The Knowledge Exchange: 23 Years of cultivating lifelong learners

Course leader Myras Osman of Flossmoor holds his class
on World War II in rapt attention. 

(Photo by Margaret Brady)

Something remarkable has been happening for the past 23 years in the South Suburbs.

The Knowledge Exchange (TKE), often referred to as a “hidden gem,” starts its 24th year of learning when its fall session opens Sept. 16 at Governors State University (GSU).

The program brings adults together on Fridays to learn about a myriad of subjects — everything from history and literature to film studies, science, philosophy, the law and art appreciation. The course teachers, or “leaders,” are all volunteers; the students, or “participants,” are mostly retired or semi-retired individuals.

There are no grades; there is no homework, papers or tests. The courses offer no credits. There is simply the utter joy of learning — a steady pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and an ongoing, free-flowing exchange of opinions and ideas.

Conceived in 1992, The Knowledge Exchange (formerly known as The Adult Learning Exchange, or TALE) has been offering courses in the Southland every year since the summer of 1993. It operated formerly under the auspices of the Anita M. Stone Jewish Community Center. Currently, TKE is based out of the School of Extended Learning at GSU in University Park.
 
Serving as a vivacious and energetic administrator of TKE today is Suzanne Patterson of Homewood, whose full-time job is continuing education community coordinator in GSU’s School of Extended Learning.

Patterson stepped into her administrative role for TKE in 2012. However, she’s quick to note that she walked into a “fully-loaded and already thriving” program, thanks to the efforts of people like her “mentor” Kathy Kemp of Chicago Heights, one of the group’s original team members. Kemp — along with others like Bob Wolf, the late Bill Dodd (Flossmoor) and Cil Rockwell — helped make TKE what it is today.

TKE’s early architects patterned their program somewhat after Northwestern University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

“We were among the first programs of this kind in the country,” Kemp said.

TKE prides itself on never repeating the same class twice; fresh, new and engaging courses are offered each term.

“Over the years, we may repeat a theme,” noted Kemp, “but the course content is all new.”

Last spring TKE offered a robust course schedule featuring World History: World War II; Cinema Studies (Best American Films of the 1950’s); Art Appreciation: Craft in America; and U.S. History — The Civil War: 1863. In addition, free “Lunch and Learn” presentations are offered over the course of each term.

Extraordinary Course Leaders
Gene and Maita Simon of Flossmoor find themselves signing up again and again for courses offered through TKE.
 
“The classes keep on getting better and better,” Gene Simon noted. Nodding his head in the direction of class leader Myras Osman of Flossmoor, Simon said, “It’s also because of the teachers.”

Osman is a much beloved retired history teacher from Homewood-Flossmoor High School. He and his wife, Linda, also retired, began taking Exchange courses in 2008. The Osmans taught their first class in Spring 2009 and have been teaching two classes each year since then. They collaborate on the ideas for the courses, and share in the workload: Myras is the presenter and Linda types all handouts, takes attendance and organizes the classroom.

Osman has enjoyed “each and every” class he’s taught over the years, from Roman History, to the History of Empires, the Fall of Eagles (pre-WW I Europe), the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Most recently, Osman especially enjoyed teaching a World War II class which drew more than 50 participants and focused on aspects of the war often overlooked in traditional textbooks.

“I think it’s important for adults to stay active in retirement, both physically and mentally,” Osman said. “In addition to the sheer joy of learning, we develop friendships with many people; many of us look forward to chatting with each other every week.

“There are no grades, no tests,” Osman continued. “That’s the beauty of teaching adults. In my humble opinion, it is one of the best enrichment activities out there for retired adults; I would encourage anyone to become involved."

Osman is continuously “amazed” by the “rich experiences” that class members bring to their courses.
 
“When discussing 20th century history, many of our participants have vivid memories of historical events,” Osman said.  One class participant was born in Stalin’s gulag; another woman had a relative who worked in the court of the Hapsburgs prior to World War I and others had relatives who fought in the war.

Several participants had family members who were Holocaust survivors. One man’s father flew fighter planes in China in World War II and met General Claire Lee Chennault, who led the famous Flying Tigers group.

Wanda Berry of Homewood found Osman’s recent World War II course to be “wonderful. I’ve learned a lot. We’re so lucky to have this,” she said. “I would definitely recommend it to others.” 

Flossmoor resident and retired H-F English teacher Mike Durkin has found the instructional quality of the classes he’s taken to be “better than some of the universities I’ve attended,” he said. “The Knowledge Exchange is a wonderful asset to the community.”
 
A Dynamic Duo
Patterson and Kemp form a dynamic duo behind The Knowledge Exchange. According to Patterson, Kemp is her “right hand person” when it comes to course curriculum. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” she said.

In return, Kemp, a retired social studies teacher whose children graduated from H-F, says that Patterson “has a reputation of fighting for us and what we need for the program. She’s amazing. Suzanne is our guardian angel,” ensuring that every course leader has the technical equipment and coursework supplies needed to teach their classes — not to mention adequate on-campus parking for their students. This is never a simple feat, especially during  the winter months when TKE enrollment is the highest.

“When they’ve been cooped up in the house all winter, our participants are grateful to have a place to be with others and share ideas,” Kemp said. “GSU roads are always plowed.

“Suzanne enjoys being around older people,” Kemp added. “She’s very thoughtful and kind, with a real respect for the senior community.  She makes it very easy for the frailest of students to access and enjoy the class.”

One student is in her 90’s and still attending classes. “We’re lucky to have her,” Kemp said.  “Some students give all the energy they have to be here with us.”

In addition to leading courses herself, Patterson is also instrumental in securing involvement from GSU faculty members who provide guest presentations. She is grateful to the GSU administration for their continued support of TKE. Patterson believes the program’s free-flowing exchange of ideas, opinions and information reflects the University’s commitment to providing a “public square” for the community.

Wanted: New Participants and Course Leaders
While The Knowledge Exchange never seems to lack students — indeed, most participants are word-of-mouth referrals — there is always room for more course leaders. 
All it takes to be a course leader is, quite simply, a passion for the subject — even if it’s not remotely related to one’s prior profession, Patterson said.
 
“I would encourage anyone with a passion for the subject to lead a class,” Osman agreed. “I think it takes an interest in the material and a willingness to share that information with others. Many of our classes are more participatory, with class members presenting our discussion material. So class leaders don’t have to do all the talking or have all the answers.” 
Patterson also encourages anyone interested in leading a class to take a class first and “see what it’s all about.”

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