Tag Archive for: Online Learning

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.


Screened-In Summer Programs

By Abraham Zhao

Has everyone started using “Zoom”, “Google Meet,” or “Microsoft Teams” in their daily vocabulary yet? Zoom became a part of my daily vernacular when I ran two Touchstones Discussion Programs for middle schoolers this summer. During those sessions, I spent every weekday excitedly logging into Zoom meetings with groups of 5th-8th graders from around the country. In my first program, I used lessons from the Touchstones Math and Science volume: Where’d They Get that Idea? For the second program, I switched to Touchstones Volume B, to build on and broaden our initial examinations. Our journey took us from wondering how our perception of the world affects our scientific methods to asking if speeches can be as true as mathematical equations. And we talked about how life in isolation changes people. Importantly, the group learned to be open and honest about their own attitudes in the discussions. It was incredible to see students make real efforts to listen to one another and change their own behavior to benefit their peers.

Running two different summer programs showed me firsthand how much work it takes to run an effective Touchstones group. Readers may already know how our phenomenal facilitators make running a good discussion look as easy as breathing. But in facilitating these groups myself, I gained a newfound level of respect for these incredible individuals. Intimate and thorough lesson planning is critical for new Touchstones teachers. So are the social skills required to navigate human dynamics. One must be prepared for the frustrations that arise during hectic debates. And patience and self-restraint are key, so students arrive at their own conclusions. Throughout the programs, I was deeply impacted by my experience with the Teacher’s Guides and their role in my own development. Every minute I spent reading the thoughtfully crafted lesson plans was immeasurably helpful. Questions suggested in the lessons genuinely interested students. Even in these shortened programs, I could see the positive change for which Touchstones is so well known.

My students had a great experience with the program, too. In the post-program survey, one wrote, “This was an experience that helped me grow in terms of how I think and how I work together with other people in a group.” A participant from Maryland’s Prince George’s County said, “We often take a person or textbook’s point of view and never explore the why. After completing this program, I started to ask more questions to gain a better understanding.” Even our younger participants found their voices in the program—something that doesn’t always happen in groups with multiple grade levels. One of those students shared, “Touchstones is a great way to learn how to listen to and hear other people. It has helped me feel more comfortable speaking up in public.”

The Touchstones 2020 Summer Programs were a great way to test our school programs in digital classrooms. We saw opportunities to adapt our materials for greater inclusivity. And we were able to see what teachers need to anticipate as they provide their own students with opportunities for active learning. This project gave us an architecture for future online programs—ones where students maintain a collaborative spirit while powering through what’s surely to be a crazy year. I look forward to all the ways that Touchstones and other educational program entrepreneurs will produce dynamic, resilient learning models in the face of this crisis.

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.

Hard Work And Bittersweet Fruit

By Stefanie Takacs

In our April and July newsletters, we wrote about our Saturday community discussions—one of our early responses to being physically isolated from others. Six months into that program, which runs online every other weekend, it remains a serious commitment yielding bittersweet fruit. We’re committed to addressing the difficult issues each of us faces in our own communities. And there is significant preparation needed to lead discussions on emotionally charged and challenging topics. As we say to those whom we train, a Touchstones discussion leader is both the bridge and the conscience for a group. My responsibilities are to all participants and the group overall. I can’t ask others to delve into issues of rights, bias, and prejudice if I’m not also doing that work.

Each meeting, we raise a question about how we’re thinking and why—as individuals in a complex society. Before sharing the text this past weekend, I asked, “How do we assess what we see?” Like everyone else in the discussion, I am trying to recognize the underlying structures that shape my own perceptions and thinking. It’s not easy, but it is necessary. In our discussions, we are actively working to build a community that overcomes centuries of exclusionary habits tied to power.

A Shady Nook, by Loïs Mailou Jones, was the text for our most recent community discussion. It graces the cover of the Touchstones Volume, Exploring American Perspectives.

The group has read and discussed many excerpts, including ones from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and MLK’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. We’ve used those texts and our own experiences to examine who does and doesn’t have a voice and why. This week we explored a painting by Loïs Mailou Jones, who left the U.S. to work in Paris because there was no recognition or place here for Black artists.

What is it about this program that brings others together, discussion after discussion, in courageous vulnerability? The reasons are as diverse as the participants themselves:


“First of all, I enjoy the intellectual stimulation. Living (with two master’s degrees) in a very small rural island community of fishermen, and having three people ages 5, 10, and 13 years old as my colleagues, I sometimes feel I am not meeting my full potential. [These] discussions help me feel connected to a larger community of people seeking understanding. Secondly, I like the practice I am getting. Soon I will be leading a group of students in Touchstones discussions. Engaging in discourse does not come naturally to me. Our Saturday group makes me feel like I am being heard and what I say matters, which makes me feel valued. As a first-generation Hispanic woman, I have been marginalized in many ways. I hide behind my taken surname, keeping it even after a divorce, to mask my origins…. This last meeting, I felt like I had more ownership. Thank you for inviting me in.” — Laura

