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Responsible citizens Skidmore sharpens its goal of turning out civic-minded graduates
Local politics 101 Gaining hands-on experience during Saratoga election
Learning unlimited An educational smorgasbord for neighbors of all ages
Alumni Saratogians Skidmore grads who've joined the local community
On the water Skidmore students and faculty research Saratoga water system
Contributions in cash and culture Skidmore's economic effect on its region

 

 

Learning unlimited
An educational smorgasbord for neighbors of all ages

by Barbara Melville

Whether you nibble around the edges, sample a few courses, or dive in for a full banquet, lifelong learning can be the tastiest of pursuits. It’s good for you, too—anti-Alzheimer’s, anti-boredom, and pro-fulfillment. It satisfies the human appetite for “play of the mind,” as David Porter, Skidmore’s president emeritus, likes to say.

Like many American colleges, Skidmore has long welcomed area residents into an array of programs that foster the play of the mind, whether in young learners, prime-timers, or older adults. As examples, consider three popular Skidmore offerings (and these are just hors d’oeuvres; for the full menu, browse the college’s Web site, especially under “special programs”).


THE WORK OF THE CHILD




To watch the littlest learners
in action, drop in at Skidmore’s Early Childhood Center and sneak into the observation booth with its one-way glass windows, headphones, and views into two bright classrooms bustling with more than thirty lively three- to five-year-olds.

Mornings at ten, it’s free-play time, and the racket is stupefying. There are kids playing dress-up (ballet dancer, firefighter), hammering wooden pegs, sorting tiny plastic animals, building block cities, doing puzzles, cresting a six-foot climbing rig, and plunging elbow-deep in shaving cream (or sand or beads) at the “sensory table.” Critics might sniff that “all they do in this program is play.” That’s fine with ECC director Karen Brackett ’81, who explains that “play is the work of the child, the medium through which they make sense of their world.”

In fact, their Skidmore world is loaded with learning. From planned activities to social skills, the classrooms overflow with it: a yellow circle marked “yellow circle” hangs from the ceiling next to “blue rectangle,” chairs and doors sport nametags too, and big posters treat numbers and letters like colorful décor. Absorbing their ABCs plus a little Spanish, science, global awareness, and music before kindergarten “gives kids a big leg up when they go to school,” believes psychology major Eric Bosen ’10, a center volunteer since his freshman year.

“The kids are having such a ball, they don’t know they’re learning,” says Tabitha LeClair Orthwein ’91, whose four-year-old Oliver followed his big brother into the center. “When I looked at preschools, I did not want to see teaching charts,” adds Alison Getz, a former elementary-school teacher whose three kids are now ECC alumni. “Creativity is how people solve problems, so I wanted to see learning through exploratory and imaginative play.”

Skidmore’s involvement in local preschool offerings dates back to 1929. Today’s ECC is a New York State-certified laboratory school affiliated with the college’s education-studies department. Its teachers practice cutting-edge educational techniques; Skidmore faculty conduct research projects there, and nearly ninety Skidmore students per semester teach and learn there, fulfilling education or psychology course requirements. It’s built such a reputation that some eighty-five families from the Saratoga area enroll their kids each year, and there’s a waiting list.
As quiet time replaces free play, Oliver Orthwein eagerly volunteers
to do the daily class count. He touches a foot of each child, teacher, and student staffer as they sit in a circle on the floor, counting aloud all the way up to seventeen. He pauses, grins, and, teetering, taps his own foot—“Eighteen!”


FEEDING PASSIONS


Generously defined as those between the ages of twelve and sixty-two, prime-time learners are harder to spy on than the ECC’s youngsters. Focused self-starters, these students vanish into the science labs, art and music studios, and theaters as they seek to get a jump on college-level work, fill in professional gaps, or feed part-time passions.

They’re especially thick on campus each summer, when the college's special-programs office presents workshops in precollege subjects, science for girls, sports, theater, jazz, flute, writing, and art. Last summer’s studio-art offerings, for instance, included a selection of one-day, weekend, and weeklong sessions, among them a hand-stitching seminar taught by nationally renowned fiber artist Ilze Aviks.

