Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Life Skills 101: A Curriculum for Food, Finance, and Other Real World Basics

“They didn’t teach this in high school.”

How often do you spit out that phrase in frustration? Monthly? Weekly? Minute…ly?

What are you doing when it happens? Are you struggling with scrambled eggs? Trying to make sense of your paycheck deductions? Wondering why your kid’s Transformers Underoos suddenly turned Barbie-pink? Puzzling over how your parents could afford a two-story colonial in their mid-20s, when you can barely make rent?

Sure, Mom and Dad were supposed to teach us basic survival skills growing up, but in many cases, they didn’t have the time, resources, or background to prepare us for everything. So … what if schools picked up the slack? What if they expanded curriculum beyond reading, writing, and 'rithmetic to include cooking, budgeting, and understanding mortgage interest rates? It might look something like the curriculum attached below.

In honor of the new school year (and probably about three weeks too late), this is a basic outline for a 12-week course entitled “Life Skills 101: Food, Finance, and Other Real World Basics.” It’s REALLY ambitious, requires a classroom with a kitchen, and could take significantly longer to execute in a normal school setting. (Also, 17-year-olds + bathroom cleaning = unlikely.) But hey - it’s a start.

(Side note: A long, long time ago in a mid-sized American city far, far away, I taught high school English. To my knowledge, none of my students have yet overthrown the government, so I consider the experience a success. At the very least, it taught me how to plan a class unit.)

Readers, since this is a work-in-progress, what lessons would you add? What exercises should be included? What the heck would you assign for homework?

Essentially … what do you wish you were taught in high school?

Getting Started

  • Aspirations (1 day) - what do students want for themselves as adults?
  • The Realities of the American Dream (1 day) - costs of owning a home, having kids, going to college, etc.
  • Syllabus and Objectives (1 day) - what the class is covering and when, suggestions from students about other areas to cover
  • Searching for a Job (2 days) – how to find gainful employment/match skills with an opening, looking in old and new media, networking
PROJECT: Students will write a summary of their personal aspirations for adulthood (job, family, home, etc.), along with a short description of how they plan to pay for associated costs.

WEEKS 2 & 3
Get a Job, Punk!

  • Writing a Resume (3 days) – basic formatting, word usage
  • Writing a Cover Letter (3 days) – basic formatting, word usage
  • The Interview: Part I (2 days) - what to know/do before the interview
  • The Interview: Part II (2 days) - what to say
PROJECT: Students will have a usable resume and cover letter by the end of the unit. They will also have conducted mock interviews with other students.

Budgeting & Money

  • Your Paycheck (1 day) - how it’s distributed, what those symbols mean, what you take home
  • Taxes (1 day) – why you pay them, where they go, different kinds of taxes
  • Bills (1 day) – what they are, how to pay them, why they should be paid on time
  • Elementary Budgeting (2 days) – keeping a rudimentary budget
PROJECT: Students will devise a basic personal budget.

Credit & Savings

  • Introduction to Credit Cards (1 day) – trends and issues with credit today in the U.S., how it can affect your life, common credit mishaps
  • Terminology (1 day) – explaining FICO, APR, interest, and other exciting terms
  • Establishing Credit Responsibly (1 day) – doing the research, warning against bum deals, paying bills on time
  • Savings (2 days) – different types of savings accounts, the magic of compound interest, saving for bigger purchases
PROJECT: Students will create a plan to save for a large purchase.

Insurance & Retirement: Advanced Cash Management

  • Retirement Plans (2 days) – what they are, why it’s good to start early, IRAs and 401Ks
  • Health Insurance (2 days) – current issues in the U.S., why students need it, what it covers, how it’s commonly obtained
  • Other Insurance (1 day) – what kind exist, what students might need, how they might find competitive pricing
PROJECT: Students will research one kind of insurance and find out how much it costs and what it covers.

