Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Continuing your education

Some of us are at our best as students. It's where we fit in. It's what keeps our brains alive when they're dangerously close to becoming useless mush that spends one day after the next browsing the web for cat pictures.

I'm one of those people, which is why I've decided to start taking classes again. After lots of searching, I figured out that whether you're just curious and want to learn something new, are trying to stay current in your field, or are getting a full-blown degree, when choosing a course, you're going to be looking at cost, commitment, location, accreditation, and quality. Basically.

Because my interests vary, I've chosen a variety of courses--both free and costly, demanding both small and large commitments, some on-ground and some online, some accredited and some unaccredited. All, however, seem to be of a high enough quality for me to bother with. Because of the mix I ended up with, I'm treating this experience like research into the various possible ways of learning classroom-style college-level material these days. Once I've finished a course, I'll post a critique of my experience here on the blog in hopes of giving insight to anyone else who might be considering continuing their education in these ways.

(It's possible you've noticed I'm ignoring one very obvious way a person can learn, which is by reading books, journals, websites, news sources--heck, reading all sorts! I'm ignoring that because some of us aren't very good at that approach and require a more interactive, accountable setting. Some of us need the teacher and the classroom.)

Here are links to the courses I'm taking this fall and my reasons for choosing them:

1. An on-ground TESOL course through the University of Georgia

This course will be followed by three others, which will ultimately lead to a global TESOL certificate, and therefore does cost money. But not a lot, relatively speaking. The certificate will qualify me to teach English to people who speak other languages, either in the States or across the world, so long as it's not in a public school setting. Jonathan and I wanna retire in the next ten years, travel the world, and do small jobs as we go. Teaching English would be a dream. Plus this will help me in teaching class right now. The commitment level is high because I'll earn a certificate and because they meet every Saturday for weeks and weeks. Plus I really want to do well, so that's added pressure. As for quality, the program is through the University of Georgia, so, yes, quality abounds.

2. An online philosophy course through the University of Oxford

This ain't cheap. But it is for credit, it is high on the quality scale, and the credits can be used eventually, if you wish, toward an undergraduate award (i.e. a certificate). The commitment level on this one is pretty high, partly because you wouldn't pay that much for something you were gonna put half the effort into and partly because it's freaking Oxford. The specific course I'm taking is an Intro to Metaphysics. Why? Because I find the subject interesting, I want to expand my knowledge into new areas, and I want a serious challenge. You should see the book. It's very thick and has almost no pictures.

3. An online history course through Hebrew University of Jerusalem via Coursera

This course is FREE! And it's through a top notch university. Coursera has tons of courses through tons of great universities (including the big names like Yale and Princeton), all for free. For most, all the materials you need will be in the online classroom (readings, video lectures, etc.). All you have to do is show up and get involved. The commitment here is as much or as little as you choose. The quality is--well that's what I don't know. These are, for the most part, not for credit (at least the free ones). Like all courses at all schools, some are going to be better than others. Reviewers of these courses say that because it's possible to have hundreds of people taking the class with you, the online interaction can sometimes get diluted with nonsense and gibberish just like the rest of the internet. So: We shall see! I figure since there's no cost besides a little time, it's worth a try.

That's my list. But there are lots of other resources for education. Figure out what you're interested in and go find it. If you want a whole new degree and want to spend the money and time it takes to get there, your approach will be different from mine, especially your level of commitment and cost, but if you just want to dabble, if you're just curious, if you're just ready to learn something new, here are a few more great places giving free online access to quality courses and educational materials:

OpenCourseWare Consortium
"An OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a free and open digital publication of high quality college and university‐level educational materials.  These materials are organized as courses, and often include course planning materials and evaluation tools as well as thematic content. OpenCourseWare are free and openly licensed, accessible to anyone, anytime via the internet."

Khan Academy
"Khan Academy is an organization on a mission. We're a not-for-profit with the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere. All of the site's resources are available to anyone. It doesn't matter if you are a student, teacher, home-schooler, principal, adult returning to the classroom after 20 years, or a friendly alien just trying to get a leg up in earthly biology. Khan Academy's materials and resources are available to you completely free of charge."

"YouTube EDU brings learners and educators together in a global video classroom. On YouTube EDU, you have access to a broad set of educational videos that range from academic lectures to inspirational speeches and everything in between. Come here for quick lessons from top teachers around the world, course lectures from top-tier universities, or inspiring videos to spark your imagination."

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Fox, Fry, and Faith

Last week, I went back to my Alma Mater to see a few friends and spend time in the mountains. As you can see, the campus is beautiful and my friends are cool, so it was well worth it to drive the seven hours from Georgia to Virginia.

An added benefit of the long drive was all the time I had to finally do some reading by ear. Here are three mini reviews of the audiobooks I chose.

Fantastic Mr Fox, by Roald Dahl

My second favorite book as a child was James and the Giant Peach. I can still remember the librarian at school reading it to us. As an adult, however, Dahl's stories have been hit or miss for me, including the time I reread James. In my opinion, that's because many of his books connect with children in a way somehow lost to adults. High quality storytelling for children, possibly even meeting them in places beyond our reach? That's dangerous, rare, and therefore to be treasured and guarded with our reputations if necessary. That said, Fantastic Mr Foxin the classic bedtime story way, is freely understood by all. It has consistently awful bad guys, a clever and likable protagonist, and (with or without Quentin Blake's appealingly messy illustrations) clearly imaginable settings and characters without overbearing physical details. It's not a children's story. It's not an adult story. It's just a good story full of colorful characters you'll quickly care about or hate, as appropriate, plus a sprinkling of Dahl's typically ambiguous morality along with his special way of poking fun at humans in general.

