Understanding Vivian Paley as a Teacher Researcher
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When I had been teaching about four years or so, I agreed to participate in a research project investigating the impact of the dictation and dramatization activities Vivian Paley introduced in Wally’s Stories: Conversations in the Kindergarten (1981) on young children’s narrative development. I had not yet read the book and wouldn’t until the study was over. My role was to implement the activities regularly in my kindergarten classroom. Separate from the study or the results (see McNamee et al. 1985) was the impact of the process on my identity as a teacher of young children. The effect was, quite literally, immediate. Gone was my concern over the mundane in teaching. Gone was my worry about an understimulating curriculum. Dictation and dramatization—or what Paley calls storytelling and story acting—not only made me a teacher of stories, it made me a student of child development. Suddenly, there was so much I needed to understand about young children’s thinking. Why, for example, did so many of my children’s stories end when the main character fell in a hole, or why did some children tell stories but not act in them (at least initially), or why was Darth Vader so very, very important to 5-year-olds? Later I would come to see how much of my reaction mimicked Paley’s own. This makes sense, given the riches storytelling and story acting reveal about young children’s thinking. The only thing I knew at the time was that the feeling was thrilling.
Eventually, I moved from the classroom to the director’s office and, ultimately, to teacher education. Along the way, Paley supplied me with a steady stream of things to think about, teach, and research. I have written elsewhere on storytelling and story acting as curriculum, as well as its impact on early literacy development (see Cooper 1993; 2005; Cooper et al. 2007). I also conducted an analysis of Paley’s body of work to uncover what I call her pedagogies of meaning and fairness (Cooper 2009).
Over time, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Paley, who agreed to be interviewed for this book. She has not previously spoken on the subject for print.
Vivian Paley has been identified with the teacher research movement since the 1980s. It’s also fair to say that her 13 books and stack of articles on young children’s development in school have had a major impact on teacher research. In their popular book on teacher research, Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) describe Paley as a conceptual researcher. Clandinin and Connelly (2000) and Lyons and LaBoskey (2002) look to her as a narrative inquirer. More recently, Meier and Stremmel (2010) describe her as the “consummate teacher researcher” of narrative inquiry. Related narrative-dominated research traditions, such as autoethnography, literary documentary, and hermeneutics, also include Paley in their ranks (see Burdell & Swadener 1999; Carter 1993; Clift & Albert 1998; Göncü & Becker 2000; Preskill 1998; Reifel 2007).
Paley’s books and articles have been continuously employed in teacher education for over three decades to bridge the distance between theory and practice for preservice teachers, a service all good teacher research provides. She is self-conscious in addressing this stubborn disconnect between research on teaching and what it means to be in a classroom when she writes, “the way life in the classroom reinterprets the research” (Paley 1990, 19). Paley is referring here, of course, to traditional education research in which the teacher is not the investigator and generalizability is the desired outcome of the findings. Teacher research, on the other hand, is conducted by the teacher; the desired outcome is authenticity.
Paley's books and articles have been continuously employed in teacher education to bridge the distance between theory and practice for preservice teachers.
Paley’s own views
Ironically, Paley has long rejected the mantle of teacher researcher. Similarly, she prefers the title of storyteller over theory-maker, especially when it refers to relations with children “who do not assume expected roles” (Paley 1990, 32). Her true priority is to remain open to discovery. As Philip Jackson writes in the Introduction to her Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner (1984), Paley aims not to advance any other agenda but what she has learned on the ground about children and being a teacher of children. When asked directly if she is a teacher or a researcher, Paley says there is no question. She is a teacher, albeit “a teacher who writes books” (Paley 2011). To borrow from Paley herself, her themes are: “What does it feel like to be a teacher?” and “What does it feel like to be a child?” ( 2000, xvii). Indeed, what categorizes Paley’s teaching is the element of surprise. That is, not proof of a hypothesis, but the unanticipated evidence against it; not a method of investigation, but an individual child who changes its direction (Paley  2000). The embodiment of Dewey’s master teacher, Paley does not trade in the doing of research and theory; she trades in translating it, or as noted above, “reinterpreting it” into real life.
That said, Paley is willing to indulge the obvious. “Good teaching at any level,” she postulates, “involves teacher research” (2011). Lest we be confused, however, this should not be misconstrued as a concession on Paley’s part as to her self-identity. “I cannot be given a label by anyone that I do not choose to give myself,” she insists.
Interestingly, the label Paley chooses is “anecdotist” (2011). She reveals her decision in the epigraph for her latest book, The Boy on the Beach: Building Community through Play (2010):
Do anecdotists ask why? Clearly, Paley means us to believe they do. But so do many teacher researchers. Thus, despite our respect for Paley’s right to choose her own label, we persist in bestowing upon her at least honorary status as a teacher researcher because evidence and analysis suggests we have cause. Having taken this liberty, however, it behooves us to remember that for the most part we have reasoned backward about Paley’s work in this regard. That is, we have drawn assumptions about her research based on our assumptions about teacher research, without truly understanding the process by which she conducts her investigations. The problem is this not only ignores her resistance to the label of teacher researcher, it underestimates the complexity of her research accomplishment.