This is not your grandmother’s cross-stitch class. Aviks teaches a once-homey craft that’s become a hot new art medium. She encourages her students to assay a spontaneous, innovative style as colorful and chaotic as free play among the preschoolers. The long tables in the Saisselin Art Building’s fiber-art studio are strewn with the tools and toys of the trade: unbleached muslin, embroidery hoops, thimbles, needles, and piles of silky floss. At other times, the group dons aprons, masks, and rubber gloves to dip, spray, roll, and paint swatches of muslin with various dyes and pigments. Creation is a messy job.

Aviks shows how startling the familiar stitches can look on those newly dyed fabrics, whose patterns and colors jolt the imagination into surprising new designs. A classic running stitch—which was probably old when the Bayeux tapestry was new—can explode into frenzied gestural shapes. Tiny seed stitches, when repeated in dementedly large quantities, can create potent design qualities like density, rhythm, and flow.

There are daily assignments, critiques, and slideshows of contemporary fabric artworks, plus shoptalk and tips on new stuff like a weird synthetic fabric that evaporates when washed, turning anything stitched on it into something like freestanding lace. Local stitcher Nancy Glover pushes herself to cut a little loose in her design; sculptor Alicia Herbst, new to this fabric medium, spatters tiny stitches like stars across works of cosmic simplicity.

Needles fly and skills sharpen, but the best part of the workshop for these busy grownups is the pleasure of a whole week spent blissfully absorbed in artistic challenge. Says Herbst simply, “It’s a lux ury.”

FEARLESS AND FEISTY

Skidmore’s senior learners prove that you can kick-start and fine-tune a mind at any age. Including former doctors, lawyers, teachers, and engineers, they are the most fearless and feisty of learners. Skidmore faculty love to meet with them in the college’s lecture series called Liberal Studies for Mature Adults. Retiree Edith Sullivan jokes, “The faculty say it’s nice to have us in class: we’re not on cell phones, our eyes are open, and we’re paying attention.”

It’s far more than that, says Skidmore professor Mary Stange, who teaches women’s studies and religion and has volunteered for the program every year since 1990. She and other regulars like Sheldon Solomon (psychology), Tom Davis (religion), Una Bray (mathematics), and Don McCormack (history and politics) enjoy interacting with “really engaged critical thinkers and active listeners—‘lifelong learners’ in the best sense of the term,” she says. “I invariably come away feeling like I’ve learned as much from them as they possibly could have from me.”

Offered for seven weeks each fall to people fifty-five and older from Saratoga, Washington, and Warren Counties, the program draws a full house of 150 on Tuesdays and another 150 on Thursdays. Each day a coffee break and two morning lectures are followed by a much-enjoyed lunch among Skidmore students in the campus dining hall, and then an afternoon lecture. The range of subjects capitalizes on the mature students’ life experiences but also challenges them with ideas they might otherwise ignore or reject: intelligent design, gun control, modern dance, Native American issues, abortion, the Olympic Games, and more.


“We realize that some subjects will be more to our liking than others. The key is to view each presentation with an open mind,” says retired Saratoga schoolteacher Al Ciejka, who with wife Gloria helped plan the program’s twenty-fifth anniversary last year. It works for Sullivan. She frankly expected biologist Bernie Possidente’s talk on fruit flies to be boring, but as it turned out, “I could not get over how much scientists learn about all kinds of diseases by working with fruit flies—we’d usually just swat them.” Marvels David Wasser, a fifteen-year program veteran, “These lectures are almost like PBS-TV, both entertaining and educational.”

Like new parents with an eye on the ECC—which is so popular that Alison Getz enrolled her baby in utero—senior learners know to sign up fast. The program isn’t even advertised, because “individuals and senior centers are calling us to be sure they’re still on our mailing list,” says program coordinator Sandra Jeska. And what’s not to love? As Sullivan says, “It’s a nice full day out,” with a free bus to and from campus—“and no exams,” chortles Wasser, who got “all exam’d out in medical school.”

For toddlers, tweeners, or “seniors like ourselves who view learning as an endless journey,” says Al Ciejka, Skidmore’s community programs provide “a great highway for the adventure.”