Partners in Conversation: Ms. Muñoz
Partners in Conversation is an interview series that highlights the Studio Museum’s partnership educators, school leadership, artists, and community organization staff. These interviews seek to document and archive their experiences and to share their stories—in their own words—of connecting to the Studio Museum, Harlem, and artists of African descent. This act of documenting their voices intends to honor the unquantifiable role Studio Museum partnerships played in the founding and history of Studio Museum, as well as the central role they’ll continue to play in shaping the Museum as it moves into the future. These interviews intend to shine light on the creativity and innovation our partners cultivate in their schools, organizations, and in Harlem, and acknowledge that the collaborative work we do together is one small part of a much larger ecosystem. The Studio Museum works in support of and in collaboration with individuals who infuse their spaces with creativity every day.
In this Partners in Conversation, Studio Museum School & Community Partnership Manager Jennifer Harley speaks with Ms. Muñoz, the art teacher at Park East in Harlem.
In November 2021, I video-chatted with Diana Muñoz, the art teacher at Park East High School in Harlem. We talked about her student-directed teaching pedagogy, the collaborative community of Park East, artists and projects that have been highlights during our four years of partnership, her dreams for how students and teachers will find belonging in our new building, and the best (possibly only) pizza fries in East Harlem.
Jennifer Harley, School & Community Partnership Manager: I would love to start at the beginning with how we met.
DM: In 2017, I was new at Park East and I went to the Professional Development [at Studio Museum]. I loved it. We did art-making, talked about curriculum development, and toured the museum. I thought, I want to do more because you all are so close to where I work. I wanted to bring the kids there.
JH: It’s easy sometimes to skip over the things right next to you. I’m excited to learn more about your background as a teacher. How did you come to education?
DM: I always wanted to be an educator. I just needed to pinpoint what it was I wanted to teach. At first, I wanted to teach math but I didn't have, I would say, the study skills. I always had a passion for art. I loved drawing. I would do portraits of my family members or people would tell me to draw things for them. So, when math didn’t work out for me, I chose art, it was the best switch, I had so much fun. I majored in art for my bachelor’s degree and also for my master’s. I discovered a different world in art. A lot of people think art is painting and drawing, but being an art educator broadened my horizons. I try to teach that to my students too—art isn’t just one-dimensional; it isn’t just doodling on a page; it’s so much more than that. It’s everything.
JH: There are so many possibilities. That’s one of the things that brought me to art too: when I realized that art can be anything. Did you have teachers who supported you or who were important to your experience as a creative high school student?
DM: Yes! My high school art teacher pushed me. I even did my student teaching with him when it was my turn to become an educator. I learned a lot from him. A lot of spontaneity, which I was missing. I have structure in my classroom but I ask students "what do you all want to learn next” That’s how he was and that’s how I get a lot of students to be interested in the work I expect them to do. A lot of my teachers, I keep in touch with a lot of them and they were a great inspiration to me.
JH: Did you go to high school in Harlem?
DM: Yes, I did. I went to A. Philip Randolph High School on 135th and Convent Avenue.
JH: I know it! How long have you been at Park East?
DM: I started in 2016, so this is my sixth year.
JM: Was there a specific reason why you came to Park East?
DM: The people who were at the interview were teachers, some students, the principal, and the assistant principal. I could already see the community. They sold me on the collaboration and the community building. That’s our number one thing: how do we get the Park East community, the students, and the families involved? I liked that.
JH: What excites you most when you’re teaching in the classroom at Park East?
DM: I love the kids and their energy. I feed off of it.
JH: Why do you think art education is important for teens and high school students?
DM: With art, they get to explore different media and get a break from their routines. They have to do something abstract. Whether it’s literal abstraction or something more implied, they have to take ideas from their head and they have to put it down on paper in a creative way and that’s something they’re not used to. So, it’s a good interruption in their day. They get to be creative and learn it’s not always memorization or exams, they can be more free.
JH: It’s wonderful to see students in your classroom getting time to be creative and allowing themselves to play. Can you tell me about your interest in connecting art to tech, why you think that’s important in the classroom, and what you hope students get from those projects?
DM: We know now we’re in this world where every single aspect of your life is related to technology. You walk on the street or to a store and tech is everywhere. Students need to know how to interact with it in a safe and smart way. Right now, there’s no tech literacy curriculum. I teach web design, Photoshop, and After Effects.
They need to understand their role with technology in society so they can take control of how they interact with technology. They’re handed a cell phone with preset rules about how you do your password. There’s all of this peer pressure that you have to be on fifty social media sites. I invite them to take a step back and think about what all of this means. We talk about the ethical concerns with technology, the benefits of it, how it’s created, and who are the people creating it. That allows them to see how they fit in society.
JH: Technology is such an important part of many art careers. You mentioned you went back to school to be able to teach this to students and also that students were asking for this. I know over the years you’ve taught introduction to visual arts classes, digital arts classes, art history classes. Tell me about how you decide what classes you are going to offer. Are students often involved in shaping what they want to learn from year to year? What is that process like?
DM: All of the time! My principal knows I hate teaching the same thing twice. I will only teach the same thing twice if students want to or if it was popular. I will always teach graffiti, watercolors, or portrait painting. At the beginning of the school year, I hold an interest survey. I ask students for their ideas and they’re always a great influence. One thing I heard was that students wanted to learn how to video edit. So, a few summers ago, I went to SVA and took a continuing education course and learned After Effects. I try my best to learn what they’re interested in because that’s how you get them to like art and how you get them to be more interactive.
