Agency in assemblies

Agency Creativity Studio

Have you ever been an audience member at a school assembly/performance and either struggled to be entirely attentive or even worse, awake? I don’t know about you, but I have struggled with both for the majority of school assemblies that I have attended both as a student and educator.

For me, this leads to an interesting inquiry…

Are whole school assemblies still needed in 21st century learning models?

Some things that come to mind to advocate for their relevance may be:

  • Whole school celebrations/announcements/messages/initiatives
  • Giving students opportunities to display skills to mixed aged groups and the wider community
  • Giving the wider community an opportunity to join in on events at the school​
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Image credit: Jaime Fernández | Pexels.com

What can assemblies still offer students in the 21st century?

I think for the people performing, it is a worthwhile experience. Particularly for students developing their communication skills and other skills the performance may require. Stepping out of your comfort zone, after all, is where the magic happens! Moreover, if the performers have voice, choice and ownership in what they are presenting, assembly performances would help strengthen neural pathways in their development of these skills, since they are likely intrinsically motivated to be there.

However, as an audience member, how much agency is really offered in a typical school assembly?

Here’s the gut check. It is highly likely that your school’s assemblies consist of a regimen that is far from agentic. Masses march on down to a central meeting space and are forced into some presenter centered environment. The audience norms are to be still, quiet, and attentive (i.e. compliant) for often too lengthy a period of time, dealing with the uncomfortable seating arrangement that the setting has to offer. As a result of this, behavior outcomes aren’t always ideal and some students and teachers leave frustrated or more. 

Disclosure: I am not sitting on a pious perch. I, too, am guilty of engaging in this routine. Organizational compliance is a tough animal to beat sometimes. However, if we advocate for working alternatives, then why not be the voice of change?

Are all assemblies robbers of joy?

No. I’ll argue that assemblies, in moderation, offer nice opportunities to show support for your fellow community members and the learning that is taking place. In addition, sometimes a whole school celebration (or unfortunate mourning) is necessary.

However, I’ve yet to encounter a school where a schedule of multiple grade level assemblies hasn’t been the expected norm in the yearly planning.

So how could we move toward offering more agency in assemblies? 

Instead of droning on with the same old, same old “compliance festival”, how can we “flip” the model to offer more agency for both presenters and audience? How can we still honor opportunities for learners to display their skills to a wider audience, allow for the greater community to celebrate this learning as an audience, and try to resolve the boredom crisis of the assembly model?

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Photo credit: Guilherme Almeida | Pexels.com

One solution: The workshop approach

​By no means am I proclaiming that this is the best, nor the only way to offer more agency in assemblies. However, I will describe what my team and I do, and the perceived benefits. 

The context (i.e. Where the magic happens)

First, I’d like to mention how fortunate I am to work in an environment where “I wonder if…” or “What if…” ideas and innovations are celebrated. Generally speaking, if it’s going to be good for the kids, then my organization encourages us to try it. In addition, this idea is not my innovation or brainchild; it is the result of collective values and ideas of my awesome team, which includes the administration staff that supports us. In fact, this idea doesn’t rest solely within our grade level, as I’ve seen the grade threes run workshops for kids older and younger than them, too!

What is this place you speak of?

I work in an awesome environment called Studio 5 at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City, or ISHCMC for short. Studio 5 is built upon personalized learning and putting the learner at the center. It is an environment that highly values student agency.

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The Studio 5 logo at ISHCMC

​The workshop approach explained

Like all other schools I have worked for, the yearly calendar at ISHCMC includes multiple grade level assemblies. A  select few of these assemblies still remain the same, however, the rest tend to lend themselves toward more innovative interpretation.

A non-negotiable is that we, as a grade level, are expected to offer several assemblies for grades 2-4. This translates to about 16 classrooms. Traditionally, that would mean all 16 classrooms would gather en masse in one location. Our grade level would have to collectively decide on a performance theme, then, possibly, the learners may have some voice, choice and ownership of what the presenting could look like within the context of that theme. At least in my 15 years of teaching at quite a few schools, that’s the way that it has gone. It’s also how I remember it as a learner myself.

Our alternative approach is that we gather as a studio (grade-level), and have a transparent discussion. We, both advisors and learners, discuss the non-negotiable timetable aspect of offering something to grades 2-4 and giving parents a chance to celebrate some of the amazing learning happening at ISHCMC. Then, like the majority of things that happen within Studio 5, we equally include the learners in planning of what it could look like. More often than not, students tend to gravitate to wanting to offer workshops over anything else.

What does it typically look like?

Students in Studio 5 are owners of their own learning and engage in self-directed units of inquiry, or as we call SDUoIs (think PYPx, but more frequently). They’re all, to some degree, “experts”, in a wide variety of topics that they’re intrinsically motivated about. This “expertise” covers a diverse range from computational thinking, design, “Chefsperts”, “Sportspertise”, “Craftsperts” and more.

Given this experience, workshops tend to make sense. We give the kids opportunities to lead in mixed age groups, which, as Dr. Peter Gray posits, allows children to learn more efficiently within their Vygotskian Zone of Proximal Development (i.e. ZPD). For example, an 8 year old child has a much better chance of understanding how to dribble in basketball from a 10 year old, rather than an adult who may have had years of experience playing the sport.

In Studio 5, the expectation is that we have a shared common agreement and responsibility in taking our learning public beyond the PYPx at least once throughout the year. So, come assembly time, getting volunteers for workshops tends to be quite simple.

From there, we, as advisors, provide scaffolding and support in order for the children to be successful in their workshops. We hold workshop meetings, mini inquiries into what makes a good workshop, help them with choosing the right year level for them, contacting the right people, booking resources, providing opportunities for feedback and more. Come workshop day, they’re more than prepared to lead. 

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How Studio 5 advisors help track and support workshop leaders. Data organization credit: Jenny Morley

​Come workshop day, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the pictures…

Writing workshop
Bloopers workshop
Bloopers workshop
Toontastic story writing
Shoe design
Basketball skills
Basketball skills
Plants & pottery workshop
Bracelet making
Computational thinking
Yoghurt parfait making
Sandwich making
Sandwich making
3D design in Tinkercad

Photo credit: Ha Thien, Kim Han, Thuy Pham and Stephen Flett

What’s the big why for the students to run workshops over assemblies? 

To them, it makes a lot of sense:

  • Engagement: Hands on for the audience; less watching, more doing.
  • Smaller audience = less intimidation
  • Empowering and energizing: It’s fun and exciting to run a workshop on things you love and sharing that passion with others.
  • Agency: They get choice on who they want to present with, the topic, the class, and the audience size

What are some of the advantages for the audience?

  • Experiential learning rather than merely observing an experience
  • More comfortable environment: Often their classroom, but sometimes in outdoor spaces or in the kitchen.

What could we do better?

  • Having workshop leaders send formal emails to their parents to come in, attend and participate in their workshop. Parents do know informally through the children and wider school communication letters.


A call to action!
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If you resonated with any of the above, why not give the workshop approach a go? Start with a design thinker’s approach – empathize with your stakeholders and come up with your collective why.

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Photo credit: MrJanzen 1984 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)] | Wikimedia Commons


What are your thoughts?

Do you have any creative alternatives to adding more agency in assemblies? What are your thoughts as to whether or not assemblies still fit within 21st-century learning? 


Connect with the author of this post on Twitter @juouelle

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