Kate Clanchy and her students: Episode 12

Is poetry the preserve of the elite, or can anyone, from anywhere, write a poem worth reading? In Episode 12, Cate talks to award-winning poet, teacher, and encourager of creative writing Kate Clanchy. Her students come from diverse and sometimes difficult backgrounds, and now find themselves writing poetry in a school in Oxford, England. Listen to their life stories, their poems, and how writing poetry is helping migrant children find their voices in unexpected ways.

Let’s talk about talking!

Meet Kate’s students

Kate Clanchy talks about her students’ poetry and multilingualism

Their poems are disturbingly good. During Kate’s ten years at Oxford Spires Academy she established a rich, varied and multilingual practice of creative writing with the students. Poets who write in Arabic, Polish, Kiswahili, came in and worked with the pupils across all their languages. One student, Mohamed, was only 12 years old and had ‘seen a war, and left his country to strangers’ as he wrote in one of his incredible poems. Kate explains how this young boy, who had been top of his class in Syria, now had plenty to be angry about. How does writing poetry help him?

Refugee, refugee

The word the West was holding for me

Mohamed Assaf, age 12

Some of Kate’s students, like Mukahang and Shukria, have gone on to study at the universities of Oxford and St Andrews. They are incredibly able pupils, and sophisticated, well-read writers. However, the UK education system often overlooks their talents. We mark them down.

Multilingual pupils and poetry

Kate has observed that very bright kids who had been top of the class in Syria or Afghanistan, for example, come to England and appear stupid due to their lack of English. These students enjoy writing poems because ‘in poems they are still clever.’ There’s a much stronger oral poetry tradition in Arabic cultures compared to England, which means poetry has been a part of the students’ lives. Even if their parents are illiterate, for example, they will have recited poetry to them.

In class, everyone speaks English together and makes cross-cultural friendships. There are so many cultural groups at Oxford Spires that children have to mix rather than split into factions. As Kate observes, ‘When you get a Mohamed at the back of the Kiswahili workshop’ interesting things happen. The children are interested in each other’s metaphors, testament, and stories. Google Translate is part of the poetic, creative translation process too. There is a collective effort to bring these poems into existence involving pupils, teachers, and technology.

Mohamed Assaf, 12, from Syria, with England Poems from a School.
Image: Oxford Spires Academy.

Does writing poetry bring relief?

The satisfaction of writing a good poem and of being heard are their own rewards. Does Kate get her students to evaluate their creative writing? Not at all. That would make the poems less of a safe space.

The poems are a place where the pupils tell their stories. Hearing and exchanging stories allows the students to get their stories out, into a safe place. Cate asks if students have ever released any very dark emotions in the poems, and whether teachers were afraid of what they might prod into existence. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid of stories, Kate reassures us. Lean into the poem. Writing in the third person can liberate the pupils to tell a truth through fiction, which can create a safe distance if needed.

A poem is a safe place.

Kate Clanchy

Does writing poetry matter?

Shouldn’t we focus on teaching these students English? Kate argues that writing poetry helps pupils learn English as quickly as possible because it gives them a space to say something that matters to them. The ‘thin tools’ of assessment are inadequate to explain the progress that students make in English as they write their poems. After all, most people have learned languages, over most of history, without writing anything down.

According to Kate, we should abolish the structures of hierarchical language learning. Verbs are not more important than idioms. In poetry, everything is attached: images, sounds and rhythms come in a clump. A poem also helps you remember. Leaning into the tradition of oral poetry, as both Kate Clanchy and Michael Rosen (in this episode) suggest, will unlock poetry for students. It might even help them find their place.

‘And my heart, I’d say
is displaced

struggling to find its place.’

Shukria Rezaei (18)

Find England Poems from a School here and listen to part one of our conversation with Kate Clanchy on The Language Revolution Podcast below.