By Joseph Robertia
While some people merely see a paper clip as an item to hold loose sheafs together, Shonia Werner, a sixth-grade teacher at Tustumena Elementary School in Kasilof, sees this simple object as much more. For her, it is a gateway to teach children the fundamentals of communication, negotiation and economics.
“This seemed to be the perfect way to give the kids ownership over their own success in our auction,” she said, referring to the school’s Mighty Meatball spaghetti dinner and fundraiser, where ticket sales and auction items generate money for end-of-the-year field trips.
The idea was inspired by two different factors, once local and one not.
“The trade-up auction was introduced the second year of the fundraiser. The first year, 2008, we solicited donations from local businesses, but it became evident how often different groups ask those businesses for donations and it was also adult volunteer intensive,” she said.
Not wanting to burn out businesses already feeling charity fatigue, and wanting to do more to integrate the children into their own fundraising effort, changes were made.
“We needed something that allowed the students to have more ownership over their own effort. It was about the same time (that) a story came out about a person who had traded a paper clip on Craigslist and kept trading subsequent items until he had traded up to a house,” she said.
Werner was referring to Canadian Kyle Macdonald, who made news in 2005 when he traded up a red paper clip for a pen, doorknob, camp stove, generator, keg of beer, snowmachine, two-person trip to British Columbia, box truck, recording contract, year’s rent in Arizona, day with Alice Cooper, KISS motorized snow globe, a role in a movie and, ultimately, a two-story farm house in Saskatchewan. Werner thought this would be an exciting way to engage the children and raise much-needed funds. She gave everyone in the class a paper clip and a month prior to the fundraiser — to be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13 — to trade up for whatever they could.
While 12-year-old Margie Brown hasn’t gotten close to trading up to her own piece of real estate yet, she is enjoying the assignment so far, she said.
“I think it’s one of the better projects we’ve done,” she said. “It’s challenging, but I’m doing my best.” The tough part of trading for the elementary school kids is they have a limited network of people with which to try and barter, but Brown said she has been swapping with her friends and family members. She has so far traded her paper clip for three wheat pennies, deodorant and a board game, although she admitted she has tagged a little labor onto some of the swaps to sweeten the deals. Werner is fine with that strategy.
“My favorite story from trading up is when a student asked his dad to trade his paper clip for something, and his dad said he didn’t need a paper clip and to come back when he had something better. The student returned with the paper clip and a coupon for an hour of work. His dad had him split wood for an hour and traded the wood he split for the paper clip,” she said.
Werner said that it’s rewarding seeing the kids’ enthusiasm for the principles being taught, and she also relishes seeing the creativity in the final items that are brought in for the auction.
“The final auction items the students end up with always amaze me. We’ve had loads of split wood delivered and stacked, fishing charters, loads of gravel, original artwork, musical instruments and homemade cheesecakes. The (final) amount the items bring in at auction go to that student’s tuition first. If they make anything over that, it goes into our scholarship fund to help cover other students’ tuition. Students are only eligible for scholarship money if they did all of the work, including selling tickets, helping the night of the event and participating in the trade-up auction,” she said.
Werner has even had students from past school years come back to donate handmade items to the auction. Brown said she isn’t sure how far she will be able to go with the assignment, but she is learning a lot about bartering and life in general.
“It seems easy at first, but it’s not. Not when you’re starting so small,” she said. “You’ve got to go to the right people to get better things than what you have.”