Tag Archive for: High School

Commitment To Civics

By Howard Zeiderman

Early this year, the Mt. Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) contacted Touchstones. They wanted to take a great step forward for their students and community by implementing a district-wide civics program. And they wanted Touchstones to be a core part of their new curriculum. When the pandemic struck, even the best laid plans of in-person workshops evaporated. However, persistence from the dedicated leaders at MDIRSS ensured their evolving civics program moved forward. They are launching it even as they begin this school year remotely. By the time you read this, many of their middle and high school students will already have started exploring the central role of civil discourse in American civics.

As part of the district’s preparation, Touchstones engaged more than 20 MDIRSS educators in two days of online professional development in mid-June. As Julie Melzer, Director of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction and Title IX Coordinator, wrote afterward, “[The] facilitation was excellent. [Their] calm demeanor and articulate responses to all questions was impressive. I’m looking forward to working with them throughout the coming year.” To ensure teachers were fully ready to implement online, the same group then spent a day in August participating in model classes. The middle school teachers participated first in Lesson 1, as high school teachers observed. Then the teachers swapped virtual seats and roles, to experience both the Touchstones discussion class and role of observer. In the afternoon, we used the same format as both groups participated in Lesson 2 of their respective volumes. After each session, the teachers—participants and observers alike—discussed and evaluated the modeling. Because most virtual classes in the district will include 12-15 students, the teachers will use a similar approach within their own classes of students.

The teachers’ feedback afterward made clear how valuable the observer and participant structure can be to seeing how Touchstones works—how it deliberately addresses student interaction and outcomes. As one teacher reported, “It was wonderful to investigate and try out a genuine cooperative learning approach, which really does help eliminate anxiety, fear of speaking, or fears of not being heard. I’ve never experienced a workshop like this, and I can’t wait to begin with students in the fall.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the world into unpredictable and unexpected situations. Months into this crisis, it is still unclear what a return to “normal” will entail. Though many professional exchanges previously straddled the physical and digital worlds, it’s clear now that education must prepare students with highly effective communication, collaboration, and leadership skills in both environments. MDIRSS’s choice of Touchstones for their teachers and students promotes the longstanding value of civics-centered education while reinforcing the centrality of civil and inclusive discourse in our democracy.

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.