Erikson mourns the loss of world-renowned educator and writer, Vivian Gussin Paley

Erikson joins the international early childhood education community in mourning the death of Vivian Gussin Paley, who passed away on Friday, July 26 at the age of 90. Vivian was a world-renowned educator and writer, and she was the first recipient of the Spirit of Erikson award in 1987.

Two years after receiving the distinguished honor from Erikson, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her pivotal work in listening to and understanding young children in school. Her publications created groundbreaking descriptions of how young children reason, think, solve problems, and develop into articulate, creative, powerful thinkers from the age of 3 onward. Paley’s written works included essays in the New York Times and Harvard Educational Review, as well as Young Children and countless others.

Here in Chicago, Erikson students and alums utilize her teachings across the arc of their academic studies and practices. “Over the course of the master’s degree programs offered at Erikson, all of our graduate students read several of Vivian Paley’s books in our courses and study her methods of learning to listen to young children,” said Dr. Gillian McNamee, Erikson professor and director of the Institute’s Teacher Education program. Her writing and thinking are also an integral part of Erikson’s Language and Literacy professional development work in Chicago Public Schools.

Central to Vivian’s work was understanding how to cultivate rich, fantasy play and its companion activities of storytelling and story acting.  Her core activities have become the basis of Boston Public Schools’ early childhood curriculum under the direction of Jason Sachs in an initiative called “Boston Listens.” The program builds storytelling and acting into all Boston early childhood classrooms from preschool through 2nd grade, and incorporates parent participation into these activities. Cities across the country and the world, including London, Houston, and New York City, have strong networks of schools and teachers benefiting from her work.

Vivian’s writings examine every aspect of classroom life, including how children build friendship, and how teachers can create morally responsive classrooms where all children are included in the success of each other’s learning. She modeled how to lead Socratic-style discussions with young children around questions that emerge in literature, as well as issues that emerge in pretend play.

Erikson Institute honored Vivian again in 2007, when we awarded her an honorary doctorate degree at that year’s commencement ceremony and she delivered the keynote address. She was a regular donor to our Annual giving program, and believed deeply in Erikson’s mission to prepare education professionals to work with children and families in every setting they enter. She visited Erikson numerous times to meeting with students in integrative seminars over the years, and placed our students into internships in her classroom when she was teaching.

“Vivian Paley was a giant in the field who changed the way we understand the possibilities of early education for all children,” said Geoffrey A. Nagle, President and CEO of Erikson. “Her work and methods of learning are vital to the curriculum here at Erikson, and we are deeply grateful for her impact and legacy.”

Vivian will be buried in Chicago this coming week. More information is here. If you are an Erikson alum, we encourage you to share how Vivian has impacted your work by emailing [email protected]

Here’s what a few Erikson students and alums have shared about Vivian’s contributions to the field:

“Vivian is an example of what we all hope to be—translating the truth of childhood for the rest of the world to understand.” -Leslie Katch, Erikson alumna, MS Child Development ’05, PhD ‘12

“As an owner of an English language immersion program for young children in Taipei…discovering Paley’s storytelling/story acting curriculum was a pivotal moment in our evolution as a learning community. Through Paley’s work, we found a framework that so elegantly and efficiently combined sociocultural theory, project-based learning, and language & literacy development all in a playful learning package.” -Ronald Cheng, current student in Erikson’s MS Early Childhood Education program

“Through reading Paley’s books, it feels as if we have jumped light years ahead in our own development. She’s our hero as educators. I’m so grateful to have learned from faculty and students at Erikson, where Vivian Paley’s work plays a huge part in the curriculum and teaching.” -Lynette Perlikiewicz, Erikson alumna, MS Early Childhood Education ’16

(Header photo by Chris Kirzeder) (2nd photo is Vivian Paley [left] with Erikson co-founder Maria Piers receiving the Spirit of Erikson award in 1987)