Listen to the Children

By Mary Koepke — September 01, 1991 21 min read

Since 1979, Vivian Gussin Paley has been capturing the candid voices of Eddies and Freds in her books about life in the classroom. The Chicago kindergarten teacher shatters the myth that elementary education is about as cerebral as babysitting. Remember the old insult: Teach kindergarten long enough and you start talking like a kindergartener? Well, say that to Paley, and she’d probably take it as a compliment. In her world, kindergarteners are the ultimate original thinkers, and kindergarten is a glorious place for the intellectual and philosophical growth of both children and teachers.

Paley also breaks the ageist stereotype that older people are only interested in coasting onto the golf course. She published her first book at age 50. And two years ago, at 60, she became the first classroom teacher to win the prestigious MacArthur “genius” award. The honor, bestowed annually on scholars, poets, activists, and scientists—extraordinary thinkers and doers in any field—comes with a cash award and no strings attached. Winners, who are nominated, evaluated, and chosen by mysterious, MacArthur-appointed nominators and committees, get anywhere from $150,000 to $375,000. Paley received a sum equal to about 11 years of an average teacher’s salary—a whopping $355,000.

Instead of retiring early on her laurels or taking time off to focus on her writing, Paley is still mixing up the finger paint and setting out the blocks for little people in the classroom.

Who is this teacher? And what is it that makes people think of her as a genius? Last June, I spent a few days with Paley to find out.

Just a mile from the shores of Lake Michigan, the private University of Chicago Laboratory School stands like a Gothic castle across a broad, grassy median on the edge of the century-old university campus. Ivy has climbed the school’s massive stone walls, reaching all the way to the second-story windows of Paley’s classroom.

Inside, the teacher sits at a table, listening to a wide-eyed, wispy little girl tell a story about a family of field mice. Paley writes down every word the girl says, while the other 22 children spin a noisy web of activity around them.

“I am bloody!” a boy sings in delight as he oozes red finger paint between his stubby fingers. Others duel with umbrellas, dress teddy bears in doll clothes, plunk on a miniature piano, and bake sheets of cookie-shaped clay lumps in an oven made of giant blocks.

Paley takes the chaos in stride, donned casually in a pair of white cotton slacks, a plain short-sleeved shirt, and her favorite shoes—sneakers. Amazingly lithe and active—only the streaks of gray in her tightly curled hair and the wrinkles around her face speak of age—Paley reminds me of the Arthurian wizard, Merlin, who goes through life backward. Maybe it’s the medieval architecture or the magic that the children use to turn clay into cookies, but I have the strange feeling that if I were to come back next year, Paley would actually be a year younger than she is now.

As she moves about the room, I begin to notice another unusual thing about her: She doesn’t smile at the children. And although she is a warm, responsive teacher, Paley doesn’t engage in habitual hugging or hair-tousling. My behavior around children is quite different. I start grinning like a carved pumpkin as soon as kids open their mouths. Everything they say just seems so amazing. I have always considered myself an ardent admirer of children, but here, in Paley’s class, I suddenly detect a hint of condescension underlying my knee-jerk, “aren’t-they-cute” response.

Cute isn’t profound. Cute is just cute.

Paley, on the other hand, gives the immediate impression that “kidtalk” is serious business. As she listens to the children’s stories about mice, kittens, sisters, and bad guys, Paley looks truly engrossed, like a cultural anthropologist witnessing the ritual behavior of a previously undiscovered, highly civilized people. She asks questions and comments on their perceptions without a shred of condescension in her voice. She does smile. But she smiles with them, not at them.

It’s no wonder Paley is, as Lab School principal Revira Singer says, “beloved” by her students.

Paley’s respect for children and her genuine interest in what they have to say are part of her genius. But according to Paley, she didn’t acquire those qualities until halfway through her career.

As we crunch across the gravel playground to watch her class play on the monkey bars, Paley talks about her career. She talks a lot. But unlike many loquacious souls, she doesn’t quick-fire her words. She bakes them slowly and deliberately. Her deep, husky voice sounds like a cross between Lauren Bacall’s and my husband’s Jewish grandmother’s—a voice made of meat and orseradish.

