Bring Students Back to Assemblies

When, at the beginning of the school year, we had our first opportunity to go back to in-person assemblies instead of being on Zoom, the bleachers were packed with people ready to be together in one space again. Yet, as the year wore on and Omicron surged then fell, the assembly crowd began to thin out, although assembly attendance and engagement seem to have been on the upswing recently. In an ideal world, everyone would be completely motivated to come to assemblies, yet as it stands, there are several reasons why students might skip assemblies and related changes that could help solve this issue.

Before diving into some concerns and potential changes for assemblies, I want to express gratitude for the assemblies we have had this year. There has been a wide array of subjects covered and numerous student and guest speakers that I found very interesting. I feel lucky to be at a place that gives everyone access to those quality perspectives. That’s why I agree with the importance of assembly attendance, so that nobody misses out on the information provided there.

According to Mr. Bonar, the administration noticed falling assembly attendance after advisories were moved back into the gym at the end of the Omicron surge. Besides the all-school email, their response to the issue included an email to advisors as well as a talk to the 12th grade encouraging them to attend assemblies. Another action they have discussed is requiring students to sit with their advisors so that they can take attendance of who shows up, but they “really don’t want it to come to that.”

The direction the administration has taken in their response points towards reinforcing attendance expectations and, if attendance does not go up, taking more punitive actions against students who do not attend. However, a broader-picture approach seems warranted here. It’s worth examining why students skip assemblies, not just pointing out that they do. If assemblies are truly the space for community-building and collective learning, then it’s worth making sure students are comfortable and engaged. It shouldn’t just matter that students are there, but that they’re fully present and learning.

If assemblies are truly the space for community-building and collective learning, then it’s worth making sure students are comfortable and engaged.

Common reasons that students cite for skipping assemblies are needing to do schoolwork and taking naps. While workload and tiredness themselves aren’t easy problems to fix, the response to these reasons is making assemblies feel more consequential and important. In the Tatler Poll, some students wrote that recent assemblies were “boring,” and felt “dragged out.” In my opinion, this mainly isn’t a fault of the topics themselves—topics covered this year from antiracism to homelessness are hugely relevant—but rather their presentation. Instead of a long, uninterrupted lecture, some interactive elements or at least more engaging slides alongside presentations would go a long way to making these subjects feel more interesting. Further, assemblies happen on a very regular schedule, and students rarely have much information about an assembly’s topic before it begins. Some students have expressed that a varied assembly schedule would make them feel less monotonous. That, combined with better advertising for upcoming guest speakers or special assemblies, would make students more excited to attend and thus less likely to skip. When all you know is that every Wednesday, you go to the gym for an hour to do something, it’s easy to feel unmotivated to attend, even if it is worthwhile once you get there.

I’ve also heard several student suggestions about the location of assemblies that could help make them more comfortable and more varied. The recent arts assemblies are a prime example of this. They feel unique from other assemblies because they happen on a different day of the week and because students watch them either in advisories over Zoom or in person in St. Nick’s. Students frequently complain about the discomfort of sitting on hard chairs or bleachers in the gym for extended periods of time. While it’s important to occasionally have the whole community together in one space, moving some assemblies to St. Nick’s/Zoom would again make them more appealing by changing the association between assemblies and discomfort.

Finally, it can simply be difficult to be fully engaged with a single topic for nearly an hour. Following the recent assembly with GLOW and GSL, many students commented that the topic change in the middle of the assembly felt refreshing and that they stayed interested in both presentations. While an obvious downside of this format is that neither group had the entire period to present, it could work well for various less substantial assembly topics. It’s worth keeping in mind that not every subject needs to take up an entire assembly period. I also heard several students say that they appreciated how that assembly related directly to the Lakeside community after a long stretch of guest speakers who spoke about loosely related academic subjects. A core principle of assemblies is community building, after all, so, these community-centric assemblies should not be so few and far between.

I appreciate the work that goes into assembly planning and the wealth of information that has been shared at assemblies this year. I also don’t think the administration should stop their messaging about the expectation of assembly attendance. But, in addition, they should consider the reasons that students may skip them and work proactively, while listening to student voices, to address those reasons at their root. If students come to assemblies only because they have to and not because they want to, assemblies will never be as great as they could be.