Lynda Monick-Isenberg
Lynda Monick-Isenberg

Photos by Lynda Monick-Isenberg

Launched in 2015, the teaching artist minor is very popular with students at MCAD. But what exactly is a teaching artist? Is it the same thing as an art teacher?

According to Lynda Monick-Isenberg, the artist and educator in charge of the teaching artist minor at MCAD, a teaching artist is "a practicing professional artist/designer with the complementary skills of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of people in learning experiences in and through the arts." Through knowledge of teaching theory and practice, hands-on experience, and reflection, the teaching artist minor sets up students to apply for graduate teaching programs.

“A teaching artist is a practicing professional artist/designer with the complementary skills of an educator, who can effectively engage a wide range of people in learning experiences in and through the arts.”

I sat down with Monick-Isenberg to learn more about the minor and what it means, emotionally and philosophically, to be a teaching artist. Chatty and effervescent, she radiated both passion and knowledge for the program that she's crafted and perfected over the years.

So, tell me a little bit about yourself!

Lynda Monick-Isenberg: I’m a teacher at MCAD who’s in charge of the teaching artist minor. I was originally at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul for eighteen years, where I ran the teaching artist program. What I’ve been asked to do at MCAD—I’ve been here for a year and a half now—is to create and implement the teaching artist minor. The first class started this past fall, which was Teaching Artist: Theory and Methods, and now half the students moved forward into Teaching Artist: Practicum.

Is the other half doing a different course?

No, some students couldn't take the second part of the class because they were seniors, or it wouldn't fit in their schedule. I’m working with Jen Zuccola and some of the other department chairs to make sure that sophomores understand that this minor can be fulfilled very easily if they plan early in their career. We designed the courses so that they would be useful not only to the minor itself but to apply to other liberal arts requirements as well.

And you were saying that it's a two-part class?

The gateway class is really Theory and Methods, and the second is Practicum. In the Theory and Methods class, we work in small groups to investigate what it means to teach and what it means to learn, and what the strategies we can use—the contemporary strategies that we can use to teach.

Does that aspect include teaching peers outside of class?

No, we don’t do that, but that's a good idea! What we do do is we go to the FAIR School for one of our final projects, and we work in teams with first, second, or third graders and teach an arts-infused project in school.

Now, a teaching artist is foremost a professional artist with the additional skills of a teacher. They have the experience and language of an educator, but they also have the experience and language of an artist. So when they go out and teach non-arts-related subjects using artistic concepts and skills, we call that arts integration. Sometimes we have students placed in classrooms with other teachers, so the teachers might be teaching another subject entirely, like sociology or mathematics, but be doing so through the process of art making.

Photo courtesy of FAIR School

That’s interesting!

Yeah, so teaching artists work with K–12 schools, they work in after-school programs, they work with the elderly—there’s a whole lot of push right now working with people with Alzheimer’s. There's been some research that says that working within the arts is helpful for the aging brain. We also work with special populations that might be emotionally or physically impaired, like disturbed children or adults.

Oh, so it's not just K-12.

Exactly, and that's something that I want to make really clear.

“If you can teach a kindergartner, you can teach anyone.”

Okay, I definitely have a few questions about that. Teaching grade schoolers must be totally different from teaching high schoolers, people with Alzheimer’s, or people with disabilities. How do you reconcile all of that in the teaching artist courses?

One of the things we like to emphasize is that teaching is teaching, and you can use a lot of the same strategies for different groups—I've always said that if you can teach a kindergartner, you can teach anyone. So it isn't the content that becomes important, it's more the manner and the strategy of teaching. The bigger issue is that we're making artwork, and what we bring to this as artists is what's really important. The students really learn this by being placed in these self-selected practicum residencies.

Could you explain the process of how people go about working at the practicum? And what they do, exactly?

Sure. In the fall class, around Thanksgiving, I ask them to fill out a survey of what they would like to do and where they would like to be placed. They get three placements: two residency placements—which are forty hours each and where they'll actually teach one lesson—and one shadowing placement—which is where they're shadowing a teaching artist at work.

First, they observe; they're in the classroom for about four weeks observing before they teach anything. With kids, especially, you build trust really fast. Not high schoolers, it's a little bit different. But K-8 you can build trust really quickly. And it depends on your partner teacher, because they're the ones who set up the culture of acceptance for you. So, anyway, they make some choices, and I even let them choose people they know if I can check it out.

With Austin [a teaching artist student], I placed him with his old high school teacher out in Coon Rapids. That was really wonderful because there's already a relationship there, and she's been a very good teacher and was interested in having him, and she knew who he was and trusted him.

[But ordinarily] I give students a whole list of places to research, and they choose what they'd like to do, and I place them. I make all the initial outreach. And then once the outreach is made, they make the connections themselves and set up their own schedule.

It's lucky that you've had so much experience already, and that you have such a wealth of contacts.

I have a plethora of contacts! Right now, we’re at the Walker, we're at Mia, and there are a million other places where we can go. I've got a relationship started with Free Arts Minnesota, and they would be in safe houses for battered women, which is a really interesting place to work. So it really depends on what the students are interested in. What this does is it offers them an opportunity to try something that they never knew they were interested in before, and almost always what happens is the students put in more hours than they're asked to because they get so connected to the places, the constituents, the students, the children.

