Expand Your Mind With These Classes

These Houston-area continuing education courses will restore your wellbeing and feed your mind, body, and soul.

By Morgan Kinney, Gwendolyn Knapp, Nicki Koetting, Abby Ledoux, and Laura Furr Mericas July 22, 2019 Published in the August 2019 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Feature image: Allyson Huntsman

You’re busy as all get-out. We get it. But all Houstonians deserve to think deeper, live more creatively, cultivate compassion, escape the everyday once in a while, and yeah, okay, fulfill that lingering collegiate dream of becoming an artiste (thanks, Cindy Sherman). Need some inspo? These 16 Houston-area classes will take you there, restoring your wellbeing and feeding your mind, body, and soul.

Branch Out at HMNS

Deep in the belly of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we find our seats for a class called Orchids: Raising Successful Air Plants. It’s sold out, with participants young and old and as diverse as you’d expect from Houston, all gathered around six large tables, notebooks in hand. Most of us are wearing some form of comfort sandal. One student sports a Blame It on My Epigenetics T-shirt. 

Our teacher, Jeff Cummins, is a horticulturalist turned butterfly-rearing coordinator at the museum’s Cockrell Butterfly Center. His passion for orchids began when he was a kid, in 1997. His first one was a Paphiopedilum, or “lady’s slipper.” “I killed it, of course,” Cummins tells us, and we laugh the laugh of murderers.

Then he confirms what we already know—that while orchids may not entirely be a mystery, they are a pain in the butt to grow. Personally, I’ve killed two in my day—one a gift, the other an impulse buy from the supermarket. Both died slow deaths in low sunlight on my kitchen counter.

What’s frustrating is that I’ve had success elsewhere: I’ve been growing tropical plumeria trees just fine for over a decade. My dad, an ace gardener in Florida, has faced his own orchid-related challenges: He has a few epiphytes—orchids that grow on trees—but they look like little sticks and never bloom. “Good luck,” was all he said when I told him about the class I was planning to take.

Cummins ensures us that there is hope. “You just kind of have to understand them,” he says, before delving into the basics. Orchids, the second-largest family of flowering plants, with over 28,000 species and 763 genera, are the most diverse family of all plants. Some have no leaves; some are parasitic; some are promiscuous; some grow in rocks or bogs or even in water. But they all have dust-like seeds, and none can germinate on their own, which is why you should never pluck one from the wild—they depend on local fungi for survival.

“This is their range,” Cummins says, and we laugh again as he pulls up a world map that is almost entirely shaded in. The only place orchids definitely don’t grow is Antarctica—well, there, or in the possession of anyone who attempts to water them using ice cubes (a shock to their system), water their leaves (causes root rot), or sing You Are So Beautiful to them (they clearly hate Joe Cocker enough to keel right over).

What are some tips for growing orchids in Houston? Most hobbyists grow epiphytes— Phalaenopsis is good for beginners, Phalaenopsis tetraspis does well in steamy bathrooms, and Brassavola nodosa likes our full sun and heat. Texas even has its own native orchid, Platanthera ciliaris, which produces nectar for butterflies and can be found in the wilds of Big Thicket National Preserve.

We head off for a tour of the Butterfly Center, where Cummins shows us orchids that look like spiders or smell like chocolate. There’s Darwin’s orchid, and an “ant lover” variety, another that blooms with small red flowers and smells of coconut, Maxillaria tenuifolia, which we’ll get to take home after a visit to the center’s greenhouse.

We gather around as Cummins talks bark, repotting, pests, watering (soak in distilled water, but never mist, as “misting is dumb”), and then cuts into the massive Maxillaria, dividing it up into dozens of smaller plants with long, spider-plant-like leaves. We pot them with damp bark and head out. 

