Touchstones Spotlight on Shalini Jasti

Interview by Brittany Usiak, K-12 and Adult Programs Manager


This week, we’re shining the Touchstones Spotlight on Shalini Jasti, a middle school English Language Arts teacher based in New Jersey. Shalini used Exploring American Perspectives, a volume that draws entirely from works by

 Black and African-American contributors, with 8th graders this year and was part of our third cohort of Touchstones Fellows in the fall of 2021. This was her first year using Touchstones and in her words, she “quickly stood up to the challenge and met students with high expectations and care as we embarked on our journey together.” We’re grateful to Shalini for taking the time to share her experiences with us. You can find her on Instagram @the.equitable.classroom

What do you love about Touchstones? How does it support the goals of your work?

I love that Touchstones offers me the weekly space to speak to my students. I see this work as supporting my own social emotional goals for students. I am an English educator because I believe that students learn best through introspective – or self-motivated – reading and writing in which they see diverse identities interacting. Touchstones directly aligns with my teaching philosophy and goals.

How have you seen yourself develop as a discussion leader?

I have become a stronger leader in that I am more selfless now than I was before. By prioritizing the safety of my students within these discussion circles, I have been able to decenter my own feelings regarding the texts. From this experience, I have learned to be observant to the smaller actions of students, noticing which students are silent, which students speak more, which students feel confident being vulnerable, and which students do not. However, as it is imperative that I am present in the circle, it is clear that I need to continue on my path to being a greater discussion leader by being a calmer presence in the circle.

How have you seen your students/participants develop? How has your organizational culture shifted?

My students are building their communication skills through Touchstones. This is undeniable. But there is a lack of community and societal support needed to shift organizational culture more widely. If schools shape society and society shapes school, using Touchstones alone without a greater political or social passion for this level of communication will not shift organizational culture.

Can you share one or two memorable moments or stories from using Touchstones?

There are two memorable moments I continue to recount in my Touchstones journey thus far: the first is my “Touchstones Aha Moment” – in which I can distinctly remember feeling my emotions turn to words through the use of the Touchstones text; the second is a moment of tension within my own classroom. 

In the Touchstones Fellows Program  in Fall 2021, there was one lesson using an excerpt from the “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”. During college, upon reading this text and other slave narratives that are also in Exploring American Perspectives, I remember the stark ways in which my professors taught me about paratextual evidence and the amount of power that White abolitionists had in changing the words of those who have experienced trauma to feed those harsh moments to society in smaller bite size pieces; society during that time – some might argue now – is unwilling to hear those words in their ugly truth. As this was going through my head, I could feel myself name my emotions – my dislike for inauthenticity and the lack of acknowledged pain. 

Second, within a Touchstones text in class, students were so struck by a realization they had made about the plights of their own lives as people of color that we as a group began to decipher these issues with our emotions, share our vulnerabilities, and so on, until the period ended. I was not watching the clock. As my next class began walking in, some of us were still sitting in silence thinking about the conclusion we just reached. Many of us reflected on the idea that we reach those conclusions on a daily basis, and it would be nice to take a break within the school day.

What do you want others to know about Touchstones?

In order to effectively prepare for Touchstones as an educator, you must prepare for the lessons ahead of time. This means that I dedicate one or two prep periods to plan how I might lead my students through the Touchstones text. For my own preparation, I preview the text ahead of time so I am not uncomfortable with the experiences that arise in my own mind upon reading the text – there is much emotional labor that I need to do to process these texts before I can lead them with my students; it would be unfair to my students for me to lead a discussion with my own opinions or life experiences at the center. Additionally, there will never be enough time to discuss a topic in full, so I have found it is very important to manage my time well in order to end class with smoother transitions; this specificity with transitions and timing aids in comprehension within Touchstones conversations.

Anything else you’d like to share about your experience with Touchstones?

