This summer I started a program at my library that is very close to my heart both professionally and personally. Little Authors is a story dictation program inspired by the work of the visionary preschool teacher and McArthur Genius Grant recipient Vivian Gussin Paley. If you have not read any of her books, you must immediately. Er, wait, I said that wrong… If you haven’t read ALL of her books, you must find them, and read them immediately. Her body of work covers a wide range of unconventional child development issues: from the peculiarities of three year-old behavior in Mollie is Three to moral philosophy of young children in the Kindness of Children. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe her writing other than to say that each of her books is a dose of vital life-force. They are all unique and unputdownable.
The focus of each book draws from Paley’s 35 years as a lower school teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Here’s where the “personal” connection comes in, Lab is my high school alma mater.
Let’s just say, transferring to Lab was the best thing that ever happened to me. My life changed the day I walked through the doors of that school. I was embraced by every student, teacher, and PTO member from day one. If you want to know what my experience was like at Lab, and what my classmates were like listen to this clip from This American Life. They are pretty amazing people, and a good chunk of my senior class had spent their early years in Mrs. Paley’s classroom. As I read her books, I picture little Mollie Stone, Patrick Sellers, Dima Khalidi, Kareem Saleh, etc; and I feel the dumb, gooey grin spread across my face. My classmates never outgrew Mrs. Paley’s awesomeness. I wholeheartedly believe, was a major influence on the people they grew up to be.
When I started at Lab, I quickly realized I would be at the bottom of the class. But this bottom was different than the one at my grammar school and junior high. My classmates were smart…scary smart. But more importantly, they were open, warm, inspiring, and supportive. After years of disapproval in school, for the first time in my life I held up as an example of a “great kid”. Lab is a progressive ed school. So there were no bells. My classmates had never been tortured by spelling tests, multiplication tables, or sentence diagrams like I had in grade school. As a result they couldn’t spell, so they used spell check. They couldn’t add, so they used calculators to finish up their calculus problems. Every classroom was filled with stimulating debates, discussions, jokes, and imaginings. My sister used to joke, that the kids at my school “couldn’t spell worth a damn, but when a sociology professor presented his research findings to a group of high school juniors in a Lab assembly, they’d better prepare for tough questions.” In other words, it was nerd heaven.
And obviously, it took a lot of wonderful people to make Lab what it is. But the more I read and re-read her books, I am convinced that the foundation of awesomeness was built in Vivian Paley’s early childhood classroom.
I’ve read many teacher-conducted interviews with Paley. In each one, the interviewer inevitably asks something like “Your wonderful books on your classroom experiences with young children show what an excellent observer of children you are. Can you talk about the specifics of how you managed to do this while teaching?” Here’s her response from an interview that appears in Learning Landscapes:
I found out that observing, listening recording, re-observing, recommending, and writing it all down was the same thing as teaching.I found out that observing, listening, recording, re-observing, re-commenting, and I discovered that it was this ongoing narrative that in fact matched the child’s own discovery of an ongoing narrative—call it play, dramatic play. It was a very exciting realization for me. It meant that I was always in my own laboratory and the questions that I had would be answered eventually right there. All I needed to do was listen to the children while they played, and join the conversations engendered by play.
In other words, there are no “specifics”. Listening to children, and interpreting the things children is a difficult process for adults to master. In fact, time and time again, Paley, herself reports that it is a process she finds perpetually challenging and humbling. One of my favorite examples comes from Paley’s second book, Wally’s Stories:
Wally: People don’t feel the same as grown-ups.
Teacher: Do you mean “Children don’t”?
W: Because grown-ups don’t remember when they were little. They’re already an old person. Only if you have a picture of you doing that. Then you could remember.
Eddie: But not thinking.
Wally: You never can take a picture of thinking. Of course not.
You can, however, write a book about thinking–by recording the conversations, stories , and playacting that take place as events and problems are encountered. A wide variety of thinking emerges, as morality, science, and society share the stage with fantasy. If magical thinking seems most conspicuous, it is because it is the common footpath from which new trails are explored. I have learned not to resist this magic but to seek it out as a legitimate part of “real” school.
