Active Learning the Secret at P.S. 3, Principal Lisa Siegman Says
Each week, DNAinfo.com talks to a principal from one of Manhattan's public schools. This week, it's Lisa Siegman, 58, of the West Village's Melser Charette School (P.S. 3) at 490 Hudson St. Siegman said that active learning techniques and a focus on the arts are her school's specialties.
Q: Where are you from and where did you go to school?
Lisa Siegman: I'm from Midwood, Brooklyn and I went to school in Brooklyn. I went to public school for 5th grade when there was a massive teacher strike. So, I have up-close experience with public school. Then I went to private school for 11th and 12th grade.
Public elementary school was very rigid. The year I finished 6th grade was the year they unbolted the old desks from the floor. We were in old wooden desks that fit just one person and had a space for an ink well. They all faced toward the blackboard. This was in the '50s and early '60s.
Then, I went to junior high in Kensington [Brooklyn], which was more modern, and Erasmus Hall High School [in Brooklyn].
Q: Which of those schools was best for you?
LS: I had a wonderful fourth-grade teacher. She was like a teacher I think I'd see here. She was really concerned with each of the students. The way teaching was when I went to school was the teacher talked and you either learned or you didn't. If you learned, you got moved up. If you didn't, you got moved down. [My fourth-grade teacher] was someone who could actually address students as individuals.
Q: How did your experiences as a student shape your career in education?
LS: A lot of my elementary school experience was a negative example. In junior high I had more teachers who were more passionate about their subject. We did group work and that was a whole new world.
Q: How did you become a teacher?
LS: I got very interested in dance in college and left school to go to a dance program. I first taught doing dance. I did small [performances] in the Bay Area and it was a lot of fun. And I did all sorts of different jobs then.
Then, I got really bad Achilles tendonitis and I couldn't dance. By that time I was married and was feeling the biological clock ticking. I thought, "If I can't dance anyway, I might as well have a child." Then I had another child and realized I couldn't dance, have children and be able to earn a living. So, I thought, "I guess the dancing thing is not going to happen."
I had really liked teaching when I taught dance, so I thought, "Maybe I'll take a teaching class and see if I like it." I took a Saturday morning class at Hunter when I was in my 30s. This was definitely a second career for me. My teacher made teaching seem like something exciting and dynamic. I worked while I was in grad school at the 92 Street Y nursery and kindergarten, and then I ended up at the Manhattan New School [P.S. 290]. I taught there after my kids started there.
So, I became an elementary school science teacher. I learned a lot of biology, some of which I already knew as a dancer.
Q: How did you become an administrator?
LS: District 2 was offering a program with Baruch College where they paid for you to go through training as long as you would be an administrator for three years. I first became a principal in this building, in the summer of 2001, right before 9/11.
Q: What was it like to be a principal on 9/11?
LS: It was quite a workout. A bunch of students from three other schools south of here came to the building. If you go to the upper floors of the buildings you have a good view, so teachers moved classes. It was very busy. We just dealt with what was in front of us. You look at it now and you have the scope of history, but right then it was just trying to manage and make sure everyone is ok.
Q: How has your school changed since you started here?
LS: It's grown. We had about 500 students when I started, and now, if you include pre-kindergarten, we have 800 or above. It's a lot more to manage. And we have the whole building as of last year. We used to share it with Lower Manhattan Community Middle School.
When I started working here there had been 12 principals in 10 years. It was passionate but not coherent. People were pulling in a lot of different directions. Now, everyone is passionate and there's a whole lot more conversation about what they're trying to do and how they're going to do it.
Q: What are your biggest challenges here?
LS: Managing the growth, dealing with the physical plant — which is 150 years old — and reconciling our approach, which includes reconciling joyful learning with achievement. We're not against achievement, but we might define it a little more broadly.
Q: What's unique about this school?
LS: There's a huge integrated arts curriculum and I think there has been since the school began. In addition to having an arts teacher and a dance teacher, there's a parent-funded musician who comes and works three days a week. We have a room full of instruments. And there's a ceramics person who works part-time.
And many of the teachers have had professional involvement in the arts or serious amateur involvement in the arts, and they bring that to their classroom practice. This really fits the Village. We have a lot of kids who have one or more parent who are involved in the arts.
Q: What are you proudest of as a principal?
LS: I'm proudest of the fact that the school is able to negotiate the space between being a joyful learning community and really supporting kids in being their best.
A teacher creates a joyful learning experience by creating a classroom where there is room for discovery, conversation and multiple modes of expression. And where there's room for the teacher to learn.
If you learn how to learn in elementary school and learning is something you enjoy doing, that sets you up pretty well for the rest of your life.