I’m sure I will always have something else I’d like to share about Touchstones. Working with this tool is going to be a continual learning experience for myself and my students. It is a learning experience that I certainly need in order to process my own emotions regarding the world around me and the experiences I’ve undergone, and I’m wondering what role my emotions play while using this resource in my classroom. In Touchstones, I often find myself feeling guilty for my anger around some of the texts, enough to ask if my feelings are welcome at all in the circle. If they are welcome and I am vulnerable and share, what guarantee do I have – as a student or a professional – that no one will use my emotions and experiences against me later? Is this the risk I take when placing myself in these circles as a person of color? And, when I do not share at all due to my fears, is that a reflection of my own ignorance and biases or am I allowed to keep my emotions until I feel comfortable sharing? Is this emotional work that I want to do with my students present, especially when I am being asked to maintain a relationship with them in the systems that disadvantage us all? 

Finally, many of the texts in Exploring American Perspectives might be ones that students never see again – I surely would not have encountered them if not for college. As I recounted in my memorable Touchstones experiences, I recall these texts fondly. I do believe these authors deserve such praise and dedication. 

Touchstones Spotlight on Stacy Pecha

Interview by Brittany Usiak, K-12 and Adult Programs Manager


It’s time for another Touchstones Spotlight!Stacy holding a copy of Touchstones Courage to Care book In this post, we’re shining the spotlight on Stacy Pecha, a 7th grade teacher at Selkirk Middle School in Washington who uses Courage to Care, Building Community Through Service with her Debate and Public Speaking elective class. Although she was introduced to Touchstones in 1996 and briefly used it in another district, this is her second year using the program consistently. Even in this short time, she’s seen growth in herself and her students in key discussion skills! Stacy is the only one at her school using Touchstones – as many of our teachers are. If you’re a teacher using Touchstones, and you’d like to connect with our global educator community, join our new group, exclusively for Touchstones teachers to share tips, strategies, and ideas, and build community. We’d love to have you!

What do you love about Touchstones?

Students have lost the art and fundamentals of productive discussion – especially LISTENING to each other. Touchstones helps to foster that skill.

How have you seen yourself develop as a discussion leader?
It’s a work in progress – I am getting better at noticing subtle body language, indicating that a student wants to add something. I’ve also noticed that I consistently want to be the “rescuer” when there are awkward moments of silence. (Teacher habit!)

How have you seen your students develop through Touchstones?
My students are getting better at TAKING TURNS – waiting and watching for the right time to add to the discussion. I think they appreciate that there are no wrong answers, their thoughts may spark a different conversation or promote a different point of view – but it is not wrong.

Can you share a memorable moment from your Touchstones classes?
I love the moments when the students are actually disappointed when our time runs out and want to keep the conversation going.

What do you want others to know about Touchstones?
The curriculum is progressive. You cannot base your success with Touchstones on the first few lessons or discussions, it is a practice and keeps evolving! Stick with it!

Touchstones Spotlight on Alexandria Jones

Interview by Brittany Usiak, K-12 and Adult Programs Manager


The Touchstones community spans the globe, poses a challenge when communicating everything Touchstones makes possible. It’s our goal to remedy this by finding new ways to share the inspiring work happening in classroom and community discussions every day. Over the past several months, we’ve been working to highlight the incredible stories of educators using Touchstones on our social media channels, and now we’re adding them to our new blog as well!

Alexandria Jones headshot

Alexandria Jones, 4th Grade Touchpebbles Teacher

In this post, we’re shining the spotlight on Alexandria Jones, a 4th grade teacher at Learning Community Charter School who uses Touchpebbles B each week with her students. This is her second year using Touchstones, after first learning about the program during her student teaching last year. We sat in on her Touchpebbles class during a recent school visit, and the community she is building with her students was palpable. We’re grateful to Alexandria for taking the time to share more about her work with Touchstones and the impact she has seen with her students!

What do you love about Touchstones? 

I love that Touchstones is a platform that gives all students an opportunity to speak and feel that when they speak, they are heard. It allows the students to self-regulate and be considerate of other people when they are speaking. In the classroom, students frequently get excited to share their thoughts and ideas, which leads to them talking over one another. Ultimately, this results in nobody truly feeling heard. But, through Touchstones students have learned the importance of being considerate when one person is talking and truly listening to what they are saying before sharing their ideas.


