What Ever Happened to Assembly Speakers?

The full high school assembles in the Forum on March 7 for the first time since 2020. Photo by Kaiden J. Yu.

Before the pandemic, assembly speakers were a regular feature of school life. They would arrive on Davenport Street on ordinary Friday mornings to talk in front of a packed Forum before facing sometimes-protracted questions from students up until, and often for minutes after, the bell heralded a return to classes.

This school year, however, even as GDS has fallen almost fully into its prepandemic rhythms, assemblies with guest speakers feel like a rarity. Putting aside assemblies without visitors, the high school is on track to have six free Friday community times by the end of the school year, to students’ short-term relief but long-term detriment.

With changing COVID precautions, it is understandable that the school did not snap back into the swing of frequent speakers, and that it has yet to hear from one since the rebirth of all-school gatherings in the Forum last month. But administrators should now make an effort to fill the spring calendar—or the fall’s, if the spring’s is set—with guests ready to inform, move and challenge students.

This year, the high school held its traditional assemblies—First Friday, disassembly and the like, plus those commemorating Christmas, Passover and other holidays. Excluding that category, the high school will have had 17 assemblies by the end of the school year, down from 20 in the last full prepandemic school year, according to Quinn Killy, the assistant principal for school life.

When outside speakers have come on campus to talk to the whole high school this academic year, it has most often been for a special occasion—New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor for the Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture in November, or the Social Justice Teach-In Day’s main speakers, preservationist Gabrielle Etienne Woodard-Carter and TV chef Pati Jinich, in February.

There is no reason to limit guest appearances to annual events, since GDS is fortunate to be able to regularly bring in compelling visitors. Hosting guest speakers only enriches the school’s intellectual life. They can introduce unfamiliar ideas to the community, spark conversations about topics beyond students’ immediate lives—even inspire us to take up new interests or aspirations.

Take Ellen Patterson, the only in-person guest speaker this school year besides the three mentioned above. She spoke at an assembly in November about EVERFI, the social entrepreneurship company where she is an executive. Patterson’s talk provoked debate among students about the notion of profit-driven enterprises for social change.

Assemblies are among the only times, and certainly the most consistent times, when the entire high school can learn together and leave with, at a minimum, something in common to discuss. They help underpin the very idea that the over 600 students and teachers who are meant to attend them constitute a single educational community.

And assemblies, like every other aspect of school life, have undergone a dizzying rollercoaster of adaptations since the pandemic began.

Through months of remote or hybrid classes, high school administrators arranged a steady stream of virtual talks by outside speakers, including several focused on social justice and anti-racism in the wake of 2020’s tragedies and protests.

Assemblies this year have taken a variety of forms, with some projected via Zoom to either advisories or two grades seated in the library, even though the basic format of school has remained unchanged. 

Now that COVID precautions are almost completely relaxed, administrators can make in-person assemblies featuring outside speakers a near-weekly custom.

While they’re at it, organizers (often Killy or members of the office of diversity, equity and inclusion) should help make assemblies intellectually exciting—genuine exchanges of ideas, not anodyne orgies of smile-and-nod agreement.

That begins with inviting speakers who will challenge the predominant views at GDS or address topics less often discussed here. What about hosting someone to present a conservative stance on a cultural and political question like abortion? or to tackle the Israel–Palestine conflict? or to take on legacy college admissions?

The high school uses a different schedule now than it did before the pandemic, one that leaves greater flexibility to repurpose the 10-to-10:40 a.m. slot allotted variously to Monday meetings, community time, advisory and assemblies. 

Some students may prefer 40 unscheduled minutes when 10 a.m. on a Friday rolls around. But the erratic scheduling renders the time useless for recurrent club meetings, and with only three periods left before the weekend, most students are not at the peak of their week’s work. 

We hope that, with a routine of guest speakers, students and teachers will walk out of first or second period classes on Fridays wondering not whether there is an assembly at all, but who is waiting at the base of the Forum to talk.

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