Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ An Inspirer

Harold RosenMonday evening saw a celebration of  Harold Rosen, the inspiring educationist who passed away in 2008. Harold Rosen was unique. His wit was dry, his language succinct. He spoke the truth as he saw it. He did not appease. At an important debate in the Society for Storytelling in its earlier days , the question at issue was whether the Society should exclusively support the traditional tale or whether it should also represent other forms of story such as the personal tale or the written story. Speeches were impassioned – I made one myself. Then Harold stood up. Both as an eminent educationist and as a respected Patron of the SfS, what he was about to say felt extremely important. What he did say was brief. At its centre was the pungent point that the desire to establish boundaries usually arises ‘from those that wish to patrol them’.

End of story. The truth in Harold’s remark was clear as daylight. Thinking about it anew this week, the question it addresses feels extremely apt for our world right now. As Donald Trump plans physical boundaries against Mexican immigration and paper walls against Muslims, the question is going to remain critically important. In this day and age, does America really want to be patrolled? Does it want to be patrolled by Trump and his chaotic team? But Harold Rosen’s thinking forms an equally pertinent and powerful challenge to much current educational and social strategy here in the UK. The value now given to league tables and targets, the stifling emphasis on exam success, the narrowing effect of these viewpoints on what and how children are taught: all these would have been anathema to Harold Rosen.

What Harold argued – if I can try to summarise some of it  – is that all education of children has to respect and start from the child’s own background, experience and language. In a multi-ethnic society, this is especially vital. If children’s own experience is in some way disallowed, the children are disempowered from the start. Language is central – and, for Harold, language didn’t mean English or French, Welsh or Hindi. It meant those things too, but it also meant the way we all talk, idiom, words, habits of speech, modes of expression. For him, narrative was central to language, the basic fabric of human communication, and in the latter part of his academic career, he devoted himself to thinking about it, ending as Emeritus Professor of Narrative at London’s Institute of Education.

The importance of narrative:

But Harold didn’t stop there. I first became properly aware of him in the last part of the 1980s when I was running storytelling courses for parents for the Outer London borough of Redbridge as part of their participation in the National Oracy Project. Harold was now retired. Yet he’d be there at any Redbridge Oracy conference, a keynote speaker ready to highlight, share and discuss his thinking on the importance of narrative. And centrally to him narrative meant stories, all kinds of stories, traditional as well as personal, fictional as well as real. So, from the podium, he would give an underpinning of profound thought to the borough’s work on storytelling and invariably  his talk would be peppered with all the humour and feeling that stories are made of. At those same conferences too would be Betty Rosen, Harold’s wife, usually giving a storytelling workshop for teachers that drew on the experience and wisdom she’d gained over her years of working with stories as a secondary school teacher and that she was now employing in storytelling work in Redbridge schools.

2939836358_29a6f509d4_z[1]Both Harold and Betty were an inspiration to me. Both appeared in my TV series, By Word of Mouth. Both played important parts in the early days of the Society for Storytelling. Both have remained profound influences on my own ways of working. I especially have admired and tried to emulate the way in which their approach was always, on principle and in effect, so inclusive. From the most literary person to the barely articulate, no-one would feel excluded from their kind of educational process.

The new Harold Rosen book:

The particular reason for Monday’s evening event was to launch a new book: Harold Rosen, Writings on life, language and learning, 1958 – 2008 (UCL IOE Press). The writings this big book brings together include some of the stories Harold wrote as well as some of his poems. For Harold was not the kind of academic that looked at things from on high. He was always there at the coalface, mining his own experience as someone who’d come into the UK as part of a Jewish immigrant family settling in the East End of London with strongly left-wing ideals.

The main part of the launch was the superbly thought-out talk on all the phases of Harold’s work which was given by John Richmond, the person who has carried out the major task of bringing this book on Harold together. Before he spoke, introducing what was to come, were two of the very closest people in Harold’s life. First of these to speak was his son Michael Rosen, the well-known poet, writer, speaker and all-round activist of literary and educational thought. Then came Betty, Harold’s widow, who spoke of him with all her usual wit and deep feeling. It was a great occasion, one to remember and to continue the inspiration. 

PS:  It felt impossible to illustrate this week’s blog except with photos of Harold. So using the same photo drawn from the internet, here he is in two perspectives that match my own memories of him, the close-up and the longer view.  



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3 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ An Inspirer”

  1. Meg Says:

    Thanks for this, Mary.
    I wish I had heard Harold R. speak. I was a fan of his from his articles about narratives and oral language.
    I also devoured Betty R’s book “And None of It was Nonsense…” And still open it up now and again. Her comment about the difference between a script and a telling –
    The printed text of any talk wipes out all the speech rhythms, tone, pitch, variation in pace, all eye contact, actions, gestures, mannerisms, physical jerks, twitches, fleeting grins, frowns, gleams, (or) glares. Indeed it strikes out … the visible human form. (1988:70) –
    encouraged me in my storytelling and drove me last year to research more about the human voice and reading aloud.
    Ah storytelling.
    Best Regards from Meg

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Belatedly, Meg, it’s great to know you were also a fan of Harold Rosen and that you too appreciated Betty Rosen’s book, And None of it was Nonsense. That book has been an inspiration to me. The quality of work her secondary school pupils did in response to her storytelling should be an example to all educators. How the power of storytelling can be so ignored by the powers that be is beyond my comprehension.

  3. Jean Says:

    Yes – Thank you Mary and thank you Harold and Betty Rosen, truly inspirational people. And I echo Meg’s — ah storytelling. Jean xx

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