Drawing, Dancing, Drama and Even Dream Journaling at the CCAE

cambridge center for adult educationEllen Stutman (gray sweater) teaches CCAE classes including "Art for People Who Can't Draw Straight Lines." Photos by Jess Benjamin.

If you’re the curious kind, this Harvard Square hub can teach you to do just about anything.

So you’ve been thinking about brushing up your knife skills or picking up another language. Perhaps you want to learn to swim, or maybe you’ve been wondering about, say, estate planning.

At the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, you can do any (or all) of the above, plus a whole lot more. With classes that range from “Law Topics for Everyday Life” to “Dream Journal: Awakening the Night,” the CCAE exists to provide “an informal kind of social educational experience,” according to its nearly 80-year-old mission statement.

The Harvard Square nonprofit has existed in its current form since 1938, when it moved to Brattle Street. In 2017, its mission remains the same, according to assistant director Michael Goldman.

“While some of our courses like [English as a Second Language] and some technology courses can be platforms for students to improve their employment opportunities, most of our students are curious learners,” Goldman says.

Cambridge regularly posts unemployment rates at half the figure for Massachusetts at large (which itself is generally lower than the rest of the country, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics). So without catering to job-seekers, and without the resources of Harvard or MIT, it only makes sense that the CCAE focuses on providing a unique social and learning experience.

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“Traditional adult education isn’t an easy business these days,” Goldman says, noting that most of the CCAE’s income is from tuition and individual donations. “Coming to class requires a commitment on the student’s part and an appreciation for the kind of educational and social rewards one gets from place-based learning.”

Katrina Dzyak, a recent graduate of Tufts, typifies this approach among the center’s more than 11,000 yearly enrollments. She’s currently taking a drawing class, her first at the CCAE.

As an English major, Dzyak says she’s always been interested in how literary images are rendered in a reader’s mind, but she admits she had “no idea how to render the images with my own hand.” That’s where the class came in.

“The brevity and intensity of the center was ideal,” she says. The once-a-week frequency and eight-week length of the course fits her schedule well, and she says the caliber of the class is similar to what you might find on a college campus.

Dzyak’s instructor is artist and retired elementary school art teacher Ellen Stutman, who has been teaching at CCAE since 1974. From her very first course, “Art for People Who Can’t Draw Straight Lines,” she’s successfully embodied the center’s ethos of providing a social learning environment for curious locals.

Stutman says she does her best to create an “essentially noncompetitive situation, so students feel free,” and her other classes have included “Who Says You Can’t Draw?” and “Painting as Self Expression.” More than 40 years in, she still revels in the teaching experience.

“I love seeing people—all the sudden—say, ‘Oh my god I can do this!’” she says. “I mean, that’s just wonderful.”

Lawyer Kris Butler teaches craft beer appreciation at the center. Her most popular course is “Beer and Art History,” which Butler created by combining her love of beer with her admittedly “unused” undergraduate degree, and it sells out regularly. Her latest class, “The Cartography of Beer,” only started in March but was sold out by January. (She says it will be available again in the summer.)

Butler estimates she has about 100 different students in a given year, including a few in each class that have taken some of her previous courses. “At CCAE, people are interacting with their neighbors—and not just about shoveled parking spaces,” she says. “I know it sounds corny, but some kind of magic happens there.”

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Butler, who claims to take as many courses as she teaches, says her lessons aren’t for anyone thinking of starting a brewery themselves, but rather for people who want to learn “how to get a better handle on all the beer choices available today, and to identify why people like something, so that when the next new beer comes out they’re more prepared to make a decision about trying it.”

In praising the student profile, assistant director Goldman touts what he calls the eclecticism of the center, and notes that both the staff and student body represent a wide array of ages, interests and cultural backgrounds.

Butler agrees. “My students are over 21, curious and usually live nearby,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s a rich mix of people. I’ve even had a person who didn’t drink take my course.”

The CCAE’s annual fundraising party is scheduled for April 29 at the center’s main building. “Every year, we have to reach out to the community to provide a certain level of fundraising income to supplement our income from tuition,” says Goldman. Tickets are available at ccae.org/ofcourse.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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