Resource: three primary assemblies (Ages 5-11)
The first two of these humanist assemblies involve some interaction with the children. When I gave them I did get the answers I expected and needed to the questions I asked! They could be adapted for different age ranges and teachers could insert their own anecdotes. A humanist assembly could also use a relevant non-religious song from some of the excellent resources available, and would typically end with a reflection, during which children who wanted to could pray. These assemblies were published in RE Today’s Time for Reflection in 2003.
Theme: New Beginnings (for the start of the infant school year)
You’re lucky in schools because you have lots of new beginnings – we all have New Year, birthdays, the start of a new week every Monday, sometimes we begin a new job – but you have new school years as well, and new terms three times a year, and every now and then you begin a new school. Who’s new here? Every time you have a new beginning, you have an opportunity for a fresh start, to be a little more grown up, to learn new things, and, the theme of my assembly today, to make new friends.Humanists like me believe that friendship is one of the most important things in life – we think human beings have to look after each other, because there’s no-one else to look after us. We have to be nice to each other. And I’m going to try to show you one reason why today. First, I want to you shut your eyes and imagine – imagine the children around you frowning, saying horrible things, or ignoring you. Now I’m going to ask you some questions (put up your hand when you think you have an answer): How would you feel? How do you think other people would feel? Now, I’m going to ask you to do something nicer (listen first and think):Turn to the children around you – behind you and in front of you as well as next to you – and smile at them and say “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Have a nice day” or something else nice to them. Only nice things are allowed. You can say you like their hair, or their eyes are a nice colour, or their shoes are nice and shiny! When I clap my hands you can start, and when I clap my hands again I want you to stop and listen. Now do it. Now I’m going to ask you some questions (again, put up your hand when you think you have an answer): How did you feel? How do you think the people around you felt? Inside, we’re all very alike. We all feel better and happier when people are nice to us, and it is actually nicer and easier to be good and kind than it is to be horrible and unkind, because then we’re all happier. We need people to be good to us, and so we have to be good to them. You don’t really need your teachers to keep telling you that, you don’t need policemen or prime ministers or holy books to teach you that – because you are intelligent human beings and you can work it our for yourself. That’s what humanists like me think. A very famous humanist thinker and writer who lived over 100 years ago, George Eliot, (who was a woman who adopted a man’s name to get her books published) once said: “Wear a smile and have friends; wear a scowl and have wrinkles. What do we live for if not to make the world less difficult for each other?” You probably worry less about wrinkles than people my age, but everyone needs friends. Today I reminded you about what you need to do to have friends : smile, say kind things, be kind, be friendly. Now I’d like you to bow your head, shut your eyes if it helps, and reflect: that means think about what you’ve heard, think about what you can do, think about making a new beginning by adding some new friends to your life.
Theme: New Beginnings (for a junior school assembly)
Everyone wonders sometimes how they began, when they were born, where, what they were like as babies. And human beings, who are very curious creatures, have also wondered how human beings began, and what existed before human beings and how the earth and the universe began. Because we are also very clever creatures, we’ve done a lot to find out how it all began. And because we’re also very imaginative creatures, and we all enjoy a good story, we’ve also come up with lots of good stories about how the world began, about how the elephant got his long nose, about how the camel got his hump and why the earth is the way it is. But humanists like me think that thinking and finding out how it really began is just as exciting as any story. It’s exciting because it’s a wonderful process and because it’s mysterious – even after more than a hundred years of thinking about it, there are still gaps in our knowledge and unanswered questions – its like a detective story – and scientists are still trying to fill the gaps and answer some of the questions. We can think about some big questions today, for which we do have answers: Why is our knowledge so incomplete? Mainly because it all happened so very long ago – a big bang or explosion probably made the Universe billions and billions of years ago, and the earth began about 4 ½ billion years ago. There was no life on earth then, and certainly no human beings to see what was happening or write it down for us. And for a long, long time there were no human beings. [If you have a projector you can show an illustration – e g 24 hour clock that demonstrate the age of the Universe and the short time human beings have been around.] We arrived very late on the scene and when we first arrived we didn’t read or write or make films or videos to show what life was like then. So how do we know? Well, we know some things from the fossil record. Living things, even tiny ones, left their prints, their shadows, bits and pieces of themselves like bones or teeth, in rocks – or gradually turned into rock like these [show fossils]. Scientist have put them together and worked out what the plants and animals must have looked like – so you can see pictures of them in books like this [show book about dinosaurs etc] or models of them in museums and in films like Jurassic Park . Who’s seen that film or been to a museum and seen skeletons or models of dinosaurs? Why did things on earth change so much – why isn’t it just the same today as it was millions of