By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
Beatrice Harris, home economics teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Middle School, announced her retirement after 40 years as an educator. She said her goodbyes to the school during her keynote address at the middle school graduation.
Harris taught home economics at the Lab School, 1362 E. 59th St., for 28 years. She started her teaching career at Job Corps in Omaha, Neb., as a life skills course teacher, then moved to Chicago and worked as a home economics teacher in the Chicago Public School system for 11 years before joining the faculty at the Lab Middle School where, in addition to teaching, she served as the advisor of the middle school yearbook committee.
“In public school you must teach to the curriculum. At Lab, you have freedom in teaching,” Harris said.
All Lab middle school students, girls and boys, take home economics class during seventh and eighth grade. Harris said this program helps students develop self-respect and responsibility and a better quality of life.
“I like to call it life skills,” Harris said of her home economics course. “I teach skills you can learn and use all of your life.”
In the seventh grade program students learn rules of food safety and cleanliness, the proper use of cooking utensils, table setting and how to follow a recipe and to complete and follow a work plan. They also learn how to identify and use basic sewing tools and sewing basics such as sewing stitches, button application and how to read and follow written sewing instructions.
In the eighth grade program students learn to use the sewing machine. They also begin to explore a variety of food groups, prepare a dish that represents that particular food group, prepare a meal that accompanies the dish and share the responsibilities of cooking and cleaning.
“These skills are still important,” Harris said. “Even if they have people to do this for them they will know if that person is doing it right.”
A World Cuisines course is also offered as an elective. Harris said the course was designed to promote multicultural awareness by providing information about food and customs from around the world. In the class, students explore a wide variety of food from around the world and become familiar with the geographic area, types of food grown in the area, factors that affect the food traditions of the area or region, methods of cookery and typical dishes.
“This is a very popular class because we cook most of the time,” Harris said.
She said in addition to researching the culture and country of the cuisine the class would prepare, she would consult with a native so the class could have the most authentic experience possible.
“We did a Jewish Seder,” Harris said. “I consulted with some of the parents so that we could do it right. We have also made Dutch food.”
Harris said her last week at Lab School seemed like one big, bittersweet party. The Lab students gave her a party, Lab teachers treated her to lunch and also gave her a party during the regular teachers meeting and just when she thought the Lab community couldn’t be more complimentary the students voted her to be their keynote speaker for the middle school graduation.
During her speech she spoke about her journey from an aspiring fashion designer, to her career as a teacher and the lasting affects that teaching has had on her life.
“I want to go back to working with people in my neighborhood,” said the Chatham resident of her retirement plans. “I want to put together a summer program at my church.”
Hill said the program would include cooking, sewing, nutrition and job readiness classes. She also wants to work with the church to lead a class in diabetic cooking.
“I want to impart so much to them because many young women just don’t know better,” Harris said. “I hope to some degree they are receptive.”
She also hopes to spend more time tending to her garden, visiting her children more often and figuring out what to do with the website, lifeskillsproject.org, they created for her.