Friday, 8 August 2008

Harold Rosen: hero of English

Harold Rosen has just died aged 89. He was my PGCE tutor at the London Institute of Education and the best teacher I ever had in higher education, including four years at Oxford, and the first to show me that university work could be about ideas. (Admittedly, the subjects I'd studied -- classics and English -- were not at Oxford noted for intellectually lively content.) He was probably also the first really intelligent and forceful person of the left to whom I had any real exposure.

He was right about English teaching in so many ways -- and had been right, I now discover, as head of English in 1956-58 at Walworth School (an LCC ‘experimental’ comprehensive, founded in 1946 and with a predominantly secondary modern intake).

Thanks to Simon Clements, who also taught at the school and has had the foresight to keep key documents, I've just yesterday seen the syllabus Harold wrote for the department in early 1958, a neat 50 years ago. It warrants a longer post but a couple of points, remarkable for the age in which they were written, immediately struck me.

First, he notes the huge gap between the home language of Walworth’s working-class pupils (the community revolved around the docks) and the language they need if they’re to participate in communications beyond the locality. He stresses the tact that teachers need to exercise by starting by welcoming anything the pupils want to say, whatever the language they can use most easily, when it’s spoken (or written, always after the chance to talk) out of an honest desire to express experience or share views. Starting from that acceptance and respect, you then only gradually work to extend the scope of their language -- but he’s quite clear that is your aim, and he’s very specific about the teaching of spelling, punctuation etc, the value of comprehension work (always done orally first), and above all the need for lots of reading, including works normally considered ‘demanding’.

Second, in 1958 he’s recommending reading Lord of the Flies and Salinger with the fourth year (now known as Year 10)! I'm surprised to learn that Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 -- I've just looked it up.)

The top pic comes from an interesting site about residents of Muswell Hill, London. The one below, rather different, comes from an equally interesting piece in Socialist Worker Online.

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