The Making of a Teaching Artist


In 1997, Community-Word Project (CWP) Founder & Executive Director, Michele Kotler, took the first steps to start a vision that had been in her since her 6th grade teacher, Mr. Kluger, opened her world to the power of creativity. CWP was born from that vision.


Michele approached Sarah Lawrence College with a proposal to pilot a training program for five MFA students. Her first group of graduate trainees were all writers and willing to be guinea pigs for this fledgling program. Together, they spent five days working on pedagogy, lesson plans, teaching paths, classroom management, and more. The students then joined Michele in the classroom for ten-weeks of hands-on experience. It was a great learning opportunity for everyone and it put more adults in the classroom, which provided the students opportunity for individual help.


Michele took away some key points from that first group, including:

  1. A strong lesson plan results when artists first identify and articulate their creative process. This was one of the major differences between teaching at the college level and teaching younger groups. It was crucial for an artist to be prepared to answer the why question from children, and the only way to sincerely answer that question was to understand how your own art making process works.

  2. The best place to start, especially for artists who have never been in a school in an underserved community, is to spend time in a classroom as a ‘student teaching artist’ under the wing of an experienced teaching artist. It isn’t uncommon for teaching artists to begin teaching and planning without familiarity of the learning environment. And, if the work is about creating a safe space in which students can take creative risks, it is critical for the adults leading the class to have a good sense of who is in that room — who is in that community.

  3. Ten-weeks is the minimum amount of exposure a new teaching artist should have in the classroom. Both students and trainees need time to get comfortable before either can make a real impression on the other.

  4. Many MFA programs aren’t socio-economically diverse. The majority of MFA programs are expensive and don’t provide full scholarships, which limits the pool of artists who are able to attend.


After that initial year, Michele spent the summer recruiting artists from other MFA programs, as well as putting the word out to professional, non-matriculated artists in the hopes of achieving a level of socio-economic diversity that the first class didn’t have.


Then came September 11th, 2001. The first official training day of the second year was supposed to be October 6th. The week of September 24th, Michele received a slew of emails from artists asking to join the training because they wanted to do something meaningful and had no idea where to begin. Suddenly, the class of five became a class of 25.


The group was diverse and, because of the recent events, they were ready for anything. Once their internships began, up to five trainees were in each classroom. It was a powerful time, especially in New York City, and everyone learned so much with and from each other. As a whole city, we were made vulnerable and realized the importance of processing our feelings, our hopes and our challenges for our individual and collective futures. Bringing the arts into the classroom was the vehicle we were providing our students to understand the historic events taking place around them, and it couldn’t be

taken lightly. That year proved to Michele and to everyone around her that this kind of teaching artist training was both badly needed and wanted.


In 2011, TATIP launched the Summer Institute for Advanced Teaching Artists in order to create a national dialogue between teaching artists who spend three days together deepening their teaching practice.


But what about the Teaching Artist Project?


In 2017, the program underwent a makeover and became “Teaching Artist Project” in order to better serve the field at large. Now twenty years down the road, Teaching Artist Project has trained over 750 artists through our yearlong program, Summer Institute, and other professional development opportunities. The program has grown to include all creative disciplines, and we accept roughly 35 artists a year into each program. The classroom internships have expanded and we offer concurrent trainings for advanced teaching artists, who’ve never had formalized training. The number of seminar opportunities have grown, in which the participants learn to articulate and present their creative process, transform that process into original lesson plans and explore the dynamics critical to strong classroom management. Trainees also debrief about their internship and explore topics such as partnering with classroom teachers, arts integration, and assessment. Teaching Artist Project includes elective seminars with topics ranging from specific creative disciplines to working with many vulnerable populations, like special needs and incarcerated youth.


We couldn’t have come this far without the generous support and encouragement of the The Birkhofer Family, The Dana Foundation, The Dan Paul Foundation, and the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, as well as the following government agencies: National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Teaching Artist Project pedagogy has been shaped by a multitude of people and we want to honor the many voices that have made this program what it is over the years. Thanks to former TAP Facilitators Michele Kotler, Lisa Ascalon, Renée Watson, Ellen Hagan, T. Scott Lilly, Heidi Miller, Amanda Torres, and Andre Ignacio Dimapilis; Artistic Directors Patti Chilsen and Karla Robinson; Program Assistants Autumn Tilson and Amanda Newman; and our current TAP Staff: Adriana Guzmán, Javan Howard, and Katie Rainey. 

The Teaching Artist Project website was designed by Director of the Teaching Artist Project, Katie Rainey

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