The Language of Learning

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Drawing on theatrical background, Petersen dazzles new English speakers

By Mary Stachyra

Years ago, Erika Petersen dreamed of becoming an actress. She enrolled in the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, but dropped out to pursue acting full time. After her daughter was born, she decided that the out-of-town trips were too taxing and enrolled in Hunter College, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in history and secondary education, and a master’s degree in theater history.

Erika Petersen, who acted professionally before she became a teacher, still takes dance classes in the summer.

Today, that knowledge comes together in the classroom at the Professional Children’s School, where for the past eight years Petersen has taught social studies, along with history to students who are learning English.

“They kind of dovetailed,” said Petersen, 61, who still takes dance classes in the summer. “It gives you a certain tool to kind of hold the audience—although I don’t believe you have to be constantly entertaining. You have to engage [the students] so that they stay concentrated on the learning.” She added, “Of course, you have to give them their time in the spotlight as well.”

At Professional Children’s School, an independent school where students pursue artistic professions alongside academics, that method is a hit. Students say they love Petersen’s tendency to “act out” scenes in the classroom.

“Ms. Petersen has a background in the theater, so her classes are never boring,” said Victoria Grempel, a former social studies student. “She is the exception to every single social studies teacher.”

Grempel also credits Petersen with teaching her how to write.

“She helped me put words together in this way that I never thought I could do,” said Grempel, who is now in 10th grade at the school and still goes back to visit Petersen. “She is one of my major influences, besides my parents, in my life.”

Petersen, a native New Yorker who has lived in her Upper West Side apartment for nearly 40 years, said she is proud of the work she did with Grempel. In her 14 years as an educator, there have been a lot of students who left an impression. Once, a student at Brandeis High School, where she previously taught, thought Peterson wasn’t dressing well enough—“and I probably wasn’t,” she acknowledged. So at Christmas, the student bought her a new suit.

“These kids didn’t have a lot, and I thought that this was the most lovely thing,” she said.

When students respond with such thoughtful gestures, though, it’s probably a reflection of Peterson’s daily classroom goal: raising the craft of teaching to an art.

“Teaching at the highest level you can teach at is important,” she said. “If you really know a lot, [the students] become fascinated.”


Erika Petersen
Social Studies, Professional Children’s School

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