What's in a Name? Curricular Shift In Home Ec. Puts Focus on Family

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints

Framingham, Mass.

At Framingham High School here in suburban Boston, Ellen Makynen doesn't punish students for shouting out in class. The teacher, in fact, encourages it.

"Everyone watch," she exclaims to a classroom of 15 students. "Sara is going to tell me to 'stop that!'"

The exercise is part of a sexual-harassment lesson that Ms. Makynen began teaching three years ago. It's meant to teach students how to confront unwanted sexual attention.

Sara Zakar, who slumps in a front-row desk, repeats the command, but quietly. Her chin rests in the palms of her hands, and her fingers just barely cover a self-conscious smile.

"What's the problem here?" Ms. Makynen asks the class after Ms. Zakar speaks.

"She's smiling," a few students answer in unison.

Ms. Makynen nods, then turns to another student to repeat the exercise. "These are skills you can practice," she tells her class. "You can be the person who speaks up and says, 'Stop that, you're being a jerk.'"

Framingham's sexual-harassment lesson is one of many that have emerged from the revamped home economics curriculum now known in many of the nation's schools as family and consumer sciences.

Like Ms. Makynen, home economics teachers across the country are complementing--or even replacing--traditional lessons in their subject with a more contemporary approach that they say better addresses the needs of today's students.

The changes reflect "a shift from an emphasis on the technical aspects of homemaking to a focus on the family," said Joanna Kister, the director of vocational and adult education at the Ohio education department.

Instead of traditional domestic skills, Ms. Kister explained, classes in family and consumer science now include lessons on relationships and communications skills, such as conflict resolution and problem-solving. Some classes also teach time-management and budgeting techniques so that students will learn how to manage a family's resources.

Yet, most family and consumer-science courses still include the traditional skills of cooking and sewing, but with a more modern kick, Ms. Kister said. Cooking classes increasingly focus on diet and nutrition and often incorporate gourmet or ethnic foods, while sewing lessons that used to teach students how to darn socks and replace buttons center on fashion design.

One of the biggest changes in the curriculum is the emphasis on teaching students about choices, Ms. Kister said. Classes focus not only on daily, practical decisions, but also on "significant life choices" such as career plans.

The emphasis on choice, she said, is necessary for students in an increasingly complex society. "Drugs, teenage pregnancy--these are all problems that are related to poor choices," Ms. Kister said.

Boys Begat Shift

The American Home Economics Association spurred the curriculum rechristening in 1994 when it officially changed its name to the American Association of Family and Consumer Science, a 14,000-member professional association based in Alexandria, Va. Though the name and curricula changed, membership has stayed fairly steady, said Joanne Hellebrand, a spokeswoman for the group.

Educators say, however, that the shift in focus and curriculum began long before schools began renaming their home economics departments.

Jean Pryzbylkowski, a retired family and consumer-science teacher at Wheatland Junior High in Lancaster, Pa., said that the transition really began when boys started taking home economics in the 1970s.

"As soon as you get boys in the class, you realize you can't do the things you were doing with all girls," she said. "That's where I started experimenting."

Ms. Pryzbylkowski began planning more gender-neutral activities. In the 1980s, she started teaching a conflict-resolution lesson that included activities for improving listening skills and learning to communicate better with friends and relatives.

In the Framingham district, an influx of boys during the mid-1970s also had a dramatic effect on home economics classes. Lessons became gender-neutral and focused more on community, said Nancy Fitzgerald, the director of the school's family and consumer-science department.

"Our whole curriculum thrust is nonsexist," Ms. Fitzgerald said. "It's important that people understand that family and consumer science is not all women."

To many teachers and school administrators, the revised family and consumer-science department is simply a result of changes in the lives of students and in the late-20th-century community.

New ideas about family, they say, prompted many of the shifts in this home-oriented curriculum.

"I've learned to never describe family as 'The Brady Bunch' family," Ms. Fitzgerald said. "Family can't be defined; it could be one person."

Others say that modifications in the curriculum reflect a more diverse student body. At Framingham High School, where minority students make up almost 30 percent of the student population, an ethnically diverse student body encouraged family and consumer-science teachers to incorporate other cultures into traditional sewing and cooking classes.

