"Children’s works, that is to say their stories, poems and meditations, their drawings, paintings, and models, may be legitimately described as works of art." - Michael Armstrong
“...first, children’s works, that is to say their stories, poems and meditations, their drawings, paintings, and models, may be legitimately described as works of art; and second, to acknowledge the artistic status of children’s works revolutionizes the process of education.”
—Professor Michael Armstrong at the Bread Loaf School of English in 2015 in his course, Describing the Imagination.
I was lucky enough to enroll with 15 other graduate students in the last seminar that Michael Armstrong ever taught. The seeds of Story Squad were planted in his classroom, as we spent 75-minute sessions seated in a circle doing something radically unorthodox: bringing our collective training in close-reading and textual analysis to bear on works written by elementary school-aged authors. We confirmed that kids know how to tell sophisticated and clever and silly and scary and whimsical and fantastic and adventurous and heartbreaking stories at a very young age. As children engage in this timeless practice of writing, we were there, in Michael’s words, to observe “that the imagination is central to life and to learning at every age and that it is through the exercise of the imagination, grounded in play, that children begin to explore the human condition.”
What resulted was a radical restructuring of who’s learning what from whom. Michael’s life as an educational researcher whose lifelong project tracked the emergence of this literary imagination at its earliest conception. He called his method “descriptive and interpretive, based on close reading of a limited number of stories, informed by a knowledge of the context in which they were composed. It is only through the sympathetic scrutiny of individual works that it seems possible to me to discover the creative and critical force of children’s narrative imagination.”
His inspiration for placing kids’ creative work at the center of his research came from an obscure collection of essays by Leo Tolstoy, which were written while the Russian author was in his early thirties and ran a tiny village school for peasant children on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, 130 miles south of Moscow. In one, the young Tolstoy writes about how he came to discover “the literary power and precision” of his young students’ stories. Michael writes that “Tolstoy was overwhelmed, not so much by the charm of his pupils’ stories, as by what he calls their ‘conscious creativity.’ Their stories, he argues with a characteristic mixture of amazement and assurance, are the product not of a spontaneous gift or happy accident but of a deliberate design.”
You can witness this “conscious creativity” on full display when our class would consider the “deliberate design” that went into stories and drawings executed by current-day elementary school students. I made a couple of audio recordings from class that demonstrate how our interpretive procedures aim to bring rigor to something as seemingly resistant to intellectual grounding as a child’s original story. Michael’s tone was always penetrating and warm, a remarkable coupling of seemingly opposite qualities that galvanized the rest of us to bring the work under scrutiny to life. Michael taught us to peer warmly into the heart of what the young author might have been trying to express in words during the composition process.
For one of my classmates’ Describing the Imagination final project, she made what would now be called a meme. It illustrates the inverted relationship between reader and child-as-author that Michael championed. Instead of doing the typical schoolteacher-y things like correcting grammar and spelling, our interpretive aim was to put the red pens away, and, instead, identify with the work in order to “live within it as if performing a score.”
Intensifying how we as readers identify with the child’s work has implications for how we relate to the “author-ity” of the young author. Instead of shutting down their creative expression in the service of standards-based compliance (picture the militant grammarian schoolteacher from your own childhood and try not to shudder), Michael Armstrong offers a kinder, gentler way to meet kids on their own ground through critical empathy. Children are instead considered colleagues, represented by the inverted alligator in the picture above whose imaginative vision is propped up by us, the monkey readers. (It should be noted that Michael loved the work of Leo Lionni, especially Frederick and Swimmy.) The act of sharing stories is fraught with risk, and some kids stop doing so because the vulnerable parts of themselves that their stories expose get met with dulled reactions and rejection by adults.
In our digitized world where disenchanting rationality rears its algorithmic head at every like or click or tweet, I am forever grateful to Michael Armstrong for reawakening in his students the imaginative spark of childhood. It certainly had long been dormant in me back in 2015. His class Describing the Imagination crystallized how I see myself making an impact in the world, and I wouldn’t have been able to imagine Story Squad without him. He taught me how to learn from what kids do naturally: conscious creativity through deliberate design.