by Ashley Bouwense
The historical writer Plutarch said that “…poetry is painting that speaks.” Seventh grade Black River Middle School student Michael Giannattusio transformed Plutarch’s colorful metaphor into a reality.
Giannattusio’s homework assignment this May was to create something called a Digi Poem. His language arts teacher, Joseph Pizzo, created this assignment based on the class reading, “The Giver,” by Lois Lowry. In the novel, Lowry brings to life a dystopian universe devoid of color. The main character, Jonas, begins to see color as he journeys throughout the novel, which gives him a full, enlightened perspective of his surroundings and the world.
A Digi Poem is an original work of poetry presented through technology. Pizzo described the project, “We discussed the importance of color and the prominent place color plays for the main character Jonas. After my students wrote their poems, I gave them the opportunity to use technology to celebrate color in a more vivid manner.”
Giannattusio originally wrote about the colors red and white, but he knew something was missing.
Pizzo remembered when Giannattusio approached him with concern: “I don’t have a passion for this. Can I change the poem?” he said.
Following Pizzo’s mentorship, Giannattusio knew he wanted his Digi Poem to be about the American flag.
“Michael wrote an amazing poem!” Pizzo praised.
The poem, “Stars and Stripes,” is a tribute to the nation’s flag. The vivid imagery and profound metaphors both honor the country in a manner that rivals and even surpasses some professional poets’ works.
Pizzo told Giannattusio, “This is your best work!”
Pizzo knew that “Stars and Stripes” had to be shared outside the walls of Black River. After permission from Giannattusio and his parents to share the poem, Pizzo immediately searched for organizations willing to showcase the work; he wanted Giannattusio to get the recognition his poem deserved.
One of the places Pizzo inquired was the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs in Washington, D.C. The reviewer was thrilled with the writing, and wanted Pizzo to author a guest blog to display both the Digi Poem and Pizzo’s explanation of the project that inspired the powerful, patriotic work. The poem was posted to the blog, “A Salute to ‘Old Glory’ from the Eyes of a 7th Grader: The Poetry of Patriotism,” to commemorate Independence Day 2016.
Pizzo praised Giannattusio’s poem in the blog, “He speaks of red as a color that represents ‘The color of hardiness and valor, / A sentinel to safeguard and protect.’ He describes white not ‘as the absence of color’ but ‘a mélange of colors in opalescent form / Colors dancing around to make one beautiful and pure color.’ He describes blue as ‘The color of vigilance and justice / Freely donating freedom to all.’ In the final stanza of his poem, Michael gives recognition to ‘The morals, / Purity, / Innocence, / Vigilance, / Valor, / Hardiness, / And justice (that) coalesce into a great country.’”
“It’s important to showcase student work outside the classroom,” Pizzo explained. “It gives the student a sense of importance. It shows them language arts is among all of our days. When they see their work inspiring others, it validates them.”
The seventh grade language arts teacher has taught at Black River Middle School for 42 years and received the 2016 New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education (NJAMLE) Educator of the Year award. Pizzo is always looking to encourage his students in their educational pursuits, and that includes presenting their work outside of the classroom.
“Learning has to be social in order to be significant,” Pizzo explained, taking what he learned from the educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Pizzo also bases his pedagogy on another educational psychologist, Howard Gardner’s, multiple intelligence theory. “Everyone has genius,” he said, quoting from Gardner’s theory. Pizzo meets students at their needs; he works with students to help them create pieces of which they are proud, providing a vehicle for confidence and agency within each child.
Pizzo said that Giannattusio is a “terrific kid; he has a “wild sense of humor” and a sharp, analytical side. This year, Pizzo directed Giannattusio in the play “Into the Woods Junior,” where Giannattusio played the narrator and the comedic Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.
Giannattusio and Pizzo have been invited to Congressman Leonard Lance’s Westfield office, where Giannattusio will be presented with a flag that has flown over the Capitol. The meeting is scheduled for July 20.
To view “Stars and Stripes,” visit www.blogs.va.gov.