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.

Michael Rosen on education: Episode 10

Want to hear Michael Rosen on education, literacy and language? What does he think language is for? Who does language belong to? Listen to Episode 10 of The Language Revolution Podcast where he talks about all the F-words: footballers, fog, Farage and fronted adverbials! This is the second episode of a two-part series. You can catch part one of the conversation here.

Let’s talk about talking!

Michael begins with a history of how Literacy has taken over from Literature in primary schools, and has become a ‘thing in itself’ rather than just a name for the making of letters. The sentence has become king. We are far removed from the purpose of language, which is to express important or trivial things. It is a normal part of human behaviour. It is not the word Literacy that’s to blame, but the abstraction of words from their purpose of communicating what children actually want to express in their writing or talking.

What do children actually want to express in their writing?

Permanent revolution

What are Michael Rosen’s top tips for teachers who would like to encourage a love of language and storytelling in their classes? Should we do Matilda every year because the children love it? Well, maybe not since ‘doing’ the same literature year in, year out, can result in the teacher sending subtle signals that they are bored of the book, and then the children pick up on the sense that it is boring. There is a way around this, however, which as Michael explains in the podcast involves teachers adopting a ‘permanent revolution approach to literacy’.

Rather than ‘WOW’ words on the walls in our classrooms, what Michael suggests is turning our whole classroom into a language scrapbook or language laboratory. He explains how to do this and how to foster an exploratory ethos where we go into the ‘woods of language’ in search of minibeasts with the children.

Woman and man in recording studio
Cate Hamilton and Michael Rosen

Language obeys us. We are the masters and mistresses of language.

Michael Rosen

Who owns language?

Does Shakespeare own language? Is it the ‘old white people’ like Michael Rosen, who talk a lot about language, who own it? Not at all. A new baby owns language, and a 100 year old owns language. We need to help our children see how they own language, and are all permitted to have fun with it. Language is for us. It belongs to all of us.

Helping children to see that they are all linguists might help solve the UK languages crisis, where we are seeing a rapid reduction in the number of students choosing foreign languages from GCSE onwards. Cate wonders if Literacy is siphoning off English from ‘other languages’ and creating a bizarre separation for pupils between what they say and think, what they write in school, and languages they can learn in school, such as French or German.

Grammar is the culprit, says Michael, as the way we teach it is making language abstract at the expense of understanding that language is constantly in use. It has a purpose, genre and social appropriateness. If children can see the point of language again, and enjoy using it, that might curb the trend to drop the study of language(s) in secondary school and beyond. Teachers and pupils need empowering to study and enjoy language in use.

Language is our interactions with all their imperfections and variety.
Michael Rosen on language in use

Language in use

If listening to Michael Rosen on education doesn’t start a language revolution, we will eat our dictionaries. Language in use is how he suggests we talk about language, rather than the single word ‘language’. This would help explain to pupils about language change, dictionaries, loan words, and our interactions with languages. Language in use is what writers like Dickens, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins did with words. It would also help bring the multilingualism of our pupils into classroom practice and celebrate the diversity of language(s) in schools.

And perhaps that would mean that Michael has no reason to mention Farage, or the xenophobic language hierarchies he extolls. Well, we can only live in hope!

And what of a certain bear? Find out what could possibly happen to the bear at the end of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by listening to The Language Revolution Podcast on your usual podcast provider or clicking the button below!

Michael Rosen on talking and writing: Episode 9

Hearing a Michael Rosen poem for the first time in primary school was one of my ‘switch-on moments’ where a lifelong passion is born. I’ve been excited about words, talking, reading and writing ever since. So who better to ask about how to enjoy a life full of wonderful words than Michael Rosen himself?

Let’s talk about talking!

Having grown up immersed in a languages-rich environment, with bilingual parents who spoke English and Yiddish, as well as knowing German, French, and Latin, Michael made a fatal career mistake as a teenager and switched track to study medicine after his humanities A Levels, eventually zigzagging his way into writing for a living.

He calls poems ‘great places to go’ and we talk about how DH Lawrence’s poetry influenced him, and what prompted him to start writing his own poems and stories as a teenager.

Graffiti wall with the word poetry being painted.
I asked Michael Rosen if anyone can be a poet. Listen to his answer on the podcast.

What advice does Michael Rosen give to budding writers?

If writing is a bit like composing a piece of music, with riffs, cadences, snippets of a tune that you can repeat and build up into a piece, then the more you read, the more you get a sense of the ‘whole piece’. Michael recommends ‘reading and reading and reading and reading’ to budding young writers, which might sound obvious but he explains how reading gives us a ‘set of tools in our head’ to help us compose with words, either through oral poetry or writing it down.

The creative process begins with playing with language

As David Crystal described in Episode 8, babies are rap poets from birth! Young children are naturally experimental and love the sound and feel of words. It’s a physical process, attached to our body, as Michael explains. And then writing creeps in and is a once-removed, out-of-body process that can feel alien to children who are not used to the ‘clumsy, turgid, slow thing called writing.’ In fact, many adults do not find much satisfaction in writing either. Michael explores how to continue playing with words on the page, and says that we don’t need to ‘be given permission to play’ and that we don’t have to ‘obey any rules.’

