I’ve intended to write this blog for awhile, since learning that Vivian Paley passed away last summer. We met in the late 1980s at a workshop hosted by a local teacher organization. The event was hosted at Awakening Seed, and Vivian and I made a connection right away. In addition to our common practices of teaching and writing, I also remember her saying over lunch that a good friendship to her was two people writing letters back and forth to each other. So that’s what we did. For decades we wrote letters, exploring topics that included school practices, life as a writer, and grandparenting. I kept those letters in a shoebox for years. We had a lot in common during those days, and Vivian continued to influence my life, both as a teacher and writer.
Vivian taught kindergarten at the University of Chicago Lab School. She was the author of many books, including You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter, White Teacher, and Kwaanza and Me. In 1989 Vivian Paley was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. She also traveled the world speaking to educators about her work. It was actually quite extraordinary that she came to Arizona to teach a workshop that ended up being hosted at the Seed.
In preparation for writing this, I pulled out an old folder with a piece I’d written about the day with Vivian. In it I had written that she spent the day weaving a story about her own writing and teaching. She was a strong believer that children must tell their stories, adding that quiet classrooms where children can’t tell their stories is tormenting to a child. The heart of Vivian’s kindergarten curriculum was telling and acting out stories.
She referred to the children as her colleagues. In Vivian’s mind, writing conditions a teacher to listen. Writing down children’s stories preserves their voices. Vivian suggested that as teachers we need to set up our classrooms so surprise can occur. She said we must view our classroom as a novel, in which we, the teacher, are merely one of the characters. Vivian encouraged us to look for the conflicts and surprises, seeking out the things that cause upheaval or growth. She said, “When we write about these surprises they become those unexpected events which make us quickly turn the page of our novel to see what will happen next.”
One of Vivian’s daily practices was to tell a story of her own to her students. She started each one without knowing how it would end, and only wrote them down after they’d been told. She trusted that stories would come. This was an important idea that shaped my own classroom teaching, and as a writer, I’ve developed the same trust. I never know how these posts will turn out, but somehow they always do. So much of Vivian Paley lives on through my own work and the work of the teachers at Awakening Seed. I’d like to end this tribute to her with a note I found in the folder beside the piece I’d written:
As I read your article, I could picture you speaking. For you were the one who surprised me by saying, “But you are a storyteller. You have been telling us your story all day.”
Reading your response, I see clearly what my story is. “Trusting that stories will come.” You are right. This is a metaphor for the entire teaching relationship. You found a deeper meaning for my words than, at the moment, I myself realized. For which I thank you.