How I civilized a tribe of grade fives– teaching life skills

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher.

In  my last post, “Does What We Teach  Matter?,” I wrote about Alain de Botton’s vision for education; that it should be practical, and relevant to everyday life.

When I wrote it, the concept of practical education within the humanities was an abstract ideal.

Not anymore.

In my grade five practicum classroom yesterday, that ideal became a reality.

I helped civilize a tribe of 10-year-olds.

Civilization pancakes for all!

Learning takes many forms.
Learning takes many forms.

It all began with Mr. B. Every Fat Tuesday, Mr. B hosts a pancake breakfast for his grade five class. He lugs in with him a big box of pre-made blueberry pancakes, two jugs of maple syrup, a bag of the choicest apples and bananas, and orange juice. He brings plates and plastic cutlery, and organizes orange juice and fruit loops. He asks a student volunteer to bring a large table cloth. This year, I was part of his annual pancake breakfast.

Before breakfast, the set up

The kids came half an our before school started, because of pancake brain. A serious affliction, pancake brain causes students to ask: “When will we be eating pancakes?”, “Will there be syrup?” and “Where is Mr. B with the pancakes?!?” with rabid expressions and darting eyes. The more diabolical students asked, “Can I drown mine in syrup?”

We set the table with style. Use of rulers optional.
We set the table with style.

To distract, I supervised the setting of  the tables. I showed the students a picture of a proper table setting. We set the table with flourish. Every plate and every spoon was equidistant and in the spot approved by the gods of manners.

Other students busied themselves with the washing and arranging of fruits on the table, under a student’s table cloth. “It’s really old,” the girl who brought the table cloth told me, “I’m not sure if my mom wanted me to use it because it’s my grandma’s, but I took it anyway!” Um….great work…great…gulp.

Here’s what we did:

Before eating, business

Mr. B asked me to lead a pre-breakfast lesson as he frantically microwaved 100s of pancakes in the staff room. I was ready to teach the students another lost art: how to shake hands.

We were hosting not only a pancake breakfast, I told them, but also a business party. All of them were fabulously successful business people. Of course, they’d have to make personal business cards and shmooze.

We started with half of a blank sheet of paper. To make a business card, students followed the following steps:

A template for the business card
A template for the business card

1) Write your name in the very middle. Make it bold. Make it you.

2) Write the quality you admire most in people underneath your name.

3) In the top-left corner, write down three things you’re really good at. (e.g. swimming, scootering, reading, singing, etc.)

4) In the top-right corner, write down your favourite place in the world.

5) In the bottom-left corner, write down the person who taught you the most about life.

6) In the last corner, write down your favourite holiday.

With newly minted business cards, the students were ready to work the room. But first, they need to know how to shake hands and introduce themselves properly. Using a few students as guinea pigs, I demonstrated

How to shake hands & introduce yourself

A perfect handshake.
A perfect handshake.

1) Make eye contact.

2) Say “Hi, my name is _______. It’s nice to meet you.”

3) Extend your right hand as you say this.

4) Take the other person’s hand firmly, but not too firmly. Pretend the other person’s hand is a little bird: be firm enough to hold it, but not so firm you squeeze it to death!

5) Shake the hand downwards, about 3/4 inch.

6) Release the other person’s hand. Don’t wipe your hand on your pants, or rub your nose after that.

7) Ask, “What’s your name?”

8) Begin conversation.  In this case, start talking about your business cards.

9) Maintain eye contact. Don’t interrupt. Take turns talking.

After I’d shown them the handshake guidelines, I told them we’d start the business function soon. I’d put on some music (“The Rapper,” the 1970s hit by the Jaggerz), and they’d amble about the room in their showy suits. When the music stopped, they’d stop in their place and find the nearest person to share business cards with.

The business party was a hit. “The Rapper,” had the right beat and wacky rhythm. The students danced like they’d discovered movement. Some linked arms and coordinated their legs as can-can dancers as they circled the room. They dancing frenzy continued until the music stopped; then, they became serious business people talking cards. It was like a zoo, in which the animals occasionally get their act together, speak, shake hands.

After being introduced to five people, I asked them to tell me about someone they’d met. This way, the whole class learned about each other.

And they’d learned a useful life skill in the process.

Eating, then clean-up

We dug into our pancakes, and sipped our juice. Next, the class put away their plates. The cleaning brigade moved in near the sink.


I helped the three boys and two girls learn how to wash dishes in steps. They learned how to make a makeshift sponge, use just enough soap, wash off the suds, and dry efficiently.

Did they get “old wrinkled lady” or “raisin” fingers? By vote we settled the issue: the correct term is “raisin fingers.” They all had raisined fingers.

And…they loved it.

[Would they have as much fun polishing my shoes?]

What it all means

Mr. B’s pancake breakfast is a perfect example of integrating real life skills into our teaching. Each year, his class learns to set a table, eat properly, and clean up after themselves. I threw in learning to shake hands, for good measure. In one day, students learned skills their parents may not have the time to teach them, skills essential to success in life.

I feel very privileged to learn from Mr. B during my practicum. I feel that he cares deeply for his students. And, even better, I see we share the same beliefs about what education could be.

Stay posted for more grade five class adventures in March!

2 thoughts on “How I civilized a tribe of grade fives– teaching life skills

  1. bpman February 18, 2013 / 3:07 am

    Interesting approach to teaching. I agree.
    School (was largely) a waste of time. Everything I learned, except for the core skills like reading, writing and math I forgot.
    One teacher taught me to never give up, and that was a useful lesson.

    What about teaching kids to write resumes and get their first summer jobs? Or saving money?

    • patrycja March 14, 2013 / 8:16 pm

      Teaching resume writing is a great idea!
      I think some business classes are already doing this. I know for certain that classes already teach powerpoint, typing, and how to format a business letter.
      I always recommend the business elective course to the students I tutor.

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