Curiosity: is there life on Mars?

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Organic molecules found on the surface of Mars (source)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface had found ancient organic molecules by drilling down into 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life.

I’m completely in awe of the Mars exploration project. It blows my mind to think that there is a machine, made by humans, rolling around on the surface of another planet and sending back pictures and information. Not only that, but the machine is drilling into Martian rocks, cooking the extracts at 500°C and analysing the vapour.

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A composite selfie taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars (source)

The machine bears the name of one of Churchill’s values: Curiosity. It is this desire to find things out that has driven us on to this incredible achievement. The project combines Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Geology, Design, Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics just in terms of the exploration programme. The interest in these subjects started for each of the people involved when they were at school. They have built their careers on applying what they have learned to this amazing project, demonstrating creativity and ingenuity at every turn. When I look at the “selfies” taken by the rover on the surface of Mars, or I see the hole in the Martian surface left by its drill, I am staggered at what we can achieve.

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Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 Rover on the surface (source)

There are two more missions to Mars planned in the near future: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme. What other secrets will they discover about the mysterious Red Planet? These missions are laying the ground work for a manned mission. Perhaps the generation of students currently at school will be the generation that first walks on the surface of another planet in our solar system. I hope they do – and it will be curiosity that takes them there.

 

Child Soldiers, by Ailís Phillips (7WKH)

This is a student contribution to the Headteacher’s Blog by Ailís Phillips, 7WKH, with the theme of kindness. If you are a student at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form and you want to contribute to the Headteacher’s Blog, visit the Contributions page.

You probably think that war is terrible, but that it is something done by adults in far away countries and has nothing to do with children, like us.

Well I thought so too until I read a news article about child soldiers. You might think this was a one-off; just a particularly awful story. I investigated a little bit further and discovered it wasn’t as rare as I first thought.

Myths and statistics

The name ‘child soldiers’ is not exactly accurate as, though many do fight, some are used as messengers, porters, cooks, spies or for sexual purposes. There are many other myths surrounding ‘child soldiers’ such.

  • Myth: child soldiers are only used in Africa.
  • Reality: the UN estimated in 2016 that there were 20 conflict zones around the world that involved children
  • Myth: that all child soldiers are boys
  • Reality: 30-40% of child soldiers are girls
  • Myth: that children are all are forced to be child soldiers
  • Reality: although many are (especially by ISIS), some are lured by promises of education and/or money.

Not only is being a child soldier a terrible experience when it happens, but it will affect the children for the rest of their lives. Many will not be accepted back into their communities,  particularly in cases where a girl has had a baby with a soldier.

 

What can you do?

Although there isn’t much we can do to help directly, we can raise money and fund-raise or donate money to charities campaigning to end the problem of using children as soldiers, and to support ex-child soldiers. Two great charities working in this area are Child Soldiers International  and Warchild – as both help those affected.

I reached out to these charities by raising awareness of the problem, and now I invite you to do the same, to help other children who have never had the chance at life you had. Help them live the life that is being taken away from them and support others that do.

How believing in others helps them to believe in themselves

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“Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t…you’re right.”

Those words, spoken by Henry Ford, the American business magnate and founder of the Ford motor company, perfectly capture the importance of self-belief in achieving success. His statement underpins a lot of what I know to be true from my long experience in education. What interests me, as a teacher, a leader and also as a parent, is how to help children and young people who think that they can’t, believe that they can.

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One really interesting study into this area was carried out in 2014 by David Yeager, Geoffrey Cohen and colleagues. They studied a group of high school students in America, who all completed the same essay task. Teachers provided written feedback on the essays in the margins and at the end, with suggestions for improvement. The researchers intercepted the essays and added a post-it note to each one. Half of the essays had a post-it note which read: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” The other half had identical post-it notes with the message: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your work.” Neither the students nor their teachers knew that there were different messages on the post-it notes, as the essays were handed back in wallet folders.

The first post-it contains an important message about high expectations, positive regard, and the belief in improvement. The second is a carefully-worded neutral message designed to act as a “placebo” or “control” in the experiment – in other words, it should have no impact on the motivation of the students.

All students in this study were given the opportunity to revise their essays and hand in an improved version the following week. About 40% of students who had received the “placebo” feedback did so, but double that number – 80% – of the students who had received the positive regard feedback chose to revise their work.