Framingham Principal Bob Flaherty believes that many of the skills- and activity-oriented family and consumer-science courses provide a more comfortable environment for students who are still struggling with their English-language skills.

A day-care program at the high school does double duty. It relies on family and consumer-science students as assistants, and it exposes teenagers to the reality of coping with and caring for young children. The high school students who speak Spanish or Portuguese are especially helpful with youngsters with similar backgrounds, said Denise Gallagher, one of the teachers who head the program.

For senior Danladi Bobbit, who plans to be an elementary school teacher, working with Spanish-speaking children in the day-care program not only helps him with his own language studies, it also teaches him about teaching. "If you do a lesson, it's really a joy to see them learning it and that you're teaching it," he says.

His eyes widen with excitement as he turns to Ms. Gallagher: "Yesterday, we finally got Nathan to speak," he says. "It made my day."

Bringing the Outside In

One of the greatest changes in the family and consumer-science curriculum is that it reaches out to the whole of the school and the outside community.

"The main problem I've found with teaching is that it's a very isolating profession," Principal Flaherty said. "You get in your classroom and you teach, and you don't know what the hell is going on out there.

"One thing family and consumer science does is to open that microcosm up, to make us aware of the outer community."

New family and consumer-science programs at Framingham seek to involve all of the school's 1,800 students and to touch on issues that affect the greater community. Along with Ms. Makynen's sexual-harassment lesson, for instance, students, teachers, and administrators created a schoolwide reporting system that enables students to inform staff members when they feel they've been sexually harassed.

"We're working on issues that protect the whole school and not just a few students," Ms. Makynen said. "It's a value to the whole building."

But some teachers find the changes inappropriate and unnecessary. They believe that there was nothing wrong with the traditional lessons of home economics.

"A few had a great deal of objections," Ms. Fitzgerald said. "Some have never changed, and they never do anything different."

The critics object to new lessons and a curriculum name they often consider "undignified," she said. And a lot of the dissatisfaction, she added, comes as much from objections to the societal changes that prompted the shift in the program.

Sandra Timberman, a family and consumer-science teacher at Colerain High School in Cincinnati, said that teachers in her area were uneasy at first about the revamped curriculum. They were concerned that the shift put too much emphasis on communications skills and not enough on advanced levels of traditional cooking and sewing lessons, she said.

"A lot of us were very disgruntled," Ms. Timberman said. "But it's only by working through the new curriculum that we've come to understand and appreciate it. It's always hard to get people to change their ways."

Teacher Shortage

The real crisis in family and consumer-science education is not complaints from traditional teachers, but a critical shortage of teachers entering the field, said Ohio's Ms. Kister. "That's really frightening."

At Florida State University in Tallahassee, enrollment in the family and consumer-science education program has increased in the past few years, but not enough to fill the demand for teachers, said Penny Ralston, the dean of the university's college of human sciences and the president of the American Association of Family and Consumer Science.

"Even though our numbers are up, they're not up enough," Ms. Ralston said. "There's no doubt about it, we need more teachers in this field."

To recruit teachers for family and consumer science, Ms. Kister said, many schools are trying to attract students from related departments, such as social services and other family-oriented programs.

"That is a rich and ripe recruiting area that hasn't been tapped much," she said.

For the most part, family and consumer science is an elective. Only a few states have a high school graduation requirement in the subject, according to Ms. Kister. Most requirements, she said, are set at the local level.

While there is no graduation requirement at Colerain High School, for example, the Northwest Local district is considering making 9th graders take "Today's Teen," a family and consumer-science course that addresses such issues as peer pressure, Ms. Timberman said.

Nor does Framingham High require the classes, although students can use them to fulfill their practical-arts requirement, Mr. Flaherty said.

Elective or not, Framingham's Nancy Fitzgerald is proud of the changes in the curriculum and positive about the future of family and consumer science.

She believes that the alterations may have saved her department. In nearby schools, she said, home economics programs that have not made significant or modernizing changes have been faced with funding and other cuts. A few schools eliminated the department altogether.

"If we had let ourselves just sit and be cookers and sewers, you would not see the response we have today," she said. "I always tell teachers, you have to get out there and let people know how wonderful you are. Make yourself irreplaceable."

Web Only

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories