Classroom magic through poetry: Kate Clanchy profile

The teacher, poet and novelist talks to Tes about a life spent in education, and how she inspires pupils to write
29th November 2020, 3:00pm


Classroom magic through poetry: Kate Clanchy profile
My Best Teacher Podcast: Poet & Teacher Kate Clanchy Talks About Her School Days

It is a sign of Kate Clanchy’s practical, can-do optimism - which sings through the pages of her latest book, with its vignettes of truculent children, chivvied into writing extraordinary poems; of apparently silent, “very quiet” immigrant girls who find their voices on the blank page - that she has found a positive aspect of lockdown.

Speaking to Tes over Zoom, she remarks that it has been “quite a good time for poetry”. It has given space, she says, for people to “kind of drift inside themselves”. And while she might miss peeping over students’ shoulders as they write, she notes that our new era of distanced video calls has created its own intimacy.

News: Teacher wins Orwell Prize for political writing

Book review: Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me

Related: How poetry can transform your school

Of online creative writing workshops, she says: “It’s just you, just talking to somebody and they’re scribbling away. I think that can be quite a nice, private space, you know, people actually get some quite constructive writing done.”

Clanchy’s latest book, How to Grow Your Own Poem, offers poems, tips and prompts to get readers started on their own journeys as poets. She has won numerous prizes and awards for her poetry collections and other writings, but she also employs poetry as part of her craft as a teacher, in inspiring her charges. 

Tes is interviewing Clanchy after she won the Orwell prize for political writing for the memoir of her career, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. The book weaves together her disparate experiences in the classroom, from her nerves as a novice teaching sex education in Blastmuir - a Scottish ex-mining town - to teaching poetry in a multi-ethnic Oxfordshire comprehensive, where nearly every pupil comes from elsewhere, with a variety of different tongues at their command.

A different class

Some Kids I Taught is part memoir, part polemic. With unnerving honesty, Clanchy strikes at the heart of some of education’s most fraught debates. She questions, for example, what happens when the sharp-elbowed middle class evacuates from the inclusive state primary for a secondary school in a better catchment, and what the costs are of viewing church schools as “pretty, harmless, kindly” antiques.

She describes the choice of school for one’s children as “the most political choice we will ever make”.

Clanchy herself chose, with some trepidation, the school she taught in for her sons - a school with an inclusion unit, one that only attracted a smattering of children from the beady-eyed middle class.

At the time, other parents gossiped about her decision for weeks, but she tells me that the 20-year-old who has just “lumbered up the stairs” in the background is now at St John’s College, Oxford studying PPE [politics, philosophy and economics] - “so he turned out to be completely unharmed by his education!” - while her 16-year-old twins, who would have sat GCSEs this summer, attend the same school.

In the book, she says that middle-class families might think of schooling in terms of what their children can give back to their community, rather than only what they can take from it - their “patrimony”, as she describes it. The word perhaps carries uncomfortable connotations of noblesse oblige and Clanchy concedes that hers is “not a very popular viewpoint”.

“I think it’s true though,” she says. “I think you’ve got to say, ‘This is our community and everyone needs to chip in, here we go’.

“I think that drive to do the best for your child is just so strong - British people’s feelings are so strong, and you can see why. People identify with their children…they think that schools both should and shouldn’t be exactly like the one they went to, even if they hated their school.

“It’s bizarre. It’s a really kind of tribal thing, a huge amount of anxiety, there’s a feeling you might be failing your child or letting your child down.”

She acknowledges that, after months of school closures, these parental anxieties are now particularly understandable.

“Imagine if your child is in Year 6 now, and you know that the children at the private schools [have been] getting loads of teaching on Zoom. It’s really hard, because you know that your child already isn’t getting the same as little Johnny down the road who’s got a private school blazer on.”

But, if she understands, she is also resolute in her belief in comprehensive education and her staunch defence of the multiculturalism of Oxford Spires Academy. This is the school where she taught most recently, and also the one where she championed poetry, teaching pupils to write delicate, sensual paeans to their memories of Bangladesh or Budapest - many of which feature in the collection, England: Poems from a School.

Taught in a monoculture

Clanchy’s writing and outlook is, in many ways, a celebration of difference. Part of this may stem from her own schooling at an all-girls’ private school in Scotland. She describes as a “monoculture” where any sign of deviation from the norm was rigidly policed.

“Can you be aware of racism and classism if you go to a school where everyone’s the same race and class? I think you can. I think you become aware that if everyone’s the same, then people are less and less tolerant of small differences,” she says.

“I wasn’t a very liked person, and I was made very conscious of very small differences, that I had an English accent, I had a Catholic name. And you know, you shouldn’t be - I was made so unhappy over such small differences.”

Schools, she says, should do better than that, demonstrating tolerance and inclusivity. She was determined to teach in a wholly different kind of school.

But she found it difficult as an English-trained teacher - she went to Oxford University, then trained in London - to secure a permanent post in her native Scotland, and ended up moving from one monoculture to another.

Teaching in a monoculture 

One of her first jobs was teaching in a sixth-form college in Essex, a school she remembers as having a “new, slightly sort of brash, white culture”. “People who’d moved out of the East End of London and done well for themselves,” in her words.

