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Award-winning Wellspring Prep Art Teacher Helps Students Find Empathy for Others

Being an art teacher gives Megan Altieri the opportunity to teach without the restrictions of test scores and instead help students find empathy in their hearts for others.

Student painting.
Wellspring student Alayah V.’s piece represents the empathy we learn to have for our younger more innocent selves. As an adult, we can learn to see things differently and reconnect with that younger self in a gentler way.

Altieri, who is in her ninth year at Wellspring Preparatory High School, encourages students to have their artwork be a reflection of society and the tribulations people face.

“It’s all about being curious,” she said. “If we could just be curious, then we can connect with people and we can work on counteracting those biases. I feel like that encompasses who I am as a teacher and also what I’m interested in beyond teaching.”

For “the shoes project,” Altieri told students to bring stories about interactions they’ve had with strangers or stories about hardships they have experienced themselves. The paintings they created illustrated what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and showed them what it means to have empathy for each other.
The class shared stories such as interactions in line at the grocery store and the bus stop. Soon, the discussion shifted to chipping away at biases and making the world a better place for everyone by eliminating that disconnection.

Student painting.
Wellspring student Alayna R.’s painting shows empathy by making a night scene in the city, and shares in the struggles of people who work night shifts in the city.

“Their reactions were amazing,” Altieri said. “Wellspring’s a pretty unique place. It’s a tight-knit community but within that community, it’s pretty diverse. It’s a really cool intersection of perspectives, cultures, races, religion.”
Altieri’s teachings are an extension of her own artwork. While seeking a remedy for the hate and intolerance she was seeing in the world, she sought to find examples of humanity. For a few years, she gathered snippets of conversations she overheard and stamped them on articles of clothing to match the speaker.
The result was “Sonder,” which won the Installation Public Vote award at ArtPrize 10 in 2018. She continued the project, jotting down notes on a scrap of paper or on her phone, organized them and compiled them into a book, “Sonder: The Art of Empathy Through Eavesdropping.”
Helping students not only find that empathy for others but also express it through art to help even more people grasp the importance of coexisting is what keeps Altieri coming back each year to Wellspring, which outperforms the local district in all subjects.
 A painting by a student.
Sophi N.’s illustration shows experiencing empathy through bonding over similar traumas of home life.

“Where you could otherwise feel like an outsider, our kids include us in their lives and perspectives and cultures, and that’s a pretty cool thing,” she said. “In high school, you're learning about who you are, but you’re also immersed in a community of diverse identities. I think as a result, our kids feel safe to be different and then that also doubles that diversity. Especially in this time where it’s particularly formative, I just thought, ‘If I could be a part of that in kids’ lives, that’s for me.’”

Keep up the excellent work, Ms. Altieri!

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About Wellspring Preparatory High School:
Wellspring Preparatory High School is a tuition-free, public charter school in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serving students in ninth through 12th grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes over 100 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit

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