Sunday, 18 March 2012

Harold Rosen: a Teacher's Tribute by John Richmond

Harold Rosen: a Teacher’s Tribute

John Richmond

In Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, Volume 16, Issue 1, 2009

On 20 April 1974, I visited County Hall, then the headquarters of the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority.  I was seeking a job as an English teacher.  The woman who dealt with job applicants riffled through a thick stack of cards, each representing an English teaching vacancy in an ILEA secondary school.  There being no particular educational criterion for my choice of school, we agreed that she should send me for interview to the school nearest to where I was then living.  The next day I walked across Vauxhall Bridge from Vincent Square to Vauxhall Manor School, a girls’ comprehensive on two sites in Vauxhall and Kennington, was briefly interviewed by the school’s headmistress, and offered a job on the spot.  I accepted on the spot, and started work two days later, on the first day of the summer term.

I stumbled through that term.  During the day intervening between my appointment and my first encounters with children, I had written out lesson plans for the classes I had been given.  The documents distilled the whole of Western thought since the ancient Greeks, at different levels of difficulty for the different ages I was to teach.  I expected that I would complete the courses by the summer holiday, and then decide what to do next.  I regret very much that I have lost these magnificent documents of unrealism.

The children’s response to the grandeur of my ideas was less than complimentary. None of them could understand what I was talking about.  Some were surprisingly polite, and steered me to filing cabinets and cupboards in the English classrooms, where more appropriate teaching materials were to be found.  I abandoned my literary and intellectual tours d’horizon as quickly as I had conceived them, and handed out sets of creased paperback novels, written in demotic contemporary English and telling everyday stories of multi-cultural urban folk.  The children were happy to take turns round the class reading these novels aloud, which used up a gratifyingly large amount of time.  Then they suggested that they write a story pretending to be one of the characters in the book.  It had never occurred to me that you could do such a thing with a piece of literature; I agreed to the suggestion immediately.  The children next proposed that they should act out some of the scenes we were reading, by breaking up into small groups and improvising the scenes in the corridors or on the stairways of the building in which I was working.  I agreed to the acting-out idea too, and here my difficulties began.

Although, to my amazement as I ran along the corridors and up and down the staircases checking on the progress of this small-group work, most of the children were actually inventing dramas which bore a relationship – often remote, I will admit – to the book we were reading, they did tend to prefer to enact scenes of violence, or at least of bad temper.  This inevitably meant that voices needed to be raised.  Not all of the teachers in that building practised the teaching methods which I had so rapidly made my trade mark.  Many of them believed that a teacher should keep his or her class confined in the classroom from beginning to end of a lesson.  When, in a moment of anger, a colleague would emerge from a classroom to demand what in God’s name a particular group of children was doing wrestling each other to the ground in the corridor outside, he or she was surprised to be told by those children, in a complacent tone, that they were doing drama for Mr Richmond.  Before long, Jim Payne, my kind and sympathetic head of department, came to me to say that I must restrain this wildness.  I realised that, whatever ideas I had half picked up from reading about A.S. Neill’s methods at Summerhill School, or from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, I was going to have to make some compromises.

There was great resentment and almost open rebellion amongst the children when for the first time I forbade them to leave the class the better to express themselves dramatically.  ‘But sir, we did it last week!  We were good!  Has that Miss Wilberforce [the deputy head] been telling you what to do?’  I couldn’t deny that a higher authority had indeed constrained me.  I suggested that the class do some writing instead.  Writing stories pretending to be a character in a book had been acceptable to the children until they had tasted the joys of uninterrupted drama every lesson.  Now such a prospect was condemned as ‘boring’, a word they used more frequently than any other to describe an activity they didn’t want to do.  In desperation, I suggested a spelling test, although I knew such an exercise to be a meaningless way of filling time.  To my surprise, the children quite took to the proposal.  The spelling test has game-like, repetitive qualities.  It is like sucking habitually on a sweet.  We had many spelling tests during the rest of the term.

Although, as I hope I have made clear, I was managing to work out rules of engagement with most of my classes, admittedly from a position of serious weakness on my side, there was one class over which I had no control whatever.  Our encounters were grim attritional battles.  By the end of May I had abandoned any thought of teaching the children in this class anything.  My task was simply to keep to a minimum outbreaks of anarchic and anti-social behaviour.  I did this by reading aloud to the class for whole lessons at a time, refusing to allow any of the children to take turns in reading, and by making the class copy out long passages from an anthology of factual writing, of which I had found an almost complete class set in the back of a cupboard.  The imposition of this task was justified only by my overriding need to maintain control, but I would give the drill some small educational colour ten minutes before the end of each lesson by drawing attention to some of the features of grammar, spelling and punctuation in the passage just copied out.

