So many ways to keep learning

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Carol Sorgen
Susan Solberg founded Mesh Baltimore to provide adults an easy way to learn new skills — from antiquing to spinning yarn — through one-time classes taught by their peers. Other outside-the-classroom learning opportunities include Meetup groups, and the Elderhostel Lifelong Learning Institute at Charlestown.
Photo courtesy of Susan Solberg

When Susan Solberg left her position as Bryn Mawr’s Upper School director last summer, she wanted to retire “from the clock” — not from living and learning.

“I didn’t really want to retire,” said Solberg, 58, a resident of northern Baltimore County. “I just didn’t want be tied to the academic calendar or working 60 hours a week anymore.”

Solberg gave a lot of thought to what she did want to do with her time and, not surprisingly, decided she still wanted to be involved in education, but now on her own terms. A young colleague told her about a New York-based outfit called Brooklyn Brainery, billed as “cheap classes on anything and everything in NYC.”

Solberg contacted the group, inquiring about franchise opportunities, but while the Brainery wasn’t equipped for that, it inspired Solberg to look into starting something similar in Baltimore. The result? Mesh Baltimore (www.meshbaltimore.com), a lifelong learning adventure that doesn’t require a long-term commitment.

The impetus behind Mesh Baltimore was Solberg’s interest in both learning and community-building. “I wanted to offer accessible opportunities for people to learn new things with their neighbors,” she explained.

Solberg calls Mesh “risk-free learning,” where you get to try something you might never do otherwise. Like spinning yarn.

“I have no interest in doing that on a full-time basis, but I was interested to see what it was all about,” said Solberg, who did just that at one of Mesh Baltimore’s first “SkillShare” events. These are held approximately every six weeks from 1 to 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon (the next one is scheduled for March 2) at Digital Harbor High School.

At each event, at least 12 different 55-minute mini-classes are offered — four unique classes taught concurrently, offered in three time blocks, one after the other. The cost is $20 and you sign up for the event, not individual classes.

Examples of previous classes range from creating a water garden, to finding treasures and scoring deals at auctions, to WordPress (a free service for creating websites and blogs) for beginners. At the last SkillShare event, held in January, nearly 60 people of all ages registered for the 17 mini-classes offered.

In our “virtual” times, is there a need and desire for something like Mesh? Solberg believes so. “Yes, you can learn to knit by watching a video on YouTube,” she said, “but you can’t ask that video a question or connect with anyone personally.

“I think we yearn to connect with others in ways beyond the workplace, and to meet people who see the world the way that we do,” Solberg added.

To register for the upcoming SkillShare event, visit www.meshbaltimore.com.

Finding fellow travelers

For DJ Reginald Kelly, music is understandably a big part of his life, and a love that he enjoys sharing with others, especially other boomers.

Kelly, who is 61 and lives in West Baltimore, laments the fact that radio stations are now aiming to appeal to younger audiences (“We’ve been kicked to the curb!”), and the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s that he grew up with is no longer played on the airwaves.

Kelly decided to fill that void with the help of Meetup (www.meetup.com) — an online forum that helps people with similar interests find each other, plan meetings and form local clubs in communities around the world. Currently, there are Meetup Groups in over 45,000 cities in 129 countries.

For Kelly, Meetup was just what he was looking for — a social (but not dating) website where he could find other people with an interest in “oldies” music.

“I knew there had to be people in my age group who would enjoy getting together and hearing this kind of music and learning more about it and the entertainers we grew up listening to,” he said.

Kelly’s Meetup group, called “We Love Oldies,” meets regularly. The next gathering will be on Wednesday, Feb. 27, where Kelly will act as DJ and spin the best of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and Motown music. Admission is free. (For more information, visit www.meetup.com/we-love-oldies-group-of-Baltimore.)

According to Meetup’s community specialist Alex Finger, the average Meetup member tends to be older — like Kelly and his group — than on most social networking websites.

“College-age folks tend to have greater access to organized events and school networks to connect with other people with similar interests,” said Finger.

While all Meetup groups combine the social element, many also have a more educational focus. In Baltimore alone, for example, you’ll find book clubs, intellectual “salons,” foreign language groups and more. (Of course, there are also the requisite singles groups if you are looking for your soulmate.)

“Meetup connects you with people who are nearby and share your passions,” said Finger. “Many social media platforms help you keep in touch with people you already know, but Meetup helps you find people in your community that have common interests. That kind of circle can be hard to find, especially in a big city. (Meetup was founded in 2002 with the mission of bringing people together locally, after founder Scott Heiferman’s experiences in NYC around 9/11.)

“Maybe you’re into knitting, or you love classic literature, or you’ve been dying to learn how to scuba dive and your friends aren’t excited about those things,” Finger continued.

“Or maybe you’re going through a life transition; moved to a new city; or received a diagnosis, and you want to find people who are going through the same experiences. You find yourself looking for a support system, for like-minded people, and Meetup is an amazing way to find your tribe.”

Courses without homework

Living in a retirement community such as Charlestown doesn’t mean you want to stop learning.

“People lose their eyesight, their hearing, their ability to walk, but not their desire to learn,” said 72-year-old Charlestown resident Peggy Wixted, a retired 8th grade teacher. With that in mind, Wixted and four other Charlestown residents contacted Elderhostel, a lifelong learning organization founded in 1975.

With Elderhostel’s support, six years ago Wixted and the other members of the steering committee (which now numbers 19) founded the Elderhostel Lifelong Learning Institute at Charlestown, commonly referred to by residents as ELLIC.

ELLIC now has 400 members taking part in 103 classes and special programs (some of which are open to the public). ELLIC members pay a fee of $25 a year and can then sign up for as many classes as they like.

Instructors include both Charlestown residents and outside instructors who offer a variety of classes, from learning more about Mardi Gras and its musical history to a special program on Martin Luther King, Jr. There are also intergenerational programs and field trips.

“And we love food,” Wixted added with a laugh. “Anything with refreshments involved fills the house!”

“It’s gratifying to hear from residents how ELLIC has changed their lives,” said Wixted. “So many people have said that learning gets rid of their sadness.”

When planning ELLIC, Wixted and her fellow steering committee members surveyed the residents to see what they would like and whether they had any specific requests.

What they found was that those interested in taking classes didn’t want to sit longer than 60 to 90 minutes, and they didn’t want any one class to last longer than three weeks. For the most part, the ELLIC schedule adheres to those suggestions. Most classes meet for 90 minutes and last from one to three weeks.

Wixted herself teaches a class on First Ladies and takes as many as 30 participants. Even being a former teacher, Wixted appreciates the fact that the ELLIC classes have no homework and no requirements.

“If you don’t feel well one day, you don’t have to go,” she said. “If you don’t like a particular class, you don’t have to come back. But all in all, this is a good way for us to keep our minds sharp and to meet other people.”