Students learn to bake while enjoying the support of their peers.
The homely aroma of freshly-baked pastries whiffs down the school corridor. Following the scent and peals of laughter, we arrive at a room where apron-clad boys and girls chat happily as they put the final touches to their tasty creations.
If you think this is a Home Economics class, you are in for a surprise. These students at Woodgrove Secondary School are in fact budding bakers in “A Friend in Knead” - an outreach programme that uses baking as a therapeutic tool to help students de-stress and build character.
From cooking classes to counselling students
“A Friend in Knead” is the brainchild of Mrs Stella Goh Hock Seng. Formerly Head of Home Economics at Woodgrove Secondary School, Mrs Goh decided to embark on a new calling in 2006. “I enjoyed my teaching days and I am happy when students get good results,” she shares. “But I think I can make a greater difference to the students as a counsellor.”
After six months of training, Mrs Goh returned to Woodgrove Secondary School as a full-time school counsellor. Tapping on her 30 years of experience in teaching Home Economics, Mrs Goh hatched the idea of using “culinary experiences” as a platform for character-building. Through small successes achieved in baking, she sought to develop social and emotional competencies and boost her students’ sense of self worth.
Praise and affirmation for their culinary products help boost the students’ self-confidence.
Using this recipe, Mrs Goh initiated “A Friend in Knead” two years ago, inviting students under her care to join her for regular bouts of baking. It started off with a mix of individual and group sessions, but nowadays, Mrs Goh conducts only group sessions, as she finds these to be more helpful in promoting team work and encouraging peer affirmation.
This year, Mrs Goh has held 24 baking sessions so far, each involving 8 to 10 students who get together for a few hours of camaraderie. The students are also given the chance to invite a friend to join them on their culinary journey. Even this simple act is for Mrs Goh a significant step of courage into the unknown, for it signals “the support of peers” and a growing self-confidence in students who were once painfully shy or suffered from low self-esteem.
Lessons in life from moulding the dough
During the baking classes, Mrs Goh dishes out simple yet powerful lessons. For instance, the students learn that by varying the heat level and baking time, they can control how their product turns out. Similarly, they come to realise that they are not “victims of circumstances” but have the power to shape their own lives. “Even if the product didn’t come out well this time,” notes Mrs Goh, “It’s not a failure but a learning experience.”
The students have in Mrs Stella Goh someone they can approach and share their problems with.
As they knead the dough, the students also get a work-out which Mrs Goh explains helps to relieve stress and deflect pent-up anger. The task of planning the baking process also trains them in decision-making and problem-solving, while the experience of working in a team boosts their social and communication skills.
The relaxed setting also encourages students to open up and share their problems. From parental woes to boy-girl relationships, Mrs Goh lends a ready ear and facilitates the students in considering how their decisions would affect others as well as themselves. And when it’s time to pack up, she encourages the students to share their newly-baked goodies with family and friends.
Visitors to the school often enjoy a special treat, as Mrs Goh seeks out opportunities to showcase her students’ talents. “When the visitors say the food is very good, the students will be very happy”, she says.
Thanks to her dedication, the students have developed the mettle to take on life’s challenges with a positive outlook. Crystal Lee, for one, has learnt to be more patient with people who are rude to her. “Maybe they have some family issues, and they don’t really mean to be rude to you,” she states.
Baking lessons “have never been so fun and educational,” quips schoolmate Jade Lee. “The mingling, laughter and working together taught us teamwork.” For Jade, the best part comes “when we enjoy the fruits of our labour together and watch the joy on the faces of others when they taste our products.” It’s a rapport that lasts even after the final crumble, for the students know that in Mrs Goh, they have a “friendly teacher next door” whom they can approach whenever they need someone to talk to.