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.

Conversations from Calais: Episode 11

The Conversations from Calais project was started in October 2019 by London-based graphic designer Mathilda Della Torre. The aim of the project is simply to re-humanise the refugee crisis by giving a voice to migrants in Calais.

Let’s talk about talking!

As soon as I saw the Conversations from Calais Instagram, I knew I needed to talk to the founder about talking, so I made contact with Mathilda. She calls herself a ‘good designer’ because she designs with the aim of doing good for people. In the podcast she explains that there were many ways to do this project badly, but that this simple black and white poster presentation, documenting real conversations with migrants as they are submitted by Calais volunteers, felt ‘natural, raw and simple.’

Conversations from Calais poster
Conversations from Calais poster, documenting real conversations
between migrants and volunteers in Calais.

Why include Conversations from Calais on The Language Revolution Podcast, you wonder? In the first ten episodes we have looked at talking from a neuroscience, psychology, education, and linguistics perspective. Our voices matter to us, and having a voice is central to our experience as humans. As Ben Crystal explored in Episode 6, we need to speak what is in our hearts. But what if our voice is silenced, or gets taken away, or manipulated by the media?

Bearing Witness

Mathilda explains that the project grew out of her stints as a volunteer in Calais. She is not rewriting the migrants’ stories but sharing a very specific moment between the volunteer (‘I’) and the migrant (‘you’). It is important that the pronoun ‘you’ is the migrant – they are the first person we are talking to, and not the othered ‘they’ of a lot of media coverage. These are real people, like you. Mathilda doesn’t use colour or embellishment such as photographs or videos because the words speak for themselves and bear witness to the migrants’ situations, as you can see from the examples below:

How are the stories curated?

Mathilda does very little to alter the stories. Volunteers submit them in English, and most people are now submitting the conversations in the I/You format. Some are perhaps too long for one poster, so Mathilda will split them across two posters. But as for any control of the narrative, she doesn’t impose any kind of stance on the conversations. She posts them in pretty much chronological order, as they are submitted to her. The themes that emerge – there is hope and despair, resilience and (sadly) violence – are testament to the fact that every migrant has a different story, just as every human does. There is not one narrative that can be called ‘the migrant story’. The hero or victim dichotomy is a false one. Yes, there is heroism. Yes, there is victimisation. But it is far more nuanced than that.

Heard across the world

The posters are having a remarkable effect, with people posting them in 50 cities on five continents as of January 2020. It is sure to be more at the time of going to press as the following rapidly grows for this important project. In fact, I have watched the Instagram following double in the few weeks since we recorded and can see that the project resonates around the world.

Get involved!

If you can get the posters on billboards, or translate the posters, or would like to invite Mathilda to speak, please get in touch with her on conversationsfromcalais at gmail dot com. Follow Conversations from Calais on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and share the posts with your circle. Further ideas on how to make a positive impact are discussed in the podcast. It is available on all the usual podcast providers or by clicking the play button below this final poster.

Conversations from Calais poster
Yes, the world knows.
Please, do share these Conversations from Calais as widely as you can.