It can be a little nerve-wracking, coordinating a school assembly performance.
Will students be bored? Will teachers feel it’s a big waste of time?
Will the custodian breath fire on you for disrupting the flow of his/her day?
Planning school assemblies can be very much outside the normal range of duties for you, the teacher-/administrator-/parent-turned-arts-specialist, and all of a sudden, there are a whole lot of people to please with your choices.
Here’s What Assembly Performers Say. . .
To help you along just a little bit, here’s a roundup of some of the best practical advice and anecdotes I could muster from the performer’s side of things.
Consider this your guide to making everyone – – students, teachers, administrators AND performers – – exceedingly happy
These are taken from both my own 20+ years experience as an assembly performer and, far more importantly, the combined 142 years of wisdom of some very talented friends and colleagues who’ve been doing parallel work “in the trenches.”
I hope you will find something of real value here. Please feel free to add your voice to the discussion in the comments section below.
So now, in no particular order, here they are. . .
#1. 55 kids in a 400 seat auditorium stinks (usually)
If you’ll have a small group attending a presentation (say, less than 100 bodies), ask the performers if they’d prefer to work with the students in a smaller environment.
This may be counter to what the school is accustomed to (“Oh, there’s a performance today? We do those in the cafeteria”), but for many types of programs, some real magic can be created out of thin air simply by clearing a bit of space in the school library, or in a multipurpose room, or an LGI (large group instruction room), so students can be really “up close and personal” with the presenters.
Stuck in a large room? Musician and forty year arts-in-education veteran Jeff Warner says “keep (students) from being too spread out in the room, especially if you have a large group. Best to have them sit on the floor, without chairs, reducing the area they take up. All this so they can see and hear you (the performer) better—and so that you can have better crowd control.”
Many times, in the absence of an alternate space, I will bring small groups right up onto the auditorium stage to sit on the floor in front of me, effectively turning a large room into a small intimate one. Again, this won’t work for every performer, but it’s worth asking. If your presenters like to interact and connect with the audience, smaller is often better.
Here’s what THAT looks like…
OK, moving on . . . (and speaking of “Oh, there’s a performance today?” . . .)
2. The custodian is your friend (sometimes)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into the main office of a school and heard some version of the following exchange –
Office to Custodian: “Stan, I have the gentleman here who will be performing the assemblies today. Can you come up here and help him get his things to the auditeria/cafetorium/gymnasium?”
Custodian to Office: “(long silence……………..) We have an assembly today? Nobody told me about this.”
Custodian to me, after leaving the office: “Nobody told me about this. I’ve got the whole school band set up on the stage. Nobody ever tells me anything. Grumble, grumble, grumble…”
Let the custodial staff know ahead of time if there’s going to be a performance that will affect them in any way. They’ll really appreciate it.
3. Let the teachers know what you’ve done!
Teachers have more on their plates today than ever before, and they’re feeling really squeezed for instruction time. Generally speaking, they don’t like to be surprised with assemblies unless you happen to be catching them in the middle of deep dark winter with no school holiday break in site (or anytime during the last two weeks of school).
You might even consider letting teachers know the topic ahead of time and allowing them to “opt out” if they have more pressing work to do. Same for “specials” teachers – they get to see their students so infrequently as it is, and they may be preparing for a special event such as a concert, recital, exhibition or play of their own.
4. Teachers don’t (always) like school assemblies
Related to the point above, teachers don’t always welcome assemblies that don’t connect to what they’re already teaching in class. My best advice here would be to consider offering grade-specific programming that actually ties into their curriculum.
Third graders learning about Amazonian Frogs? Bring in an expert for a special third grade presentation.
Kindergarten and First Grades focusing on Communities and Neighborhoods? There’s a concert for that.
Some of my favorite and most meaningful work in schools is when I get to be with one grade level at a time, using music to excite students in what they’re already learning in ELA, or Social Studies!
Call it arts integration, cross-curricular teaching, differentiated instruction – these are all education buzzwords for a reason, and there’s great power in using the arts to engage students in the core curriculum.
5. Don’t let the performers treat you like you’re a performing arts space
Because you’re not. Plain and simple; you are a school.
The fact that you’re making the time and space available for the presentation of an arts-based program makes you a hero in the eyes of many of us. School performers need to be super flexible in terms of accommodations, space, time constraints, etc, understanding that you are in the business of educating children, not producing live arts events.
6. There might be a better way to group multiple grades
For my own work, I always gently ask that schools try to schedule the sessions so that similar ages are grouped together.
I fully understand that things can’t always work that way, and I will always make the best of the situation whether working with a nice tight grouping of K-2 students or facing a session with Grades K, 1, and 6.
But, those big gaps in age can create a real dilemma for some performers in terms of keeping the younger students interested without alienating the older ones, and vice versa.
Judd Sunshine of performing group The Hill Brothers says “we love performing for different age groups, but if you can split your assembly audiences, i.e. younger grades and older grades, the performers can adjust each show to be age appropriate – it’s more fun for everyone involved.”
But that’s just one side of the coin . . .
John Potocnik from Catskill Puppet Theater feels completely differently for their shows.