Buying a Home

  • Buying a Home (3 days) – home ownership vs. renting, what owning a home really costs, what to look for, how to start searching
  • Mortgages (2 days) – what they are, what they do, what they cost, what kinds there are
PROJECT: Students will find their ideal house online and research a mortgage to go with it.

Maintaining a Home

  • Basic Fixes (2 days) – average home maintenance costs per year, introduction to plumbers and electricians, repairs a student can take care of him/herself, what tools to always have on hand
  • Cleaning a Home (2 days) – average cost and labor, how to clean bathrooms/kitchens/bedrooms/vacuuming/dusting, what happens if houses AREN’T kept clean/effects on property values and health
  • Organization and Paperwork (1 day) – what to expect, what to keep, what to throw away
PROJECT: Students will successfully identify 10 tools and 10 cleaning products and/or clean a room at home and bring in a picture or signed parents’ note certifying the deed. (Okay, wishful thinking. I was stuck on this one.)

Feeding Yourself

  • Basic Nutrition (1 day) – caloric intake, vitamins and minerals, rounded meals, portion sizes, buying whole foods vs. pre-packaged ones
  • Food Budgeting and Menu Planning (2 days) – realistic food costs, benefits of cooking at home, creating healthy meals, planning ahead to save cash
  • Basic Kitchen Equipment (1 day) – introduction to commonly-used items, how they work, what they do
  • Safety (1 day) – basic food handling, knife skills, how to work with heat and treat burns
PROJECT: Students will create a well-rounded menu for themselves for one week, with costs included.


  • Why Eat Breakfast (1 day) - health benefits, what makes a good breakfast, international breakfasts
  • Mastering the Egg (2 days) – scrambling, poaching, frying, etc.
  • Pancakes and Waffles (1 day) – how to make batter and cook
  • Other Breakfast Items (1 day) – meat, fruit, starches, etc.
PROJECT: Ideally, students will be making food in-class all week. If not, they are to keep track of what they eat for breakfast for one week, then devise a new menu to make it healthier.

WEEK 11 & 12
Lunch & Dinner

  • Vegetable Mains and Sides (2 days) – why veggies should make up most of a meal, the basics of boiling/roasting/sautéing, simple sauces
  • Pasta, Rice, Noodles, and Potatoes (2 days) – why starches are included in meals, the basics of preparing them, simple side dishes
  • Meat and Meat Substitutes (2 days) – why meat should be minimal in each meal, the basics of preparing it, simple main dishes
  • Salads and Sandwiches (1 day) – packing a healthy lunch, mix-and-matching salads, making dressing
PROJECT: Ideally, students will be cooking in class all week. If not, they are to create a well-balanced meal for their families and show proof of the accomplishment.

The Rest

  • Laundry (1 day) – what to do, how to separate, how to fold and care for clothes
  • Student Requests (1 day) – try to cover whatever students requested at the beginning of the quarter
  • Later, Everyone (1 day) – what students learned, evaluations
Readers … suggestions?


If you liked this article, you might also dig (Photos courtesy of Upslope, UToronto, and ecofabulous.)

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Jennifer said...

I hesitate to mention it cuz it's so loaded in the US, but maybe a unit about, "How to handle doctors/health insurance" and fit in some kind of sex ed? Unplanned pregnancy can well and truly screw up a budget, and explaining what co-pays are, prescription coverage, following up with a doctor, et cetera? I mean, even if people are antsy re: birth control, dealing with the medical bureaucracy is a valuable real life skill.

Lola said...

I wish I would have learned about insurance (home, car, health, etc.) and all the mumbo jumbo that goes with it (deductibles, premiums, claims, etc.) I have a master's degree and I still can't get a grasp of how it all works!

uncannycanuck said...

Dude, I did get taught most of that in high school. I took Home Ec and a class called "Life Transitions". We learned how to do a budget, basic nutrition, cooking, clothing care tags, etc. Health class included proper sex ed and steps to setting and achieving goals. We made resumes in Information Processing...did taxes by hand in math class...learned about interest and credit cards.

I'm Canadian, though. I graduated with a class of 24 (yes, twenty-four). Even small town, low resource schools here put the priority on churning out students with skills to live on their own.

Kathy said...

How about a day or two on "modern etiquette" to discuss when/where/how you should politely use your cell phone or text or properly construct emails/voicemails or how to conduct yourself online in forums, etc...I could go on. We need an Emily Post for our technologically-based generation.

It would also be nice to have a "consumer education" lesson on researching a product (or a company), and how to complain effectively.

Also, a session on privacy and information security would be nice, i.e.: how to control your personal information (credit report checks, when to give out your SSN) and how to control the dissemination of that info to private companies or online.

A Bit of Everything said...

Wouldn't it be great if a class like this were taught? Though I think spending more time on Investing (not just retirement accounts) would be good.

Also, since most students will rent before buying I would include some advice on dealing with landlords (realistic expectations, etc.) and contracts related to rentals.

Anonymous said...

I think I could use a class like this, and I'm 28!

A day or two on personal fitness would be great, and coping with illness (personal and other's) because we all know we can't be as functional as we'd like when there is a chronic illness or some debilitating diseases.

Alanna @ A Veggie Venture said...

This is great, Kris. I'm forwarding it to my own high school home ec teacher (she and my mom taught together for many years), I suspect she'll both be impressed and have her oown ideas.

Amy said...

I know what helped me more than anything was my psych class in high school, but not everyone took that class. I think a good addition to your lesson plan would be a week about learning how to care for your mental health, and how to affectively deal with people in your life and have healthy relationships. In my class we learned how to be a good listener and communicater, and that has helped me more than enything else i learned.

Another awesome part of psych was the sex ed. My teacher taught, in depth, about the emotional and mental side of sex. Thats the part people should really hear!

Awsome post ^_^

mel said...

I wish we had home ec in high school.
I totally agree that etiquette is a huge thing to teach. Volunteer work with people who are facing challenges (poverty, illness, etc) might allow the students to rethink their own situations and lives.
Sex education, family planning and how to communicate with your partner might be a good idea too. (I think these things are taught in marriage prep, but are needed before people decide to tie the knot!)
And everyone must work at least one Christmas season in retail!

Nicole said...

Very interesting. I like the additions of fitness and health/sex. This sounds like a fun class!

Anna said...

They used to teach all of this stuff in high school during Home Ec/Work and Family Life/Family and Consumer Sciences classes. Unfortunately, many of these classes have been deemed un-necessary and cut from the curriculum.

I'm just a teensy bit bitter about that, as I had high hopes and dreams of becoming a Family and Consumer Sciences teacher. More and more colleges (including the one I attended) are phasing out their FCS education programs, and jobs in that particular field are hard to come by.

Moosie said...

This is a great post!! Can I take this class as well? =) I think you really hit the nail on the head with this list.

I'd like to add Interview Part III - Dos and don'ts? Do handwrite a thank you card; don't text message your interviewer a smiley face (I heard this actually happens.)

How about tips on how to purchase a car?

Limecloud said...

My sister is a "Home Ec" teacher but now it's called "Family and Consumer Science"- She teaches this stuff to high schoolers (in MD). I don’t know about other states but Maryland has a program like this, to teach this stuff (it is an elective so students aren’t required to take it). I think these skills are so incredibly valuable (it doesn’t matter how smart you are if you can’t feed yourself).

Christin said...

I'll add two!

How to rent: finding an apartment or rental home, working out roommates, understanding a lease, knowing what renters are responsible for and what they're not. Possibly extended to dorm/fraternity living.

Civics: how to talk to the police in different situations, knowing your rights and responsibilities as a citizen, how to handle emergencies in public (good samaritanism), how to register your car, how to register to vote.

The Q Family said...

