School assemblies are a time for gathering together, sharing, celebrating and in many cases, reading fantastic books! As a Reading Advocate for a trust of 14 schools, I often get asked to recommend books that would be perfect for sharing in whole school assemblies.
In a recent conversation with Executive Headteacher Rebecca Leek of Cliff Lane Primary School in Ipswich, we came up with the idea of a blog feature all about her recent assemblies and books she would recommend! Her assemblies have been very popular and have sparked conversations and links to science throughout the school.
Rebecca, thank you so much for answering questions about your recent assemblies.
Can you share a few books that you have shared in whole school assemblies recently?
The first book I used at Cliff Lane was by chance really. My sister had bought it for me the previous Christmas and it had been hanging around, waiting for its moment in the limelight! It’s called What a Wonderful Word and it walks you through untranslatable words from other languages – like hiraeth and poronkusema. I absolutely love language, I could eat words for breakfast, and for a word lover this book is a feast. At the same time it shines a light on the ‘same and different’ aspect of humanity which I think is so powerful – it’s spiritual food for thought for all of us. I talked about one word each week, we looked at the country on the map and each word opened up part of the world, a story. It provided an opportunity for reflecting on how we fit into the global community .
We have also used ‘One Well’ (I should give the credit to Mr Gough here really, because he did most of these!) which is all about how we drink from one well and therefore we need to look after the globe’s complete system of water. Holistics is very important to me – that we are part of a big system, we are part of something bigger, and every part matters. It helped us with our aim to be the greenest school in Ipswich and incorporates maths, geography, citizenship, science….
How have you extended these from just being an assembly into a complete learning experience?
The book I am currently using is an absolute beauty and the theme is infiltrating the school. We already have a ‘word of the week’ that is displayed on classroom doors and so we link these words to the theme of the assembly. Each week I put together a ‘word swirl’ whereby the vocabulary becomes more advanced the deeper into the swirl you go. This way, children from Reception to Year 6 get something that they can hang onto. Last week Reception had atom whereas Year 6 had indivisible and nanoscopic. I try to get into all the classrooms, particularly on Fridays, and we have had some great conversations about their word, and about the assembly (at a distance of course). I’ve set the children a challenge to tell me about their favourite element at the school gate, and I photocopy the page for them. We also have a poetry competition running that will culminate in an anthology of Odes to Elements.
I should say that the book is Exploring the Elements by Isabel Thomas and is illustrated by Sara Gillingham. I really recommend it. I now own some indium, we’ve looked at phosphorus on matches, nettle spines and silicon… Adults are talking about it too and we are deliberately going to be wearing neon on a sponsored walk that is coming up in June. The elements are taking over the school!
How can we use books, of all genres, to encourage and engage our students in assemblies?
Let’s give non-fiction books some respect. Hopefully school staff and parents are reading wonderful story books to the children on a daily basis. But I think that if you find a jewel of a non-fiction book for assemblies then you will find that they almost run themselves. The world is a very incredible place and exploring biographies, the planet, other cultures, art history – these are fantastic ways of taking children on a journey of spiritual reflection and discovery, not to mention new knowledge – we are teachers after all. Fiction books also have a place of course. The Wind in the Willows is going to feature heavily in June. But the main message is – give non-fiction a chance.
What impact and reaction have you had from the students?
Especially because of Covid, there is a risk that some of the children don’t actually know who I am. I now record the Monday morning assembly on a Sunday night and then I have the luxury of walking round the school on Monday mornings to interact and connect. The reaction from the latest assemblies has been particularly exciting. The elements are actually pretty magical. Did you know that it is indium (more specifically Indium Tin Oxide) that picks up the electric current from your finger tip on smart screens? This has been quite a conversation starter.
What would you recommend to others planning assemblies?
You must treat your assembly time like gold dust. You have the whole school; what an absolute treat to have that time to teach, influence and share. So my first rule is – treat assemblies as a priority rather than an inconvenience. And I like assemblies to be part of a series. You can create a build up over time and it means the children can latch onto the topic more easily. When you are speaking to such a wide age range, this really helps the youngest children access the content week after week. I also recommend objects if you are recording a virtual assembly. Lighting a match on screen – it can be very simple but it can light up a child’s morning – literally!
How do you choose a text?
I think you have to be a book forager all the time. That way, something will come up when you need it to. I would recommend reading, browsing, being connected with authors and illustrators, other schools, bookshops, children, reading advocates! You don’t know when the book is going to bite but as long as you are open to it coming along, it will arrive at the perfect moment.
Rebecca’s Tip picks: