Friday, March 31, 2017

The Five Things I Learned After I Retired

The Five Things I Learned After I Retired
by Maggie Dixon

After 32 years, I retired from being the Head Librarian at the Collegiate School. I had loved every day I had worked there and it was sad to go but the timing was right. I had begun to call some of the boys by their fathers’ names, which wasn’t just the result of the boys’ looks but based on flashbacks of their Dads’ shenanigans in the library many years before. If I were on the carpet reading, I would avoid irritating bad knees by pulling myself up in a less than graceful manner. When the boys began to look apprehensive about how they were going to get me up, I thought maybe it’s time to go. The best reason for being ready to go was that I was leaving my library in trusted hands and I had always had dreams of having more time to travel and volunteer. After retiring, I have traveled, volunteered at PS 63 and at a small Catholic school library in East Flatbush, and substituted at several schools. These past four years have been the best professional development of my life. These are five things that I have learned about being a good librarian:

1.    Learning from the youngest
The last years at Collegiate I spent a lot of time developing curriculum for high school information literacy, working with gifted, learned colleagues from other departments. I am still fascinated by the best practices of teaching high school students. In fact, since I retired I have become an edweb junkie Edweb is a site that provides webinars to librarians and other educators on curriculum development. Substituting in the kindergarten and 1st grade at Collegiate, and watching the Lower School librarian at Chapin, Christina Kover, have opened my eyes to how sophisticated and analytical curriculum development has become for the youngest children. I always looked at learning to read as a miracle – it just happens if the boys listened to enough stories. Now I know, for most children, it’s a complicated learning process where teachers provide sights, sounds, smells, tactile experiences, and tastes to teach them reading. I have been impressed by how they teach visual literacy from books and use storytelling, poetry, bookmaking, technology, and research to support the more traditional skills of word recognition and comprehension. They also teach the students how to read non-fiction using both informational text and narrative books. I was in one 1st grade where they were pulling information from the text and writing on note cards for their big frog research project. I learned how I would like to have taught older boys how to use NoodleTools note cards.

2.    Collegiality is a magical ingredient in developing and carrying out curriculum. Since librarians’ most successful work depends on team-teaching, I was always trying to tease out how successful collaborative work happens. I usually blamed my collaboration failures on the lack of a mandated time to work with my colleagues. When I started substituting in the kindergarten and 1st grade at Collegiate I noticed something special had happened in those teams that promoted a spurt of creative curriculum development that had something to do with the chemistry of the four people working together. Each grade in lower school is made up of a four-member team, and all the teams are expected to spend time and energy planning together in a collegial spirit. What I observed about the eight people on the K and 1st grade teams were that although they were very different (race, gender, and teaching style), they respected each other, had defined but flexible rolls in the group, shared a similar work ethic, and had a clear child-centered vision of their goal. But the big difference seemed to be that they really liked each other, complemented each other’s gifts, laughed at their colleagues’ jokes, and were honest but not hurtful in their feedback. How would a librarian replicate the magic? Since we are rarely put on teams or have a mandate to make time for collegial planning, the only way to develop meaningful curriculum would be to make time to reach out personally, build relationships, and exchange your curricular dreams as kindred spirits. You also have to laugh at their jokes.

3.    How do you become an educational leader in your community?
My friend Cheryl Wolf is the librarian at PS 63 for two schools in one building on the Lower East Side. She has become an educational leader for the whole community. Her literature expertise is revered and since there is no technologist in the building, she not only teaches informational literacy but educational technology as well. She became an educational leader for her community by working hard, writing grants, volunteering to be on book selection committees, being kind, being available, and constantly looking to grow as a librarian by doing professional development (she has gone to more Google workshops than anyone I know).  Recently she has had the added gift of being acknowledged by one of the Heads of School as the go-to-person for teachers to improve their practice by selecting better literature or learning some of the Google tools to help their students. There is nothing better than a shout-out from the principal that the librarian is the one to go to if you need help devising curriculum.

4.    Teaching girls is fine, especially if you get to work on the perfect research project.
During Angela Carstensen’s sabbatical leave, I did a personal sociological experiment by asking myself – Would girls be fun to teach? I was apprehensive about teaching girls because I had spent my career enjoying the antics of boys and had raised three sons. Girls are different but I spent a wonderful semester at Convent of the Sacred Heart. The CSH girls were welcoming and the community really works on the school’s values of kindness, charity, and hard work. The best thing about the job came from inheriting a yearlong research project that was co-taught by Angela and the Religion teacher, Katinka Vanderbauwhede. At Collegiate we had developed research paths and LibGuides for many projects and worked collaboratively with our colleagues but had never had the luxury of spending a whole year with every 11th grader coming to the library once a week to gather and document information for a presentation. The project provided a rich opportunity to teach informational literacy through Google Web pages that Angela had set up with lessons on how to access a wide range of resources including specialized databases, EBooks, and a superb collection of religious monographs and periodicals. There were also instructional web pages on citation and the use of NoodleTools, how to search and evaluate webpages, and the use of Google Docs for the project. The girls were also encouraged to use the New York Public Library, museums, and religious organizations. They were taught how to recognize and contact scholars in their field. The project was truly a collaborative effort - with the debate coach teaching speech techniques and the technologist teaching presentation tools. The students demonstrated a keen understanding of their topics, and connected their conclusions with documented sources. I learned a lot from those women and they learned how to be smart sophisticated consumers of information, which is so vital in today’s political climate.

5.    How to run a one librarian library but never being alone.
Volunteering at PS 63 with Cheryl Wolf and substituting for Rebecca Duvall at Brooklyn Heights Montessori School, I learned what it was like being the only librarian in the building. I was skeptical that it could be done because many library tasks take the same amount of time, whether you are a large or small library. Technology has only intensified this paradox. What I learned is that they aren’t a one-woman show. They are very rarely alone because they have charmed, cajoled, and begged for help. Parents, teachers, students, college work-study students, Library students, and retired librarians flock to their libraries because they are the most exciting, joyful places in the community to be. There are many days when it would take a lot less time and frustration to just do the tasks than welcoming, managing, and training volunteers. But there are the added benefits of volunteers: word spreads - the library’s mission is communicated to the entire community, positive parent/teacher bonds are built, library financial support increases, you are provided an educational opportunity to share your gifts and expertise with others, and most important you are not alone with 300 books to shelve.

This is a picture taken at PS 63: A One librarian library
Christine Nassar - Rutger's library graduate school student, Cheryl Wolf - librarian, Olivia Strong - parent volunteer, Maggie Dixon, retired librarian volunteer.


  1. Dear Maggie,
    I learn from you how to be a great colleague through having a sunny attitude, and a sense of humor. Thank you for this wonderful record of how in retirement you do not stop learning, doing, contributing, and laughing.

  2. Maggie, what a wonderful piece. Fondly, Natasha