Tag Archive for: Critical Thinking

Exploring American Perspectives

Cover of Exploring American Perspectives

A Shady Nook, by Loïs Mailou Jones, graces the volume cover.

A Uniquely Touchstones Publication

By Touchstones Roving Reporter

Exploring American Perspectives is a Touchstones volume first published in 2012. It is a four-unit volume focused on developing critical thinkers and collaborative leaders. Where it differs from typical Touchstones volumes is in its text selection; most Touchstones volumes feature works from widely diverse cultures and traditions. Aside from its orientation lesson, the remainder of this volume is comprised solely of works by African American and Black contributors from the Colonial era through the 1960’s US Civil Rights Movement.

To clarify what Touchstones aims to achieve with this particular volume, I sat down virtually with one of the volume’s pedagogical authors, Howard Zeiderman. “This volume is important in two main ways,” he said. “One, the chronological path of the works by African American authors in some ways mirrors what participants themselves strive to do in a Touchstones program: find their voices and shed hierarchical power structures that block collaboration and inclusion. And, while the goal was never to solve race relations, we did want to help people in homogeneous or isolated communities experience how perspectives from underrepresented individuals and groups can meaningfully reshape their own thinking and understanding.”

As part of Touchstones’ civic goals, and in an effort to increase awareness of this volume, Zeiderman organized a group of twelve educators and others invested in inclusion and reconciliation—to work through the first two units of the volume together. To get a sense of what it’s like to be in the group, I spoke with some members about their experience. In general, they focused on the respectful attitude of the group and the power of the Touchstones method.

One participant noted how beginning and ending each discussion with something outside the potentially heated topic—reviewing the ground rules at the beginning and ending with evaluation—facilitated meaningful and dynamic changes in the group. Another participant presciently echoed Zeiderman’s sentiment, noting that the text selection, lesson structure, and the way the group is developing feel organically and intentionally interconnected. An example of this was cited in a lesson on a letter narrated by a former slave and written by his former master. In that discussion, the group began questioning what it means to hear an unimpeded voice or if such a task is possible—not as a historical issue but as a current issue present in the group.

The success of this group is inspiring to its members and yours truly, and it’s already led to new implementations of the volume. Additionally, schools already using this volume consistently report back impressive outcomes. The consideration of perspectives that are not otherwise equally represented in society is foundational to the Touchstones model. And Exploring American Perspectives uniquely highlights some of the benefits that arise when individuals—formerly strangers— form a new community in their exploration of voice, belonging, and necessary diversity.

Bridging the Distance

By Stefanie Takacs

Over the last five months, we’ve become more acutely aware of distance. The word enters our daily language more times and ways than we realize. There is physical distance and social distance, though we are advised against using the latter term by mental health experts because humans need social connection. Prolonged social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, alienation, worthlessness, and a lack of belonging.

When we shifted overnight from an office in which we work together in person to remote operations, we took an additional step to make sure we stayed connected—not only with each other but also with teachers, volunteers, and other members of the Touchstones family. In March, we launched a community discussion program online that runs every other Saturday morning from 11 AM to noon, ET. To date, we’ve held seven discussions with a total of 26 different participants—joining in from southern California to coastal Maine and across the Canadian border in Northumberland County, Ontario. Each discussion brings up to 15 participants. Some are regular attendees and others come in as schedules permit. Friends invite friends and the Touchstones circle grows.

So, too, do our skills as a group. Our discussions primarily focus on issues tied to civil society, with participants examining the Touchstones texts, their own experiences, and current events in a dynamic interplay. These are not easy topics to discuss: racism, equity, exclusion, compassion, trauma, courage, responsibility, selflessness, anger, sexism, and tolerance. But the group, meeting after meeting, works in earnest commitment to the Touchstones ideal that together we are better than we are alone. After our meetings, group members often tell us how important these discussions are for them. “Thank you for the continued efforts you make to advance the mission of Touchstones in these challenging times,” wrote one participant. “To have the opportunity to share in the discussions we have explored recently is among the many gifts that have been afforded by this pandemic.” In return, we offer our thanks—to all who have been part of the community discussions so far and to those whose charitable support makes this work possible— and an invitation to everyone else to join us. You are welcome.

