Vivian Paley, Educator Who Promoted Storytelling, Dies at 90


Vivian Gussin Paley, a pioneering teacher and widely acclaimed author who emphasized the importance of storytelling in early childhood development, died on July 19 in Crozet, Va. She was 90.

Her son, David Paley, said she had been in failing health for some months and died in an assisted living facility.

Ms. Paley was a keen observer — and listener — of young children. She wrote 13 books about their social and intellectual development, including how they learn from telling stories, and received a MacArthur “genius” grant in recognition of her work.

Her best known works include “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play” (1993), the title referring to a rule she laid down in her classroom to teach children about rejection. The book is “arresting in its title, magical in its appeal, and inspiring in its message,” the Harvard law professor and author Derrick Bell wrote in The New York Times Book Review. He said it illustrated “how the teacher’s art can attack the evil of exclusion at its childhood root.”

In “White Teacher” (1979), she described her reluctance to talk about race as a white teacher in an integrated school. Sixteen years later she wrote “Kwanzaa and Me,” in which she confronted racism head on.

Her book “The Girl With the Brown Crayon” (1997), which followed a girl’s discoveries during a year of reading works by the children’s author Leo Lionni, won Harvard University Press’s annual prize for outstanding publication about education and society.

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.

“She was as much an artist as a teacher, creative and playful to the end of her life,” John Hornstein, a child development specialist at Tufts University, said in an interview. “She is known in the field for her use of storytelling, but the method she developed is far more than that. It is a way in which young children join a complex and diverse social world.”

Ms. Paley developed her methods over 37 years of teaching, most of them spent at the innovative, academically rigorous University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. While there, she won her MacArthur award in 1989 at age 60. She is believed to be the only person to win the grant while working as a kindergarten teacher.

In addition to teaching children, she mentored a generation of teachers, held workshops and lectured about her experiences in the classroom. Her methods of storytelling and acting have been adopted elsewhere, notably in Boston, where the public school system has incorporated them into its curriculum.

But they met with some resistance from the education establishment, especially as the No Child Left Behind Act, which required standardized testing, became law in 2002.

“She wasn’t mainstream, and she wasn’t a curriculum person,” Mr. Hornstein said. “To her, teaching was not about meeting a bunch of core requirements that you can 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” (1990), Ms. Paley wrote about a loner who becomes less isolated by acting in other children’s activities and stories, both true and fantasized, and inviting others into his imaginary helicopter to be his co-pilot.

By using storytelling to make children feel included, Ms. Paley built trust in her classroom and extended that to problem solving, said Sarah Sivright, who taught with her at the Chicago Laboratory Schools.

For example, she said, a student named Billy liked to play with blocks but never put them away. Ms. Paley and Ms. Sivright suggested that he not be allowed to play with them anymore. But his classmates said that that wasn’t fair because it was his favorite activity. They suggested instead that he simply be reminded to clean up after each session.

“Billy actually did get better at cleaning up,” Ms. Sivright said. “He felt supported by his community.”

Vivian Roslyn Gussin was born on Jan. 25, 1929, in Chicago to Harry and Yetta (Meisel) Gussin. He was a medical doctor and she a homemaker.

Vivian received her bachelor of philosophy degree from the University of Chicago in 1947 and another bachelor’s degree, in psychology, from Newcomb College, the women’s college at Tulane University in New Orleans, in 1950.

She married Irving Paley in 1948. He survives her, as do their son, David, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Another son, Robert, died in 2017.

Ms. Paley began her teaching career in New Orleans. There, she recalled, she felt burdened by an overemphasis on strict learning boundaries and memorization, and came to believe that such an approach stifled learning — and teaching. She described herself during this period as an “uninspired and uninspiring teacher.”

She moved to New York and earned her master’s of science degree in education from Hofstra University on Long Island in 1965 and taught at the Great Neck public schools, also on Long Island, until 1971.

She then moved back to Chicago, where she spent the rest of her teaching career at the Lab Schools. There she felt free to experiment. When the school day was extended from a half day to a full day, she decided to fill it with storytelling and acting.

“She helped children use the tools they have, which are imagination, sympathy and make-believe, to understand themselves and each other,” said Dr. Joshua D. Sparrow, executive director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston, which studies child development.

Gillian D. McNamee, a protégé of Ms. Paley’s at Lab and now director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago, said that after Ms. Paley would ask children what story they wanted to tell, she would connect it to other stories or to a book or something that happened in class.

“Vivian gave us a blueprint for teaching children how to think,” Ms. McNamee said.

Ms. Paley retired from Lab in 1995 but continued to lecture and hold workshops around the world until a few years ago.

Storytelling, she wrote in a 2001 essay, “is still the only activity I know of, besides play itself, that is immediately understood and desired by every child over the age of two.”

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