Introducing Stuyvesant’s New Teachers

Meet four of Stuyvesant’s new teachers for the 2022-23 school year, their stories behind teaching, and their respective disciplines.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

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By Zifei Zhao

Getting to sit down and chat with somebody one-on-one for an extended duration can seem daunting in a high-paced environment like Stuyvesant. Here’s your chance to get to know four of Stuyvesant’s new teachers for this school year—sit back, stir your coffee, and delve into the backstories and journeys that led these teachers into your classroom.

Sarah Lifson, Writing in the World and American Literature

On the sixth floor is a familiar face for those who had her as a student teacher in the spring of 2020—Sarah Lifson, who is currently teaching Writing in the World and American Literature.

As a student, Lifson was always a humanities person. Naturally, her favorite subject was English. “I’d love to sit in on a chemistry class, but in high school, chemistry was not my thing. I loved studying fiction and learning to write and how to articulate myself,” she said. She’d also gained teaching experience as she tutored kids in French and other general academics.

Lifson double-majored at Rutgers University, receiving a BFA in dance and a BA in literature. She danced professionally before returning to school at Hunter College, where she received a master’s in English education.

During her career as a dancer she dabbled in teaching, her students ranging from three to 20 years old; she taught at Rutgers, New York University, and the “Dance Project of Washington Heights,” a nonprofit organization. “I learned that I loved to teach when I was dancing because I was teaching dance, but I didn’t want to teach dance forever. I thought back to my experiences being a student and how amazing my senior English class [AP Literature] was when I was in high school, and it kind of just became a no-brainer to combine my undergraduate degree in English literature with this new thing that I found and loved, which was teaching,” Lifson said. She went on to work with seventh, eighth, and ninth graders, teaching a course similar to Freshman Composition. “Those classes were really general literature classes—there was no specific theme to work with,” she commented when asked about how those classes were different from Writing in the World.

Lifson knew she wanted to work at Stuyvesant after meeting English teacher Dr. Emily Moore through a colleague, who invited her to sit in on English classes at Stuy. She was greatly inspired by one of English Assistant Principal Eric Grossman’s Great Books classes. “It was a lesson on Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’” she recalled. During the lesson, he related the book to a quote and a song that he played. “I was bewildered, almost, by the lesson—the way he taught, the way his lesson was formed, the fact that he brought in other mediums besides text. [...] I wanted to learn more about what he and the other teachers do here,” she said.

One of her favorite things about her students is how welcoming and sweet they are. “What I’m loving is that so many of my students [from when I was student-teaching in Spring 2020] are coming up to me in the hallway and saying ‘Hi,’ and they’re just so happy that I’m back. [...] There’s a lot of joy when it comes to greeting teachers in the hallway.” As the school year progresses, Lifson hopes to get comfortable with the Stuyvesant community and the technology she’ll be using to teach. “I’m really hoping to use [my students’] knowledge to guide me,” she said.

Eric Portales, Algebra 2 and AP Calculus AB

Eric Portales, one of the newest additions to the math department, can be found teaching both Algebra 2 and AP Calculus AB to his 10th and 12th grade students.

Portales first found his passion for teaching through volunteer work during the summer of his junior year of college. “I loved interacting with the students, and getting to know them, and dealing with the highs and lows of teaching,” he commented. In school, his favorite subjects were in the sciences, and then he attended Harvard University to study government, but he ultimately chose to teach math, participating in Teaching Fellows at St. Johns, which is an organization run by New York City for aspiring teachers.

Portales worked at the Academy for Careers in Television and Film for five years before working at the Brooklyn Latin School for seven years, where he taught math classes through the IB program they offer, which is comparable to Stuy’s AP program. “[The program] is a very holistic approach to teaching. It touched upon a lot of topics, but I really wanted to focus on getting further into details and understanding the material more and just going through more with the students - instead of a survey course more like an in-depth analysis of the concepts,” he said. “I saw that there was an opportunity here at Stuyvesant and I was really excited. Since then, working here has been wonderful.”

Teaching AP Calculus AB was unfamiliar territory for Portales, as he had never taught AP classes before. However, he has developed a newfound appreciation for the subject since he himself took it in high school. “I enjoy [teaching it] because of how much it builds on itself and the things that I thought were redundant when I was taking it in high school. And now I noticed, oh, there was a reason why we did that operation over and over again, and why we found that derivative using slope over and over and over again. And now it makes sense. I feel like I’m rediscovering a course, ” he said. When asked about classes he’d be interested in teaching in the future, he responded with Geometry and AP Calculus BC, hoping to see the differences in how they’re taught compared to other schools.

Portales has also developed a positive impression of his students, such as noticing how they’re prepared in asking questions. “Before, it used to be that someone would ask me for help, and then I’d be like, ‘All right, so what do you need [help with],’ and they’d say, ‘The whole unit.’ But here, the students are very attentive. They’re paying attention, [and] they’re taking great notes. And when they have that confusion, that’s when they ask.” Portales has also been impressed by his students’ thoughtful answers to his questions and how well they work together during group work. He hopes to be able to challenge them intellectually over the school year. “[I want to push] them to think and learn topics and discover them and see the relationship between the different topics within Calculus [and Algebra 2].”

As much as Portales loves working with numbers and derivatives, he’s also always been in touch with the arts. He played the trombone and baritone saxophone in high school, and danced salsa and ballroom in college. “It’d be really nice if I had more time,” he explained, wishing he could get back into his old hobbies.

