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Introducing the lego learning system

School assemblies – How to make yours powerful and leave a lasting impression

James Handscombe offers his thoughts on how to make the most of your assemblies, and what it takes to keep your audience engaged...

  • School assemblies – How to make yours powerful and leave a lasting impression

I walk to school along a chestnut-lined avenue, early sunlight illuminating a crisp autumn morning. I bend down to pick up a prickly green husk and, like schoolboys everywhere, delight in the shiny brown conker that lies within.

Unlike those ubiquitous students, I’m an adult – I am, in fact, 43 and the headmaster – and my ruminations now go beyond the potential for demolishing my friends’ conkers with my new treasure.

I reach the end of my commute as the bells chime the hour, and stroll to the front of the assembly hall where I hold up my glistening prize and explain that the conker is a symbol of hope; that the trees are metaphors for the students, and that the season of autumn itself is a rich source of inspiration both for poets and aspiring scholars.

I tie in the school ethos of high ambition, and round things off with a few cheering words of comfort.

Messages and more

Some of my colleagues have the impression that this is how I prepare assemblies, and I prefer to bask in their admiration rather than setting them right – because it cannot, of course, be the whole story.

That serendipitous finding of the conker and the delivery of the assembly may be the end points of the process, but it’s certainly not the case that everything else took place within a short train journey.

Crafting a powerful assembly takes time. It involves writing 1,500 words in coherent sentences and structured paragraphs so that the listener, without aids to memory or concentration, is at least able to take away the key messages.

This, therefore, is the first characteristic of a powerful assembly – messages that are clearly communicated and rendered memorable.

That said, a great assembly does more than simply hammer home some key messages – it exemplifies the school ethos. It not only tells, but also shows. When sitting in a powerful assembly, you’ll hear described the aspirations of the community, but also see them lived.

Exactly what characteristics the assembly has will thus depend on the ethos of the school in which you work. Using someone else’s assembly as inspiration is wise; downloading and delivering it as written, much less so.

The final characteristic of a great assembly springs from that idea of communicating an ethos, and it’s that every assembly is a teaching opportunity. Students should go away having learned something.

Beyond the curriculum

To achieve these ends, you can deploy personal anecdotes, high culture references, pop culture references, tales from history, stories of inspiring heroes, or warnings from the lives of those for whom ‘hero’ maybe isn’t the right word.

To tie it all together, you can draw on your own ruminations and reflections, the words of your foundational documents or the content of assemblies gone by – this is a team effort, of course, since building an ethos is the work of many speakers .

The idea of showing, rather than simply telling is an extraordinarily powerful one for an assembly writer. We encourage students to use their words cleverly and develop a wide vocabulary. Assemblies give them opportunities to see us doing the same ourselves.

Assemblies also remove us from our expertise pigeonholes. A maths teacher can endorse the interests of the history teacher.

The English teacher can speak to the beauty of maths. They allow us communicate our humanity and tell (suitably Bowdlerised) tales of misspent youth, recount eccentric enthusiasms and share the words and music that make our fragile hearts beat faster.

In an assembly we can pass on the advice and life lessons we long for students to learn, but which simply won’t fit into the timetabled curriculum.

High and low

One of the most challenging decisions you’ll make is how to pitch your cultural allusions. Should you talk about autumn by invoking Axl Rose’s words on the cold ‘November Rain’, or by citing John Keats’ misty and far mellower ode?

My reflection on this is that assemblies are about learning, so we should expose them to things they don’t know. I like to aim just over their heads, with content that will be largely new to them, but which they may have at least heard of, dipped into or been intrigued by.

This way, they should be looking up and lifted by what is offered.

This approach gives you the opportunity to stealthily drop popular culture references into your discussion with the same gravitas and respect you’d afford great writers from centuries past.

It emphasises that the students’ existing culture is valuable, and worthy of engagement and reflection. It also encourages them to listen out for your roguish tricks. They might just be listening carefully for the next sneaky Taylor Swift lyric, but at least they are listening.

Natural bias

Another challenge is that your cultural touchstones will spring from the miniscule part of human experience that is your life thus far. On our own, none of us can ever be as culturally diverse as the schools we serve – a natural bias we would do well to monitor and take active steps to remedy.

Expressing your own character and sharing your culture with students is a real privilege of delivering an assembly, and one we shouldn’t be shy of (Paul Simon and JRR Tolkien are frequent visitors to my scripts).

However, we must also be careful not to give the impression that this is the only culture we’re interested in, or worse, that this is the only culture that has value.

The poetry of Rabindranath Tagore; the novels of James Baldwin; the history of Sudan – all have an equal claim to time and space. Writing an assembly is an opportunity for us to learn something new ourselves, as well as teach.

When approached as a standalone presentation, however, even a truly brilliant assembly will lack power.

An assembly’s greatness comes from its place in a collection, which is why I believe assembly givers should also be listeners, and why the best cultural reference for an assembly is another assembly – ideally one given by someone else.

These cross-references allow assemblies to reinforce and build on each other. They turn ephemeral, individual pieces into a rich and evolving tapestry of shared understanding. They can tap into and develop the ethos of the school, and turn a building into a community.

8 features of powerful assemblies

  1. An assembly is made up of stories, references, a big picture ethos and take-home messages – start with one and add the others in
  2. Your take-home message must be clear; structure the assembly to make it so
  3. You are exemplifying good writing for the students; spend time crafting your sentences and paragraphs
  4. Remember that an assembly is another opportunity for pupils to learn something, especially advice and life lessons that won’t fit into the timetabled curriculum
  5. Your assembly isn’t just what you say, but how you say it. Make sure you’re in touch with the school ethos and its aspirations
  6. Take inspiration from all walks of life, including high culture, pop culture, tales from history, stories of inspiring heroes or warnings from the lives of villains. Ensure these sources are culturally diverse
  7. Aim high with your content. Assemblies should expose pupils to things that are new to them, or which they may be somewhat familiar with and would like to explore further
  8. Have fun with your assemblies, and be your own, idiosyncratic self – even if this involves a fascination with the fruit of the horse-chestnut

James Handscombe studied mathematics at Oxford and Harvard before training to be a teacher. He worked in schools in south Wales, Australia and south-east London before becoming the founding principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in 2014.

His new book, A School Built on Ethos: Ideas, assemblies and hard-won wisdom, is available now (£14.99, Crown House Publishing); follow him at @JamesHandscombe

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