This sharp, intense woman can’t tell her story from beginning to end in one calm, quiet sitting. This is, after all, a school day. So Paley and I share conversation in snatches, during recess, over lunch, and after school while walking Cass, her dog. The accompanying soundtrack is a wild one, peppered with crows cawing, Cass panting, and frequent interruptions by her favorite people: “Mrs. Paley, can you open my milk?” “Can you tie my shoe?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” “Watch me, Mrs. Paley!”

Paley married young and slid into a traditional teaching career without much thought. While raising two sons, she taught in public schools in Louisiana and New York before coming back to her hometown to teach at the Lab School. “I didn’t have the kind of curiosity I should have had,” she says of her early years in the classroom. “I just sort of followed along, surviving. I was nice to children, but I didn’t wonder a great deal about what we should be doing or how we should be doing it.”

In the mid-1960s, several experiences woke her up. The country was experimenting: Men began wearing their hair long, women began wearing their skirts short, and schools began adding sex education to the curriculum. Paley got caught up in the latter. As part of a pioneering, pilot program, she was asked to teach kindergarteners about sex.

The children listened to Paley’s lessons. They learned grown-up words—like intercourse, penis, and vagina—and what the words meant. But after class was over, the children told outrageous tales whenever they talked about conception and childbirth. Babies come from watermelon seeds, egg shells, and dinosaur bones, they would say, seemingly in earnest.

Paley was astounded. Although the children knew the “real” story, they still preferred their own versions. “Well, I was hooked,” Paley recalls. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to give any answers. I wanted to find out what they thought. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

At about the same time, a high school science teacher approached Paley with an odd request. His grandchild had just turned five, and he realized that he knew nothing about how little children think. He wanted to sit in on a few of Paley’s classes.

Watching the older man interact with children was an inspiration for Paley. Truly curious, he asked open-ended questions and listened to their answers with few expectations of what they would say. “I saw true Socratic and non-judgmental questioning of children,” she recalls.

Through these experiences, Paley began to take her subject—the children—seriously. And it was then that her adventure began.

The best adventures ultimately require one difficult risk: a willingness to look deeply and critically at oneself. As Paley began to listen to children, she also began to hear herself. And she didn’t always like what she was hearing—about race, for instance.

Schools were becoming increasingly integrated, and Paley’s attention focused on racial issues. She began asking herself how well she, as a white teacher, was relating to black children in her class. How, for example, did she react when a black boy wore a “Supernigger” T-shirt to school? How did she feel when another screamed, “I don’t have to listen to no white lady!” What should she say when pale-skinned Paul told brown-skinned Alma that she looked like chocolate pudding? What was the right way to behave?

Admitting to herself that she felt awkward with black children, she began to examine her feelings and responses. The process of self-evaluation and the discovery of her own biases and shortcomings became the subject of her first book, simply called White Teacher (Harvard University Press, 1979).

Paley wrote from the heart, capturing and questioning her experiences in the classroom over a five-year period. Reading it is like perusing a diary.

    When Valerie told Fred she wanted a white partner, I was silent. I did not know what needed to be said to help both of them. If she had told Fred his painting was scribble-scrabble, I might have said, “Fred, Valerie thinks you’re painting scribblescrabble. Is that what you’re doing?” Then Fred could have told us how he felt. But I could not transfer this matter-of-fact, non-judgmental description of what was being said when race or color was involved. When Denise became annoyed with Valerie and told her not to sit next to her because this was not a “brown” chair, I responded with equal annoyance. “Valerie may sit wherever she wishes, Denise. Please don’t tell people where to sit.” I saw I was purposely avoiding the part about the brown chair.

Like many whites, Paley had grown up believing that it was impolite to talk about racial differences, to say “black” in front of a black person. Politically correct teachers didn’t see black or white children, they just saw children. “Color blindness was the essence of the creed,” according to Paley.

But she began to wonder how this color blindness affected children of color. By ignoring the unmistakable blackness of her students’ skin, was she, in effect, teaching them that there was something wrong with being black? “As I watched and reacted to black children, I came to see a common need in every child,” she wrote. “Anything a child feels is different about himself which cannot be referred to spontaneously, casually, naturally, and uncritically by the teacher can become a cause for anxiety and an obstacle to learning.”

She began to experiment quite simply, using every chance she had to mention the words black and white. “Steven, that orange shirt looks good on your brown skin,” she would say.

