When Barbara Wales last had to read homework in class, Harry S. Truman was president, the minimum wage was 45 cents and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" hit the record charts.

But there she was last week, half a century later, proudly reciting a clerihew she wrote for her English class, as a dozen other 70-something students from Northern Virginia listened intently:

Edmund Clerihew Bentley

Liked English words, evidently

Although under six feet of Earth he lies

He is the reason for this exercise.

"That's a good one. I may post it," said Dorothy K. Roberts, the 75-year-old instructor, as Wales's clerihew -- a humorous, quasi-biographical poem in four lines -- also drew approving nods from her fellow students.

Wales, 71, is a student at the Learning in Retirement Institute, a unique program that allows seniors to explore academic terrain as diverse as Bioethics, World Religion and Virginia Politics. Subjects such as French Cuisine, Tai Chi and Singing for Fun also are offered.

But until earlier this year, Wales, like many living in the farther reaches of the region, had difficulty getting to class. As a Herndon resident, driving 30 minutes to the institute in Fairfax City seemed too daunting.

In January, however, program directors began offering classes at Lake Anne in Reston, bringing the popular courses closer to Wales and others in the Reston-Herndon area.

Since the program, which is affiliated with George Mason University, began in 1991, enrollment has grown from about 100 students to more than 500. This fall, program officials believe enrollment will top 600 students. The institute is open to all Northern Virginia residents, and organizers say many Manassas residents are enrolled.

About 100 students took the classes offered in Reston, which were held at the Washington Plaza Baptist Church. About a quarter of the institute's 60 spring courses were taught at the Reston facility. The rest are taught at the Tallwood building on Roberts Road, adjacent to George Mason University.

"More people are retiring early and are interested in remaining intellectually active," said Carol Ferrara, the institute's program coordinator. "There is a big need for these kinds of programs."

At the institute there are no grades, but the college-level courses allow seniors to continue their education and pursue their passions and interests. Often the seniors take subjects that are far different from their varied professional backgrounds.

"It's for fun and intellectual curiosity," said Wales, a retired computer programmer, who also took a course on the history of Carthage and Rome with her 73-year-old husband, Charles, a former chemist. "We're always looking for something new to learn and they have a nice variety of things."

Students pay a $200 annual membership fee that entitles them to enroll in as many classes as they can during the year and to participate in other social and educational seminars and events. A class typically last four weeks and meets once a week for 1 1/2 hours.

About a third of the volunteer instructors are professors at George Mason University. The rest are either seniors with teaching experience or experts in a subject, such as Bud Spillane, the former Fairfax County school superintendent who teaches a course on the county's school system.

Roberts, the instructor for English: A Way With Words, was a high school math teacher who also had a passion for literature and the English language. After retiring 10 years ago, she began teaching English classes to seniors in Wilmington, Del., before moving to Leesburg last year.

"It's more fun" to teach seniors, Roberts said. "Unlike kids, they're here because they want to be here. They don't have to do the homework but they do it because they like it."

But teaching her peers also presents unusual challenges, she added. Sometimes the students know more about the subject than the teachers and they aren't shy about sharing their knowledge.

Hoping to stump her students, Roberts asked her class recently whether they knew what "potpourri" really meant. A student quickly provided the right answer. "It's a rotten pot," Elaine Schwartz said.

Undeterred, Roberts then asked the students if they knew the history behind the phrase "drag queen." No response.

"I'm glad I've given you words you don't all know already," Roberts said, explaining that during the original performances of Shakespeare's plays, boys dressed as women and often dragged their dresses across the stage.

The institute's fall session begins Sept. 27. For more information, call 703-503-3384.