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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