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What this study – and others like it – demonstrate, is that showing others that we believe in them makes them more likely to believe in themselves. Twice as many students took time to improve their work and make more progress when they were told that someone believed in their potential. I believe in the potential of every single student at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form to achieve great things. Telling the students that, and showing them that belief in our actions, is the most powerful thing that we grown-ups can do.

The class of 2018

The last day of Term 5 is always an emotional one! Year 11 reach the end of their time in main school, whilst Year 13 reach the end of their time at Churchill altogether. We celebrated these milestones with our students today.

The day began for Year 11 with an English Literature GCSE exam, during which time we celebrated with Year 13. This year group have been wonderful ambassadors for the Academy, who have really made their mark on Churchill. We will remember them fondly as they head off to the next stage of their adventures, and look forward to hearing all about them!

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Year 13 Class of 2018

Once Year 11 had got the exam out of the way, it was time for them to celebrate. The students had a well deserved break before the final dance practice for the Ball.

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The final ballroom practice…next time it’ll be in all their finery!

After lunch there was the usual festival of shirt signing and photo-taking, with lots of happiness and just a few tears.

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Year 11 Class of 2018

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Hanover House Class of 2018

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Stuart House Class of 2018

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Tudor House Class of 2018

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Windsor House Class of 2018

We saw the day out with the end of Year 11 assembly, looking back over the students’ time with us. My final message to all our students moving on to their next stage is captured in the following quotation from my Headteacher hero, Albus Dumbledore:

 

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We are all born with different abilities, different predispositions, different advantages and disadvantages in life. But these are not limiting factors. We are not bound by our circumstances.  We can choose to make the most of the situations we find ourselves in, choose to take chances and opportunities when we have them, choose to take on the difficult challenge or the easy option. It is these choices that define us all. I hope that Churchill has provided all of our students with the knowledge and skills to make the best choices, so you can be what you truly are and deserve to be.

Progress

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Academy’s first Exhibition of Progress. This event, organised by Director of English Mr Grimmett, was designed to celebrate students who had made exceptional progress in their learning this year. This doesn’t necessarily mean the students who were getting the highest marks, but rather those that had made a huge leap forward in their learning over the course of this year.

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Learning Ambassadors 2018

Students were nominated by their teachers, and Mr Grimmett took them off timetable for a morning to work with them. His aim, with the students, was to reflect on the progress made and to try and work out what it was that had made the difference. Why had these students made exceptional progress in these lessons?

The question seems simple, but the answers are quite complex. The students themselves weren’t clear to start with – for many of them it had “just happened.” To help them to reflect, students put work from the start of the year side-by-side next to a more recent piece, looking at the improvements they had made. They then followed the leads they found – how had that improvement been achieved?

From the group of students, the following were rated as having the most impact on the progress they had made:

  1. Effort in classwork
  2. Personal determination to get better
  3. Positive relationship with teacher
  4. Effort in homework
  5. Personal understanding of the work and how to improve
  6. Enjoying the subject

Many students said that enjoying the subject led to them making more progress, but of course making progress makes the subject more enjoyable and leads to greater levels of satisfaction – like the chicken and the egg, it’s hard to know which comes first! What is certain is that progress builds confidence which leads to enjoyment which helps progress…it’s a virtuous cycle.

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Students created display posters to compare the “before” and “after” pieces of work, and explain the reasons for that progress. These posters formed the exhibition itself, and it was great to walk round and talk to the students stationed by their posters as they explained how they had done it.

Mr Grimmett pulled three key findings from his work with these students:

  1. Break out of your comfort zone: pushing yourself to do something difficult, or different, is the best way of making progress. Often this was prompted by something – feedback from a teacher, a good or bad result in an assessment, or a personal realisation and decision to change.
  2. Be self-disciplined: avoiding distractions, staying focused, concentrating so that the job gets done well – these are keys that unlock progress. It’s hard – but it’s worth it.
  3. Reflect and think about learning: the power of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking,” was a common thread with many students. Knowing how to improve, responding positively to feedback, and developing a bank of strategies and approaches which work, allowed these students to apply themselves more purposefully to their learning.

What’s great about this is that these findings provide a road map and a template for any student who wants to thrive and make exceptional progress. If these students did it – you can too.

