Tag Archive for: Community

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.

Exploring Identity & Belonging

By Olivia Braley

At Touchstones, we are always looking to expand awareness of and access to our programs, and we strive to engage students and teachers in inclusive and discussion-based education models they may not otherwise know about. In the past, some community initiatives we’ve launched to reach new audiences included Touchstones Week, Frankenreads, and partnering with the Anne Arundel County NAACP to celebrate their Founder’s Day. Since the pandemic began, we’ve run an open discussion program every other Saturday to explore what it means to be part of a community. (All are welcome, so please ask us how to join!)

Community engagement is an important part of our mission at Touchstones, and it inspired us to develop and offer discussion lessons linked to Sandra Cisneros’ anthology of short stories, The House on Mango Street. This collection of stories is told from the point of view of a young Latinx girl, Esperanza, who moves to a new neighborhood in New York City. Her narrations and vignettes of city life raise questions about identity, belonging, friendship, family, and culture. These lessons are offered for free to encourage inclusive discussions everywhere!

The House on Mango Street is a critically acclaimed book and was selected by the National Endowment for the Arts as one of the Big Read books for the 2021-2022 year. The NEA Big Read is a partnership with Arts Midwest, which seeks to “broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.” The Big Read initiative provides funding opportunities for libraries, schools, and other organizations to support community programs that “inspire conversation and discovery.”

We elected to develop lessons to accompany one of the Big Read books to augment the positive impact that inclusive discussions on important themes can have—in all communities nationwide. These Touchstones lessons provide teachers, students, and other groups in afterschool and enrichment programs with structured discussion plans and worksheets that invite all participants to assume active roles in their own communities of learners. Each lesson is available in English and Spanish and provides an introduction, detailed lesson guide, questions for discussion, and a student worksheet. We want to introduce as many students as possible to the transformative nature of a Touchstones discussion, as well as to increase awareness and recognition of Touchstones programs by educators and others working with youth. We also hope to provide additional ways for teachers already using Touchstones to engage with their students. We know that when we support educators—especially when many are still dealing with COVID restrictions and related teaching challenges—that we support their students!

An Artist’s View: An Interview with Stacey Turner

Elliot Zuckerman’s, Figuration 13 (1997), oil on canvas with charcoal.

By Olivia Braley

From late November into early December, Touchstones held an online art exhibition showcasing the dynamic work of Elliot Zuckerman. As part of this exhibition, Touchstones hosted a number of online discussions and panels featuring artists and members of the community to engage actively with Zuckerman’s work. I spoke with Stacey Turner, one of the panelists, about her experience and impression of her first Touchstones discussions. Stacey is a visual artist, former art educator, and my mother.

Our conversation began with her general impression of a Touchstones discussion group. She participated in a discussion of Elliot Zuckerman’s artwork on the first day of the exhibition, having no prior Touchstones experience. She said the conversation immediately sparked her interest; it “was thought-provoking and refreshing to interact with new people in a safe environment.” It’s not always that you get to talk about and listen to people discuss a topic meaningfully, she added. In the isolating digital world that we are currently navigating, Stacey especially appreciated the opportunity for “designated time to listen to interesting people and talk about interesting things.” Though it was her first Touchstones discussion and she didn’t know anyone in the group, she told me it was clear the people were friendly and the environment welcoming.

We spent the majority of our conversation talking about her experience being on the panel and the ways considering art this way was different from her experience as a painter herself, and as a children’s educator. She said, “I know that when I paint or even look at others’ paintings, I’m looking at them from a practical point of view—either my perspective or from the perspective of the person who created them. I’m always trying to get in the artist’s head, and that colors my interpretation of what I’m seeing.” It’s likely that all people have experiences that similarly cloud their impression of the things they encounter. However, in the Touchstones groups, these experiences meld together to deepen the discussion as a whole. Stacey noticed that “in the panel, the benefit of having thoughtful people who have different experiences in the arts, different backgrounds, and different points of views was clear. I got to express my thoughts while getting an exposure to other interpretations that gave me a fresh view from another perspective.” In having some of her perspective taken away, she could see the art differently than before.

