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Redesigning the Traditional Assembly

School 21

Grades pre-K to 13 | London, U.K.

Peter Hyman

Co-Founder and Executive Head Teacher of School 21
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22 primary students and one teacher sitting in circle on the floor in assembly with two teachers standing on the side

Editor's note: You'll notice British standard spelling throughout this post. It was authored by a U.K.-based educator as part of our Schools That Work coverage of School 21.

Pity the poor students. They sit in crowded rows -- bored, restless, and chatty. This is assembly time in the U.K. At most schools here, assemblies are a time for formality, listening in silence, and being talked down to. For students, it is often agony.

It’s time to rethink assemblies -- completely. If we believe in young people finding their voice, and if we believe in students taking charge of their own learning, then it’s time to make assemblies a symbol of 21st-century learning. At School 21, we have redesigned the traditional assembly. These are our top five tips on how to deliver assemblies that add real value to your school.

1. Use Assemblies as the Engine of School Culture

In U.K. schools, there is usually a daily assembly with each year group (grade level). Assemblies should be a point in the school day that showcase the school's values and approach. It should reflect your pedagogies and the relationships that you want adults to have with students. School 21 makes sure that all visitors get to see an assembly, because it sums up what the school is about:

  • A rich blend of experiential and cognitive learning
  • A chance for students to find their voice
  • A forum for enquiry, curiosity, and questioning

How is this done? First, plan the assembly programme skillfully to amplify key cultural themes, wellbeing objectives, and key topics. Second, design them in a way that gives students the chance to fully participate.

2. Introduce Rituals That Give Assemblies Shape, Form, and Purpose

On day one of our school's existence, at our first assembly, we created two rituals. There were 75 11-year-olds in front of us. We had no traditions, no rituals, no way of doing anything. I had approached our drama teacher, Daniel Shindler, with a vague notion of what I wanted assemblies to be: in the round (in circles) and participative. We came up with a strong circle -- a circle of the entire year group that symbolises unity, kindness, and being there for each other. If the 20th century was about rows, the 21st century is about circles. This turned into our first ritual.

The students held one long piece of string around the circle. That string linked them together. They each lowered the string and stepped inside of the circle -- a symbol that they were becoming School 21 students and that they had entered a circle of support and kindness. We now introduce this ritual to each incoming class.

At the end of that first assembly, we introduced our second ritual: mindfulness. We asked all students to close their eyes, breathe slowly, and think about how they can show kindness to each other during the rest of the day. This became one of our key assembly rituals. As our school developed, we introduced other rituals -- ways in which we reinforce our two core values of integrity and humanity.

3. Treat Assemblies as Giant Lessons With High Student Expectations

All teachers should lead assemblies, and assemblies need time to breathe. Make them the same length as a decent lesson -- at least 50 minutes -- so that they can be planned properly, and they can be used to wrestle with substantial content, such as a wellbeing 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, maths, or history. To enhance the impact of assemblies, carefully coordinate the themes with what happens afterward in the advisory group, coaching time, or core content classes.

4. Use Drama Techniques to Involve Students

For that very first time, Shindler invented one of a series of characters who would become a regular feature of our assemblies: Colin Chaos. Colin Chaos is the unreliable student who never does the right thing. He's disorganised, lazy, and unwilling to play the game. With 30 years as a drama teacher, Shindler knew that it would be easier to communicate key school messages through character and humour. Shindler 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. Using a drama genre called Forum Theatre -- where the audience decides what the actors should do next -- he asked the circle of nervous 11-year-olds, "Who wants to play Colin’s mother?"

There was silence. It was a high-risk strategy. No one had the courage to step forward. For at least two minutes, no one spoke up. Then, quietly and calmly, a girl stood up and walked to the center of the circle with 75 pairs of eyes on her.

At the top of her voice, she started berating Colin Chaos, “You need to get your act together! You want to do well in school, don’t you. . .” That girl set the pattern for all future assemblies at School 21. Our circle became a safe circle in which students were unafraid to take part, express their ideas, and ask deep questions.

5. 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 many of these oracy techniques are practiced, such as:

  • Pass and go: Where each student in a circle chooses whether to respond to the question (go) or pass (pass it on to the next speaker)
  • The Traverse: Where students stand opposite of each other in two rows, each one stepping forward in turns to make his or her case
  • Trios: With each student taking on a role of instigator, builder, or summariser

Related Articles: Oracy in the Classroom: Strategies for Effective TalkPublic Speaking: Oracy Skills for the Real World

It's time to redesign traditional assemblies. Your students shouldn't have to sit there listening in silence. Involve them. Use that time to engage them in key concepts. How do you innovate assemblies? Please share your practices in the comments section below.

This post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from School 21.

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SallyWJ's picture

I love this idea- but if you haven't got the space, rows are often the only way to fit the children in. Plus, it has to be lead by the head and the staff need to be totally on board.

Mister B's picture

Assemblies should never be a waste of time, especially if there's a cost involved. Getting kids involved is the key. Over the last twenty years I've sat through some amazing assemblies, but I've also watched some real doozies. The most memorable ones were full of action with a presenter that knew how to work the crowd.

https://scottbitely.com/2013/11/11/i-cant-hear-you/

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