The question for teachers, teacher educators, and teacher researchers is: What can we learn from Paley about teacher research despite, and perhaps because of, the way in which she views her own investigations?
Good teaching at any level involves teacher research.
Paley as a teacher researcher
Operating within the qualitative tradition, teacher research has been defined as a systematic, intentional inquiry by a teacher designed to explain a phenomenon or answer a question. Methodologies vary, but analysis is typically circumscribed on all levels by its relevance inside the teacher’s classroom. The primary measure of validity is increased teacher knowledge and improved instruction at the local level (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1993). At the same time, the possibility of universal themes breaking through is not precluded. Arguably, this is the source of its deep appeal to its many advocates and readers.
Paley as a conceptual teacher researcher
In their delimitation of categories and types of teacher research, Cochran-Smith and Lytle describe what they mean when casting Paley as a conceptual teacher researcher, or a scribe of the full-length essay:
In conceptual research, teachers recollect and reflect on their experiences to construct an argument about teaching, learning, and schooling. Drawing on students’ work and classroom observations, for which there may or may not be complete written records, teachers write essays to convince others about particular ways to teach and under- stand the processes of teaching and learning. They also theorize about children’s learning and development, the school as workplace, professional growth across contexts, and sources of knowledge. (1993, 35)
Summing up this effort at “making meaning,” the authors borrow from Erikson ( 1985), to conclude that conceptual researchers choose “examples [from the data] that provide for a more public audience a kind of ‘evidentiary warrant’ for the general assertions” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle 1993, 35). Also, the authors contrast conceptual teacher research with its sister category, empirical research. The latter more closely resembles traditional qualitative research in that it requires the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data, albeit modified by the teacher’s impact on it. The three types of teacher research in this category are journals, oral inquiries, and studies.
The impact of conceptual research can be powerful, often making its mark on classrooms well beyond the boundaries of traditional education research. Cochran- Smith and Lytle (1993) remind us of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s groundbreaking Teacher (1963), as well as Herbert Kohl’s 36 Children (1967), which has been credited with starting the post-war campaign to reform urban schools (Freedman 1998). Paley’s own White Teacher ( 2000) is viewed by some as the model, albeit at times a controversial one, for the many books by white teachers of children of color that followed its publication (Willis & Harris 2004).
On one level, all of Paley’s books fit Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s above description of conceptual research quite neatly. Each employs recollection, reflection, and argument. Each aims to theorize and persuade, to change the conversation. In Wally’s Stories, Paley intends to “search for the child’s point of view with which I can help him take a step further” (1981, 213). By the book’s end, however, the reader is poised, like Paley, to accept that the magical thinking and fantasy play that characterize the kindergarten year does not need interference or interruption, but extension.
Paley and narrative inquiry
Although valuable for its emphasis on the pragmatic, a problem with the categorization of Paley as a conceptual researcher is that it does not adequately reflect her methods or the way in which her findings expand and mature. In fact, of her 13 books, only A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play (2004) can truly be described as a full-length essay; in this book Paley takes on the wrongheadedness of the academic kindergarten. All of her other work has far more in common with the short narrative or “literary tale,” a term Paley uses to describe The Girl with the Brown Crayon (1997). The well-known “characters” of her tales include Wally, Mollie, Jason, Ayana, Reeny, Teddy, and the boy on the beach. Then there are the boys and girls in the doll corner, the bad guys without birthdays, and those who can’t play. Grown-ups include Mrs. Tully and, of course, Paley. As in all good tales, these characters become better known to us as the tales progress. However, what happens to them only reaches significance for the reader, as it does for Paley, when she interprets earlier stories in light of later developments, and thus creates new stories altogether.
This recursive nature of Paley’s work is precisely what moves it out of conceptual research and into narrative inquiry. According to Clandinin and Connelly, the way to think about narrative inquiry is as “both the phenomena under study and as a method of study,” or a way to both “represent and understand experience” (2000, 4). In story terms, as it is often discussed, they see it as “stories lived and stories told” (2000, 20). Meier and Stremmel refer to narrative inquiry as “reliving and retelling” stories that “enrich and transform” the lives of researcher and participants (2010, 1). Lyons and LaBoskey also defend the role of storytelling in narrative inquiry, but sum up the task simply as a methodology to ask why humans do what they do (2002, 163). Like anecdotists—like Paley.
