School & District Management Opinion

Learning How to Live

By Susan Graham — August 08, 2011 4 min read
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As a Family and Consumer Science teacher in a public middle school, I’m not sure whether to be mad, sad, or glad. It seems that in The Education Review edition of The Washington Post Magazine my content area is one of the three feature stories. In Learning for Life, I read that

Sewing. Woodworking. Etiquette. Personal finance. Cooking. All are valuable life skills.
Yes they are! That’s why they are all, except for the woodworking, part of my middle school Family and Consumer Science curriculum.


We sew.

Not because these kids will be whipping up their own wardrobes, but so they can participate in a workplace simulation where they are expected to demonstrate and assess their management of time, resources, equipment, and interpersonal workplace skills. We sew so that they can apply math skills, read and interpret instructions, develop spatial concepts critical to engineering and see how simple machines (gears, levers, wedges, pulleys) have been employed to produce results. Oh, and we also talk about the economic benefits and drawbacks related to the outsourcing clothing manufacturing

strong>We learn etiquette; which is primarily about the mores which allow some people to move easily through society and the world of work and creates barriers for others. As assistant manager for the day, my students learn to answer the phone with “Good afternoon, this is Mrs. Graham’s classroom.” But we also learn manners, which is a more complex idea of how we related to our classmates, our families, and our larger community. Etiquette is about the rules. Etiquette is about knowing the appropriate responses under specific conditions. Manners is about the mindset of thinking about the comfort and convenience of those around us. It may very well be one of life’s most important lessons.

We learn personal finance. My sixth graders can write a check and balance their checkbooks and give a clear explanation of the difference between debit and credit. My seventh graders can comparison shop balancing quality against price to make informed decisions within a limited budget. My eighth graders set up ratios to determine unit prices.

We cook. And while my students love to cook and eat, that’s not enough. In addition to technical writing skills and applied math skills, we explore the connection of science to everyday life; baking bread products using physical, chemical and biological processes and analyzing heat energy transfer on the range and wave theory with the microwave. We learn about nutrition as we interpret food labels. We explore the Columbian Exchange that introduced potatoes, tomatoes and peppers to Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Sewing. Woodworking. Etiquette. Personal finance. Cooking. All are valuable life skills. Few are taught in school....But there is an alternative industry of classes for these non-academic skills that kids are expected to pick up by the time they finish high school.

Could the idea that academic knowledge is separate and apart from application to real life problems be a pretty obvious explanation of why we have trouble engaging all students? Wouldn’t it make sense to conceptual knowledge and application together seamlessly?

And, since these are >"skills that kids are expected to pick up by the time the finish high school aren’t they just as important as maybe that fourth year of higher math or the third year of foreign language? Those matter, but which is more critical--calculus or cooking dinner?

The classes come in the form of after-school lessons and summer camps and provide much peace of mind to parents....

But if this is “an alternative industry” doesn’t that indicate that it is going to be accessible only to those children whose parents can afford the luxury of after-school classes and summer camps? Since we know that poor nutrition and obesity, lack of soft workplace skills, and the constraints of surviving on a low income in home situations where parents are unable to provide learning support impede the progress of children of poverty, wouldn’t it make sense to teach these basic life skills to all of our children? By isolating this learning in the industry of after-school and summer camp, haven’t we also limited enrollment to those children whose parents have the resources to identify options, transport kids, and pick up the bill? As a society, wouldn’t we all have a little more “peace of mind” if we new that all our children had the “non-academic skills that kids are expected to pick up by the time they finish high school”?

The classes come in the form of after-school lessons and summer camps, and provide much peace of mind to parents who wonder why home economics and shop classes have been phased out of so many school systems.

The truth is that we all know children and their parents want these learning opportunities and that we ought to be teaching skills for living well. But the harder truth is that this kind of learning experience just isn’t as cost effective as traditional classroom instruction. Building and equipping a food preparation lab demands more resources than an empty classroom with 30 student desks and a whiteboard. Class size matters when fire, knives and scissors are in use. You can’t teach cooking without a budget for consumables.

We can’t give our own children every educational opportunity we’d like. Right or wrong, if we can’t do that for our own family, we’re not going to do it for other people’s children. So we are faced with tough consumer decisions. We will have to determine what is essential for a life well lived and what is enrichment for personal and professional advancement.

I would argue that those life skills that prepare us for daily living are more than just icing on the cake.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.