• Using Coins to Teach Just About Everything: An Author's Recollection

    stwlogocropped-high-res-2-jpgContributed by Jennifer Jo Young, Author and See the Wish Co-President

    I didn’t start out writing
    “The Wishful Penny – Adventures of a One-Cent Coin” to educate kids. In fact, I wrote my first draft when I was just eight years old and I called it “Jenny’s Penny.”

    I was a third grader standing outside of Woolworth’s Five & Dime in Ridgefield, Connecticut, feeling pretty accomplished. Free of parental guidance, I had just made a purchase for the first time using my own money. I was inspecting the change I held in my hand, a few coins from the cashier, when it happened… one simple line of thought that would dictate the course of my adult life. I wouldn’t realize that for a very long time. What I did realize was that most of the coins in my hand were older than I was - I could tell by the dates they were minted.

    I focused in on one old, brown penny. Where had it been before me? Who else had held it? Had I? Thousands of people? Famous people? Had it traveled to other countries? Had it been in the White House, maybe in the president’s pocket? Or had it spent its entire life lost in the sand at the beach, doing nothing, just found last week? If only coins could talk! Oh, the stories they could tell! That day, I began to invent “Jenny’s Penny” adventures in my head, sometimes scribbling them down and often adding to them.

    As an adult, that imaginary penny’s adventures still played in my mind. I decided to pay homage to this childhood fascination by putting my college English degree to work. In 2003, “The Wishful Penny” became my first published book.

    In “The Wishful Penny,” I use coin characters as a vehicle for teaching character education, a specialty of mine after a career as a life skills educator for foster care kids in New York City. The lives of humans and coins have been entwined since the beginning of civilization, so it’s not a difficult task. After all, we confide our deepest wishes to coins before tossing them into fountains. We cheer them on as they flip in the air holding our hopes in suspense. Pennies, in particular, know what it’s like to be on top of the world one minute and, in the next, to be homeless in the park, laughed at for being too worthless to pick-up and scorned as “bad luck.” As my penny’s journey unfolds, so does a unique coin wisdom that can easily apply to humans. “Penny” learns that there is immense value in being different; life will get better even when it seems hopeless; envisioning wishes can help make them come true; and there is a magic treasure inside everyone, even if no one sees it yet.

    As I researched the travels and stampings of coins, their potential as a teaching tool for academic subjects became obvious. Money and math, that’s a no-brainer… but science? Coins are made of precious and common metals such as gold, copper, nickel, aluminum, and way back when, carved from mixtures of elements like sand and clay and wood. In Chapter 6 of “The Wishful Penny,” the exotic coins in a collector’s safe pass the time comparing their similarities and differences. A South African Krugerrand wants to be worth MORE than her weight in gold and is dismayed as to why the 1825 Constantine Ruble is more valuable. “No offense,” Krugerrand whines, “but I’m precious. You’re made of common metal, yet people would trade a truckload of me to get just one of you.” Krugerrand learns that the Constantine Ruble was minted in Russia by mistake – and in the world of coins, mistakes are more valuable… which brings a great lesson to the kids that sometimes mistakes are great opportunities. What makes something ordinary, valuable? Is a larger coin always heavier than a smaller coin – and why not? Why are some metals “precious” and some “common”?

    Collecting and researching coins brings the world to a child’s fingertips. What is that deer-like animal on the tail of the South African Krugerrand? What is the story behind the man honored on the 1825 Constantine Ruble? Who is that muscular blacksmith stamped on the 1960 Italian Lira? How many words can you learn in different languages from a coin’s stamping? Can you locate the King Sahasamalla Massa’s country on the globe?

    Massa, the wisest of my characters, is an ancient coin from Ceylon, now called Sri-Lanka. (Yes, that would have been a tricky question to answer.) His stamping depicts King Sahasamalla sitting on a throne but the kids tell me that he looks more like an octopus. Granted, making coin molds in the year 1200 must have been difficult compared to today’s precision technology. So, how are coins made today? A virtual (www.usmint.gov/kids) or physical road trip to the U.S. Mint in Denver or Philadelphia is a must-do field trip.

    In 2009, the Mint released four new tail designs for the Lincoln Cent to honor its 100th birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Each of the four new tail designs depicts a different time in Lincoln’s life. In my story, the old pennies are thrilled by the release of these four new tail designs because it means that the Mint is not discontinuing pennies… yet. A good debate topic and financial report project for the older kids (for Congress, too) is whether or not the U.S. Mint should continue to make pennies since the metals used to make them have become more expensive than their actual one-cent value. Ask children to write an essay on what was happening in the world during the year that a coin was minted. Include a timeline of the coin’s possible journey from minting to the present or write a story like mine, from a coin’s point-of-view.

    The diversity of the pocket change rattling around your home can supply endless (and free, paradoxically, as coins are money) educational material, but it’s neither hard nor expensive to find coins from around the world. Look in flea markets, Ebay and hobby shops. Ask friends to bring coins back from their travels. Or, instruct kids to print out coin images from the internet, cut them out and glue them onto cardboard for an educational art project! Another thought-provoking project is to have children design a stamping to honor their own lives or someone or something else of their choosing.

    All over the world, coins are viewed as magical vehicles for making wishes come true and holding the promise of good luck. My Jenny’s Penny certainly made good on its potential. The hardcover copy of The Wishful Penny released in 2003 caught the eye of a prolific composer/playwright/performer, January Akselrad, as she shopped in a bookstore. When January read the book, a full-on family musical, singing coin characters and all, began to dance in her head. She and I would not meet for another two years, but when we did (by chance, same store), she asked if I would like to hear her ideas for a musical based on my book. Would I? It was a wish come true!

    The next year, January produced her derivative musical, “Jenny’s Penny” (no kidding, she came up with that name on her own!) in New York City and I got to see my characters come to life. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission in DC asked us if they could buy the book and the show’s music for a gift bag project. That is when “The Wishful Penny, A Book & CD Set” was born!

    Through our collaboration, January and I discovered a common passion for educating and inspiring children in entertaining ways using theater, music and literature. We co-founded See The Wish in 2009. Our company’s name derives from the sage advice offered by wise Massa to newly-minted Penny when she asks how to make a human’s wish come true. “See the wish and the wish will come true,” says Massa. The name represents our commitment to helping children understand that they all possess the power to realize their dreams.

    One lucky penny in third grade brought me a ton of wishes come true:The Wishful Penny, the derivative Jenny’s Penny musical, my company in partnership with January Akselrad, The Wishful Penny Teacher’s Kit, The Wishful Penny School Play Kit, our motivational “Hour To Imagine Wish and Dream” school presentation and, most recently, a Mom’s Choice Award-winning Audiobook available as a download at Amazon and Audible.com performed by January with a different voice for each coin and character! Not a bad haul for one little cent!

    It’s challenging to think of any other items that pack as much of a teaching material “punch” as do coins. In fact, I can’t. Stamps come close and are a similarly excellent teaching tool, but they have not been around as long and don’t provide the same science of metals. Use coins to teach! It just makes cents!
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