UKLA talks to Kate Clanchy: Novelist, poet, poetry workshop leader and teacher

UKLA's Gabrielle Cliff Hodges talked with Kate Clanchy about her poetry collection, England: Poems from a school (2018) and her new book, Some kids I taught, and what they taught me (2019).


Kate Clanchy is a novelist, poet, poetry workshop leader and secondary English teacher. Gabrielle Cliff Hodges talked with her about her poetry collection, England: Poems from a school (2018), created by young adult students at the school where she teaches who have migrated to this country, and her new book, Some kids I taught, and what they taught me (2019). [There’s more about Kate’s work on Twitter.]

The thing Kate says she likes most about England: Poems from a school is that the book actually exists, it’s been published by a proper publisher and can be found in bookshops with its lovely cover.

She adds that it feels really classy and grown-up. The writing in it is not just raw testament; it’s literature designed for people to read. Kate says that young adult readers who come across the book seem to love it and when it’s used in school, it’s a powerful teaching tool. There’s nothing more powerful than saying ‘Here’s a poem that somebody like you wrote – possibly someone you even know’. These young people’s experiences do need recording. The writing validates their feelings of displacement and their memories of home. Often they otherwise ‘disappear’ their homes or their languages, so to have a book of poems about them is very powerful.

When Kate is working with young writers she tends not to offer them advice about writing poetry. Instead, she tries to make them feel as if they’re joining in a conversation. So, she always starts by reading a poem aloud and eliciting a response to it. She says the process is not about dissecting poems to see how they’ve been written, but about understanding their meanings. Then, as a way of responding, she urges students to write their own poem, to dig into their own experience, write about concrete things that are real and that only they know about. She urges them to write a poem that only they can write and then use it to join in the conversation.

The young writers use her initial poem as a framework for their own to varying degrees, depending on confidence and skill levels. For example, she might use a poem like Edip Cansever’s ‘The Table’ which offers a very strong structure. Beginning poets often stick to it very closely but still end up with a great poem; more sophisticated poets might write something that’s quite different and produce something equally great but very much their own work.

If anyone is wondering about students who say ‘I can’t write poetry’, Kate retorts that ‘They don’t say that to me very often because I’ve been at it so long!’ As both a workshop leader and as a whole class teacher, she is in a good position to say what she feels are the differences between them. Working with a smaller workshop group can be easier because you can progress faster and there are fewer of them. Nevertheless, there’s also something lovely about teaching poetry writing to a whole class, with everybody sharing something at the end.

Her recent book, Some kids I taught, and what they taught me, has teachers as its prime audience. For all its forthrightness about education, Kate is at great pains to stress that praise for, and recognition of, teachers is what matters most to her and she hopes that comes across very clearly. One of the things she really wants other professionals to do is look more closely at teachers’ lives. If there are going to be doctors’ memoirs, why not teachers’ memoirs?

As a teacher’s memoir, the book is written in a lively and accessible style, so it seems likely that it will not only be a good read for many practising teachers but also discussed fervently as well, whether in the staffroom, in English department meetings or on Twitter. The writing is more personal than many academic papers; that will, no doubt, prove refreshing for some. Kate addresses certain current topics unflinchingly and her views come across forcefully. Take the issue of learning objectives, for example. In a chapter called ‘About Teaching English’, WALTs (acronym for We Are Learning To) are given a hard time because, Kate argues, the complexity of creative writing is too ‘mysterious … it encompasses not just many processes of the mind, but those processes interacting with the collective mind, with literature and poetry’ (p. 210). These are interesting arguments which would be very worthwhile to discuss with groups of beginner teachers, school colleagues and other departments. Kate compares this kind of complexity with marking the one-time English Creative Writing A level which, she says, was almost impossible because you always had to reduce the marking to words and, moreover, to describing what she calls ‘rich’ text with ‘thin’ text. Teachers may agree or disagree, but it’s still really important to debate the issue and, since the topic is itself so fraught, bring to bear what others have said or written about it as a way to further the discussion.

Another area of learning in which Kate is very interested is students’ special educational needs (dyslexia, for example) which, she feels, do not necessarily affect the students’ capacity for poetry writing. In the book, she includes examples by young people with whom she has worked and shows what their achievements as poets have been. Here, too, there are plenty of thought-provoking ideas to energise discussion, not least evidence of the quality of students’ writing. Even if not everyone concurs with Kate’s views, they are likely to be motivated to debate them. In the process, they may well find themselves shifting their own stances, too, often drawing on other educational writers to shore them up. Any group of teachers engaging in such discussions is likely to be the richer for them, not least because Kate sees herself first and foremost as a teacher: ‘I think my strength has been to be a teacher and to work with teachers … doing all the things that are hard work like moving the chairs round and telling people not to run in the corridor’. In other words, there is a strong, down-to-earth, collaborative foundation to her work. Thus, at the end of our discussion, when asked if there was anything else she wanted to say, she quickly came back with two things. Firstly, she feels that anything excellent, like England: Poems from a school, is a whole school product, not merely something she has achieved by herself. Secondly, she wishes that more teachers could experience creative writing themselves, if they haven’t already done so (e.g. via Arvon Creative Writing Courses; the National Writing Project) to help them feel more confident.

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