I hope the reader will give me credit, amid these deplorable failings, for one positive achievement: my admiration for, even amazement at, the creativity of many of the pupils.  The fact that I had gone to Vauxhall Manor, and not to certain other schools, was a huge stroke of luck.  There was nothing special in the air to spark the creativity I witnessed there; the air of London SW8 and SE11 was notable only for its high carbon monoxide content.  I had joined an English department with an established tradition of valuing children’s creative work, and of sharing and celebrating it as an essential element of the curriculum.  This sharing and celebration took various forms; the simplest was the reading out of work by a student to the class, and the use of display boards in classrooms and corridors.  But we did other things too, which we thought rather advanced.  We used to publish writing, typed up in those pre-computer days on an electric typewriter on to stencils which were then duplicated on an ink duplicator, two blocks of writing per A4 page, which were then guillotined into A5 pages, front and back covers added using different-coloured paper, two staples to the left; and you had a booklet.  Everyone in the English department had boxes full of books for free reading sessions, and the students’ own writing went in with the printed paperbacks.  The children had joined a community of writers.  Their booklets circulated around the school – not just in their own class – and some of their stories and plays became especially popular, requiring frequent reprints because of heavy use and theft.

The school owned a piece of state-of-the-art technology, which seems in memory state-of-the-stone-age: the reel-to-reel video tape-recorder.  It was enormously heavy, and clumsy, but it enabled my colleagues and me to video and then immediately replay children’s improvised drama and group talk, and that seemed a wonderful thing.  A group of girls in one of my year 9 classes, led by the formidably talented Jennifer Richards, worked for weeks on a tragi-comedy about life in Brixton, which when finished was a 41-minute unscripted piece called Brixton Blues, which my colleague Stephen Eyers and I videoed.  The play, most of whose dialogue is in Jamaican Creole, became a must-watch for most of the classes at the school, about half of whose students were of Caribbean origin.

I made a close study of Brixton Blues, transcribing the whole thing first, because – apart from the evident power of the piece as drama – I had become interested in the linguistic repertoire of the children I was teaching.  Those with backgrounds in the Caribbean were able to move from the full Creole in which they participated in their homes, through an agreed street language for use with their peer-group, which some linguists came to call British Black English, through indigenous London non-standard speech (loosely, Cockney), through to the Standard English which was required by 98% of the school curriculum.  I was excited at the discovery that all these language choices, and the mixtures of them, were regular and rule-governed.  My discovery was, I soon realised, already a commonplace amongst professional linguists; but that didn’t reduce the excitement.

A group of us at the school – four English teachers, a history teacher, a social studies teacher, a commerce teacher, a science teacher, a languages teacher and, later, a maths teacher – began to meet regularly to discuss the language, written and spoken, of the children we were teaching, using the written, taped or videoed evidence we were collecting.  Over a period of four years, we published a series of papers based on our classroom research.  Eventually, these papers were combined into a single book, which we called Becoming Our Own Experts (Talk Workshop Group, 1982; now out of print but republished on the internet at:,
which we published with the aid of a loan from the Schools Council, an early forerunner of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

One afternoon, Harold Rosen and his colleague Tony Burgess visited the Talk Workshop Group, as we called ourselves, having heard about our work.  One outcome of the visit was that the English Department at the London Institute of Education took an active interest in the work, promoted it, and helped us to understand more clearly its theoretical significance.  Another outcome was that Harold and I became firm friends: a pleasure and a privilege for me which lasted until Harold’s death.  Harold and his colleagues were among our most significant ‘hearers and hearteners’, to use Seamus Heaney’s wonderful phrase; they were our intellectual enablers, in that they helped us to know objectively what we already knew implicitly – to recognise the value of the thing we had gained.

It’s easy, looking back at one’s long-past achievements, to retrospectively ascribe to them an elegance and orderliness which belie the messy reality of the actual experience.  That said, I am going to try to set down here the approach to teaching which I came to formulate and practise, an approach which I am sure remains the most fulfilling and effective for all teachers and their students, despite the mechanistic reductionism imposed on schools by governments of both colours in the UK in the 30 and more years since I first met Harold.  I do this as a tribute to him; more than anyone else, he helped me, through his writing, his public speaking, his activities, his conversations and his example, to achieve whatever clarity I have.  

