By Stefanie Takacs
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!