Life skills classes help students adapt in COVID age

Senior Brennen Derouchie cans pepper jelly in Mrs. Cottrell’s family and consumer science class at General Brown. Provided photo

BROWNVILLE — In 2020, with many across the world quarantined due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, practical skills are proving to be more useful than many may have imagined while learning them in school.

Hannah L. Cottrell, a family and consumer sciences teacher at General Brown Central School District, has been teaching for a total of 12 years, six of them at General Brown.

Family and consumer sciences has basically replaced home economics in schools, according to Mrs. Cottrell. Instead of just cooking and sewing, now there’s another business end of it. In her classes, Mrs. Cottrell talks about things like taxes and finding a job along with having students using sewing machines and practice knife skills.

“Instead of it just being the traditional cooking and sewing, it’s added some more life skills in that take you out of the home,” she said. “How to manage a family and career, how to make a budget, plus all the traditional skills that we used to do. Legally, in New York state, family and consumer sciences falls under career and technical education. And there’s a state mandate for career and technical education in New York state.”

Mrs. Cottrell is also part of the New York State Association of Family and Consumer Science Educators, so even though she is the only one in her department covering family and consumer science and General Brown, she has a network of peers to reach out to if she needs them.

For the high school, Mrs. Cottrell offers one elective a semester, rotating between five electives: food prep, food and nutrition, gourmet foods, international foods and a course called career explorations. Each is a half-year course.

On a daily basis, she also teaches seventh- and eighth-grade home and career skills curriculum. In eighth grade, the focus is on career development and investigation with a focus on money management, like creating a bank account, how to write a check, how to use a debit card, and the difference between debit and credit.

Eighth-graders also learn nutrition, focusing on the six essential nutrients by food groups, and actually cooking nutritious items versus just cooking to cook.

According to Mrs. Cottrell, seventh grade is the most hands on, where she teaches students how to hand sew and how to sew using a machine.

“Sometimes I get a lot of grief from young men about learning how to sew, but it’s a machine and once they realize it’s a machine and they can actually create something, most of them are like, ‘Wow, this is more fun than we thought it would be,’” she said. “In seventh grade I also do a family and babysitting unit — I call it child development. We talk about basic first aid, the different family structures, what challenges arise, how can you work with them.”

This year, amid the pandemic, Mrs. Cottrell’s food prep class can only have one student per kitchen instead of the usual four. Their curriculum is currently broken down so when the students are in school, they’re doing the lab portion of their education, getting hands-on instruction and cooking something each week. So far, they’ve made things like ice cream, different egg preparations and preparations of other breakfast items, canning and even playdough to practice knife cuts.

“I try to relate everything to real-world life jobs. If your boss gives you a task, you have to complete it. In the real world, if you choose not to do it, you’re gonna be unemployed. With the sewing machine, I relate it to driving a car, if you’re on your fabric you can’t drive off the fabric — it’s just like driving a car, you don’t want to drive off the cliff,” she said.

Last year, when schools across New York went into quarantine, Mrs. Cottrell said she was getting pictures from families doing home and career things at home with messages like: “We had a family game night where we sat down and we actually talked to each other,” or, “We cooked a meal and I didn’t know that my kids knew what a colander was for.”

Mrs. Cottrell noted she has had seventh-graders who had never gotten to use a microwave before.

“It’s so important to teach kids how to be independent,” she said. “I think it’s important to learn these valuable life skills, especially in a time like quarantine when you have nobody to fall back on but yourself and your skills. I think family consumer sciences a lot of times is overlooked, but really, in the end, these are the skills you need. You need to be able to get a job, you need to be able to cook for yourself.”

Though she likened teaching in 2020 to running a marathon that never ends, Mrs. Cottrell said it is still rewarding and the students seem grateful to be in school to have the normalcy and get excited to learn new things.

Mrs. Cottrell’s former home economics teacher, Karen W. Thomas, died at the beginning of the month, and Mrs. Cottrell said that in the end, she wants to have as much impact on the world that Mrs. Thomas had on her generation.

To that end, she has been putting a lot of effort into her class to engage with the community. When students start to sew on a machine, she has them make a quilt square, and then they all come together as a group and make quilts. The classes have donated them to various different organizations, the last batch going to Hospice.

Mrs. Cottrell is also an advisor for Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, a community service leadership organization.

“If there’s going to be community service at school, they come to me first most of the time, and my students, we help in whatever way we can,” she said. “Most often, I can turn a community service need into a project in my classroom. When we could get all together, our biggest accomplishment two years ago, my seventh graders made 500 desserts for an award night that we had at school.”

One of Mrs. Cottrell’s students, who learned to bake in her class, has now started her own bakery, something that Mrs. Cottrell said as a teacher makes her really proud that she’s taking it to the next step, making something out of a skill practiced in school.

That student is Hailie L. Calhoun, 18. Though she switched schools for her senior year, graduating from Lyme last year, Ms. Calhoun had a handful of classes with Mrs. Cottrell before she left General Brown.

The first time Ms. Calhoun learned to bake was in Mrs. Cottrell’s class her freshman year of high school.

Continuing her baking at BOCES, she even did an internship in Mrs. Cottrell’s classroom where she taught alongside her former teacher for a period of time.

In September, she started her bakery, Country Sweets, which is currently run out of her kitchen at home and through a Facebook page of the same name.

When she’s not baking, Ms. Calhoun is keeping an eye on her brother for her parents during the day or working as a hostess at Texas Roadhouse.

“I personally think that practical skills are really important,” Ms. Calhoun said. “Along with our home and careers class, she (Mrs. Cottrell) did a career exploration class, taught us about doing checks and balancing and how to make food as if we lived on our own; her class prepared me quite a lot for starting my own business.”

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