Project Soapbox. Rhetoric in action.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 11.04.36
Six of the 193 Year 8 students who made their speeches over two days. 

It’s wonderful when an idea comes together.  Last week we ran our Year 8 Project Soapbox as part of our newly established Rhetoric Roadmap – as detailed in this earlier post.  One of the many forms of oracy we’re trying to develop is the capacity to speak in public.

The project was conceived by our Director of Spoken Literacy, Andrew Fitch, influenced in no small part by a visit to School21.  We wanted to run a public event which included every single student in Year 8 giving a three minute speech.  Originally, the idea was that this speech had to be from memory…but, as this was our first go, we accepted that we needed to build confidence first and, for many students, cue cards were necessary.

The logistics were quite complicated with four pairs of Year 8 classes taking part in two sessions in two venues across two days.  This give time for everyone to make a speech in front of two-classes of students and any parents that could attend.

A peer assessment pack was created so that the audience had a focus for engaging with each speech. The pack contains a variety of different evaluation grids for students to use.

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 11.07.25
The peer assessment process worked well. 

Students will receive formative feedback on their speeches and the oracy work will flow into a written version of their speech that will be assessed more formally.

So many wonderful things came out of this project.  It’s fantastic to hear the individual voices of our students, each with something to say.  Very often they were nervous but, having completed their speech, they were beaming; the rewards of overcoming fears, rich and well-deserved.  Some of the individual speeches were spectacular.

One highlight was a student whose low key intro led into a full-blown extended beat poem recited from memory: antisocial social media; losing touch via our touch screens; too busy with wifi to say ‘hi’ or ‘goodbye’;  lots of ‘friends’ but friendless; connected but disconnected… a powerful and brilliant speech/poem. She gave a reprieve in our full-school assemblies to rapturous applause.   I don’t think that we’d have heard this without giving her this forum.

Another highlight was a boy who wrestles with his stammer every day; he could have opted out but, in discussion with his teachers, he gave it a go giving a wonderfully touching speech about having a stammer. Facing the challenge head on, he did brilliantly well. His peers were suitably impressed.

The range of topics was great: forced marriage, in praise of  Youtubers; educational inequality in developing countries; refugees; the death penalty; animal rights; feminism; the secret to Barcelona FC’s success; why chicken shop workers should earn more than lawyers!  To name but a few….

We’re thrilled to have got this project off the ground – with huge thanks to the  HGS English Department.  The next stage is to embed it further still with similar events in every year at KS3, making it part and parcel of school life.  We also need to think further about the memorisation aspect.  At School21 they are clear that students must not have cue cards; they argue that this gives them a crutch they will always rely on and that, if they have no option, all students can learn to speak without notes.  That’s a challenge for us to consider. This time around, we were excited just to hear everyone speak; a good proportion didn’t need their notes and they’ll have shown the others what is possible.

Other improvements we could make are around the authenticity of the audience. We did invite parents but only a smattering could make it during the working day; perhaps we could raise the profile now we know how good it could be.  We could also go further still to achieve 100% engagement.  With 193 out of 210 students involved, we did pretty well but despite extensive efforts and copious encouragement from their teachers, some students were simply too nervous; some were conspicuously absent on the day!  I hope that once it is established as a routine feature of school life, we’ll get closer to full participation.

This is the Trivium in action.  Philosopher Kids holding forth in the agora…. it’s a beautiful thing!





  1. A beautiful thing indeed! Really well done to everyone involved for getting this off the ground. I have done something similar previously with year 7s, but they only presented within their classes – this really takes it up a gear, and it’s great to hear your plans for taking it further still. It seems oracy is having its long overdue day in the sun… here’s hoping it catches on, and long may it last!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This looks fabulous and strikes me as something that could be used in transition between year 6 and 7, especially within the current assessment climate! What a great way for year 6 to show you what they can do and what floats their boat. A great project to raise the status of oracy. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this post, Tom. The school I’m a governor at holds Public Speaking Competition over two days, years 7 and 8 on day one and years 9 and 10 on day two. The forms decide the topic and research it. They choose a speaker, Chair and one to give thanks at the end. The topics like yours are amazing! We’ve had speeches on FGM, global warming, Islamophobia etc. The students receive feedback and you can see how the standard of the speeches and delivery improve from Year 7 to 10. Any school which can give its students this experience is doing wonders for them. Reading your account I was impressed with your students. Well done to them, you and your team.


  4. This idea sounds great-I’ll definitely be looking to try something like this next year. With regards cue cards, we’re trying to move away from dependency on these by allowing them to contain prompt questions that relate to the speech/topic to be discussed-one to stimulate memory of each paragraph. The students feel they have a safety net but can’t read verbatim from notes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Good to read, Tom. I’m a great fan of public speaking which, I have to say, was particularly strong in the two independent schools in which I was deputy and then head. In both schools girls (they were girls’ schools) made formal presentations to their classes, and then representatives from each class (voted by their peers) went forward to the whole year group competition (there was a judging panel and prizes were awarded – I know not everyone would want to do that). They did this in each year from Year 7 to 11. There were poetry recitation competitions (where poems WERE memorised and questions were asked afterwards) and small group debates too (again followed by Q & A from the floor). The girls were used to it as they moved up through the school. ALL performed (to their own class) and a smaller number performed to a larger audience.

    Just one point re: notes – it seems to me that not having notes at all isn’t that realistic. As adults how often would we be required to memorise a presentation? Learning how to makes/use brief notes (you definitely don’t read them – they have to be much more concise. They’re to use as prompts only) is actually a very valuable skill.

    Thanks again for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s