Thanks so much to Mr Grimmett and all the students involved for such fantastic work and for putting on a truly inspiring exhibition.

Living a life with epilepsy, by Jemma Bisdee

This is a student contribution to the Headteacher’s Blog by Jemma Bisdee, 11WCJC, with the theme of determination. If you are a student at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form and you want to contribute to the Headteacher’s Blog, visit the Contributions page.

When people hear the word “Epilepsy” they immediately think of seizures, medication but it is truly more than that. A life with epilepsy is not an easy life. But it is a life I wouldn’t change for anything. All my life I wondered what it was like to be “Normal”. I thought I could never lead the life I wanted with epilepsy. But I now realise how wrong I was to think that.

I used to struggle academically because I never had the support I needed. I felt like nobody would ever truly accept me for who I was because of my lifelong condition. I was at rock bottom, and I felt like there was no where to go. Then I finally realised that life is a gift and I shouldn’t let a condition get me down. I define who I am, not my epilepsy. I moved to Churchill Academy in 2016 in hope of support for who I truly was and for my condition. I can honestly say Churchill Academy has given me have a whole new lease of life. They taught me how to live a life to remember and at school you learn multiple lessons. Maths, English, Science and many more. But the best lesson Churchill Academy has ever taught me is how to love myself. Because of that I am forever grateful.

Living with epilepsy has taught me that in life you get thrown challenges. They can either make or break you. I’m happy to say that my experience with epilepsy has taught me that we are all warriors fighting our own battles. But as long as you stay true to who you are, you will come out the winner. My last seizure was six years ago but although physically epilepsy has not always challenged me, mentally it is a constant battle. But I can say I’m epileptic and proud, and whether its epilepsy or any other condition, it does not define who you are. Only you can do that. We are human beings, we are all beautiful in our own way. I hope that everyone can see that a condition does not change that. If you want something in life fight for it, because life is precious and it is a gift like no other.

To everyone who has supported me throughout my journey I can never thank you enough. My friends, my family and the staff at Churchill Academy. I am grateful for the life I have been given, and no matter what my condition holds in the future. Epilepsy is a way of life, but it’s a life I wouldn’t trade for the world. The world is your oyster, so go and grab it.

For more information about Epilepsy, visit the Epilepsy Society or Epilepsy Action.

What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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Transforming the learning environment

Over the past fortnight students have been getting used to a new and improved learning environment in the English department. Over the past year our site team have been working tirelessly, room-by-room, to renovate and refurbish all the classrooms in Hanover, where English is based. Over the Easter break, new carpet was laid in all classrooms and the upstairs corridor. It’s made an amazing difference!

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Before…

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…during…

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…and after

What was once an echoing tiled space is now a quiet, padded corridor. Whereas once the slightest shift of a chair was accompanied by an ear-splitting shriek of metal on tile, now students can focus on their learning without distraction. The clutter of old resources has been removed in favour of neat storage, and classroom displays are now focused on key learning points for English classes.

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The classroom design uses the same template as the Alan Turing Building, based on the Smarter Spaces research and work conducted by our students last year. The “teaching wall” is painted in a bright accent colour, to draw attention to the front of the room. The other walls are in a neutral colour, free from distractions, so that focus remains where it should be – on the learning.

Corridors are now clean and uncluttered. Hard-to-maintain displays have been removed in favour of large, robust photography. The time teachers would have spent on preparing, putting up and maintaining displays can now be spent more effectively on lessons and working with students.

We now have two buildings – the Alan Turing Building and Hanover – in this new internal design. The Athene Donald Building will make a third, and over the coming years we will also roll out the design to Windsor, Stuart and beyond. The future is bright!

We have only been able to achieve these great results thanks to the amazing efforts of our site team, who have completed this work with minimal disruption and a great end result. I’d like to thank them personally for all the work they have done – and continue to do – to transform the environment for learning for our students.

How do the new GCSE grades work: 2018 update

Last April I wrote “How do the new GCSE grades work” to explain about the introduction of 9-1 grades for GCSE Maths and English. This year, 9-1 grades will be used in awarding a much wider range of GCSEs, with only a few remaining on the A*-G system. This blog provides an update on the new grading system for the class of 2018.

