What Does One Billion Look Like?

We used to be tight. Close-knit. We understood one another. And then I got to high school and everything changed. There was a distance between us, unspoken but obvious. I tried to pretend like nothing was wrong, but night after night, I cried to my dad that I just didn’t understand why things had to change.

“Why does it have to be so hard??” I wailed, splotch-faced and puffy-eyed. My dad remained calm, trying to help me the best he could, but eventually it became clear to both of us: I was my own worst enemy. I had mentally checked-out.

So I resigned myself to the reality that, despite Algebra and Geometry being manageable, my stint as a tutor and my love affair with math was O.V.E.R.

As soon as those imaginary numbers were thrown into the equation (see what I did there?), I curled up in the fetal position and rocked myself into a corner. I went to after-school tutoring sessions, I paid attention in class, I sought my mathematically-minded father’s help with homework. Still, I couldn’t wrap my brain around this “higher level stuff.”

Had H&R Block’s “How Big Is a Billion? Challenge”  been around back when I was bawling my face off because I couldn’t grasp Complex Numbers, maybe I would have been saved. Check out how cool this is:


H&R Block asked teachers to turn the idea of $1 billion into a math assignment by submitting real-life examples to illustrate the concept. Classroom grants of $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 were awarded across three grade tiers: grades 4th-6th, 7th-9th and 10th-12th.




The winning answers are INSANELY creative. Students in the 4th-6th grade tier taught us that “If a back handspring covers 58 inches; a gymnast doing one billion back handsprings would travel around the world 36 times” (Courtesy of Kim Gonzalez’ class at Brentwood Elementary School in Austin, Texas).

You guys. These kids are in elementary school!

Kelley Taylor’s 7th-9th grade students at Arnold Magnet Academy & Richards Middle School in Columbus, Georgia used a realistic application of the money to prove that “One billion dollars is enough to purchase $20 in school supplies for every public school student in the country, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.”


Teacher Bobby Letter’s sophomore, junior, and senior high school students recognized that “One billion dollars would purchase 752 million packs of sticky notes, enough to cover 10.6 million square miles – or roughly 92 percent of the land area on the continent of Africa” (Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado).

I’m not sure why they chose sticky notes instead of chocolates, as I would have appreciated that even more, but this isn’t about me. It’s about the math. And the fact that H&R Block along with WeAreTeachers, an online resource for lesson plans, professional development resources, grants and contests for teachers, have gotten kids excited about math and financial literacy.

It’s like the English teacher equivalent of when the Harry Potter series got our students reading again. Magic.

You can read all of the winning ideas HERE!

As a teacher, it makes my heart happy seeing so many students involved and engaged in what can really be a cumbersome topic. As the parent of a 4-year-old who is completely obsessed with math (he seriously asks to play online addition and subtraction games. For fun.), I am excited to see the different ways in which schools and companies are showcasing the real life applications of the subject. When I was a freshman in college, my math professor constantly compared our problem solving to shopping; you’ve no idea how that helped me understand the concepts in that course!

Turns out, H&R Block has been promoting financial literacy by giving money, opportunities, and resources to classrooms all over America since 2009. In fact, H&R Block’s Dollars & Sense has awarded over $4 million dollars in scholarships to students and teachers alike.

Hey, teacher friends, are you paying attention?! Four. Million. Dollars.

So you’re not a math teacher? It doesn’t matter. The financial literacy lessons are applicable to any classroom, as evidenced by this graphic. I think teachers could implement some really awesome interdisciplinary projects based solely on the percentages in the graphic:

Biology and health classes: research and analyze the effects of stress on a young person’s body.

Sociology and psychology classes: research and present findings on how prolonged stress can take a mental toll and, ultimately, affect the community’s greater good.

Math and business classes: create a working budget, contacting local banks for information on things like student loans, rates, etc.

English and speech classes: write proposals sharing the information found in the initial research, as well as short-term and long-term goals to promote financial literacy, and then present the findings in an informal setting.

Then, community outreach becomes a possibility. What about a Financial Literacy Night where parents and other school stakeholders listen to their students’ presentations, then visit different stations that are set up in the school cafeteria? Bank representatives, local colleges, guidance counselors–they could all be there answering questions and offering different resources and information. What parent or school wouldn’t want a money savvy kid, one who helps prepare for his own future?

And to think all of this brainstorming came from a fun idea of graphically detailing one billion dollars.

Thinking about numbers in a way that makes it fun and useful to our lives is the key for some of us when it comes to understanding math. One of my favorite lessons when I was in high school involved standing around the classroom holding string and literally seeing the angles and shapes come to life. H&R Block and We Are Teachers made math come to life for these students, and I think I can speak for educators everywhere when I say, thank you.

Oh, and math? I’m willing to admit that it wasn’t you; it was me. But my seeing other people, especially English, really was best for both of us.


This is a sponsored post, but all opinions and distaste for numbers are my own.








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  1. I’m a huge math nerd (participated in extra credit contests after school, majored in math in college, did my friend’s GMAT math problems just for fun – you get the picture) but I totally get that it doesn’t come easy for everyone. I think it really depends on having teachers that make it fun and comprehensible early on. Once you miss the boat, it’s near impossible to catch up because it’s ingrained that “math is hard.” This program is so cool! So glad to hear about it.

    • Vicki, you said it perfectly! The teachers make all the difference and my 8th and 9th grade math teachers were horrendous. That said, I did check-out mentally, which was totally my fault, but by the time I realized I needed to get my crap together, it was too late. Way over my head! Thankfully I married a math teacher so my kids aren’t completely screwed!

  2. With someone with dyslexia math and I did not get along well at all. I could understand the concepts but when I wrote them down it would get all mixed up since I would flip the numbers. So I am really interested in anything that can make math more “fun” and more accessible. Great post! Thanks! And good for H&R Block , what a great program.

  3. I love this idea. It’s such a great way to get kids to see how its beneficial for them to learn this material. I love the things the kids came up with too.

  4. Ha- love your closing disclaimer! I too have a distaste for math, and I applaud all efforts to make it fun and relevant for kids. That said, doing my daughter’s second grade math homework with her is the worst part of my day. Man, I tried to have a positive math-ittude in this comment and totally failed. (Wah-waaaaaahhhh)

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