Michael Rosen
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An interview for the Institute of Education Magazine

Did you enjoy your school days?

Yes I did. Mostly, this was because of the kinds of friendship and companionship I found there. Some of this was what would now be called 'anti-social behaviour', in that I got into all kinds of messing about and subversive stuff, alongside getting my head down and doing well in the formal sense. I was educated in state schools in Pinner, Harrow and Watford - one nursery school, two primaries and two local grammar schools. I feel good about all of them, but if schools could speak, then I'm not sure they would say that they feel particularly good about me. As with many people, all kinds of good nostalgic feelings well up when I think of, say, summers on the school fields, school trips, sports days and the like. It's powerful stuff and I often wonder why. I guess it's because the moment you put yourself in the shoes of the person you were then,  you have a sense of expectation and hope: all the things you hoped you might do or become. In my case, this time is not full of dread or fear or despair. It's rather carefree as if there were an endless set of possibilities: if I don't do that, then I can do that. If it turns out that I'm no good at this, then I could do that. I should qualify that with one thing, though: the 11-plus exam. That was a time where educational anxiety did dominate my life, even though my parents struggled to make that not the case. It was as if there was a cultural neurosis going on, sending us all into a kind of mass tizz. That was quite miserable and thinking about it this way, helps me understand a particular kind of rebellion that went on amongst my group of friends at that time.

Do you have any particular memories from your time at school? (Good or bad).

I have hundreds and hundreds of very clear memories of all five schools. I think this is because I came from a family that re-enacted experiences through anecdote-sharing, through acting out and mimicry. Anything interesting, absurd or comic was re-played over and over again in the form of story-telling and mini-shows or what people would call 'impressions'. This is a way of storing experience and as I was the youngest in the family, this was a way for me to learn how to carry experience in my head into the next day, next week, next year, next decade! Virtually all my writing, has thrived off this. I get the sense that some writers draw on wells of powerful emotion from specific times in their lives and they can go into these wells in order to write. Others are fabulists who have learnt how to spin a yarn. In my case, it's something different and much more to do with 'playing out', or simply acting. I re-enact the people and moments of my life. So when you say 'any particular memories', I want to say, that it all plays over and over again in my head.
 
But I still haven't answered your question! Good ones: reading 'Candide', 'Antony and Cleopatra' and Gide's 'La Symphonie Pastorale' in the sixth form. Doing photosynthesis experiments in Biology 'O'level lessons with a brilliant science teacher, Miss Pope, who tried over and over again to get us to describe things in our own words, and who tried to avoid giving us the answers to anything  before we had worked it out for ourselves. An English teacher, Barry Brown, who was irreverent, naughty, jokey, extravert and a breath of fresh air in a fairly stuffy grammar school. Choral speaking with Miss Macnab in primary school, bible stories with Miss Stafford the headteacher in my first primary. She would illustrate them with coloured chalks on a blackboard.
Bad ones - mostly of my own making: getting the cane for bookng a teacher in the playground, helping drive a young English teacher to tears for what now seems to me for no better reason than that we discovered that we could, various kinds of verbal bullying I got into (for which I now feel shame) and then, when I was what I imagined the victim of the same thing, doing something completely crazy - I drew all over the tables in the classroom and only realised as I was going home, what I had done! I then bunked off the following day - as if that would prevent anyone from knowing it was me! - and then had to face the serious music the following day, from someone who was a friend of my father's, the headteacher, Harry Rée. Bad stuff.

Was there anyone at school who inspired you? If so, in what way?

Barry Brown, I've already mentioned. There was Mr Baggs in primary school, who legitimated boyishness. Our teachers were women and in the last  year of junior school, my teacher really didn't seem to like boys. She called us by our last names and her facial expression and body language was different when she talked to boys and to girls. She wasn't interested in what boys seemed to like, unless it was tamed into being servile to her and/or very heads-down school-learning. Mr Baggs taught the 11-plus failure class, a big Welsh guy with a red face and grey hair and he loved taking us for football and just talking to us.

In secondary school, I've mentioned Barry Brown. He supported my interest in acting and got me to join the local am-dram group and I was one of the slave boys in 'The Merchant of Venice'.
In the sixth form, Michael Benton taught me and I really got to enjoy his seriousness and thoroughness. At the time, he appeared in class to resist humour which you might have thought I would have found quite tiring or off-putting, but not at all. I can remember really appreciating it.

Were there any particular influences/experiences in your early years which inspired you to write?