How does Touchstones support the goals of your work?
This supports my goals as an educator precisely because as a teacher, your goal is to prepare your students for success. Conversational skills and the accompanying qualities such as being patient, empathetic, respectful, and confident are qualities that Touchstones works to build and will allow for our students to thrive.


How have you seen yourself develop as a discussion leader?
As a discussion leader, I have been able to reflect on the development of my ability to guide fruitful discussions such as opening up, being vulnerable, and sharing personal experience. This reinforces that our conversations are safe grounds where students can feel comfortable and confident to share their ideas too. Through Touchstones I have also learned techniques to include my more reserved students and have been able to watch them share their ideas with confidence.


How have you seen your students develop through Touchstones?
Over the course of this school year, I have witnessed a drastic change in the way my students try their best to share their ideas one at a time and create platforms for their friends who share less frequently. This goes beyond Touchstones as well, but the skills were developed through Touchstones. I have watched my students transform into leaders who will frequently intervene to include all voices by saying, “Guys! Listen, ….. is talking” or “Guys, …. is talking lets listen.”

class of 4th graders in Touchstones circle
Can you share one or two memorable moments from your Touchpebbles classes?

When doing lesson 5: A Case Study in Medical ethics, the students were amazed to see the validity of what they were learning and that the decisions doctors have to make is not simple. In fact, it can be hard to distinguish between right and wrong. For the class, seeing that what they were reading about ties into the real world decisions doctors have to make engaged them and made them see that things are not always black and white when it comes to decision making.
In my most recent Touchstones lesson, the class was discussing the way that we feel when someone calls us dumb. Many students were saying that they feel angry and feel the desire to retaliate and express their frustration. But, one student went against the grain and stated beautifully that if he were called dumb he would feel embarrassed. This added great depth to the conversation and showed that he has the skills to deepen the conversation when expressing vulnerability.


What do you want others to know about Touchstones?
It is important to know that Touchstones is a foundational tool that goes beyond the classroom and is not limited to one particular age group. Through my own practice in Touchstones I have improved my conversational skills drastically. I remind myself constantly of what it means to actively listen and engage in conversation, and I personally work to make my conversations more fruitful. Talking – as simple as the concept is – was something that I once feared. I would overanalyze my word choice when talking and would feel that conversations often fell on surface level. Now I am consciously able to apply skills to spark deeper thinking and add value to the conversations I am having through talking and listening alike. Touchstones helped me to gain confidence in my own conversational skills, and I know it does the same for my students.

Celebrating Our Teacher of the Year

By Brittany Usiak

Colin Hogan, the 2021 Geoffrey J. Comber Touchstones Teacher of the Year, serves as Head of School at the Learning Community Charter School (LCCS) in Jersey City, New Jersey. The school has the most diverse student population of all charter schools in the state. Colin was nominated by Maureen Rexer, Assistant Head of School at LCCS, who describes him as “a living embodiment of the values of Touchstones.”

Colin Hogan, 2021 Geoffrey J. Comber Touchstones Teacher of the Year, pictured with Debra Valentine, Board of Directors Vice Chair.

Colin initially heard of Touchstones from a school parent in 2014 and was amazed at the first training he attended. “The level of discourse and the skills developed in the workshop were unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” he remembers. “I immediately started planning for fully integrating the program into grades 3-8 at Learning Community.” In the past seven years of the Touchstones implementation, Colin has found the Touchstones educational materials and outcomes a perfect alignment with the school’s mission. “It is almost as if Touchstones was the missing puzzle piece of the educational experience we sought for our students,” he shared.

“Every week our students have the opportunity to engage in rich conversations about ideas and their own experiences, and they attempt to understand text and each other. I simply can’t think of anything better.”

In addition to his considerable responsibilities as Head of School, Colin is so passionate about the positive impact the program has on students that he leads model Touchstones sessions for teachers and regularly observes their Touchstones lessons to help deepen their skills as discussion leaders.

