Teaching the skills for living

Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 17, 1999

Teaching the skills for living

In the 1990s, home economics teaches cooking, sewing--and life

by Megan Lindow

For many people, the term "Home Economics" conjures dated images of teen-aged future wives making macrame plant holders and learning to cook pot roasts. But Frank Moors, 18, has learned about a lot more than cooking in his Living Skills class at Menlo-Atherton High School. He says his teacher, Mona Klein, has also helped him to learn communication skills and a sense of responsibility.

A large, soft-spoken football player who immigrated from Samoa three years ago, Moors is one of the last people one might expect to see in a traditional home economics class.

"I want to know how to help out and how to have good relationships with my family," he said, taking a break from sifting flour. "Ms. Klein tells you: 'this is how you act in life, be responsible for yourself.'" Klein's classroom at Menlo-Atherton High School smells like cinnamon and pumpkin pie. Her 30 students sift flour and mix spices into their pumpkin custard, preparing the pastry and filling for pies that they will bake the following day. Their plastic aprons rustle as they hustle to get everything done before the 2:15 bell.

On the surface, it just looks like an ordinary cooking class. But Klein says that underneath the cooking lesson, she is really teaching kids how to work together, manage their time, and, basically, how to get the most out of life. In addition, she strives in her classes to foster a sense of social responsibility in her students.

"I'm preparing them for marriage, for the workplace," said Klein. "There's a lot of subliminal stuff that goes on in the classroom because they can talk and do what they would (do in ordinary life.)"

As students get their pies ready, there is a busy, friendly vibe in the room. One hears snippets of laughter, conversation, and a bit of horseplay amid the clanking of bowls and measuring cups.

"Shut up!" A loud voice suddenly interrupts from the productive chaos. Klein seizes the moment.

"I don't care what you do out there," she said, gesturing towards the classroom door. "I'm training you to be a success in college, in a career. You cannot talk that way, or even think that way."

Later, she said that bad language can be a real problem for some kids, because they don't know how to turn the foul language off. Moors, who said he used to "cuss" far too often before he entered Klein's class, said, "If you go apply for a job, you don't use slang words. Communication is the best thing to learn, and of all the classes in the school, this is the best."

Moors said he wants his two younger brothers to see him finish high school, go to college, and have a career.

He said that Klein, who sometimes goes to his football games, has also helped him to feel more comfortable in a foreign country and has helped him to address problems in his relationships with his parents and friends. While most high school classes focus on geometric formulas, the Watergate scandal and the structure of a paragraph, home economics classes provide students with skills they will use every day in life.

"Our programs prepare students for living and for earning a living," said Janice DeBenedetti, who is program manager of the Home Economics Careers and Technology Office of the State Department of Education.

Klein noted that many colleges are experiencing high dropout rates because kids cannot manage life. One reason for this, said DeBenedetti, is that many parents work outside the home and have less time to spend showing their kids how to balance a checkbook or iron a shirt.

"Students are experiencing so much stress from simple things like doing laundry and building relationships. Their attention is so focused on personal problems that it is taking away from their academic achievement," Klein said.

Klein, who teaches two semesters of living skills classes, as well as a class in child development, said that her background in home economics has greatly enhanced the quality of her own life, giving her the organizational skills to balance work and play, the parenting and child development skills to take care of her 10-year-old son, and a broad base of general, practical knowledge.

Cindy Peters, who is teaching home economics temporarily at Gunn High School while the regular teacher, Shannon Jones, is on leave, said, "Students can come into my class not knowing how to boil water and they leave being able to make yeast bread."

While her students learn a variety of skills--from interior design to embroidery and fabric painting to the proper table settings--Peters hopes they will also learn to "go to a nice restaurant and know which fork to use, feel comfortable in different settings and know how to handle themselves."

In addition to providing life skills, Klein also says that her classes "reinforce the academic core" and give students who don't do well in traditional academics a chance to shine. She uses a variety of teaching methods in her living skills and child development classes.

"One day they make a chart, the next day they do a survey, the next day they do role plays," she said.

As an avid environmentalist, she says that she engages her child development students in "the great diaper debate" every year, where the class debates the merits of cloth versus disposable diapers, using formal debating procedures.

"It is the most fun activity. Students get points for building their cases, like in a real debate. I tell the class, 'if you loved building a case and presenting the case, you're my lawyers,'" she said. Peters pointed out that there is a lot of science in home economics.

A number of chemical reactions take place in the cooking process. Kids have to learn why to use yeast when making bread, and understand the process that makes it rise.

"Students have to learn what a leavening agent is. There are different kinds of leavening agents to make the bread rise. Each has a different reason to use it," she said.

Peters enjoys watching her students gain confidence and independence.

"Basically, most students could fix a salad, a main course, and a dessert on their own. They know how to prepare and how to clean up and put everything away," she said. It's also about learning respect and patience, she said.

"They learn to make a snack if Mom's not there when they get home," she said. "And maybe they'll be motivated to start dinner."

According to Klein, another benefit of her classes is that they mix together all different types of students who might otherwise be separated by various social and academic factors.

"It's a diverse team of people learning to work together," she said. "It provides a different forum. At lunch they hang out with friends they've had since kindergarten. In this classroom, they have to get along with different people. A week and a half ago, two girls blew up into a fight. It was horrible, but that's part of it," Klein said.

Klein said that seven of her students are in Special Education programs.

"Some of those kids will never know fractions or measurement," she said, explaining that the other students in the group have to help them figure out which measuring cup to use for the flour. "Home economics is a class that these kids really need before they get out of high school."

Despite the need for practical skills, Klein said that home economics programs, like many school electives, have declined since Proposition 13 reduced school funding in California in the 1970s.

But over the past decade, home economics programs have been slowly rebounding. At the same time, the programs have become increasingly geared towards teaching the usable life skills that Klein and Peters feel are so important.

As the bell rings, the students are still frantically washing their dishes and wiping the chipped orange countertops. Klein watches with satisfaction as her students return their implements to the proper drawers and stack the chairs neatly upside down on the table tops.

Above all, she likes to think that her classes are fun.

"If this class does nothing else but provide a little break in the day, it is still a valuable class," she said. 

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