This comes from my parents and my brothers. I've described the re-enactment stuff. If you add to that, the fact that my home worshipped writing. The world of books, language and writing was, for my parents, was in a way sacred to my parents. I can see now that they saw that it was through reading and education that they had taken themselves out of poverty and, as they saw it, religious obscurantism. So, anything written, whether that was fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama and so on had some kind of special importance to them. They also loved languages and between them could speak Yiddish, French and German pretty well and my father had learnt a bit of Russian and could translate Latin. All this was publicly shared. By that, I mean, fragments of those languages would appear in everyday speech, re-appear on holidays in France and Germany and become intertwined with our homework. They read to us when we were young, and constantly nudged us towards reading this or that: why don't you give Thomas Hardy a go? (that sort of thing times a thousand!).
 
My mother presented BBC Schools Radio poetry programmes and my father was involved with helping (mostly as an unpaid colleague or friend) various English teachers' anthologies or text books, and I remember that the proofs of these came through the house, were pored over at the tea-table and indeed on occasions, I was the guinea-pig they were tried out on. I had a strong sense that writing could be made, improved and 'used'. There was an audience of people (including myself) who would not only enjoy this stuff, but would also spend time pondering what it meant and what it signified. The home was full of what we now call hermeneutics. It was constantly involved in interpreting things, but also, in talking about interpretations. This applied to literature, politics and people's behaviour. And it was very public and in your face. When the radio played, my parents argued with what was being said. And then talked about what their argument with it, was all about.

Did you always want to be a writer?

No. At various times from when I was young, I wanted to be a farmer, an actor a MP and a doctor. Then there was a time when I wanted to be a playwright, a theatre director, or a TV director.

(Education)

How do you think education has changed over the years? How does it compare to when you were at school?

In one sense, there are ways that education now is very similar to the way in which I was educated in the fifties and early sixties. Education in this country is very stratified. It reproduces and reinforces the class system by rewarding a particular way of thinking and of using language. When I was at school, this was set in stone through a known and very public selection system. Today, it's more furtive, but continues. Teaching itself is still broadly the same: one person stands out the front and tries to get children to do work. It's been like this since the ancient Greeks, hasn't it? I'm not sure anyone has the will to change this way in which adults and children interact in education. Many other better models have appeared. Many other models of what constitutes knowledge (or intelligence) have appeared. Many other ways of encouraging those who don't 'get' the academic stuff have been known for decades. But nothing really changes about this.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing teachers in London today?

I think the big challenge for teachers is for them to resist the ridiculous constraints on their work imposed by central government and policed through SATs and Ofsted. I think that the only way for education to advance is the LINC model: local, regional and national conferences with teachers involved in 'action research' (ie researching their own practice), interacting with interested academics, writers, representatives from the ministry to hammer out policies based on the expertise that each of these groups brings. There was a brief moment (1990?) when this kind of approach to education was happening and we had a 'dossier' approach to assessment, but central government sensed a loss of power. They were right. They had lost power and so they replied with fibs about the quality of education about 'standards' and brought in a set of processes and structures that will in the end be thrown out. They know already that they have reached an impasse with it all. I hope that there will come a point when teachers and researchers can seize back the initiative.

What do you think are the main challenges faced by parents bringing up and educating their children in London? And, what are the advantages?

To tell the truth this question is mostly too complex to answer. I'm not sure that London is any more challenging than anywhere else. It's a very busy, diverse place. I think that with the abolition of the ILEA, education in London has been in a mess. The imposition of Academies in boroughs such as my own (Hackney) was done without the consent of parents and as a consequence all over London, as elsewhere, secondary education has been taken out of democratic control and placed into the hands of people who just happen to have money. Why the possession of large sums of money should equip someone or some people to run a school, is to my mind a completely misplaced principle. Evidence for this is emerging as we discover that some of the money-men who are now in control of what were once our schools, are people who tried to earn money through the disreputable practices of derivative trading and shortfall share dealing. What precisely is this supposed to teach our children? I am depressed beyond measure as to why most of the schools within reach of my young children are academies. I guess this is the greatest challenge facing me as a parent at the moment.

(Writing/Poetry)

Why do you think there is such a need (nowadays) to encourage children to take more of an interest in reading and writing?

