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P.S. 150's Maggie Siena Helps Kids Learn Through Play

By Julie Shapiro | November 21, 2011 1:48pm

TRIBECA — When Maggie Siena took the helm at TriBeCa's P.S. 150 six years ago, she was no stranger to the neighborhood.

Siena got her start in student teaching just a few blocks away from P.S. 150 at P.S. 234, and she eventually rose to assistant principal there. She then co-founded City Hall Academy with former P.S. 234 principal Anna Switzer and was working as a literacy consultant in 2005 when she heard that the top job at P.S. 150 had opened up.

Now Siena, 48, is entering her seventh year leading the tiny Greenwich Street school, which has just one class per grade and is known for in-depth lessons that emphasize student creativity.

A northern California native, Siena moved to New York nearly 30 years ago and has a degree in history from New York University and a degree in special education from the Bank Street Graduate School of Education.

Today she lives in Fort Greene with her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.

DNAinfo sat down with Siena to talk about her own elementary school memories and her thoughts on P.S. 150's future.

Q: What do you remember most about your elementary school experience?

I really liked social studies and science. I remember my fifth-grade teacher taught us about the Holocaust and the Hindenburg [airship disaster] and started us thinking about social justice and inequality. I remember that I always loved to read — I don't think I thought of it as a school subject because I loved it so much. I remember in fourth grade studying fractions and getting so sick of them, and thinking, "Thank goodness we're starting decimals," and then being disappointed to realize it was basically the same thing.

Q: Did you play a sport or an instrument?

I studied the harp in elementary school. For me, it wasn't good enough to study any old instrument — it had to be either the biggest or the smallest. So I told my parents either the harp or the piccolo, and they went for the harp. I used to play "Silent Night" at the winter holiday concert.

Q: Were there any school projects you were particularly proud of, either in elementary school or later on?

In high school I directed a play, "A Thurber Carnival" [by James Thurber]. It captured a lot of the same skills as being a principal — the idea of working with a group of people and getting them to do something great, all of the problem solving and planning that is involved.

Q: How did you decide to become a teacher?

After graduating from NYU [with a degree in history], I did performance art and managed restaurants until I decided I needed to do something more with my life. I called United Way and said I'd like to volunteer. They said, "How about adult literacy?" So I worked with this 41-year-old woman who had never been to school, teaching her how to read. I was so engaged in the work that I decided to go back to school to become a teacher.

Q: After getting your start in TriBeCa as a student teacher and later assistant principal at P.S. 234, you moved on to literacy consulting work before returning to TriBeCa to lead P.S. 150. What drew you back?

I heard that Alyssa Polack, the previous principal of 150, was leaving. It just seemed like a really enticing opportunity. I wanted to be back working in a district that really valued progressive approaches to teaching.

Q: What makes P.S. 150 unique?

The first thing is its size — we have one class per grade. Everyone knows everyone here. It's like a small town. We get to know the kids very, very well and we get to work with them very, very closely. We focus on really allowing kids to study things in depth and express [their] learning through the arts. The fifth graders [last spring] sang an opera they wrote based on a picture book.

Q: How does the school's size affect the experience kids have?  

They learn how to get along with people. We can't say to them, "Just stay away from each other." They have to learn how to live with each other, and that's a pretty significant skill. They have the opportunity to really learn how to understand other people and tolerate their foibles and express their grievances without resorting to violence.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing P.S. 150 going forward?

The new Common Core [Learning] Standards are asking us to do more with kindergarteners in terms of reading and writing and math. Is there a way we work toward that without over-pressuring kids? We don't ever want to crowd out dancing, recess, the opportunity to free-write, the opportunity to read books of your choice. All of those things are really, really critical for children. I am really dedicated to the idea that play is an essential part of learning — all through school but especially in kindergarten — and I am determined to protect that as part of the kindergarten experience.