Modern Home Ec: Stitching Together Key Life Skills
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2022 Issue
By Martha Beach
Carrie Clarkson took family studies when she was in Grade 12 and, after becoming a teacher herself, volunteered to teach it to Grades 6, 7, and 8. “It was then I realized that I could actually teach family studies as a career,” says Clarkson, who now teaches Grades 10–12 with the Halton District School Board in Ontario. “It’s a passion. And that passion really started when I was in school taking these types of courses myself.”
The courses that Clarkson teaches are very different from what we might think of as traditional home economics courses. Gone are the days of learning to repair a torn shirt sleeve or traditionally set a table. Clarkson remembers her mother talking about taking home ec courses: “They taught her how to properly section an orange.”
What we might think of as “home ec” now falls under an umbrella term called “family studies” in Canada. It covers a wide variety of topics, like fashion and textiles, food and nutrition, food and culture, human development, hospitality services, housing design, and more. While most other classes involve a screen, today’s take on “home ec” intertwines life skills, social responsibility, environmental discussions, career prep, basic economics, tactile activities, hand tools, creativity, and group work. No oranges in sight.
These are skills and ideas everyone can utilize and build on to become a successful part of society. “These courses are all-encompassing. They deal with all areas of students’ lives,” Clarkson points out. Everyone eats, everyone lives somewhere, everyone has some sort of family and friends.
“We give [students] things to help them be successful,” says Clarkson. To borrow an over-used social media phrase: it’s all about adulting. “All the courses tie into so many careers you’d want to be in.”
A Multitude of Career Benefits
A report published in 2020 found that around 30 percent of high school students in the U.S. had a part-time job, and roughly 1.2 million of them worked in food preparation and serving, the most commonly held jobs by these young workers. Anecdotally, the numbers appear to be similar in Canada.
“Growing up, I had a job at a pizza place in high school,” says Andrew Hess, who teaches the culinary program for Grades 10–12 at Dr. Anne Anderson High School in Edmonton, AB. Students have long been employed in the food industry, “but this type of career-focused program gives them a leg up, a level of professionalism,” he says. It gives kids skills to be successful, to perhaps even move into managerial roles, or become entrepreneurs or small business owners.
Instead of just working at a pizza place, like Hess did, his students work alongside professional kitchen workers in an industrial-style setting (their school cafeteria) and create daily lunch for hundreds of students. Beyond that, they talk about how to create a sustainable lifestyle based on these skills. “We try to expose them to all the pathways in this sector,” says Hess.
Desiree Daniele’s Grade 12 students get direct career benefits from the food studies and hospitality course at Bedford and Forsyth Education Centres, an adult and alternative high school in Halifax, NS. They are able to obtain their Basic Food Handler’s Safety certification, Emergency First Aid training, and a Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) certificate, so they’re prepared for working in a kitchen and are marketable upon applying for employment in the service industry.
“My students have a wide variety of skill sets. Some are just learning to cook and have never turned on a stove or oven or made a meal, and others are very experienced and comfortable in the kitchen,” Daniele says. No matter what skills her students enter with, they leave with concrete career options.
Creating Global Citizens
Beyond career options and basic skills, you can weave in plenty of other lessons. “Food and nutrition is not just cooking,” Clarkson says. “Food is math. Food is health. Food is environmentalism. Food is social and cultural. Food is geography.” Her nutrition classes weave in elements of health, body image, and how mental and physical wellness are linked.
“Even something as simple as: ‘Here’s ten dollars. How can you use it the most economically at a grocery store to make a nutritious meal?’ That’s financial literacy,” Clarkson explains. In Food and Culture, her students talk about diversity, cultural differences, cultural appropriation, and food scarcity. In Housing and Home-Design, students look at eco-living and homelessness, as well as basic construction skills.
In Sonja Goold’s textile arts course at Gorsebrook Jr. High in Halifax, NS, her Grade 7 students start off with sewing, stitching, and crochet. “But we also talk about fast fashion, environmental and social impacts, how to reduce, reuse, and repair.”
These are elements Clarkson explores in her fashion design classes as well. “There’s so many intertwined threads—you can’t talk about one thing without talking about everything else,” she says. “It all relates back to being a responsible global citizen.”
Modern home ec courses are also spaces for students to get off their screens and instead, use their hands to explore tactile creativity. “When we start class, they are excited to actually create something, they’re so interested,” says Goold.
These types of classes very much appeal to today’s kids. Think of the bread-baking craze during the pandemic, or some Instagrammer’s penchant for “upcycling” clothing. Nowadays, it’s cool to do something crafty and kitschy like embroidery. “It’s not grandma’s thing anymore,” Goold says.
“I have kids walking in and asking for embroidery thread. They’re doing embroidery in the halls! It’s a form of personal expression, an art form.” Goold also sees this type of handiwork as a form of mindfulness for students. “They’re present, they’re absorbed in the task literally at hand. They aren’t in front of a screen.”
Hess finds this is something his students are craving as well. “So much of life is already on a screen,” he says. In the culinary program, there’s a lot of hands-on skills like knife usage and dough-making. His students gravitate toward those types of tactile, crafty experiences. “When you give them the option of doing a presentation on PowerPoint or with glue sticks, they choose the glue sticks,” he adds.
Furthermore, Goold points out the overall lack of opportunities to practice hand-based skills. “It’s often just about the bare basics of using tools and using their hands. Kids aren’t being given opportunities to practice fine motor skills. They don’t even take handwritten notes anymore.” Indeed, research shows that increased mobile technology use has led to a decrease in fine motor activities, especially when kids under the age of eight spend more than two hours a day engaged with screen devices.
Along with a respite from screens, family studies courses are also, in their own way, a physical outlet. Sure, there’s gym class and after-school sports programs, but family studies courses have the added appeal of offering a place to create a physical product. “This lets [kids] get some energy out, [and also] lets them do something with their hands and create something,” says Hess.
These elements—creativity, mindfulness, tactile skills, knowledge building, and discussions of global connectedness—often culminate in an overall sense of well-being. “When you’re feeling well, you can make decisions that are good for you and others,” says Clarkson.
She always brings it back to the personal aspect: “How does this affect me? Because when [students are] at their best, they can be the best for others.” And this leads right back to being a responsible global citizen—again, the threads are tightly intertwined. At the end of the day, the large umbrella of life skills we call family studies offers a successful path forward in life.
Martha Beach lives and works in Toronto as a freelance fact-checker, editor, and writer for a wide variety of publications. When she’s not working, you’ll find Martha on her yoga mat or hanging out with her daughter and husband.