I was wondering what applications this program has. It seems like it's less straightforward teaching and more sharing your personal knowledge with others.

Yeah, it is. And it's a little bit more than that because you're responsible for other people, but it's who you are as an artist that makes you the person they're gonna hire. You bring something special that nobody else has. And what the arts do is they're a very critical way of thinking about the work. They're not black and white, they're very grey, and they make all of us, if we're elderly or struggling or emotional or children—they make us think about our world in a different way.

Photo courtesy of FAIR School

When I was in high school we had budget cuts, and unfortunately, the first thing to go was art classes. With all the budgets cuts and the endless discussions about the state of the economy, as well as shifting views in society that place little importance on the arts, how do you reassure students that they will be able to find a place to work that applies the skills they’ve learned in the teaching artist minor?

Well, we work in really nontraditional venues, outside of K–12. And they're not being hired as art educators. They're not licensed educators. When a teaching artist goes into a K–12 school, they usually go to work in a non-arts classroom and collaborate with that teacher teach the content in and through the arts. Teaching artists have been around since the 80s. One of the big organizations that has worked with teaching artists is COMPAS in St. Paul, though there are teaching artists globally. It's a phenomenon that's not going to go away.

The problem and the blessing of the teaching artist is you don't know where your next job is coming from, and you have to make yourself known, and you have to do a lot of the reaching out yourself. But what that gives you is the ability to do studio work. So it's a way as an artist to balance the life of an artist with the professional life of an educator.

It's almost a trope that artists who go into teaching feel un-self-fulfilled because they don't have time for their own art, and they spend all their time in the classroom which can make them feel burnt out.

That's the difference between the teaching artist and the art teacher. I really respect and value what art teachers do, so this is by no means an attack. But the art teacher goes and works in a school from eight to four, sees 300 kids a day. The teaching artist, instead, is valued because they're an artist first with the addition of being a teacher. They learn to speak the language of teaching when they introduce the idea of art making.

However, if someone did want to be an art educator, would this be the proper path to take?

Yes! In Minnesota, most licensure comes out in the form of a master's degree, so we have formulated the program to have all the requirements you need in order to get into art education at the University of Minnesota.

Specifically the U of M?

Specifically the U of M, because they have the most rigorous requirements. So the minor requirements, some of which you find you will have to take anyway, are two non-western art histories, which we would want every student to take, and it requires psychology. Every single human being should take psychology.

Yes! I totally agree, I love psychology.

It's so important. And if I had my druthers, it would be specifically developmental psychology, but that might be too focused for MCAD. I do think that psychology is very important, especially social and developmental psychology because it helps us be better people and understand why people around us act the way they do. One of the best things that past students will say to me is that they are still applying what they've learned in the psychology class they took years ago into their own family, with their own children.

Photo courtesy of FAIR School

Would you say that an important part of the teaching artist curriculum focuses on fostering creativity and intellectual development among the younger generation?

I would say among all generations. But I have a personal love of children, and we do a lot of work in the schools. What I've found is that our students light up when they're around little kids. Even around people who don't like kids, something magical happens. And you're taken back to why you create and what being creative means and what play is, because play is all creative energy.

Our students light up when they're around little kids. Even around people who don't like kids, something magical happens. And you're taken back to why you create and what being creative means and what play is, because play is all creative energy.

What other classes are offered in the teaching artist minor?

We have two non-western art histories, which are essential in our time for any art student to take; our psychology course, Theory and Methods; and Practicum. The students also have an opportunity to take a class outside of their major, which is what people do anyway, or do an internship focused on teaching artist work. What I find is that students end up getting jobs through these internships. I already have a student who's getting a job this summer because of the work she's doing at one of the sites.

Like, paid?

Like a paid job! And we're hoping that all the internships will be paid.

Would that internship work as the required junior year internship?

Well, that's what I'm hoping for! It will depend on the quality of the internship. And I am into quality.

Would you say that any major could do this?

Absolutely any major! Majors like comic art or animation, especially, are very hot right now. Kids want to learn so much about it.

Photo courtesy of FAIR School

So—and I think this is going to be my last question—if someone was interested in taking this minor, what steps should they take? Is there a year-by-year plan?

Oh, what a great question! I was just talking to Howard Quednau about this, that we should lay it out for people. Right now, we can take juniors, though we have to really make that fit right. It's best to start sophomore year, and it’s important students talk to their advisor. If anyone is interested in the minor, they should come and see me, and I can help them figure out what they need to take and when.

And some of these classes double up, right? Like, both the psychology the art history classes count towards liberal arts credit.

Exactly. That's what makes it so much more flexible. So if people think, "Oh man, I can't take all these courses on top of the courses I already have to take," it's not that. They have to take these classes anyway, but if they choose the right ones, then they can maybe do the minor. And they'll have room for other electives too.

Thank you so much, Lynda—it was wonderful talking with you!

Check out the teaching artist minor page for a description of the minor, course summaries, and past residency locations!