Paley noticed that the more she talked about being white and being black, the less children seemed to attach negative associations to the words themselves. By acknowledging racial differences without using them as the basis of judgment, Paley was learning to demystify race and to truly relate to her students as individuals.

Among many other things, she was discovering how to become a better teacher.

It was just the beginning.

It’s a cloudless Monday in June, and Paley’s students have just gone to music class. In the quiet, empty room, Paley walks over to a cupboard and gets out a small, inexpensive cassette tape recorder. “This was the next turning point,” she says, holding up the gadget.

The self-evaluative process of writing White Teacher set fire to Paley’s curiosity. Wanting to be more aware of how she responded in general to children in group discussions, she turned on a tape recorder—and left it running. Pushing the record button changed her life. “My tape recorder did what nothing else could do: give me criticism,” she recalls.

She began taping every day and transcribing the tapes every night. Like a rabbi who spends a year pondering one line of the Torah, Paley would analyze the things she said to children. Was she being fair? Was she really listening to them? “I heard the querulousness, the critical undertone in my voice,” she admits. “The answer was implicit in my questions, and the children’s voices showed that they were looking to see if their answers were `right.’ “ Furthermore, Paley noticed that she didn’t always take the children’s questions seriously. Sometimes, she wouldn’t even answer them.

Identifying and admitting her own mistakes was just the first step. In a brilliant move—one that is both obvious and unimaginable—she shared her confessions with the children. “I was listening to our conversation on the tape recorder last night,” she would say, “and I realized that I didn’t really answer that question you asked.”

The children were fascinated by these disclosures. “It was as if I had just given them a prize,” she remarks brightly. Her willingness to include them in the process of discovery sent a strong message to children: “Everything you say is of prime importance and must be understood by you and me.”

The tape recorder, with its wondrous ability to replay, also gave her the time to hear the children’s point of view. Her transcripts captured what she calls “high drama” in the kindergarten: philosophical discussions about God, fairies, and robbers, as well as speculative discussions about whether stones melt when they are boiled.

Paley presented her discoveries in her second book, Wally’s Stories: Conversations in the Kindergarten (Harvard University Press, 1981).

    “Whoever sits in the time-out chair will die for six years until the magic spell is broken,” [Wally] says one day after a session on the chair.
    “They turn into a chair,” Eddie decides, “and then God breaks the spell.”
    “Not God,” corrects Wally. “God is for harder things.”
    “Fairies could do it,” says Lisa. “Not the tooth kind.”
    “It is a fairy,” Wally agrees. “The one for magic spells.”
    The children like Wally’s explanations for events better than mine, so I give fewer and fewer interpretations each day and instead listen to Wally’s. The familiar chord he strikes stimulates others to speak with candor, and I am the beneficiary.

For several years after completing Wally’s Stories, Paley turned her attention exclusively to observing and examining the differences between the behavior of boys and girls. And in 1984, her third book, Boys & Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner (University of Chicago Press), was born.

At first, Paley’s new editor thought the book was too sexist. After all, it was full of anecdotes about girls playing with baby dolls, while boys transmogrified into Incredible Hulks and smashed blocks around. “The editor wanted extra material on what I thought should be done to elevate the consciousness of boys and girls,” Paley recalls.

But as with her earlier work, Paley preferred to ask questions rather than supply the answers. As always, her probing unearthed more questions about how her own perceptions affected her role as teacher. The book was published as Paley wanted it.

    The boys have been trying to leave the doll corner since they came to kindergarten. They are superheroes now—or feel they should be …
    This year, I have tried to examine boys’ play with more objectivity than in the past.... If I have not yet learned to love Darth Vader, I have at least made some useful discoveries while watching him at play. As I interrupt less, it becomes clear that boys’ play is serious drama, not morbid mischief. Its rhythms and images are often discordant to me, but I must try to make sense of a style that, after all, belongs to half the population of the classroom.
    It is easier said than done. The further away a boy moves from fantasy play, the more I appreciate him.... I seem to admire boys most when they are not playing as young boys play. It is a conflict I must face because superhero play has increased in the past decade and begins at an earlier age.

