Taxing Cartoon Characters

By Brent Vasicek on March 9, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Teachers are always hearing how their lessons should have real world applications. You don't get more real world than taxes, my friends! Many students think taxes are hard because they see the frustrations their parents experience. I like to counterbalance those negative impressions with a lesson on how easy taxes can be if you know how to follow directions.



This lesson merges the math and social studies curricula.
In teaching it, I have experienced success with students as young as 4th graders. Basically, when you break down taxes, it is simply knowing how to:

  • follow directions
  • read tables
  • do basic math operations (+ - x < >) 

Day 1 Social Studies

  • Discuss the definition of taxes.
  • Discuss the basic types of taxes (income, property, sales, etc.).
  • Discuss what taxes pay for.

Day 2 Mathematics

  • Present the students with the Math Mission for the day (a little SpongeBob or Mission: Impossible theme music is always a nice touch. See my music playlist or classroom management post).
    • Sample Mission: Attention, students. SpongeBob needs your help! The economy is not as strong as it used to be and the government is not getting enough revenue from its taxes. A new law has come into effect in which cartoon characters are now being taxed. SpongeBob has never done taxes before, and he is nervous. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to help SpongeBob fill out his income taxes for the federal government. Do you accept this mission?
  • Distribute SpongeBob's W-2 from his employer and 1099s from his banks.
  • Distribute a copy of the 1040EZ to each student. These are available online or at your local government office or library.
  • Distribute a copy of the instructions for the 1040EZ. This is approximately 40 pages, so to save paper, I distribute one copy to each group of four students. The instructions are also available online or at your local government office or library.
  • Step by step, go through the instructions. I usually model this on an overhead projector, document camera, or interactive whiteboard.

Day 3 Mathematics

  • As an assessment piece, I change some of the numbers and the cartoon character's name (or I use a mock student W-2) and have the students work without my guided assistance. They may use each other. They may use calculators. They may ask the help desk (me) any questions. Any rule that applies in the real world also applies to this lesson.
  • I hang finished copies in the hall. Parents are quite impressed when they walk by and see that their children can do taxes.

Here is a great link shared by a colleague of mine, Joanna.  It is a 5 minute video from The Cosby Show when Theo learns the value of a job using Monopoly money.  Thank you for sharing. 

What sort of real world activities do you do with your students to show them math is important?

2I2 Trademark 2010 Vasicek Hope you get a refund,


2i2 is a trademark of Mr. Vasicek's class. It symbolizes doing your best with integrity every day.





I am a pre-service student teacher at Illinois State. I think that this lesson is great. I never learned things like this when i was that young and if we talked about it in class i don't remember it. This is a very fun and meaningful way to get the students to remember this important lesson. It seems to me that a lot of your projects end with the students performing or displaying their work for an audience. Do you find that this in turn motivates the students to do the work?

Jeff, Absolutely! The more authentic you can make the experience, the more motivated the students are to do it. Some of them get excited to show off. Others get nervous to look unprepared. Either way, there is some extra motivation going on. Plus, if you get your students working as a team, they start to feel an obligation toward one another. ~Brent

Brett I love how you take pieces of the real world and turn them into a learning opportunity. Maybe by kids understanding about taxes they will also understand some of the stress that their parents are also going through. Good lesson on so many levels!

Kathy, Thank you. Yes, actually, a few kids get that "aha" moment of why their parents have been a bit on edge. This is one of my all time favorite math lessons.


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