Friendship and fantasy – children’s stories and their function in the group

I really love Vivian Gussin Paley’s writing. I hadn’t yet read The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter and am just now enjoying it. In it, Paley describes her storytelling classroom and their re-enactments of those stories – all, of course, while paying witness to the learning these stories enable. Here are some quotes from this book:

“Once I began to view the children as storytellers and playwrights, the potential of fantasy as a learning tool overwhelmed my conventional expectations for the classroom.” (p.19)

“What makes children pay attention to the ideas and demands and complaints of classmates? The same conditions, I think, that create sense and order of other classroom enigmas: the need to have a friend and be part of a dramatic structure. Children see themselves, always, inside a story.” (p.33)

Friendship and fantasy form the natural path that leads children into a new world of other voices, other views, and other ways of expressing ideas and feelings they recognize as similar to their own.” (p.34)

“If friendship and fantasy provide links to individual children, there is yet a third condition that completes the frame within which school makes sense: the need to become part of a larger group. It is the group that most influences the development of the storyteller.
Two friends alone will memorize each other’s stories and learn a private language. But the storyteller is a culture builder, requiring the participation of an audience. Play is not enough; there must be a format that captures the essence of play while attaching to it a greater degree of objectivity. Storytelling and story acting can perform the task.” (p.34)

An idea must find the rhythm of a group to be fully communicated. The imagination is not a unilateral function; it thrives in the company of those who share its point of view and ask the right questions.” (p.34)

“The stage upon which we act out our stories is a taped square in the center of the story room rug. It is sacrosanct when stories are performed; the children learn to keep off stage unless they are in the story. Jason refuses to abide by the rule and it upsets everyone. His motor tunes up as each story begins, and within a sentence or two he is flying around the stage. He does this now as we act out Simon’s story.
there is a question I have begun to ask. ‘Is there a helicopter in this story?’
‘No,’ Simon replies.
‘Then you mustn’t come on the stage, Jason.’
Jason has heard this reasoning before. You may not enter a story unless the author gives you a role to perform. Commentary is welcome at any time, but permission is required to insert a new character into someone’s story.
This is an easy concept to understand in the controlled setting of a staged story, easier than in the doll corner, but in both places the case for dramatic integrity is strong. It is an essential aspect of the social contract and can be used as the basis for solving most behavioral problems. Do your actions belong in the scene you enter? If not, can you convince the players to alter their script or, failing to do that, will you agree to a different role? We call it socialization, which simply means – at any age – that you play your part acceptably well in the given script.” (p.37)

Our kind of storytelling is a social phenomenon, intended to flow through all other activities and provide the widest opportunity for a communal response. Stories are not private affairs; the individual imagination plays host to all the stimulation in the environment and causes ripples of ideas to encircle the listeners.” (p.21)

“I question any aspect of the story I might misinterpret – any word, phrase, sound effect, character, or action that does not make sense to me without further explanation. The child knows the story will soon be acted out and the actors will need clear directions The story must make sense to everyone: actors, audience, and narrator.” (p.22)

“The children copy my habit of questioning the storyteller, hardly needing me to instruct them. They question one another continually in play and I simply do as they do. I have, in fact, learned from them about question asking. They seldom, for instance, ask a question of another child if they already know the answer.” (p.23)

In storytelling, as in play, the social interactions we call interruptions usually improve the narrative. Yet I can recall a time when I would say, ‘Please don’t interrupt. Let people tell their own stories.’ That was when I missed the main point of storytelling. I did not understand it to be a shared process, a primary cultural institution, the social art of language.” (p.23)

“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. …Put your play into formal narratives, and I will help you and your classmates listen to one another. In this way you will build a literature of images and themes, of beginnings and endings, of references and allusions. You must invent your own literature if you are to connect your ideas to the ideas of others.” (p.18)

“There is a tendency to look upon the noisy, repetitious fantasies of children as non-educational, but helicopters and kittens and superhero capes and Barbie dolls are storytelling aids and conversational tools. Without them, the range of what we listen to and talk about is arbitrarily circumscribed by the adult point of view.” (p.39)

“We read at least two books a day to the entire class and additional books to anyone who asks. With three teachers in the room, someone is usually available to read a book. Yet, the literary symbols and traditions taken up by a roomful of children are most likely to originate in their own stories.
Perhaps this is because adult authors cannot hear the hum [-p.42] of a particular classroom or feel the instantaneous common experience, the suddenly revealed pleasure or fear.” (pp.41-42)

Children are quick to interpret one another’s intentions. We are never in error when we use the children’s own language and imagery to help further their designs.” (p.42)

Recording Katie’s story (in which the mommy, the daddy and the two little girls “put their capes on and creeped downstairs”), Gussin Paley writes: “‘Creeped downstairs’ comes from Ira. Every year certain phrases are planted and take root, the shoots continually coming up in stories and in play. Remember Joseph’s alligator who creeped downstairs? The use of a communal symbol is as tangible a demonstration of socialization as the agreement to share blocks and dolls.
Ira’s ‘creeped downstairs’ story will be referred to throughout [-p.41] the year.” (pp.40-41)

‘Creeped downstairs’ is a literary and a cultural event. Whenever an idea is borrowed I call attention to the fact, but it is not within my power to manufacture a symbol. Each group chooses its own verbal banners.
‘Simon’s story has something in it that reminds me of Ira’s.’
‘Creeped downstairs!’ the children shout.
‘I’m doing that,’ Petey says, and the next day Mighty Mouse ‘creeped downstairs and then he saw Slime Man and he flied out the window.'” (p.41)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine; italics in original) Vivian Gussin Paley (1990) The Boy who Would be a Helicopter: the uses of storytelling in the classroom.  Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England.

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in early years education, Metaphors and Narratives around children and learners, Teaching excellence, What is quality literature? and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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