Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Human Microphone

Show me what democracy looks like.

This is what democracy looks like.

Show me what democracy looks like.

This is what democracy looks like.

I wrote a couple days ago about why I support the Occupy Wall Street movement and am active in Occupy Seattle. Every day since Saturday, I've spent at least part of my days and nights down at Westlake Center where the occupation is taking place. Yesterday I ran into a handful of people down there with their children who told me they were there because of me. That felt pretty cool.

After just 5 days, I counted over 30 tents at Westlake Center to house the round-the-clock occupiers.

If you've been following this in the news or elsewhere, you've probably heard it described as a "leaderless" movement. It's kind of an alien concept for most of us, and it's one of the reasons, I think, that the media has had such a hard time covering the story: there is no go-to spokesperson or authority who can speak for the entire group. To really understand what's going on, you would have to, for instance, talk to each of the 20,000 people who took to the streets in New York yesterday.

We spend most of our time in informal groups, both large and small, talking and listening.

Yesterday, I read somewhere that the occupation itself is the message and judging my how much and how fast it's growing, it seems to be getting through. Whether the leaderless aspect continues, and whether it, in the long run, turns out to be a strength or weakness is a question for the future, but for now it's working.

One of the ways this leaderlessness has manifested itself is in what we've come to call our daily "general assemblies," beginning each day at 4 p.m., where anyone and everyone has the opportunity to speak. As you can imagine, once you get more than a couple dozen riled up people, it begins to be a challenge for even those of us with rather loud voices to be heard over the general din of traffic noise, so in imitation of our allies in New York, we've begun to implement what's being called the "human" or "people's" microphone.

During the times I've been down there, it seems like about 1 in 4 passing motorists honk
their support.

I love the human microphone. When the authorities told the Wall Street protesters that that couldn't use electronic voice amplification devices, they began to use it to great effect. This is how it works: the speaker speaks in short sentences or sentence fragments, then those who hear it, repeat the words verbatim, in unison, thus amplifying that single person's voice so that it can be heard by everyone.

"I'm here today . . ." / I'M HERE TODAY

". . . because my mother . . ." / BECAUSE MY MOTHER

". . . was defrauded by her bank . . ." / WAS DEFRAUDED BY HER BANK

". . . and lost her home . . ." / AND LOST HER HOME

The human microphone, for me, is a whole new way to listen to other people. Rather than spending my time zoning off or thinking of what I might say in response, I'm simply repeating everything the speaker says. It's an amazingly active form of listening, one that makes me concentrate more than I ever have on what's being said, so that I can then relay it to the people behind me. Not only that, but it's an incredible bonding and symbolic experience, especially with the smaller groups we're dealing with in Seattle: all of us speaking, at least for a time, with one voice, loudly, and with the express purpose of full understanding.

It becomes like a chant almost, but far more meaningful. The effect is almost like that of listening to recordings of speakers in large venues from bygone eras, who had to pause every few words to account for the echo and delay of their amplification systems.

Yesterday, the police assisted the parks department in removing our tents. They were
respectful and peaceful, just doing their jobs. It's against city ordinance to camp in city
 parks. The mayor has expressed support for Occupy Seattle. Some occupiers
 chose the route of civil disobedience and were arrested. The occupation has
continued without the tents. I spoke with several of the  officers and parks department
officials on the scene, thanking them for their professionalism and peacefulness.
Everyone of them who expressed an opinion said they agreed with our message.
One park ranger shook my hand, clapped me on the back and said, "It's about time
 someone went after those criminal banks."

It's a way of speaking that forces the speaker to slow down, often way down, because it's impossible for the rest of us to repeat long, complex sentences in unison. It's probably not the best way to convey subtle, complex ideas, nor a great method for communication when time is of the essence. At the same time, it seems to force speakers to really think, to listen to themselves, to make sure that they are saying what they really want to say. And it's amazing what it does for people who are aren't gifted public speakers. Even the most soft-spoken person, even the person without the dulcet tones of a skilled politician, sounds loud, bold and forceful through the human mic. And perhaps most importantly, it prevents one person from dominating the mic.

As the arrests took place, everyone had their cameras and other recording devices out,
documenting the process. It was really rather amazing.

I've been thinking a lot about whether or not this is a concept that could be used in our classroom. As the children get older at Woodland Park, we increasingly use our "circle time" in discussion. I often think of it as our daily class meeting, or general assembly. As we do it now, we raise hands and take turns. Some kids listen, some squirrel around, some are clearly bored or distracted by the prospect of waiting, some break off into their own side conversations. Some speak loudly and clearly, while others are speak so softly that they are often rendered almost unintelligible unless you put an ear right next to their mouth. What if we used the human microphone? What would that do to our class discussions?

We do echo songs in our 3-5's class, ones in which I sing a line, then they sing it back to me, so I know they can learn to do it. And we are a cooperative with a half dozen or so other adults in the room who can help us get in the rhythm. Would it help focus the kids? Would it make us all better listeners and speakers? And perhaps most importantly, would it have the same unifying effect I've felt down at Westlake Center? I sure know that singing together does that, why not speaking?

This is something our Pre-K class, our oldest kids, are going to going to experiment with next week. I'll keep you apprised. And please let me know if you try it. 

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Dawn said...

Dear Tom, i have been a follower for some time now- i started following last year when i created my own preschool homecare blog in an effort to connect with amazing people in the field --- and i just want you to know that these posts about democracy and the face of a nation and the inspired people in it -- are amazing to me ... my 11 year old homeschooled daughter is actually following the posts as part of her democracy study for social -- that way she will truly know what democracy really looks like. Thanks for being so insightful and informative... you inspire us .... sending you lots of light and positive energy, even more than usual.
take care

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

I've started implementing echo reading (where I read short passages with LOTS of expression), and my kinder-surprises repeat. It's amazing! We all know the monotonous sound of emergent readers decoding once they have lots of modelled reading to practise with, they can "read" a memorized poem or text with expression. Very cool. I've never heard of the human mic..sounds amazing. I'm happy to see people gathering and saying NO to corruption in a peaceful way. Thanks for giving this small-town Canadian a glimpse into what was just a news story for me. Look forward to hearing how the human mic works in the classroom!

Elliecan Pelican said...

Hi Tom,
really like your perspective, and love the idea of trying it on the wee ones... powerful stuff!
I just read this article from an Australian perspective of what is going on globally at the moment!
Good words... we seem to echo each other across the globe via the medium of the internet!

I am in love with this movement! It gives me hope in humanity!
Thanks for sharing your story!