My approach to teaching (shared, I know, with thousands of others) takes as its starting point a belief in and respect for the experience of the learner.  This belief is not to be confused with a sentimental admiration for and tolerance of everything a child says and does, however insignificant, banal or destructive.  (Children, as my colleague Terry Minker used to say, bear a remarkable resemblance to human beings.)  But a person can’t be a good teacher, let alone a great teacher, as Harold was, without it.

Belief in and respect for the experience of the learner leads to a recognition of the connectedness and wholeness of the cognitive and emotional state and the linguistic competence of the learner. A child who is being bullied at school or is living with a violent parent will learn less well than a child, similar in other respects, not suffering in that way.  A child who senses, even occasionally, the joy of discovery and success in learning at school is agreeing to that extent to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt next time he or she asks the child to undertake a task.  The joy of discovery and success has stimulated an appetite for more of the same; has increased in the learner’s mind the probability that more pleasure is available where the first pleasure came from.

These general truths apply to all learners at all times and in all situations.  At Vauxhall Manor, my colleagues and I came to apprehend them by working the territory of children’s growing competence and confidence as users of spoken and written language.  And I began to understand and then articulate a set of principles to guide my teaching from then on; they are these.

First, the learning of language is principally an unconscious process.  If it were not so, our lives would not be long enough for us to gain even the most rudimentary grasp of the language of our culture and community.  Take any department of the scientific study of language: take phonetics or syntax or rhetoric or punctuation.  The analytical study of these complex areas exercises the minds of expert and interested adults, whether as writers or readers of books, articles and theses on these subjects, as conference-goers, as members of learned societies.  It exercises their minds as a never-ending quest for more sophisticated, more accurate, more elegant ways of grouping and distinguishing like and unlike things in these areas.  The quest has been going on for centuries, and rightly, since language is perhaps the greatest of human achievements. Sometimes there are huge revolutions in linguistic science, as in other sciences; sometimes contemporary linguists make discoveries which they realise are close to discoveries which excited mediaeval or classical scholars.

All this is good.  But I shall take an autobiographical digression in support of my belief that the learning of language is nonetheless a largely unconscious process.  I learnt to read sitting on my father’s lap.  He had a book called Amphibians of the British Isles.  On each left-hand page was factual text about the creature illustrated on the right-hand page.  My father pointed out the illustration of a natterjack toad or an edible frog, or of one of dozens of other amphibians. Imitating his voice, I spoke the words natterjack toad or edible frog while his finger was next to the illustration. Then he ran his finger under the words where they labelled the illustration, and I repeated the phrase after him.  Then he read to me the paragraph on the left-hand page, which (as I confirmed years later when I was a mature reader) was written in good plain prose, aimed at the interested but non-specialist naturalist.  After a few encounters with these paragraphs, in which I listened with physical pleasure to my father’s soft, reassuring reading voice, I began to read aloud words, phrases and whole sentences which I recognised.  Each success in doing this was confirmed by my father kissing me on the top of my head.  He used the same technique with other books too, mostly factual not fictional, and always illustrated, and within a few weeks I could read independently.

My father had no training as a linguist or a teacher.  He would have hesitated if asked to name the grammatical functions of each of the words in the phrases and paragraphs he was reading, though he would have managed some.  He could not have discussed with me the discourse structures which meant that the description of the habits and habitat of the natterjack toad was a satisfying, accumulating snowball of meaning as he read it, not simply a collection of disjointed, if true, facts about the beast.  If, having read to me the sentence Natterjack toads hibernate in winter., he had stopped to point out that the i in hibernate is pronounced differently from the i in winter because, often but not always, i when followed by a consonant followed by another vowel is pronounced long (pine or mile, but be careful about pigeon, pivot or pity, something different is going on there, those second vowels [apart from the y in pity] are not concluding vowels, that’s the difference, remember that) and, often but not always, i when followed by a double consonant is pronounced short (pill or miss, but be careful about sign or might, something different is going on there, those silent consonants are there for etymological reasons, those are not straightforward sound/symbol correspondences, remember that); if he had been foolish or half-informed enough to do these things, my attention might have wandered.