years ago? Why don’t we still have dinosaurs? Because conditions change. When the first living things appeared there was no land, just a sort of muddy soupy water, so everything started in water and everything had to be able to live in the sea. A good time to be a jellyfish, but not to be a cat or a dog or a dinosaur or a person! Later there was some land, and some plants managed to live on it and fishy creatures crawled out of the sea and made their homes on land. Other changes happened because sometimes or in some places it was very hot and dry, at other times and places it was wet or cold. And very slowly living things evolved that could live in most of these conditions – so that now we have cactuses and camels that can live with very little water, we have polar bears that can live comfortably in ice and snow, we have monkeys that can live in trees and eat fruit, we have animals that live on grass, and animals that eat other animals, and so on – a huge variety, including us human beings, who are very special because we have very big brains and language so we can learn and pass on what we learn to each other. And how do living things change? Very briefly, they change because all new plants and animals are very slightly different from their parents. You are probably a bit like your parents and a bit different. Imagine a group of animals a bit like lions living in some grassland millions of years ago, living by catching and eating smaller animals – they all have some cubs and some of them can run a bit faster than the others, some of them have bigger teeth, some of them are a bit feeble – which ones are likely to grow into adult animals and eventually have cubs of their own? And those cubs will be a bit like their parents and if they’re lucky, they will inherit the big teeth, the speedy legs, and so gradually, these animals turn or evolve into the lions we know today – each generation a little more efficient, a little stronger, better hunters with bigger teeth. And this process, called natural selection, goes on all the time, in all species. Plants and animals don’t have to be bigger or stronger or faster or cleverer, they just have to be able to survive well in the circumstances they find themselves in – tiny plants and mushrooms and germs do very well too, as long as they can adapt when they need to. We human beings have been very good at adapting, because we’ve used our brains. We’re not as big or strong as many animals but we’re very good at inventing ways of making up for our weaknesses – tools and weapons, clothes, shelters. What can we do that other animals can’t? Human beings’ beginnings were very simple and humble and not very comfortable. We’ve not been on this earth a long time compared to other species, but we’ve come a long way. So the history of our beginnings this earth is a fascinating one. And we can learn lots from it – that change can be a good and useful thing, that we can find out amazing things from tiny bits of rock like these, and that human beings are probably the cleverest animals that have ever lived on this earth. We can use our cleverness to make the world a better happier place, or we can use it to make the world a horrible place for everyone and everything, including ourselves. Humanists like me believe that we should use our brains to solve the problems of this world, to help each other, and to be kind to each other, because there is no one else to do these things. Here we are on Earth, and we need to make the best of it. I’d like you now to reflect on what you’ve learnt today. You can bow your heads and close your eyes if it helps, but I’d like to think quietly, particularly about our cleverness and how to use it well.
Theme: Choices (for International Teachers’ Day, October 5th)
An eight year old that I know was having the story of Charlotte’s Web read to him as a bed-time story. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s the story of a spider and a pig, both very clever. There’s a bit in it where Wilbur, the pig, is horrified when Charlotte , the spider, catches a fly, wraps it up in her web and sucks all its juices out. But Charlotte explains that this is what spiders do, and that if they weren’t around to do it, flies would take over the world. At this point he interrupted. “That’s rubbish,” he said, “flies couldn’t take over the world – they don’t have teachers.” As an ex-teacher, I found this very flattering, because he had expressed how important teaching and teachers are in the long history of human beings and our domination over the world. Because we do dominate, and it’s because we are clever and we know a lot – and human knowledge has grown because every generation of teachers and parents passes on what it knows to its children, and then they add to it. That is how we have come to take over the world. And with that come a lot of choices. We don’t necessarily choose to be very very clever, or even what to be clever at. But we can choose to listen or not to listen – to our teachers and parents and other people who know more than us. We can choose to learn or not to learn, and sometimes that means learning from our own mistakes or those of others. And we can choose how we use the power that comes with all this knowledge that is passed on from parent to child and teacher to child. We can choose to do good things with our knowledge, or bad things. To finish, another piece about learning and choices from a children’s book, Philip Pullman ’s The Amber Spyglass (the last book of a very great trilogy that many would enjoy). At the end, the central characters Lara and Willhave to make a very difficult choice, and go back to their worlds to help people learn and stay aware by: “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.” And some of the wisdom that has to be passed on is about making wise choices: Lara and Will are to help everyone else in their worlds to “learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works…” and they are to show the people in their worlds “how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all to keep their minds open and free and curious…” We can all make these choices every day, and help other people to learn how to choose wisely.