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Winning the Golden Ticket: The Cullman Institute for Teachers

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After my week-long fellowship at The New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Institute for Teachers last year, I held onto one precious memento: a single golden yellow call slip. Looking at it now, I smile.

Throughout the week in which I researched and wrote furiously in my private office at The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, in a lovely, wood-accented suite in the Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, I always had a pile of these marigold slips of paper on my desk. They were my golden tickets to the wonders of NYPL.

Digital ID 805999, New York Public Library ArchivesI couldn’t believe it when Dean Sam Swope told me how the golden tickets worked. After I gave these tickets to a librarian downstairs, books would appear on my desk — voila! Books just materialized every time I stepped out for a cup of coffee or chatted with a fellow teacher. I was so absorbed in whatever I was doing that time flew by. In reality, it must take taken several hours for the Library workers to travel into the deep bowels of the Library, pluck a book from the vast collection, and ferry them upstairs to me. But to me, it seemed to happen in a blink of the eye.

The invisible, super-powered Library staff (as I thought of them) brought me stacks of leather-bound books from as early as 1850. These helped tremendously with my research for two “biographies of place” I am writing, about two locales dear to my heart: Long Island City, Queens, where I teach; and Downeast Maine, where I spend summer vacations. Paging through these old books, and analyzing colorful maps in the quiet of my own office, surrounded by other teachers who were similarly engaged in their own offices, was nothing short of miraculous.

For many teachers who rise to enormous challenges in New York City schools — and who also seek encouragement for the development of their own creative and scholarly pursuits — the Cullman Center Seminars are a godsend. My seminar in July 2010 was a delicious reward for a year of especially grueling work. I’d just changed careers from being a freelance writer and part-time college English teacher to being the library director of Bard High School Early College in Queens — which was such a new school that it didn’t have a library yet. I promised the principal I’d create a library of 7,000 volumes within a year.

It was a good thing that I love Bard students and libraries so much; otherwise, the physical labor of moving, labeling, and organizing thousands of books would have seemed impossible.

Learning how to work with teenagers was, in itself, no small feat. But creating a library without a budget, pretty much by myself ...?! Creating a library meant driving a U-Haul to pick up hundreds of donated books, writing grants, assembling tricky bookcases, cataloguing, labeling, moving, and — it bears repeating — shelving all 7,000 books.

And that was only the first month.

I did have an army of volunteers working with me, but I still felt alone, with the whole library resting on my shoulders. By the end of the school year, I was so exhausted that I practically crawled across the cold, glistening marble floors of NYPL to my first day of the Cullman Center Seminar. When I saw the pile of golden tickets on my desk, and was told that books would be personally delivered to me, I couldn’t believe it. “You mean — you mean I can just sit here?” I sputtered. “I don’t have to do anything?”

“Just read and write, and eat delicious food,” said Dean Swope.

Every year, the Cullman Center Institute for Teachers works side-by-side with its sister program, The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. The latter program hosts authors and academics from September to May. Every year, 15 fellows exploring diverse fields, from medieval history or filmmaking to graphic novels, spend a year developing projects that draw on the resources of NYPL. At the end of their fellowship, one scholar gives a group of New York City teachers a week of their undivided attention.

 Dani PidermanThe Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. Photo: Dani PidermanEvery day of the seminar follows a leisurely, yet intellectually rigorous rhythm: long breakfast, morning seminar, discussion of readings, critique of workshop participants’ writing, long lunch ... in the afternoon, there is more critique, as well as writing and exploring such areas of the Library as The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, the Manuscripts and Archives Division, and The Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division. All of this and an exclusive tour below the Library stacks — a place where only a few privileged Library visitors get to go each year. But all Cullman Seminar participants glimpse the most secret chambers beneath the Library on the very first day of the program.The Cullman Center Seminar is open to NYC teachers, librarians, and administrators. There are daylong workshops in the late winter and spring, and weeklong summer seminars that come with the office, golden tickets, and a stipend of $300. And delicious food and coffee all day long. And did I mention the free books, mailed to your apartment a few months before the seminar?

My workshop, taught by Ian Frazier, was called “Reality is a Friend: Approaches to Writing Nonfiction,” and his syllabus included such diverse and surprising titles as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and a narrative nonfiction account of the sinking of the Titanic. Most exciting, perhaps, was the opportunity to read Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for The New Yorker in the 1930s and inspired Frazier’s own career at the magazine. I loved hearing Frazier analyze a paragraph of Mitchell’s writing, sentence by sentence. He seemed to revel in the language as if he were reading it for the first time, although in reality he had read these articles so many times he had many sentences memorized. His enthusiasm was palpable to his listeners. “Well ...” he’d say after a long while, pushing back his baseball cap and looking around the room. “What do you all think?”

 Dani PidermanThe Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy. Photo: Dani PidermanI had long admired Frazier’s writing, and couldn’t believe how approachable and helpful he was. He seemed curious about our lives, and appreciative of our writing pursuits and ambitions. Indeed, many of the teachers in the room were working writers as well as full-time teachers. One recent Cullman Center participant with 18 years of teaching experience, Bushra Rehman, is the co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color and Today's Feminism (Seal Press, 2002). Another, Beth Aviv, with over 30 years of teaching experience, is the author of Bearing Witness: Teaching about the Holocaust (Boynton/Cook, 2001). I’ve contributed essays to Newsweek and The New York Times, and now that my library is (basically) finished, I’m gearing up to write a book-length manuscript.

The Cullman Center recognizes something essential about teachers — that teachers need to keep learning and growing outside the classroom, and NYPL is a perfect home for them to do so. Just looking at my golden ticket — which I now have permanently pinned above my writing desk — gives me a jolt of energy, reminding me of the invigoration of the Cullman Seminar. Most of all, the golden ticket reminds me of the community of teachers I am privileged to be part of.

Looking around the seminar table, I remember thinking: If this is what New York City public school teachers are like, I want to be part of this group!

“You teachers ...” said Ian Frazier as our wonderful week of golden tickets was coming to a close, “You are the people that make New York City great.” And then he did a very Ian Frazier thing. He tipped his baseball cap to all of us.
Jess deCourcy Hinds is an alumnus of the 2010 Cullman Center Institute for Teachers summer program. If you are a local teacher, librarian or school administrator interested in participating in the Cullman Center Institute for Teachers, the Library is accepting applications for its 2011 Summer workshop until April 11.

Apply now and find your future!

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post. View more >>

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