The principle holds for all areas of language learning, at all stages.  However, I said that the learning of language is principally an unconscious process.  Of course there is conscious language learning too, in every learner’s experience.  I remember consciously learning the letters of the alphabet, and practising writing those letters, in long strings of as, bs and cs, down to zs, across the page.  To take a few other examples at random, from different areas of language learning and different stages of development, we may consciously remember being taught what is the ballad form in poetry, the meaning of the terms transitive and intransitive verb, how to set out dialogue and stage directions in a play script, how to gain the reader’s attention with an arresting first sentence in a ghost story.  These random examples might well be small features of a planned curriculum: an organised programme of progressively more demanding encounters with language in a diversity of forms, and of opportunities to use language, spoken and written, in a diversity of forms and for a diversity of purposes, which is the right of every school learner.  I don’t believe that any rag-bag of language experiences, haphazardly provided, will serve the learner well, however respectful the teacher may be of the experience the learner brings into the classroom. Every school subject must have its planned curriculum.

But once the need for a planned curriculum has been acknowledged, it remains true that all conscious learning and teaching of language within that curriculum, if it is to be effective, must draw on the immense store of unconscious learning which has already occurred, without which there would be no further conscious learning, no analytical ordering of and detailed focussing on parts of that great reality which the immensely powerful human brain, operating the big gears of unconscious apprehension and then generalisation, has already been tangling with.

My second principle is this: the most effective way to teach is to show, not tell; or, at least, to show, then tell, not the other way round.  At Vauxhall Manor, I made a close study of the development of the writing of one of my students, a girl called Pat Cummings, over a period of a few weeks.  The study is called ‘Progress in Pat’s Writing’; it’s in Becoming Our Own Experts, and in my The Resources of Classroom Language (Edward Arnold, 1982).  Pat and I used to sit together, once a week for an hour after school, and go through her recent writing.  Much of our work was quite pedestrian stuff: me helping her to understand how to mark sentences with capital letters and full stops, how to control tenses, how to bunch information in paragraphs.  One afternoon, this 14-year-old turned to me and uttered the most succinct and devastating criticism of much of the teaching of writing in schools that I had or have heard, before or since: ‘You know, sir, most teachers don’t teach you to write; they just tell you to do it.’  I shall always be grateful to Pat for that moment of compressed wisdom, because it drove my own theory and practice forward, in two ways.

First, I realised that the act of writing is a single, holistic though complex act, in which creativity, the organisation of ideas, the technical control of conventions and the physical act of making marks on paper are practised and learned interactively, not as separate, isolated things. Secondly, I realised that in order to teach writing better, I must write for and sometimes with the students, as a master craftsman if you like, or – if that sounds too boastful – at least as a senior apprentice.  I needed to show the students that writing could be difficult for me too, but that it was worth doing nonetheless, and that the achievement of a good finished piece of writing is one of life’s rarest pleasures.

So I began to write for, and sometimes with, the students.  At the start, when we wrote together, there was a strange, rather tender atmosphere in the room.  When I looked up, I would catch the eye of a student who had been gazing around looking for a word; a complicit grin would pass between us.  20 minutes before the end of the lesson, we would stop writing and everyone who wanted to would read out what they’d written.  The students always wanted to hear what I had written, and I usually postponed my reading until last.  The sweet thing, at least in the early days of doing this, was that although I encouraged an atmosphere of robust yet constructive criticism in this community of writers, none of them could bring themselves to say anything critical about my writing; they were full of excessive praise.  They weren’t afraid of me; they’d just never had an experience like this before.

Later, I took the process one step further, and made two copies of everyone’s writing.  (This was after photocopiers were invented; time was marching on.)  I put the students into pairs, gave them the photocopies, so as not to spoil the originals, and invited them to correct, mark, improve, debate, revise each other’s scripts.  I moved around the room, checking that no-one was misleading a partner by insisting that something incorrect was correct.  The conversations I overheard were generally remarkable: children as constructive critics of each other’s writing.  This taught me something else about writing: children know more about writing than they know that they know.  If, in an activity like that with the photocopies, their implicit knowledge can be made explicit in their having to explain or suggest something to a partner, the teacher is beginning to set up an interactivity between competence – what the children can do as writers – and metalinguistic knowledge, with its terminology – what later came to be known as knowledge about language. That interactivity is immensely beneficial.  Going between the writer in you and the reader in you is what mature writers do.  But it’s a process which benefits writers at all levels of competence, from the beginning or reluctant writer, for whom the achievement of a clear, simple paragraph of three sentences, properly spelt and punctuated, is an important milestone, to the sophisticated 17-year-old writing critically about a piece of adult literature.

