Chopping and changing: home economics is a good life choice
Galway teacher Sarah Varden describes a week of taking home-economics classes in an all-boys’ school
Home economics teacher Sarah Varden with a group of students at Garbally College, Ballinasloe, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
I teach home economics at the all-boys St Joseph’s College, Garbally in Ballinasloe, Co Galway. I knew I was in for a challenge when I applied for this position four years ago. It involved setting up the subject in the school from scratch and it was up to me to entice as many boys as possible to do it.
Selling the idea was quite tough at the start: I came up against the “Home economics? Isn’t that a bit girly?” question more than once. The key was to get them to try it. When I pointed out the number of male celebrity chefs, it was easy to convince them to give cooking a go.
It worked, and in the first year I had a group who decided to take it on. That was a great start and since then I’ve had two groups opting for it each year. By now, home economics is well established here. Even the students who aren’t doing it will poke their heads in if they’re passing and wonder what we’ve been cooking. They enjoy getting to cook and eat their own food.
Our first years get to sample their subject options before choosing what they want to study, so today was my first class with the boys I’ll be taking through to Junior Cert. After a lot of sorting of books, introductions and laying down rules in terms of hygiene and safety in the kitchen, we are ready to forge a path through the syllabus.
I also had a triple class with transition year students. I’m taking them for a 10-week module on cooking and nutrition and today they made enchiladas. That went well overall, in spite of the odd mishap.
Both my Leaving Cert Applied (LCA) class, which I take for hotel catering and tourism, and my third-years are working on past papers to give them a feel for the exams in the months ahead.
After lunch, my second-years were working on their craft project; a patchwork cushion with an appliquéd design. Let’s just say that Louis Copeland and Karl Lagerfeld wouldn’t have the same cultural impact with the boys as the likes of Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver, but the results are surprisingly encouraging. Sewing is always going to be a tougher sell than cooking but, like everything else in home economics, once the boys get into it, they become absorbed.
Sewing machines are a must as my students wouldn’t be keen on handstitching or anything like that. It also helps that they get to choose their design, colours and so on.
A lot of them enjoy making something in their favourite team colours; that is one way to attract and stimulate interest, given the many sporting rivalries in the area. Not only can sport feature in their craft projects, the boys have a keen interest in sports health, fitness and nutrition, which feature in the home-economics course. At this school, the boys compete at a high level in sports and their nutrition is vital to their performance.
Home economics in a boys’ school was, and still is, unusual. Our vice principal had been a home economics teacher and opened the principal’s eyes to the possibilities in the subject. It was also around the time of the downturn in construction and the principal loved the idea because he saw it as a great way to open up other career areas and possibilities for our students.
Making an omelette is reasonably simple, but when you have 20 students with whisks, frying pans, hot hobs and lots of eggs, there is potential for disaster. I have to be incredibly organised, extremely disciplined and very, very quick to anticipate trouble before it happens. Multitasking is a must.
Today’s lesson with my first-years was about the importance of breakfast and the nutritional choices you make. That was the reason for the omelettes. I also had a class of students doing further education (Fetac) exams. They had to make a healthy, grilled-chicken dinner and we recorded them, for assessment purposes.
It’s great seeing them all improve. On day one, some students really don’t have a clue. You can spot the boys who know their way around a kitchen or at least know what the potato peeler looks like. They’re the ones who are probably expected to help out at home. Others would have a very steep learning curve. It’s all extremely new to them, but they catch on surprisingly quickly.
I was cooking with my Junior Cert classes today. We have to practise the cookery tasks for the exams. There are seven tasks that they practise and then in April they draw tasks out of a hat to find out which one they need to perform for the examiner.
Today we were preparing a meal for someone who has anaemia. We made spaghetti Bolognese and learned about the condition and the nutritional theory behind that. Later on, my other third-year class prepared a meal for a lacto-vegetarian. That’s someone who doesn’t eat meat but who eats animal products such as cheese and yogurt. The boys cooked vegetable stir fries.
Fridays are more theory-based, although my LCA class did make a breakfast buffet this morning. We were learning about the importance of a good breakfast.
After that, my third-years worked in groups to complete the short questions from mock exam papers. Second-years were learning about milk and milk products and first-years were learning the food pyramid.
I think that, of all the subjects, home economics gives people amazing life skills. Students come in not knowing the difference between a hand towel and a tea towel and leave with a wealth of new skills. They get to learn all about nutrition, consumer studies, budgeting and even the design and workings of a house, as well as cooking and craft work.
Even if some of my students were never to go on to study home economics at senior cycle, they’re really well equipped for that first move from home. That’s a lot of skills for life.