by Sarah Sivright
I had the good fortune to be mentored by two extraordinary women—Vivian Paley and Gillian McNamee. I taught with Vivian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and was introduced to story dictation and acting in her classroom. Gillian was my professor and advisor in graduate school, and later, a parent of one of my preschool students. Both women continue to be dear friends and mentors.
Gil has recently published a book titled, “The High-Performing Preschool; Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms.” In her book, she presents a powerful case for the use of story dictation and story acting (SD/SA) as the centerpiece in early childhood classrooms, particularly those serving low-income and ESL students. Paley’s presence accompanies Gil through the book’s pages, along with Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, who, in his brief life (1896-1934) developed theories about early childhood development that have had a powerful impact on our understanding of how children think and learn. These two giants in the educational world help steer Gil’s course, offering theories, stories and wisdom.
At All Seasons Preschool, we teachers frequently bemoan the “missing the mark” quality of current early childhood education. We know that dramatic play and SD/SA “work” in these settings. Children are eager to engage in these two particular activities and they grow and learn from their experiences. We KNOW this. Happily, McNamee doesn’t just wring her hands and cry. Along with extensive research, she documents her years working with teachers and children in Chicago’s Head Start classrooms, to build a realistic case for the use of story dictation and acting as a curriculum that can satisfy national and state standards and move all children along the path to becoming readers and writers.
She describes the power of this simple activity:
“When a teacher writes on a piece of paper, he or she models and the child experiences up close what it looks like to say a word and draw a configuration of symbols to represent what was spoken. As the teacher echoes each word being written, the child can see it constructed in print conventions: ‘When—parrot—gets—a—shot—he—doesn’t—cry. There. Your first sentence reads, ‘When parrot gets a shot he doesn’t cry.’ What happens next?’ Children see and hear concepts of print; every mark on the paper is put there for a purpose…to record and affirm their thinking.
As McNamee points out, readers’ and writers’ workshops, and guided reading groups are attempts by educators to “seize hold of emerging verbal skills to strengthen and expand them toward written language.” (p. 88) But children’s understanding and use of language is so much more than this. “Language learning is a community enterprise to communicate goals and expectations in satisfying needs, to inform, persuade, delight, and console each other.” (p. 35) The community piece is essential here. “…children build concepts about characters, events and phenomena in the world with each other before and while they are building these understandings as individuals….In scope and sequence, it [story dictation and acting] is the perfect all-inclusive comprehensive curriculum and method of teaching that encompasses all children in learning.” (p. 38)
As I I read Gil’s book, I marked up and flagged dozens of pages, some to share with teachers and some with parents. While I can’t include every wonderful, useful, enlightening idea I’d like, two powerful conclusions are important to emphasize. First, we as teachers knew we were onto something great when we started SD/SA, and now we can be even more sure of its value. (We’re doing story dictation now with the grandmas and grandpas, with the children acting out the senior’s stories!) Secondly, both teachers and parents can support our children’s language development in powerful ways. Reading aloud is one you already know to do, but taking story dictation is one you might not have tried yet. Dictation alone might be satisfying, but if you can find a way to act out stories, even better!
I couldn’t resist—one more powerful passage that expresses a truth we see and try to nurture at All Seasons:
“Vygotsky and Mrs. Paley teach us that assembling children in a group and presenting lessons does not make a community. …Community means recognizing the interdependence of participants; children want and depend on one another’s help in growing up. Dramatizing ideas provides the necessary structure for such a learning community, as it requires words to portray and examine ideas under a teacher’s direction. Dramatizing stories provides the unique opportunity for children to show one another and their teacher what their thinking looks like, and to serve as one another’s lifeline in their next steps growing up in school.” [Emphasis mine]