9 steps to transforming your school assembly

Far from being boring, assemblies offer an excellent opportunity to improve pupils’ oracy skills, argues Alice Stott
16th December 2018, 4:03pm

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9 steps to transforming your school assembly

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/9-steps-transforming-your-school-assembly
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“Boring, tedious, repetitive, dull, preachy, uncomfortable” was how Tes contributor Ian Goldsworthy recently described the age-old ritual of the school assembly.

But I say: don’t consign assemblies to the education graveyard of outdated ideas just yet. With the right approach, assemblies can support the development of oracy by creating an authentic and different context for talk.

An oracy assembly retains many of the features of a “traditional” assembly: all of the students from a year group, phase or school are brought together; key messages are shared; the school’s values or attributes are celebrated. But in an oracy assembly, the skills of speaking and listening are not only called upon, but deliberately and explicitly taught and celebrated.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Change the layout

The implicit message sent by the usual assembly seating arrangement - where students sit in rows facing the front - is that only the person stood at the front of the room has something worthwhile to say.

Changing how students are seated, so that they are able to turn and listen to the person they are talking to, immediately changes the emphasis.

You could start by seating students in class circles and then asking them to move into smaller discussion groups, or start with one huge year-group circle. Alternatively, you could seat students in parallel lines facing each other, or perhaps facing a student from a different class or year group.

2. Set clear expectations

It can be scary the first time that you ask a room of more than a hundred students to start talking - what if they never stop?

But you can use oracy assemblies to reinforce behaviour for learning expectations, just as you would a regular assembly. For instance, you might have a rule that when the teacher leading the assembly raises their hand, students should also raise their hand and fall silent.

You’ll likely also need to set clear expectations for pair or trio talk: ensuring students are sitting “knee to knee” and making eye contact are a good place to start.

3. Practise volume control

Encouraging a roomful of children to start speaking all at once risks bringing an explosion of noise with it. As you establish talk in assemblies, spend time encouraging your students to have control over their voices.

This could include practising speaking at different volume levels: if level one is a whisper and level 10 is shouting on the playground, what volume level should you use when talking in your trio? What level is best for feeding back to the whole room?

Some students may struggle to project loudly enough to be heard in the hall, in which case you could try some vocal warm-ups and ensure everyone has had a go at projecting across the space.

4. Choose stimuli carefully

Ask yourself, is the subject matter sufficiently interesting and relevant? Do your students have knowledge and experiences to bring to bear on it? Images can provide effective open-ended hooks: Which is the odd one out and why? What connects these three images? What word would you choose to sum up what you can see and why?

5. Model the talk that you want

If you want students to have a discussion where one person provides challenge, show them what this might sound like and what the other person might say in response. If you want students to ask questions or summarise what has been said, give them examples and sentence stems with which to build their confidence.

6. Tell stories

Stories are a mainstay of many assemblies and provide so many brilliant opportunities for students to talk - and listen. What do you predict will happen next? What do you think the character is thinking or feeling and why? What would you have done differently? Can you summarise the plot so far? Can you retell the story? Equally, you could ask students to listen for specific details, such as the setting or the sequence of events, or for wider messages, such as the moral.

7. Use role play and forum theatre

Drama activities allow students to get under the skin of different characters and enable them to try out different roles. Students are encouraged to think about different points of view, and also to experiment with the physical aspects of their voice and body language when in role.

8. Celebrate and praise oracy

Just as you use assemblies to celebrate and encourage positive behaviours, use them to celebrate your students’ oracy skills. The Oracy Framework provides a good basis for this: it is not just those who speak the longest or the loudest, but those who listen, take turns and ask questions who deserve praise, too.

9. Share with students why you’re doing what you’re doing…

...and get feedback from them. Be explicit as to why you are making changes: to develop their oracy skills, which they need for learning and for life beyond school. Perhaps the subject matter for your first oracy assembly could be “what is oracy and why learn it?”

Alice Stott is director of learning and development at Voice 21. She previously taught oracy and English at School 21 in East London, and is co-author of Transform Teaching and Learning Through Talk: The oracy imperative, which is out in January 2019

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