Teaching Opinion

Engaging Students With Dr. King’s Model of ‘Multi-Mic’ Participation

By John T. McCrann — January 16, 2017 2 min read
Civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, front left, accompanies Martin Luther King Jr., at a gathering in Los Angeles in 1965.
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I hope you all had a wonderful Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

As I do most years, I took some time to listen to radio broadcasts of some of my favorite Dr. King speeches over the weekend.

Whenever I do this I am of course struck by the wisdom in Dr. King’s words, but this year I was reminded of something else: his audiences did not follow “the one mic rule.”

You all know this rule right? If someone is talking then other folks should not be (ie there is only one microphone in the room and if you don’t have it you should be quiet until you do).

I grew up going to a church where we practiced the “one mic” rule. Of course, there were times during the liturgy and during hymns when there was audience participation, but generally if someone was speaking the rest of us knew to be quiet. Just as when I was speaking I had the expectation that others wouldn’t be talking. The same general rule applied across my life, from the dinner table to the classroom: everyone should be able to speak, but everyone must wait her/his turn to do so.

Dr. King did not have the same cultural assumptions about this rule.

As you surely know, audience members often spoke while he was speaking, chiming in with a “That’s right!” or “Amen!” when they felt moved to do so. In fact, Dr. King himself attributed the most famous part of his speech during the 1963 March on Washington to one such violation of my beloved one mic rule when Mahalia Jackson shouted “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Effective “multi-mic” participation can help engage students and give teachers a quick sense of what student know and don’t know. Like a dipstick on a car, they can give a status update on learning and whether or not it is OK to move forward.

Of course, not all interruptions are as fruitful as Mahalia Jackson’s. Teachers need to work to establish norms describing what kinds of interruptions are useful and what kinds detract from learning. We need to establish structures to support positive participation. Explicitly teaching students how to express themselves in different ways and at different times depending on the class activity, rather than a one-size-fits-all rule like “one mic.”

Some ideas for how to use call and response style participation can be found in this Todd Finley Edutopia piece. Not all of these are going to work in every lesson or for every teacher, but all teachers can utilize some of them to reap the rewards of community participation.

Can I get an Amen?

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