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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

Reviews: New, Old Ways of Looking at Teaching

Philip W. Jackson and Vivian Gussin Paley: These two Chicago educators at first glance could not have more disparate perspectives. Jackson is a philosopher/professor of education at the university level; Paley, a kindergarten teacher engaged in the challenge of teaching 5-year-olds to play with one another.
Yet their new books—as slim in volume as they are rich in content—have much to reveal about the long-term consequences and the accruing nature of the daily practice of teaching.

Untaught Lessons

In this compilation of four lectures delivered at Teachers College, Jackson focuses, in order, on a teacher remembered, a teacher immortalized in poetry, a teacher observed, and on himself.
Introspectively, he sifts through memories, thinks aloud, and poses questions. Why, he asks, do certain acts of teaching influence a student's life? And, what are the effects on teachers of engaging in teaching for a lifetime?
A 50-year-old memory of how his algebra teacher used to startle unsuspecting students with the stentorian reminder, “Keep your wits about you” sheds light, as do his musings on Galway Kinnell's “Schoolhouse.” The poem details the epiphany of a student whose experiences with a truth-seeking teacher—one whose quest for knowledge once baffled him—have come full circle. Visiting the old schoolhouse as an adult, remembering bits and pieces of what he was taught and how, he understands, if not what his old teacher was so passionate about, why.
Jackson tellingly relates that a similar lecture he once gave on this poem disappointed educational researchers who were expecting more scientific explanations of good teaching. So upset were they that they omitted his lecture from the official proceedings of the research conference.
While some readers will sympathize with the researchers' impatience, most will enjoy this thinker's soul-searching effort to understand his own “untaught lessons.” And they'll find reading the book a welcome opportunity to ponder their own.
Available from Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, for $11.95 (paper).

You Can't Say You Can't Play

Vivian Gussin Paley is a rare combination: MacArthur Prize winner, kindergarten teacher, ethicist, and civilizer. Every year she meets 25 fresh new faces—kindergartners who have to be convinced, no, have to discover for themselves, the virtues of the rule, “You can't say you can't play.”
With jealousy one of the most deeply felt emotions of their age, children know immediately that they want to be included in others' play but find it hard to give up the budding new joys of excluding others. Even those who buy into the technical merits of a rule that prohibits children from rejecting one another feel such a notion is idealistic and will never work!
A remarkably creative teacher and writer, Paley uses storytelling to build a more moral world in the classroom. (If not in kindergarten, where?)
Her Magpie stories are about a bird's exotic adventures, a lonely princess who wants to be a bird so she can fly away and get a playmate, and a boy who yearns to teach the monsters some lessons. Layered with subplots and imagery worthy of the Brothers Grimm, the Magpie tales are as big with these modern-day children as are Barney or other pop heroes. The kindergartners sense that these stories of rejection, love, cruelty, and triumph over great odds are about their lives.
In addition to the morality tales she weaves for the children, Paley also tells her readers an engaging story about the personalities in her classroom. There are the rejected kids trying so hard to fit in and not knowing how, and there are those (wonderfully, still sweet) children whose superb abilities or looks somehow make them the natural selectors in the kindergarten world.
Often asked to publish a volume of stories that other teachers might use in the classroom, Paley has so far resisted. This book suggests that it is the interplay of individual teacher and individual students that creates the best stories. And the best teaching.
Available from Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 02138, for $15.95 (cloth).

Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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