“The opportunity to reach outside my own thoughts and let the thoughts and ideas of others resonate, echo, amplify, or challenge my own provides perspective and community that reaffirms my belief in discourse as central to our educations, no matter how old we are.” — Gary

“Touchstones community discussions by Zoom achieve what radio, television, and internet apps have long dreamed of—building true communities and expanding human horizons. They tune the soul, transforming dissonance through simple ground rules into beautiful music, grounding and inspiring one to see the world and its possibilities anew. No small feat.” — Tom

Recent Fiction as Navigating an Emerging and a Virtual World

A New Touchstones Discussion Program

Since late spring, once a month 12 professionals— lawyers, CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs—sign onto a ZOOM meeting to spend 90 minutes together in a Touchstones discussion. Like all Touchstones programs, this virtual program uses selected texts— in this case recent short-fiction by writers such as Borges, Calvino, Handke, and Hazzard. These works function as tools, touchstones, to make our emerging world more visible. Undertaking this in a virtual form is a relatively new departure as we chart a course both by exploring these recent modes of fiction and engaging in authentic inquiry via a virtual platform.

Although we’ve piloted online programs in the past, we’ve affirmed this spring that our unique, decades long and tested approach in the concrete Touchstones face-to-face experience translates richly and effectively into virtual discussions. These meetings equal both the intimacy and collaborative power of our traditional environment and, like explorations in person, create a venue for full and balanced participation with room for everyone’s talents and insights. One participant, a CEO from a major marketing corporation with prior experience running Touchstones groups said he was stunned at the extremely high level of engagement and in certain respects even preferred the virtual sessions. A successful entrepreneur from the Midwest who is also involved in internet marketing said he finds this Touchstones program an important vehicle for igniting his thinking and expanding his horizons. Participants come in from every time zone in the continental U.S., effortlessly overcoming geographic distance with remarkable ease and connecting meaningfully with others from diverse communities and professions.

Our foray into online executive programs began six years ago in piloting Mapping the Future with nine highly experienced Touchstones participants. Mapping serves as the backbone of our executive work because it develops a deepened and collaborative organizational culture. In that pilot, the group felt a virtual format offered many exciting possibilities, but issues of connectivity and bandwidth were problematic. High-speed access has improved significantly and new platforms such as Zoom offer tremendous adaptability.

In creating the new Touchstones custom program, we offered additional guidelines for online interaction: participants do not mute their microphones and the private chat tool is not allowed. Everything remains public and available to all— with few barriers to entry into the discussion. The use of breakout rooms enables small group work where teams of two to apply the Touchstones method to examine leadership issues. And polls, creatively designed, allow the group more detailed assessment of their dynamics. Even Touchstones speech maps can play a useful role, as they capture the flow and patterns in speaking. Although the current group has 12 participants, we’re considering expanding future group sizes to 18-20 participants.

We believe providing exceptional experiences in both in-person and virtual discussion programs strengthens our position as leaders in innovation and education. We will keep you current on these ground-breaking initiatives, as we seek opportunities to engage more leaders from around the country and the world in Touchstones.

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.

Shaping the New Normal

By Jenn Macris

Like other non-profits, businesses and organizations around the world, Touchstones is moving forward in the new normal we all face due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to loyal donors and generous foundations, our good work in education continues. We are especially pleased to announce that Touchstones was awarded, for a second year, a $20,000 grant from Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT) to continue our weekly discussion programs in the school at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCI-W) in Jessup, MD. Our AAWGT grant liaisons, who participated in that program at the prison in March, were able to see firsthand how their philanthropic investment in Touchstones is helping women inside to change their lives.

Cindy Whittle, one of our liaisons from AAWGT, recently shared this about her own experience and thoughts on Touchstones receiving another grant for this program: “I have truly enjoyed seeing the Touchstones program in action. It was an emotional experience to see the women at Jessup embracing the discussions and committing to the process. I was touched by the level of engagement and the thoughtful way participants respond to each other. Touchstones empowers the women to make better choices, to understand other participants’ viewpoints, and is an asset for these women. I am so pleased that AAWGT understood that and voted to extend the funding for another year.”

Although the prison program will look different due to additional safety measures when programming starts again, the core teaching and learning together will remain the same. This will be true even if our discussions initially take place with Touchstones staff joining remotely. We look forward to working with the prison school staff and the women incarcerated at MCI-W with a renewed focus on strengthening skills of civil discourse, reflective thinking, and cooperative learning—skills that serve us all well. Working together, we’ll honor each other’s experiences and ideas and strive to establish the mutual trust and regard we know is required for collaborative learning.

In addition to our renewed partnership with AAWGT, Touchstones hopes to further develop existing partnerships with two other local organizations: Girl Scouts of Central Maryland (GSCM) and Seeds 4 Success. Last year, we worked with the Girl Scouts to produce a unique program at the Waxter Juvenile Detention Center for young women in Laurel, MD, which GSCM is hoping to expand. Likewise, Seeds 4 Success, which provides comprehensive, intensive, and academically focused programs to low-income youth and their families in Annapolis, has applied for a grant to bring Touchstones programs with a community engagement and civic leadership focus to afterschool programming at high schools across Anne Arundel County, MD.

