Feb 032012

I bought an Ipad a couple of months ago, and for a while considered it a very cool gadget. We watched movies on Netflix. I downloaded some games. It’s become my portable stereo. I can check e-mail in the middle of the night without getting out of my bed. Very nice.

And then last week I downloaded the Itunes University app. This time, I didn’t say “hey, cool.” I didn’t say anything, because I was speechless. Dozens of colleges are sharing the full lectures — often on video, sometimes just audio — of hundreds, perhaps thousands of different courses, across nearly every subject you can think of. Stanford, Duke, Yale, MIT, Harvard. You can just pop in, search the catalog and start taking whatever class catches your fancy.

I have not been unaware that education, like so many other industries, is being upended by the Internet. My family swears by Khan Academy, which is proving pivotal in teaching algebra to Lea. I was even aware that many universities are making their courses available online — you don’t need Itunes to avail yourself of free coursework from Yale, or MIT. But Itunes compiles it all together into a neat little package. It’s a one and a half pound university that will teach you anything you have a mind to learn.

College is, let’s face it, wasted on most college students. It was certainly wasted on me. I pushed myself not one half-inch, managing to get through four years at SUNY-Albany without looking at a single math problem. (I wasn’t going to need math, you see.) I displayed not one whit of true intellectual curiousity, sticking instead to those classes I deemed thoroughly up my alley, dropping several when they betrayed me by becoming challenging. I was given four full years to learn things. That’s a long damn time. I can’t say I have a lot to show for it.

Well. A second chance is suddenly as easy as pushing a few buttons, and it is now my determination to always have one Itunes course or another in rotation. Some will prove not to be my cup of tea, and I’ll quit after a couple of lectures. Some will no doubt be fascinating but over my head. Some might be exactly what I’m looking for. We’ll see.

After a full week of dithering — I was overwhelmed by my choices — I finally settled on my first course: Yale’s Introduction to the American Revolution, taught by Joanne Freeman. I’ve watched three classes so far, and I am already set to declare this course a home run. Dr. Freeman is an accessible, engaging lecturer, tackling her subject with the enthusiasm of a geeky fangirl. (She often seems on the verge of giggling, and sometimes does.) And it took less than five minutes into the first class before she cracked my mind open like an egg, as she informed me of what is now glaringly obvious: That the “American Revolution” and the war in the 1770s were two separate and tangential things. The real revolution occured without a shot fired: It was the transformation of the mindset of the colonists, over a gradual (and then, toward the end, not so gradual) 150+ years, if you start counting at the establishment of Jamestown.

Dr. Freeman opens up the hood of the American Revolution and starts dismantling it before your eyes, explaining how the day-to-day lives of the colonists became so vastly different from the lives of those back in England that a rift now seems inevitable, and not simply because Britain passed a lot of unpopular acts. If it hadn’t been the Stamp Act or the Tea Act, it almost certainly would have been something else.

Now, in the first lecture, she spends a good ten minutes on all the reading her real-life students had to do, and I can tell you right now I am unlikely to do much of that. (ITunes makes it real easy, though — all the materials are there to be purchased at the touch of a button.) The time I have to devote to this is limited, and in the everyday chaos of my house, even getting through a single 40-minute lecture can take as long as two hours. But I do plan to stick to the lectures, a couple each week… and surely, at least, I’ll find the time to read “Common Sense” for (I’m embarrassed to say) the first time in my life. Because suddenly I am genuinely interested, in a way I never would have been when I was 19.

And I am already peeking back at the course list to see what might catch my eye next. Maybe statistics, or maybe a basic science course. It’s an exciting time.

Feb 012012

Back in the fall, I got it into my head that I should try to be a little more proactive about reeling in some school visits. I had some brochures printed up, and a banner that screamed “PUZZLE YOUR KIDS!”, and a couple of tabletop signs. The state convention of school librarians offered a free table to authors if they were displaying for the first time, and I figured the other expenses would pay for themselves if I landed one full-day visit or a couple of library gigs.

So on a very early morning back in October I negotiated the parking lot at the Hartford Convention Center, made my way up to the convention floor, and spoke to a number of friendly but confused people who were not quite sure what to do with me. I wasn’t officially a registrant, I wasn’t officially a vendor, and all the author tables had already been snatched up.

A very nice woman resigned herself to figuring out how to solve the problem of me. She pointed to the far wall as a place to wait, and said she would have a new table set up for me, and off she went.

I was wheeling a rusty dolly cart stacked with everything I needed for the day, and my arms were full, too. The box of brochures kept wanting to slip out of my arms and explode on the floor. I schlepped everything down the aisle, got about thirty feet, and stopped: My peripheral vision had just informed me that if I turned my head to the right, I would see a stack of my own book, The Potato Chip Puzzles. I looked and saw it was true. Huh? What booth was displaying my book?

A woman at the booth held out a piece of paper. “Would you like to see the top secret list of nominees for the 2013 Nutmeg Award?”

Considering how full my hands were, there were very few things I could have been offered at that moment that I would have been willing to accept. But, boy, did I suddenly want to see that list of nominees.

It was not long after my first book came out that I realized the important role that state reading lists play in getting books into the hands of young readers. The setup is generally the same no matter which list you’re talking about: A committee of librarians and teachers choose a lineup of books — as few as five or as many as twelve. Kids who read some subset of those books earn the right to cast a vote for their favorite. The winning author usually gets invited to an award ceremony and gets to make a speech.

But winning is really beside the point, compared to having your book displayed prominently in libraries and bookstores for a full year, which is what happens in the states that take this most seriously. Plus, an appearance on a state list often means interest in my school visits: I got to spend a lot of time in Florida a couple of years ago, and I’ve got a week-long trip to Missouri coming up in April.

The two books to date have shown up on a dozen lists. But most of these, for whatever reason, have been in distant states. Massachusetts is pretty much the one exception. My expeditions to Florida and Missouri notwithstanding, many schools have a hard time bringing in an author when they also have to pay for plane fare.

So I was mighty excited to receive the 2013 list of Nutmeg nominees, seeing as my book was already being displayed at the Nutmeg Award booth. And, yep. I’m on the list!

That day at the convention couldn’t have gone better if I had planned it for six months. My table was set up fifteen feet away from the Nutmeg booth, and every time they gave somebody the list of nominees, they would say, “And one of the authors is right over there.” I gave away a ton of brochures, sold every book I had brought with me, and talked myself hoarse. So far only a couple of those interactions have turned into actual school visit dates, but I’m hopeful that now that the list has been more officially announced, a few more folks will come knocking. (If you’re visiting here because you’re peeking at the sites of the Nutmeg authors, a description of my school programs can be found here. The new “flexible thinking” speech has gone over really well the few times I’ve had the chance to do it. Hint, hint.)

Congrats to my fellow Nutmeggers on the Intermediate list:

Baseball Great by Tim Green
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea
Born to Fly by Michael Ferrari
The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick
My Life As a Book by Janet Tashjian
Powerless by Matthew Cody
A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
The Wonder of Charlie Anne by Kimberly Fusco