CAMDEN, NY - On a Wednesday afternoon, you wouldn’t generally catch a soothing, fragrant, and delicious-smelling aroma walking by an ordinary school classroom. However, Room 116 at Camden Middle School is no ordinary place to be. The students were cooking up delicious pizzelles as part of their baking elective class, taught by Mrs. Beth Eberly.
The baking elective class is a new addition to the Camden Middle School educational program for the 2022-23 school year, and is part of a wider roll-out of new elective courses at Camden Middle School and Camden High School.
By trade, Eberly is an ELA and Reading teacher. How she got into teaching students to cook was serendipitous. Principal Brittany DerCola asked her staff if anyone had an interest in teaching an elective, and Eberly jumped at the chance to do something different. “I thought it would be a fun opportunity to do something hands-on with the kids,” Eberly said.
Not only would it give Eberly an opportunity to do some hands-on instruction outside of her normal classroom field, but it gave her a platform to showcase her experiences prior to becoming an educator to provide a well-rounded experience for students. When Eberly was growing up, her parents owned a small cake business. She was able to use what she learned as a child to earn extra money in her college years by working as a cake decorator at the very popular Biscotti Cafe and Pastry Shop in Syracuse. That knowledge she picked up along the way has helped her to equip a group of 22 students in 7th and 8th grades with the tools to succeed in the kitchen during a half year elective course. All skill levels are welcome.
Students have fun learning and practicing cooking and baking skills regardless of their skill level. The basics are covered: how to knead dough, use a rolling pin, and what it means to cream butter and sugar. Some higher-level concepts are also built in to help students add a creative flair to the largely scientific practice of baking, like using a piping bag to make cake borders, flowers and decorations.
Eberly introduces the skills to students regardless of their knowledge base, and the students take over in creating a truly collaborative hands-on learning environment. Students with more kitchen experience often help students with less experience in getting up to speed, and each member of the class grows more confident along the way. “I have some students who did not know how to turn an oven on, while others were already comfortable in the kitchen,” Eberly said. “It has been rewarding to see how much they have all grown, and how confident they are in the skills they have gained.”
While many of the recipes are direction-based, the opportunity to build and demonstrate problem-solving skills is a huge part of life in the classroom kitchen. That holds true for students and teachers alike. Occasionally, mistakes happen in virtually every kitchen on the planet, and cooks and bakers have to adapt to changing circumstances. The time constraints of the class schedule have also led Eberly to adapt her evolving curriculum to fit the needs of her students. When one factors in setup time, announcements, and cleanup into the class period, she only has about 30 minutes for the students to work in the kitchen. That doesn’t even include the old adage that time flies when you’re having fun. These constraints have led Eberly to streamline her classroom for efficiency. The students make recipes that can be finished in that half-hour time window, or held in the fridge and resumed two days later. Skills also have to be taught and retained at a faster pace. The rising cost of ingredients has also presented a challenge, and she is working quickly to establish additional sources of funding, such as grants, to offset those costs. Between kitchen skills, teamwork, and personal growth, it all comes together to help students transform simple raw ingredients into dishes they can be proud of. Over the course of the first semester, students have made:
Pizza dough, individual pizzas, one dozen varieties of cookies, cupcakes, layer cakes, royal icing, buttercream icing, red velvet cake balls, oreo pancakes, caramel apples, mini apple pies, pizzelles, and chocolate peanut butter fudge.
When they’re finished, the dishes often head for home where students can enjoy their wares with family. They’ve also become quite a recruiting tool, as other students are now lining up to take the class. In response to the influx of demand, Eberly has held multiple after-school sessions for students looking to get into the kitchen. Eberly hopes that in addition to bringing home enjoyable food, the students take with them some lifelong lessons and experiences that can never expire as long as they’re put to use.
“I love to see the look of pride on their faces when they report back to me about how impressed their family was with what they made,” Eberly said. “ We provide extra copies of the recipes we use, for kids to take home when they want to try making something we did in class, on their own. It's really rewarding to see how they are transferring the confidence they feel in the kitchen at school, to the kitchen at home.”