My brother, Dax, only recently stopped going to school. He’s 43 now but the kid never stopped. From kindergarten onward, he double-downed in high school, attending summer school courses by choice. He earned dual degrees in Biotoxicology and Microbiology. He has a PhD among other things and is now Program Manager at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre – OICR Translational Genomics Laboratory at the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. While my sister and I learned lyrics to Madonna songs, Dax had his nose in a book and is now an experienced manager of cancer clinical genomics projects integrating liquid serial biopsy (UMI, methylome), whole genome, exome, and transcriptomic assays, inclusive of clinical interpretation. Kiley and I are still working on our lyric recall.
The thing is, learning can take so many beautiful forms beyond the classroom. As an adult, skipping the midterm anxiety to make a charcuterie board or learn about beekeeping is a huge perk. You can finally choose your own “classes.” There are rarely pre-requisites beyond boundless enthusiasm. There’s no need to blow a thousand bucks on required textbooks. In fact, there are several free online courses available if you dig around. Take advantage of your local library and some sleepless hours to engage in a new idea. From poultry butchery to growing mushrooms, it can be the first day of school any ol’ day.
These are my top picks:
Brüniversity Class of 2021
In April, Railway City Brewing Co. in St. Thomas, Ontario, launched a thirst-quenching Brüniversity program for the go-getters. Each month, the brewery explores new topic in a spin-off of their “mug club” tasting nights. The syllabus includes classes like Gender Studies: Women in Craft Beer, Statistics: The Beer to Wing Ratio and Philosophy: What Has Beer Ever Done for Us?
Back to school supplies include your own mug, custom tee and beer backpack, of course. There are three different membership options: enhanced learning (with all the beer and whistles), night school and e-learning for those who aren’t local.
The Cornell Lab Bird Academy
Now here’s a silver lining to the pandemic—you don’t have to worry about being late for class! Early birds may get the worm but those who like to sleep in can choose when they tune into class. The Bird Academy offers courses for all birder levels—from extreme twitchers to keen newbies. Nature Journaling and Field Sketching guides students in their artistic expression using techniques like mark-making, chiaroscuro, blind contour and gesture drawing, watercolor mixing, wet on wet, wet on dry, dry brush, wash, glazing, and blending. With 4.5 hours of video instruction, scientific illustrator Liz Clayton Fuller will help lead you to drawing your own conclusions! Specific courses focus on topics like “The Hidden Life of the American Crow,” hawk and raptor identification, gardening for birds and bird photography with National Geographic contributor, Melissa Groo.
The Reno School
From planning to budgeting to floor plans, The Reno School will help you establish a solid foundation to build upon! The six-week online course offers lifetime access to the resources and community within. The modules include designing your masterplan, finding your dream team (tradies and architects), interior vision boards; kitchen, bath and laundry design and curb appeal necessities. Your instructors are the style mavens behind Three Birds Renovations—Australia’s hottest home flippers. Even if you’re only tackling one room in your house, the lessons learned are timeless and applicable to bigger, dreamier projects in the future.
Yestermorrow Design/Build School
Students of Yestermorrow usually immerse themselves in the experience by seeking on-campus housing on the 38-acre property in Mad River Valley, Vermont. Cabins are equipped with composting toilets and solar showers while sturdier students opt for a campsite and communal facilities.
The course list is a compendium of everything cool (with a few online options) Earn a build certificate in Tiny House Design, build your own skin-on-frame canoe or enroll in Sustainable Treehouse Design and Construction. How magical is that? You can explore live edge furniture construction by milling your own rough lumber sustainably harvested from the campus or walk away (ski away?) with your own custom skis after a 16-hour tutorial.
Heatherlea Farm Shoppe
Bookmark this Caledon, Ontario butcher/café/store/school for the future! Their casual workshops are currently suspended due to Covid but will resume when the world starts safely treading water again. Look for fun classes on fermentation, sausage-making, poultry butchery and water bath canning essentials where you can chop, roll, can, bake, grill and eat with an intimate, curious crew.
For an authentic tree-to-table experience, sign up for Ottercreek’s build-your-own charcuterie board class. Bonus: learn about Ontario’s dynamic Carolinian forest with woodworker and tree hugger David Schonberger. Create your own live edge board by using David’s grandfather’s vintage tools and enjoy some local terroir nibbles when the work is done! We promise, you won’t be bored!
Here’s the buzz—you can take Apiology 101 from the comfort of your own hive courtesy of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. This sweet online Introductory Beekeeping course is 12 hours and must be completed within two weeks. Learn about bee bio, what your responsibilities are, colony culture, harvesting tips, honey extraction and winter prep for the bees. A second online course, Integrated Pest Management for Beekeeping covers essentials like keeping your bees healthy with a disease biology primer (10 hours). Sign up at apiology101.com
Cooking with Chef David Wolfman
Chef Wolfman has introduced virtual cooking classes to his CV. His “watch and learn classes” are designed for community groups and families curious about Indigenous Fusion dishes that you can prepare at a later date. His “hands-on classes” are interactive so you can join the Chef and cook together, online! Learn about incorporating game birds, buffalo and moose into your mid-week menu. His hands-on classes break down the basics on smoking game meat and fish, game meat sausage-making and canning meat and fish.
Ontario Rural Skills Network
While live workshops have been suspended due to Covid-19, Ontario Rural Skills continues to offer virtual skills sessions and virtual gatherings. Visit the Skills website for updates on spoon carving, scything, traditional sweetgrass basket-weaving classes, hedgelaying and storytelling.
University of Alberta Massive Open Online Courses
Dan Levy quickly swamped the U of A site when he invited his devout Schitt’s Creek fans to join him in the 12-lesson Indigenous Canada course at U of A. The free online course offerings also include Bugs 101, Dinos 101, Astro 101: Black Holes, Mountains 101 and introduction to the Arctic: Climate. These courses are open to the general public and UAlberta students (for credit).
If you are a parent of a school-aged child, you are probably rolling your eyes right about now. Homeschooling? Hear me out! Exercise your library card and enrol in self-directed geography and gardening lessons, for free! Design your own curriculum and required reading! I’d suggest these:
Stories of Ice: Adventure, Commerce, and Creativity on Canada’s Glacier’s by Lynn Martel is a crash course in watermelon snow, snow spiders and everything-glacier. Martel has fallen under the spell of BC and Alberta’s glaciers. You’ll become a believer too and be able to identify Bugaboo from Wapta at 50 paces.
Perhaps you’d like to explore a lower elevation? Mushroom Cultivation: An Illustrated Guide to Growing Your Own Mushrooms at Home by Tavis Lynch provides all the intel you will need for sprouting shiitakes on logs, growing oyster shrooms in straw or wine caps on wood chips. There’s a bonus cooking class at the book’s end too with recipes to help integrate your bounty!
In Philip Lee’s Restigouche: The Long Run of the Wild River, jump in a virtual canoe and explore the mighty Restigouche that snakes through the wild border region between Quebec and New Brunswick. It’s easy to get swept away by the current and become completely immersed in geology, hydrology and the history of an ever-evolving river.
Now that recess is over, get to class!
Jules Torti’s work has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. With experiences as a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer, she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.