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.