This deadly serious thing called writing

Often silly in his own writing, I ask if poetry needs to be serious or can we allow some silliness into writing too? In fact, as Michael explains, you can explore deadly serious things in a very silly way, and it can be a good method for exploring these serious issues. Playing with words and ‘making up new words out of old words’ goes right back to the origins of language, and brings us to the final section of the podcast where we really start talking about talking.

Oracy or ‘dialogic learning’

Cate Hamilton and Michael Rosen in recording studio
Cate and Michael with their best smiley studio faces!

Michael’s father was a founding figure in the oracy movement, and you might say that Michael is carrying on that family tradition. (Find more on oracy in Episode 6 with Ben Crystal.) Talking is hugely important and talking about stories, talking about our knowledge or lack of it, talking as a method of helping ourselves get to grips with a subject, it all helps us to ‘take possession’ of what we are doing. Talking can even prevent dangerously incorrect medical diagnoses!

What’s all this got to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, neon signs, and plastic noses? Listen to the podcast to find out!

How can linguistics help teachers? Episode 8

Language is ‘the Mount Everest of subjects’, according to linguistics expert Professor David Crystal (A Little Book of Language, p253). It runs right through our experience as humans, and is naturally cross-curricular. So, Cate asks, what if we put linguistics at the heart of our school curriculum? How could we introduce linguistics in schools and would it help teachers with teaching literacy, or is ‘linguistics’ too abstract for children?

Babies are rap poets from birth

Our instinct to play with language is universal, according to Professor Crystal, and playing is one of the main drivers for learning language in babies. In the podcast he explains that we have three main drivers: understanding, identity and playfulness. The instinct is there from birth, and continues into childhood, with children delighting in word play and having fun with language. So what goes wrong? And can linguistics help us retain this playfulness as we grow?

What grammar should we teach?

Drawing circles around adjectives in school doesn’t necessarily translate into children including more adjectives in their writing. David explains how we need to mirror the children’s language acquisition process when teaching them how to do better writing. We must ‘begin at the beginning,’ and with children this means letting them hear the language we expect them to use first, then giving them time to speak it and have fun with it. Children all have ‘an instinct for eloquence’ and enjoy retelling stories. Do we give them enough time to go through this process of listening, speaking, and reading, before expecting them to use new structures in their writing?

With grammar, jumping straight to the cold intellectual dissection and analysis of words doesn’t mean very much without context and passion. Yes, children need to know the rules but ‘it’s the breaking of rules that’s the fun bit,’ David explains. And what about the dreaded fronted adverbials, I wonder? You’ll have to listen to hear what he has to say about those.

It’s the breaking of rules that’s the fun bit

David Crystal on grammar
Teenage linguistics desk with mobile, pen, and book
What is the future of language as technology changes?
Image credit: Tamarcus Brown

The future of language

In the fast-paced world of modern technology, how is human communication changing? Text messaging and ‘text speak’ have had some bad press, but should we really be worried about our teens texting? In fact, as David explains, the fashion for ‘text speak’ peaked around 2009 and has already died out, with adolescents distancing themselves from it. Why is that? And what of emojis? Listen to hear the discussion about teenagers and their written communication, and what teachers should be doing about it (if anything).

The best texters are the best spellers

David Crystal on ‘text speak’

With all the advances in technology and more opportunities than ever to write, such as blogs, texting, and social media platforms, what role does the teacher have in helping students navigate their way to clear communication? The discussion turns to ‘appropriateness’ versus ‘correctness’, and ideas for classroom practice to encourage children to know what is appropriate for different occasions. It is about building an effective ‘linguistic wardrobe’, as David’s metaphor goes.

Teacher training in linguistics

A common theme emerges when David has spoken to teachers, who often tell him, ‘I have to teach grammar. Where do I start?’ In this podcast, David advocates following the children’s process of language acquisition when studying grammar. ‘How do one year olds do it? You can learn about grammar by following the way they do it, bit by bit.’ So what of the traditional approach of ‘subject-verb-object’ and the naming of parts? Is this approach, in fact, pointless? David argues that yes, it is pointless to approach grammar as separate from meaning.

Grammar has no purpose without reference to meaning

David Crystal on teaching grammar

The exciting thing about grammar, it turns out, is all the places you can go to with it. A bit like driving a car, and David explains why.

Cate and David Crystal at the launch of the LASER initiative at the British Academy.

A different mindset is needed to put language back in the centre of the curriculum, and to put children in the driving seat with their own language acquisition. It’s hard to predict the future of language, but I’d say that with this kind of approach, children might feel more empowered and excited about words and what they can do with them.

Listen to Episode 8 of The Language Revolution Podcast with David Crystal below or on iTunes.

And if you’d like to hear David discussing language and accents with his son, actor Ben Crystal, head over to Episode 7 afterwards.