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The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms

reviewed by Lynn Bagwell & Betsy Cahill - March 27, 2017

coverTitle: The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms
Author(s): Gillian Dowley McNamee
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022626095X, Pages: 200, Year: 2015
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The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms focuses on children’s narrated stories and how educators can use them as a key part of their literacy programs. Gillian Dowley McNamee has provided an important guide for early childhood educators as they strengthen their pedagogy in the critical areas of oral language development, dramatic play, and emergent literacy using storytelling or story acting. Drawing from the work of Vivian Gussin Paley and Lev Vygotsky, she examines children’s storytelling within the context of preschools serving families and children living in poverty. The book shares vignettes of classroom interactions with a Head Start teacher and her students as they engage in imagining, telling, listening, performing, and exchanging ideas. This equates to “learning through interaction” (p. 9). The author’s lens for her research is inclusive practices that support all children and validate developmentally effective practices during today’s era of accountability.


McNamee begins with an overview of the work of Paley and Vygotsky by connecting theories of play and the zone of proximal development to excerpts from children's conversations. This gives readers a clear understanding of these multifaceted learning theories. She claims that, "the cornerstone to young children’s learning is dramatic play re-envisioned in written form that children listen to and study as they enact the words” (p. 14). Throughout the volume, the author threads various discussions of accountability concerns while early childhood educators prepare young children for the readiness skills they now require for kindergarten. This is a concern for Head Start as our national craze for academic achievement trumps the long-term benefits already attributed to these types of programs.


In Chapter Two, McNamee presents the professional development she offers to Head Start teachers. These educators strive to incorporate the Common Core State Standards into their teaching methods. Simultaneously, they practice child-centered teaching practices that are also effective on a developmental basis. The author reminds us that learning is never linear as is commonly proposed by learning outcome graphs. Instead, it happens when “one gets stuck, confused, and then, after some time and effort, surges ahead with moments of insight” (p. 20). Students take steps backward to connect with earlier steps of mastery. Then they regroup and reorganize before taking new steps forward. As a result, a single test score should never determine teaching quality.


A framework for storytelling is described in the third chapter through to the seventh chapter. Story acting is a fundamental part of the literacy curriculum. Using a balanced literacy approach as her platform, McNamee illustrates how dictation and dramatization become vehicles for children to transform their experiences into words. This transformative process creates abstracts of children’s ideas, which can then be examined by others, revised upon, and even expanded. By following this process, children are engaged in multiple aspects of literacy. This includes drafting ideas, developing vocabulary, listening actively, and organizing ideas into logical sequences while revisiting their own thinking on a daily basis.


McNamee models the process of asking questions, prompting, and dictating her children’s stories. She writes observations of how her children’s stories stem from their home lives and their school socialization. They also include poems, songs, and books that are incorporated during school time. Literature, language, math, science, and social studies concepts are intertwined within these children’s narratives. Social justice is also central to this pedagogy. Children are assigned participatory roles and engage in friendships that are built on acceptance, respect, and interest. They also focus on what each child contributes to the classroom community. According to the author, dramatizing narrated stories and the dictation process are especially important for English language learners. They hear their thoughts being translated into English and socially interact with their peers during various dramatizations. Perhaps most importantly, children “do this complex work of thinking and learning with one another in a rich activity, not in individual discrete skill-building exercises” (p. 60).


Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight provide encouragement for early childhood educators who need the validation of curricular practices centering on children. McNamee reminds us that teaching in this manner is not always smooth. Also, this type of child engagement may seem messy to outsiders. Why do teachers proceed with storytelling and story acting when it becomes somewhat chaotic? The author responds to this question by stating that, “because the children want [storytelling and story acting] so intensely and the children benefit from it so much” (p. 108). The key for proceeding with storytelling and story acting is recognizing that teachers need modeling, practice, and reflection to become effective at this skill. There is a balancing act between creative expression and structure so that these activities become a sustained learning experience.


McNamee honors the disposition of curiosity in The High-Performing Preschool. She emphasizes how young children have questions for making meaning of their experiences and their environments. The contexts of these children’s lives include poverty, trauma, and violent home lives. Despite these challenges, they enter school ready to create, make friends, ask questions, and pursue answers to these inquiries that are part of their lives. McNamee states that, “[a] child’s thinking is a starting point, a beginning, that will grow stronger and more interesting when shaped and transformed with the help of others” (p. 124).


The book concludes with an explanation of how storytelling and story acting can become the foundations of a classroom community. McNamee again cites Vygotsky and Paley by stating that a community is not simply built by bringing together a group of children and presenting lessons. Instead, “[c]ommunity for teachers means utilizing the human need to belong, to be part of a group” (p. 142). Dramatization provides the necessary opportunities for children to examine their own thinking, to interrogate the thinking of their peers, and to support each other’s ideas in the process. Additionally, the author explains that assessment comes from evaluating the length, depth, and grammatical correctness of the dictated stories over the course of the school year. However, the most important area of growth for these children and their teacher cannot be measured by summative assessments or formative assessments alone. Instead, McNamee argues that the most significant outcome is that a true classroom community is built on relationships, friendships, and memories. Dramatizing stories has contributed “to the achievement of all children, especially the most vulnerable” (p. 154).


McNamee provides teachers with theories for incorporating children’s ideas, stories, cultures, and actions into the curriculum. Many educators may already believe in the power of listening, dictating children’s stories, and providing them with the sufficient amount of time to dramatize these narratives without being able to verbalize why this is such an important part of children’s growth. After reading The High-Performing Preschool, early childhood educators can articulate the positive outcomes of this child-centered teaching approach. These outcomes encompass all learning domains that are so vital to a child’s education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 27, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21878, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 5:52:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Lynn Bagwell
    New Mexico State University
    E-mail Author
    LYNN BAGWELL, Ph.D., is the Assistant Clinical Director of Early Childhood and Elementary Education at New Mexico State University. Her areas of specialization and interest include teacher education, non-licensure early childhood education, context-based curriculum development, and Project-Based Learning.
  • Betsy Cahill
    New Mexico State University
    E-mail Author
    BESTY CAHILL is the J. Paul Taylor Professor of Early Childhood Education at New Mexico State University and serves as the Director of the BA, MA and Ph.D. programs in early care and education. She has been the Principal Investigator of over $10 million in grants including Head Start. Cahill is the co-author with Jozwiak and Theilheimer of Continuity in Children’s Worlds: Choices and Consequences for Early Childhood Settings (2016).
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