Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Future without Triple Tasking?

I originally wrote this while we were still teaching abroad, but it still rings true for me.

A Future without Triple-Tasking?
Finding Creative Space in Bulgaria

It’s my second and last gray and white winter in Bulgaria. In a few months my husband and I will pack up our little red house and dive back into American life in a haze of jet lag. Working abroad has given me many unique opportunities - to perform in a Balkan dance show, to write a travel blog, to see the monasteries of Meteora and surf in Morocco. I’ve met the people and seen the places that were once just newsprint to me, and my worldview has changed. One of the biggest gifts I found overseas is space for creativity.

Last year I created a “Wall of Imagination” on one side of my classroom, filled with articles, photos, and ideas that showed creative thinking. Alongside a postcard of La Sagrada Familia under construction in Barcelona sat an article describing Google’s company policy of giving employees free time to do whatever they want.

I had to pick my students’ jaws up from the floor. Free time? To do whatever they want?

They were stunned, and I might have been too, a year before. Life at the American boarding school where I taught previously had a racing heartbeat. I learned to triple-task on day one, and my responsibilities only increased. I scooped time out of nights and weekends for creativity – baking for a poetry slam over lunch, waking at 1 a.m. to go over plans for special guest speakers, plopping into my cushioned computer chair before the sun poked over the California foothills and into my students’ dorm windows. My job environment both fulfilled and exhausted me.

In Bulgaria I suddenly found myself without the millions of stimuli I had grown so accustomed to. I taught my classes, tutored a few students who needed help, advised the literary journal and the cooking club. But using my double time skills, I could usually finish everything required of me in less than a regular working day. Plus, I didn’t know too many people, didn’t care to watch much T.V. in Bulgarian, could hardly figure out how to navigate the downtown at first. That unexpected phrase “I’m caught up” sprang to my lips for the first time in years, and I found myself with free time – that magical space Google gifts to its employees on a regular basis. At first I didn’t know what to do, but the answers came quickly.

Given a bit of lead for the first time in years, I found myself pursuing passions old and new. I learned to cook, began submitting travel features to magazine and websites, and turned my attention to the wider educational community. I published a lesson plan at readwritethink, visited other classrooms and polled teachers about best practices, ordered a book by Nancie Atwell and launched a 10th grade outside reading program. I decided to start a new faculty mentorship program to help solve our problem of high international turnover, and organized an in-service series on teaching with technology. A friend and I started a tradition of Sunday night potlucks to foster faculty community. I set up blogs for my courses and facilitated exchanges between my students and kids in Washington D.C. and Kentucky. I read for myself, and soon discovered new authors to share with my students. Suddenly, my free time filled up with my own dreams, instead of desperate naps and frantic finishing.

As one of the most successful companies in the world, Google has the financial power to fund free time in the hopes of fostering creativity. What might happen in our schools if teachers were occasionally given this same opportunity? An in-service devoted to brainstorming new ideas? An activities schedule reduced slightly to give everyone a bit more wiggle room? Mandatory homework free nights to give the doers and the graders a chance to pursue their own interests? Students at every school I’ve worked at have sometimes lamented their harried hours to me, saying “I got into this school because of the things I love to do, but now I don’t have time to do them.” What might we do to keep this from being true for our school populations – teachers and students – in an ever more competitive world? It’s not jumping through hoops that makes us who we are – it’s creating a circus of our own. 

I recently discovered that my old school has switched from seven classes a day to three, and added a block of free time for creative field trips every Wednesday. I hope more schools will follow their lead.

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