Cheryl Rizzo, a Lindenwood resident and educator, was recently awarded a 2021 FLAG award for teaching excellence.
Rizzo, a middle school English language arts teacher at the Lindenwood School, PS 232, who grew up in Middle Village, will receive a $25,000 cash prize, plus an additional $10,000 for her school.
“I’m hoping that the idea of this recognition hopefully will help people to respect the profession even more to see how powerful the impact really can be. Maybe the other people will be inspired to do things like this,” Rizzo told the Chronicle.
The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence, which aims to recognize creativity and passion, goes to one educator in each of the five boroughs. Five win the prize that Rizzo received, and 10 finalists win $10,000 each, plus $2,000 for their schools.
Though the prize is no small amount, Rizzo seemed even more enthusiastic about the funding that would go back to her school because she felt like “there’s no way I would have gotten this award by myself.”
Her immediate thought was to help support her cookies and conversation group, a literary club she started for her students. Beyond supplying the literature for the club and some art supplies, Rizzo wants to renovate a reading garden in the front of the building where her students can take inspiration from the green space to write poetry and read. Rizzo suggested replacing the caved-in benches and partnering with a local organization to build planters and start a community garden. When she put the question to her students, they came up with the idea of designing road signs to fictional locations like Hogwarts and Narnia.
Including her students in the decision-making process is an important aspect of her teaching style.
Rizzo said she wants to empower her students to contribute to lesson plans by creating a student ELA advisory group, in which the kids vote for their representatives who then serve as liaisons between her and the entire grade.
“Once they share their ideas, then you don’t just have one kid in the class able to come up with something extraordinary. Once they present the idea and share it with everyone, you can have everyone now sharing in that experience,” she said.
While one might expect a humanities teacher to feel limited by remote learning during the pandemic, Rizzo said that the virtual medium provided fertile space to learn new lessons.
In a project in response to a book called “The House on Mango Street,” in which her students were tasked with creating a gingerbread house and explaining its symbolic significance, one student in her class created a software gingerbread building in the online game creation platform Roblox, and pulled out some impressive levels of meaning.
It also gave her an opportunity to invite Karen Harrington, one of the authors of the books her class was reading, to give a Zoom talk to her students. When one of her students showed Harrington a digital rendering the child had created to illustrate a scene from the book, the author responded that it had given her a new idea for a book.
Usually when she is just starting to write a book, Harrington said, she writes a diary pretending to be her characters. But for her next book she’s going to write from the perspective of a phone, inspired by the student’s use of technology.
“Can you imagine being 11 years old or 12 years old and like this famous published author is telling you, ‘That’s brilliant. I think I’m going to go with this,’” said Rizzo.
She made a point to add that it would not have been possible to win the award without the support of her principal, Lisa Josephson, as well as Assistant Principal Kevin Collins.
As far as what she plans to do with her share of the prize money, Rizzo hasn’t decided, but if she travels her destination will definitely incorporate a literary landmark or historical place — someplace where she can take lessons and incorporate them in the classroom.