Art teacher Shane Wiggs unsuspectingly walked into the Austin Quad on Tuesday afternoon for surprise award ceremony celebrating his efforts to teach students about the Holocaust and genocide through the eyes of artists.
Members of the Texas Genocide and Holocaust Commission joined Wiggs’ students for the surprise big-check presentation of $1,000, his reward for receiving the 2018 Dr. Anna Steinberger Outstanding Educator Award.
This prestigious honor, which celebrates one Texas teacher or librarian for their efforts to teach students about the Holocuast or other U.S.-recognized genocides, has traditionally been awarded to history and English teachers. Wiggs is the first El Pasoan and first art teacher to receive the honor.
“The award is given to an educator and outstanding one in the state that’s doing something unique and special in the classroom to teach about Holocaust and genocide education,” said Matt Verdugo, the commission’s executive director.
“It was really fascinating to get Mr. Wiggs’ application being that he is an art teacher. The specificity of his application in terms of what he was doing in the classroom with the students and using artwork as a medium for those kids to learn about these topics just blew us away,” Verdugo added. “So, we decided he needed to win and we were happy to come out here and award it to him today.”
Wiggs had no idea that dozens of students and wellwishers awaited him in the Quad when Austin Principal Cyndi Severns-Ponce asked him to join her for a scholarship presentation. That was the ruse.
He quickly realized the surprise was on him when the crowd of his students and family saw him and erupted into applause. He humbly accepted the award touting a message of tolerance and reflecting on how artists paint an important historical perspective in times of pain and suffering.
“We got a lot of pictures of pretty flowers,” Wiggs said. “But it’s the stuff that changes your opinion, gives you a direction, gives you purpose that touches your soul – even if it hurts. If you live in ugly times, you may not get beauty, but you can still tell the truth.”
Every Friday, his lessons focus on art history – from 18th century French art to modern times.
“As soon as you get to the 20th century, it gets bad,” he said. “You start seeing people killing each other in enormous numbers. You can show them both sides – the propaganda art the Nazis were making and sometimes the propaganda we did against them. I show them the art of the survivors and the art of people who didn’t survive.”
Art facilitator Rosa Aguilar, who recommended Wiggs for the award, praised him for providing superior art education curriculum and engaging his students in art creatively and through history.
“Mr. Wiggs encourages the understanding and search for truthfulness through meaningful art history lessons that pertain to current times,” she said, reading excerpts from her recommendation letter to the commission. “His students continuously produce powerful artwork showcasing honest and raw emotional content in every piece of art displayed.”
Senior Brandon Garces credits Wiggs for developing his skills, encouraging him to showcase his artwork and introducing the sometimes-unpleasant expression of artists in troubled times.
“He’s one of the best art teachers in the district,” he said. “I feel like he’s a college teacher. He shows us art history. He pushes us and he always opens up our mind and shows us new things and gives us different ideas.”
The award is given in the name of Dr. Anna Steinberger, a passionate educator and holocaust survivor whose family fled Poland to escape
the German occupation during World War II. She is a former Texas Genocide and Holocaust Commissioner. While she couldn’t make the trip to El Paso, Verdugo expressed how Wiggs’ teachings well represent her legacy.
“This lesson is a lifelong lesson,” Verdugo said. “You can’t put a price tag on some of the things you learn ethically and morally growing up through life. He’s definitely hitting home on that.”