(By Deb Wilenski) Vivian Gussin Paley has been listening to kindergarten children’s stories, scribing, reading them back for many years and has written eloquently and with wonderful perception about her work with children and educators. Here, in Wally’s Stories she recalls the moment when, for the first time, and inspired by kindness towards Wally who was often in trouble, she suggested they act out one of his stories:
It made Wally very happy, and a flurry of story writing began that continued and grew all year. The boys dictated as many stories as the girls, and we acted out each story the day it was written if we could.
Before we had never acted out these stories. We had dramatized every other kind of printed word – fairy tales, story books, poems, songs – but it had always seemed enough just to write the children’s words. Obviously it was not; the words did not sufficiently represent the action, which needed to be shared. For this alone, the children would give up play time, as it was a true extension of play. (p.12)
In our project with Shirley Primary School’s reception class in 2012, many children found their narrative voices, and we welcomed and encouraged their exploration of words. Some began on day one, with our first visit to Bramblefields; Katie’s heroic tale of her fight with the bears was remarkable for its drama and clarity:
Katie: Cherish, guess what I seen? I seen a hairy bear. It was up there in those trees. I went in the far away forest. I saw hairy bears over there – they were climbing on my head. And guess what I did, I fighted them. I killed them. I killed the bear with my gun. And when I came home guess what I found? I found no-one, ‘cos they were all hiding.
Other stories were shorter but no less momentous. Oliwia who was first to climb the tree with no branches, told me she had never climbed before, and exclaimed: I didn’t. And I have now. Her words marked not only the beginning of intrepid and skilled physical exploration, but a desire to speak, in the woods and in the classroom, far more than she had done before.
We all worked closely with this process of recognising and encouraging children’s authorship. Through our ten weeks together we scribed stories, collected stories and made them visible in the classroom, we often began and ended our time together by sharing stories, and used photographs as a way of inventing as well as recounting narratives.
This year, coming in to support Julie and Jane in their continuing exploration of Bramblefields, Ruth and I wondered whether the stories children were telling might be used as an even richer resource. We described Paley’s method of dramatizing children’s own narratives – and the simple use of masking tape to mark out a ‘stage’ on the carpet. We wondered if the stories children told could be used by Jane and Julie’s class as material – their own script for acting out – and what might develop as a consequence.
Because the children had just been involved in the Christmas play, Julie could introduce the idea of a stage in the classroom with some familiarity. She remarked that the children easily picked up the idea, and with it the way they could act out their own narratives. When Ruth and I visited last week the practice was beautifully established and truly exciting. Even on our walk back from the woods children were asking if they could ‘do my story’ this afternoon, with a clear sense of anticipation and intent.
And we saw wonderful stories unfold. Julie read each story sentence by sentence, very slowly and carefully, giving each phrase its time and importance. The author stood in the middle of the circle and in the role of stage producer/director chose people to play the parts needed. There were no props or costumes. The children made everything out of themselves: we saw a spiky dragon come to life, a dark cave, a ‘gynormous pink castle’; there was a dual between the Hulk and a fire-spitting dragon that was beautifully choreographed in slow motion. When the director struggled with an idea, help was offered from the circle of children, how to make the invisible woman disappear, how to play the role of ‘the dark’. Authors worked with authority and skill, a solution was found for every dramatic demand, there was a strong sense of shared understanding, social and imaginative connection, and as Paley has described so often, of kindness.