A Primer For PTO and PTA Representatives on Painlessly Scheduling School Assembly Programs

If you are charged with arranging assembly programs, enrichment programs, cultural arts (or whatever your school likes to call them) for your school, and you are new or just looking for a new idea or two, it can be a daunting task. Assembly programs play an important role in our educational system but you do not want to take students out of class without a very worthwhile reason.I scheduled programs for my school for many years, and I had a great time seeing how those shows touched the imaginations of the students and inspired them to learn. If you have the same responsibility I think you will find it very rewarding! However, in the beginning it can be an intimidating prospect.Thankfully, there are many types of programs and many different presenters available! In fact, part of the problem is the great variety available. How do you choose?Today schools are under great pressure to make sure students score well on standardized testing. Though it is fun to bring in a purely entertaining program like a clown or a juggler, it is far more beneficial to the growth of your kids to bring in something which is also educational and which will augment and contribute to the educational process. Thankfully, today it does not have to be a choice between education and entertainment. You can have both! There are now a large variety of very entertaining programs available which are designed to support one or more areas of core educational content.Here are a few ideas for types of educational school assemblies:- Science Assembly Programs (Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy etc.)
- Natural Science/ Live Animal Assembly Programs
- History Assembly Programs (Lincoln, Washington, Ben Franklin etc.)
- Writing Programs and/or visits from Authors
- “Character Counts” Assembly Programs
- Anti-Bullying Assembly Programs
- Self-Esteem and Motivational Assembly Programs
- Fine Arts / Ballet, Music, Opera
- Children’s TheatreThere are others of course but these are the assembly types most commonly found.Before you begin you will want to know what the school has had in the past, and how it was received. Ask if there is a record of individuals and companies that the school has worked with before. Though it is tempting to bring back a popular program every year, it is usually a mistake. Familiarity breeds contempt! If a well-liked presenter has another program to offer, try that, but it is advisable to avoid having the students watch the same program twice. If you really do want to bring back something popular I would advise waiting at least three years in between. Working with a company that offers many different programs is one way to ensure quality while allowing for variety. Large companies will also keep a record of what your school has seen before and so aid in insuring that you do not inadvertently reschedule a program too soon.Next, you will want to gather input from the staff and principal. See if you can find out from them which academic areas could use a little boost. Ask if parents and staff have heard good reports about programs or presenters that have visited other schools in your area.Armed with this information you can begin to investigate what is available to you. If you live in a large urban area there are most likely many options open to you. However, if you are located in a more rural area you will be more limited in what is available. Some large companies have presenters that travel to all locations, but individual performers are often limited to working in areas close to their homes. If they do travel farther afield they will usually charge a hefty fee for travel costs and lodging. Always check to see what “additional” fees are involved before scheduling anything.Somewhere, in the school office, or in the hands of a teacher or past PTO parent, there may be an “assembly folder”, stuffed with brochures and flyers all mailed to the school over the last few years. If there is no folder then you will want to turn to the Internet. But beware! The Internet has radically changed the task of locating assembly providers. In the past it was easy to tell the reputable companies and individuals from the fly-by-nights simply by the quality and presentation of their brochure. But the Internet allows anyone at all to make themselves look as solid, professional and reliable as the very best, established presenters. Seek out referrals from schools in your area.If you are looking for science, there is a lot from which to choose, ranging from Science Museums and University outreach programs, to magicians and other entertainers who offer science oriented programs. This is an important distinction. Assuming that you are looking for real educational content that is entertaining, you will want to be on the look out for what we call “Magic Shows in Drag”, and avoid them. Many entertainers, whether they be magicians, ventriloquists, jugglers or puppeteers look for ways to market themselves to schools by claiming their programs contain educational content. Sometimes this is true but the “educational content” is often nothing more than a few code words thinly veneered over what is essentially only a pure entertainment “act”. While often delightfully fun, these programs usually offer little in true curriculum-oriented value, and I recommend avoiding them. While I suppose it is theoretically possible for a juggler to use his skill to teach chemistry, the odds are that the program will really be about juggling. Look for individuals or companies where the program content is designed from the ground up specifically around the subject matter and where the entertainment factor is a byproduct added later rather than the opposite. If the advertising material features a lot of glitter and stars, or a ventriloquist’s dummy then you may want to look elsewhere for your science program.Historical topics constitute a big percentage of school assembly programs. You may find performers able to offer programs on almost any historical character, from Julius Caesar to Teddy Roosevelt. Sometimes a single assembly may deal with several different characters. Examples would be a shows that deal with former First ladies, or famous women in history. Sometimes they deal with the history of a particular region or era or both. In Michigan I often worked with a fellow who did a show specifically for 4th graders about Michigan history and in particular about the lumber industry. The 4th grade teachers requested it every year because it so well supported their curriculum goals. (In almost every state it seems the 4th grade studies the history of their own state). In Ohio they like Thomas Edison because his story fits their core values so well. Programs dealing with specific cultures such as African American, or Native American history are very popular. But, generally speaking, the most popular characters to impersonate tend to be Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Martin Luther King and Harriett Tubman (this may vary in your part of the country) and all are popular with schools.Obviously, not all actors are created equally. In historical programs this becomes really important. How the material is presented varies greatly. Some