The Touchstones staff is excited to move forward with each of these partnerships and continue our vital endeavors—be it in person or virtually—to foster critical thinking, collaboration, and community. For 34 years, we’ve been developing and implementing programs that yield a more inclusive, respectful, and connected society. Never before has our country been as ready as they are now to join us in these crucial endeavors.

Adapting to a Remote- Access World

By Abraham Zhao

The staff at Touchstones is hard at work making necessary transitions in this new educational environment online. Some teachers we have talked with believe the shape and nature of education has permanently changed due to the pandemic. I am inclined to agree. The coronavirus crisis has demanded adaptability from all walks of life and it seems the adaptations our education systems have made so far will remain as features of teaching even as things (hopefully) return to normal. While Touchstones is still fundamentally based on the in-person discussion experience, we have been exploring various ways to bring our tried and tested developmental programs successfully into the new, remote-access world.

Already this spring, we began converting our discussion curricula into digitally accessible formats. Schools from Canada, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, have already used those materials in different online environments. Sometimes the Touchstones classes are run in real-time with students connecting by video and other times students are conducting their discussion using written comments over several days.

For the foreseeable future, our workshops will be delivered online. Our staff has conducted a number of training and coaching sessions using Zoom and has run Teacher Meetups and Community Discussion programs twice monthly since March. To help set the stage for constructive and inclusive discussions, we developed guidelines that encourage collaboration as much as possible.

And the best news is that we have seen great results. Just recently, Touchstones ran a two-day workshop for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System in Maine. The school district has chosen Touchstones curricula as a complement to the work they are already doing to foster students’ critical thinking but also to achieve new standards in civil discourse. My role was primarily to support the workshop’s technological requirements and the group in action but also to engage directly with teachers for certain activities, including small group work. We were all relieved that there were almost no technical issues during the workshop (aside from two times when connectivity was briefly interrupted). And the participants helpfully followed our guidelines.

Using many of the tools provided in Zoom for breakout rooms and polling, we’re able to translate the small group work and evaluation that is central in the Touchstones method. The fluidity in the online delivery supported the same engagement, reflection, and authentic connections and bonds among participants that form during in-person workshops.

Over the two days, the group grew noticeably in their discussion skills and collaboration. Their evaluations revealed new insights and understanding. Most importantly, we heard them express how the workshop helped them identify better with their students as learners in this environment— to more fully anticipate what types of support their students will need as they get started with Touchstones this fall.

Shelagh McLoughlin, a high school social studies teacher, wrote of her experience afterward, “You provided such guidance with a steady hand, not shaming but asking us all to reflect and think critically. I feel so connected to our group, it feels strange not to be meeting again tomorrow… . Everything is just so intentional I love every aspect of this and really think it will help all of us not just in our classrooms but with our professional relationships as well. Thank you for doing this work with us and so many groups around the world. The world certainly needs to talk to each other.”

Our Approach to Uncertainty

By Stefanie Takacs

We at Touchstones are well-versed in and quite comfortable with situations of high uncertainty—what is more unpredictable than a Touchstones workshop or discussion or more uncertain than entering a prison? However, there is little experience that adequately prepares one for a crisis such as the COVID- 19 emergency. Fortunately, our organization has an incredibly talented and dedicated Board of Directors and nimble staff. I want to share some of what we are doing to ensure as much long-term organizational stability as possible while continuing to meet our mission.

Weeks prior to the Governor of Maryland declaring a state of emergency or imposing a stay-at-home mandate, we felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic from the West Coast. Anticipating a national crisis, we took steps to ensure staff could safely and effectively work remotely, which we are now doing. When earned income from Touchstones books and educational services came to a grinding halt in early March, we immediately worked with teachers, schools, districts and other clients to assure them we will be here when they return to normal operating. And when face-to- face executive and community programming was no longer an option, we transitioned to online discussion meetings where possible.

Because Touchstones has been a hybridized social venture non-profit for decades, we’ve learned through hard-earned experience that times of great adversity require tremendous creativity, focus, and flexibility. To meet the challenges and needs teachers and people everywhere are facing now, we’re bringing together educators in online discussions to share their needs and—in true Touchstones fashion—teach and learn together by asking questions and sharing ideas and knowledge. We’re also running online discussions open to the community, so people can meaningfully connect at a time of profound confusion. And we’re providing continued, individualized support to clients by offering digital access to materials teachers, schools, and districts have already purchased, as well as guidance about how to bring Touchstones to life in the digital realm.

We are also asking for special support from funders and donors to cover salary and general operating and have completed applications for both State grants and Federal loans, so we remain fully able to serve people during and after this crisis. Most importantly, we remain profoundly thankful to everyone in the extended Touchstones family for your encouragement and continued engagement and wish you all good health and safety.