The Power of Poetry

I love poetry. I’ve always thought of it as distilled language: as though ideas have been boiled down and condensed so that only the concentrated essence remains. Because of this, every word in a poem feels somehow as if it’s carrying extra weight, extra resonance, extra value. When reading a poem, my senses are heightened and alerted: it’s a thrilling, exciting feeling.

I first experienced this sensation in an English Literature classroom in the autumn of 1991 (or possibly the spring of 1992) when I first encountered the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I’d always loved books and reading, but when I read Plath it was like I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Lady Lazarus and the hairs standing up on my arms and the back of my neck. My teacher lent me his copy of her collection Ariel, and I haven’t looked back since.

My collection of Sylvia Plath books, 29 years after first reading her work

My experience of “waking up” to poetry sounds exactly like the experience of our current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. On Desert Island Discs earlier this year, he described vividly his first encounter with the work of Ted Hughes:

“It suddenly struck me, in a very electrifying moment, that the world was a really interesting place. It could be packaged up in these little bundles of language, which, at the end of the day, are only black marks against a white page. But if you put them in the right order, you can make extraordinary things happen in somebody else’s head across thousands of miles, across thousands of years, and in complete silence. And the shock of that realisation and the primitive magic of it has never really left me. I still feel that when I’m looking at a poem: that I’m staring at some kind of circuit board of language, which makes a contactless contact with something in my head. I think I knew at that very moment, that poetry was going to be my thing.”

Simon Armitage on Desert Island Discs, broadcast 15th May 2020.

Over the years, I have taught poetry to hundreds and hundreds of students. I haven’t always succeeded in igniting the same passion in every single one of them! But I hope I have helped some to find the power of poetry, and to enjoy it for themselves – away from having to study it for GCSE.

This last week, I have been blown away to see exactly this happen at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. At the end of January 2020, Ms Cody from our English Department gave an assembly to all main school students on the theme of “Literature that changed the world.” At least one student was inspired to pick up the books Ms Cody described, to see what all the fuss was about. That student was Imogen Beaumont, who has gone from winning our House Poetry Competition in 2019 to becoming a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2020.

Some of my collection of Foyle Young Poets anthologies from over the years

I have followed the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for over 20 years. Since 1998, the Award has been finding, celebrating and supporting the very best young poets from around the world. It is firmly established as the leading competition for young poets aged between 11 and 17 years old. This year, a staggering 15,966 poems were entered. Young writers from a record-breaking 118 countries entered the competition from as far afield as Afghanistan, Ecuador, Mozambique, North Korea and the Seychelles, and every corner of the UK. From these poems, this year’s judges Keith Jarrett and Maura Dooley selected 100 winners, made up of 15 top poets and 85 commended poets. After Mr Lockett put the entry invitation into our newsletter on 3rd July, Imogen entered. Her poem, The sound of Shakespeare’s women, was chosen as one of the top 15. When you read it, you can see why:

The sound of Shakepeare’s Women

If Juliet was silenced

amongst a patriarchal nightmare and

Lavinia was two limbs down

with no tongue to tell their tale and

Ophelia was driven to madness

with no sense left to speak and

Cordelia was shunned by her father,

her pointless words falling on deaf ears and

Desdemona’s desperate truth

was shouted down by whispered lies,

Then Will’s trying to tell us something.

By Imogen Beaumont

Imogen’s poem is a powerful, skilful piece of writing. She told me she reads a lot of Shakespeare – and you can tell! The poem draws in repeated examples of female characters in Shakepeare’s plays who are variously silenced, ignored, or left voiceless.

Juliet pleads with her father in Romeo and Juliet to listen to her when he plans her marriage to a man she does not love. He ignores her pleas, and she is forced to take desperate measures. Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t reveal who attacked her. Ophelia is driven mad when Hamlet, who said he loved her, ignores her and hurls abuse at her when she tries to help him. Cordelia tells her father, King Lear, the truth when he asks her to: as a result, she is disinherited and cast out from the family. Othello is tricked into believing his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. She tells him again and again that it isn’t true, but he believes the lies and smothers her with a pillow.

Imi’s poem illustrated by award-winning artist and author Chris Riddell

In each case, the inability of the male characters to hear what the women are trying to tell them leads to tragedy. What Imogen does so skilfully is distil those stories down to their concentrated core, and connect them with one final line to our modern day experience. The #MeToo movement and the linked #BelieveHer hashtag show that, today, women’s voices are still too often ignored, silenced, or discounted. It would seem the lesson that Shakespeare was trying to teach over 400 years ago has still not been learned.