The only drawback of this use of photocopies, in the 1970s, is that we were still before the days of plain-paper copiers.  The photocopies came out of the machine on coated, slippery paper, which made them difficult to write on; but we managed.

Speaking of the sophisticated 17-year-old writer, A-level English was a specialist area where I and my colleagues found it immensely effective to write for and with the students.  When I taught A-level, to get good grades the student had to adopt a curious, removed pose as a writer, which required that she express opinions in such a way that they seemed received facts.  (I don’t think the situation has changed much.)  You couldn’t say, ‘I think that…’ or even less ‘I feel that…’ You had to use formulae like ‘The evidence is that…’ or ‘We can see how…’  You had, supposedly, to be objective.  This was hard for students brought up in homes unfamiliar with that kind of literary critical register, particularly when, up to the age of 16, they had been encouraged by teachers like me to state and stand up for their own opinions.

I remember the difficult moment when we were reading Andrew Marvell’s great love poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’.  We came to these lines in the middle stanza, where the male lover is encouraging his female adored one to hurry up and respond to his ardour:

Thy beauty shall no more be found
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song.  There worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity
And thy quaint honour turn to dust
And into ashes all my lust.

With some shyness, I explained these lines to my students.  One of the girls said she thought they were disgusting.  That was her opinion and she was sticking to it.  I think in a way she was right, particularly now that I understand more about issues of gender in literature than I did in 1978 (though I still think ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a great poem).  But I had somehow to tell her that if she went into an examination room and expressed that opinion on paper, and did similar things in other essays, she probably wouldn’t be going to university.  The roundabout way that I and my colleagues did this was to write essays ourselves which would probably have got As or Bs, and to suggest to the students that they try something similar, but in their own voices.  It worked, and the girl who thought the lines from ‘To His Coy Mistress’ disgusting did go to university.

My third guiding principle concerns learners who are having difficulty, particularly as readers and/or writers.  There has in recent decades been an explosion of interest in and concern for children with special educational needs: an interest and concern in itself humane and good. However, with it has come, from some quarters, the desire to pathologise all learners’ difficulties, and – to extend the medical metaphor – to pseudo-scientifically announce a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment for any child who has difficulty reading.  Most children who have difficulty reading have that difficulty for socio-psychological rather than medico-psychological reasons; they have not so far in their lives experienced pleasure, success and confidence as readers and/or writers.  This lack causes them to resist further encounters with written language, which only bring them despondency, embarrassment and frustration.  They don’t need exceptional, arcane teaching routines, in which elements of language (learned holistically and unconsciously by more successful readers and writers) are first decontextualised and then presented to them as repetitive sets, to be apprehended and learned slowly and painfully in the low gears of conscious learning. They need more privileged access to the same range of experiences of written language as successful readers and writers have had, in which the high gears are at work, in which the affective, the cognitive and the linguistic areas of the mind are in interactive and mutually supportive operation, engaging with real language and getting the rewards – small to begin with, perhaps, but felt and accumulating – which encounters with real language bring.

(There is, I agree, a small group of children, intellectually damaged, disabled or unusual in a variety of ways, whose needs are so extreme or specific that the teacher’s approach to their learning must be specialist.  This specialist approach is likely to consist in the nature of a teacher’s address to the learner, and/or in the use of technology which is now available to help children with such difficulties.  When we come to the actual encounter between a learner’s brain, however damaged, disabled or unusual, and knowledge mediated through language, spoken or written, this small group of children needs to gain pleasure, to grasp and make meaning, in and from whole, real language, just like the rest of us.)

When 11-year-olds supposed not to be readers, having scored abysmally on any of the standardised reading tests which they had attempted, were offered in my and my colleagues’ classes at Vauxhall Manor the opportunity to write or tape their own stories, they suddenly showed themselves capable of reading their own booklets at levels far beyond their given ‘reading age’. They then went on to read similar booklets written by others in the class or by children in other classes.  Then, first with help from a teacher or a classmate who was a more confident reader, and later independently, they began to read printed books.  Before too long, as they said themselves, ‘they could read’.  My colleagues and I had come to understand the unity and continuity of effective teaching, whatever a particular child’s stage of competence or state of confidence.