Early on in her career, Paley decided to play the long game when it came to student performance. And it led her to wildly profound insights into the follies of grown-up thinking. I love putting kids in the driver’s seat, and seeing where they take me. So of course, I love another thing Paley said later on in the Learning Landscapes interview:
Let’s go back to “peekaboo,” the beginning of story. The adult didn’t invent it—the adult merely added some more words…the infant not yet having gotten to that stage. But it’s the infant who begins the story: “Where is that nice smiling person? Gone. Will she come back? I’m afraid. Ah here she is, back again. Peekaboo, peekaboo.” This is the beginning of the child as his own narrator. It is the child’s job in our cultural history of mankind—this is the learning tool, the job of asking her own question and then playing around and finding out the options. What we tend to do is bring the answers, the adult-established answers, to so many subjects earlier and earlier into a child’s life. Now, what is the task of early childhood? I would say, number one, to learn to listen to others—and you do want to listen to others when they’re telling you stories and to learn to express your own narrative. You want very much to give them back the gift that they have given you. And then, we play around with the combination of a half a dozen different narratives and see where they go: “What if the mother and baby do this? What if there’s noise at the door? What if there’s a big wind and it looks like a hurricane? What if the bad guy comes and where is Superman? Are the pirates good or bad? Are pirates always bad?” No end to it. It is the beginning of abstract thinking, of concentration, of focusing on a subject, and focusing on people.
Everyday, I strive to set a similar tone with the kids and caregivers who visit the library. Little Authors was motivated by this goal. And I want to get to that part of the post. So for now, I will get on to how the program worked…
Vivian Paley didn’t invent story dictation as an early childhood education practice. She did, however, innovate the hell out of it by making it the central focus around which all other classroom activities revolved.
Anyway, in the library story dictation is a deceptively simple early learning activity. In fact my library soul sister, Rebecca Zarazan Dunn, totally independent of me, experimented with it at Chattanooga Public Library. She had the brilliant idea to crash the Lego Club on the 2nd Floor for a little spontaneous story dictation. She wrote about it on Sturdy for Common Things. So it’s a very flexible activity. All you need is paper, pencils, and your undivided attention. Ask a child to describe an event, idea or person; and write down the words exactly as the child says them. Then read the story back to her, and watch her face light up in pride & triumph! I’m sure this sounds ridiculous, but it really is that simple. I tried to write out a program outline, but it looked like this:
Prep: 15 minutes
1) Set up a story dictation corner in one corner of the program room using floor pillows. Sharpen several pencils, and fill a clipboard with lined paper.
2) Set out lots of toys: puppets, dress-up stuff, blocks, picture books, play food, and anything else you can find that gets kids pretending. Also set up a drawing station with lots of blank paper, and mix in some coloring sheets. Dollars to donuts, the characters from both the books and coloring sheets will show up in the dictated stories.
3) If you want, you can also make a sign-up sheet. If a kid wants to tell a story they can write their name down. This will serve as your queue. Also, it’s a good idea to use name tags because names are important.
As the kids came in with their parents, I explained what we were going to do. A few parents asked, “Do I have to stay?” But when I explained what we were doing, I think they got curious. Only one parent out twenty from all three sessions stayed for the program. I even heard one parent say, “I’m so glad I stayed for this. What a fun thing to do in the library.” #yay
Next, I just explained what we were going to do. I said, “So most of the time, when we’re in this room, I do most of the storytelling. And I always get the feeling that kids want to tell the stories. Have you ever felt like that?”
They responded with lots of nodding. And Joey, whose story you will read later, piped in, “I tell you lots of stories, Ms Cate, remember my stories?”
“I do, Joe! You tell lots of good stories. Today, I’d like to write them down, so we can read and reread them over and over, and remember them forever. Who wants to do that with me today?” They were all fired up and ready to go.
One by one, they joined me in the story corner. When a child sat down, I showed him a blank sheet of paper. I wrote his name at the top. I said, “Your story can be about anything you want. It can as long as one whole page. Or it can be as short as one word. Oh, and I need to talk kinda slowly, because I need to write down every word. And you can talk a lot faster than I can write. So if I need to catch up to what you’re saying I’ll say, ‘hold on, dude-man!’ I might also ask you some questions about some of the interesting details. That’s just because I’m curious, and I want to know more about what you are telling me. But you can just say that doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t matter.”
