Changing the lens


Pity the poor students. They sit in serried ranks, bored or very bored, restless or very restless, chatty or very chatty. This is assembly time in school. A ritual that we all go through. I remember it with chilling clarity from my own school days. The brutal vice-principal would stand at the front and stare along the rows of pupils to spot anyone who dared to break the silence. Then he would shout in a booming voice your name and one thing: “3.30!” This meant you were to come to his office at the end of the school day and be given a minimum of an hour’s litter picking duty. Assemblies are usually a time for formality, for listening in silence, for being talked down to: a telling off, a semi-religious homily, a cautionary tale. Of course as school leaders we don't see it like that. We have faith in our brilliantly expansive assembly on a book we have just read or a moral tale that uses current affairs to bring it alive.

But I want to make the case that assemblies should be seen as a symbol of the school's culture. If the culture of the school is one of compliance, then it makes sense for every assembly to be in a similar format - senior leader talking at students. If the school culture is at least in part about students finding their voice and showing curiosity, then variety matters. It's good to listen but it's also good to talk and interact. So it’s time to rethink assemblies.   This is what we have learnt at School 21: Use assemblies as the engine of school culture: Assemblies should be a point in the school day that showcases the values and approach of the school. It should reflect your pedagogies and the relationships that you want adults to have with students. At School 21 we make sure any visitor gets to see an assembly because it sums up what the school is about: a rich blend of experiential and cognitive learning, the chance for students to find their voice, a forum for enquiry, curiosity and questioning. Introduce rituals that give assemblies shape, form and purpose.  It’s day one of School 21. This is the first assembly on the first day of the school’s existence. There are seventy-five 11 year olds in front of us. We have no traditions, no rituals, no way of doing anything. We have to dream it up from scratch. I have approached our drama teacher, Daniel Shindler, with a sketchy notion. Assemblies should be in the round and should be participative. That way we build culture and we can involve students. We brainstorm how it might work. A strong circle we call it. A circle that symbolises unity, kindness, being there for each other. If the 20th century was about rows, the 21st century is about circles. We decide to begin our first ritual. The students hold one long piece of string round the circle. That string will link them together. They will then lower the string and step inside the circle – a symbol that they are becoming School 21 students and that they have entered a circle of support and kindness. At the end of the assembly we introduce another key ritual of mindfulness. Students are asked to close their eyes and breath slowly and think about how they can show kindness to each other during the rest of the day.  As the school develops we introduce other rituals, ways in which we reinforce our two core values of integrity and humanity. Treat assemblies as giant lessons with high expectations of students All teachers should take assemblies. It shouldn’t be left just to senior leaders or the headteacher.  Assemblies need time to breath. They shouldn’t be a quick 15 minutes but the same length as a decent lesson: at least 50 minutes. That way they can be planned properly and they can be used to wrestle with substantial content: a well-being issue like bullying, a big political debate like who should be the next President of the United States, or an area to explore in science or maths or history. The impact of assemblies is enhanced if the themes are then carefully co-ordinated with what happens in the advisory group or tutor time later in the week.   Use drama techniques to involve students. In our very first assembly, Daniel Shindler the drama teacher, invented one of a series of characters that would be a regular feature of our assemblies: Colin Chaos. Colin Chaos is the unreliable student who does not do the right thing – disorganised, lazy, unwilling to play the game. With 30 years as a drama teacher Daniel knew that it is through character and humour that key school messages would be easier to get across. Daniel acted out the character of Colin, unable to get ready for school properly, not getting out of bed on time, not preparing his bag, and then he stopped and using a drama genre called Forum Theatre (where the audience decides what the actors should no next) he asked the circle of nervous 11 year olds at secondary school for the first time: Who wants to play Colin’s mother? There was silence. It was a high risk strategy. No-one had the courage to step forward. There was at least 2 minutes of eerie silence. Then, quietly and calmly a girl stands up and walks to the centre of the circle. 74 pairs of eyes are on her.  At the top of her voice she starts berating Colin Chaos – “You need to get your act together, you want to do well in school don’t you…..” That girl had set the pattern for all future assemblies at School 21 – our circle became a safe circle in which students are unafraid to take part, to collaborate and perform, to express their ideas and ask deep questions.   Design assemblies to develop speaking skills At School 21 oracy is a big thing. We believe that speaking should be elevated to the same status as reading and writing. Assemblies are crucial to this. It is in assemblies that a lot of these oracy techniques are practiced. This is great professional development for the teachers who are part the assembly. So students learn different protocols for discussing in pairs or trios, in groups of 6 or 12, standing in the traverse, speaking in front of the whole assembly.  What are the obstacles to this in some schools? The objection that often comes up is sheer numbers of students. If there are 240 or more in a secondary school year group, how can I possibly do interactive assemblies? I believe it is still possible. One of the techniques we use with very large groups are different versions of paired discussion. Another solution would be to split the year group into 2 or 3 and have assemblies either at different times, the same time in different venues or on different days.

So if we believe in young people finding their voice, if we believe students taking charge of their own learning, then it’s time to make assemblies a symbol of deeper learning - potentially one of the most exciting parts of the day instead of one that too often are just there to be endured.

© Peter Hyman, 2019