Every freshman at M-A is required to take one quarter of Life Skills before three quarters of Ethnic Studies, both of which are taught by the same teachers. While Ethnic Studies is an introductory history class, Life Skills is essentially a health and guidance course.
Life Skills and Ethnic Studies teacher Chloe Gentile-Montgomery said, “The Life Skills course aims to teach students how to be well-rounded individuals as they begin their high school careers. It aims to teach about college and career readiness, mental health, addiction, relationships, and other topics.”
M-A intentionally includes Life Skills in the freshman curriculum. Montgomery explained, “It is supposed to help students with the transition into high school.”
According to Life Skills and Ethnic Studies teacher Kelsey Takahashi, M-A uses Life Skills to fulfill California’s secondary school health class requirements, along with all Sequoia Union High School District schools except East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) which uses a four-year advisory program.
Teachers and students shared their perspectives on the successes and shortcomings of the Life Skills course.
Takahashi said, “I personally like the opportunity to build rapport with students through a course that is universally relevant to them. Everyone deals with interpersonal communication, everyone deals with stressors in life, and everyone is susceptible to harmful messages spread through the media.”
In addition to connecting students with their teachers, it can also help them connect with one another, which is especially valuable as they enter an unfamiliar and often daunting environment. Freshman Shelby Rider said, “Life Skills brings awareness to the problems peers face.” Since every freshman takes the course, Life Skills classes can be some of the most diverse on campus, providing a space to facilitate intercultural conversation and growth supplemented by communal life lessons.
Some students like that Life Skills is less focused on traditional academics and more focused on skills and goals they are unlikely to learn or consider otherwise. Freshman Kianne Saad said, “It teaches basic lessons like how to write an email and what career path may be best for you. I think it can be really helpful for kids to explore their options after graduation and to get a sense of what their lives could look like.”
However, many feel the course is far from perfect.
The brevity of the class creates an opportunity for accidental yet long-term grade slips. Takahashi said, “A student may not process how fast the course goes until it may be too late to fix their grade.”
The course’s transience also limits its own impact and that of Ethnic Studies on students’ lives.
Rider said, “I think Life Skills could be improved by making it longer and thus having more time to go in-depth on certain topics.”
Montgomery said, “I do think Life Skills is a worthwhile and effective course, but I also think it detracts from the complexity and amount of education I am able to provide in the Ethnic Studies course. I think Life Skills should be a quarter in P.E. instead.”
Unfortunately, finding a new home for Life Skills could prove difficult. Physical Education Department Head Pamela Wimberly explained, “Physical Education already has the responsibility of teaching nutrition, care and prevention of injuries, as well as information regarding gangs, bullying, and CPR. We are not health educators; our expertise is in the area of physical education.”
Some students also feel that the Life Skills curriculum lacks relevance.
Saad said, “It didn’t really teach me much since I already knew everything we learned.”
Freshman Josie Weiss echoed, “It was easy, but not beneficial to my learning in any way.”
Junior Thea Shih, who took Life Skills her freshman year, said, “I think Life Skills could be improved by covering more important concepts, such as filing taxes, acquiring mortgages, or constructing financial and retirement plans, as students may not have other sources to learn these skills from.”
Saad agreed, saying, “I think we should get more preparation for the real world. For example, most kids don’t know anything about taxes and finding jobs, topics that could replace the more self-explanatory ones like email writing.”
According to Youth.gov, “A report on the results of a financial literacy exam found that high school seniors scored on average 48 percent correct, showing a strong need for more comprehensive financial education for youth in high school.” Students feel a desire to gain financial literacy, so incorporating more financial education into Life Skills could greatly increase its impact.
Additionally, the M-A freshman biology class—required for all students—dedicates a portion of its curriculum to TeenTalk, a course that covers sexuality, sexual health, relationships, mental health, and substance use. Many of these topics overlap with those in Life Skills. Replacing current course content with other topics not covered by TeenTalk would lower the curriculum’s redundancy and provide broader knowledge to students.
While students and teachers remain conflicted about the relevance and significance of Life Skills, both see potential for improving the course and increasing its value.