And we were off. It was super simple and fun. And the stories were mind-blowing. At the end of the session we all got together and I read one story from each kid (a few kids told me two or three stories). Enjoy!
First was a caterpillar. Then it eat lot of fruit and lots of vegetables and sweets. Then it turns to a cocoon. Ten days it stays in the cocoon. Then it opens and turns into a butterfly.
So once upon a time there was a place. Well it was some kind of fun house, but some evil person named The Joker lived there. But one day the dynamic duo came and they knock the Joker out of the fun house. And the Joker went to jail. The Joker didn’t like jail at all.
Once upon a time there was a fish named Fisher. He loved to play all day. He loved his parents, but they had to go away, now. And now he lives with his big brother and sister and small brother and sister. He had a neighbor, and he thought he could play with her but she was busy because she was moving far away. They just started today though. So she had a little time to play but after they play her parents call her and all they have left to do is move a mattress through a door. The door is ginormous. It was one foot bigger than the mattress. His big sister though they should go to the beach. The beach was a perfect place to hang out. The big sister had to go somewhere really quick. So after the beach she took her brothers and sister back home. So she could go to do her job. “It was so much fin hanging out with my family.” One day their parents came back and they had a celebration. There were games, cake, and food. It’s fun hanging out with my whole family.
The man cracked the stairs. And then he cleaned and fixed the stairs. There was a little a little girl named Goldilocks. She lived with her mommy and daddy. There’s two bears: sister bear and brother bear. Daddy bear said, “Who squooshed the porch?” Goldilocks did! There’s a bad danger. Goldilocks saw the fierce, bad danger and she runned away!
The cat ate an apple. Then the dinosaur needed to eat an apple too. Then the dog wanted to eat an apple. And the elephant wanted to eat an apple.
The bunny wanted to eat a pear. The monkey wanted to eat a banana. The bird wanted to eat a pear. A frog wanted to eat an apple. Then a mouse wanted to eat a cheese. A kangaroo wanted to eat an apple.
A deer ate an apple. A cat ate a pear. The duck ate an apple. The octopus ate an apple. The cat ate a pear.
Once upon a time there was a dinosaur. He’s a meat eater. And he eats meat. And a good dinosaur came up to him, and a bad dinosaur snapped the prey.
Maeve, 6, The Dancing Tooth
I want to tell about when I got my first tooth out. I went to Mommy. I went and got a tissue. Then Mommy pulled it out. It was bloody. I got a tissue and put it in my mouth.
I want to tell about my second tooth. Me and Daddy were watching TV in the bed and I just bended it and it comed out. I went downstairs in Mommy’s office and I told her about it. Actually we were at Grandpa’s house.
One day the Little Red Riding Hood went to the Grandma’s house. But the big wolf chased her. But Grandma’s right here! But the Teddy Bear came and the Big Bad Wolf run away over there. The Teddy Bear play with Little Red Riding Hood and Grandma came back!
Once long ago there was a creative guy. His name was Jones. He build a big giant robot with giant laser beam eyes. And he opened the garage door. And then he started destructing the whole city. The robot said, “You can’t stop my power. It was the millennium. When you connected the last piece you released me too! My dragons do their work. You need to stay here. I will suck up your soul into my eye. You can’t stop me from destroying the world. If you stay here I will chit chat with you. And if you stay here I will destroy the bridge with cars going across. I will make all the cars talk on the phone and topple into the sea.” The end.
Here is a list of books. These are my five favorite Vivian Paley books, plus a wonderful book by Ann Gadzikowski on the story dictation process. It is a wonderful resource. However, I don’t think you need to read it to get started with story dictation. The real meat of the Gadzikowski’s book how to use these stories as a tool for understanding how young children think. I will add to this in the future, but this will get you started:
Boston Public School offers an INCREDIBLE RESOURCE for anyone who is interested in story dictation. They offer videos of teachers supporting students in telling their stories. They are wonderful to watch, and wildly helpful. I think the best part is, they show you just how practical an activity this is.
In the end, there is no trick to bringing story dictation to your library. In the words of the great Fred Rogers:
“You’ve got to do it.
Every little bit
You’ve got to do it, do it, do it, do it
And when you’re through,
You can know who did it,
For you did it, you did it, you did it.”