The Five W's of Tax Day

Use April 15th to teach your students the fundamentals of the American federal tax system.

By Bethany Bodenhamer

"tax time" sign

While by no means a holiday in which schools, banks, and post offices are shut down, tax-day has become famous in its own right for the stress, anxiety, and workload it brings to many adult Americans. Students are often acquainted with the concept of taxation throughout their school years; however, many do not fully grasp the significance or impact it will have on their own life once they enter the real world. April 15th, also known as tax day, is a great opportunity to teach your pupils the history, economics, and mathematics of our federal tax system. 

The History of Tax Day

Do not assume that your students understand what a tax is—let alone a federal income tax. Take this day to break down the basics for them. Use the brief facts below to introduce them to the federal tax system:

  • Who: If you make an income, and are not a dependent being claimed on another’s tax return, you are required to file a federal tax return every year. While not all Americans end up owing the federal government money due to not making enough income, or specific exemptions or deductions in the tax code, all must still file. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the United States government agency responsible for collecting federal taxes
  • What: The federal income tax allows the federal government to tax working American citizens, independently from any state tax. There are different levels of payment owed, depending on one's tax bracket, which is determined by how much money he/she makes. 
  • When: On July 2, 1909, the Sixteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, and it was ratified on February 3, 1913. While previous attempts, such as the Revenue Act of 1861 and the flat rate federal income tax of 1894, had been enacted to tax citizens, all had eventually been repealed or ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Nowadays, Americans must pay their owed federal taxes by April 15th of each year. In the event that the 15th falls on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday, tax day becomes the next available business day. 
  • Where: Citizens in all fifty states are required to file federal tax returns. Fun fact: Those living in Puerto Rico only owe federal tax on monies made outside of Puerto Rico. 
  • Why: Simply put, the government needs money to operate, and the federal income tax is just one way in which this organization receives its money. Think of it as your payment for the services the country provides you including: security via the military, healthcare through Medicare, Medicaid and other affordable care plans, and Social Security for the elderly and retired. 

Taxation Activities

There are many fun ways you can teach your classes about taxation. Here are some suggestions:

  • Simulation - The Kings Candy: This is a fun and popular way to show your learners why Americans were upset with new taxes implemented by the British. While not directly related to federal income tax, this lesson does a good job of demonstrating the act of taxation. Through assigning different roles to your class members (king, Parliament, tax collector, colonist), passing out an equal amount of candy (M&M's®, Skittles®, raisins, etc.), and assessing taxes on common items, such as blue jeans, red shirts, and black shoes, some students will quickly lose some or most of their currency while those role playing as Parliament and King will have piles of candy. Your young tax-payers will undoubtedly view this system as unfair and feel upset at the loss of their valuable currency. Make sure to conclude this simulation with a relevant discussion to the history of taxation in America. 
  • Meet & Greet Timeline Activity: Obtain as many index cards as there are pupils in your class. On each card, write a different historical event or fact relating to taxation. Give each learner an index card along with a long strip of blank paper. Instruct them to walk around the class and meet & greet all their peers, sharing their events with each other. As they share, they should record in chronological order the different dates and happenings. Once they have discussed with each of their peers, they should have a brief, yet comprehensive, review of the history of taxation in America. Events to consider include the Boston Tea Party, American Revolutionary War, Revenue Act of 1861, Sixteenth Amendment to the United States, and March 1, 1913 (first tax day). 
  • Create Your Own Tax System: Assign your pupils to three different groups: low-income, middle-income, and high-income earners. Assign each group a monetary value ($20,000, $55,000, and $95,000 respectively). Give each group the task of collecting $250,000 total (or less or more, given the size of your class) from all three income groups by creating what they think is a fair tax system. Have each group present their system to the class with an explanation as to why it is fair. 

Other Lesson Planet Resources:

I’m The Taxman  

This is a great lesson plan to implement with older pupils (7th-12th grade) once the fundamentals of taxation are understood. The lesson addresses how federal revenue is made by the government and gives learners a peek into the logistics of the tax code. Through pointed questions and focused discussion, they analyze and evaluate the current tax system. 

Payroll and Income Tax: Madley Brath #5 

Tax day is a great time to integrate history and mathematics lessons. Use this worksheet with real-life problems to implement the financial side of taxes into your lesson plan. Learners are to calculate the amount of federal tax dollars owed in a variety of different scenarios. 

Constitution Costs 

Here is a great resource that explores the services and benefits provided by federal revenues. Pupils are to identify government services financed through federal revenues and explain why such services should be publicly funded. You can take it one step further and have your learners find a state funded program specific to your location and make an argument as to why it should be federally funded.