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Going That Extra Mile

This post is by member Joseph Pizzo.

mike-and-joeimagesEvery effective teacher I know has flourished in the classroom setting because one goal remains paramount: to give students every opportunity to thrive in a productive learning environment. Moreover, when a student produces something truly special, the effective teacher seeks ways for that student to gain additional recognition for a job well done.

As my students were reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, in which color plays a significant role, I assigned a special project: digi-poems, or poems written in text but presented in a digital format. Platforms included iMovie films, Canva posters, Screencastify screencasts, Google Slides, and more.

The results were amazing. Students created slideshows, screencasts, and posters that were intricate in both design and description. One screencast contained a poem so powerful that I knew just assigning it a grade would not be enough. Michael, one of my most gifted writers, deserved additional recognition for his digi-poem.

Michael had approached me during the composition phase of the digi-poem assignment to let me know he was having a problem. He wanted to change the focus of his poem from general colors to the red, white, and blue of our American flag. I told him to follow his instincts and begin his new poem.

During our class the next day, Michael returned with the draft of his new poem entitled “Stars and Stripes.” His description of the color red included “A cardinal spreading its feathers” and “A copper forge bursting with sparks.” White included “a melange of colors in opalescent form” and “The chilly, crisp snow crackling beneath your feet.” Blue included “The foamy bubbles at the tops of waves as they crest” and “Waves filled with the sorrow of a thousand sailors.” Michael had honored our flag by noting that “The morals / Purity / Innocence / Vigilance / Valor / Hardiness / And justice coalesce into a great country.”

Since Michael had written such a powerful and inspiring tribute to our American flag, I knew at once that I needed to share his work with our military. I proceeded to reach out to as many sources as I could think of, and I received two wonderful replies. The first came not from the military but from Dr. Sylvia Lyles, director of the US Department of Education’s Office of Academic Improvement. Dr. Lyles, who received my email on Flag Day, praised both Michael’s efforts and that of all my students. She stated that she would keep my contact information for future reference. Michael though this was “cool.”

The Office of Veterans Affairs asked me to write a guest blog featuring Michael’s digi-poem and an explanation of the project. I was honored to author a guest blog, especially since it was scheduled to appear on the website of the Office of Veterans Affairs on July 4, 2016. When I mentioned this to Michael, he smiled the broadest possible smile.

When I shared the aforementioned replies with NCTE Vice President Jocelyn Chadwick, she told me she would like to feature these events on the NCTE website. The Fordham University Graduate School of Education posted my guest blog containing Michael’s poem. Both Michael and I received an invitation from New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance’s office. Congressman Lance presented to Michael an American flag that has flown over the Capitol, as well as a certificate of achievement. NCTE, the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the National Education Association, and the New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education have all requested photos from the ceremony at Congressman Lance’s office. US Senator Corey Booker sent Michael a note in which he told Michael that “[i]t is an honor to congratulate you as your poem, ‘Stars and Stripes,’ is . . . a wonderful tribute to the members of our armed forces.” Furthermore, Executive Director John Keith Schwarz of the U.S.S. Houston CA-30 Survivors Association and Next Generations has invited Michael and his family to attend the association’s 2017 annual conference, where Michael will read his poem to begin the conference and lead the Pledge of Allegiance the next day.

All of this recognition for both Michael and his poem has energized both Michael and me. Most important, I believe I have done the job I originally set out to do: find additional ways for a special student to gain additional recognition for a job well done.

Joseph S. Pizzo has taught English for 41 years (42 overall) at Black River Middle School in Chester, NJ. An adjunct professor at Centenary University and Union County College, a member of Fordham University’s Digital Literacies Collaborative and of the NJ Schools to Watch, NJCTE, and NJAMLE Executive Boards, and an Educator of the Year recipient from NJCTE and NJAMLE, Pizzo was one of the first inductees into WWOR-TV Channel 9’s A+ for Teachers Hall of Fame. The host of NJAMLE’s “The Top of the Middle” online, Pizzo is also an active author, poet, church lector, and Boy Scout merit badge counselor.