By Rabbi Yael Buechler
At this time of Covid-19 there are several virtual firsts for schools; the first Zoom faculty meeting, the first Zoom class, the first Zoom tefilah, and the first Zoom parent check-in. In an attempt to bring a greater sense of normalcy to students’ virtual routines, right before Pesach, The Leffell School in Westchester, where I am the Lower School Rabbi, orchestrated its first-ever virtual grade-wide assembly.
Every grade in the Lower School has its own assembly, from the Siddur Assembly to the Chumash Assembly. Each year leading up to Pesach, the Second Grade has a Passover Assembly, which is a Hebrew Pesach play interspersed with seder songs that concludes with the beautiful rendition of Vehi She’amda by Yonatan Razel (always a tear-jerker).
Within the constraints of Zoom – no two students could recite lines at the same time or sing together – we set out to embark on a project that we hoped would bring a sense of pride and accomplishment to our second grade students.
I wanted to share 10 tips we learned along the way in the planning for this assembly.
- Plan the virtual assembly with a “co-host.” Our school’s education technology specialist and I had reviewed the details of the 65-moving pieces of our assembly (which we shared in a minute-to-minute google doc). We were on speaker with each other the entire assembly – and made sure to keep ourselves muted on the actual Zoom – so that we could have an open line of communication that was hands-free. This collaboration was crucial to the success of the assembly.
- If you are planning to give individual parts to each student, make them short and sweet. Students can use their scripts during the actual assembly, so that there is less pressure on them when they are reciting their lines.
- Review with students that being “unmuted” signifies that it is their turn to recite their lines. Often students’ faces do not appear on the main Zoom screen until they actually begin to speak.
- At the beginning of the assembly, give a Zoom “public service announcement” that family members in the same house should watch the assembly on a different device in another room in their home (if they have more than one device). Having two devices logged into the same Zoom in the same room creates an echo when students are unmuted to speak.
- Encourage students to wear costumes, school swag, or “Shabbat attire,” if applicable, to add more of a sense of excitement to the event.
- If you have a musician on guitar or piano, keep the musician unmuted for the entire assembly so they can create seamless transitions between lines and songs, or play a tune, need be, if you are waiting for a student to realize it is their turn to speak.
- Use Zoom’s “Spotlight” function generously. This way, students can be seen doing hand motions and singing songs throughout the assembly. We repeated a few songs to enable more students to be seen on the Zoom.
- Anticipate that people will log into your Zoom event early. As the host, log onto the event 45 minutes in advance and double-check to make sure the following Zoom features are in place: mute all participants so that they cannot unmute themselves, disable the chat feature, and ensure that only the hosts can share their screens. You can also play music from a Spotify playlist as individuals enter the Zoom.
- Rename the usernames of student participants as they enter the Zoom assembly and disable participants’ abilities to rename themselves (for example, we renamed Ploni L. to “2A 02 Ploni L.”). This made it much easier to find students when it was their turn to speak, as everyone was already in numbered order, by class, in our participants list.
- Include surprises: I asked friends if they could Zoom with their newborn son when students sang a song about Baby Moshe. They placed plants next to their baby’s bassinet and students really enjoyed this surprise! We also timed it to the minute so that the Israeli musician Yonatan Razel could make a surprise cameo at the end of our assembly. He sang Vehi She’amda and gave a special message of hope connected to the meaning of this song.
Following the assembly, a parent shared with us the following note:
“Thank you so very much for bringing the Pesach Play from an unimaginable, virtual experience, to a genuinely inspiring and beautiful performance. All of the parents saw first hand what a logistical and creative challenge it presented, and yet, you managed to bring it all to life with our children.”
Looking ahead to Yom HaAtzmaut, this past week I had a test Zoom session with Curly, a camel who visited us in-person for last year’s festivities. We are mailing Curly an Israeli flag so that she will be all set for her virtual Yom HaAtzmaut programming.
As we continue to conduct school remotely, let’s inspire students and their families through creatively crafted Zoom programs and assemblies. I am happy to serve as a resource for anyone interested in brainstorming for future events.