Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Cycles of Work

September 1st, 2013.
Today marks the first Back-to-School month since I was five years old--three if you count pre-school--that I haven't been preparing to step into a classroom, as either a student or a teacher.
With ten years behind me at Bronx Prep and now with three small children at home, I find myself at a creative crossroads of sorts. To be honest, this is the kind of moment that might have paralyzed me in the past.
Luckily, a decade into this teaching journey, I have tools up my sleeve that come in handy in moments like these. One of my favorites is the image on the right, a wheel representing the seasonal cycle that I use with my students to bring a sense of rhythm and momentum to our project-based work.
What's great about this cycle is that it can scale up or down (and contain infinite numbers of nested mini-cycles), so it can describe a project of any duration--from the arc of a single class period to a month-long unit, to a full year of work... or even the span of a long career. No matter the length of the project, the principles are the same:
 Starting with the spring phase, we get inspired and plant the seeds, building excitement about the questions and ideas we're grappling with, and connecting to why we care about them.
 The summer phase brings a period of focused practice and work, symbolized by tending the crops. During this time we roll our sleeves up and get down and dirty; we embrace struggle, we wrestle and hustle and grind.
 The autumn energy is a time to celebrate the harvest, when the fruits of our labors are presented, either for a small group within a classroom or onstage for the whole world to see.
 And finally, the winter brings an invitation to rest the soil, to reflect on what has been created and to replenish the creative forces in preparation for the next project. 
Over the years I've found that working with this wheel can bring coherence to creative processes that can otherwise feel jumbled or unwieldy. It can also serve as a great diagnostic tool, helping us get unstuck by showing us where we're out of balance, which phases we may have overindulged and which we need to pay more attention to.
One interesting discovery I've made, both in working with young artists as well as in my own creative practice, is that the last phase--the winter--is often the most difficult to commit to. This may seem counterintuitive, since resting is the stage that seems to require the least amount of effort. But I think it's hard for many of us--especially in a culture that values the feel-good juiciness of inspiration, the yeoman grit of hard work, and the varnished shine of a finished product--to give ourselves a chance to just chill for a minute. It's hard for a lot of us to rest. To reflect. To replenish.
But I think--no, I know--that it's necessary, and it's worth it.
So as the days get longer... and as baby number three forces me to stay a bit closer to home... I'm welcoming the opportunity to rest the soil for a little while. To reflect on--and write about--the work my students and I have created together. And to replenish my inner life in preparation for the next big thing... whatever that may be. Maybe I'll launch headlong back into the fray at Bronx Prep next year. Maybe I'll help smooth a transition to new leadership there and follow the unfolding of a new project.
Either way, I know I'm not alone in this need to pause occasionally. So for now, here's a gentle call to all of my fellow creative instigators out there: In the midst of your bustling lives, your vibrant creations, your heart-busted-open support of your students, colleagues, clients, family members and friends... Is there a moment of pause with your name on it?
Hoping you find it... and that when you do, you fill it with a long, slow, sweet breath.
P.S. Big thanks to my former student Chris Moncrief, whose experiences working with the season wheel at Farm and Wilderness Camp have had a transformative effect on his teaching and leadership skills, and by extension, on mine.