Family and consumer sciences teacher combines creativity with basic skills

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  • Karen Strong in one of her two classrooms on Tuesday, May 28, at Kalispell Middle School. Strong teaches sewing and related skills in this room, and cooking in the other. She has been named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Montana Affiliate of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    In this March 2019 file photo, Brenna Ernst plays the role of Mulan and Dawson Girardot, Mushu the Dragon, in Kalispell Middle School’s production of “Mulan Jr.” Under Strong’s tutelage the students helped make the costumes. (Photo provided).

  • Karen Strong in one of her two classrooms on Tuesday, May 28, at Kalispell Middle School. Strong teaches sewing and related skills in this room, and cooking in the other. She has been named the 2019 Teacher of the Year by the Montana Affiliate of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    In this March 2019 file photo, Brenna Ernst plays the role of Mulan and Dawson Girardot, Mushu the Dragon, in Kalispell Middle School’s production of “Mulan Jr.” Under Strong’s tutelage the students helped make the costumes. (Photo provided).

Sewing on a button, cracking an egg, cooking from a recipe, and shopping on a budget is often a first-time experience in Karen Strong’s family and consumer sciences classroom at Kalispell Middle School.

Strong has taught “life literacy” for more than a decade with a zest for the creativity and variety of the curriculum that covers culinary arts and nutrition, sewing and textiles, child development and a bit of finance.

After sewing that first button, students will bring in clothes from home to mend.

“They bring in like their dad’s shirt and at lunch sew on the button. And they fix their clothes,” she said noting that hoodies, a middle school clothing staple, are the popular items students bring in to mend when threads loosen on the edges of kangaroo pockets.

She said that family consumer sciences curriculum is a valuable part of a child’s education.

“I think there was a time where people didn’t think family consumer science wasn’t as important,” she said noting that some schools discontinued the program around the nation. “And I think there’s this whole generation of kids who really are struggling with they call it ‘adulting.’”

She also slips in math skills to fun activities ­— what it costs to make a cookie, altering recipes, or taking clothing measurements. On occasion, students will make connections to material they’ve learned in math class by simply cutting up a quesadilla and talking about fractions, Strong said.

Strong’s mother Sydna was a strong influence in her pursuit of family and consumer sciences as a career. Her mother had a degree in home economics.

“When I went to college mom said, ‘take some hard classes, but take something fun,’” recalled Strong, who majored in family and consumer sciences and minored in biology and is certified to teach both.

Where Strong’s creativity shines is coming up with costumes for the middle school plays. Being on a tight budget, she devises ways to repurpose what people find or donate.

“My favorite part about the play is repurposing something and making it into a costume,” she said.

Sometimes the students in her classes will help out in making garments such as hats or vests, for example.

This year, the middle school produced “Mulan Jr.”

“Actually Mulan’s dress was out of a tablecloth and it turned out beautiful, you would never know,” Strong said, noting that “crazy orange curtains” were turned into beautiful costumes for the school performance of “The Lion King.”

Although her mother has passed away, what binds them together is a talent for sewing.

“My mom was a beautiful sewer and she made lots of costumes [for community plays],” Strong said.

While Strong remembers making doll clothes as a child, it wasn’t until she was 12 that she learned to sew well. Yet, it is a bittersweet memory.

“My mom had breast cancer,” Strong said.

When her mother didn’t feel well she would lie on the couch and pin projects together and tell Strong, “Just sew from here to here, and from here to here.”

“And that’s how I really learned to sew. I just loved that time with her,” Strong said.

Strong has taught at Kalispell Middle School for 12 years and was at Flathead High School prior to that for about three years.

When she was asked to move to the middle school she wasn’t certain about teaching the age group of 12- to 14-year-olds, but quickly learned how much fun it could be.

“What I love about it — I love their funny jokes and I love their crazy energy — and they’re willing to try anything,” Strong said.

The energy of middle school students is electric.

“You kind of have to be OK with loud,” Strong said, smiling. “Sometimes we call it organized chaos because everyone is doing something different at the same time, but it’s super fun.”

With about 1,000 students coming through her classroom in a year, she may not immediately recall a name. What she will recall is the pattern or color of fabric the student chose for a sewing project.

“Middle schoolers pick out super bright colors and their personalities come through in their fabric. Sometimes I can see a kid later and I think, ‘oh, their name starts with a ‘K,’ but I remember they made this pink gym bag, or their quilt was blue,” Strong said.

Strong tries to turn instruction into fun activities and events so that students are learning even if they don’t realize it. She has adapted popular competitive food shows on TV into the classroom kitchen such as “Iron Chef,” and “Cupcake Wars,” after students have honed their cooking skills.

Their peers judge the food, and with bake-offs, items will be sold with sales factoring into who the winner will be. Just like the TV reality shows, the results may be exceptional, or comical.

In one lesson, students get to choose recipes from popular foods in other countries. Fortune cookies, baklava and kabobs have become classics to make for the unit.

One of the new projects is sewing with conductive thread that students have to learn how to connect to a battery-operated circuit board to make it light up. The project was possible through a Kalispell Education Foundation grant.

“There’s so much to do. I have to narrow it down and you never get bored because there’s always something new to do,” Strong said.

Recently, the Montana Affiliate of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences named Strong Teacher of the Year.

“I love what I do. I feel it’s the best job in the whole world,” she said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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