A paradox of Paley’s resistance to being labeled a teacher researcher of any sort is her expert use of its tools in general, narrative inquiry in particular. Her research always emanates from an experience that needs explaining or a question that needs answering, to which she invariably adds the additional undercurrent of why. Hundreds of whys. For example, in the preface to White Teacher, Paley reveals her original question: Is this classroom in which I live a fair place for every child who enters? But that’s a clinical question. Soon, the whys follow: Why does she talk so much about black children? Why would a black child fear her? And why does she favor Ayana over the other black children? In The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter: Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (1990), she invites us to wonder what makes Jason the “quintessential outsider” and the key to the moral landscape of school. However, her search cannot be disassociated from her need to understand why a child is not happy at school. And her effort to understand the purpose of children’s storytelling in Wally’s Stories (1981) soon leads her to ask why all superhero stories are the same.
In other words, for Paley a research question is never set in stone; nor is it in teacher research, as discussed elsewhere in this volume. It’s always metamorphosing based on new revelations, from the beginning of each study until its end. And, at the risk of exhausting us, Paley often doesn’t stop at that. Many of her studies resume explorations from earlier works when subsequent experiences intrude on her consciousness; in doing so, she revisits all or portions of the original text. This is especially characteristic of her three books that center on race, through which she moves from the teacher’s perspective, to the community’s, to the child’s. Unfortunately, her first is the most visible—White Teacher is often viewed in a stand-alone context, undermining Paley’s fuller perspective on race in the classroom.
The overt attempt to re-see her own work is also evident in Wally’s Stories. She revisits its concluding remarks—“Our contract reads more like this: if you will keep trying to explain yourselves I will keep showing you how to think about the problems you need to solve”—close to 10 years later in The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter. As she tells the reader,
After a few years the contract needed to be rewritten. Let me study your play and figure out how play helps you solve your problems. Play contains your questions, and I must know what questions you are asking before mine will be useful. (1990, 18)
Her research always emanates from an experience that needs explaining or a question that needs answering, to which she invariably adds the additional undercurrent of why.
Collecting and analyzing data
In terms of data collection methods, Paley’s classroom studies always involve use of the tape recorder. It is a well-regarded tool of narrative inquiry, according to Clandinin and Connelly, because “if stories are the target, we need to get them right” (2000, 79). Paley’s assessment verifies this. The tape recorder, she writes,
. . . has become an essential tool for capturing the sudden insight, the misunderstood concept, the puzzling juxtaposition of words and ideas. I began to tape several years ago in an effort to determine why some discussions zoomed ahead in an easy flow of ideas and others plodded to a halt, and I was continually surprised by what I was missing in all discussions. (1981, 217)
My recent interview with Paley sheds even more light on her use of the tape recorder, transcription, and control for anonymity. First, she is adamant that the only valid data on the tape comes from what children say in her presence. Voices recorded when the teacher is not there, she says, are without context and amount to no more than eavesdropping. Children, she insisted, must not be tricked into saying what is private. The wisdom in this method is clear, however deeply nuanced, reflecting Paley’s beliefs about teaching and research. It is the world children are willing to share with us, not their private lives, that can be known and influenced. All else must be left alone.
When transcribing the tapes, Paley eliminates all the natural disruptions in young children’s speech, such as backtracking, repeated phrases, unintentional misspeak, and sounds like “um” or “uh.” (This also accounts for why the children’s conversations in her books often appear so fluent to the reader.) She refers to this as “transcribing for meaning” (Paley 2011). Again, it gets her closer to the “phenomena of experience” (Clandinin & Connelly 2000), even as it becomes one of the methods by which she tells the story.
For Paley, a research question is never set in stone. It's always metamorphosing based on new revelations.
Paley’s data analysis extends this effort and also adheres to recognized standards for narrative inquiry with regard to uncovering meaning. As to what by now should be expected, she says it comes down to: “What’s the story in this?” Like Anton Chekhov, one of Paley’s literary heroes, she is interested not in the merely representative when searching for meaning in the data, but in what she calls “the extreme moments of humanity” (2011). We might think of them as the super-representative. But this is only the first layer of meaning. In The Boy on the Beach, she also calls upon Virginia Woolf in referring to moments of discovery in the story in which “life stand still here” long enough for both children and observers “to watch the ways chaos finds a sensible shape” (2010, 13).
However, if Paley maintains a set of literary references to frame her approach to research, she also resists the concept of story as metaphor, individually or collectively, as it generates the assumption that the stories are somehow less than real or meaningful in and of themselves. For Paley, as for narrative inquirers in general, “My stories always boil down to [the fact that] they are true” (2011, emphasis hers).
