On reading Vivian Gussin Paley

Having discovered Vivian Gussin Paley last year when I read The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter, I've been a little obsessed with her. When I came across her book, The Girl with the Brown Crayon, by chance at the library on our last visit I grabbed it off the shelf and have been waiting for a quiet moment to sit and read it. Yesterday afternoon delivered the quiet moment and I read the whole thing. (It's pretty short.) Once again, I am loving Ms. Paley.

It is Ms. Paley's ability to enter into the lives of the children in her classroom and accept them as the small human beings they are that I love the most. In order to do this well, it means a lot of sitting back and watching and listening. It means being willing to follow the child's lead instead of imposing an agenda on what happens. It means that you value what the child has to contribute and that you see what they are doing as important... even if it seems to be just play.

It is the listening, waiting aspect to all this that I personally find most challenging. I often find I am too quick to jump in. I want to correct things; I want to share all my good ideas; I want to interrupt and get them back on track. As I read about Ms. Paley's dealings with children I realize she doesn't do this. She is fully aware of the need of children to work things out, to have the experience of having their own ideas, to have continuity.

[The classroom has been reading through Leo Lionni's books during the school year and using them as a narrative that weaves a thread through everything they do.]

     "Cleaning up together after school, I say to Nisha [her team teacher], 'I thought of a fancy way of describing what's happening to us this year. Narrative continuity. We have discovered another way of achieving narrative continuity.'

     Nisha puts down the paint jar she is washing and smiles at me. 'I think you once told me that play is narrative continuity.'

     'That's exactly the point,' I reply. 'It feels as though we are marching to that same rhythm, as in play, or as you did when you heard the stories from the great epic every night. Now we are putting Leo Lionni to the test. Can he provide yet another vehicle for this instinctive need to concentrate for a long time on a connected set of images and dramatic events? Let's face it, what school usually does is continually interrupt any attempt on the part of children to recapture the highly focused intensity of play. What we need to do is help them -- and ourselves -- get back on track.'" (pp. 74-75)

To teach children, to help them discover and learn and grow, is an awesome responsibility, fraught with dangers that can have life long implications. How many people are there out there who think they can't do something because, somewhere, sometime, a teacher told them they couldn't? If I think about it too hard, the seriousness of teaching can feel a little overwhelming. Perhaps this is another reason I resonate with Ms. Paly. She, too, sees the dangers inherent in her profession and is constantly trying to do a better job.

     "So then, if Walter [a newly immigrated Polish boy] is Pezzettino [a character out of the eponymous book by Lionni], it must be the teacher who makes him feel inadequate. He plays checkers with Bruce and runs outdoors with Arnie; he allow Reeny to tie a scarf around his head when she needs a prince, and he lets Cory instruct him on how to hold her doll while she's at the sand table. They need him. It is with me that he hesitates and falters.

     When did I ever properly appreciate Walter's squares? Reeny perceives their artistic integrity, comparing him with Leo Lionni. His 'I not can it' is heard when the one-who-teaches comes around. then he is most like Pezzettino.

     Leo Lionni's skill in portraying the feeling of being 'less than' is remarkable. Pezzettino is every child who has ever walked into a classroom. 'Do I belong here? Does someone care about me?' Perhaps the lonely island Pezzettino is sent to does in fact represent school, where children are broken into pieces in order that adults may observe, label, and classify them. And, having been so dissected, how does the child become whole again?" (pp. 53-54)

Ms. Paley always makes me think. Highly recommended.


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