Tag Archive for: Middle School

Touchstones Spotlight on Shalini Jasti

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. 

Touchstones Spotlight on Stacy Pecha

Interview by Brittany Usiak, K-12 and Adult Programs Manager


It’s time for another Touchstones Spotlight!Stacy holding a copy of Touchstones Courage to Care book In this post, we’re shining the spotlight on Stacy Pecha, a 7th grade teacher at Selkirk Middle School in Washington who uses Courage to Care, Building Community Through Service with her Debate and Public Speaking elective class. Although she was introduced to Touchstones in 1996 and briefly used it in another district, this is her second year using the program consistently. Even in this short time, she’s seen growth in herself and her students in key discussion skills! Stacy is the only one at her school using Touchstones – as many of our teachers are. If you’re a teacher using Touchstones, and you’d like to connect with our global educator community, join our new group, exclusively for Touchstones teachers to share tips, strategies, and ideas, and build community. We’d love to have you!

What do you love about Touchstones?

Students have lost the art and fundamentals of productive discussion – especially LISTENING to each other. Touchstones helps to foster that skill.

How have you seen yourself develop as a discussion leader?
It’s a work in progress – I am getting better at noticing subtle body language, indicating that a student wants to add something. I’ve also noticed that I consistently want to be the “rescuer” when there are awkward moments of silence. (Teacher habit!)

How have you seen your students develop through Touchstones?
My students are getting better at TAKING TURNS – waiting and watching for the right time to add to the discussion. I think they appreciate that there are no wrong answers, their thoughts may spark a different conversation or promote a different point of view – but it is not wrong.

Can you share a memorable moment from your Touchstones classes?
I love the moments when the students are actually disappointed when our time runs out and want to keep the conversation going.

What do you want others to know about Touchstones?
The curriculum is progressive. You cannot base your success with Touchstones on the first few lessons or discussions, it is a practice and keeps evolving! Stick with it!

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!

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.