Thursday, 12 December 2019

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy - Reviewed by Kelly McCaughrain

This is an unusual choice for a review site about children’s books, but I think it’s relevant for anyone who works with kids (as children’s writers often do) and I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

Kate Clanchy is a poet and novelist who has been shortlisted/won, among other things, the Forward Poetry Prize, BBC National Short Story Award and the Costa Book Awards for her first novel. She is also a teacher and this latest book is a non-fiction account of her experience of teaching English and creative writing in the British education system and working in some of its more ‘difficult’ schools (the ones no one wants to send their kids to, but that she did send her kids to because she’s that committed to them).

It’s organised into short sections under the (changed) names of some of her students, so it’s really a collection of stories, making it very readable, but it’s also an absolutely mind-blowing and fascinating insight into the experiences of kids in modern education.

Things have changed in schools since we were there. In Northern Ireland, where I live, that’s particularly true. One of the many unpleasant hangovers of The Troubles was that no one wanted to emigrate to NI until about 1998. There was very little diversity. To this day a ‘mixed marriage’ in NI means Catholic/Protestant. In my entire (quite large) high school, when I left in 1996, there was one person of colour in my year. Three in the whole school, and two of them were siblings. I’m not even exaggerating. The lack of diversity was incredible. And no one was ‘out’, there was no ‘inclusion unit’, no special educational needs provision, no school counsellor, and everyone spoke perfect English.  

Schools are just different now, and if you’re writing for kids, writing with kids, or working with kids in any way, this book is a really helpful insight, as well as being a good read.

A lot of Clanchy’s students come from ethnic minorities, often immigrants, refuges and asylum seekers, and the accounts of the things they bring to their education, the difficulties they face there and the ways they find to overcome these (or the times they don’t) are shocking, heart-breaking, inspirational and completely fascinating. How does a white middle-class Scottish woman communicate with a twelve year old who’s come to the UK with very little English having witnessed her three sisters blown up? Or seen a human head roll down the street after a terrorist bomb?

For Clanchy, the answer, as well as empathy, patience, kindness, unstinting dedication, hard work, and a willingness to take on the system if necessary, is poetry. Which will sound trite to many people but just read the book and see how it worked.

She has been leading poetry groups for her students for many years and the book is packed with insights about this that are so helpful if you do any creative writing with kids. But I feel like, if you work in schools at all, you should read this.

The insights into how our education system is massively failing in terms of minorities, special educational needs and social-class are eye-opening. Her views on the teaching of creative subjects are especially relevant with falling numbers of students taking up A Level English and changes to the curriculum making less room for creativity. And her passion for the hugely important job teachers do, and their potential to do so much more if only the curriculum weren’t so constricting is refreshing too and I’d definitely recommend this as a Christmas present for all your teacher friends.

Though it’s clear that her priority is telling the kids’ stories, rather than dazzling you with her metaphors, she’s a writer, so it’s of course beautifully written. It’s a book you can rocket through in the best page-turning sense, but also one you’ll have to stop and take a breath over because the stories are so revealing and affecting.

Philip Pullman said it’s “The best book on teachers and children and writing that I’ve ever read.” And I’m sure he’s right. I could write several blog posts about the things I’ve taken away from this book but this is just a short review so you’ll have to go read it and find out for yourself!

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland and blogs about running creative writing groups for teens at The Blank Page