Halfway to the car, I have a momentary freak-out—did he say intense light or soft light? Cooler air or warmer air? Are these spider mites on my plant? Is it already dying? Then I take a deep breath, start the car, and turn the classic rock way down. We head home together, me and Mad Max. It’s been a few weeks, and we haven’t killed each other yet. —Gwendolyn Knapp

The HMNS offers a variety of Saturday-morning classes year-round. $47

15 More Houston-Area Classes to Try

Image: Shutterstock

Sip Like a Somm at The Texas Wine School

Yes, there’s an exam at the end of WSET Level 1, the school’s beginner-level wine certification class, but owner Liz Palmer promises: “It’s for consumers as much as it is for industry people.” Students, mostly amateur oenophiles who “already know something about wine and want to get a bit geeky with it,” learn grape varietals, wine regions, food pairings, and proper storage through lectures and guided tastings. Even if you don’t earn a pin and certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust after the test, at the very least, you’ll feel more confident the next time you order for the table. —Abby Ledoux

Next 3-week course starts September 16. $250

Unblock Your Energy at Four Dragons Institute

Rooted in ancient Chinese medicine and similar to tai chi, the Eastern practice of qigong is like “acupuncture without needles,” says instructor Darryl Pierre—all about balancing and unblocking energy throughout the body to promote healing, but with the use of movement, breath work, and meditation instead of pinpricks. Advocates say it can transform one’s health and wellbeing. Newbies can learn about the practice’s stress-relieving properties at the institute’s Qigong Exercise class. “It’s open and accessible to anyone who’s curious,” Pierre says. “It will help them navigate their world feeling more at ease.” —AL

Classes run 7 p.m. Thursdays. $20

Turn Out at Hunter Dance Center

Maybe you quit dancing in middle school. Maybe you’ve never in your life done a plié at the barre. Maybe you don’t even know what those words mean. The center’s Beginner Ballet class is for you. “It’s our most attended class,” says studio manager Laura Harrell. “It’s a fun, alternative way to get in some physical activity.” The classical approach allows dancers to start at the barre and work their way across the floor, learning both the positions and the vocabulary of ballet. —Nicki Koetting 

Classes run year-round. $30 for a month of unlimited classes.

Hug a (Healing) Tree at The Houston Arboretum

“My first experience going, this is legit, I was sharpening a knife and cut my hand,” says compounding pharmacist/outdoorsman Beau Harger. "I’d planted yarrow and administered it. It addressed not only the bleeding, but also the inflammation. I was blown away.” Harger’s Medicinal Wild Plants class at the Arboretum covers native healing plants and their history. For example: “Native Americans would schedule battles around fields of yarrow because they knew they could address wounds immediately.” Students will learn to make salves and get to take them home, which is “easier than making a tincture,” Harger says, and just as helpful as any over-the-counter ointment. —GK

Next class: 9 a.m. September 28. $35–$50

Find Buried Treasure at The Houston Seminar

Did you know UH-Downtown is home to more than 50 incredible works of art, thanks to the university's system-wide Public Art Initiative, started back in 1969? “It really is a hidden gem,” says curator Michael Guidry, who will showcase a selection of the school’s impressive, and impressively diverse, pieces during an upcoming tour, Public Art Reprise: Treasures of the University of Houston–Downtown, starting at the campus’s O’Kane Gallery. Standouts include a large piece by Houston-based artist Trenton Doyle Hancock; a mural by John Biggers, who founded TSU’s art department; and New Orleans artist John Scott's kinetic sculpture "Prayer Meeting" (1997), pictured below. —GK

10 a.m. October 3. $35

Reach Out and Touch Faith at The Women’s Institute of Houston

We love to brag about our city’s diversity, but what do we actually know about our fellow Houstonians’ many religious traditions? For many of us, the answer is “not much.” Rev. Greg Han is here to help. His course, The World's Next Door: Religions in Houston, includes instruction on Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Buddhism; for the final class, students get to visit an actual faith community. “Students will gain a deeper understanding of other religions, but also understand more about their own religious orientation,” Han says. They’ll also ponder the age-old question: “What is my understanding of the world, and my place in it?” —NK

Next 5-week course starts September 10. $165

Shoot for the Stars at Houston Center for Photography

What separates a spit-shined Instagram photo with 10,000 likes from actual art? For starters, says HCP resident instructor Mark Chen, “It’s very hard to sell a digital file for a decent price. For anyone who wants to be a more serious photographer, they have to learn how to print.” Chen’s Fine Art Printing class introduces students to Lightroom editing techniques and granular differences in paper and printer types. The ultimate goal? That students walk out able to shoot, print, and sell that picture of the Houston skyline at any gallery in town—or just to hang it proudly at home. —Morgan Kinney