To help people understand the grading system, Ofqual (the exams regulator) have published this video:

The new 9-1 grades equate to the old A*-G grades as follows:

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In combined Science GCSE (Double Science), candidates will get two number grades in a variety of combinations as shown below:

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GCSE Double Award Science grades from 2018

In other words, double Science students will get results like 7-7, 7-6, 6-6, 6-5 and so on.

How are the grades awarded?

GCSE grades are awarded after all the exam marking has taken place.

Exams and coursework are marked according to the mark schemes issued by the examination boards. These only have numerical marks on – exams and coursework aren’t graded by markers. When all the marks for everyone who has taken the subject in the country are in, then the grade boundaries are decided according to a formula, so that roughly similar proportions of students nationally get each grade in each subject each year.

In other words, your grade at GCSE in the new system doesn’t just depend on how well you have done – it depends on how well you have done relative to all the other candidates in the country taking the same GCSE as you. If you are the top 20% of candidates in the grade 7 and above group, you will be awarded a grade 9. If you are outside that, you won’t. This will not be the same each year, and will change with each new group of students taking the exams every year.

This is significant because it means that if, nationally, lots of children do very well in the exam, the grade boundaries will move up. If it is a hard exam, and students nationally do not do as well, the boundaries will move down. This makes it difficult for teachers to predict grades accurately; we have to make our best professional judgment on the information available to us.

What does this mean for students?

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The changes mean that it is impossible for teachers to say “if you do this you will definitely get a grade 5 or above,” because getting a grade 5 depends on how well everyone else in the country does relative to how well you have done. We can’t possibly know how well everyone else in the country has done or is going to do, so all we can do is teach you to get better and better at your own Maths, English, Science, History, Geography and all your other subjects, until you sit the GCSE exam. You have to keep working and pushing yourself to achieve more because what was good enough for a grade 7 last year won’t necessarily be good enough for a grade 7 this year. Don’t settle! You need to keep improving so that you go into the exam at the end of Year 11 fully prepared and confident that you are the best at each subject that you can possibly be – and then you will get the grade that you deserve.

Remember there are posts on this blog to help you to revise effectively, and you can  download our guide to helping your child revise here.

Good luck!

Pass me the wrecking ball!

As regular readers of this blog will know, we have been engaged in a three-phase project to replace the original 1956 school building, known as Tudor Block. In April 2016, we were awarded Phase 1: £1.3 million to build the Alan Turing Building for Business Studies, Computing and Social Sciences, which opened in June 2017. In April 2017, we were awarded Phase 2: £3.9 million to build the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology, which is now under construction. On 29th March this year, we received the now familiar email regarding Phase 3…

Dear Colleague,

Thank you for applying to the Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) 2018 to 2019.

We received requests for more than £1.5 billion for over 4,600 projects in this year’s round. Following our assessment of applications, we have announced £514 million for 1,556 projects at 1,299 academies and sixth-form colleges.

You can view the full list of successful projects at…

And, thankfully, our third phase bid was also successful – £750,000 to demolish the Tudor block and “make good” the footprint of the building. We aim to put car parking in its place, which we hope will improve the safety of our students and members of the community on the narrow roads around the Academy by reducing congestion from on-road parking. Planning is already in place, and we will be working hard with the contractors to minimise disruption and produce the best possible outcome from the works, which are due to be completed in the middle of 2019.

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Part of the Tudor Building can be seen in the background of this, the earliest school photo we have found,  courtesy of alumnus Andrew Frappell who joined the school in 1958.

This is a landmark moment for the Academy. The Tudor Block was the first building to be constructed as part of the new secondary school for Churchill in 1956, and it has formed the core of the school’s facilities for many years. However, after 60 years in service it is no longer fit for purpose, and all of the classrooms from T1 onwards will be demolished. The current reception, offices, main hall and gym will remain intact.

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This aerial shot from 1970 shows the original Tudor block in the right of the picture.

The removal of this building will mean a change of shape to the site, and we will be working hard over the coming year to review and redevelop our provision to accommodate this new emphasis. It’s an exciting time, and the culmination of a lot of work from a huge team of people. Particular thanks are due to Deputy Headteacher Mark Branch, who has coordinated and led the third phase of the project with great skill – and will continue to do so as the demolition progresses.

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Satellite picture of our site captured in 2016, prior to commencement of the three-phase project. The Tudor block is the T-shaped building towards the top of the picture.