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 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!