When the pandemic began, his commitment to Touchstones was only strengthened, as he recognized that his students would be in dire need of meaningful discussion opportunities and positive interpersonal connections. During the 2020 lockdowns, both Colin and his Assistant Head of School, Maureen, led virtual Touchstones discussions for students to alleviate the additional burdens placed on teachers and to help students through the isolations of the pandemic. These discussions were such a success that nearly every student tuned in, along with their teachers, finding a vital way “to connect with and sustain each other during a challenging and uncertain time.”

Our 2021 Teacher of the Year is not only grateful for the positive effects Touchstones has had on his students. Colin Hogan also acknowledges how Touchstones has shaped his own work. Because of Touchstones, he says, “I have personally become a better listener and been able to respond to challenges by thinking more deeply about multiple perspectives.”

The teachers who Colin supervises agree about the transformative power of Touchstones in their classrooms and beyond. Tatiana Antczak, a 3rd grade teacher at LCCS, reflects that, “Touchstones provides an opportunity for students to speak out organically. It makes the students’ voices heard, lets them know that what they say matters, and can help impact others around them.” She recalls a particular student who rarely spoke in class and credits work in Touchstones for helping him gain confidence in sharing ideas. After his first time speaking in Touchstones, his peers gave him a round of applause. It was “a turning point for this student in the classroom,” she says proudly.

Listening to Women

 By Debra Valentine

The first discussion of this new program will be on works by American author Kate Chopin, pictured here. Our syllabus includes works by Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood, among others.

Howard Zeiderman, Co-founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project and Director of Leadership Programs, and I are starting a new series designed to help us reflect on ourselves.

The readings are by women writers, and we will use them to probe issues of self-identity and historical and cultural differences and distances between ourselves— both between each other and the writers. While gender has become an increasingly fluid and plastic concept, it touches on every aspect of our individual and communal lives. So, much of our discussion should, we hope, improve our self-awareness and ideally, our understanding of others.

I am certainly aware that as a woman in the 1990s who was often the only woman in a conference room or meeting—whether at my old law firm or in businesses where I have worked—I was often not heard. It wasn’t because my voice was too soft, although we know that men hear voices differently than women do. My voice was simply overlooked. Often, a man would later restate or paraph

rase the idea I’d expressed earlier, and everyone would agree it was a good idea. The point is not whether the idea was good or bad but whether it was heard. I guess that is why Ruth Bader Ginsburg encouraged us to always speak our mind, even if our voices shake. We have to work harder to get our voices heard.

The gender environment has, thankfully, evolved a lot in the past 20 years, but there are still many ways in which various people’s voices are not heard in the same way that male voices are heard. This is not to say that males’ voices have lesser or no value—they have much to contribute. It is simply that other voices have equal value. Touchstones has always been a wonderful process for getting all participants in a group to listen to each other, to respect each other, and to think before they speak. We thought bringing a bit more of the Touchstones method into an adult discussion program based on works by women would be a great way of opening ourselves up to the voices of others.

While the readings we’ll be discussing are not necessarily the latest and most cutting edge on gender studies, we believe they are fertile touchstones for exploring gender. Indeed, many are ones I recall seeing on Justice Ginsburg’s library shelves. And we know she thought long and hard about what it means to be a woman in what has remained a male-dominated world. We hope many of you will join us, either this time or in a subsequent group, as we look forward to learning more about ourselves and each other.

A Shared Enterprise

By Matteo Burrell

Starting in the fall of 2020, I was very fortunate to begin participating in the Exploring American Perspectives (EAP) Leadership program led by Howard Zeiderman. As our group progressed, I began to see how the EAP program, implemented under Howard’s leadership, positioned us to think reflexively about ourselves, our experiences, and our own involvement with the group and with each other. I was intrigued to find that group introspection, growth, and awareness occurred through and together with our collective consideration of the writings and voices that we read together.

Each week I gained a new appreciation for how a group can come to work together to shed light on inherited perspectives and beliefs from a variety of vantage points. Whereas my tendency had been, at the outset, to gravitate towards “just the text,” it became increasingly clear that text, process, and group experience—through their dynamic interplay—are mutually enriching and inseparable. This interplay, I think, creates a space where central issues can be made visible and animated precisely through the group interaction.