This is great! I will print out and at least make an effort to teach my kids. Wouldn't it be nice if we have a curriculum like this?

-Amy @ The Q Family

Ashley said...

They offered these classes at my high school, but unfortunatly to be competitive enough to get into a good college most students did not have time to take these classes. Also these classes often also come with a stigma - the classes were for teens who were about to become moms and for those who "weren't going to do anything with their lives". These classes won't be effective to most students until they are thought of as positive and until colleges recognize that life skills are just as important to succeding in college as how many AP classes you take.

Kris said...

You guys - this is GREAT. What wonderful suggestions. I was thinking about posting an eggplant/zucchini piece next week, but I think I'd much rather create an Advanced Class from your ideas (Especially the Basic Etiquette lessons. Woof, I wish they taught that.)

One thing with the Sex Ed - it was definitely a consideration, but I figured it might be covered in Health Class. (I could be wrong, though. It's been awhile since high school.)

Uncannycanuck - I swear, I was reading your post (hadn't seen your name yet) and saying to myself, "This sounds GREAT. This has to be in Canada." Funny.

erika said...

I love this list! I'm bookmarking it to teach to my daughter when she gets a little older. And to refresh my own life skills. Thanks!

Heather said...

Sweet, where can I take it?!
I'd second adding some time on Mental Health. And how food/exercise/self-care interacts with it all!

Kate said...

This is great! I wish someone had taught me how quickly a 75-pound boxer can tear up berber carpet and just how much it costs to replace it. I just found out and almost had a heart attack!

I agree with the modern etiquette. There are some times you really don't need to send text messages.

angelle said...

Forget high school! I'm 28, about to head to my 10 year HS reunion and I'd gladly take a class like this *now*! :)

Kelly from Almost Frugal said...

This post has been included in the 141st Festival of Frugality at Almost Frugal, going live September 2, 2008. Please make sure to link back to the Festival and or submit it to sites like Digg, Stumble Upon, PF Buzz etc. Thanks for participating!

Kitschen Bitsch said...

You are brilliant! (And so are you people with the ideas up there.) This is what home ec should be, not the class on baking cookies, sewing one seam on a sewing machine, and reading food labels that I withdrew from in high school. And I found myself thinking as I read this post, isn't this parents' responsibility? Then I remembered my parents had no financial knowledge to impart to me.

Anyhoo, my suggestion: have someone who has done all of these things the wrong ways (a-hem) go visit the class and explain just how royally screwed you can be by not knowing these things. And, for the love of all things holy, have a class for kids who will be taking out student loans, and make sure they know how much money they WON'T be making when they get out of school. Again, common sense should help, but at 18, how many of us are thinking about 23-24-25-35?

Anonymous said...

A lot of colleges now have something called 'first year experience' classes. They end up covering part of this material,at least when it comes to aspirations, credit cards, basic health skills, etc.

Re: student loans, they do also have a class you have to take prior to disbursement of student loans, but I think at that point it never feels 'real' to the student.

karla (threadbndr) said...

How about some very basic automotive? I see you have basic home repair, but everybody needs to know how to check fluids and change a tire, and the importance of regular maintenence. How to look up a blue book value, how to negotiate when buying a car or dealing with a mechanic, etc.

For most people, especially young ones who are renting, a car is their biggest asset.

aymelovestrees said...

I'm a substitute teacher in a public high school: this class could not be more needed! I agree with Karla about getting basic knowledge of auto care. We should also include quick lessons on ironing without lighting your pants on fire, sewing on a button, recaulking your shower, and toilet un-plugging 101. I think that as we get farther from our grandparents' (and great-grandparents') generation that we are losing some valuable but oft forgotten skills: how to grow things, how to preserve the things we grow, how to sew, how to improvise rather than consuming. But, how to teach such things?

FACS Supervisor said...

