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Ridgewood High instructor Dolores Pigoni-Miller

Dolores Pigoni-Miller

Dolores Pigoni-Miller

When Dolores Pigoni-Miller steps into class at Ridgewood High School in Norridge, she’s not just teaching Italian, but honoring her own bloodline.

“My parents, Anna and Romolo Pigoni, came from the same town in northwest Toscana,” she says. “I think Ceserano is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s an ancient town that sits at the foot of the Apennines.” And from there, you can see the slopes, not far from the Cinque Terre, where Michelangelo quarried marble for his masterpieces.

It’s only fitting, then, that Pigoni-Miller teaches Italian to her 120 students as though it were an art. It isn’t easy, though, as those pupils span five levels, from Italian 1 to advanced placement study of language and culture.

“I think students should be immersed in the Italian language right from the beginning of Italian I,” Pigoni-Miller says. “They’re sometimes a bit intimidated when they walk into class the first day and I speak almost no English the entire period. But by the time that first period is over, they’re speaking Italian.”

For Pigoni-Miller, it’s a throwback to her own childhood. “I grew up in an Italian-speaking home,” she recalls. “In fact, I didn’t speak any English as a small child, so I’ve been love with the language and the culture from the beginning.” She credits a number of mentors and teachers with channeling her passion into a career path — including Joan Durkin at Mother Guerin High School, Professor Paul Giordano at Rosary College, and Professors Elissa Weaver, Rebecca West, and Paolo Chierchi at the University of Chicago.

At Ridgewood, she mixes Italian sights and sounds into her linguistic immersion so kids feel like they’ve been dropped into a classroom in Rome rather than Norridge. “Wherever students look, they’ll see posters and bulletin boards, and displays with monuments of Italian culture and art — from the most exalted, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, to the most everyday, like posters of delicious Italian regional foods.”

Speaking of food (and what Italian class would be complete without it?), panzerotti, arancini and tiramisù rank among the treats her students sample. “I also keep class fun by structuring my lessons around fun games and by engaging the students with technology such as YouTube videos, film, Prezis, and the like,” she adds.

Not all the learning takes place in class, though. Pigoni-Miller takes her students to places such as the Lyric Opera, the Art Institute of Chicago, Taylor Street, and the Italian Cultural Institute. “And this year I’m excited to start an Italian Immersion Day, at which our students will host students of Italian from a number of area high schools.”

Yet nothing could top the upcoming trip to Italy she’ll host in March 2014, where she’ll bring 25-40 students on a whirlwind educational tour of Venice, Florence, Pisa, Sorrento, Capri, Pompeii, and Rome.

Closer to home, “The most exciting thing I get to do as a teacher is spend time with my students,” she says. “My Ridgewood Rebels are kind, hard-working, funny, and a delight to be with. I love watching them grow, both as students of Italian and as people.”

About Lou Carlozo

A former longtime staff writer, editor and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor to Reuters and the proud writer of Fra Noi's Lou&A column, which spotlights important Italian Americans. He is currently studying for his master's degree at National-Louis University, where he teaches journalism and writing on the graduate school level. He also writes for the Tribune Content Agency and a variety of other freelance outlets including DealNews, Money Under 30 and Yesware. He lives in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago with his wife of more than 17 years, Amy (a hospice chaplain), and two children.