Imogen’s powerful voice has found just the right words, in just the right order, to connect ideas across hundreds of years and deliver that electric shock of meaning that only poetry can deliver. It’s a stunning piece of work. I’m really proud that our English teachers have had some small part in unlocking her talent: we can’t wait to see what she’ll write next, or where the next young poet will spring from. Could it be you?

Open Evening 2020

Open Evening is always one of the high points of the Academy calendar. Our students and our staff love to show off all the opportunities that Churchill has to offer. In normal times, we would have a small army of keen volunteer students showing prospective parents and curious Year 5 and 6 children around. Subject specialists would be on hand to demonstrate and talk about their part of the curriculum; our extra-curricular activities would be out in force; all our specialists would be on hand to answer parents’ questions; children would be collecting stickers from every station on the tour in pursuit of a “future student badge.”

In 2020, this sadly isn’t possible. We have had to adjust to the fact that, in the new pandemic world, we cannot have visitors in. Our priority has to be the safety and health of the staff and students on site, and we are doing all we can to limit the risks. And yet the continued success of the Academy over the coming years depends on our future students, and the smooth transition from primary to secondary we have worked so hard to establish.

For this reason, we have moved our open evening online for 2020. In doing so, we have tried as far as possible to replicate the “on site” experience of a real open evening – but from the comfort and safety of your own home. We have a dedicated page on the Academy website. Here is what you will find there.

Student Tour

Year 8 student guides Ted and Kacey take you on a video tour of the Academy site – with the help of a very cool drone!

Headteacher and student presentations

I look forward to my open evening presentation every year. Not only do I love talking about Churchill, what we do, and why we are here, but I love being joined on stage by our fantastic students.

Every year I am introduced by our senior students, and I leave the last word to our youngest. Every year they write their own speeches, and talk about their experiences in their own words. This year, we have done exactly the same – but on video, rather than in person. I am joined by Ella, President of the Sixth Form Council; Emma, in Year 11; and Erin and Jacob from Year 7. For me, it was especially gratifying to hear from Emma, because back in 2016 she was one of the Year 7 speakers at my first Open Evening as Headteacher. I don’t mind telling you that hearing about her experiences after five years with us brought a tear to my eye!

Question and Answer Sessions

Open Evening is usually the time when parents and children can ask all the questions they want, to reassure themselves about any aspect of secondary school that they might be uncertain about. It is absolutely right that the same opportunity is available this year. Here’s how:

  • Email us your question to openevening@churchill-academy.org: no question too big, no question too small. If you leave us a contact number, we are happy to call you back to discuss things with you: we know it’s usually much better to talk to a human being than to get a written reply! Whatever works for you, we’ll do our best to help.
  • Register for one of our Q&A Webinars: these sessions will feature a short presentation, followed by the opportunity to get your questions answered by me and a panel of our current students. We are running four panels:
    • Tuesday 6th October, 12-12.30pm
    • Wednesday 7th October, 7-7.30pm
    • Monday 12th October, 4-4.30pm
    • Thursday 22nd October, 7-7.30pm
  • You can register for these via the Academy website

Prospectus and Information Booklet

Families tell us that they find the paper documentation we hand out on open evening really useful. They provide the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, and they are a useful reference point to come back to as a reminder of the things that were seen and heard on the night. We have put both documents online for you to download, read on screen, or print out at home:

Treasure Hunt

On our “in person” open evening, we issue a sticker-collecting booklet to any Year 5 or 6 children who come along. The children can collect a sticker from each department they visit, and if they fill their book they can collect a prize from the Sixth Form Centre. It’s one of our favourite parts of the evening!

In order to replicate this, we’ve created a virtual treasure hunt quiz for our prospective future students to fill in. You can find it on the website, or here.

Next year?

We have done our best to provide as full an experience as possible on our virtual open evening. As it happens, on the day scheduled for our open evening this year, it was hammering down with rain – so maybe it was just as well it was virtual! We hope that, by next year, things will be back to normality enough to open up the Academy to visitors again. In the meantime, we hope you like what you see – and we hope that prospective parents and their children choose Churchill.

Students’ Voices

In our prospectus videos this year, we have deliberately focused on students’ voices.

Our main school video features seven of our students talking about their own experiences…before I pop up at the end!

In our Sixth Form prospectus video, eight of our Sixth Form students speak about the choices they have made and what they feel about Churchill Sixth Form. The music was composed and produced by the Sixth Form; they are responsible for the content.