He says, “when you mix the ages, the older kids teach the younger ones theater manners by showing them when to stop laughing at a joke or when to applaud at an appropriate place. In turn the young ones teach the older ones how to freely suspend disbelief and to let their imaginations have free reign to enjoy the show. I dare say they are both valuable lessons but I think the young ones are doing the most important job.”
Bottom line – if you have the flexibility to mix grade levels based on what will work best for the performers, ask your presenters what they’d prefer.
7. Don’t seat the preK’s right in the front. Please.
I love having the PreK students attend some of the K-2 or even K-5 programs that I do.
They love the music, they really benefit from the experience of being an audience member, and hey, they’re an easy laugh!
And I know, it’s tempting to seat them right up front because, well, they’re short, and they can’t see anything if they’re stuck behind a second grader.
But if you’re doing a show for the elementary grades, the preK’s will enjoy it just as much if seated off to one side, and everyone else (performers included) will be happier.
Again, Judd Sunshine: “That way the Pre-K’s can get up (as they often do), and this will also avoid their tendency to respond directly to the performer (which they also often do).”
8. Assigned seats are a problem, sometimes
“The spoken message is more effective the closer the members of an audience sit to each other”
So said researchers Gordon L. Thomas and David C. Ralph of the University of Michigan in the introduction to their 1959 report “A study of the effect of audience proximity on persuasion.”
Thomas and Ralph were quoting one of the commonly-held notions from the fields of public speaking, persuasion, and psychology of speech, and although their tests found “there is not sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis,” I’m here to say that it’s true.
Every last bit of it.
So here’s the situation:
Your school has a specific seating plan for individual classes or grade levels, and this is super efficient for getting students into and out of the performance space with minimal confusion.
But if not all grade levels will be attending the performance, this can be a real energy killer, with vast islands of empty space between small groupings of students.
If possible, it makes great sense in this circumstance to abandon the seating plan and give your students (and performers) the best possible experience.
Just like you probably wouldn’t favor teaching a class to students who were seated sparsely with large gaps between each one, it can be difficult for performers to give you their most dynamic program if students are spread out over too much geography with big spaces between.
AND, there are far better seats/vantage points available that nobody is using!
9. The STOP time is as important as the start time
Sometimes, it takes longer than planned to get everyone into the performance space, seated and ready to go. If the performance is starting later than expected, the performers may have to cut their show short.
It’s best to let them know ahead of time if there is a time constraint on the ending of the program. This way, your presenters can adjust their show accordingly.
10. Introducing your own performance is . . . awkward
Sometimes it’s the little things.
Going back to #5, you are not a performing arts presenter by profession, and the importance of a brief introduction to the program may not occur to you.
For many (most?) presentations though, this makes a big difference.
Even just a few short sentences from an authority figure who doesn’t mind speaking in public – principal, teacher, parent, etc – can set the tone for a wonderful event where performers feel welcomed and connected to the school, students understand who the performers are and why they’re there, and everyone can settle in from there.
The performers may have a pre-printed little “blurb” you can follow, or I’ve seen plenty of principals wing this intro without any real knowledge of the performers or the topic!
(Not recommended, but it can work in a pinch.)
So, nothing to stress over, but this is the preferred way to start an event for most performers who are visiting your school for the first or second time.
11. It’s not over when it’s over
Nancy Sterman-Fernandez, Director of Education at Young Audiences of Western NY, has a great tip for extending the value of any assembly program.
“Be sure to take some of the tools the artist uses during the performance to use in your own classroom,” she says.
“Maybe even sing the songs you learned or do the dance steps to connect this shared experience with your classroom curriculum.”
Indeed, most artists that come through your doors would be delighted to offer you advice and resources to help extend the learning and excitement.
12. Performers (and kids!) love it when teachers show up
Of course, that’s “show up” as in being here and being present, as opposed to I’m here but I need to grade papers, or, I’m sending the students with a TA to the assembly because I have too much to do.
Believe me, we completely understand that sometimes there’s just more work to be done than there is time. An assembly can be a much-needed break for the teaching staff.
But, if at all possible, it would be great if you could encourage the teachers to take in the assembly with their students.
Veteran storyteller, author and performer Regi Carpenter suggests using the program “as a time to create something memorable. An assembly can be a fun time for the school community to be together in joy and wonder.”
Teachers participating right along with students sends several strong signals to the kids (and performers), and believe me, it always makes for a better show.
#13. The web is your friend
Sometimes, you’re really starting from scratch.
In that case, a quick little internet search will turn up more resources that might be of help to you.
Putting on your own assembly? You might want to check this one out.
Need to convince administration of the role the arts play in learning? Here’s a great resource from Arts Education Partnership.
I hope you’ll let me know what else you turn up….
#14. Ask me for more
By the time you’re reading this, I will have collected who-knows-how-much-more in the way of suggestions and advice from fellow performers, arts-in-education coordinators, schools, and from my own adventures traveling and performing around the northeastern US and beyond.
I’m happy to share those with you!
If you’ll simply leave me a message in the comments section below, I’ll be glad to send you the latest update to this article.
About The Author
Dave Ruch is a Buffalo NY-based performer and teaching artist and a Public Scholar for the New York Council for the Humanities.
Dave has been extensively involved in the arts-in-education field since 1995, using music to teach core curriculum and inspire young learners through school assemblies, workshops, residencies, and distance learning programs.
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