Class assemblies

Writing yesterday’s post got me to thinking of other memories from my teaching days. Here in England in Junior and Primary schools there is something of a tradition of getting each class to present an assembly once or twice each year, maybe more often in smaller schools. Having arrived in the younger sector from teaching secondary children this was something of a culture shock but it ended up supplying me with many of my best memories of my teaching times. If you are a teacher with musical abilities or are very artistic these assemblies can be quite straightforward. However for all other staff they present a more daunting prospect as drama is the only real option left open to use. So it was that I constantly found myself referencing various television programmes for inspiration.

In my very first class assembly, on the topic of Life in the Second World War, I utilised my love of that classic show ‘Dad’s Army’ and had a chubby boy bursting onto the stage at regular intervals shouting ‘Put that light out!’. Well, it made me laugh anyway. On other occasions I used the ‘Blue Peter’ format to rescue me. This always worked well if I had a group of unrelated items I wanted the children to show off to the audience. It also gave the opportunity of having fun with the ‘presenters’ and hopefully bringing back happy memories for the parents watching. ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ was always slipped in somewhere. One year I decided to have some of the children pretending to be the make-up artists and cameramen. As the rest of the school filed in, these children acted out their roles as if it was a live broadcast. Unfortunately the head teacher came in and thought they were misbehaving, it being an unwritten rule that the class presenting the assembly were always sitting immaculately at the front of the hall. I had to quickly run to the stage and explain that it was all part of the production. I’m not sure the head got it even then.

‘Star Trek’ was also a great help when needing to link different topics as you could have the crew simply fly on to another planet in order to introduce a new topic. It gave the great ending too of being able to stop the action and say ‘Same place, same time, next week!’ (Okay, that’s nicked from ‘Batman’ but who cared).

Towards the end of my teaching time as pressures grew for various reasons I became more adventurous in my plagiarising of well known comedies. Monty Python supplied me with a wonderful skit about a ‘dead torch’ rather than the original ‘dead parrot’ in order to explain the importance of electrical circuits and batteries. They also gave me the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ intro which allowed a long list of Roman achievements to trumpeted. The then popular ‘Blind Date’ TV programme with Cilla Black morphed into an opportunity to show off Henry VIII and his six prospective wives. The performance was greatly enhanced by the mum of the ‘king’ making an incredible outfit. Don’t you just love those parents!

Although too young to remember ‘That Was The Week That Was’ I had seen the famous sketch with Cleese, Barker and Corbett explaining about the class system in Britain. I used it, with adaptation, to explain the various roles of different sailors on-board a 17th century ship. With each member listing their tasks and then claiming they told the person next to them what to do (some poetic license here, I admit) it gave the little ship’s boy at the end the chance to bring the house down by uttering, with a quick glance to his vacant left, ‘And I tell….I just do what I’m told!’ The same assembly allowed me to fit in my favourite ‘Carry On’ line – ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!’ It worked well for a ship’s captain facing a mutinous crew.

The only tiring thing I found about writing these assemblies was that I started planning the next one the very day my class presented their current one! Throughout the year I would scribble an idea or line down in my diary and then bring them all together. The trouble with having one good production was that it put pressure on you to surpass it the next time.

And now I’ve just remembered what started me off on creating these (hopefully) humorous assemblies. I can remember sitting behind my class, operating the tape recorder, in a rather typically dull class presentation when one of my pupils said his line and improvised some hand movement across his mouth. It made the audience laugh and in that moment I thought ‘That’s what I want! – laughter’, not a long line of kids reciting poems they’ve written about Autumn or holding up yet another painting they’ve created.

Mind you, I found other staff started to copy my idea of rummaging through old TV comedies and I even started off one assembly by having a group of my children standing around discussing what they were going to choose for their assembly theme and getting them to comment that using old TV programmes was just soooo passé. I hope the message got home to the other staff. Maybe it was a good thing I left soon after this assembly. Whatever would I have put on for my next presentation???!!

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Teaching that perfect lesson

I have just come in after a refreshing and invigorating walk. There’s no rain for a change and little wind. It was a real ‘blow away the cobwebs’ walk. And my mind began to wander as I strolled along. Wandered back to when I was teaching, and wishing I was back in that environment again.

One lesson often comes back into my mind when I become slightly nostalgic for those days. I was teaching an ‘O’ level History class back in the 1980s and we were covering Modern World History which basically meant the main 20th century events. The evening before the Americans had bombed Libya’s capital, I can’t remember the exact reason why, and as I drove into school I couldn’t make up my mind whether to mention the incident or not. It wasn’t relevant to the actual topic we were then studying yet it was of course important and an example of the USA’s foreign policy. In the end I compromised. I decided to mention the raid at the beginning of the lesson then move on to the planned work. Well, I mentioned it and that was the last word I got in until the end of the lesson. Several students immediately attacked the US’s decision and others defended it. I was utterly amazed as the debate took off. The rest of the class were equally bemused and looked like a crowd watching a tennis match as they turned their heads back and forth to follow the ‘rally’ of arguments for and against. Sixty minutes later one of the children asked me for my view of the bombing raid and then the class moved on to an English class where apparently the discussion continued for another hour before the teacher was asked for his view too. The fact he and I had opposite views only added to what had been an extraordinary two hours of education for that group of students.

I have always cited that incident as my best lesson ever. It’s interesting, isn’t it? No real planning, no pile of worksheets, no textbooks, no fancy computer gimmicks (if I’d been teaching today), just the slightest input from me and then massive input from the children. There must be a lesson here for all teachers. An ‘excellent’ lesson doesn’t need hours of preparation. It doesn’t need the teacher to be a superman or woman for sixty minutes. What does it need? The ability to recognise an opportunity, or a question, and to enable the learning situation to develop. I look back now and wonder how many of those odd thirty minute lessons I wasted just letting the children ‘finish off’ work while I took a breather. If only I had instead just thought of a question to pose the class or a challenge to set them which would have raised those children’s learning opportunities so much higher.

So if any teacher or spouse or partner of a teacher happens to read this, please take it on board. You could make your lessons so much better and so much more rewarding for your students, and you, by just thinking rather than churning out the paperwork.

Ask a question, pose an idea or a challenge, and see your students fly.

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