Thursday 20 August 2020

SOME KIDS I TAUGHT AND WHAT THEY TAUGHT ME by Kate Clanchy. Review by Penny Dolan

 Buy Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me ...

Dear Reader, 

I chose this title before the news that poetry could be dropped form the 2021 GCSE syllabus, and before the announcement of the current A level exam grades in Scotland and England. The book seems even more of a necessary read to me right now.

I found this title - "Some kids I taught and what they taught me" - on my local bookshop's non-fiction tables. I opened the pages and could not resist Kate Clanchy's sensible warm voice, nor the content.

It was immediately clear that "Some kids I taught and what they taught me" was not a cosy classroom memoir but a readable book with a kind, strong heart and a passion for education for all pupils. 

(It also won the 2020 Orwell Prize.)

While the current exam fiasco rumbles around like the thunder-storms, this felt the right book to be reading and recommending right now, whether as an ex-teacher, an author who occasionally teaches creative writing, or, simply, as an ordinary, everyday human being.

Clanchy, who taught English within the state system for many years, writes about the children, classes and schools she has known. Over fifteen chapters - some longer than others - Clanchy offers vivid examples and opinions on the teaching of English Literature, education and life in schools today, emphasised through the personalities and the words of the students themselves

Her varied topics cover issues such as sex education with a group of excluded pupils; English studies for migrant and refugee children; working with classes of third, fourth or fifth language learners; the importance of the right papers and unvarying answers: the value of prizes and of valuing the children's own work; the ranking of schools and church schools within an area; the progress of pupils inside a fourth-choice secondary school,  and many more contemporary issues and controversies.

Clanchy's love of poetry and teaching runs through the pages. An established poet, creative writing tutor and journalist herself, she emphasises the practice of poetry writing and reading in schools, and the use of "model "poems as a way of guiding and inspiring the children's responses, and building their knowledge of forms of poetry, including non-English forms, both written and spoken.

Additionally, while teaching within a multi-racial school community, Clanchy noted that the Faber Young Poets Competition favoured traditional poetic subjects and language for their prize entries, and that no state schools were among the winners. Determined that a wider range of voices should be heard,  Clanchy wrote to the organisers and educational press.  She also, as writer-in-residence, set up lunchtime workshops for girls who rarely spoke in class, creating the Very Quiet Foreign Pupils poetry group. Within the pages , the reader meets some of these students, their words and their spirit of co-operation, and how eventually a book of their poems was published.

In conclusion, Clanchy also - pointedly and angrily - laments an English Curriculum based more and more on learned critical study, and rarely on the young readers response to the writing, or to encouraging students to develop their own written voices or find words - when they want to - for their own experiences.

This is a serious book, yet the stories within and the mood of hope and resilience, made reading it a pleasure and an inspiration.

Penny Dolan




Sue Purkiss said...

This sounds a must-read for me!

Pippa Goodhart said...

It's a wonderful book. Clanchy is well worth following on Twitter where she sometimes posts poems by her pupils.

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