Stephen Fry Presents a Selection of Oscar Wilde's Short Stories

The dangerous thing about driving and listening to Oscar Wilde's stories read by such a sympathetic voice as Stephen Fry possesses is that you might cry and no longer be able to see the road. Many sweet, innocent people die in Wilde's tales in order for him to get his messages across, and the stories are sad in other ways too. I really love them. They're just as preachy as the rest of the fairy tales I've been told or had to read, but I don't have to study his or pick apart their historical significance in order to understand them. Not that those are bad traits about the classics. It's just that sometimes it's nice to listen and not have to think so hard. These are more about feeling than thinking, the messages less about scaring and more about moving the reader to action. Though I've read them before (I even tried writing a modern version of "The Selfish Giant") and loved them on the page, fairy tales are meant to be heard, and I can't think of anyone more appropriate to read Oscar Wilde's tales than Stephen Fry.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, by Philip Pullman

First off, this is beautifully read by Pullman himself. The problem with listening was that I couldn't stop and highlight passages and make notes in the margins. When I first heard about this book, it hadn't been released yet. It was the summer of 2009, and I was sitting around a table in Oxford with my classmates, listening to the author talk about an upcoming book that would likely be controversial. I forget what all he said, but there was a lot in the negative about C. S. Lewis and not much about the details of this story besides it being a take on the life of Jesus. The impression I walked away with was that I had to read this book and that I probably wouldn't like it. I'm glad to say I was wrong. I did like it. Very much. Though I felt the plot was a bit holey, it was still a refreshing perspective on the story I've known since childhood, in a fictional what-might-have-been way. I expected more scandal, but it turns out the story is comforting, human, and much more approachable than the usually stiffly presented original. I suppose your response depends on who you are, what you believe, and how you approach literature and religious discussion. But let me be clear: this book has its own message to send and, in my opinion, shouldn't be confused for a story that's attempting to either invalidate the original or claim to be the truth. It's its own thing. As for any naysayers, especially those who have never read or would never read a book with such a title, I couldn't respond any better than this or this:


Monday, July 22, 2013

The 100th Post

Dear Readers,

This is an ending and a beginning.

When I started this blog, I wanted to express my opinions about children's literature. Being close to finishing my MFA in the subject, I was eager to prove I knew something. At the time, I was volunteering in a rare books library, collecting more books for my personal shelves than I'd ever need, and feeling hopeful about being published and maybe seeing my stories on the Barnes & Noble shelves someday. I went to conferences. I made contacts. I traveled a long way for bookish and writerly reasons. I even had business cards made.

I was, in short, enthusiastic.

For the first time in a long time, I had something that defined me--I had purpose. That was a great comfort because growing up had done to me what it does to many: stripped away the old comfortable definitions of self and left me alone to fill in the blank space. I read, I wrote, I even started to appreciate poetry. Then another beautiful thing happened: I got a teaching job. Finally, I was in the university classroom teaching others to write, and being pretty damn good at it for a beginner.

That's about the time things went slightly askew. If you know anything about life, you'll know slightly askew is all it takes to throw a train off its tracks. It happened when I tried my hand at being a critical children's literature scholar and failed. Not because I couldn't do it if I tried hard enough, but because my heart wasn't in it. The fact is, the outstanding scholars of children's literature I've known have committed their lives to it. Inevitably, I figured out that was something I didn't want to do. The experience burst my already dangerously thin bubble. I had been asked to join several critical projects but eventually asked to leave them. In the meantime, my creative work had gotten so many rejections, it refused to go back outside until it rested a while. And in a last sad sign of the times, I started getting rid of books in my collection.

But I still loved stories. And I still felt like a writer deep down. One evening Jonathan and I talked about how writing hadn't worked out for me and whether or not I should give it up. Tears came at the thought of losing the one thing I'd found to stand on, but I didn't know how else to respond to all that had happened. In a last effort, I retreated to the north to see if, without distractions, I had anything left to say on paper. To my complete surprise and delight, I did.

By November, I'd finished a lovely mess of a fantasy novel for middle grade readers, and in December, grace found me sitting in an auditorium full of kids and their parents listening to my favorite childhood author speak to his fans. Watching the children react to his stories helped me remember why I wanted to write children's literature in the first place, before school and the attraction of success and the expectations of others muddied the waters of my enthusiasm.

After that, things started to realign. At the beginning of this year, I purged the little critical work I'd done, posting some on the blog as a kind of testament to having given it a shot, and made peace with what had and hadn't worked out so far. Since then, I've been slowly getting back to writing and books, right up to the 99th post which was in honor and celebration of children and children's literature. In response to my plea, friends and family joined me in raising enough to provide <insert drumroll> 127 books to kids in need! Fantastic and far more than I expected.

So, then: Thanks for hanging around. I know I'm long-winded. I know I'm not light reading. So if you've read a post or two, commented, skimmed, shared, silently watched--whatever--thanks for your time. I hope you'll stick with me for 100 more posts, wherever they lead.

Happy reading. Happy writing. Happy making mistakes, brushing yourself off, and continuing on knowing more than you did before.