Marissa Shapiro, Global History and AP World History

Social studies teacher Marissa Shapiro has always been interested in the stories of different people. Born and raised in New York City, Shapiro found that history provided a way to understand the motivations of different people, and in an overarching sense, the story of humanity.

During her college years, Shapiro moved from the city to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to study history at Williams College. It was there, from a hands-on campus life to an undergrad teaching job, that Shapiro merged history and teaching. “I have always been interested in stories, and history really provided that for me in a way that engaged me and interested me,” Shapiro said. “But I can think of the spark when I knew I wanted to be a teacher.” In a summer teaching program for college students to try out teaching in a low-stakes environment, Shapiro taught a history class of 10 sixth graders, with a mix of other arts. “And it was there I realized, I love teaching. This is so much fun. I just enjoyed being part of that in-touch experience. And I think I came eventually to teaching history,” she said.

Shapiro eventually found her way back to New York City, teaching at Hunter College High School for two years before coming to Stuyvesant. Current seniors may recognize Shapiro from their freshman year, when she taught Global History under Alyssa Compton in the fall of 2019.

As Stuyvesant is a heavily STEM-focused environment, Shapiro finds it essential that students learn history not only to understand why certain things are the way they are, but also to understand the importance of varying perspectives. “Thinking about the layers of the past is something I want all students to be empowered to do, because not only can [you] better understand certain places and governments, but you can make meaningful impacts and also draw your own point of view, and draw different conclusions based on new discoveries. And that’s my real goal when I’m teaching,” Shapiro explained.

Shapiro also finds that one’s environment can play a large impact on both learning and teaching. In Williamstown, a more rural setting, Shapiro found that there was a different pace to the classroom than when teaching city kids. “There, you can do a lot with nature. And there’s interesting experiences with field trips, that sort of thing.” Back in the city, Shapiro encourages her students to take advantage of not only urban experiences, but to also seek out meaning in locations that may just be a part of daily life. “I can encourage students to say, ‘Hey, this museum is free to students. You should go check it out.’ Or we can walk past different memorials and places everyday and see in this way today and different the next day because of the changing people and time. I mean, that’s what I love about living and teaching in New York City,” Shapiro elaborated. Outside of the classroom, Shapiro explores different neighborhoods, tries out new foods, and sometimes visits the Rockaways when the sun’s out.

John Rothman, Drafting & 3D Modeling and Principles of Engineering

John Rothman, who joined Stuyvesant’s technology department this year, is a bit of a jack of all trades. He’s worked in fishing boats off the coasts of Alaska as a biologist, has toured as a professional musician, and can now be found near the Irwin Zahn Innovation Lab at Stuyvesant High School.

So, how did he get here? Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Rothman found his initial passion in music, and from there inadvertently found his first foray into technology. “I’ve played music in bands since I was like 13 years old. And from doing that, I would build a pedal board for my guitar, or I would design posters, make silk screen T-shirts that we would sell on the road. And so through doing that, I learned a lot of the cert design process, a lot of graphic arts. I was always just excited to build things,” Rothman explained.

Rothman attended the University of Montana where he majored in biology with a concentration in botanical sciences and minored in Native American studies. “This was in the late ‘80s. I went out there thinking, like, what can I study that will help me, you know, save the world. What can I do to help conserve?” Rothman mused. However, it became apparent that the field wasn’t the right fit. “But then pretty soon, like, maybe a semester into college, I was like, ‘Yeah, maybe this isn’t quite right.’ So I ended up studying biology and the Native American studies. It was another perspective, another sort of way of exploring,” he elaborated.

After college, Rothman found his way back to music. For four years, he performed and toured professionally as a part of the indie-rock band, The Long Winters, based in Seattle, Washington. “What I can say is that playing music professionally is amazing. But it’s hard to make a living that allows you to have a family, and you have to live a certain way while touring. At a certain point, I was like, ‘Okay, you know, I want to have a family. I can’t be touring on the road.’ It’s time for me to do the other thing.”

This other thing just so happened to be teaching. Rothman always could see himself being a teacher, and views the profession as a sort of cumulative learning and giving experience. “Teaching, to me, is like just the most wonderful way of being able to bring everything that you’ve ever, you know, sort of like experience learned to the table. You can, all those things find their way into the classroom,” he explained.

After leaving The Long Winters, Rothman found his way to New York City and studied education and mathematics at Hunter College. He spent around five years teaching mathematics, then transitioned into teaching engineering-focused courses. “When I was teaching math, many students were asking me for engineering opportunities,” Rothman said. “I found out about something called maker education, which uses things like 3D printers and laser cutters, and physical computing things like Arduino [and] micro:bit to build things that solve problems. And so that’s where the engineering component comes in,” he explained.

In a certain way, the multitudes within Stuyvesant’s walls mirrors Rothman’s eclectic life trajectory. “I was leaving the building, one Friday afternoon. And the energy here was just electric. I was walking out of a robotics lab that was just packed with people who were wanting to get things done. I go downstairs. The fencing team is running through the halls with their sabers. There [are] 50 kids who are doing pilates or something in the theater. When you see that many people who like to stay that late, you can tell it’s a pretty tight, positive place to be,” Rothman said.

As for a bit of Rothman’s life philosophy, after dabbling in many fields, he explains, “I’ve never been like, ‘I’m locking myself down. This is all I’m going to do.’ That didn’t really serve me. I’ve always been incredibly curious about a number of things. And so I want to have enough flexibility, enough freedom to be able to explore those things.”