Sunday, 1 July 2018

Embracing Student Engagement

Last week at our school, 205 year seven students all gave a speech about a topic of their choice, for which the only control measure is that it must be something they feel passionate about.  It was an amazing week, full of high levels of engagement, laughter, tears of all description and warmth.  Our strap line for the event is 'Embrace: your voice, your community, your future'.

The word embrace was lifted from our mission statement, which is a reference to Ron Berger's work on 'The Ethics of Excellence' and falls into our 'Faith in You' strand.

On the Monday morning of Embrace week as I did my duty on the main school doors, a year nine remarked to me that she knew I wouldn't be teaching her today as 'all the year seven's on our bus had them oracy books out'; she was just hoping she got to see the speeches or help with the year sevens prepare, rather than a dreaded cover lesson.  Behind her, on their way into school, several year sevens waved their oracy booklets at me and giggled in nervous excitement checking that they were off timetable for lessons one to three and reminding me, for the umpteenth time, what times their parents were coming in to watch them. The parents were universally positive about the challenge that their child had faced in preparing and giving a speech, many commented that they wished their own school had pushed them to do the same 'back in the day'.

It is a week where I do not get a single 'free' lesson; I lead the final rehearsals all morning, begin drawing up a final running list during break, lead the final rehearsal in lesson three, move the students and then parents into position in the hall  at the start of lesson 4, lead the welcome address and then introduce each student and sum up at the end.  At lunch, I do my duty as normal and then return lesson five for the final sharing, where I again move parents and students into position, lead another welcome address and introduce all those students.

We presented 20 -28 speeches in each sharing Monday to Thursday, approximately 50-60 students a day; on Friday, we have a nurture group day.  Any student who had struggled in their actual event or who had agreed with their Oracy teacher that the Nurture day would best suit them came all day Friday, when performances could be done in the hall with a smaller audience or in our nurture room with a very select audience.  This year we had 38 nurture students.  By the end of that day, I would have expected to be shattered, but I floated home.  It had been a brilliant week of hard work and I had genuinely valued every minute.

On reflection this weekend, I wanted to write this blog to share our school's practice and, through writing, explore the exceptionally high levels of engagement from students, teachers and parents that this event provokes.  It strikes me that this needs replicating throughout our curriculum - but what is it? What is happening that is so different from the everyday classroom experience for staff, students and parents... The truth is, of course, that I don't really know, but can make some educated guesses about why as a teacher.

  • Shared Endeavour
    Within the course of the week, teachers and teaching assistants shared the speech writing endeavour by delivering speeches of their own; I delivered a speech exploring the fundamental learning journey that happens under the defined curriculum, Mr Judge delivered a speech about his love of biscuits, Mrs Chalk spoke of her new found love of running, our headteacher about his love of sailing and Miss Hoxworth gave a speech about being a teaching assistant.  Beyond this, year 8 students reprised their speeches from last year and shared these with year 7 in assemblies and during the event itself.  Staff and students shared the learning journey together, which can be very powerful - for example, as a drama teacher it would be easy for me to underestimate this challenge, by doing it every year, I renew my sense of just how vulnerable speaking as yourself in front of an audience makes you feel.  Indeed many students reflected to me in wonder that they could see my nerves, feel my fear after my speech was given - I was more present with them and them with me.
    Beyond this, the shared endeavour is marked by the attendance of parents who have usually shared all of the preparation through drafting and practicing and who therefore are welcomed to be with us when the speech is given.  This simple act raises the students engagement a great deal.
  • A Rite of PassageThis is our second year of running a discrete oracy curriculum for year 7 that culminates in their Embrace speeches in the summer term.  Before you complete your speech,
    we give a significant small gift, a charm for students to wear out their nervous energy on.  We took this from Ryan Avery's assertion that public speakers should hold a paper clip to fiddle with.  Last year a key charm related to Mrs Chalk's speech about oracy being 'the key to it all', this year a moulded heart bead on a ribbon was given to symbolise this quote which I used in my speech where I argued that beneath the defined curriculum oracy teaches this fundamental truth:
 'Each of us is the result of a thought of god, each of us is willed, 
each of us is loved and each of us is necessary'.

