A longtime advocate of music in the classroom, P.S. 199’s Elaine Shapiro once took her class to a rehearsal for a piano concerto. After the performance, students spent time asking the soloist questions. When someone asked what the pianist’s outside interests were, she said she had a compound upstate where she harbored wolves. Shapiro’s interest was immediately piqued.
“Elaine said, ‘Is this somewhere they can visit?’” recalled musician and teaching artist Thomas Cabaniss, who knows Shapiro both as a former colleague and as the teacher of his children. “Two weeks later they were on a bus upstate to see the wolves. They took their recorders up there and when they came back they had all these pictures of the kids playing their recorder tunes to the wolves, who were howling back at them.”
Shapiro began her career in Brooklyn, at P.S. 183, choosing the profession because of her family’ s high value on education and her love of kids. She taught there for 16 years until 1986, when she arrived at P.S. 199, where she has been ever since.
Back then, P.S. 199 was an under-utilized school on a remote corner of the Upper West Side.
“The staff under the principal said, ‘Let’s turn this into a great neighborhood school, where neighborhood people would want to sent their children.’ It’s become this wonderful place to learn and to work,” Shapiro said.
Now P.S. 199 is one of the most sought after public elementary schools in Manhattan, and teachers like Shapiro have sealed its reputation. She is quick to share the credit, saying that without good co-workers and administrators, teachers can feel isolated—but she never does.
Shapiro has taught everything from 1st through 6th grade, and currently teaches 5th grade. One of the constants from level to level is the need to integrate creative ways of thinking and learning into the traditional curriculum—thus her longtime collaboration with the New York Philharmonic and musicians like Cabaniss. She also loves experiential education, having just returned from three days at Frost Valley, the YMCA camp in upstate New York. She and her students hiked and studied water ecology, and took part in other decidedly non-classroom activities, like a square dance.
Shapiro says she lives for the kind of surprising moments that kids give her. When she asked her students to be friendly toward staff members who would be accompanying them on the Frost Valley trip, her class went above and beyond, running up to teachers and regaling them with greetings and compliments in order to make them feel comfortable about the upcoming trip.
“Kids take things with so much enthusiasm,” she said. “Watching them become readers, mathematicians, writers and scientists, artists and composers is rewarding.”
Despite all the excitement, Shapiro’s classroom is marked by a sense of calm and mutual respect.
“I realized that she was a quiet worker, and very sweet to the kids she worked with,” Cabaniss said. “Somehow they had established an agreement from the beginning of the year that they were really going to listen to each other. That was admirable, and in fact extraordinary.”
Shapiro says that when people ask her if she can distill her teaching philosophy, she has a hard time summing up nearly 40 years of experience. But if she had to, it’s about “making sure that every child is heard, and everyone’s opinion is worthwhile.”
5th Grade, P.S. 199
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