These videos were reinforced on our Open Evenings. At both the Year 7 Open Evening in September, and the Sixth Form Open Evening this week, our students spoke to the visitors who were interested in finding out more about Churchill. They were our tour guides, our subject experts, our demonstrators and presenters. The Gospel Choir sang. And all of this is deliberate, because I know our students are proud of Churchill, that they are going to advocate for their school, and that they are our finest ambassadors. We hope our videos capture that; I know that visitors to the school who meet our students always comment on it.

Two new clubs have started this year, and student voice is at the forefront of both of them. This week Ruby and Kim from the Amnesty International Club prepared and shared a resource for tutors to help explain what Amnesty is all about, and to highlight a particular case of injustice that had moved them. Meanwhile, the Medusa Feminism Club has prepared a brand new display to highlight the importance of gender equality in school and society as a whole.

Throughout this week, students have been voting to nominate the Academy’s chosen charity for the year. All the charity suggestions were made by students, who researched and prepared cases for charities which meant something to them, including the MS Society, Phab Kids, Young Carers, Young Minds, Cancer Research UK and Mind.

I have personally been working closely with student representatives this year to help with our self-evaluation. This is the process where we assess what we are doing well, and what we could do better – the voice of students in this is essential, and working closely with a panel of students gives a really clear and honest “student’s eye” view of life at Churchill.

Every day, students’ voices make Churchill the school that it is. And, as I listened to the first rehearsal of the Junior Choir this week ahead of the Christmas Concerts, I was certain that there is no finer advertisement for what we do than the voices of the students themselves.

Student Voice: behaviour in and out of the classroom

Over the course of this year, I am visiting all the tutor groups in the school. In my visits I am asking the students for their views and advice on different aspects of our provision at the Academy. Between January and April I asked students to reflect on two questions:

  1. What makes a good attitude in the classroom?
  2. What makes good behaviour at social time?

Tutor groups responded in lots of different ways. Some groups put together presentations, others worked in small groups on the questions, whilst others involved me in a whole-group discussion. What they all had in common was lots of brilliant ideas about the topic!

At the end of the process I had visited twenty-seven tutor groups and heard  the views of around 600 students. Over Easter, I gathered together all their thoughts and ideas. They had told me what they thought about the best way to ensure they learned effectively, and they had come up with lots of excellent suggestions for how they should behave at social time. Below, you can see the fruits of their labours:

Term 3 and 4 Positive Social Time

Term 3 and 4 Positive Classroom Attitudes

Student Voice Feedback Terms 3 and 4

These posters have been shared with all teachers and tutor groups this week, and many have been discussing it in their tutor time sessions to help everyone improve and maintain the highest standards of behaviour in school.

Over terms 5 and 6 I am getting the views of students about our Academy values of Care, Inspire, Challenge and Achieve – do they represent the Academy? What influence do they have on our day-to-day life at Churchill? And what should we value? I’ll report back when I’ve heard what they have to say!

Smarter Spaces: colour for learning

03 09 17

As you will have seen from our newsletter, our new Business Studies and Computing building is nearing completion. As part of this project, we have been working with Smarter Spaces, an education project arm of Dulux, to design the colour scheme for the building’s interior.

Smarter Spaces HD Logo

Smarter Spaces aims to help teachers and children thrive by enabling schools to design building environments to support better teaching and learning. Central to the approach is that teachers and children are involved in design, so they take more pride in their school.

Our students, with the help of Mr Smith and Mrs Foster from the Academy and Yusuf Alharrari  from Smarter Spaces, have been working on the design brief for the interior of the new building since July 2016. The rest of this blog has been written with their help to show you what they’ve done!

The Smarter Spaces Project (by the Smarter Spaces Team)

We came up with the following objectives:

  • We needed to understand what colours had to feature in the new building so it still fitted into the rest of the school
  • We needed to work with Dulux’s Colour Advisor to create two colour schemes
  • We needed to vote on which colour scheme we wanted to use
  • We needed to work together to select what colours to go in what rooms

Factors to consider

  • Needs to fit into the feel of the school
  • The new build will be Tudor House, so Tudor’s red needs to feature in the building
  • We needed to choose colours that would go with the red and with each other
  • It needs to be easy to maintain
  • This is our legacy – what we design now will be passed down to students who come to Churchill for years to come.

We then met with a colour consultant from Smarter Spaces to work on a design that fitted the brief.

Tudor Red

We decided to make the interior doors Tudor red, so that the building had a clear house identity. We also made the trim grey, which is easy to maintain and matches the outside of the Hall.

Red and Grey

The “Teaching Wall”

Inside the classrooms, our Colour Advisor explained that research has shown that the “teaching wall” (where the screen and whiteboard are situated) should be a bright colour, so that attention is drawn to it. The other walls, meanwhile, should be a neutral colour. We also learned that walls should be painted in a single block colour so they are easy to maintain and so that they don’t distract attention from learning.