actors simply walk in, in character, and begin to speak. In this case, the realistic appearance and the knowledge of the presenter in regard to the character he/she is presenting is very important, but still, it is second in consideration to how well the actor can handle the audience and keep their interest. Some are simply magnificent. Others are not. The talk-only approach is always a gamble and can fail miserably in the hands of a less than wonderful actor. However, when the actor is good, and the storytelling skills are well honed, this approach can be spellbinding! I have seen teachers simply amazed that their students could sit in awestruck, enraptured silence while an actor in costume simply employs the skill of an old-time storyteller. You do not have to have a lot of whiz-bang props to entertain the children of today, despite what many people believe!Some historical presentations rely on additional props and visual aids to boost the shows success. Others use music. In fact some historical programs are almost all in music! I have even heard of some history shows where the performer used ventriloquism. Whatever style is used, even an average quality historical program can really help to bring history alive for the kids and pique their imaginations making them want to learn more.Writing programs are tricky to get across in the assembly format. I have only seen two types that I thought worked. First, you can schedule a visit from an author of books for children. There is thin ice here. Often parents can become “groupies” towards famous authors and schedule a visit just to see them in person and secure a signed copy a their book. If the writer also happens to be very skilled at engaging an audience in person then you are fine. But writing is often a skill practiced in solitude and writers are often not engaging in person. Moreover, they are often expensive (sometimes outrageously expensive!). For my school I found it more beneficial to bring in a classical mime! He worked with the students while they wrote stories and then performed the stories for them the same day. This was extremely effective in promoting an interest in writing, and the excitement lasted for weeks following the program.There is always a demand for school programs supporting character development, self-esteem and, especially anti-bullying. These programs range wildly from extremely effective to totally ineffectual. Because the material is a “message” rather than a presentation of scientific or historical facts, these programs may use any of a number of entertainment techniques to channel the attention of children, from rope twirling to BMX bikes. As with the “Magic Shows in Drag” discussed earlier, it pays to read between the lines in the promotional material, and always try for trusted referrals or references.Lastly, we have the Fine Arts. Classical Music, Opera, Ballet and true Children’s Theatre can all be brought into schools. In a time when funding for the Arts is being reduced in schools, there is a lot of demand for other ways to interest children in these art forms. Not all schools have access to professional orchestras or Ballet companies, but in areas where access is available these companies often offer outreach programs that can be very good. Children’s Theatre Companies are well loved by kids, and they do tour. They are usually available in most areas, albeit at a price. Remember that theatre most always involves more than one performer. Generally speaking, the more performers in a group the higher your cost will be!Speaking of costs, school assemblies vary widely in price. Some are jaw-dropping expensive. Some are surprisingly reasonable. Some are even… gasp!… FREE!Hospitals sometimes provide programs on, say, Bike Safety, or maybe Healthy Nutrition. It does not hurt to check around your area. Local police may have a Dare program or may be willing to arrange a session around their canine unit. Local retired experts in various fields can sometimes be drafted. In some places NASA offers an outreach program. And Ronald McDonald has three free programs that are quite good I am told. So check around and you may be surprised what you find.Paid assembly programs range from inexpensive to very expensive. Usually, there is a set fee for one presentation and additional fees added on if you need more presentations or Hands On Workshops. As I mentioned before, performers often charge for travel and accommodation so be sure to check that out to be sure what your final cost will be. A basic range for a 45 minute program (depending what part of the country you live in) may start as low as $200 and can range up to as much as $3500!If you are adept at Grant Writing, you may want to check around online and see what is available. And do not forget to ask presenters and companies about discounts. Many performers will give you a break on price for scheduling several programs with them or for coordinating more than one school together so that the presenter can do two schools the same day or a block of schools together in the same week. Also, presenters really do not like to have days when they do not work. If you do not mind working quickly at the last minute and can be flexible with your schedule you can often find a “deal” on a date that is right around the corner and save hundreds of dollars! It never hurts to ask. To save face, and the embarrassment of admitting they are not sold out, some companies will claim to have “grant” money available. Though possibly true, more than likely they just have open dates about to go to waste and are willing to drop their price to fill the date, but are trying to make it sound better. The downside to last minute bargain hunting is that, like with any kind of bargain hunting, you will not have much control over what you get. The best course is to always try to pick your programs far enough in advance that you can get both the program and the date that you want!There is something out there for every budget. I have had some great programs that were very inexpensive, and others that were far more costly than they were worth, but generally you get what you pay for!You may also wish to try and find out how often a performer actually performs. The best shows and performers work a lot, often five days a week throughout the school year. This allows them the experience to continually hone and improve what they do. But some presenters may only work occasionally, and, with inactivity, they can become “rusty”. Busy performers are usually that way for a reason!Lastly, be prepared for a lot of back and forth in scheduling. Many individual presenters schedule themselves. Obviously, if they are performing in a school when you call then you will need to leave a message and begin a game of phone tag. Larger companies, representing multiple programs, usually have a staffed office available during business hours to answer your questions and arrange your dates. Even then, you may still need to engage in some back and forth, but you will, at least, not be totally at the mercy of a performer’s schedule.And most important, try to pick things you think you will like yourself. If you are going to do this job, you may as well have as much fun as the kids!

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