Ask students to read the poems in silence. Then select students to read the poems aloud. One student per stanza (and don't forget the source). Printable pdf.


You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self… Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know…
— Walt Whitman: From Song of Myself (1855)


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green. They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”
— First stanza of The Man with a Blue Guitar by Wallace Stevens (1937)


Ask students to sit closely in random pairs. Tell them to decide who will be "the scribe," and who will be "the spokesperson."  Remind them to stay on task because the order they will be called upon to report back in the public arena will not be revealed in advance. This ensures focus. The following question should be addressed.

1. What are some of the TOK-relevant ideas conveyed in these extracts? 

2. In particular what is Stevens saying about the human encounter with "things exactly as they are"? Is this trivial or important for the knowing quest?

Let them discuss the guiding questions for four minutes. Stay disciplined with the time and give a one minute warning. Invite the first random spokesperson to report back. Allow the scribe to add something too. Challenge the pair on the spot with playful clarification questions; and invite comments and questions from the whole class group. Repeat with a few different spokespersons and see where it goes. Continue with whole class discussion. Conclude with a distillation of any emerging Knowledge Questions, for future discussion, long before the conversation naturally fizzles out.

Remind them about their Common Agreements if boundaries are crossed during the session. Congratulate them for respecting their set of consensual agreements if not.

Variations on this ritualized format--for structured small group conversation, reporting back, and moving towards focused whole class discussion--will be used throughout the TOK course. The time constraint, pressure reporting back in public at random, and counterintuitive partner and small group combinations that force students to work with others, not necessarily in their friend group, all combine to generate a creative tension and sharp focus in the room. 

Picasso (1903-4)   The Old Guitarist.  Oil on panel. Art Institute of Chicago

Picasso (1903-4) The Old Guitarist. Oil on panel. Art Institute of Chicago