There is a moment of gentle comedy in the memoir where she attempts to coax the Essex pupils into curiosity about their recent migration from the urban bustle and about their Jewish or Irish surnames. They remain defiantly incurious - they are from Essex.

“The parents didn’t come from backgrounds of formal education, so they were anxious. I remember one of the students, Zoe, saying, ‘Well how can I possibly want to go to university when you’re the only person I’ve met who went?’ and I thought, ‘You’re such an articulate person Zoe, yes, I take your point there.’”

A visit to Cambridge University, intended to be inspiring, had the opposite effect on Zoe, because “everything that I thought was beautiful there she perceived as being a bridge too far”. In her memoir, the gifted Liam, a pupil coming to terms with his sexuality, accuses Clanchy of - like Jarvis Cocker’s immortal art student - “slumming it down here”.

But she is attuned to the ways in which monocultures can seem to demand absolute loyalty and adherence. In 1990s Essex, she describes how “gay” is used not only as a pejorative for sexuality but also encapsulates a fear - of London, foreignness, of what is theatrical, subversive, different. Clanchy later takes Liam to his first gay bar in Soho - no one else he knew would have known where it was. And she is relieved for more recent pupils, who do not need to hide themselves so stringently.

At Oxford Spires, she notes, pupils “aren’t very class conscious because they only just got off the boat so they don’t know anything, they just know this mixed world,” which, she reflects, makes “quite a kind society”.

‘High expectations? A poem is a high expectation’

Clanchy has worked in inclusion units and she is adamant that pupils who are new to English, or those who have found formal education difficult, can rise to the “high expectation” of writing a poem. Both at Oxford Spires and in her prior roles, she has championed self-expression for pupils, often with award-winning results. Mukahang Limbu, a former pupil, won the prestigious Foyle Prize for poetry and now studies at Oxford University.

Reading some of the lyrical, often devastating work from students that Clanchy publishes through her Twitter account, one can only conclude that a kind of magic happens in her classroom. But asked how she achieves this, she makes the process sound deceptively simple.

“I think it’s good to be really positive, and when I go into a school inclusion unit, or just set four, or into the second steps group with EAL, I always have a feeling of, ‘Oh good, you’re going to be able to write a really interesting poem,’ and they often rise to that,” she says.

Clanchy says she “shows kids a poem” - giving pupils different levels of complexity to grapple with according to their ability, so that pupils just learning English might read something with simpler wording. The key, she says, is to ensure that a 17-year-old EAL pupil is not left with merely “superficial stuff”.

“They’ve come across oceans, and here they are and they get endless ‘How much does a crisp cost?’ and ‘That’s a tree’. Actually, they want to be able to say, ‘I’ve come across an ocean, I left my life behind. I miss my mum.’ Those are not very complicated words, and you can give them shapes just to say that. So what I tend to do is give them a poem with a strong shape, something you can imitate easily, and just ask them to imitate it.”

She describes writing poetry as a rhythmic process, “like dancing” - and one that we all have a “strong human instinct” to do, from Mukahang describing mourners singing poems at his Nepalese grandfather’s funeral, to Shukriya’s memories of women in rural Afghanistan composing ghazals. It involves tuning one’s ear to sound patterns, and imitating them, rather as you might when learning a musical instrument. Children learning English for the first time appear to be especially good at it.

“Hearing a sound pattern and reproducing it is the same thing as a poem, so if you get a bunch of 12-year-olds who’ve just come into English, and you give them a poem with a tune, they’ll just give you that tune back,” she says, adding, “that’s another thing a poem is, it’s a language in a box”.

‘English isn’t a body of knowledge. It’s a conversation’

The stripping of “English” as a subject into its component parts therefore saddens Clanchy. In her memoir, she gives learning objectives and “WALTs” (We Are Learning Today) short shrift. She feels that the subject is often reduced to “people learning lots of really unhappy, abstruse, not particularly relevant terms and sticking them in a line”.

“English isn’t a body of knowledge,” she declares. “It’s a conversation, it’s cultural conversation, it’s our literature, it’s the way our literature meets other literatures, it’s the way that we express ourselves, it’s art, it’s humanity.”

Try to “chunk” English into a neat learning objective and you become absurd, she says.

“Any time you’re trying to say that good English contains three adjectives, a ‘wow’ word and a semi-colon, you make yourself into an idiot. It’s a very complex process, and I wish we just trusted the complexity of it, and said, as they did at the beginning of my career, ‘This year we’re reading Macbeth. That’ll be good, because Macbeth is great.’”

A broader approach to the subject might also mean students could continue their studies beyond the age of 16. A levels, designed for a fraction of the population under a grammar school system, no longer serve most pupils well, she argues.

“I mean this desperate thing where we say ‘You’re a D student’ when you’re 16 catches so many people out. Even people who like English don’t necessarily like doing A-level English, because it is study of classic literature, criticism, and that isn’t necessarily for everybody, even if they do like reading books.” 

Education, education, education

Clanchy is forthright about her views of education, and she says that, after 30 years in the classroom, she has begun to think there “are no new ideas, it’s like phonics and real books, they come round and round”.

