Each September I welcome over 100 new students and learners into my classroom. And each year by around mid-September, I begin to note they walk a bit slower, their shoulders droop a bit more, they flop in their chairs rather than sit attentively, and they wonder less. And this is not for lack of trying. I pepper our days with varied rituals and routines intentionally designed to get students up and moving, or which challenge them creatively or critically, to think in new ways. We engage in improv theater activities, collective storytelling, and group work that challenges them at their creative core.
However, each year when I introduce them to the Touchstones Discussion Project (www.touchstones.org) they perk up. This year has been no exception. My 9th and 10th-grade students just finished their first discussion on Monday, and their responses to the process were as insightful and revealing as ever.
“Much different than any other discussion I’ve had. We actually got to ask questions.”
“Instead of the teacher asking questions with definite answers, getting the answers and moving on, we actually built off each others’ ideas.
“I like how Mr. Heidt stayed on the side of the discussion, helping to guide us but not judging our answers.”
These responses are but a few from my 9th graders this year, but they are not unusual. The Touchstones Discussion Project opens students to themselves, the importance of their language and their listening, as well as to the importance of community in all they learn. And Touchstones does this better than any project I’ve experienced in 25 years in the classroom.
A quick look at the opening discussion from the High School Volume 1 text proves why:
“Touchstones discussions differ from your regular classes.
1. Everyone sits in a circle.
2. The teacher is a member of the group and will help, but isn’t the authority who gives the correct answers.
3. There is no hand-raising; instead, everyone will learn how to run the discussion.
4. No one does homework for this class.”
No hand raising? The teacher is a member of the group? Students learn how to run the discussion? Sure, programs that seek to level power structures in the classroom are numerous. However, few of them are as thorough and deliberate in their intention as Touchstones. And none of them are as focused on developing the skills necessary to engage in civil discussion as Touchstones.
Over the course of a year, students experience 30 discussions in which they are guided to pay careful attention to the dynamics of their discussions, from their troubles and successes in coming together as a group, to listening to others, to developing themselves as leaders of the discussion.
This focus on the process of the discussion rather than merely analyzing and discussing texts shifts the students into a different role. It problematizes their traditional understandings of the purpose of texts, of what it means to be a student in the classroom, and it empowers them to see themselves as creators of meaning and structure.
Touchstones calls their attention to their power as self-directed learners, offers them guidance, and helps them take charge of their own learning.
Indeed, so “different” is this method from what most of them have experienced in their public school classes that when asked to choose a goal for themselves for the year, their rationales indicate a recognition of the potential this kind of class has for them. And while their rationales may be brief, they are honest and incisive in their insight:
“I want to ‘admit when I’m wrong.’ As a person with very definite opinions, I think I’m always right. It’s very hard to change what I think.”
“I would like to ‘become more aware of how others see me.’ I’ve never really thought about how I or my standpoints come off to others.”
“I would like to get better at ‘speaking with everyone…whether you know them or not’ because sometimes I go straight to my friends, even if I know what they will say. It would be good to talk to everyone.”
“I would like to ‘admit when I am wrong’ because I rarely admit when I’m wrong and I don’t let my ideas change. I want to become more open and respectful of people’s ideas.”
I am not so naive as to think that 4, 10, even 12 years of exposure to all levels of Touchstones would help us resolve our own issues with civil discussion at all levels of the social strata in our country, but it couldn’t hurt. And the costs? A day-a-week or every other week. Surely a democracy is worth at least as much.
I was a young teacher, barely 4 years into my career, when I first encountered the Touchstones Discussion Program. One year later I wrote a statement about how Touchstones had shifted my understanding of myself as a learner and a teacher. That statement has become my personal philosophy as a teacher:
“When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”
I realize the success of programs like Touchstones are driven by the passion, dedication, and pedagogical beliefs of the teacher. There are still too few teachers willing to engage with learners on a playing field of leveled power. But if you agree to risk your power status, to shift your position to that of Lead Learner rather than “teacher” you will realize a seismic shift in your work. I guarantee it. And if you are there already?? Well, so much the better to have another arrow for student voice and inquiry in your quiver.