Use the big gears of unconscious learning; show, not tell; give privileged access to a common range of language experiences to learners having difficulty: these were and are my three key principles of English teaching and language learning.  I came to understand them, and then to articulate them in the years following my first hapless encounters with children in the summer of 1974, because of the supportive, collegiate, exploratory culture of which I had become a member; and I shall always be grateful to Harold Rosen for being a leader of thought and action in that culture.

Two tributes to Harold Rosen by John Richmond

[Thanks to Peter Medway for the photo]

John Richmond wrote Harold's obituary in the Guardian. It was cut and 'edited' in various ways. Here it is as he  wrote it:

Harold Rosen
A Leader of Thought in the World of English Teaching

Harold Rosen, who has died aged 89, was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues forged and sustained a new understanding of the purpose and possibilities of the subject English within the school curriculum. Beyond the constituency of English teachers — people teaching that subject in secondary schools — Harold's teachings, writings and activities illuminated many more people's understanding of the relationship between language and learning in any context, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.

Harold was born in 1919 in Brockton, Massachusetts to Jewish parents. At the age of two, he came to the East End of London with his mother, an active communist and inspirational woman whose influence remained with him all his life. He attended local elementary and grammar schools. In 1935, he joined the Young Communist League, where he met Connie Isakofsky. Their emotional partnership, marriage and intellectual collaboration lasted 41 years, until Connie's early death from cancer. In 1936, they took part in the Battle of Cable Street. It was the urgent clarity of the needs of those years — to defeat fascism and to liberate working-class people from every sort of poverty — which formed Harold politically.

In 1937, Harold went to University College, London to study English. He was a college rugby player, middle-distance runner and political activist. He graduated in 1940. He took short-term teaching jobs in England during the rest of the war. Having been born in the USA, he was officially an American citizen (and remained so throughout his life), so it was the US army he joined when called up in 1945. He served in the Education Corps for two years, with the rank of captain, working in Frankfurt and Berlin. Returning to civilian life in 1947, it was clear to him, as to so many people politically committed on the left, that the defeat of fascism must be only the necessary beginning of a shift towards more open and egalitarian societies in the victorious as well as the defeated nations.

Harold took a teaching qualification at the University of London Institute of Education, and began his teaching career proper in schools in Leicestershire and Middlesex. The first of the Middlesex schools was Harrow Weald Grammar, where he met James Britton and Nancy Martin, who became his great teachers. Elsewhere in Middlesex, however, his career was impeded by the blacklisting of communists then practised in some circles of that Local Authority. When the London County Council made its pioneering move towards comprehensive education, with the setting-up of pilot comprehensives, Harold went to one of them, Walworth School, as head of English.

The work of the Walworth English department in the 1950s has filtered by countless channels into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in the UK and the English-speaking world. Briefly put, this theory and practice insists that the content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the class must respect the culture and experience which the learner brings there. It sees the making of meaning in and through language as the essential act in which learners engage and which teachers help to bring about. It says that the best learning is a collaboration between teacher and learner, and between learner and learner. It was the effort to make this theory and to put it into practice which Harold joined and helped to lead for 40 years.

Harold was a founder member of the London Association for the Teaching of English, the first local organisation dedicated to the improvement of English teaching by practitioners. LATE was the spur to the setting-up of other local English teachers' associations, and to the establishment of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

When he left Walworth, Harold began his long career in teacher education, first at Borough Road Teacher Training College in Isleworth, and then in the English department of the London Institute of Education, where he had trained. James Britton and Nancy Martin were by then the senior figures there. Beginning under their leadership, and later when he rose to be head of the department and a professor of the university, Harold and his colleagues made the department a place of national and international fame and impact in the professional education of English teachers, and a centre of thought about language and learning.

Harold had the intellectual apparatus necessary for a conventional academic career of great distinction. This wasn't the choice he made. His list of educational publications is long, but those for which he is best known are all collaborative efforts addressing the needs and concerns of practitioners: for example The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18, with James Britton and others; Language, the Learner and the School, with James Britton and Douglas Barnes — a book which emerged from an LATE conference and which launched the idea of 'language across the curriculum'; and The Language of Primary-School Children, written with Connie, herself an inspiring figure in progressive primary education.

Harold left the British Communist Party in 1957, having decided that the party was no longer likely to help bring about the social change he desired in Britain. Its Stalinism was increasingly at odds with the direction and tenor of his educational activities and beliefs. He remained all his life a socialist, as fiercely critical of the evils which American imperialism has brought upon the world, sometimes with British assistance, as he was sorrowful at the dashing of the hopes of his youth with regard to the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.

