Collegiate teacher wins statewide award

Collegiate teacher Rob Wedge (center) with Ben Rein, head of Collegiate’s Upper School, and Suzanne Gallagher, director of the VCU Center for Economic Education.
An economics class he took in college has resulted in long-term payoffs for Rob Wedge -- and for growing numbers of students at The Collegiate School as the well.

In 1996, as a history teacher at Winchester (Massachusetts) High School, Wedge was approached by the assistant principal, who was casting around for someone to take over his part-time teaching duties.

Noticing the economics class on Wedge's college transcript, and not wanting to turn over his economics class to someone who knew nothing about the subject, the administrator asked Wedge if he'd be willing to teach part-time while working on his master's degree at Boston University.

"Being a starving college student," recalls Wedge, "I happily took the job."

Before long, his Winchester students had won a local Fed Challenge competition, which led to a job at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. For the next several years, Wedge worked with The Fed and at the Massachusetts Council on Economic Education, developing and coordinating economic education programs.

But even though he was involved in educational pursuits, and his new jobs were more lucrative than his Winchester job, Wedge began to long for the classroom again.

"I really missed my first love – teaching," he says.

Part-time to full-time
So when Wedge got a call offering him a position with the E. Angus Powell Endowment for American Enterprise at The Collegiate School in Richmond -- and was told he could teach part-time – he didn't hesitate long. Married only a few months (after meeting his wife playing softball for the Fed) he took the offer and moved to Richmond in 2004, as soon as his wife found employment with the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

Within a short time, his "part-time" teaching duties mushroomed into a full schedule.

"The year before I taught AP Economics at Collegiate, there were nine students enrolled in AP Econ," says Wedge. "[After I began teaching], one section became two sections.

"Two sections became three sections . . . and three full sections became five full sections in 2009." In addition, Wedge also assisted on two textbook revisions and field-tested Ethical Foundations in Economics.

In December, citing his passion for the subject and his success with teaching, the Virginia Council on Economic Education (VCEE) named Wedge the Commonwealth of Virginia's Economic Educator of the Year.

"His enthusiasm," officials said, "has resulted not only in an increased number of his students taking AP Economics, but [in] 95 percent of his students [earning] a 'passing' grade of three or higher.

"Students say that Rob shines outside the classroom, too," officials added, "by giving them the opportunity to participate in extracurricular learning experiences such as the Fed Challenge, Econ Challenge, and Euro Challenge."

Paychecks, with deductions
Wedge attributes much of the growth in popularity of his classes to the success his students have had in the Fed Challenge and other economic competitions. Not only have students won a number of local contests; many have also gone on to compete nationally.

As for the reasons for his students' success, Wedge says, "I'm a big believer in creative ways of presenting material." Among the assignments in his class are frequent presentations – even music videos [see link below] – illustrating concepts.

What's more, Wedge employs a unique and somewhat controversial grading system. He pays his students for the work that they do in class.

"It's complicated and there is some adult resistance to it on Collegiate's campus, but it really works," he says. "Each month they receive a paycheck with Social Security, Medicare, and federal and state income taxes deducted."

Wedge also works the payment system into the 'class participation' part of the grade, providing bonuses to a student who offers a unique explanation or asks a good question, and slapping additional taxes on a student who lags in participation or doesn't meet standards.

"So," Wedge says, "my grading system and the content of the course are embedded with each other."

World to its knees
Despite having developed unique ways to keep his students engaged, Wedge says it is a constant challenge to hold their attention and "keep things fresh."

"There are so many other things out there that capture their attention. [They are] engaged in a lot of non-academic things all the time," he says, pointing out that Collegiate students are also required to participate in two sports. "The battle for spots in their minds and schedules can be tough."

Another challenge he must overcome is the misconceptions that students often bring to the classroom. One reason that Wedge designed his grading system the way he did was to dispel some of those misconceptions, especially regarding taxes and the budget deficit.

"The grading system gets them to see that a lot of what they hear about taxes is off base," he says. "As for the budget deficit and national debt, they don't realize what the sources of the debt and deficit are, so their approaches to 'fixing it' often miss the mark, too."

Although Wedge does not think that his current students are any more informed or ignorant than those he taught more than a decade ago, he does believe that due to financial innovations, students have to know more in order to succeed. Economics education is more important than ever, he emphasizes, and he is grateful that Virginia now has an economics and personal finance requirement for graduation.

In the days before Collegiate's spring break, he recalls, one student in particular underscored that importance.

As Wedge was showing his students the film "Too Big to Fail," about the financial crisis of 2008, he took frequent breaks to explain certain sequences. During one such break, a student exclaimed, "Holy Cow, this is really complicated. It almost brought the world to its knees and I've never heard of half of this stuff.

"Your class is an elective class," the student pointed out to Wedge. "So when is everyone else supposed to learn about this stuff?"

Resonance
Hearing such insightful comments and questions from his students, says Wedge, is just one of the things he finds satisfying about teaching.

"That question really stuck with me," says Wedge, "and will motivate me for the rest of this school year and beyond."

Among other rewards of teaching, he says, are the relationships he has built with students over the years – especially those who get involved in the extracurricular competitions. In some cases he has taken a chance on the students he selects to compete, but they have always risen to the occasion. Parents often thank him, he says, for giving their children the opportunity to compete with the best academically, as well as athletically or socially. "And that means a lot to me."

Wedge also enjoys the emails he receives from students who have graduated, asking about articles they are reading online or about something they are studying in college.

"I get these emails two, three, four years after they're out of my class," says Wedge.

"To me, that says that I did something that had some resonance with them for the rest of their lives."

To view a video created by Wedge's students, visit http://tinyurl.com/cf9mejf.
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Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will present Flowers After 5 on Thursday evenings through September. Stroll through the gardens and enjoy live music from Exebelle and the Rusted Cavalcade, as well as family activities, wine and beer, dining and shopping. Lawn chairs and blankets are welcome. The Garden partners with the Richmond SPCA on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month for Fidos After 5 where leashed pets are allowed. Admission is $8 to $13 or free for members. For details, visit http://www.lewisginter.org. Full text

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