The 1 Million Pennies Project: A K-12 Classroom Project

Jillian Folino, NBCTMarch 13, 2020

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“I hate math.” How many times have you heard this statement from adults and students alike? As someone whose job is centered on math and math education, it hurts every time I hear it; and like most math teachers, I’ve heard it a lot. I’ve recently switched roles from a high school math teacher to a 6th-12th grade math instructional coach.

My new role has taken me in a million different directions, but one of my main focuses is developing a positive outlook towards math in our middle-high school. Each year I’ve tried to develop a project that highlights math in a meaningful, driving the students and adults to become more enthusiastic. My goal is to get students to talk about math naturally and because they want to, not because someone told them to.

While brainstorming project ideas with several colleagues, we began thinking about the concept of large numbers and how hard it is to visualize large numbers. This was the spark that helped develop the 1 Million Pennies Project. My husband is a special education teacher. He and I began formulating the outline of the project. In order to achieve our goal, we decided to include the entire district and community. Educationally, this project has hit many NYS Common Core math standards ranging from counting in early elementary to volume and proportions in middle school and high school.

We launched the project by developing a video that asked students some general questions about one million, the penny, and the SPCA, the ultimate recipient of the money at the end of the project. With the help of other instructional coaches in the district, we developed lessons and activities for teachers to use with their students. We want these lessons to act as a spark, encouraging and inspiring teachers to find unique and creative ways to use the project in their classrooms to reach their standards. Since the launch in February, we’ve seen countless projects across the district!

The project has been used in math, sparked debates and essays in ELA, experiments in science and economics, and civic-mindedness discussions in Social Studies. Music teachers have played a song with one million notes, in art students have made persuasive advertisements, and whole buildings have done estimation contests. The project has connected the school to our broader community on so many levels.

Who would have thought pennies could have such a profound impact on our community?

A structural engineer developed the plans for the box that holds the pennies and our woodshop students built it. Local businesses have donated pennies and prizes to give to students, and house jars on their counters for community donations. The project has brought a sense of unity to our school and community.

Parents have had the opportunity to talk math at the dinner table, something I love dearly.   Questions like how much money is 1,000,000 pennies? How much will it weigh? How much space will it take up? Students have had opportunities to escort pennies from their elementary buildings to the high school with our school resource officer.

Seeing our students excited and learning is a beautiful reminder of why I became a teacher in the first place. I knew the project was going to be fun but I definitely underestimated the impact it would have; our students are sure to remember this for the rest of their lives and I am so humbled to be able to have been a part of it.

Check out the project at ircsd.org/pennies.

Jillian Folino, NBCT

Jillian Folino, NBCT

Jillian spent 8 years teaching high school mathematics. During that time she worked for two different districts, helped to facilitate mathematics teaching camps, and was a peer teaching mentor. She has presented at the Mathematical Association of America Annual conference, and was published in the Association of Mathematics Teachers of New York State Journal. She became National Board certified in 2017 and has spent the last two years as a 6-12 mathematics instructional coach at Indian River Central School District.