Our Future Is Now

By Howard Zeiderman

For several decades, many reputable business magazines and corporate leaders have sounded an alarm: future generations aren’t being prepared for a world that requires a new set of skills. Some of those “new” skills include the ability to collaborate and share leadership in a 21st Century globalized and technological world.

During a Touchstones workshop for deans and directors in a recent leadership development retreat, small groups explore how building a brand requires input from all members of a team.

These skills aren’t meant to replace skills designed for large-scale mass production and distribution. Those skills are still necessary. However, a highly interconnected and technologically evolving world introduces new opportunities and challenges. In this world, new knowledges constantly emerge, and related business decisions require input from many different types of experts, as activity in one region and one market bears on other regions and other markets. The skillset required to complement those we’ve been teaching and learning for more than 150 years are, not surprisingly, as complex as the world that requires them.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 “The Future of Jobs” report indicates that skills of creativity, interpersonal dexterity, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision-making, service orientation, ability to find common ground, and cognitive flexibility are essential skills in our world that is increasingly transformed by technology. But how are those skills being developed—in our children, our young adults, and our existing workforce and leadership? Touchstones programs are indeed addressing some of this urgent need, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.

Recently, we were hired to develop and run a customized Touchstones program within a large corporation to help a senior management team focus on developing some of these key skills. The team’s leader recognized she wasn’t tapping into the full potential represented within her managers. There were members of her group who always spoke in meetings and others who were much quieter. Some rarely spoke at all, and yet each was a valued member of the team. What, she wondered, did they need to learn to do differently to make sure everyone’s voice and ideas were available and accessible to the entire team?

Over four, five-hour workshop sessions, each member of the team worked on active listening and what it means to create an environment in which each person’s viewpoint is welcomed and respected. By the time we finished our work with the group, many had practiced running Touchstones discussions— sharing responsibility for leading and bringing in all members of the team. Since then, that group has integrated their Touchstones practice into their monthly staff meetings, rotating leadership month to month to ensure their continued development.

Next month, we’ll run similar leadership development programs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas within the Emergency and Crisis Management Master’s of Science Program. The participants are enrolled in a blended learning program, which brings them to campus several times a year to work together in person. Touchstones will be a central part of building connections and trust within the cohort, as part of strengthening participants’ abilities to collaborate across key leadership positions even in times of great uncertainty.

We’ll also be traveling to Montgomery, Alabama to provide professional development and leadership training for members of the Community College Association of Alabama consortium. As that organization looks to foster future leadership from within its younger managers, Touchstones will feature as a primary tool for augmenting existing skillsets.

Touchstones Thanksgiving: Full Circle

For more than 35 years, Touchstones staff has developed partnerships with teachers around the world. While we often hear from teachers and students how important Touchstones programs are to their development, we have less opportunity to hear parents’ perspectives. This recent exchange between a teacher, a student (T), Howard Zeiderman, and a parent illustrates how Touchstones discussions empower and bring people together.

The teacher wrote:
Last year in my high school English classes I started converting from a grading system (which I’ve used throughout my career) to a “grade-less” system where students receive feedback on substantive work. Students reflect on their learning at least once/ week and conduct a “grading” conference with me. Recently, I had a face-to-face conference with a student, T, who has a speech impediment (stuttering). He moved through his written document with minimal problem. When he came to his reflection on Touchstones, he felt he’d grown immensely. Let me preface what he shared with this: T came to me at the beginning of the year because he was worried about Touchstones discussions and participation, given his speech impediment. I explained I don’t grade these discussions and look for growth over time at the personal and group level.

Here’s what T wrote:
Of all the things we have done so far, I am most happy with the results of Touchstones. I expected to not participate much, if even at all. But I felt drawn to the discussions and thought it might be a good way to initiate some selfimprovement. To my own surprise, I really enjoy the Touchstones system. I have been a talkative member of the group and my input has always been of meaning to the discussion. As well I help keep the discussion active and moving forward. I think I am at my best when participating in Touchstones Discussions.