But the key thing is money. As an entrant into the profession, Clanchy was struck by the dismal, joyless atmosphere of some staffrooms - one, in Blastmuir, reminded her more of a school during the war than a 20th-century workplace. Under a Conservative government, she joined the profession the year the Department of Education removed teachers from a list of professionals that could sign passports - “just a kind of gratuitous insult”. But when New Labour invested in “education, education, education” it made a “tangible difference” to the job, she says.

“I mean, there was a lot of waste in the Labour years, a lot of farting around with academies and divisions of schools…They could have done things in a much more straightforward way, but there was still the funding and there was still that change.”

In the last 10 years, she has seen some of that earlier decline re-emerge, accelerated by academies, which she feels have introduced a “market in harshness”.

Motherships for a million grey blazers

Clanchy sees a school such as Mossbourne Academy in Hackney as a mothership that launched a million grey blazers and shiny atria, as heads around the country rushed to emulate its strict discipline and order.

“That was the original silent corridors,” she says. “It drastically raised expectations, which is an absolutely good thing, and we should have high expectations of kids. But it really was the drastically raised expectations and the highly qualified staff that was doing the good, and not the blazer.” 

The “progressive neglect” of pupils with special needs is something she finds equally troubling.

“I don’t think the endless emphasis on being punitive, on silence, on discipline - people call it evidence-based, I don’t think there’s evidence for that, I don’t think the idea of not being kind to people helps. Kindness and creativity are the fonts of a good education.” She checks herself. “Sorry, bit of a rant!”

Clanchy is clearly sensitive to the ways in which some might find her views strident, or consider them unfashionable. In her book, she is not afraid to probe her own insecurities or prejudices, and she has razor-sharp insights on the English class system and its impact on education.

One pupil, Cheyenne, both vulnerable and intimidating, alarms Clanchy when she clocks her children’s second-hand bicycles in a local playground and compares them with her own lavish “black bag” of expensive Christmas presents. Cheyenne has noted that Clanchy’s children, with their hand-me-down presents and prodigious vocabularies, have something that she lacks, just as their narrow, Victorian home is superior to Cheyenne’s spacious council flat.

And yet, Cheyenne is later absent from school to be fitted with false teeth - she is, in other words, a 21st-century child with a “19th-century mouth”. Clanchy does not warm to her - Cheyenne is contemptuous of the poetry they read, scorns the castle they visit on a trip. But Cheyenne includes a line of Wilfred Owen’s in a piece of creative writing - perhaps she liked the poetry more than she let on?

‘I really miss the poetry’

As Clanchy says, pupils sometimes need time to show what they have gained from a teacher, and not all gains are measurable, or easily reproduced on an evaluation form. One former pupil who went to work in a bank told her later, “I really miss the poetry.” “I’ve always treasured that,” she says.

“If she’d completed her evaluation [as a pupil], it wouldn’t have been a very good one,” she laughs.

“Teenagers take a while to grow up, and that happens, especially in inclusion units. People go into the inclusion unit, and they do do a bit better. But a bit better than what? You don’t get the funding if you don’t get the turnaround, you don’t get the results.”

She may feel that, in her own words, some might see her as a “posh do-gooder, a Victorian lady on a mission”.

She tells Tes: “It’s very easy to make fun of what I do, and to say, ‘Oh what a silly middle-class lady with her middle-class poems, how daft.’” But it is clear that this blunt assessment does not strike at the heart of what good English teachers such as Clanchy do each day, which is to foster a love of their subject and a delight in experimenting with words. And, indeed, this does get results, as seen in the number of her former pupils who have soared onto some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

Above all, her book is a hymn to migration, a celebration of difference. Clanchy may be sensitive to the idea she is a “do-gooder”, but in many ways, this is no bad thing. At one point, she recalls meeting Royar, a Kurdish boy whose school unthinkingly conduct a body search on him for hidden firecrackers, unaware of how potentially triggering this might be.

Clanchy decides to intervene. She writes letters to the school and council in the guise of Royar’s mother, fretting over including implausible semicolons. She requests meetings and takes detailed notes. She holds bored social workers to account. She kicks up a fuss, in other words. In a fight with faceless bureaucracy, she is someone you would want on your side.

There is no time left to discuss her work as a writer, her published collections of poems and novels. Instead, she leaves Tes with some advice for Gavin Williamson following the pandemic.

“I think it’s an extraordinary moment. I don’t have any hope, looking at our education secretary, that we’re going to seize the moment.

“But wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we did? What a great moment to abolish the Sats and abolish GCSEs and put something more constructive in their place?”

CV (some names not given to protect former pupils’ privacy)

PGCE, Oxford University 1989

Comprehensive in North London 1989-91

Schools in East of Scotland 1991-92

Sixth Form College Essex 1992-99

Various Teaching undergraduates at Oxford University, Writer in Residence, Oxford Brookes University, different Schools, having children 1999-2009

Writer in Residence, Oxford Spires Academy 2009-2019

Writer in Residence EMBS AP 2019-20

Lecturer, University of Reading 2018-present

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