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The High-Performing Preschool

Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms

With a Foreword by Michael Cole
The High-Performing Preschool takes readers into the lives of three- and four-year-old Head Start students during their first year of school and focuses on the centerpiece of their school day: story acting. In this activity, students act out stories from high-quality children’s literature as well as stories dictated by their peers. Drawing on a unique pair of thinkers—Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and renowned American teacher and educational writer Vivian G. Paley—Gillian Dowley McNamee elucidates the ways, and reasons, this activity is so successful. She shows how story acting offers a larger blueprint for curricula that helps ensure all preschools—not just those for society’s well-to-do—are excellent.
McNamee outlines how story acting cultivates children’s oral and written language skills. She shows how it creates a crucial opportunity for teachers to guide children inside the interior logic and premises of an idea, and how it fosters the creation of a literary community. Starting with Vygotsky and Paley, McNamee paints a detailed portrait of high-quality preschool teaching, showing how educators can deliver on the promise of Head Start and provide a setting for all young children to become articulate, thoughtful, and literate learners.  


“As I read Gillian Dowley McNamee’s latest book, The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms, I was reminded of a rose blossoming in time-lapse photography. At its center is the question she poses to young children, one child at a time: “Do you have a story to share?” Surrounding that center are layers of petals that illustrate why (i) asking this question in a classroom environment steeped in children’s literature and opportunities for play, (ii) listening to the child’s response, (iii) recording it, and (iv) supporting the child in dramatizing it in a meaningful and visual way with peers are efforts so vital to a young child’s learning and development. . . . McNamee offers those of us who believe that children learn through relationships a very powerful tool to grow the kinds of meaningful relationships within a learning community that make learning possible. This tool is simple. It is likely to be effective whether employed in a classroom full of active young children or in a focused small group. And it is useful to achieve multiple goals (e.g., to learn what the child is thinking about, what she knows, and where she is in her literacy development).”


“Increased academic pressures have forced many preschools and other programs for young children to engage in behaviors that those well versed in developmental appropriateness find troubling and ill-conceived. Yet as mandates to demonstrate student learning increase, many practitioners are not quite sure what to do. McNamee has provided a masterful blueprint grounded in theory and practice for those preschool teachers, administrators, and researchers who want to create learning spaces in which children are successful and supported. Organized into nine chapters, the book explores zones of proximal development, how acting out stories supports Common Core State Standards, ways to learn through stories, the introduction of storytelling and acting, changes in development, preparations for first grade, ways to stage stories, entry points for teachers, and classroom communities. The book is rich with examples and anecdotes, and McNamee presents a cogent and compelling picture of preschool programs serving low socioeconomic status students who achieve equity and excellence. . . . Highly recommended.”


“In the efforts to expand formal educational opportunities for young children, one critical question looms: what kind of experiences should they have in preschool? This question is particularly important for those who need preschool the most: children from low-income families and children whose first language is not English. Compelling and clear, with a rich and lively interplay of theory and practice, The High-Performing Preschool goes a long way toward answering that question.”

Benjamin Mardell, Lesley University

“Through her imaginary conversations with Vivian Paley and Lev Vygotsky, two path breakers in the field of education, McNamee illuminates the social nature of learning, some of the pitfalls of recent educational reform, and the pathways to human creativity. The High-Performing Preschool is a must-read not only for every educator, policy maker, and parent ready to change the direction of education in the United States today, but also for anyone who seeks to lay the groundwork in young children for empathy, innovation, and leadership.”

Joshua Sparrow, Harvard University

“This is a telling book. The participatory pedagogy it offers builds on children’s enactments or dramatizations of their imagined stories and on extended discussions and interpretations of stories found in children’s literature. These activities provide the context for children to develop special ways of using words and narrative forms of discourse, central to future success in school. As McNamee demonstrates in detail, a classroom is never simply a setting: by engaging what is already there—the students’ ideas, imaginations, experiences, stories, relations, and conversations—it becomes a powerful source of development.”

Luis C. Moll, University of Arizona

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