The teacher responded:
From years of speech and debate coaching, I know that students with speech impediments are often some of the most determined when it comes to public speaking. However, I’ve never had a student like this student in my Touchstones classes. His reaction above is a testament to his own drive. Moreover, it is a testament to the “system,” as he calls it and its ability to promote a space in which all members of all abilities are welcome, in which all ideas are considered, and in which all members can realize growth in ways the actual “system” of school generally ignores.

After reading this, Howard Zeiderman, Touchstones Co-founder and President thanked the teacher and asked him to share this with T:

Dear T,
I am very grateful for your thoughts about Touchstones. At six, I developed a terrible stutter which continued until high school. Even as a grad student at Princeton I could still have great difficulty saying my name. That still persists. My stutter made me aware how hard it is to speak in general, even without a stutter and how one crosses an abyss whenever one tries. I applaud your courage in trying and your trust in others to have made that very vulnerable attempt. You are a beacon for others in the world that is emerging, where each of us must insist on having a voice coupled with ears that strive to listen and make room for others. I look forward to our paths intersecting.
Howard Zeiderman

The teacher shared Howard’s reply with T and T’s mom, and here is what T’s mom wrote back:

Dear Teacher,
Thank you so very much for sharing this. T has talked with me recently about having this discussion with you, about the gradeless system, and about how proud he was of his work and progress. That’s some amazing feedback from the Touchstones founder and I’m so grateful you shared it with us. I’m very proud of T and the person he’s growing up to be. He’s insightful and had a great deal of both empathy and introspection. Here you’ve provided an example of how he’s applied those things to himself and his own learning. Thank you so much for creating a safe and positive learning environment for T. I believe that vulnerability is the key to a fulfilling and happy life and you’ve given him a chance to safely try and succeed.
With gratitude,

It indeed takes a village. Happy Thanksgiving to all and a special thank you for those who strive every day to ensure all people have a voice in and outside the circle.

—With deepest and sincerest appreciation from the Touchstones staff.

Looking Forward, Looking Back: An Interview with Howard Zeiderman

By The Touchstones Roving Reporter

Howard Zeiderman, co-founder and President of the Touchstones® Discussion Project, sat down with me to talk about 35 years with Touchstones and provide a look at the future.

Reporter: What led you, Geoff Comber, and Nick Maistrellis to start work on the Touchstones Project, as it was initially known in the 1980’s?
Zeiderman: Geoff was invited to model seminars at a high school in
Hartford and asked if I’d go with him. I’d taught in the Graduate Institute at
St. John’s College and had met Geoff there. We assumed we’d run our
classes in Hartford like we did at St. John’s. He was going to run an English
class and I was going to run a Math class. Unfortunately, what we saw was
typical in a lower-performing school: students hadn’t prepared. I had to
create the class on the spot. I ended up reading the texts aloud to the students, and there was a lot of initial confusion. By the end of class, though, students were at the board working together. When we looked at video afterward, we saw a Touchstones class starting to take shape. In one period, something extraordinary had happened. Many students participated, listened to one another, and by the end, students were starting to assume leadership in their discussion. We knew we were on to something.

Howard Zeiderman (right), leads a Touchstones workshop in Amman, Jordan in 2010 with Abeer Ammouri from the Ministry of Education and teachers from the Arabic curriculum.

Reporter: Did you expect Touchstones’ work in schools to also appeal to adults?

Zeiderman: I did, in fact. The Project was created for all people. It became a
school project because all people go to school. We wanted to reach everyone
as early as possible. I think people of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures
face the same problems, as we’ve moved into a world that’s very different
from what we inherited. We all need to learn to collaborate with each
other and share leadership—whether we’re talking about a classroom of
young students or a corporate team. Touchstones gives everyone a voice,
which enables people to be recognized as individuals as well as to be
part of a group.

Reporter: What are some highlights of your work with Touchstones?
Zeiderman: I think the most important part of this has been to see how
similar people are from different cultures and work environments and that everybody has talents. I was struck in our work in Jordan by how a group that initially seemed so different was immediately able to apply their strengths in a new environment. They began sharing responsibility for the success of their discussions and started practicing self-governance, which meant they were less dependent on particular leaders for finding answers to hard questions.