JH: This also makes me think critically and reflect on the work we do as a museum. How do we make sure we’re taking feedback and taking the direction of teachers and students and community members who we work with, always starting by centering their goals and interests?
DM: Not everyone has the privilege I do. Some schools have set curriculums. I know there’s a limit with technology or materials but there are resources out there. Sometimes it’s about using what you already have. I’m the only certified art teacher at the school. So, we have other teachers who step in and teach other classes connected to the arts. The kids need variety; it’s not just what I do but [what other people do] too.
JH: How do you think museums should be supporting schools that are in their community, what can they do better? What would you love to see from museums in your community?
DM: It would be great if museums were a little bit more flexible with students coming in to visit, like school tours. [They could offer] more diverse curricula for teachers, lessons with connections to art. We go there to admire the art but you also want people to learn something and have some type of takeaway. Highlight people from your neighborhood, People who have lived before in your neighborhood and now are present in the gallery. I’ve gone to museums and felt like I didn’t know who the people were and they could have been people of the community. That’s how you can make a connection in the community: this person painted this and they lived in my building or he lived down the street. That would be cool to know.
JH: I agree completely. Not only educators but people, in general, get turned off by museums because they don't see that connection or it doesn’t seem like something that’s part of their experience. Speaking of community, what are your favorite East Harlem go-to spots, places to eat, places to hang out, places to see art?
DM: I was just talking about this yesterday! I was going out for ramen from 86th Street or whatever, then my student teacher told me it was national pizza day, and Oh! how could I forget going to G & Js? They’re on 104th and 3rd and they have something called pizza fries. They season some fries, they put melted mozzarella over it and you have a side of marinara sauce and it is so good. I ate it yesterday and I ended up sharing. I should have eaten it by myself. I bike to work every day and I love being able to walk and bike around the community every day.
JH: You bike from the Bronx?!
DM: Yep, it is only twenty minutes or when it rains, I take the train. I enjoy biking.
JH: The work we do together is made so special by Studio Museum artist educator Aya Rodrigues-Izumi. She spent so much of her life in East Harlem and is closely connected to the artistic community in the neighborhood. I’m curious to know more about how our work together between Park East and Studio Museum has influenced the artists you teach and how you approach teaching art in the classroom?
DM: One thing I had missing in my curricula was connections to identity. Aya centers identity whenever she works with us. When I create curricula, I think about how I can connect it to their identity. Not just what their interests are but who they are, where they come from, what their beliefs are.
JH: Aya is so good at thinking about all of the diverse ways artists of African descent and Afro Latinx descent are expressing their creativity. Who are your favorite artists to incorporate into your classes?
DM: Miguel Luciano. It was so cool that he was able to do the Young Lords tour with us. I also use the Glenn Ligon artwork! With the Studio Museum, we selected, installed, and responded to areplica of I Found My Voice by Glenn Ligon. We talk about the different ways we could find and express our voices. Many students focused on LGBTQIA+ rights, racism, sexism, ageism. We created large banners with the prints and put them in the main lobby where that artwork is. You could see I Found My Voice right next to all of the student prints where they got to make their voices known.
JH: In 2018 Aya led a sculpture project inspired by the artwork of David Hammons, Abigail DeVille, and Lorna Simpson. We had paint and plaster and your classroom was in the cafeteria and you didn’t have a sink in your classroom! So, you organized this whole system of how we would get water with buckets. You were going to figure it out! I appreciate how innovative you are.
DM: Oh my god! I forgot I didn’t have a sink! Now I have one! Listen, every year I one up myself for something! Again, it’s about keeping it interesting for my students; that’s where the innovation comes from. Doing as much as I can with what I have. In my first teaching job, I worked in a bathroom in a converted men’s locker room. Where the lockers were, that was all converted into the classroom so I had to make do with that. From day one I had to be inventive. The second place that I worked, my office was a closet. My coworker, who was also an art teacher, and I kept all of our supplies in there and I used a pushcart to go to different rooms. Those are some survival and adaptation skills I’m still using. I do what I have to do for my students.
JH: I can only imagine those skills and experiences have served you these past two years with Covid and having to completely shift everything.
DM: That semester when we locked down, I had decided to do everything digitally. I was teaching After Effects and I had just started teaching a computer science course, so it was an easier transition, but still very difficult. How am I going to teach the kids now? How am I going to support those students with individual education programs (IEPs), how am I going to support the students who are the daydreamers? The Studio Museum stepped in immediately and were like, how can we support you? You sent art materials to students' homes; we didn’t have the means to do that. How can we support the kids at home and how can we do art-making at home? That was another break they needed from being on screen the entire time.
JH: When the new Studio Museum opens on 125th Street, what are your dreams for the space? How do you imagine Park East students and staff engaging with the space?
DM: OHHH! I would love for us on a nice day to be able to walk over to the new space and interact with the art and create our own art and for students to learn about people from East Harlem. We're used to the canon and the canon is, as people say, the dead white men. I want them to understand the canon could look like them, it could look like us. That if they have a passion for arts, there’s a place for them and it could be the Studio Museum, or it could be another museum in Harlem, or another museum elsewhere. It's never too late for them to start. I started drawing seriously when I was a junior in high school and here I am. I think I’m pretty good.