In the politics of education, Harold fiercely resented — and, when he was still working, fought — the attacks on progressivism from within the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, and lived long enough to see, very recently, the irony that some of the principles and practices which he helped to develop are being re-adopted as official government policy in England, without of course any sense on the part of the policy-makers of the origins and history of those ideas.

Harold's second wife Betty was, until her retirement, also an English teacher. She is the author of books on narrative and story-telling, and it was partly under her influence that Harold's later educational writing focussed on the nature and role of narrative in our ability to conceptualise and communicate.

Harold loved to watch England play rugby on television, especially when I was in the armchair next to him. He was an ardent Arsenal fan. Betty cared for him with deep devotion in the physical infirmity of his last years. Mentally, Harold remained trenchant and analytical, and joyful at news of gains in the long educational revolution in which he had played so prominent a part, until the end.

Betty survives him, as do Brian and Michael, his sons by his marriage to Connie, his step-children Ian, Joanna and Rosalind, 10 grand-children and one great-grand-child.

Harold Rosen, educator

Born 25 June 1919

Died 31 July 2008

John Richmond, The Guardian, 4 August 2008

John Richmond’s Tribute to Harold Rosen at ‘Remembering Harold Rosen – A Celebration of his Life and Work’, University of London Institute of Education, 12 March 2009

I knew Harold for the last 32 years of his life. I was never formally his student, and yet he was — as I told him not long before he died — one of my great teachers, for this reason: he showed how to combine intellectual effort with political purpose. Harold knew that a person’s achievement is only meaningful to the extent that it changes the lives of other people, the lives of organisations (like schools) and the life of society as a whole, for the better: a principle which holds for even as great a talent and as significant a contribution as his own. I never met anyone who more completely lived the idea that the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it.

Harold’s life in education exemplified his conviction that theory and practice, thinking and doing, are interpenetrating. He understood and taught that education is a supremely practical business, not a ‘pure’ science. In the years that I knew him, by which time he had already gained the eminence and reputation he so richly deserved, he was constant in his insistence that those whose job it is to help teachers teach better should apply their mental effort to that task, and not go off on academic frolics of their own.

One small outcome of this clarity of Harold’s vision was a visit he made with Tony Burgess to Vauxhall Manor School in south London, some time I think in 1976. A group of us at the school — teachers of several curriculum subjects — had begun to publish home-made papers describing research we had been doing into aspects of language and learning in our classrooms. Harold and Tony were excited at what we were doing. Youngsters as we teachers were, we were pleased and perhaps understandably flattered by this support. But Harold being Harold, this wasn’t just a pat on the head from the great. He took a detailed interest in the progress of the work, reading and commenting on every paper as it came out. He tried his hardest to get the papers published commercially by Ward Lock, and when that didn’t work out he wrote to the Schools Council about us. Partly as a result of his efforts, the Council advanced us a loan which enabled us to publish the papers in 1982 as a book called Becoming our own Experts.

Around 1980, Harold and some of his colleagues proposed that the Institute should host twice-yearly conferences for teachers, which would be opportunities for the exchange of research, theory and practice in language education so dear to his heart. These conferences came to be known as ‘Language in Inner-City Schools’. They were organised by a group of people inside and outside the Institute, of whom I was one. They turned into very large affairs; at their peak, around 500 people attended every January and June. More diligent archivists than I will know exactly how many conferences there were in total, but it was certainly more than 20, so they ran for more than 10 years. They covered every conceivable topic within urban language education. The summer 1984 conference, which coincided with Harold’s official though not of course actual retirement, was one of the best, and best attended. We called it ‘A Telling Exchange’. Harold’s keynote address to that conference was a magnificent fusion of his political beliefs with his lifetime’s accumulation of educational understanding; it was simply inspirational.

Harold’s lived principle — that those who have been raised up within any social structure, in his case the structure of the British education system, must use their advancement to support the efforts of those who work within the structure — came from his socialist understanding of a possible just society, and his work towards that goal. One of his favourite poems was Brecht’s ‘Questions from a Worker who Reads’. Most people in the room will know the poem well; I’ll just read out the first few lines.

‘Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will find the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, so many times demolished,

who raised it up again so many times?

In what houses of gold-glittering Lima

did the builders live?

Where, the evening that the Wall of China

was finished, did the masons go?’

