Vivian Gussie Paley: A Teacher And Author Who Stressed The Power Of Storytelling
It’s a fact: storytelling is how we learn. From books, music, news media, paintings, architecture etc., the influence of storytelling is to be seen in all aspects of our life.
In reading about the life of Vivian Paley (NYT obit, NYT page A-22), she was regarded as “a keen observer—and listener—of young children” who turned that insight into 13 books about how children learn, including how they learn from telling stories. “Ms. Paley’s teaching approach involved asking children to describe an event, sometimes with only a few words, and then to dramatize it with their classmates. This taught them language skills but also compassion, fairness and how to negotiate relationships” concluded NYT reporter, Katherine Seelye in her article “Vivian Gussie Paley, 90, Pioneering Educator, Dies.”
Vivian Roslyn Gussin was born on Jan. 25, 1929 in Chicago to Harry and Yetta Gussin. He was a medical doctor and she was a homemaker.
She earned two bachelor degrees: a degree in philosophy from the University of Chicago and in psychology from the Women’s College in Tulane, Newcomb College, in New Orleans.
Ms. Paley began her teaching career in New Orleans where she felt constricted by an over-emphasis on the boundaries of strict learning and memorization and came to believe these techniques stifled learning. During this period, she described herself as “uninspired and an uninspiring teacher.” But rather than continue with the status quo, she decided to do something about it. She developed her own teaching style that used the power of storytelling.
But her unique methods weren’t universally embraced. The met a good deal of resistance especially from the No Child Left Behind movement that required standardized testing that became law in 2002.
“[Ms. Paley] wasn’t mainstream and she wasn’t a curriculum person,” said John Hornstein, a child development specialist at Tufts University, in an interview. “The method she developed….went way beyond storytelling. It was a way in which young children join a complex and diverse social world…To her, teaching was not about meeting a bunch of core requirements that you quantify; it was about being a human being.”
In her book The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter: The Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom, the author wrote about a boy who was a loner. Yet by acting in other children’s activities and stories (both true and fantasized) he became less isolating and invited others into his imaginary helicopter as his co-pilot.
Paley’s acuity was using storytelling to make children feel included and this proved a valid way to build trust in her classroom and extended that to problem-solving, observed Sarah Sivright, who taught alongside her a the Chicago Laboratory Schools.
Perhaps Paley’s biggest gift was to “help children use the tools they have which was imagination, sympathy and make-believe to understand themselves and each other,” said Dr. Joshua Sparrow, executive director of the Brazelton Touchpoint Center in Boston, which studies child development.
Over 37 years of teaching, she mostly invested her time at the academically rigorous and innovative University of Chicago Laboratory. She earned her MacArthur Award in 1989 at age 60, and is believed to be the only person to win the grant while working as a kindergarten teacher.
Ms. Paley retired from the Lab in 1995, but continued to hold lectures around the world until a few years ago.
In 2001 she wrote in an essay that storytelling “is still the only activity I know of, beside play itself, that is immediately understood and desired by every child over the age of two.”
Embrace the human condition. Historians have traced the first storytelling to ancient caves in France where men and women drew pictures on walls. Ms. Paley brought the humanness of storytelling to the classroom.
Use your observations and instincts to blaze your own path. Ms. Paley was put off by strict learning rules. Instead, she invented new pathways that opened children’s imagination.
Listen to your heart. Ms. Paley felt stifled by conventional teaching methods. But instead of quitting, she used her deep-seated talents to bring innovation and new techniques into teaching.