Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 3, Page 12
Spring 1994
Ronni Cohen reinvents the classroom

     Each day, Ronni Cohen's fourth graders enter her classroom under
a cluster of embroidery hoops decorated with spider web designs. They
are dream catchers, made by the children to represent the Native
American legend of the spider whose web allows good dreams to pass
through while blocking the bad.
     Like the dream catcher, Cohen, Delaware '69, makes it her job to
guide her students throught the web of "real-world" pitfalls that
could inhibit dreams.
     For the past 18 years, she has been teaching her students the
principles of economics and the skills necessary to become successful
     "They learn how to do things like budget their time, and
budgeting time is an important entrepreneurial skill. That's what
entrepreneurship is - reality," Cohen says.
     She routinely asks her gifted and talented students at M. H.
Burnett Elementary School in Wilmington, Del., to invent, produce and
market products. Creating and running their own business requires them
to master creative thinking, research, math, reading, writing and
mechanical skills - skills that most educators use textbooks to teach.
     For a recent project, they had to invent something that would
help people eat spaghetti more neatly. The project was called
     With each entrepreneurial project, Cohen's students are required
to keep an inventor's portfolio in which they write a design abstract
and log their thoughts, progress, difficulties, research and amount of
time spent thinking about and working on their projects. The portfolio
requires a brainstorming session to come up with a name for the
product, using word play and unusual lettering. They must design their
invention on paper, list the land, labor and capital requirements
needed to produce it and calculate the costs involved. Students
conduct a market survey and graph a supply schedule, which includes
determining the market clearing price. They create an advertising
campaign and when they are done, the students, their peers and the
teacher evaluate each product based on a demonstration.
     For Pastamania, parents brought in spaghetti and video cameras to
record real-life demonstrations of "Leyla's Loony Linguini Looper,"
the "Super Slicer Spaghetti Sweeper" and "Spingetti," created so that
"one of life's embarrassing moments will never happen to you." The
demonstrations had to be executed by a student bystander who had to
figure out how to use the instrument solely from instructions written
by the inventor.
     Her passionate dedication to the teaching of economics has won
Cohen national recognition.
     Last December, she was named Entrepreneurship Educator of the
Year during a ceremony held in Palm Springs. She was selected out of
85 nominees from across the country.
     "It was just like the Academy Awards. I was one of three
finalists, and no one knew who was going to win," she says.
     On top of the $5,000 she received as a finalist, Cohen was given
a trophy and a $15,000 stipend to spend a summer studying at the
Kauffman Foundation Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. She was
profiled in the December issue of INC magazine and became the first
educator to be named to the Entrepreneur of the Year Hall of Fame.
     In 1992, she won the National Federation of Independent Bussiness
Award for Elementary Education for a unit of the materials she created
for her class.
     Cohen, who was born in Winthrop, Mass., has been an elementary
school teacher in Delaware since she graduated from the University.
     But, it wasn't until 1976, when she began taking courses at the
University's Center for Economic Education and met Director James
O'Neill and Associate Director Bonnie J. Meszaros that she realized
how she wanted to teach. "They influenced my whole career. They showed
me how the study of economics can make the school day exciting for
kids, especially when the competition includes video games, television
and movies."
     Cohen would like to see her inventor's portfolio used to teach
economics across the country. She'd also like to write a complete
workbook on entrepreneurship for kids, stressing self-examination of
their interests and attitudes, because as Ronni Cohen says, "In life,
you really have to sell yourself."
                                                     -Barbara Garrison