An English Language Arts teacher in Howard Beach was chosen as the grand prize winner in Queens for this year’s FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence, which awards $25,000 to one outstanding New York City public school teacher in each of the five boroughs, along with an an additional $10,000 grant for the arts programs in each of the five schools.
Cheryl Rizzo, who teaches seventh and eighth grade ELA at P.S. 232 The Lindenwood School, located at 153-23 83rd St., was speechless when she found out she was the grand prize winner of the FLAG Award.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I don’t really get like that, but I’ve never had an experience like this before,” said Rizzo, who was surprised with a special presentation by the school principal, her family, students and staff in the school auditorium.
Rizzo was nominated for the award by the school’s principal, Lisa Josephson, who thought she embodied the values that the foundation highlighted in terms of being creative and innovative in the classroom.
The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence award was founded by Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, recognizing and celebrating extraordinary public school teachers who inspire learning through creativity, passion and commitment. The award is funded by the FLAG Foundation for Excellence in Education and by the Fuhrman Family Foundation. It is administered by Co-Presidents Risa Daniels and Laura Twersky.
“Anyone who’s ever met a public school teacher knows that they are always putting their students first, and this year’s winners proved that point and so much more. All of the teachers we’ve learned about through this process have shown that nothing — not even a global pandemic that took so much from so many — could stop them from innovating and creating spaces where students could learn, share, grow and thrive,” said Glenn Fuhrman, co-founder of The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence.
The FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence, which just completed its second year with an expansion to the entire city, received close to 1,000 nominations from students, parents, principals and colleagues. Thirty-five semifinalists were selected from the nominees, and they were required to complete a comprehensive application, participate in an interview process which included an interview with their principal, and submit supplementary materials.
The $25,000 cash prizes for the winners are for teachers’ personal use. The additional school awards of $10,000 each are to be used for arts education initiatives with input from the winning teachers. (Arts education is an area that is often underfunded in public schools.)
An independent jury comprising education, community and philanthropic leaders, including Dr. Betty Rosa, commissioner of education and president of the University of the State of New York, selected the winners based on criteria that placed emphasis on the student experience.
“Teachers, students, administrators and families are completing a school year unlike anything we have ever experienced before, and it is important that we take the time to honor what has been accomplished. I am thrilled at this opportunity to recognize and celebrate our inspirational teachers,” Rosa said.
For Rizzo, to be able to have a celebration at the end of a challenging school year during the COVID-19 pandemic was mind blowing, she said.
Though she is the grand prize winner for her innovative teaching style, Rizzo added that she couldn’t do it alone and credited the school community for coming together to keep their students engaged.
“I really feel very grateful that I can work at P.S. 232. It’s just an unbelievable community of people — you always feel welcome. It’s a home away from home,” Rizzo said. “The principal always says ‘Go for it’ and we are allowed to think outside of the box and generate new ideas, and the students are just amazing – they are really creative and innovative.’”
As an ELA teacher, Rizzo takes her lessons one step further by transforming her classroom — real and virtual — to enhance what a class is reading. Over the years, her classroom has become a coffee shop, a yoga studio and a campsite.
While New York City public schools had transitioned to online learning during the pandemic, Rizzo’s students created a virtual escape room to accompany their reading of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Rizzo works to nurture her students’ creativity and empowers them to contribute to lesson plans. She also created a student ELA advisory group in which the students vote for their representatives who then serve as liaisons between her and the entire grade.
“I’ve done this before the pandemic, but this year, I relied on them so much more. They are really great with technology and really gave a fresh perspective and kept everyone motivated,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo also founded “Cookies and Conversations,” a book club where students, parents and faculty members take action alongside the texts they read.
“It’s not just an everyday regular lesson. We try to work towards a final project,” Rizzo said.
For example, while they couldn’t meet in person, Rizzo’s students worked on a virtual project after listening to country singer Dolly Parton’s podcast, analyzing her song lyrics, and reading articles about her contributions to her community.
Inspired by Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” Rizzo’s students came up with the idea to design a virtual P.S. 232 “Hoodie of Colors” representing unity, which was then created into actual hoodies and was sold to raise money for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.
“The kids were so excited that they were able to help at least 10 kids that will get a book a month,” Rizzo said. “It teaches them how they can make a difference and make an impact by paying it forward and helping other kids in this country improve their literacy. That’s the kind of thing that kept me moving forward.”
One “Cookies and Conversations” project was the creation of a community garden that Rizzo would like for her school to turn into “a source of inspiration and a place to create” for students, she said. According to Rizzo, she plans to use the $10,000 to renovate the dilapidated outdoor green reading space for the school community.
“We are looking to not just replace the benches with recycled green benches that won’t give the kids splinters, but make it an inspiring creative space,” Rizzo said. “For example, the kids were dreaming to make directional signs saying, ‘A thousand miles to Narnia.’”
As for herself, Rizzo says she might use the $25,000 to take a family vacation to a historically based landmark, such as their last visit to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s house.
“Those kinds of vacations renew me and energize me and give me ideas of how to bring education alive in the classroom,” Rizzo said.
Overall, Rizzo says she is happy that the school and community is being recognized, but, even more so, she’s happy that the foundation is shining a spotlight on the field of education and the importance of educators.
“It’s amazing what the foundation is doing to bring light and honor that,” Rizzo said. “I hope it inspires other people to join and do the same.”