For most middle school students, social studies class typically consists of lessons on geography, memorizing of historical facts and getting an introduction to American government.
But for one group of eighth-graders in North Riverside, social studies lessons have revolved around learning about the stock market, understanding economics and acquiring basic financial literacy -- all while creating and executing a fundraising campaign to give back to local children in need.
Through an elective course called Social Studies Academy at Komarek School, teacher Christopher Bedalow is striving to encourage his students to look beyond the ordinary social studies curriculum and recognize that they're never too young to acquire financial and business skills.
Bedalow, who has taught social studies at Komarek School for 20 years, wanted a way for his students to learn the ins and outs of the stock market, how to write out a check, how to manage a bank account and how to budget. He says he first really thought about offering the course more than 10 years ago, during the 2008 financial crisis.
"A lot of it happened because people just don't know [financial basics]," he said. "I look at my parents and my grandparents' generations, and they didn't necessarily understand what a 401(k) is and how to work the stock market, and it's important when you're young to start saving for your future, to start thinking about your future. You're never too young to do that."
In a time when elementary education is exceedingly technology-based, Bedalow says it's more important than ever to remind students the importance of acquiring skills on how to live as independent, responsible and business-savvy young adults.
"Our social studies curriculum is very history-based, and I don't think we do enough financial literacy, economics, current events, geography and politics," Bedalow said. "I wanted to have another avenue to have seventh- and eighth-graders explore that rather than have to wait for high school or even college."
Three years ago, Bedalow approached Superintendent Brian Ganan with the idea for the course. Upon receiving approval from administrators and the school board, he was finally able to offer the first session of the elective course coined "Social Studies Academy."
While several students showed interest in the semester-long course over the past few years, this fall's enrollment has been the largest the class has seen -- 22 students enrolled for the fall, and another 21 coming up in the spring — nearly three-quarters of the entire eighth-grade class at Komarek.
But this year, Bedalow says, is the first time the class has incorporated business management, with students exploring the opportunity of creating a school fundraiser.
Deciding to do something to coincide with the holiday season, students created a campaign called "$5 for $500."
With the tagline, "Make everyone's wishes come true this holiday season," students have broken off into clusters -- website developers, marketers, treasurers, public relations consultants and CEOs -- to focus on the different ways to manage a fundraiser with the goal of raising $500 to go towards the purchase of toys for low-income children in surrounding communities.
The goal is to encourage students to donate money to be collected in one homeroom envelope. To encourage donations, students have created flyers, an informational website, a campaign logo and campaign envelopes, which are located in both individual homerooms and in the school district office, so parents and other community members can pitch in. Students in the class have also pitched the project in person to other classes, practicing their public speaking skills.
The fundraiser, which began on Oct. 21, lasts through Nov. 29. The class has partnered with the west suburban public school consortium West 40, which will help students identify families that would benefit most from the donations.
Ava Thompson, an eighth-grader and CEO for the project, says the project has been a great way for her peers to focus less on themselves and more on how to help out others.
"I don't think of this project as a grade," Thompson said. "I think of it as giving back to the community and encouraging people to give back."
Fellow CEO Jessi Bellm says both the project and class have been beneficial in helping students have a better understanding of real-world financial and management skills.
"It's also important for us to show other kids that you don't have to be an adult to run a business or work on a project and do something big," Bellm said.
Public relations chairwomen Aspen Florynski and Angelina Figueroa agree with Bellm, saying the course has demonstrated the concept that you're never too young to understand the world of money, employment and entrepreneurship.
"As children, we need to learn basic skills, especially if you want to make your own business and make it work, because it takes a lot of effort and energy to run a business and even do something simple like this," Florynski said.
"Not only are we learning about business skills, but I think it can have a positive outcome because people see what we're doing, and it's good for our school and for the children who will receive the presents," Figueroa said. "I think it's hands-down one of the most useful classes you could ever take."
For more information about the students' "$5 for $500" campaign, visit cbedalow.wixsite.com/cbedalow.