Cupcakes must be the right height or you are a failure! (image source)
Remember “HomeEc”? Wasn’t it great? I don’t remember which year it was, but I took a home economics class. Over a semester we cooked and we sewed. I loved the hands-on aspect of the experience. It felt very different from the rest of my classes. Then in ninth grade I took “Typing” at the insistence of my grandmother. She figured that if everything else failed at least I could be a secretary. Knowing how to type? Priceless. And that was the end of my formal instruction in basic, functional living skills.
A good friend/coworker and I often lament the fact that many kids graduate high school with a limited skill set. The curriculum is geared towards the college-bound (and so is much of the testing!). But what about the kids who aren’t going to college? What about the kids that don’t have the grades or the test-taking prowess to get into college? Or the students who don’t have the money to attend more school? I’m concerned they graduate without the key skills they need to move ahead in life and into productive employment.
Coming from a special education perspective, functional skills sometimes matter more than academic ones for many students. Although I don’t have any experience working in special schools set up for individuals with cognitive disabilities, many of my speech path friends do work in those settings (and love it). They tell me that these schools focus on daily living skills, interpersonal skills, and other occupational skills. For example, one of my friends observed students learning how to write checks. I researched some other examples of things that many of those students learn at school:
- How to count money, how to budget, make purchases, and perform banking tasks.
- Learn about the community and living arrangements, use of basic appliances, and setting up a living space.
- Appropriate dress and grooming, personal safety, basic first aid, and maintaining physical fitness.
- Planning balanced meals, purchasing food, preparing meals, and cleaning up and food storage.
- Demonstrating appropriate responses to emotion and demonstrate giving praise and criticism.
- Identify how personal behavior affects others and demonstrate respect for others and property.
- Set personal goals, learn how to organize, and how to use effective communication.
- Figuring out occupational interests and personal strengths and weaknesses, and making realistic job choices.
- Responding to authority and supervision and working cooperatively with others.
So while I was sitting in Geometry class and hating every second (I love algebra, but geometry just did nothing for me), other students were learning how to write checks!? Is it assumed that I would have known all of those things because I am not cognitively disabled? Or is it assumed that my family took over that kind of instruction? I’m betting on the latter: my family would be teaching me those basic skills and that I wouldn’t need additional reinforcement of that information. My family did teach me a lot of things. Everything else I just learned informally and “by doing.”
But is it the school’s job to teach all students that kind of stuff? I think there is a benefit to the instruction of that kind of material, but it has to be in a way that engages. What I like about so much of the special education curriculum is that it is community-based. Those programs get kids out in the community interacting with community members from cashiers to policemen. Everything is focused on “This is how you do this…”
At one of my previous schools, the autism classroom went on a field trip to learn how to make pizzas at a pizza restaurant. I loved the idea of students learning that pizza isn’t something that comes out of a box that is delivered to your house by a friendly delivery guy. Then I thought, “Well, wouldn’t all kids benefit from a field trip like that??” I have encountered regular education students who don’t know how to make cupcakes from a box so I think there is a need. Many principals think that a pizza making field trip is not academically-focused enough for regular education kiddos. Trips to any science-related museum are much preferred and easily approved by administration. I don’t want to discount the museum experience (because museums are amazing), but I do believe there is value in non-traditional field trips. And the pizza field trip doesn’t even have to be full-day and could be walkable!
I’m lucky. I had parents who loved me and taught me the basics about life. But so many of those things I’m not near mastery. For example, I don’t budget well and I still struggle with dreaded weekly meal planning. I really could use a refresher course.