Friday, 13 March 2009

Remembering Harold Rosen

An event at the Institute of Education took place last night to celebrate the memory of Harold Rosen. 170 people, there were 11 speakers and many reunions. It was a moving and memorable event. As one of Harold's students who knew him a long time I was asked to say something, in six minutes! The following is what I said.

I first knew Harold in 1963, when I found myself in his PGCE tutor group here at the Institute. But by then Harold already had half a career behind him, in schools and in Borough Road Training College, and for that part I’ll have to draw on other people’s memories. Fortunately these include Harold’s own, because in 2004 and 05 he talked to John Hardcastle and me in a couple of interviews.

In 1956, after teaching in grammar schools for at least ten years, Harold went as head of English to Walworth School in Southwark, a co-called interim or experimental working-class comprehensive school set up by the LCC in 1946.

We should start by remembering Harold’s voice, so here he is talking about learning again to teach literature in Walworth:


Well, I suppose, if I take one example, Great Expectations, I discovered that, used with discretion, Dickens is their author, you know, in spite of those long you know posh bits. And I remember we'd got to start off this opening, so with this opening, you know, the encounter with Magwitch, the convict, which is a fantastic piece, I've always thought it was quite incredible. And we read the big chunk of where he gets him to promise he'll bring a file and something
to eat. And so we read it, I read it once, and then I had them read it as a drama, skipping the intervening bits, just, it's full of dialogue. And then we explored the idea of being frightened, and being frightened of certain kinds of adults. Well I can remember being fantastically chuffed because I had chosen something [] because they couldn't stop talking about frightening adults, quite different kinds of course, and I was surprised at how often they were people encountered in the markets, and who grabbed hold of them, and so on, tried to get money from them. And then, of course, they could, if they wanted to, write about that, and they did, and there were a lot of good pieces, shall we say about a third of them.

So much there and no time to expand – but note that “surprised”. In Harold’s account of Walworth it’s striking how often he was being surprised by the kids – what they thought, what they chose, what they could do. That frequent sense of surprise came from the alert expectation with which that post-war generation of teachers, with Harold as pioneer, approached their teaching as they moved from grammar schools to comprehensives out of a determination to make them work and with a thirst to find out how. Between them, over the space of about seven years, working in an inquiring, improvisatory, feeling-their way spirit they created a new English, one that -- at last -- would be good enough for the working class children about whom Harold said, ‘They are the hope’.

So what was Harold like in the classroom? Accounts do exist. There’s a lovely recognisable description by his Walworth pupil Valerie Avery, in her novel London Spring which, with London Morning, he inspired her to write. And Bob Thornbury, his student at Borough Road training college, has told us of a demonstration lesson with cat poems –

‘– have any of you got a cat? Have you? Oh you’ve got a cat? What’s your cat like?’ And the kids started to talk to him… and they started to kind of move forward and by the end of the lesson… there were eleven kids out the front in one way or another, sat at Harold’s feet, and the others all rushed at the end of the lesson to tell him more about their cats. It was just spell binding.

Betty Rosen has written (in Changing English) about a lesson of Harold’s she saw while on teaching practice at Walworth. Unlike many heads of department, Harold chose to teach the lowest streams. The door was flung open and this smiling, eager figure came in, looking as if he couldn’t wait to be with his wild 4th years again. In no time he had them telling stories about their neighbours, and then writing about them. What stayed with Betty was the visible conviction Harold conveyed of the worth of what those students had to say. Harold, of course, thought the world of kids and was constantly being amused, amazed and delighted by them, and it no doubt helped that, as he told us, ‘I was a naughty boy at school…. So I couldn’t be sanctimoniously disciplinarian with kids.’

Well, he couldn’t be sanctimoniously anything.

I've known other teachers with generous personalities who were magic with kids. The difference with Harold is that he knew what he was doing on an intellectual level too – which was partly what made him such a superb teacher educator. His thinking was as exciting as his practice. His ideas and his knowledge, manifested in a thousand remarks and comments in our tutorials, seemed to come from some deep well of wisdom that I
always wanted to get at. But of course, articulate though he was, he never laid it all out. What Harold knew he knew in his bones. It wasn’t a system but a rich culture of connections, best expressed, as Tony Burgess indicates (in Changing English), in the detail of his memorable formulations, which of course came also from his other great ability, as a superb talker and artful, vigorous writer.

For me, coming from my lower middle class grammar school background in Bradford, Harold was a quite new and unfamiliar sort of person, deep, fascinating, clever, warm and funny, nothing short of an inspiration. He was more interesting and more intellectually exacting than anyone in four years at Oxford, and the first really intelligent person of the Left that I'd encountered. For me and many others he made all the difference.

But I think my final word, when I think of this warm, clever, amusing, sometimes difficult, often pontificating, always story-telling man, would be quite simply: What fun he was!

1 comment:

mycal said...

Hi there,

I'm really enjoying your site. I wish I had the patience to compile one! I wonder if you can help me. Do you have an email address for Valerie Avery? If so could you pass it on to me, or alternatively, could you pass on mine. Thank you,