Who of us cannot remember the pain and humiliation of being rejected by our classmates? However thick-skinned or immune to such assaults we may become as adults, the memory of those early exclusions is as palpable to each of us today as it is common to human experience. We remember the uncertainty of separating from our home and entering school as strangers and, more than the relief of making friends, we recall the cruel moments of our own isolation as well as those children we knew were destined to remain strangers.
In this book Vivian Paley employs a unique strategy to probe the moral dimensions of the classroom. She departs from her previous work by extending her analysis to children through the fifth grade, all the while weaving remarkable fairy tale into her narrative description. Paley introduces a new rule—“You can’t say you can’t play”—to her kindergarten classroom and solicits the opinions of older children regarding the fairness of such a rule. We hear from those who are rejected as well as those who do the rejecting. One child, objecting to the rule, says, “It will be fairer, but how are we going to have any fun?” Another child defends the principle of classroom bosses as a more benign way of excluding the unwanted.
In a brilliant twist, Paley mixes fantasy and reality, and introduces a new voice into the debate: Magpie, a magical bird, who brings lonely people to a place where a full share of the sun is rightfully theirs. Myth and morality begin to proclaim the same message and the schoolhouse will be the crucible in which the new order is tried. A struggle ensues and even the Magpie stories cannot avoid the scrutiny of this merciless pack of social philosophers who will not be easily caught in a morality tale.
You Can’t Say You Can’t Play speaks to some of our most deeply held beliefs. Is exclusivity part of human nature? Can we legislate fairness and still nurture creativity and individuality? Can children be freed from the habit of rejection? These are some of the questions. The answers are to be found in the words of Paley’s schoolchildren and in the wisdom of their teacher who respectfully listens to them.
Vivian Gussin Paley’s book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play is arresting in its title, magical in its appeal, and inspiring in its message… [It] illustrates how the teacher’s art can attack the evil of exclusion at its childhood root. Now, Mrs. Paley, we need your help in weeding out the pernicious practices that afflict the adults of our exclusionary society.
In instituting the [‘you can’t say you can’t play’] rule, Paley was challenging the assumption that cruelty in childhood is to be expected and that children should fend for themselves when it happens—notions she believes unfairly relieve adults of their duty to intervene. And she rejects the idea that children could benefit from such experiences.
[Paley] is an esteemed kindergarten teacher whose previous writing has been about using children’s stories and fantasies as vehicles for learning. Here she interweaves her private reflections, her conversations with children, and a story she spins, to tell what happened when she instituted a radical new order in her classroom. Her new rule prohibited children from excluding someone who wanted to play. The implications of such a non-exclusion rule are profound; most of the children resisted at first, but with discussion began to adjust their behavior and truly experience the benefits of making no one a stranger. Paley makes a powerful statement in this slim book: to teachers, parents, and society at large.
In this brief, ethereal and tender account of social relations among children, Paley…explores how to keep students from being ignored by their classmates. Woven throughout Paley’s lessons is a parable about loneliness and rejection, which enables readers to share a child’s view of the world. What the kids have to say is enchanting and surprisingly wise.
- 144 pages
- 6 x 9 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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