As I continued to be involved with Touchstones and EAP, this time as a co-leader with Stefanie Takacs, whose example, approach, and advice regarding leadership continue to be an invaluable source of understanding for me, I have become more sensitive to the group process. I more fully recognize how different ways of speaking, framing, and interacting operate to change how and what we consider, reflect upon, and engage with collectively.

The first lesson I ran as a co-leader was equal parts nerve-wracking and exhilarating. I found myself on high alert, simultaneously tracking the time, the objectives for the lesson, the group history, how the group was reacting in the moment, and my responsibilities as a leader in light of all those variables. In the back of my mind was also the guiding voice of my own sensibility and instinct for what the next step should be, which came in to punctuate and synthesize my sprawling thoughts and direct a conclusive action.

Spending time considering how each component of the Touchstones lesson fits together and thinking about the needs of the group from week to week, I see connections between the individual work, the small group work, the discussion and the evaluation that I was not fully aware of as a participant. These realizations inform my understanding of what factors change the shape of the group’s interaction towards new opportunities. I’m more sensitive to the kinds of listening that can be taking place in the group. And I’m more attuned to the fact that comments, reactions, even offhand remarks that seem to go in passing or are not met with immediate and direct reply, nonetheless create the background. They shape the conversational space that informs what is immediate and accessible to the group as the interaction unfolds. As we progress, it continues to be great to see the sense of shared leadership, trust, support, and capacity for mutual recognition present within the group, and I look forward to what is ahead on this shared enterprise together.


By Stefanie Takacs


Master’s students in small groups in their recent Touchstones workshop at UNLV

Managing challenges during COVID has been significant—in terms of time and resources. Striking a balance between safety and knowing that some forms of work are best accomplished in-person remains a daily focus. We’re grateful we’ve had a few opportunities recently to work face-to-face with some groups, including in a two-day Touchstones workshop on collaborative leadership for Master’s candidates in the Emergency & Crisis Managers program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. That workshop engaged 31 students from two cohorts in an extended examination of how and what we think and why, while also exploring how and what we don’t think and why. The students, who range from young professionals just starting their careers to veterans from the armed forces  and upper tier emergency managers from around the country, reported a deepened awareness of themselves and others coming out of their Touchstones workshop. “Communication,” one student reflected afterward, “is a transactional process in which two or more parties must be fully involved.”


Earlier that week, we visited Learning Community Charter School in New Jersey in person—to present Colin Hogan with the Touchstones Teacher of the Year Award. While there, Debra Valentine, Howard Zeiderman, and I participated in a Touchstones discussion led by Colin with Ms. Shalini Jasti’s 8th graders. The students heard and read a short passage from the autobiography of Harriet Jacobs and considered what it means to live life on the run and with little or no protection from a threat of re-enslavement. Several students demonstrated great empathy for Harriet and said they would have offered her hugs and reassurance and told her not to give up, had they known her. In those moments, when youth show us what compassion looks like, the importance of the inclusive and open discussions framed in a Touchstones classroom once again hits squarely home. Being there, together in person with these students and learning together reminded us not to lose hope.

Closer to home base, we’ve run three in-person workshops and delivered classroom coaching— both at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Washington, DC and at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg, MD. We delivered those group and individual professional development opportunities at no cost to more than 25 teachers, thanks to gifts received earlier this year in memory of Kathleen Golden, a Washingtonian passionate about public-charter education, the Argentine tango, and Touchstones programs. We know Kathleen would have loved hearing 7th graders at Washington Latin explore a passage from The Odyssey when Odysseus has returned to his family after 20 years away. As they reflected on the text, students made connections to the changes they’ve recognized in their own lives—during a year of remote schooling and now being back in person. Though still young adults, these 7th grade students revealed a developing maturity in their recognizing parallels between themselves and others—even characters in a story more than two millennia old. And while losses we’ve suffered during the pandemic remain wounds to heal and gaps to close, the delight these students expressed at being together again in the classroom is an enormous indication of the good things to come—for them and all of us. Here’s to a healthy close to 2021 and a New Year filled with many joyful hours spent in the company of others, face-to-face!