Reporter: You’ve served as Touchstones’ President since the mid- 2000’s and are moving into a new role at the end of this year. What do you expect that change will be like?
Zeiderman: I won’t be involved in the day-to-day management and schools.
My focus will shift to organizations and institutions—work I’ve done for
decades but haven’t done exclusively. I’ll be designing programs for groups
of executives in organizations to address specific problems —things like leadership development, communication, and overcoming barriers to inclusive collaboration. I’m putting together a team of executives and leaders to implement these projects with me and looking forward to working
with them.

Reporter: What’s your greatest hope for Touchstones in the future?
Zeiderman: My hope is that the Project becomes the central piece of our national approach to education. Our country needs students whose attitudes and skills are developed in ways that support all aspects of life. Touchstones makes this possible.

Models of Change

By Stefanie Takacs

Transforming any class of students or set of discussion participants into a collaborative group requires serious and consistent effort. This is particularly true in school settings where students aren’t accustomed to expressing their thinking and the reasoning behind those thoughts. But we can’t expect our students to change unless we are willing to be models of change ourselves.

Last week, 16 teachers from Charleston, S.C.’s five public-Montessori schools participated in a Touchstones workshop during a full day of professional development. The group works with students in grades 5-8 and our focus was on socio-emotional learning and adolescence. Together, we looked at a few models of socio-emotional learning and then we engaged in a Touchstones lesson. We put theory into practice, as the teachers focused on their own learning.

At a Montessori mini-conference at James Simons Elementary School in Charleston, SC, teachers and teaching assistants consider which fragment from Heraclitus offers the best wisdom about trust.

As Montessori educators, these teachers strive to support and enrich each student in their classrooms— attending vigilantly to the specific interests demonstrated or intimated by those in their charge. They believe fully in the role of teacher as cultivator of latent abilities and talents and the role of self-discovery and self-teaching in healthy human development.

Reconciling these potentially conflicting approaches to education and measurement of growth requires skill, patience, and faith in both worlds. Emphasizing and evaluating socio-emotional learning within this blended structure is not a simple task. Maturation from childhood into adulthood is slow and rarely captured in a single snapshot of time or data. How then, does one bridge the divide between the most important goals of education—healthy growth across all dimensions of human development—and the desire for content mastery?

In Touchstones, students of all ages learn through regular practice. This practice is not entirely unlike the ways in which students convert factual information into knowledge by connecting new ideas to what they already know. However, the difference in Touchstones is that the discussion process supports student expression and the analysis of opinions and feelings and how one interacts with others. It is not enough to be a skillful speaker; one must also be an excellent listener and leader. These competencies are only acquired with consistent attention and practice.

In these ways, Touchstones reaches far beyond the textual to weave participant experience, emotion, and conceptual understanding into a new fabric shaped by all members of a group. In the construction of this fabric, all members of a class— teachers included—examine what they think and why. They find the freedom to augment and exchange inherited assumptions and presuppositions for thinking that is informed by multiple perspectives, more accurate self-perception, and deeper self-knowledge.

Touchstones thanks the leadership of the Charleston Public School District Montessori program for the invitation to work with their teachers. The district offers a model worth considering, as we look for educational approaches that nurture the whole child and prepare all youth for successful and healthy lives.

My Valentine’s Day with 15 Women

By Howard Zeiderman

On Valentine’s Day, our Executive Director, who spearheads Touchstones at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW) was out of town. I was the substitute leader for the day, and I’ve often been into MCIW and worked with both Touchstones classes since 2015. And I’ve run Touchstones programs in men’s prisons since the 1990s. No matter how often one goes in, each visit has its own poignancy.

In prison, one confronts wasted lives and people filled with remorse. Holidays are especially difficult for prisoners, many of whom rarely or never have visitors. I remember going in for Christmas one year at the House of Corrections, where I hung coats as men lucky enough to have guests squeezed a year of parenting into four hours with their sons and daughters. At the men’s medium security facility years later, I shared in the grief felt by our group when one of their most revered fellow-prisoners—a longtime Touchstones participant and leader—was released after 37 years only to die suddenly a week later. But where does one find more absence and longing and sadness than in a women’s prison on Valentine’s Day?

