Kenneth Bruffee has coined a celebrated aphorism: a necessary intermediary step on the way to effective independence is effective interdependence. Or, as Vivian Paley would put it, “When joined by a companion, loneliness vanishes, allowing goddesses to step forward and play a part in their stor[ies].” I heard Paley give an address in which she argued that children must learn to write stories and to play act in those stories. She said that this must happen even if school, with a capital “S,” works to prevent these ongoing novellas and dramas. Paley explained that, in order to join the community of learners, children have to know how to tell their stories and to perform their roles. They cannot lose faith in themselves, she proclaimed; they must have a role in the learning process. They need others; they must not be othered.
According to Paley, the disenfranchised, or othered, student is the student who has not been given a role to play and who has had her or his pen, pencil, or keyboard taken away. The teacher’s job, therefore, is to ensure that roles and partners are assigned, that writing utensils are available, and that there are neither disenfranchised nor violated students.
Naturally, I wish to suggest that the classroom is a site in which learners, like children, must be given a role and the tools for telling and playing out the stories of their lives. For Paley, this is a profound—almost spiritual—point, for she believes that through play everyone is saved from obscurity: “The moral universe rests upon the breath of schoolchildren.” That’s why she writes books about kids who pretend, like in The boy who would be a helicopter, and why she writes books advocating play, like You can’t say you can’t play.
Let’s think about Bruffee and Paley in our classrooms: collaboration and play will empower learners to narrate quite a positive story for our future.