A Culture of Learning

By Brittany Usiak

I chose to work in education because I am driven by a love of learning, and I believe in the power of schools as the foundation of thriving, democratic communities. When I first connected with Touchstones’ Executive Director, Stef Takacs, about the possibility of joining the Touchstones team last spring, I knew intuitively that my philosophy of education aligned perfectly with Touchstones. Since beginning in August, I have been delighted to have this confirmed! Touchstones’ work is truly changing the world by fostering the active listening skills and power sharing that are essential for everyone, now more than ever.
As part of my training, I support workshops, both virtual and in-person, for teachers using Touchstones in a variety of contexts, and I have been inspired by the educators dedicating themselves to their students despite the pandemic’s immense challenges. Teachers find themselves bearing the burden not only of teaching through COVID, but also through contemporary America’s highly polarized climate of social discourse. In one recent workshop, I was impressed by a group of teachers who wrestled together beautifully with how they might navigate discussions of particularly challenging ideas raised in Audre Lorde’s poem “Who Said It Was Simple.” I have also had several conversations with individual teachers who shared vulnerably about their anxieties going into the school year but continue to pursue professional growth in order to provide their students with the education they deserve. I am proud of the ways that Touchstones works not only to support students but to build transformative skills and mindsets for teachers as well.
I am grateful, too, to be part of such a genuine, rigorous, and reflective culture of learning at Touchstones. Touchstones staff and teachers are committed to lifelong learning, and to constant reflection about fundamental questions for all educators: what is the purpose of learning and teaching? How do—and how can—schools be living laboratories for collaborative problem-solving, for community-building across lines of difference? Touchstones staff and discussion leaders are concerned with these and other vital questions for a democratic society, but the Touchstones culture connects these big picture questions to the individual level of classrooms and students. It is wonderful to be part of an organization that works on both the large and small scales of educational theory and practice.
I am eager to continue my own journey with Touchstones, particularly now that the school year is beginning, and I will be able to spend time with students and teachers. Within a time of uncertainty and upheaval, I know that at Touchstones I can work towards building the empathetic, inclusive, collaborative, and creative world I want to see.

New Team Members

By Samantha Duckworth

In August, Touchstones welcomed two new members to its staff: Brittany Usiak and Samantha Duckworth, the second being myself. Brittany is a former teacher, and I am a rising junior at St. John’s College. Brittany joins the staff as our K-12 & Adult Programs Manager. She has been teaching for the past eight years, where she has always tried to use a philosophy of student-based learning and democratic education in her classroom. She said this is one of the reasons she was drawn to Touchstones; its work combines many of her beliefs about teaching into a program where the students truly drive the learning.
Brittany is looking forward to seeing these principles implemented on a broader scale. Her vision is that teachers who don’t know about Touchstones but want a proven discussion-based program can learn about Touchstones and implement it. She said a lot of teachers, including herself, feel strongly about empowering students by letting them direct their own education while supporting their social and emotional learning. Teachers, she says, that share these values would value Touchstones as a resource for developing essential skills— just as she would have.
While Brittany is well on her professional path, I am still discovering my own interests. I spent the summer as an intern for Touchstones, and after completing that I joined the staff as the Project & Office Coordinator. I found my internship incredibly rewarding, and I’m looking forward to continuing my work here. In reflecting on the summer, I see that I learned some important things. Among them is my understanding of effective leadership— both in discussions and outside of them. This greater awareness also helped me learn about myself and what I can do to cultivate constructive environments.
This has been very empowering for me because it has helped me understand the effects that any person, including myself, can have over a group. I’m excited to further my development at Touchstones. My time here has already allowed me to see firsthand how Touchstones programs help people grow. I believe that I will keep growing while working at Touchstones, as I strengthen a wide variety of skills and abilities that will greatly help me personally and professionally.