Fall 2011 / Spring 2012

Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA ’08)
Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA ’08)
“I think my favorite times as a teacher are when students succeed beyond their beliefs,” Wielgosz says.

Inspiring the Next Generation

In one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods, award-winning Education Department graduate Michelle Wielgosz is teaching her students to express individuality and question identity through art.

On a school day last spring, @LAS writer Jenn Zimmerman visited with award-wining Columbia grad Michelle Wielgosz (MAT ’07) at Lindblom Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s South Side, where Wielgosz teaches art to high school students.

On the way to her classroom, located down a quiet corridor near the school’s art and music programs, Michelle Wielgosz stops and pauses to contemplate a wall filled with dozens of brightly colored papers. These aren’t just any papers—they are acceptance letters from various colleges and universities. One letter is from Syracuse; another is from Massachusetts College of Art and Design; all are addressed to her students, past and present, and they stand as symbols of what students can do when they have a teacher who understands and believes in them.

Wielgosz, an artist and Maryland native, began her career in teaching as a means to a more stable income. Life as a starving artist had become just that, and she needed something more financially solid on which to depend. After several teaching positions both here and in Washington, DC., she decided to get serious about advanced training for her work in the classroom and began researching Masters programs in the teaching of art.

Ultimately, it was Columbia’s approach to putting art at the forefront of teacher certification that sold her. She enrolled in 2005. “I went to Columbia because it was the only program that really fit my needs,” she says, noting that the requirements for teacher certification in Illinois are extensive, and that the program addresses those demands well. Wielgosz adds that it was the program’s focus on contemporary art, contemporary issues, and the teaching of high school students that helped her understand the ways in which knowledge is constructed and used in the classroom.

While a graduate candidate in the Education Department, Wielgosz dove into her studies inside and outside of the classroom. She helped initiate the state and national Art Education Association chapters on Columbia’s campus; she helped organized the Education Department’s first graduate art show; and she organized a yearlong community service project at the Farnsworth School for the Blind, bringing together disabled students and those without visual challenges. “I couldn’t have asked for a more stellar human being and student,” says Dr. Anne Becker, Associate Professor in the Education Department.

Not long after graduating from the Master in Arts Teaching program through Columbia’s Education Department in 2007, Wielgosz accepted a position teaching art at Lindblom Math and Science Academy—a selective college prep school in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Her job comes with many challenges, most of them tied to the school’s location in an area blighted by the telltale signs of poverty and urban decay: deteriorating homes, boarded up stores, weed lots, and gang activity. Some of her students had never been in an art class before.

Instead of ignoring these hurdles, Wielgosz addresses them with her teaching methods. She views art as a way for students to express themselves as individuals, and to question their own identities. Wielgosz’s teaching methods and the way she makes her students feel comfortable in the classroom draw many other students into her classes. “She explains things in a way that teenagers can understand,” says Lindblom senior Kyle Hinson. Lesson plans aren’t only about Monet or Van Gogh; Wielgosz also covers urban, contemporary artists such as Banksy, the anonymous and elusive British street artist. “This is the best thing that ever happened to my high school career,” Hinson says of Wielgosz’s art class.

It’s through this approach to teaching that outgoing senior Andrea Calderon says she was able to discover what she wants to become upon graduating: an art teacher just like Wielgosz. “I had no idea what I wanted to be, coming into [Lindblom],” says Calderon, who, like many other students, finds herself coming to Wielgosz’s class before and after school to work on art projects and other homework assignments. “School is like your second home, and this is my space.”

The passion and dedication Wielgosz has for educating and for the community of Lindblom (she’s also the school’s soccer coach) has further motivated her students. They nominated her for the WGN Teacher of the Month award, which she won in January, 2011. The award carries with it $1,000 for supplies and materials for her class, a $1,000 certificate for a professional development course at National – Louis University, and a three-minute feature spot on WGN TV.

Still, the true reward for Wielgosz is being able to see her students at Lindblom walk across the stage when they graduate, knowing that they have built a promising and bright future for themselves. “I think my favorite times as a teacher are when students succeed beyond their beliefs,” she says. “I’m proud of each student, especially when one of his or her dreams comes true.”