Ujayii (deep breaths)

Another five or six weeks and I will be in Finland. I find myself practicing ujayii- the yogic breathing technique that calms the mind and body. As I alternate between periods of anxiety and excitement, it is grounding to consider how I arrived at this nail-biting place.  I am curious and actively seek out professional development opportunities that push me. A year and a half ago I was studying Islamic poetry at the Kevorkian Center on a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. Several lively exchanges about global education were part of our discussions and the Fulbright opportunity to participate in an independent study abroad came to my attention.

The  Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program web page describes the opportunity as one that where “U.S. and international teachers receive grants to study at a university, observe classes and complete a project pertaining to their field of educational inquiry during their time abroad.” Visit the website for more information about applying for the grant and the participating countries. Last fall, I completed the application, appreciating the thoughtful reflection that was required and deciding that the chance to think deeply was reward enough. I was gobsmacked in April when I learned I was one of the teachers selected to go to Finland for six months.

In May and through the summer months, the idea of spending the following spring in an exotic Nordic country was romantic and adventurous. I dabbled in Finnish- mastering  kiitos, ole hyva, and hei, ordered a Lonely Planet travel book, and bought my first laptop. I explored Korpiklanni and Nightwish YouTubes, skimmed Seven Brothers, loved Sofi Okasenen’s Purge, and vowed to pet a reindeer. I thought about coats padded with down and base layers and snow boots- mysterious items that I would have to research and then buy online.

And I found time to think about my inquiry project- creativity in language classrooms. I suppose I am a heretic English teacher who has long wondered how our mother tongue managed to insinuate itself so solidly in required studies. The history and rationale behind the revered position of English in schools and universities is surprising. A favorite author, Ian McEwan, wonders about this status in an interview following the audio version of Solar.

So I will explore the purpose of language classrooms in Finland. The language-dense Finnish curriculum trains students who communicate competently in three languages by age 15. Given all the time needed to acquire language how do Finns find space to create? Is there room for creative writing and invention in Finnish, Swedish, English, Sami classes? I am not a data enthusiast, and it is well known that Finnish schools have achieved a rock star status with PISA scores. However, unlike other PISA heavyweights the Finns rank near the top on the Global Creativity Index. What role does the language classroom play in Finnish creative force?  Many sultry summer evenings  were spent with a book in one hand, swatting mosquitos with another, adjusting the lawn sprinkers and indulging in the luxury of sustained thinking.  It was magical- no ujayii necessary.

In August, my breathing became ragged at times. Emails poured in. Administrative papers and permits and details needed tending to- residence permits, a DC trip, searching for a spring sub. Then responsibilities overlapped, the hellish first weeks of school were underway and ugly legal and business messes surfaced. Suddenly it was October. My Finland to-do list reared its ugly head. So much planning an work is involved in shutting down a busy life in one country while preparing for a new situation in another. Regular pauses and ujayii helped me cope with the pace.

Then a fellow Finland Fulbrighter forced me to get my bearings with a check in email. There are seven Fulbright DAT grantees moving to Finland this spring. David Tow, a grantee hosted in Helsinki, asked about how things were going in a group email. I learned that most of my Finland bound colleagues had residence permits in order, many had secured housing, and a few had solid relationships established with mentors and buddys.

By early November, without firm housing, no residence permit, no medical clearance and minimal host contact, anxiety crept in. Is the converter on my laptop cord really adequate? How do people manage without a car? (Shopping for food still mystifies me. Do I shop every other day or use one of those odd shopping carts people wheeled on the NY subways or factor portability and density into my grocery shopping habits?) What will I eat? Is this small space the best choice? What is a buddy? … Details having nothing to do with my inquiry dominated my thinking for most of the month.

Feeling unmoored, I turned to the Fulbright Center Finland. I was advised to contact Dr. Elizabeth Whitney, a Fulbright Scholar in Theater Studies hosted at the University of Turku. Her immediate, enthusiastic, and friendly response was just what I needed. We’ve emailed several times, plan to have a Google Hangout soon, and I am a great fan of her insightful and hilarious blog, suddenlyseekingsuomi.com. Since I saw ElizabeTH in my Inbox a week ago, I have taken several deep breaths and reset.

My new calm revealed that my leisurely summer reading no the nature of creativity will guide me as I negotiate the details of my new life that have made me so anxious. I will fail. I will get lost. I will over dress or under dress. I won’t know what to buy at the grocery store. I will say the wrong thing. The coffee will not taste the same. I will take my cue from creative thinkers embrace failure and move on. Fast. Instead of a hack-a-thon, I will live a fail-a-thon. I may well find that t my experience of failing that will help me understand the nature of creativity. For a week or two, I will fail, but not miserably. I will fail, take deep breaths, and get back out there.


This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog and the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

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