Another standard method of teacher research that is explicitly tested in narrative inquiry is the use of anonymity, especially when children are involved. Because story is the unit of analysis, and reconstruction of the stories creates the findings, the question of whose story is being told raises special concerns. To guarantee anonymity, Paley naturally changes names, titles, and so on. Where gender and ethnicity are not vital to the meaning of an event, she changes these, too. (One exception is the story of the child Paley called Jason, the boy who would be a helicopter, whose family gave permission for her to reveal his gender and other telling details about his story.)
When writing about her own classroom in the somewhat insular community of Hyde Park, where she also lives, Paley collapses two years’ worth of data into one, so as to belie any outsider’s effort to identify a particular cohort of children. While as much as two years’ worth of data undoubtedly complicates Paley’s presentation, it also allows her to demonstrate her skills as a storyteller. This is akin to what she believes is the best thing about her teaching—her “habit of drawing invisible lines between the children’s images” that, in effect, stitch stories together for greater meaning (Paley 1990, xi).
The drawing of invisible lines for the reader is also captured in Clandinin and Connelly’s (2000) three-dimensional model of data analysis in narrative inquiry. According to the authors, all data is simultaneously comprised of the temporal, the personal and social, and the place (2000, 54). There can be no doubt that Paley’s interpretations of data rests on her control of all three. Listen to how she opens Mollie Is Three: Growing Up in School: “On the first day, Mollie sits quietly at the playdough table watching Frederick. She is waiting to find out what happens in school, and he is someone who makes things happen” (1986, 1).
This introduces what we might call a fourth dimension of narrative inquiry: positioning findings for the intended audience (Clandinin & Connelly 2000, 167). As a storyteller, Paley prefers to think in dramatic terms. “The point was this: Just as I transcribed from the tape recorder for meaning, I transcribed the community for classroom theater.” It is, she insists, “the primary way we get to know the children in our classroom” (2011).
Because Paley does not willingly accept her role as a teacher researcher, I conclude with letting her “storytelling methodology” stand on its own. The following excerpt from the last few pages of The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter provides the evidence. Up to this point Paley has been watching, recording, and reflecting on Jason’s broken and repaired helicopter stories and events for the better part of the school year. Though Jason has autistic-like symptoms, Paley warns us in the preface that she refuses to “attach a label to him” (as she refuses to label herself). He is to be known, she advises, only through the unfolding of his story.
Yet, despite Paley’s masterly efforts to know and integrate both Jason and his broken helicopter story into the larger classroom narrative, she is not able to figure out its true meaning for most of the book. She grows somewhat despondent. Then, late in the spring, Jason invents a scenario in which he uses a “three-seater”—functioning—helicopter to “pick someone up at school. Because not anyone will come to pick them up and bring them home. They’re going to hold everyone’s hand,” he tells Samantha, a fellow classmate. “One kid’s going to hold the other kid’s hand” (1990, 146). Paley suddenly realizes this is the story Jason has been trying to tell her and the children. She writes:
Jason may be revealing the biggest piece of the story. In his fantasy play no one has arrived to take the schoolchildren home; the child is lost at school. Jason’s helicopter will be the agent of rescue from school to home. The ultimate fear and loss, Jason tells us, is separation. (1990, 147. Emphasis in the original.)
Then, accessing the privilege of a good teacher (or narrative inquirer), Paley goes further to identify being alone as a concern for all young children in school, despite this being an unusually dark take on early childhood education. Paley uses Jason’s story, then, to write a new one for her and other teachers. “If [Jason] is right,” she informs us,
aside from all else we try to accomplish, we have an awesome responsibility. We must become aware of the essential loneliness of each child. Our classrooms, at all levels, must look more like happy families and secure homes, the kind in which all family members can tell their private stories, knowing they will be listened to with affection and respect. (1990, 147)
Because Paley does not willingly accept her role as a teacher researcher, I conclude with letting her “storytelling methodology” stand on its own.
Paley says she ends the year with more questions than answers, “as always.” The book’s epilogue is called “New Questions.”
It seems clear that the teacher research community has not erred in associating Paley with its pursuit of authentic representations of classroom life. Method and mission indeed appear to overlap in significant ways. Yet, it also seems clear that Paley’s resistance to accepting the label of teacher researcher is not only her prerogative, but a message to the teacher research community that must not be taken lightly. A hallmark of teacher research has always been the latitude it grants practitioners in terms of how they position themselves in relation to their work and their audience. Surely this extends to Paley, however inconvenient or confusing for the teacher research community it may sometimes prove. The more important truth is that it does not matter what we label Vivian Paley in the end if our goal is authenticity. It only matters that we disseminate her work to the next generation of early childhood teachers, so that they, too, may tame the classroom chaos to find and study where life stands still.
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Patricia (“Patsy”) M. Cooper, PhD is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at Queens College, CUNY. She is the author of The Classrooms All Young Children Need: Lessons in Teaching from Vivian Paley and numerous articles and chapters on early childhood education. firstname.lastname@example.org