While working on Boys & Girls, Paley realized that her kindergarteners already had developed stereotypical ideas about sex roles. “By age 5, the die is cast,” she says. “I was getting the end of the story, and I was curious to find out what the beginning was.” So she asked to spend a year teaching preschoolers in the Lab’s lower school.

Paley ended up staying for six years. There she wrote her subsequent three books: Mollie is Three: Growing Up in School (University of Chicago Press, 1986), Bad Guys Don’t Have Birthdays (University of Chicago Press, 1988), and The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter (Harvard University Press, 1990).

Once again, as the following excerpt from Bad Guys shows, Paley’s tape recorder captured the fears, dreams, and logic of the culture of childhood embedded in her students’ fantasy play and invented stories.

    Though it has taken Fredrick two weeks to mention [his mother’s] new baby, his sullen restlessness has already become a classroom fact. He paces the room, glowering, as if expecting a fight, and then sits for long periods at the story table, covering small papers with black crayon marks.
    “Do you want to tell a story, Fredrick?”
    “I hate stories.”
    “Well, if you change your mind....”
    “All right, I changed my mind,” he blurts out, beginning his story quickly.
    “A baby cries and the mommy has to go get him. Then she has to snuggle him. Then He-Man tries to hurt the baby but he doesn’t. Then He-Man has a fight with every bad guy.” He pushes his chair back noisily. “And don’t ask me anymore! And don’t ask me if I’m He-Man because I’m not! I’m always the baby from now on. And don’t ask me!” He runs into the block area and lies down in a house Mollie has just built.
    “This is my rainbow house,” she says.
    “Do you need a baby? I mean, I’m not the baby! I am the baby. Where’s my bed? I’m crying and you have to snuggle me. You didn’t bring me the blue blanket.” He begins to cry.
    “Are you really crying, Fredrick?” Mollie asks.
    “No! Can’t you just snuggle me, Mollie? Can’t you bring me the blue one?”
    “Here it is, little snuggle baby,” Mollie murmurs. “Here’s a nice beddy for you. Don’t cry.” She smooths his hair and covers him with the blue blanket.
    “Mollie,” Fredrick says calmly. “I’m the new borned person, OK? No father and no brother. Mommy and the baby. Don’t let anyone come in, OK?”
    Mollie begins to hum “Mmm-mmm. No daddies—no baddies—mmm.” She adds more blocks to the house while Fredrick moans and rocks under the blanket.

Over and over, Paley and her tape recorder witnessed fantasy coming to the rescue of children. Words from adults often failed to provide solace, say, to a little boy who was afraid of losing his mother’s love. Whereas fantasy allowed the child to actually become the baby again, to be coddled and comforted.

As Paley observed the preschoolers, she became convinced that children use stories, make-believe characters, and plots to express their own fears, desires, and doubts. Her students disclosed much more of their feelings as characters in their stories and fantasy play than in any “real” conversations.

Paley rings a brass bell. The children stop playing and pull their tiny chairs into a circle around a large, green rug. Everyone knows the routine for this ritual: It’s time to act out the stories they dictated to Paley earlier in the day. The author plays the lead, and the other necessary actors are chosen by counting around the circle.

Onto the green “stage” scampers the wispy redhead who wrote the tale about four newborn field mice. Before Paley can begin narrating, an argument breaks out. It seems that the little mouse has planted her best friends strategically in the circle so that they—and no other children—will be chosen to nibble and squeak with her on stage.

The other children cry rat.

Paley reaches for her tape recorder to capture the ensuing discussion. She is collecting material for her new project, a book about peer friendship and rejection that she is tentatively calling, You Can’t Say, “You Can’t Play.”

Not surprisingly, the project began with a kind of confession. “I didn’t quite get it right,” she says simply. “In the epilogue of White Teacher, I say that adults haven’t figured out how to live fairly with people but that children figure it out every day in their play.” She leans forward, whispering as if sharing a vital secret: “But they haven’t yet!”

Children do reject other children, routinely and ruthlessly. “You aren’t my best friend,” they taunt. “Only best friends allowed in this game.” Children set up “no trespassing” signs so strong and clear that even adults hesitate to enter.

“Teachers are not ambivalent about hitting or destroying property,” Paley says. “Children know that hitting is not allowed. But a set of behaviors that is far more damaging is rejection. Yet every teacher I know is ambivalent about interfering when it comes to best friendship.”

