Learning at the Brainery

By Veronica Chavez

Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Brainery.

Learning is an essential part of any fulfilling life. The value of education is instilled into children from a very young age as one of the most important tools in creating an enriching and opportunistic life for themselves. The sentiment only becomes truer as individuals grow older.

However, even after several years of formal schooling, many graduates depart from universities lacking certain skills that simply are not touched upon in such a structured setting.

Thanks to the internet, though, lots of practical skills can be learned online.

Whether it’s learning how to file taxes, how to French braid, how to tie a Windsor knot, or how to cook the perfect macaroni, the probability that a place exists somewhere in the vastness of the world wide web to teach such skills is very high.

Education cannot always be left to technology though. Students who take courses online might find certain limitations compared to learning through face-to-face interaction.

With the “do-it-yourself” market in mind, several organizations have sprung up to assist those with an urge to learn outside the institutional classroom environment. Brooklyn Brainery in New York is one of them.

Founded in 2010, Brooklyn Brainery is self-described as “book clubs on steroids.”

After participating in several book clubs themselves, founders Jonathan Soma and Jen Messier realized that bouncing around from one club to another to acquire all the skills they desired would be a very expensive feat. Unable to find an organization that allowed participants to take classes freely without a hefty membership, the two decided to start their own.

The concept is simple: people who have some prior knowledge on a subject or skill and would like to teach it to others submit an idea to Brooklyn Brainery. Messier and Soma look at all the suggestions and if they find a skill they feel the Brainery community would be interested in, a class is set up.

The Brainery aims to offer a diverse menu of classes intended to satisfy a wide range of curiosities. Choosing from the upcoming class catalog, an eager student could learn how to make homemade ice cream, decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, and design their own floral head wreath all within a few weeks’ time.

Most of the lessons are very affordable, with some starting as low as $8. Instructors can either volunteer to teach and receive a few free classes in return, or they can receive $35 per hour if they have teaching experience.

BTR got a chance to catch up with Soma about the happenings of the Brainery. Although the organization is located in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, an area that has seen a steady influx of young adult residents within the past 10 years, Soma says the student demographic ranges greatly.

“There are a lot of people who are in their mid-20s and just got out of college and want to learn some skills on their own terms,” Soma shares. “There are also a lot of older people. Sometimes these are people that retired, or have gotten fired and now have a large window of time that they want to use productively.”

Soma adds that although the organization does not offer an official membership, there are several students that they see every week. Familiar faces give the loosely structured club a sense of community.

The fact that many of the people that teach courses are novices also brings a tone of camaraderie to the group. Teachers are learning alongside the students, sometimes delving deeper into interests they have only acquired themselves a few weeks prior to the class. As proclaimed on the Brainery’s website, teaching at that venue “isn’t about being a world-famous expert on a topic, it’s about being excited to help people learn the things you’re already excited about.”

“It’s kind of crazy how quickly strangers can become close at a class,” Soma says. “We had a zombie make-up teaching class once, and at the beginning of the class nobody knew each other. By the end, everybody was painting on each other’s faces.”

The high level of energy and engagement is palpable at the Brainery. Soma notes that although the classes’ set-up is extremely simple (essentially it’s just a large room) passers-by often stop and look into the building’s large front windows to see what project has gotten such a large group of people so diligently focused.

Soma admits that when the group first began six years ago, it was hard to find instructors. People were hesitant to sign up to speak in front of a large group of students. Soma and Messier ended up having to teach many of the first classes offered at the Brainery. Now, the two receive hundreds of suggestions from enthusiastic instructors every month.

While some instructors are professionals in the field, others are just passionate about a subject. Jamie Normand, for example, is a Board-Certified art therapist, painter, and ceramist who works at a mental health institution. In April she will teach a class on abstract painting. Nikki Romanello on the other hand, will teach a course on soap making, a skill she has honed on her own after growing up with the dream of a more eco-friendly society.

When asked what he and Messier had in store for the Brainery’s future, Soma admits that the two have no major plans for the organization.

“I know [having no future plans] sounds so boring but we actually really like the way things are going right now,” says Soma.

Chances are that as long as formal education continues to leave out these creative niches, places like the Brooklyn Brainery will attract students eager to fill in the gaps themselves.