  • A Pressured Challenge
    Students are told that this is a deliberate pressured challenge and then given strong support from other students, staff, pastoral tutors, other subject teachers and parents.  We acknowledge the struggle and then we support it: through coaching peers in lessons, through a year 8 mentor scheme in tutor group time, through channelled TA support, through POP UP lessons across the curriculum when subject teachers stop teaching their subject and exemplify how the Embrace speech exemplifies work in their subject (For example, art teachers coloured in their speeches with them to talk about tones of expression, RE teachers supported the use of our faith in their content, Humanities teachers traced their arguments through a  persuasion bingo task etc.).  This support for the social and emotional challenge as well as the cross curricular significance of the challenge seems to add to the students' sense of its significance and worth.
  • Free Content
    We had a whole speech about chicken.  We had a whole speech about listening: do you realise that god gave you 50% more capacity for listening than talking?  We had many speeches about inspiration - one which rewrote Maya Angelou's Rise poem and explored all the black women who gave our student hope - the most significant one was her mum, who wept openly in the audience as this was presented.  It is stunning how much young people have to say, it makes you feel like the future of the world is in safe hands.  Freeing content up and focusing only on structure and delivery seems to have a massive capacity for engagement.
  • Unrealistic Expectations
    Unrealistically high expectations underpin every aspect of this program - I expect them all to flourish.  We talk about the significance of talk to their futures and to their communities, we instill a strong sense of purpose to the task - every opportunity they get beyond school will be through an interview.  We explore examples of excellent speakers like Barack and Michelle Obama and we expect our students to match it.  We teach them the four strands of oracy (Physical, Cognitive, Linguistic and Social/Emotional) and we expect them to nail every single one.
    From the start last year, everyone has achieved in their own terms more than they ever thought possible.  This is now the guiding philosophy - expect more of yourself.  The program has this kind of 'magic' feeling, but actually conversely the magic is the students' own commitment and investment.
  • Changing the school day
    They get a whole day off timetable - the task has significance because of this, it merits a whole day off timetable.  The ability to work like this with the student changes the atmosphere in the room - the room itself is changed as we work all day in the hall, which is a very unusual experience for the students.  They do not sit on a chair all day; rather they constantly move between an audience and stage perspective.
  • Scaffolds and Models
    I have spent the last two years sourcing great resources.  The students get a booklet with more scaffolds and ideas than they need.  We have recorded speeches from the start so this year's students could watch students modelling the process and they all engage in analysing and peer assessing this work.  We use famous examples - there is a session on 'You Tubers' and their oracy skills.  We work hard to ensure that these resources are constantly available on line (Google classroom and our school website) as well as materially - the photocopying budget is maxed out but gets impact.
  • Acknowledging and Supporting Individuality
    The acknowledged aim of the project is to support their idiosyncratic and individual selves: they are pushed to be unique.  Another speech on Football, what's your angle? How are you getting the audience to buy in?  Another speech on bullying or racism, have a look at this exceptional example, can you match that?  If not, think of something else to talk about.
    The booklet that they are each given starts by ensuring that they have at least four ideas for topics explored in depth before they chose to focus on one - there are always many possibilities.
    I think the buy in here is through the investment that is then put into the task - the speech is a part of them, it reflects them.  They see others doing the same, the respect for the work builds respect for the individual and vice versa.
  • Reciprocity
    You earn a badge.  The badge has the logo which reflects the sentiments of the taught process, our strap line.  Students keep their badges, if you gain a place as a year 8 mentor, you gain a badge in the new colour.  These students wear both badges. Its a mark of honour.
    Teachers who gain a badge wear theirs too.  It marks them out too.
    We try to wear the charms as well see below. You faced that challenge, you flourished, you grew too.  I think secondary teachers sometimes underestimate just how much the badge/sticker/merit can mean to student engagement.
  • Love
    I tell the students I loved their speech.  Other students and teachers and parents do the same.  The process generates good feeling and love.  Students see this, through the year 8 examples now, but in the first year, they could sense it around the corner of the challenge, because they know from the start that their parents can be there.  There is so much love in Embrace - even the name suggests it.
  • Being Heard
    Don't we all want to feel that we are heard and valued? if someone promised an attentive audience, for your passions wouldn't you speak up?

I am going to contact parents and students to hear their voices and triangulate their ideas of why the event generates such motivation in a further blog.  I am hoping my guesses will be backed up and exemplified, because I am over the idea of a 'silver bullet' in education - my educated guess is that these suggestions mean more to some students and less to others, but cover enough diverse reasons to capture all of year 7.  

Beyond all this, I know I find oracy work so fulfilling and inspiring - a colleague who taught the programme this year reported that it was 'the best thing' he had been involved in within his teaching career - that matters; inspiring ourselves, matters. I think I teach best when I feel like this. I have offered the speech I wrote as a download here:

We'd love to support you into setting up your own Embrace process and will gladly share resources.  Please get in touch -

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