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.

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