Travellers in a foreign country

28th April 2006 at 01:00
There's so much more to literacy than jumping through hoops. Fred Sedgwick welcomes a book that follows Tolstoy in treating children as artists

Children Writing Stories By Michael Armstrong

Open University Presspound;55 hardback, pound;17.99 paperback Successive governments have demeaned the teaching of language. The process is so far advanced that discussion about language revolves around test results and synthetic phonics. Practice comes to a climax, not in celebration of understandings gained through the writing of stories or poems, but in tense periods of silence as children "do their Sats".

Indeed, there is little evidence in pronouncements from London that ministers, civil servants and Ofsted inspectors have any interest in children at all, let alone in their writing; they are concerned solely with how well prepared they are to jump through the next hoop, or clamber up to the next level.

Those in power seem to have no interest in literacy as defined by Tolstoy, for whom, as Michael Armstrong tells us in Children Writing Stories, it is not routine matters of punctuation, spelling and grammar that are key, but "the art of teaching how to express thoughts".

Armstrong offered an almost obsessive account of children learning in all areas of the curriculum in his 1980 book, Closely Observed Children. In his new book, he turns to children and their stories. Even his title comes as a relief. The first word (not "managing", or even "education") goes to the heart of the matter. And the book itself is the most heartwarming educational text I have read for a long time, a fit companion for Ted Hughes's Poetry in the Making, Alec Clegg's The Excitement of Writing, and Marjorie L Hourd's The Education of the Poetic Spirit.

It is composed, in large part, of children's stories and Armstrong's analyses of them. He treats the stories as a textual critic might treat a poem or a play by a new writer. Young children, he believes, think like artists. So creativity should be at the centre of the curriculum. It is a basic skill.

When one of the young authors, Rebecca, writes to Armstrong five years after leaving his primary school (Harwell primary in Oxfordshire, where he was head between 1981 and 1999 and where he collected the stories in this book; Rebecca also supplies a story written at 16), "II feel quite privileged to have so much attention put on (my story)", she unwittingly identifies the central truth of this book. Simone Weil wrote in 1977, in an essay on "Reflections on the right use of school studies with a view to the love of God", that love is the paying of complete attention to someone else's needs. In that sense, this book is a work of love: unsentimental, and focused with an extraordinary intensity on the details of what children write.

Armstrong's method is to print a child's story, and then his reading of it.

He notes, for example, how nine-year-old Lydia repeats the word "corner", and how this repetition comes at critical moments in the narrative; how six-year-old Jessica sometimes tells her story through illustrations rather than words (she has paid attention to the best picture books in her classroom); and how nine-year-old Laura, inspired by a visiting storyteller's work on trickster tales, builds on it to make her own story, which is subversive and satirical.

The book opens with a story written by Fyedka, a boy attending the school that Tolstoy set up on his estate in 1859. It is a wonderful tale. But, arguably, even more wonderful is the way Tolstoy respected it. Armstrong tells us that Tolstoy "is the first modern thinker... to have recognised that children's writing... is neither carefree nor artless, but the product of conscious intent". Indeed, Tolstoy asks, in the title of an essay: "Who should learn to write from whom? Should the peasant children learn to write from us, or should we learn to write from them?"

An example of Tolstoy's insight: Fyedka describes a male peasant grabbing a woman's fur coat to go out. "Why a woman's?" Tolstoy ponders. Because, in a detail, that coat conveys the man's puniness, and the untidiness of his dwelling, where "not a single person clearly possesses any particular garment, and not a single thing has its own definite place". Fyedka already understands that a writer should show, not tell. Armstrong quotes an insight of Wittgenstein's: very young children, like travellers in a foreign country, do not lack language; they simply know a different one from the one their parents babble lovingly into their cots.

Ten years ago, the morning after the Dunblane shooting, a seven-year-old girl said to me as she walked into assembly: "A fox came into my garden last night. He killed my chicks. He didn't eat them, he just killed them."

I scribbled those words in a notebook, and I have been pondering them ever since. What, in dreams and waking thoughts, had been going on in her mind that night? All I know is that they repay thought and serious study - the kind of study Michael Armstrong has applied to his children's stories.

That girl's tale triggered my only reservation with this book. Children are not always conscious artists. Sometimes, like all artists, they are subconscious, or even unconscious ones. They don't necessarily know what they are making, or even if they are making anything. As WH Auden put it, "How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?" It's a minor reservation.

The shortest story in this book is told by five-year-old Wally from Chicago. It's part of a study by the US educator Vivian Gussin Paley on which Armstrong draws for his second chapter. It prompted me to dig out that girl's words. It is a tearjerker, too: "There was a boy who lived alone so no one gave him Christmas presents and so he decided to live in a forest."

Wally's stories make up a personal narrative, through which he learns truths about himself and his relationship with the rest of the world. "Who are these people," Paley asks about her kindergarten class, "who dare to reinvent mythology?"

Every teacher should read this book. It's like oxygen. You can breathe again after being stifled by the fog of banalities that jacks-in-office choke us with.

Fred Sedgwick is a former primary headteacher and education consultant. His most recent books are How to Teach with a Hangover and 101 Essential Lists for Primary Teachers, both published by Continuum

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