Book Review: The Girl with the Brown Crayon

It’s not hard to guide your students through a dramatic process, but it’s also not easy and can be very intimidating.

My colleague and I take this learning process for you, the teacher, very seriously.  PictureBook Plays isn’t just about creating an important opportunity for a child, it’s about helping you gain the confidence and the skills to bring about the opportunity.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I just finished reading The Girl with the Brown Crayon by Vivian Gussin Paley.  Paley is a talented writer and quite clearly a talented teacher (although it looks like she has retired as an in-classroom teacher).  Her talent stems not just from her ability to put into eloquent phrases her detailed observations of the children in her classes, but to look back into herself and actively learn as she teaches.  Her students seem to teach her just as much as she teaches them.

This particular book is about the interpretation of stories and their characters and how children (and ultimately herself) learn to develop an aptitude for using these same stories and characters as metaphors for their own lives.  These metaphors are a way of shaping understanding, of–to put it in art education speak–making meaning.

She focuses on Reeny, a brown girl (I write “brown” because she spends part of her days finding the perfect color brown crayon with which to draw her skin) with a quick mind and an aptitude for making insightful, unexpected, and honest observations.  As a class, they wrote to Leo Lionni, the author around whom their curriculum focuses but he is too ill to reply and the child is heart-broken.

Reeny has engaged in a major struggle with Leo Lionni.  First, she believes that he has reneged on the promise of her dream; she in turn denies the premise of his first book.  Magically, the air is cleared and Reeny resumes the task at hand in a more balanced position.  Ultimately, uh-huh uh-huh, it is the reader who interprets the writer.

Did you notice the “uh-huh uh-huh” part?  That’s a singsong phrase from Reeny that the classroom slowly adopts as their own, as does Paley.  It is a verbal heartbeat that thumps along with their friendships and learning processes.  The bolding is mine, because this insight is so important to PictureBook Plays.  Each play contains the potential for hundreds of interpretations because every child will see it from a new perspective.  It’s up to you to allow these interpretations.

Later in the book she writes,

I too require passion in the classroom.  I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams. To invent is to come alive. Even more than the unexamined classroom, I resist the uninvented classroom.

Paley has identified one of the keys to PictureBook Plays: giving space for invention and learning to “know each other’s dreams.”  It is only by takig the risk, placing yourself before your students and honestly guiding them through a self-discovery process that they beging to reveal their dreams to you.  And once you know their dreams, you can help them explore these dreams as they discover themselves in the world.

So, this brings me back to you.  Paley manages to regularly delve inwards, exploring her own struggles and successes as a teacher, and rejoices when her students teach her something new.

Rejoice in your own learning process; give your students permission to teach you.  And read The Girl with the Brown Crayon.  It will only take a couple of evenings for a worthwhile perspective.

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