Paley’s Replies to FAQs

Charmingly told story

Q: How do you handle stories that are more television or video-based: Batman or what have you?
Paley: The child is repeating a story that clearly answers certain questions or needs the child has. Essentially the story sounds like the same story being repeated, but when you look at it written down on paper, there’s always something new happening. In one story he falls down, in the next story he doesn’t fall down. Clearly something important. And repetition – just as is the case for scientists doing something over and over again to see if there’s any change or if something new is added – is the way we learn.
Perhaps that’s why children love hearing stories repeated over and over again. To see what someone else does in response that’s new, or, what will I myself do in response? The story will play itself out, and the child will probably take another role in a few months — if you teachers can last that long!
Q: In programs where you’re working with children who have experienced a lot of violence or trauma, their stories often act out those issues. So how do you create an environment where you’re not censoring stories while also making sure the storytelling and story acting don’t become too intense – so that it’s not a frightening experience?
This is a frequent question, one of very great concern. And not only with teachers in inner cities or areas of great violence, but almost any place. There’s no question that we as adults must be sensitive, that we as adults are editors of these stories. We use our own intuition. The child can certainly tell you any story he or she wishes, and it is up to you as the guardian, as the one the child depends upon, to know: “Let’s not act this story out. You may feel frightened, or other people may feel scared.”
The child knows what you’re saying.
Every story that a child wants to tell you, of course, you listen to. And even if he wants you to write it down, of course, you write it down. But it is up to the teacher to say, for instance, as I have said to second graders, “This language, I find it a little rough; I’m not used to that. When I was little, this language was not brought into the classroom. Couldn’t you have your character say something that a grandma like me wouldn’t get embarrassed about?” Children understand this is part of the reciprocity: my story, your story. I want to ask you though: could you to tell us what kind of story you had in mind by your question?
Q: Yes. I guess stories around witnessing violence in the home, domestic violence, witnessing street violence. What about those?
A child told me such a story once in my own classroom, so of course I knew the child. And there was a telephone call I made later to the child’s family. In the story, he said, “My uncle pushed my aunt down the stairs because he was mad.” I wrote it down, and I told the child, “We won’t act this out, but thank you for telling the story. It would be too scary for a lot of people.” And he said, “Okay.” And then I said to him, “Is it okay if I call mommy and talk to her about what happened? I want to tell her I’m sorry.” And he said that was okay. And the mother did not know that the child had witnessed this, visiting relatives.
Q: I wondered, on the heels of recent news events, how you felt about imaginative play involving guns in the classroom? We have a rule for example, that you can’t bring toy guns to school, but what about play shooting during imaginative play? I think there’s a tendency to tell kids there’s no shooting.
Now it goes without saying: I don’t think there’s a school in the land that allows toy guns to come to school. But there’s the fingers, or block, or whatever. But the question is: how does this make someone else feel? Certainly “Bang! bang!” falls into the same category as when you’re walking in a line to gym. Is what you’re doing upsetting someone or bothering someone else? We’re not in this classroom to upset each other, or if we do, we try to figure out ways to present ourselves in another way.
Halloween has always been a great holiday in which to make this clear. It’s not a favorite classroom holiday of mine. But the reason it’s not is because there come so many costumes, not just putting on some kind of tablecloth around you and pretending you’re a witch or a scary person, but really scary costumes, so that if anything you’re wearing or doing or sounding like frightens a single person in the classroom, you must remove it or stop doing it.
That is the point; that’s the classroom story. We have our fun and tell our stories without impeding someone else’s happiness in the classroom. Every child understands this earliest aspect of the golden rule. And this stands for the same. And the children will then say, “Roger’s banging at me, I don’t want to be shot at.” They both know it’s pretend; nonetheless, you have a right not to want to be shot at. I will as a teacher, always tell a child: please do not shoot at me. I don’t like it. And that’s it for the rest of the year.
Q: With those of us working with children under the age of five, could you offer suggestions as to how we educate and support parents to the fact that a classroom that supports play, stories and emotional development can also reflect and support the academic development of children?
Well. I think we have to remind ourselves as teachers and parents too, that it was not always thus. It’s only a drop in human history when children are in school in these ages we’re talking about now. For most of history and most of development of great thinkers and scientists and artists and craftspeople, they did not even go to school till six or seven or eight years old.
We have to keep stressing this historical perspective: is school then the institution we have created to deprive children of the ways in which they learned for centuries? You can even remind them that Charlotte Bronte and her sisters and brother never went to school till they were much older. If this seems extreme, I don’t think it is. We’ve got to remember this thing called school is a new invention.
But children aren’t.
The ways in which children learn what language means in a human sense, what the looks on people’s faces mean, what emotions mean, all that came through play and family interaction. So what parents ought to help us do then is create a family in that classroom, not an academic laboratory, so that they want children to come to school really wanting to learn at the proper age when getting involved with formal learning is appropriate.