The ideas for the course are good - and area already being taught in many middle and high schools. FACS, still called Home Economics in many places, teaches students how to prepare safe, nutritious, and cost effective meals for themselves and a family, insurance, health care, leases and mortgage, loans and interest, credit cards and credit card debt, etc. It would be wonderful if rather than "reinventing the wheel" everyone would contact their local school boards to support these outstanding and much needed Life Skills courses that are already offered or, could easily be offered, in every high school.

Angela said...

I would add time and energy management. The value of focusing on only a very few things and becoming excellent at them. The value of informational interviewing well before you are looking for a job and are just interested in certain careers and organizations. I would also add a diary that students can keep where they record their spending, their meals, their use of their time and things that they could have done better.

Anonymous said...

I realize I am extremely late to the party, but after reading through the article and comments, I know that this hasn't been mentioned yet: please incorporate into your lesson plans "How to prepare for and survive after a (fill in your local natural disaster here)." I grew up in Florida, and I can't count the number of times my neighbors weren't ready with basic supplies to survive after a hurricane. For 2 weeks minimum a person goes without power, and food supplies and potable water are limited. I am sure people everywhere have their own local natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, blizzards, etc. Knowing how to assemble the proper survival kit is a necessary life skill, and one that isn't always taught in school.

Edward said...

There is relatively little here about marriage and nothing about parenthood. As a 59 year old who has been married to the same woman for 22+ years, there is much that I would want to impart to my 17 year old sons (if only they would listen!). I certainly wish that someone had taught me in high school that some women MUST have a man with a high IQ. Fortunately, I DID figure out that the way to tell that you should marry somebody is if you want them there by your deathbed. I also figured out that the ONLY goal for a parent is to raise their children to be responsible adults, NOT star athletes, or doctors, or sex symbols (necessarily).

As for people wishing that they knew more about insurance, investments, etc., the core life skill there is a MASTERY OF HIGH SCHOOL MATH. Sorry, folks, but compound interest is nothing more than an application of exponents, and insurance is an application of simple probability.

Anonymous said...

I really wish all schools in the US had a mandatory class like this. Im out of HS foe 2 yrs and in college now but still trying to figure some of these things out. Im currently doing a research paper of life skills taught in HS. I would talk a bit more about financial aspects and a little bit about how to find, and maintain a steady job, including time edicate and management. Also, the basic social skills and home improvement skills. This should be a mandatory 2 yr. course. :)

Anonymous said...

I loved reading about this "class" curriculum that you've proposed. And I agree with many of the suggestions, such as marriage and parenting, investing, basic mechanics and technical skills. I think a good thing also would be basic home remedies and first aid, as well as surviving without electricity (the simple task of building a fire!) I was one of the kids in my high school that filled my schedule with choir, Spanish, and AP college classes, so I only had room for the required gen eds. I'm currently a college freshman. If a "Street Smarts" or "Life Skills" class or couple of classes were required I think it would be beneficial to any high school student!

Anonymous said...

I looked this up as my church is considering teaching a basic life skills course. The main focus at first will be budgeting and money management, ala Dave Ramsey. Then teach them how to cook, read recipes, plan meals and shop wisely for ingredients. I was hoping to have someone teach home repairs, and car repairs. I hadn't thought about resumes and job hunting and interviewing skills. My concern is how effective this will be as I have taught my young adults Bible Class, and their retention level is horrible. How to make them retain what is taught is the question. I do see them living out the values and using some of the tools I gave them, but retention of specific information is poor.

SCOTT Jblmfamily said...

One thing I don't see here is Per ownership and care. This is maybe not "important" but I see so many young adults go out and get a pet and the real responsibility is lost, and the per ends up in a pound.

Another thing, it's controversial, but a real honest lesson on alcohol. How much is too much, and stress on not driving tipsy or drunk. These are things that should be learned at home, but most often are trial and error. Much to everyone's expense.

eric peterson said...

A week on problem solving skills would be good. Breaking down problems and looking at different solutions. Taught in junior high and high school.