In Fenar’s classes, simple everyday financial decisions are the focus. As one of his students says, "I can talk about mitosis and other such items but that won’t help me in the real world. Car loans, checking accounts, stocks, mortgages etc. are what Mr. Fenar taught us about." On the first day of his Money Skills class each year, he writes a big $50 on the board. "If you make this much each day, you need to spend $49 or less. Not $51, not $52, not $50," he says. Teaching students to live within their means and avoid the pitfalls of overspending is a simple concept but one of his primary motivations for teaching the class.
The 20-week Money Skills class Fenar teaches is based on the computer-based program of the same name sponsored by M & T bank. Working in pairs, students learn, "just about everything they need to have a good ground to stand in the real world," Fenar says. He finds that the interactive program keeps students engaged in the content; they can test their knowledge and re-learn skills at their own pace. With an associates’ degree in computer science, he is especially interested in incorporating computer skills into his financial education program; he thinks this method of learning helps to engage some students who may not be interested otherwise.
Fenar makes great efforts to supplement the computer-based Money Skills curriculum with additional lessons, projects and activities. His goal is to ensure that all of his students are motivated to learn the subject matter. "I normally don’t decide exactly what to teach until I meet the class," he says. The care he takes to cater the curriculum and activities to the personalities of his students helps to ensure his program’s success. It contributes to his popularity, too. "This teacher takes such great passion when teaching, sometimes you can just see it through his body language. It makes coming to class every day fun," says his student.
Fenar’s financial skills lessons include units on the Federal Reserve System, the history behind each U.S. bill, the advantages and disadvantages of credit and debit cards, and how to gauge, understand and make purchases according to what you can afford.
He supplements lessons with a variety of long- and short-term activities. One of the most popular is his stock market project. After teaching students the basics about the market and trading, he gives them each an imaginary $100,000 to spend on investments over the next several months. Working within specific guidelines (they must buy stocks valued at over $5 a share and buy or sell a minimum of 100 shares at a time), students acquire, watch and trade their stocks in an effort to increase their funds. "One student," Fenar reports with enthusiasm, "turned $100,000 into $135,000."
Another project requires students to budget for and "buy" a car of their own. "Most of them have cars on their mind, so this project really grabs their attention," he says. Students are given a specific budget and must select a car, estimate insurance payments and analyze monthly car payments, including how much of their payments will go toward paying off the principle versus interest. For another project, students choose someone from Forbes’ Richest People in America list and give a presentation on their financial success. It’s another way Fenar helps motivate his students to make smart financial decisions.
As a fourth year teacher in the Buffalo, NY school, Fenar is relatively new to the financial education scene but clearly experienced at building students’ enthusiasm about a subject that some consider dry. He’s been impressed with the leadership and discipline at the unique charter school, which functions in line with military guidelines – all the way from military uniforms to phrases like "attention on deck." The structure has given him a basis with which to teach a subject has an important impact on students’ daily and future lives.
Practical Money Skills commends Eric Fenar at the Western New York Maritime Charter School for his contributions to financial literacy.