Harold validated, challenged and empowered the working lives of thousands of teachers, the builders of the structure of which he was a master mason. Many years ago I was one of those builders myself, and on behalf of thousands of us I salute his achievement and honour his memory.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Harold: On story in education

In 'Stories of Stories' the postscript he wrote to Betty Rosen's book 'And None of it was Nonsense, The Power of Storytelling in School' (Ontario, Scholastic, 1988), Harold wrote:

"For a number of years I have been chasing the huge literature that has accumulated around narrative, and looking at narrative in the classroom. I've learned many things in the process. As I consumed scholarly books, research papers and articles, and grappled with complex theories of narrative, I be3came increasingly aware that as  yet no major work has appeared which presents a coherent educational theory of narrative. Even more significant perhaps, we have no full accounts of narrative in the classroom by teachers who believe in it as a pillar of the curriculum and who have translated that belief into practice - the educational world doesn't accept that telling the tales of teaching as richly and honestly as we know how is a totally valid means of teaching each other.'

And later:

'The cry everywhere is for precise, testable outcomes for all curricular practices, tied to specific ages or grades. '

And later:

'We have been so mesmerized by the intellectual culture of our times, so intimidated by spurious claims for the superiority of what has come to be called 'expository discourse', that we are frequently disposed to be apologetic about narrative.'


HR asks of story in education:

' much of the curriculum can lay claim to the simultaneous interlocking of cognitive, emotional, social and moral involvement?'

He cites Jermome Bruner from 'Actual Minds, Possible Worlds' as saying that in story:

'There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality.'

One is

'....the landscape of action, where the constituents are the arguments of action: agent, intention or goal, situation, instrument, something corresponding to a 'story grammar''


'...the landscape of consciousness; what those involved in the action know, think and feel, or do not know, think and feel.'


'All that I have read of narratology (as it is now called) points unequivocally in one direction: we need to give greater space to narrative in the curriculum....As children move through typical school systems, spontaneous student-created narrative is at least marginalized or, more likely, outlawed. Story writing is edged out as other kinds of privileged discourse are installed.'


'Intellectual life is more and more haunted by a dilemma. On the one hand,it provides propositions, abstractions and principles which offer the seductive possibility of making sense of a chaos of evidence. On the other hand, such a formidable armoury often leaves a sense of dissatisfaction. The sense of the actual, the particular, the idiosyncratic, the taste of direct experience seems to get lost or buried or made to appear irrelevant.'


'Teaching and learning never change without a special kind of imaginative act,which all the curriculum guides in the world cannot render unnecessary. You may be persuaded that it is important to become more conversant with narrative theory.You may be inspired to turn your classroom into one where stories flow and become a major means of learning and developing linguistic powers. But then,  you need to translate your enthusiasm into day-to-day practices. How will you make your first move? How do you learn to tell stories? Where will you find them? How, in a phrase, do your principles undergo that amazing metamorphosis into everyday encounters? Only by your imaginative weighing of your students and their history, and yourself and your history. You must trust your own inventiveness...'

Photo of Harold at Greenford School 1953

Above is a photo of Greenford Grammar School, taken, says Terence Maddern in 1953. Harold is third row up, left hand side.

Terence wrote to me with the following letter:

"Dear Michael Rosen,

I have just read your article in the Guardian in which you write about your boyhood and that of your father, Harold, and I wanted to write to you to say what an outstanding teacher he was.  He taught English to me and my fellow pupils at Greenford Grammar School in the late 1940s and early 50s.  I started there after passing the 11 plus examination in 1949 and your father taught us for four years before, sadly as far as we were concerned, he left the school.

He gave us a comprehensive understanding of English grammar which he taught us to see as simply logical and therefore more easily memorable.  He introduced us to the pleasures that English literature holds in store and encouraged us in our exploration and understanding of it.  His own love of his subject was inspirational and he gave me, along with others I am sure, an appreciation of the richness of our language that has stayed with me ever since.  He was always warm in his relationship with his classes and quick to praise where it was due. He was, in short, a teacher that I remember with respect and, indeed, with affection and appreciation, for the very significant contribution to my education and development that he made.  It is therefore most interesting to read your account of your father’s boyhood and development.  I feel now that what he was doing was to encourage us all to work to raise ourselves onto a higher plane so that we could better appreciate what life had to offer and to take advantage of it.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to have been taught by Harold Rosen.

Yours sincerely,

Terence Maddern;