I don't think there is anymore need to encourage children now than at any other time. Reading and writing gives you access to a kind of thinking that is hard to acquire in other ways. This way of thinking we might call 'discursive' but it also involves such ideas as 'abstract' thought, and appreciating and understanding complex chronology and multiplicity of viewpoint. It is possible to acquire these without reading and writing, but it's probably very difficult and is beset with difficulties as the educational process tends to exclude you if you don't read and write fluently. What's more, it's becoming clear that in order to negotiate the internet and television in a way that puts you in control of what you're doing, then it seems as if being able to read and write fluently is almost essential. Screens full of information require extremely skilled reading, access to sites for information, and artistic ideas of any kind, require a good deal of sophisticated surfing. I suggest that every child is entitled to being shown in school that reading widely and often is essential. However, school literacy as present constituted, does not do this. It shows children and students that functional literacy is adequate. Those children who come from a background that favours and encourages wide and frequent reading discover the advantages of this, the further they go through education. Those who don't come from such a background will not find that school provides this. I am beginning to think that those who run education are aware of this and that this is a knowing form of discrimination.

What do you think teachers could do to encourage pupils to take more interest in/develop a passion for writing?

I think there should be local, regional and national policies on the reading of books for pleasure and enlightenment. At present there are none. There are many, many ways to win over children, schools and parents to reading and we should be putting all of them into practice. I could number some here, but ideally this should be something that is fought for at local, regional and national levels by children, parents and teachers themselves. Here are some: home-school liaison officers to help parents find and enjoy books for their children; paid librarians for every school - shared if necessary between schools; parent committees to help schools with book-based activities eg book weeks, school libraries, school book shops, second hand book swaps, book evenings, Federation of Children's Book Branches etc; reading out loud of books for pleasure in the classroom, teachers asking open-ended questions about books, children involved in choosing books for class and school libraries, reception and year one teachers bringing parents into their classes at the end of the day for book-reading sessions with the children, teachers setting up children's literature study groups, the use of websites and resources such as Booktrust, National Literacy Trust, Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and their 'Power of Reading' project, the compilation of parents' skills' registers with specific reference to any parent who has knowledge or experience in the field of print, publishing, brochure-making, etc etc.

And any advice for parents?

Do you have any practical tips on what teachers might do in class?

I think teachers could experiment with asking questions they don't know the answers to eg 'what does this scene/chapter/person/poem/book remind you of? Anything in your own life, or anything you've ever read before? Do you have any puzzles about what we're reading? Is there anyone in the class who would like to have a go at answering that puzzle? If not, where can we go to answer it? If you could ask anyone or any thing in what we're reading, what would you ask? Anyone like to answer that? If not, where can we go? Anyone like to ask the author anything? Anyone like to pretend to be the author and answer that?

(Children's Laureate)

What does the role of Children's Laureate involve?

Essentially, the laureate is a spokesperson for children's books and also someone who is trying to initiate and support projects that will help more children find their way to books.

What have you achieved so far in the role? And what do you aim to achieve before the role finishes next year?

I set out with two general principles: to be an ambassador for fun in books, and to promote the diversity of children's poetry.
With these in mind I initiated the following ideas:
1. A prize for the funniest book(s) of the year
2. An A-Z tour of poets
3. An exhibition and conference of children's poetry at the British Library
4. An interactive Youtube type website for the sharing of children's performance poetry
5. A web-page on how to make a poetry friendly classroom
6. To support whatever is being done to promote the reading of picture books
7. To help create a network of children's literature 'trails' around the country.
 
Results so far:
1. There is now a Roald Dahl Funny Prize which will have its first awards in November.
2. The A-Z tour has performed all over the country and there will be an anthology to be published by Puffin that will draw together all the poets concerned alongside those who would have been if the tour could have continued ie most poets who write for children today.
3. The exhibition at the British library starts in April and the conference is on April 20 and 21.
4. The interactiv Youtube website will be at Booktrust's website and attached to the poetry friendly classroom webpage
5. The poetry friendly classroom webpage is up and running on the Children's Laureate website at Booktrust's website
6. I have supported most of the events organised by Booktrust for its 'Big Picture' campaign aimed at promoting picture books.
7. The children's literature trails project has been taken up by someone interested in this area, and for the sake of the funding process has been kept at arms length from the laureateship and Booktrust.

(Other)

What is your greatest achievement?

If you mean ever, then it's to survive the death of my son without destroying either myself or the people around me. If you mean as the laureate, it's any of the previous 7 points or perhaps all of them! If you mean from the point of view of literature alone, it's the writing and performing of poems that thousands of children seem to enjoy.

Do you have a favourite book or author? (OR, a favourite poem or poet?)

Faves: poets writing today in the UK: Jackie Kay, John Agard, Roger McGough, Tony Harrison, Adrian Mitchell.

poets ever - Carl Sandburg, Kenneth Fearing, Don Marquis, Siegfried Sassoon's war poetry, Wilfred Owen.

 

 

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