holding court quotes 2At the Community Music School of Santa Cruz’s Teen Camp, we held a “Folk Moot” on Thursday night.  This was a kind of medieval court where we dressed up, were presented to Queen Shelleighlach, sang songs (“the number of the verses shall be five!”), learned a little about history (as our timeline did not feature the Battle of Hastings and we had to know why that mattered), and discussed issues common to the community at large.

This is where I came in as the resident philosopher travelling from the far-off land of Missouri.  I used a responding-to-quotes icebreaker I adapted to focus on musical creativity.  I delighted in students sharing their own stories.  They shouted “Huzzah!” and built on each other’s points, respectfully disagreed in places, and in one case, even referenced Camus (this moment earned a special favor from the Queen).

But you really don’t have to have any special knowledge to participate in this discussion.  The basic idea is this: you distribute quotes at random to each member of the group.  They find partners and discuss their quotes with each other, ideally following a listening pair format (see below).  You then open up a chance for the full group to consider any ideas the group wants to bring up.  Students then switch quotes and find new partners.

Step by Step:

  1. Find the quotes you want students to discuss.  Make sure there are plenty in there you disagree with.  (As with the sticky note symposium, where deeper questions lead to deeper answers, the quotes you use will form the base of students’ discussion experiences.  Choose wisely.)  Here’s what I used in Santa Cruz.
  2. Print out the quotes and cut them into individual strips.
  3. Introduce the activity to students and review the guidelines for listening pairs.  Basically you need them to:
    1. Find partners.
    2. Agree on who’s going first.
    3. Tell them they are going to talk about ways in which they agree and disagree with their quote.
    4. Each person will get 60 seconds to talk.  If you’re talking, you’re talking.  If you’re listening, you’re listening – even if the person talking has run out of things to say.  In this case the listening pair should enjoy each other’s presence.
    5. In between talking cycles, the listening student gets 15 seconds to sum up what the talking person said.  This should be a summary, not a statement of agreement or disagreement.
    6. Now the roles are reversed, and the same 60 seconds + 15 seconds procedure applies.
    7. Do the first cycle of listening pairs.
    8. Call for group discussion: if any student has happened upon an insight worthy of the group, let them speak!  And may those who agree or disagree add their voices!  Moderate their discussion with each other.  This is a chance for you to ask counterexamples and help them come to their own conclusions.  (Warning: if they feel you are steering them toward an answer, they will shut down.  It is important to allow and even cultivate dissent in your classroom.  More on what Socrates seemed to mean by “dialogue” and how education classes almost universally get “The Socratic Method” wrong in a later post.)
    9. Have students exchange quotes and find new partners.  And the cycle begins anew…

Why this works:

  • This is, in some ways, a critical thinking activity.  If students’ discussions are just about how wonderful the quotes are, or conversely if students are just rewarding themselves for being so much smarter than the speaker of the quote, it’s not living up to what it can be.  It’s the strongest if students are testing out the quotes in multifaceted ways – in what ways does it resonate with their experiences?  In what ways does it seem limited, and why?  What experiences would a person need to have to come to the conclusions represented in the quote?  Is the quote particularly resonant in a specific kind of music?  Etc…holding court quotes
  • Listening transfers beautifully to musical skills – as a musician, you need the ability to listen deeply and fully, without having to put yourself into a sound-space.
  • Being comfortable with silence – if, say, the talking partner runs out of things to say – is remarkably parallel to jazz improvisation, where you need to be able to Take Your Time in places.  Even those of us who understand the value of silence to overall musical effect have trouble playing the rests sometimes.  This is another chance to practice.
  • Repeating back what your partner said requires you not only to listen carefully, but also to give first place of honor to their views.  The 15-second summaries aren’t a chance to agree or disagree with your partner – they’re a chance to show that you listened to start with.
  • It opens up a conversation.  It’s not “talk for 60 seconds about How You Feel About Music – ready, set, go!” but rather “here’s a shared experience (the quote) that you probably have opinions about – so let’s talk about it.”  The quote provides that grounding and that opening.

Lessons learned:

I had originally learned an activity like this as part of a sensitivity training, where the quotes were designed to break the ice in questions around diversity.  The strictness of the listening pairs was designed to teach us the discipline of hearing and honoring other opinions, even (especially!) those we disagreed with.  (After all, it’s hard to have dialogue if you’re not really listening.)

Students in Santa Cruz felt somewhat limited by the strictness of the speaking and listening roles.  Often they wanted to chime in with each other and get into the conversation.  Now, that’s part of the original activity, and I still feel that it’s valuable to practice Really Listening.  I’m inclined to see this frustration as a natural learning process – not necessarily something to be avoided.  But I do think there’s room to create more opportunities to harmonize in these conversations – maybe a third 60-second cycle at the end of each pair?  End the activity with 5 minutes to find the person you wanted to talk more with?

There have to be possibilities.  For myself, I was just tickled to hear some of the conversations continuing the next morning, brought up at breakfast and recounted as part of dreams.