“Own your masters:” A look into Middle Division assemblies

Ayesha Sen, Staff Writer

The Middle Division’s (MD) assembly programming is a testament to the power of assemblies, MD history teacher Emma McFarland said. “[The messages] can stick with you for years,” she said. “Lessons are taught in assemblies — not just classrooms.”

The planning process for assemblies begins as early as the summer, when Head of MD Javaid Khan tries to find a theme for that school year’s assemblies, he said. “Each of the themes all relate back to one idea, though, which is some way of getting people to share their stories, ” Khan said. Khan has been incorporating themes into assemblies as early as 2010, even at the school he previously used to work at. “I really think that that uniting factor can make assembly programming so much more effective.”

This year’s assembly theme is “own your masters,” Khan said. “I got the idea for this theme when someone sent me an article about a hip hop Ph.D., so this guy got his Ph.D. and wrote his dissertation entirely in verse, with each chapter being a song on an album,” Khan said. “[The artist] talked about the significance of owning your masters, that owning the original recording means that you own the rights to tell your own story.”

While assembly speakers are often decided upon ahead of time, Khan remains in contact with them leading up to their visit, updating them on the year’s theme, for example. “I knew that George Takei was coming to speak, so when I decided on the ‘owning your masters’ theme, I reached out to him and said, ‘George, I really want to focus on how you own your own story,’” Khan said. “George ended up loving the idea, and this is usually what happens — most of our speakers are really excited to play into a larger theme. ”

One constant through each of the assemblies is the presence of a Q&A section, which typically takes place at the end of the assembly, Khan said. “This is kind of nonnegotiable because that’s the way we get our audiences really into the assemblies,” Khan said. “I usually give the speaker some advice that our students sit by grade level and questions tend to get more abstract as they go from sixth grade to eighth grade, so I tell them to move around, try to ask questions from all over the place.”

Khan tries to be flexible with speakers about the specific structure of the assemblies, he said. “I’m basically comfortable with anything, so it really comes down to what the speaker wants, which I know is always subject to change,” Khan said. “Sometimes as late as the morning of, a speaker will come to me and say ‘can you interview me instead,’ and I say ‘of course, that’s fine,’” he said. “It’s just really amazing to see it all come together by the end.”

Albert Lee (7) found the assembly about Holocaust survivor Tony Levy’s experience through the Holocaust in Eastern Europe spoke at last Thursday to be particularly moving, he said.

While Lee initially expected to be overcome by grief at the assembly, he appreciated how Levy emphasized other aspects of the tragedy as well, such as the persistence of victims during the Holocaust, he said. “Before the assembly, I was expecting to hear a firsthand account of the Holocaust, and this did happen, but the main theme that stood out to me aside from the sadness were the bravery of the family who was sheltering Toby Levy even though the circumstances were dire.”

Lee believes that in addition to teaching the student body about the tragedy of the Holocaust, the assembly helped him learn about more general life skills, he said. “One thing I found interesting was Toby Levy’s dad’s preparedness for any situation that may come their way,” he said. “ A takeaway from this assembly was that never giving up hope is the key to overcoming challenges.”

The Levy assembly in particular resonated with McFarland because she was able to connect to it on a deeper level, she said. Specifically, Levy’s visit reminded McFarland of when Holocaust survivor Aranka Siegal visited her middle school, she said. “We read her book, Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939-1944, in English class,” McFarland said. “Even though that assembly took place over a decade ago, I still remember the lessons that were imparted that day.” 

MD math teacher Susan Fanelli’s favorite assembly thus far has been when Takei came to the school, she said. Takei was an actor who starred in the original Star Trek episodes and then later in the Star Trek movies. Fanelli watched every episode of the original Star Trek when she was a child, so Takei’s visit was especially inspiring for her.

During the assembly, Takei spoke about his time in the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War. Following the experience, Takei took control of the narrative and wrote a novel about his personal memory of the camps, Fanelli said. “I was so impressed with Mr. Takei’s kindness and his view of family, social issues, and justice,” she said. “Meeting him was a most memorable experience.”

MD World Languages teacher John Griffin believes that it is beneficial to think about the two assemblies — Takei’s and Levy’s visits — in combination, he said. “As much as we as a society like to pretend that we have evolved past these types of acts, their stories continue to resonate for a reason,” Griffin said. “We must actively work to ensure that the memories of these experiences are never forgotten so that we remember to ensure that these acts are never repeated.”

In addition to more serious matters, the MD assemblies also incorporate bonding activities such as “This or That,” which students enjoy, sixth-grade dean Michelle Amilicia said. As a part of the game, Head of the MD Javaid Khan poses two choices each day for a week — such as S Skittles versus M&M’s, for example. Then, students vote outside his office throughout the week and Khan reads the final results at the division-wide assembly. “It is great to see how excited the sixth graders are when the winning choice is revealed,” Amilicia said.

Similarly, Emma Filstein (7) enjoyed the MD’s game show assembly in which three students from each grade competed to create a storyline guiding a teacher through their first day of school, she said. “When we play these games as a whole Middle Division, I think that it’s very fun,” Filstein said.

McFarland appreciates how Khan begins many assemblies with music, as it is always an encouraging start, she said. “We always have the opportunity to request songs which is an awesome platform for students and faculty to share,” she said.

In Griffin’s experience, assemblies vary greatly based on the specific topic that it is covering, he said. For instance, a theatrical performance is received differently than an assembly in which faculty, staff and students are engaged in some sort of competition, Griffin said. Generally speaking, competition-based assemblies are seen by everyone as fun opportunities to show off everyone’s hidden talents, whereas theatrical performances are a time to appreciate an entertaining show, he said.

Khan especially enjoys student-led assemblies because he gets to learn about what his students are passionate about, he said. “I love when students lead sports assemblies and just talk naturally about their sports or other things,” Khan said. “Honestly, the ones I tend to forget are the ones that I lead because for student assemblies, I can really sit back and admire.”

While Griffin believes that students and faculty all appreciate the school’s assemblies, the two groups may differ in the ways that they experience specific assemblies, he said. “Students, for the most part, engage in discovery during assemblies, while faculty and staff generally engage in rediscovery,” Griffin said. “Faculty and staff may have heard about a particular topic before, but we experience it in a new way with a new audience.”

Fanelli believes that there are many factors that contribute to an effective assembly, she said. These factors range from the speaker’s points to the general emotions conveyed through the programming. “I look for interesting and relevant speakers who are able to hold the attention of all of the participants in the assembly, and for people who represent a positive feeling and outlook.”

In the future, Filstein wishes to see more assemblies that engage the audience more, like the game show assemblies did, she said. “I hope to see more interactive [assemblies] because a lot of them are just listening to a person speak for 45 minutes, and I hear from my friends that they’re boring, so interactive activities can help that,” Filstein said.

While the specifics of each of the MD’s future assemblies have not yet been decided upon, Khan is excited by the current plans for the future, he said. “We have some great assemblies coming up like an Indian dance troupe that’s coming in to perform, a storytelling nonprofit, and of course less formal assemblies that I run myself.”

Although Khan does his best to make assemblies as impactful as possible, he understands that each individual has their own interests, he said. “I often share with students my idea of the snowflake theory, which is that, like snowflakes hitting a car, some of [the assemblies] are gonna stick, some of them are just gonna melt away, and that’s totally fine,” Khan said. “At the end of the day, if at least some of these assemblies spoke to you, then I know that I have done my job.”