Today the New York Times ran a story called Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain. The article chronicles the experiences of five neuroscientists, a reporter, a photographer and a guide rafting the San Juan River in Utah. The men were part of their own experiment to see what would happen if they completely unplugged for a week, no cell-phone, no email, no laptops. “The trip’s organizer, David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science.” Three days into the trip all the men notice that the ideas are flowing, that wide ranging conversations on all sorts of science are happening as they row, paddle and concentrate on not going over in the rapids.
My own summer, while not quite that unplugged did include days where we had no wifi and no cell phone bars. Unless I was going to do some writing, my laptop stayed closed. Instead, I read 1-2 books ever two or three days, explored the Door County Peninsula with my husband, visited with people we met along the way, watched a lot of sunsets or noticed how different the water color is on the Michigan coast of Lake Michigan versus the Wisconsin coast(1). When we were with our family we played card games--lots of poker, spite and malice and Michigan Rummy. We swam in the lake, sat around the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables and relaxed on the dock (after we cleaned off the duck poop). We were less distracted, more focused on the task before us. Usually that task included a meal, a person, a book—one at a time.
At the same time, the projects I had set for myself this summer, increasing my online footprint, rethinking my World History class away from weight lifting text books and towards more online resources, and preparing for the curricular reviews I will help to steer remained on the back burner – percolating or fermenting without any real effort on my part. The books I read were all chosen with these school year tasks as a secondary reason in mind, but they were primarily chosen just because they looked like good reads.
Now I am home, I’ve got three weeks to the school year. I am fully plugged in and spent a week feeling very distracted by car troubles and the prospect of a new car—do you know how many different choices there on the Mini-Cooper build you Mini website or how few for the Jetta TDI? I haven’t read an entire book in over 8 days, though I have made real inroads into King Leopold’s Ghost. I will sit down to write and think of an email I need to send or a report I need to look up or the phone will ring and my daughter will call to visit and I get distracted by something she said and will start looking for famer’s markets in Boston while she is talking to me about having watched “Food Inc”. One of the Heath brothers in his book Switch talks about how he writes on an old laptop in which he has disabled the wifi so that he is not tempted to check his email or twitter or Facebook.
So what’s a curriculum coordinator to do? I think I will set two practical goals for myself this year. First when someone calls or stops by my desk to talk, I will close my computer. It just hibernates, it will all still be there waiting for me. Second, each second period I have free –about twice a week I will set aside to visit my colleagues’ classes. These are small doable changes with easy triggers—the presence of a person and a clock. More immediately, in order to complete my preparation work I will also continue to walk. If I could I would regularly escape (every Saturday sounds good to me) to northern Michigan, the North Channel, the Georgian Bay, Door County Peninsula. I don't own a private jet so walking will have to do. While I do enjoy going to the gym and find yoga really focusing –hopefully on my breathing and stretching—walking around the Westtown School farm, my own neighborhood or a nearby park allow me to really concentrate, focus on an idea. I think it’s the combination of being outdoors and the rhythm of walking (I am not a neuroscientist). I think it’s also that I am unplugged, uninterrupted, not tempted by interruption by choice.
Concentration and focus are important skills for us to impart to our students so is intelligent multi-tasking. Being a little bored is ok too, so don’t reach for the internet every time you find yourself at loose ends, go outside (in almost any weather), take a walk(2), listen and look at your surroundings, let your mind wander too.
(1)The water color in Wisconsin has to do with the Niagara Escarpment
(2) I know some of us are runners, bikers, tennis players, kayakers, rock climbers, but these things don’t happen so easily by just walking out of the average person’s home or office door.