Furthermore, she realized that society puts the blame on the victim. Adults teach the lonely child how to be accepted, never questioning the social skills or responsibility of the group.

Paley decided to intervene by clearly stating that in the very public place of school, rejection is not allowed. Her new line of action is a departure from the patterns of her past. In her listen-and-observe role, she felt it was important to let children figure out how to solve problems their own way. But she now realizes, she says, that “the victim can’t wait for the group to decide that it doesn’t have the right to do it.”

Last January, Paley banned rejection in her kindergarten classroom. “You can’t say, `You can’t play’” became the rule. Since then, she has been filling notebook after notebook with observations and transcribing tape after tape of dialogue on the subject.

The “you can’t say” rule has changed a lot of things in the classroom. Paley has witnessed miracles. The smart, pretty girl who was so good at excluding other children that Paley says she could have run a “school for rejection” has become a close friend of the girl she most often tormented. But Paley has also seen problems. Children with power often had a hard time playing by the rule. It’s not fair, they insisted. Why couldn’t they choose not to play with someone?

True to form, Paley took their question seriously. So seriously, in fact, that she grabbed her tape recorder and opened the discussion with older children in other classes. “Here’s what I’m doing with my kindergarteners. What do you think?” she asked. “Is this rule fair?”

“I’ve really come back to what I started in White Teacher,” she says. “White Teacher was entirely a question of human morality. What is fair? What is right? And how can we discover it? This has become the most important aspect of the classroom and of my writing.”

With a bulging satchel of transcripts and full notebooks, she’s ready to spend the summer at a country hideaway revisiting the moral landscape of the classroom she and her students have cohabited. At this point, she’s not sure what she will find. All she knows for certain is that thinking about the issue is the right thing to do.

Paley sweeps through the room quickly, pushing in chairs, collecting trash, flipping out the lights. It has been a long day in the classroom, but she doesn’t seem tired. She looks ready to begin working.

In a way, that’s what she’ll do. Besides being a full-time teacher, she is, after all, a writer, a runner, a wife, and a grandmother. She is also frequently called on to lead workshops and address educators at conferences around the country.

What does she do, I wonder, compose book chapters while jogging? Write speeches in her sleep? Her energy and intensity seem remarkable enough. But Paley is quick to dispel any superteacher myth. “I’m an ordinary person who has found a focus,” she insists.

Paley is also quick to disassociate herself from the genius label. Although grateful for the sense of financial security the MacArthur award has given her, she talks about it in a modest, awkward way, as if uncertain why she was chosen.

So what is it about Paley that is extraordinary? In just one decade of study, she has learned many things about the process of teaching and the culture of childhood. But Paley’s genius doesn’t reside in what she knows. After all, the theories and discoveries about teaching and play outlined in her books are fascinating but not entirely new.

Ironically, Paley’s brilliance lies in her willingness to admit what she doesn’t know.

And that’s no easy feat. Too often, teachers fall prey to the know-it-all syndrome. Perhaps it’s natural; the label “teacher” almost implies it. Isn’t a teacher someone who has knowledge and passes it on to others, someone who has the skills to mold a student’s character? Isn’t a teacher the one who knows the answers?

I remember during my own teaching years being much more interested in focusing on what I was doing right, not wrong. Most of my colleagues seemed to feel the same way. Of course, we were always striving to be better teachers, but we presumed we were basically on the right track.

Paley, on the other hand, presumes nothing. She exemplifies a “habit of self-reflection,” says Barbara Bowman, director of graduate studies at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based center for the study of young children that recently honored Paley with its annual award. “Vivian simply doesn’t accept everything that comes down the pike. As she sees things, she thinks about them.”

Paley is constantly observing, analyzing, and evaluating her own actions; unafraid to ask some basic questions: “Is what I say fair?” “Is what I’m doing right?” And she is willing to turn to children for the answers.

“My experience has taught me my enormous fallibility,” she says. “It is fascinating to me, not negative. I have learned the incredible effect it has on children when errors are freely admitted and treated only as learning opportunities. And what a wonderful adventure inward it is to keep asking, `Why am I doing what I’m doing? What does it mean?’”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Listen to the Children