by Jenny Heitler-Klevans of Two of a Kind
These days, I frequently hear that schools are concerned that scheduling a music assembly will take away from teaching time and test preparation. After providing school assemblies with my husband for the past 25 years, I am convinced that it is important to have arts assemblies in schools. Rather than taking away from teaching time, good quality assemblies play an important role in student learning. Students may also gain an appreciation for the arts that they can continue to enjoy throughout their lives. Here are some reasons to have arts assemblies:
* Arts assemblies introduce students to new experiences in music, theater or dance, thus expanding their horizons. Students may never have heard folk music, seen African dance or watched a theatre piece about an historical event. In low-income rural or urban areas, where schools are often the main source of arts and cultural experiences in the community, this may be one of the few opportunities that students get to see live performances.
* The arts help students make connections between various things they are learning. When my husband and I present an assembly, I can see the students making those connections, observe their minds working and the lights coming on. Because music reaches people differently than speaking or reading, it can often enable listeners to think about things in a new way. Music can also help students learn and reinforce concepts. Kids will sing catchy songs long after the performance is over, thus the concepts will have “staying power.” In addition to the songs themselves, we also make connections through the ways in which we frame or pair the songs. For example, we sing a song by Sally Rogers called “What Can One Little Person Do?” which features famous African-Americans in history. Then we may follow up with a song about the book “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni. We compare the little fish named Swimmy, who organized a group of little fish to stand up to the big fish, to the organizing work done by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the civil rights movement. “I love when you were singing about peace and Martin Luther King, Jr.” – student at Moffet School (Philadelphia, PA)
* Students can be introduced to different cultures through the arts and gain a better understanding of diverse peoples. We’ve done diversity programs at all kinds of schools, but sometimes it can be been particularly effective at schools that are not so visibly diverse. We’ve been to all-white, all-black, and even an all-Yemeni school. It’s important for the students to hear about similarities and differences between people of varying backgrounds. One song we sing entitled Jennifer Montgomery about a girl who communicates in sign language and teaches it to other kids, includes the line “Learning someone’s language, helps you see things their way.” We all need to live and work together, and the arts are an excellent way to bridge the gap.
*Assemblies can underscore or teach positive social behavior. Proper audience behavior is an important skill to learn, and arts assemblies are a fun way to learn good behavior, because the motivation is built into the activity.
* Assemblies create community. Having full-school assemblies can make a difference in the overall school community. Singing together is a unique experience that can bring joy and build a sense of cohesiveness. When all the students are engaged in movement and song, it is an amazing sight to behold. We’ve been at some schools where they created a common repertoire of songs that all the students can sing together, and this has a positive effect on the sense of unity and community in the school as a whole.
* Arts assemblies are a fun break from the regular routine. While it’s important to have routine in school, it’s also valuable to vary the schedule occasionally. Students and teachers are likely to be more productive if they sometimes get an enjoyable break from the usual schedule. “You are the best singers. The best thing I liked was jumping when you were singing the songs. When are you coming back?” – student, Ellwood School
Since I have a vested interest in arts assemblies, this may seem like a self-serving article. However, visiting hundreds of schools has reinforced my strong belief about the importance of arts assemblies. With limited budgets and limited time for extra activities, it’s important for schools to choose high-quality assemblies. A poor quality assembly makes administrators and teachers feel like they have wasted both time and money, but a well-designed and performed program is a priceless experience. There are many wonderful performers out there, and a few not-so-good ones. My suggestion to assembly coordinators is to do your research and don’t necessarily pick the program with the lowest price. It’s true, you often “get what you pay for.” Find out where else the potential assembly performers have been booked, check their reviews and talk to them personally about what you’re looking for and what they can provide.
For schools on a limited budget, there are often grants and other ways to raise funds. Many states have an Arts Council, Young Audiences, folk music societies, and local foundations. Sometimes parents or a local business are willing to contribute to arts programming. Where there is a will, there is a way!