August 26, 2019

Vivian Paley: In Memoriam

Ben Mardell

Last month the world lost a brilliant educator, wise person, and friend of children and childhood. Vivian Paley is best known through her books (White Teacher, Wally's Stories, The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter, The Girl with the Brown Crayon), the majority set in her early childhood classrooms at the University of Chicago Lab School. To my knowledge, Vivian is the only early childhood educator or classroom teacher to receive a MacArthur Fellowship (Genius Grant). Her storytelling/story acting technique is used around the world. Her explanations about the role of play in early childhood classrooms is compelling. Others, notably Patsy Cooper in The Classroom All Young Children Need, have written about Vivian’s contribution to the field. Here I want to share a story--I think Vivian would have appreciated this medium--that illustrates her wisdom and kindness.

In 2013, at the age of 80, Vivian came to Boston. She spent the day speaking to the city’s public-school preschool and kindergarten teachers: 400 in the morning and 250 in the afternoon. Her talks centered on storytelling/story acting, which were being introduced in the schools at the time and continue to be part of the K2 and 2nd grade curriculum today.

To help teachers understand storytelling/story acting, where a child dictates a story to an adult and then the adult helps a group of children act out the story, Vivian facilitated demonstrations with 15 children she was meeting for the first time. These sessions were magical, as the children quickly forgot there was an audience and entered the space of story and play.

After saying goodbye to the children, Vivian answered teachers’ questions about the method. Her response to a question about violent themes in young children’s stories illustrates the depth of her thinking about teaching, learning, and the human condition. She explained:

Boys have a very, very profound need--as did Shakespeare apparently--to act out pictures of violence. [Children need to] understand that these are characters in a story, [that] they do not control you….How does a child get to understand that the ninja turtle who kicks--does that mean that he, the storyteller, when he acts out a ninja turtle story, must kick the enemy? No! It means that he, the ninja turtle character, must learn the stage rules for how to pretend the scene. The stage rules. What are the stage rules in the preschool and kindergarten and 1st grade classroom? Number one: if a character has, as one of his characteristics, kicking, you must be a leg length away from the other character you are kicking. In the case of arm jabs, an arm length away (clearly, if you have short arms it’s an advantage). Stage rules! What do stage rules do, like all good classroom rules? Do they detract from the activity? No! They make the activity more important. This is important enough to succeed; to have a set of rules. And you practice the rules.
If your story is important enough to have stage rules, you learn them….It is a profession we enter. It’s the profession of theater. Theater and story have more rules than your math lesson does. Because the rules take hold of the imagination.
Your own imagination has no bounds. You are not telling the children: oh, how could you tell a story like that? ... We learn quickly how to put things into fiction and then literature emerges. Literature that helps us express our deepest fears, and not to feel they are wrong but show us how they can be presented according to the customs of the times…
Vivian’s entire answer, as well as her thoughts about storytelling/story acting with special needs children, and allowing young children to tell and write stories that adults characterize as fictional, can be found here.

What I remember most from that day took place as I was bringing Vivian back to her hotel (an honor I relished). Driving through Boston, Vivian brought up an interaction that had taken place during the question/answer section in the afternoon session. The first question had come from a person whose speech pattern was non-linear. Rambling, the questioner first expressed disappointment that there was no place to put her coffee, and continued to explain that she worried that the children might have been nervous being in front of so many adults. Vivian had asked the questioner what she felt about the storytelling/story acting session, as it was clear to Vivian that the children quickly became immersed in the activity. The questioner admitted that she had left the room and not seen the activity. I could feel my Boston Public School colleagues, the hosts of the event, sink down in their seats in embarrassment.

Vivian asked me if I remember the questioner and then queried, “Was I kind enough?” I explained that I thought she was extremely kind, but Vivian was not convinced. She mused, “I think she wasn’t comfortable. I hope I was kind.”

There are many lessons we should take from Vivian Paley and her work. Asking, “Am I being kind enough” is certainly one of these.