Next 5-week course starts August 28. $245

Expand Your Palette at The Glassell School

Color and emotion—that’s what Patrick Palmer, dean of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Glassell School of Art, wants his Intermediate/Advanced Life Drawing and Painting classes to portray in their artworks. The small classes—capped at 15 students who’ve already learned lines and proportions in entry-level prerequisite courses—“start looking at color, skin tones, and try and get a little bit more into the storytelling.” Each class ends with a peer review, but, says Palmer, “It’s not competitive at all. It’s such a great environment. It’s people who are just trying to become better artists.” —Laura Furr Mericas

Next 14-class course starts August 20. $800

Write Your Life at Inprint

Published authors. Private journalers. Those who haven’t put pen to paper since high school. These are the like-minded creatives honing their skills in the Personal Essay course at the Montrose-area literary nonprofit. The class is a favorite among both students and instructors, says Cait Weiss, who teaches there. “We get to know you by how you talk about a thing,” she says, “and we get to see the mind at work.” Writers typically leave the course with one polished essay and 10 more in the beginning stages, along with strategies for how to pitch work and, of course, a new network of fellow writers. —LFM

Next 12-week course starts September 5. $325

Brush Up at The Glasscock School of Continuing Studies

If Hamilton made you want to revisit your U.S. history, you’re in luck: This fall Rice professor John Boles is giving a series of lectures, Political Beginnings of the American Nation, on five founding fathers from Virginia—think George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, with cameos from northerners Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr—and the ways they shaped America. “We’ll look at the role of the courts, impeachment, the creation of political parties, and what treason is, exactly,” Boles says. —LFM

Next 6-week course starts September 19. From $200 

Make a Point at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft

In an age of instant everything, it is soul-nurturing to actually make something by hand, a fact well-known to the folks at HCCC, where the roster of workshops includes a lesson on embroidery, Get to the Point. Students learn to use a hoop and needle, making their own hand-stitched kitchen towels—“We always leave with a finished project,” says center education and programs manager Tarina Frank—and acquiring an arsenal of fundamental stitches to keep the thread moving on homespun projects of their own. —MK

11 a.m. September 21. $40–45

Steep Deep at The Jung Center

If you’ve ever felt that drinking a cup of tea was a meditative experience, you’re not alone. At his Tea and Meditation class, Alejandro Chaoul, director of the center’s new Mind Body Spirit Institute, guides a simple meditation practice, integrating it with four kinds of tea he selects with Path of Tea shop owner Chris McKann. “We get into a meditative state,” says Chaoul. “Then we drink the tea, smell the aroma, feel the warmth, feel the wetness, feel the taste.” The result? “We get into a mindful space.”—NK

Next class: 6–8 p.m. August 27. $30–40

Travel Through Time at UH–Clear Lake

Anita Parrott George, a lifelong Mississippian, was a teenager when she became a civil rights activist. Now in her eighties, the visiting lecturer will share her life story and discuss the historic fight for racial equality in the South during Eyewitness to History: Civil Rights Era, as part of the UH–Clear Lake Friday Morning Continuing Education series. First-person accounts like George’s—which examine consequential moments in history through a personal lens—are especially important to listen to while we still can, says Christine Paul, director of the campus’s foreign-language and continuing-education programs. “Younger people, as well as the rest of us,” she says, “will learn and be inspired by their service.” —AL

11 a.m. November 1. $30

Learn Just Enough at the Italian Cultural & Community Center

“We try to focus on the fun parts,” explains Erika Myers, programs and events director at the ICCC, who developed the center’s Italian for Travelers class three years ago. No, you won’t emerge from the course reading Elena Ferrante in the original Italian, but you will definitely be able to order a negroni with your pasta thanks to the instructor’s focus on cultural fluency and food-based vocabulary. In many cases, says Myers, that’s enough to get folks hooked, inspiring them to continue with their studies after vacation's over. —MK

Next 6-week course starts August 7. From $275

Spice Things Up at Central Market Cooking School

The twice-monthly Couples Cook class is one of the school’s most popular offerings, says manager Juan Gonzalez, adding: “It doesn’t just have to be date night. It could be parents and children, or best friends.” At the next one, the only must is that you and your sidekick-of-choice both like seafood, as poached salmon with lemon aioli, tomato-and-feta baked shrimp, Thai-style snapper in parchment, and Mediterranean fish tacos are on the menu. You get to feast at the end, there’s no clean-up, and zero skills are required. “Some people don’t even know how to turn on the stove,” says Gonzalez. “We meet everybody at their own level.” —GK

Next class: 6:30 p.m. August 30. $140 per couple