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Mesh Baltimore advances continuing education

Mamadou N'Diaye, right, sculpts clay at a Mesh Baltimore pottery class.
Mamadou N'Diaye, right, sculpts clay at a Mesh Baltimore pottery class. - Maximilian Franz

It’s a Saturday afternoon at Digital Harbor High School in Federal Hill and about a dozen students are learning how to make authentic Greek cuisine. Stuffed grape leaves, or Dolmades, a cheese pastry called Tiropita, and spinach pie, or Spanakopita, are on the menu. On another Saturday, a teacher tells students to create a list of adjectives to describe a strawberry — part of a brainstorming exercise for a writing class. 

Welcome to Mesh Baltimore, a unique learning experience that former history teacher Susan Solberg launched in November. Mesh holds about a dozen classes one Saturday afternoon each month. For $22, students can select up to three classes taught by area instructors and hobbyists who share their skills with local adults. The diverse, noncredit classes are not the kind you will find at your local community college. On April 20, students will learn how to make their dog behave, discover the art of group drumming and how to make vegetarian Pad Thai.

Mesh has been attracting more students since it started, reflecting a growing interest in noncredit continuing education courses. The demand for continuing adult education will grow 7 percent per year until 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Over the last few years, 918 F Street for Living Social and Skillshare have created similar classes similar to the curriculum at Mesh Baltimore in response to adults who crave new skills but don’t want to receive grades or a new degree.

“There is no pressure to get a good grade and no strings attached,” says Mesh instructor and student Emily Letras. “Mesh is very low risk with high payoff learning.”

Solberg says she would like to offer more standalone sessions for students who don’t necessarily want to take multiple classes in one day. She says she is also looking for a dedicated space that could hold up to 18 Mesh students and accessible to city and county residents.
“There is no pressure to get a good grade and no strings attached,” says Mesh instructor and student Emily Letras.
There are other places in Maryland that offer students continuing education classes without the pressure of completing the class and receiving a grade – though most of these programs are affiliated with community colleges or universities.

“Mesh is different because the learning happens so organically,” Letras says.

Students have come up with many class ideas, including resume writing, photography courses and brewing your own beer at home. They often put the skills to use as well, Letras says.

She took one class on how to plan a children’s birthday party and make finger puppets. She then shared the skill with her friends who have young children. 

“I love to learn new things and at the same time, I love to share what I know with others,” Letras says.

Solberg admits the first Mesh session was composed of her friends and associates, but each time it has grown and gotten a little bigger. She says the class sizes range from five or six people to as many as 15. The recent SkillShare session attracted 60 total, which was 20 more than the previous session.

Solberg says that expanding Mesh allows her to remain in education, but without being tied to an academic calendar. 

“I was ready for new adventures,” Solberg says of leaving teaching. “Part of it was personal for me and I knew it was time for me to do something a little bit different. I have always been interested in community building.”

Solberg says she gets her motivation from instructors and students who suggest classes.

“It’s fun to see what people want to learn and what people are interested in sharing. And best of all it’s been really great to watch people’s imaginations begin to soar.”

Arli Lima is a freelance writer and food enthusiast. She is a Baltimore resident who combines her love of writing and food on her blog Arli’s Appetite

All photographs by Maximilian Franz.

Click photos to read captions.


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