Our classes at MCIW begin after lunch, so the women don’t always arrive on time. Ms. Powell’s GED class typically starts with four or five participants and reaches its typical size of eight or nine after 10 minutes. But on Valentine’s Day, there were 15 women prisoners waiting for me.

Most women in prison have suffered abuse from the men in their lives: fathers, uncles, lovers, husbands, pimps, and others they trusted or needed. The abuse starts early and tends to continue into their adult lives, as the women make unhealthy choices in intimate relations. The abuse destroys their sense of self-worth and their ability to trust.

Our Touchstones text for discussion that day was a few short sentences from the ancient thinker Heraclitus. While these remnants can be illuminating, Heraclitus himself was known as dark, gloomy, and obscure. Each of his sentences were about knowledge, understanding, and listening. I read the fragments aloud in our well-formed circle and then heard the women’s questions.

In these groups, we share our ideas from the beginning. “Why is it hard to listen?” came up many times. So that’s where I started. About 10 minutes into the discussion, a woman who had deliberately seated herself slightly back from the circle spoke. I had expected her not to participate because she had chosen to sit as she had; one learns to give people time and space to become comfortable. She brought us back to the question, saying it is hard to listen because you need first to trust. When I and others agreed that trusting one another was hard, she corrected us. “Trusting someone else is only possible,” she said, “if you trust yourself.” That insight cut through our otherwise conventional answers and resonated with the group. Now everyone was engaged in the discussion, and trust was possible. The women discussed difficult moments of distrust in oneself, without judgment—of themselves or others. And we helped each other remember times when trust in ourselves made real change possible. In reflecting on who we have been and can be, we gave ourselves and one another a valentine of hope.

Touchstones Texts: Tools for Self-reflection and Transformation

By Howard Zeiderman

The role of the text for discussion in Touchstones programs is perhaps the Project’s most complicated and counter-intuitive feature. A touchstone originally meant a tool—a particular type of stone — that was used to evaluate the purity of gold. This name is appropriate for our work in education because we see texts as tools and not as they are more traditionally viewed: a source of information, knowledge, motivation, or wisdom. While most texts indeed convey those other elements, in Touchstones programs the text is intended to be used purposefully for a different set of outcomes. However, most Touchstones leaders are teachers. And teachers are typically trained to engage with texts as outlined above. Therefore, Touchstones texts can be easily misunderstood unless they are seen within the context of our programmatic goals and skill-building.

Many educators mistake the collections of Touchstones texts for anthologies that they can pick from or substitute for, as they wish. We often hear of English-Language Arts teachers who skip the math texts because they think no one will know how to discuss them or because they themselves are uncomfortable with them. That is precisely part of the reason for including them: to highlight and examine the structures in our culture that reinforce belief-systems that some people are legitimate speakers and some are not. Those structures must be challenged and dismantled.

Touchstones is a systematic program through which a group of participants becomes capable of genuine exploration that includes all participants. In this environment, leadership and responsibility for the group’s success are eventually shared. The Touchstones text serves as one of the tools for building inclusivity and collaboration. All Touchstones groups develop through four sequential stages: participation, cooperation, listening, and leadership. In each stage, the selected texts play essential, integral, and strategic roles. They are always coordinated with three elements:

• a group’s experience and history
• the dynamic process of discussion itself and group self-evaluation
• Touchstones’ overarching educational goals of fostering independent, confident, critical thinkers who employ diverse points of view in complex problem-solving

Unlike in an anthology, the positioning of the Touchstones text is not thematic, historical, or simply a matter of choice. The Touchstones lesson plan in which the text is embedded provides the instructional support to effectively empower students to explore their own thinking together and in relation to the text. This gradual development of a collaborative group takes time and requires consistent and deliberate focus. The cumulative results are indeed transformational and lasting, as each person learns to see her or his individual talents and how they can share these while gaining from others.