Choosing a colour palette

Following our brief, the Colour Advisor came up with sets of colours which would work with the red doors and grey trim. Option 1 was bright and exciting, because we told Dulux we wanted our school to be bright and energetic.

Option 1a

Option 2 was fresh and vibrant, because our school is in the countryside and surrounded by nature.

Option 2

We voted – and Option 1 won (just)!

 Choosing the colours for the rooms

Once we had chosen the colour palette, we had to select which paint would be used for the teaching wall in each room. We used the architect’s floor plans to work this out.

groundfloorfirstfloor

Smarter Spaces then helped us to create a visualisation of what this might look like when the building was finished:

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We presented our work to the Senior Teachers at the school – and they loved it! We can’t wait to see it in reality when the new building opens this summer.

Thank yous

As an Academy we are very grateful to Smarter Spaces for working with us, and for donating the paint to the project as part of the deal! They have been fantastic partners to work with and they have helped us to understand the design process, the importance and impact of colour, and to create a legacy for future generations of Churchill students.

Prepared by the Smarter Spaces Team:

  • Molly Ebdon (WRO)
  • Courtney Evans (SNM)
  • James Goodyear-Evans (TPOC)
  • Alfie Laws (WVP)
  • Rowan Vine (HFH)
  • Charlotte Wilkinson (TMR)
  • Charlee Beach (HLCB)
  • Paige Evans (TMB)
  • Katie Ward (SASH)
  • Mr Smith
  • Mrs Foster
  • Yusuf Alharrari from Smarter Spaces

Thank you!

A letter to your younger self

Here at Churchill, we spend a lot of time with students asking them to think about their attitude and approach to learning. The aim of this reflection and work is for the students to refine their behaviours so they are the most effective learners possible. As part of this process, one teacher asked their Year 11 Economics class to reflect on what they’d learnt over the past year, especially from the mock exams they had completed before Christmas. The teacher asked the group to write a letter to a year 10 student, or to themselves a year ago, giving them the benefit of their additional year’s wisdom.

This is one student’s response:

“To a year 10 student

Here are a few tips I would suggest to a younger me I guess:

Firstly, recap what you learn during lessons at the end of the week or sub-topic.  In particular in unit 2 keep reminding yourself of fiscal, monetary and supply-side policies because that’s what I struggled with the most.

Secondly, don’t stop trying to improve your skills in answering questions.  In years 9 and 10 I was working at a solid F grade and I no longer tried because I thought it was hopeless, but at the start of year 11 and over the summer I did a lot of revision and just got my mock back with a B (1 off an A) which shows if you work hard you are able to improve.

Lastly, don’t stress about the information during lessons if you don’t get it, because you can put in extra time another time.”

This message – “if you work hard you are able to improve” – is the cornerstone of the growth mindset approach we are working hard to cultivate at Churchill. It’s fantastic to hear this is paying off for this particular student. I hope that others take heart from their advice and take the same approach!

What advice – if you could! – would you give to your younger self?

Student voice: how we learn

Over the course of this year, I am visiting all the tutor groups in the school. In my visits I am asking the students for their views and advice on different aspects of our provision at the Academy. Between September and December I asked students to reflect on two questions:

  1. What makes good teaching?
  2. What makes good learning?

Tutor groups responded in lots of different ways. Some groups put together presentations, others worked in small groups on the questions, whilst others involved me in a whole-group discussion. What they all had in common was lots of brilliant ideas about the topic!

At the end of the process I had visited nineteen tutor groups and heard  the views of around 450 students. In January, I gathered together all their thoughts and ideas. They had told me what helped them the most from their teachers, and they had come up with lots of excellent suggestions for how they could best help themselves to be effective learners. Below, you can see the fruits of their labours:

This poster has been shared with all teachers and tutor groups this term, and many have been discussing it in their tutor time sessions and team meetings to help everyone improve and maintain the highest standards of both teaching and learning in school. It’s been a really valuable process to take time out to reflect on what it is that makes for successful teaching and learning, and to keep our focus squarely on our main task.

What was also lovely was to hear the students suggesting the names of teachers who they thought were doing a brilliant job in supporting them and helping them to learn. I took great pleasure in writing to every teacher whose name was mentioned – over fifty of them! – to thank them, on behalf of the students, for the great work they do every day at the Academy.

This term students are helping me with feedback on what makes excellent behaviour in lessons and at social time, and how we can work together to make things even better. I’ll report back after Easter!