by asking students to list all of the stuff that they have in their “apartments” and how much it costs and what it is worth. It gets them thinking about insurance, if they get robbed or there is a fire. But also helps them to relate that they will not always have the best that their parents have provided them with.

I tell them about the time that I came back from a four-week trip to Morocco exhausted, just to find out that I had been robbed and realized that I did not have renters insurance.

I give the students the actual amount of money that I make and have them research and budget where my money goes and then I actually tell them how much I spend in certain places.

A second favorite lesson is that I give them the dollar amount that I spend in a week for groceries and have them plan the meals and make a shopping list. If they can do it in under the money that I spend for groceries then they do not have an exam on budgeting. This teaches them about meal planning as well as grocery shopping. It does have its downfalls — sometimes the meals they suggest are gross.

What is something from this lesson that other teachers could take away and use in their classrooms?

We are really supposed to be giving the students life lessons that they can use to be productive members of society. They need to know about some of the mistakes that we make and be able to simulate these activities.

If I was told about paying interest on a credit card and had to figure out the interest, I might have been more aware of predatory loans and what that means. Students get to hands-on experience without the risk of ruining their credit score before it happens.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Students come from areas of high violence, social media affects them, they have parents in jail. But mostly it is breaking the mindset of poverty — from the housing program Section 8 to the food support program Link — and that they are OK with living this way. Each year I do a unit where I teach students to look up their credit, and there are students who learn their parents have used their children’s Social Security numbers to hook up cable or their cell phone.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

The first time I started to teach this class, I was sitting at report card pick-up and a parent came to me and said that this was the first time that her child had come home and shared what they were learning in class. And the parent confessed that they did not know half of the stuff that I was teaching the students.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Buy-in from some students that they can break cycles. Especially when we get to the section about college — some students do not see the value in it. They feel that their parents are doing OK without college so they will be fine.

As a teacher, I have discussions with them about minimum wage and how much money they will earn at different jobs. Just because they see that their parents are doing OK, doesn’t mean that they are. Some parents do not tell them the debt that they are in. There are a lot of cycles to break in the inner city — rent-to-own centers instead of saving for a couch, currency exchanges instead of a free checking account, cooking meals and budgeting grocery money instead of eating out everyday. I try to tell them why be fine? As a parent you are supposed to want more for your children, as a teacher I want more for them.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That all students wanted to get good grades. I have found that some are happy with a D and that is so sad.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now I am reading a James Patterson book, as well as “Motivating Students Who Don’t Care” and a Debbie McComber book. I cannot just read one book at a time: When you come into my room you will see the books on the shelf. After I am done with the books students can borrow and read them. I do not want to say borrow, because I do not ask for them back. I am hoping that they share these books with others in their life.

This is one of the first years that students have been requesting titles and authors of books. That makes me happy that they are reading for pleasure.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

Consistency. Students are looking for that in their lives, and our classrooms may be the only place that they get it.

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