I asked Stacey if she had any closing thoughts about the Touchstones discussions. She said, “Something that in my experience is very unique to Touchstones is the level of respect I felt. It was more than just politeness: there was a level of acceptance, tolerance, and civility that was wonderful.” She added that she felt that with Touchstones you “could bring in people with vastly opposed ideas and would still have a forum to discuss, which is very important. Most groups are not tailored in such a way that it is ever possible, much less something that can be reproduced regularly.”

Beyond Curricular Expectations

By Greg Hodges

The importance and value of collaborative, civic discourse has been pronounced in many of the organizations to which I have belonged. In this past year, one marked by changes and challenges, the conversations inspired by the Touchstones Discussion Project provided essential avenues for connection. Trinity College School (TCS) has benefited from a successful partnership with Touchstones by having students at various levels and across grade cohorts use several different texts, ranging from Touchpebbles to Mapping the Future.

Including Touchstones in a school located in a small town on the shore of Lake Ontario has its own difficulties and rewards. Working within a highly structured, provincially moderated curricular program, the project itself can shine, in part, due to its focus on the cultivation of skills. Liberty, to a degree, is the product of collective and collaborative conversation. Some of the students that I have been working with are wearied, showing signs of fatigue and frustrated expectation. Touchstones gives students a reason to turn on the camera and engage through technology.

Our circles may have changed, but the rules and the promise of the Touchstones curriculum remain the same. There is a chance for our classes to convene for a reason beyond curricular expectation. Online platforms provide new avenues along which participants might venture to continue critical discussions. Analog models of discourse need not be thought of as having been supplanted by technological modes of engagement. Instead, students have the opportunity to reflect meaningfully upon the time that they will spend learning together. It is important for us to be aware of the increased emphasis upon what it means to be seen, to be heard, and to feel that there is a relational space.

The efforts made by the team at Touchstones have helped new participants find ways to connect and converse through digital media. Thanks to the work being applied to integrate virtual meetings and to render the volumes both as digital and interactive, Touchstones is opening its circle all the more.


Why there are always poems and sometimes even poets

By Olivia Braley, Stefanie Takacs, and Howard Zeiderman

For more than 25 years, Touchstones staff ran executive programs in-person in Washington, DC and New York. Although highly customized in many ways, most of those programs had one characteristic in common: none of them featured contemporary texts. In the past seven years, though, we’ve shifted to programs designed increasingly around modern works. The purpose of these programs remains the same: engage professional adults in the process of examining and modifying their presuppositions through collaborative discussion. And while they are all Touchstones programs, these executive offerings depart in some significant ways from the process method we follow in other settings. Instead, the focus here is on self-reflection and using the works read to reveal ourselves more completely. Such efforts, we believe, are useful starting points in forming our futures.

Our newest program—on modern poetry—launches this winter. These texts were selected primarily by Olivia Braley, our Programs and Office Assistant, with input from our Director of Leadership Programs, Howard Zeiderman. Olivia, who joined the Touchstones staff in September, is a poet with an educational background in creative writing from the University of Maryland. She and Zeiderman will co-lead this eight-meeting program.

In choosing the writers for this group, Olivia looked to poets who encompass a wide range of style, subject matter, and personal background. “The world of modern poetry is perhaps more diverse in form and voice than ever,” she says, “and it’s important to look to writers who represent that in their written as well as lived experience.” The featured poets in this program cover multiple spectra of ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and sexualities. These components of their identities emerge in their poetry in ways as varied as they are. All collections on the program reading list are written in the last 20 years and include writers Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Anne Carson, Ilya Kaminsky, and others. This “living” aspect of the poetry invites the group to consider these poems in real time—leading naturally to questions about the role of poetry in our present world. It also raises issues of how language and world interact to shape one another.

Like the poets, the participants in this group come from different backgrounds but are united in their interest to read and consider the role of language as it affects our lives. Though the role of language may be more pronounced in certain fields— such as education or law—all people are sensitive to language, regardless of profession. It is the locus of our humanity. This Touchstones poetry program serves as a way to delve into this sensitivity and explore language working at its most acute. There, the group is concerned with the very structure of language, sounds, and form.