Needing to Know
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I first had the pleasure of meeting Vivian Paley in the early 1990s, when I had asked her to be a keynote speaker at the Virginia Association of Early Childhood Education conference in Richmond, VA. I remember at the time she was writing Kwanzaa and Me: A Teacher's Story, a book that offers insights into how the classroom can be a forum where teachers can help children recognize and accept individual differences. She also was gracious enough to allow one of our Virginia Tech doctoral students to interview her about her thoughts on play. The student drew upon the interview in her dissertation, an ethnographic study on rules within a kindergarten classroom, featuring a literature review in the form of dialogue between Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Vivian Paley. Although I had been intrigued with Vivian Paley as a teacher and writer for some time, it was during our time together in Richmond that I learned to know her as the consummate teacher researcher, a term she always denied.
Vivian Paley’s methods were simple. Using a tape recorder, which she referred to as her disciplinarian, she recorded and carefully listened to children’s conversations, stories, and playacting that occurred daily in her classroom as children encountered experiences and problems. Then, she took the children’s stories and made them part of her daily curriculum.
Teachers are theory makers. As they seek to learn more about a child, teachers continually demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning, and wondering.
Over the years, her writing examined children’s logic and thinking, their curiosities and questions, and their search for meaning in the social and moral landscapes of classroom life. In her books, Vivian documented and analyzed countless samples of children’s dialogue, honoring and respecting their thoughts, questions, and feelings, and urging us to take seriously the things children say. In her now classic article, “On Listening to What the Children Say,” she writes, “The tape recordings created for me an overwhelming need to know more about the process of teaching and learning and about my own classroom as a unique society to be studied” (1986, 124). This need to know is the main ingredient of teacher research.
Whenever I teach theories of child development, I always include Vivian Paley among the inductive theorists that early childhood teachers need to know. I use her books, notably Wally’s Stories and You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, and point out that teachers, as she herself indicates in The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter, are theory makers. As they seek to learn more about a child, teachers continually demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning, and wondering.
My fellow editors of Voices of Practitioners and I have had the privilege to present with Vivian at the NAEYC annual conference on several occasions. Vivian would speak from a note pad. Her handwritten words were crossed-out in several places. The audience would listen to every word with awe and respect, and there was always utter silence in the room. She might end with something like this:
When teachers stumble onto something no one else understands and begin to replace the plot and motivation of familiar school scenarios with a story no one else has heard before, it is a heady experience. . . [It is in this stumbling that] the time is ripe for astonishment (Paley 1997, vi-vii).
Stumble is an appropriate term for that is precisely how teacher research often begins.
Paley, V.G. 1986. “On Listening to What the Children Say.” Harvard Educational Review, 56 (2): 122–31.
Paley, V.G. 1997. “Forward.” In Class Acts: Teachers Reflect on Their Own Classroom Practice, eds. I. Hall, C.H. Campbell, & E.J. Miech, vi-ix. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Publishing.
Andrew Stremmel is a professor of early childhood education at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD.