Ever since I decided that I wanted to write a few posts on ‘teacher’s who write’ I have been thinking about Vivian Gussin Paley. Since the 1970s she’s written numerous books reflecting on her kindergarten teaching experience and her views on learning. Written in a story-telling style, her books don’t read like an advice or strategy book, like so many teaching books do. They are personal meditations, making no assumptions as to how her experience might compare – or be superior – to others. She says, ‘I saw this, I noticed this’ And maybe next time you observe your own class, you’ll see it too and find that she was right. Her reflections and discoveries have informed important mindset shifts and even policy considerations in the US, around how to view early childhood learning.
Particularly poignant, to me, is her firm reliance and dedication to story-telling in her own writing, which reflects her belief in the central role of story-telling in children’s learning. At the time she started to share this belief in the US, rote-learning and memorization were institutionalised in school curricula. As a result of her work (and that of many others) play-based, child-led and story-centred approaches to education have all gained traction in recent years.
In our African/ South African context, the role of story-telling in education is caught between our colonial educational heritage (which ultimately looks like the same perfunctory, drill-based, production-line education that Vivian saw in US schools in the 1970s) and indigenous, traditional educational heritage, in which oral story-telling has always been central and indispensable. Literacy projects in South Africa, such as Nali-Bali and Book Dash, are well-aware of this and their literacy promotion campaigns in South Africa place story-telling at the heart of their message. Children learn through stories; what Vivian realised was that adults do too.
I love the echo created between her world and her work, the idea that she spent so much time listening to her student’s stories, and then used her own story-telling voice to encapsulate that classroom experience. I don’t doubt that her approach echoed with me when I decided to start writing ‘snapshots’ of my experiences at school, in something of a story-telling style.
I also wonder whether Vivian ever felt like I do, that since I can’t speak for other teacher’s (or student’s) experiences, I can’t in good conscience write from any other teacher’s perspective, which makes it very difficult to make claims, to insist on truth or any dogma. Story-telling is like holding film up to the light to see an image. It’s in negative, you can get an idea of the reality it has captured, but you also know that it is not the reality, it is an encapsulation, and the next story-teller might see the same scene very differently.
Read more Author Snapshots, in which I review other authors who write or blog about education. Or head to my main Snapshots page, where I tell stories from my own classroom.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the fabric of her brain.