Power of small raised dots
The story of Louis Braille is an inspiring tale of a life-enhancing gift born from horrific personal tragedy. It works for any age group, although it's a popular choice for the famous people topic in key stage 1 history, which is why I found myself watching a very moving Louis Braille assembly presented by Year 1 at Hearsall primary in Coventry just before half-term.
Featuring my granddaughter Ruby as Louis Braille's mother, it was a model of what a key stage 1 class assembly should be - inclusive, differentiated, cross-curricular, with a strong story and a clear message. And not too long for the babies, toddlers (and seniors) in the audience.
The practice whereby each class in turn presents an assembly to the rest of the school, and to their families and friends, is one of those bits of primary school life that heads and teachers cling to despite all the pressures on the timetable. Long-serving heads tell stories of memorable class assemblies. There was the stuffed parrot that appeared at random in the class assemblies when I was a head, for example. Or the minimalist assembly I heard of that was, unpromisingly, about Tudor buildings.
("Nothing happened," said the teacher who told me about it. "The children stood and held up pictures, and we sang 'The Wise Man Built his House Upon the Rock'. The head glared at the class teacher all the way through.") Then there was the assembly about Ancient Egypt featuring a child wrapped as a mummy. The school had a formal complaint about that, from a person concerned that "meddling with the occult" could invoke the Curse of the Mummy. (I think they had a bad Office for Standards in Education report shortly afterwards.) It's not difficult, though, to see why class assemblies continue to hold their place. Working together on a multimedia production, however brief and small-scale, builds co-operation, confidence and self-esteem as well as reinforcing subject knowledge and exercising valuable speaking and listening skills.
Ruth Winters, head of Hearsall, puts it like this: "Time is tight, and the fact that we've been so keen to hang on to the arts and sport makes it even tighter.
"We do value the assemblies, though. It's good that the parents come in, for example."
In common with many heads, she's reduced some of the pressure by helping teachers to move away from feeling that they have to compete to put on major productions.
"The class assembly comes round once a year now instead of every term," she says.J "The expectation is that it should be done with preparation over just a few days, and be part of the curriculum so it's not an extra burden."
She is very keen that all children are given an opportunity to shine, pointing out that a class assembly often reveals unexpected abilities.
"When my own children were at school, you always knew who'd have the star parts," she says. "I don't want that, because I know children can surprise you with what they can do."
So, at Hearsall, we saw every child doing something - acting, reading, singing, showing artwork. Some also displayed Braille writing they'd done on a brailler. They worked on this with a visitor who is blind and came in to show them how it's done and what it means practically and emotionally.
The best bit for me, though, was the class-created song, which Ruby sang endlessly in the days before and after the assembly. To the tune of "Fr re Jacques", it explains that Louis devised a way by which blind people could read and that it consisted of - and here comes the chorus: "Small raised dots! Small raised dots!"
Hearsall used the BBC Video pack "Famous People with Magic Grandad" available from www.bbcschoolshop.com. The story of Louis Braille is on theJRoyal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) website at http:www.rnib.org.ukxpediogroupspublicdocumentspublicwebsitepublic_b raille.hcsp.For an education pack from the RNIB, contact information officer Mary Cox: tel 0207 391 2397