A response to critiques of Kate Clanchy & 'Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me'
I am a great admirer of Kate Clanchy’s work with students on poetry. There are stunning examples of writing by her students available online and in various collections. It seems to me that she has created an environment in which her students, regardless of culture, creed, race or religion, have been able to voice their own experiences and celebrate their own identities. In an educational world where too often students own voices are being silenced, this seems to me to be a very important contribution. Equally, the idea of learning from your students, rather than only teaching your students, seems to me to be of vital importance in education, yet the idea of the teacher as the sole expert has taken firm root in recent years. In this view, teachers have all the knowledge, students none. Students are presented in terms of gaps – in vocabulary, language and culture. Their spoken language isn’t valued and is even sometimes heavily policed. The fact that children bring to the classroom much knowledge of their own, including knowledge of more than one language, different religions and significant texts in a range of cultures, is too often forgotten and very much undervalued.
So, the title of Kate Clanchy’s book resonates strongly for me – ‘Some Kids I’ve Taught and What They’ve Taught Me.’ That sense that there was a huge amount that she herself didn’t, (and doesn’t) know, that has been revealed to her by her students, seemed like a really important message. She acknowledges in the title her own ignorance and what we see in the book is how much she had to learn and what she did learn. All of this seems to me to be admirable. And yet…The discussions in recent weeks about the book have thrown up some more troubling and complex issues. Truthfully, when I read the book myself, it was a quick read not a detailed one. I’ve never commented publicly on the book – just on Kate’s superb work, as exemplified in the student poems she shares on social media and elsewhere, and on seeing her in action in wonderful workshops. When quotes were shared online, I took Kate’s comments at face value – that they were false ones that didn’t appear in the book, and I was appalled that this should have happened to her. How could anyone falsify quotes in that way? Now, however, the picture seems more complicated. it appears that those words or phrases were in the book, in one form or another, albeit out of context, along with others that, in my view, have raised some legitimate concerns. I can fully understand why people feel that some of the ways of depicting people of colour or Jewish people are problematic. As a Jew, I’m not wild on what I’ve read myself, and might want to point that out to her.
So, it seems to me to be quite justifiable and fair for people to point out their concerns to Kate, and for her to be expected to reflect on them and learn from them. One particular thread on Twitter, by @AnansiRyans https://twitter.com/AnansiRyans/status/1423004186887720960?s=20
seemed to me to be admirable in its effort to do this. It pointed out and explained some of the serious concerns, in a thoughtful and illuminating way, not seeking to paint Kate as someone of bad intent, acting in a deliberately racist way, someone to be publicly vilified but rather trying to explain what was at stake. I don’t know Kate well, other than professionally, but I imagine that she will have been absolutely mortified by the comments, will be thinking a lot about how she has represented her students and will, hopefully, recognise that there is something important to be learned.
I do also hope that people will not turn this into outright condemnation of someone who, through her classroom work on poetry, has changed the lives of many students and been a beacon to other teachers who want to listen to the voices of their students and learn from them. We all need to be open to critique that is valid and well-informed, particularly from those whose identity is being represented in ways that feel questionable. We all sometimes get this wrong. That seems inevitable. We’re learning all the time about what our words mean to others. But I hope that this robust critique can also be supportive and genuinely conducive to bringing about change, rather than resulting in a worrying retreat from the kind of work that Kate has been championing.