I have had the opportunity to sit in many, many assemblies over the last twenty years and I have found that class assemblies can be stressful, fun, educational, boring, inspirational and bizarre amongst many other adjectives. It’s really interesting to see what class teachers come up with and I find the most successful ones are when I can collaborate well with the class teacher.
In general you have the distinction between the abstract assemblies and the topic assemblies. Both can be great but I much prefer the topic ones that are normally on subjects such as the Ancient Aztecs, Volcanoes or Under the Sea. Abstract ones are more about values such as community or teamwork. I think the reason for my preference is that primary aged children respond much better to concrete topics whereas abstract is really quite hard for the younger students to understand.
School leaderships seem to value the abstract assemblies the best as they tie in nicely with PSHE and this is invariably delivered through the assembly program. Also abstract assemblies are often a lot cheaper and less time intensive. It is a lot cheaper to do an assembly about responsibility rather than make props for Thor’s hammer and dress up Cleopatra. And if you are lucky enough to have a TA they don’t have to have a week off creating Asgard. However, when I talk to students in secondary schools and adults about their class assembly experiences it is these prop and costume-heavy assemblies that they seem to remember. I have heard colleagues saying this is a waste of time and effort and not good for children’s learning. I would dispute that – you shouldn’t really put a price on a child’s memories. So many of us remember what we were in the school nativity (I was a cow one year) and it would be shame to banish these memories in the name of efficient learning.
The Creative Arts side of the assemblies is what I am most interested in. Much of what I have seen is beyond my abilities. I once saw the most incredible International Fashion Show that must have taken a lot of time and effort. It did help that the class teacher was fantastic at this sort of thing and it really helps to work to people’s strengths. I did a class assembly yesterday with a guitarist teacher and together we did a great song about dinosaurs that the kids loved singing. They sang so well because the teachers were passionate about performing. People are mirrors and enthusiasm is catching.
I have some rules about class assemblies that I think can be helpful for everyone. Firstly, each child must say something, play something and sing something. The parents coming to see the class assembly have often taken time off work, have had to reschedule appointments or even rearrange childcare for younger siblings. They have come to watch their children, their eyes are not on other children – they are on their own. If a child has spent the assembly doing nothing we haven’t just let down that child, we have let down the parents too. I always tell the children that this is our way of giving back something to parents for all the lovely things they do for their own children. Kids don’t buy expensive presents for their parents but they can give their time and their enthusiasm as a gift – parents have memories too. The other thing I try to insist on is to use recorded music as sparsely as possible. Getting the children to produce the music for the assembly is better than subcontracting it to Jack Johnson. And if you are going to do a song by Jack Johnson, don’t use the song track – the parents have come to hear their children sing, not the voice of Jack. A school I used to work at blanket-banned backing tracks and it worked very well but it does mean that you do need some instrumental expertise. Sometimes the kids themselves can accompany but remember that accompanying is a very different skill to performing – kids who are amazing at playing solo aren’t necessarily the best at accompanying others. The other rule I have, that I know is controversial, is that a class assembly really is not the forum for learning a song. Class assemblies aren’t a vehicle for showing the process of learning, they are about a final product – the end of a journey. Teaching a song that kids don’t know in an assembly is fine but not really the place when parents have come to watch their children perform. I know some educators won’t agree with this!
Covid has had an appalling effect on the performing and creative arts. You would think that school leaderships would now be investing in music, drama and dance because of the missed opportunities. However, the bonanza in the arts is not happening as schools seem to be saying that the kids have missed out on academics and we need to bring them up to standard. I understand this but I do think it is wrong. Throughout history when times were hard and even when music and art were banned, the human spirit rebels. During the Stalinist purges with the execution of musicians and composers for wrong-think, music did not stop. Sometimes like Shostakovich, music is quietly put in a drawer but it should not remain there. As educators we need to stop and think about what has value, as well as what children need to be able to do in order to pass an inspection. Class assemblies are something that need to come back if they were taken away and be encouraged rather than diminished. I guess as a music teacher I have a bias towards the arts but I do think that we all know deep down that we have undervalued this part of children’s education and I encourage you all to set aside the maths and English for an hour or two and bring creativity and joy back into our schools. Put on a class assembly if you can – you won’t regret it.