Listen: A Guiding Power in a World Between Worlds

If you’ve followed my blog here for a while, you’ll know I champion speaking and listening as cornerstones of my classroom. And while I was an accomplished student in my HS and College seminar classes, it wasn’t until my introduction to and adoption of the Touchstones Discussion Project in 1996 that I shifted not only how I used speaking and listening in the classroom, but also the entire culture of the classroom and, without question, my own identity as a teacher.

10th grade students in a Touchstones Discussion

Over the course of 25 years, I have used several different iterations of Touchstones. I have attended workshops, invited one of the founder’s and the executive director to my school, and joined the project’s board of directors. And I have never stopped using the project and honoring the power of student voice and story in my classroom. From middle school, to high school, to college classrooms, my students have explored and struggled (productively) through now countless sessions learning how to self-manage and lead their own discussions in civil and synergistic ways. And learning, perhaps, one of the greatest things of all, the ability to listen actively with the intention of understanding, and not merely responding with the echoing din of one’s loud opinion.

Listen… the world needs more of this learning right now. In fact, deep, empathetic communication represents the only way I can see out of the crises we find ourselves in. The philosopher Zachary Stein’s 2018 book, Education in a Time Between Worlds, as well as the work of the others in the “Integral Theory”/Meta-Modernity movement, lays out the changes facing us rather clearly: “We live in a time of global transformation, when major social and natural systems are in transition, and our only hope of survival is to find ways to support future generations in their development and learning” (Stein 2).

What greater support could we offer future generations than the development of active, empathetic listeners who seek connection rather than competition, community over conflict, and who can navigate with calm through the chaos.

The Touchstones Discussion Project develops just such skills

Listen…In 28 years in the classroom, 27 years as a speech and debate coach, and countless years as a speaker and presenter on education, nothing I’ve ever encountered comes close to building the cognitive and social skills that accrue through regular participation in the Touchstones Discussion Project.

Touchstones is used in 47 different countries, has touched the lives of over 5 million students worldwide, is used in prisons, women’s correctional facilities, with veterans returning from war-torn lands, and is has been used in executive sessions with leaders of billion-dollar, multinational companies for decades. Few educational products have such history of broad success.

Listen…supporting a generation in developing these kinds of skills is not easy, but it will be impossible if we do not understand that teaching is, at its heart, a relational event, not merely a transactional one–ie. deep learning happens only when the heart and the head are aligned. It cannot be forced, it follows no schedule, and it abides no dictates. But it flourishes, as does our humanity, in environments where all voices are heard, all ideas are honored, and all spirits bring light to the existence of each other.

Touchstones Discussion Project skills visualization

Listen…such a community in a classroom is possible. I’ve cultivated it with Touchstones as its fertile soil for over 20 years. And an education that grows in such an environment and is nurtured and tended to by caring, future oriented mentors will be the only way to reimagine humanity with any hope of reaching the 22nd century better than we find ourselves now.

“Only Connect”: On using dialogical methods to reform the toxic culture of communication

Adobe Spark (1)Today was Sunday, December 30,2018.  As is their wont at the end of a year, the Sunday morning news programs ran their “year in review” discussions.  Face the Nation ended their broadcast with several of the pundits lamenting the loss of common experiences.  Locked behind doors, our screens as portals to personal experiences, or to siloed experiences, we lack the kind of publicly shared, common wonderings that used to create, if not unity, at least a sense of community.  Where once we couldn’t walk down a street and look in windows to see 90% of people watching their radios as FDR delivered a fireside chat, we now sit behind LCD screens in gated communities, blithely unaware of our own privilege and prejudices.

Image result for fireside chats

This is not a new phenomenon. We’ve been on this path since the 80s when Newt Gingrich leveraged the power of dissent and gamesmanship to rise to power and, according to Atlantic journalist McKay Coppins, “turned national politics and congressional politics into team sport” (NPR, 2018)  But perhaps 2018 made us understand just how far we’ve gone and forced us to decide whether we want to return to the sort of caring community that listens more than it talks; or whether we want to continue building walls that shelter our fragile opinions, blocking the voices of those who think differently from us and echoing back the words of those with whom we agree.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Waterson

I’ve already made that decision.  Students in my classroom are engaged in dialogical learning throughout the year.  Weekly discussions using the Touchstone Discussion Project, regular Socratic Seminars (I don’t recall where this came from, but whoever did it, I thank you), dialectical notebooks, novel chats, pinwheel discussions (and this example), Literary 3x3s (pages 35–44…Thanks to Dan Ryder @wickeddecent) and the occasional creative dialog  (example here) complete the repertoire. (I leave out here my over 25 years experience as a coach of speech and debate, though surely it is foundational in my use of these methods.)

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Example of an extended, group Literary 3×3 as a reflection on my English Class, 2016

When students learn to listen deeply to their peers (or the works of the authors we study), when they come to class prepared to discuss the texts and issues at hand in a culture of cooperative communication, when they learn that disagreements are chances to understand rather than chances to dig their heels in deeper, when they practice the difficult but necessary task of listening to all ideas, to bearing the silences that naturally populate such conversations as everyone contemplates new and challenging ideas…when all this happens, we learn to open ourselves to new ideas.  This openness develops into a wide and diverse marketplace of ideas where we do not throw rotten tomatoes or nasty tweets at each other.  We toss our opinions into this marketplace so that others can engage, play with, and further develop or respectfully refute our ideas.  Learning, then, is not simply a give and take, not merely the “Chalk and Talk” (though there is a place for that).  Instead, it is a dialogue, an iterative, developmental process in which we all grow and benefit, including the teacher.

(To see this culture far more developed than my own, visit the work of Monte Syrie at https://www.letschangeeducation.com/ )

And while I am an English teacher, such methods are not the sole purview of my discipline.  Courteous, kind, constructive dialogue is at the heart of all learning.  Socrates surely demonstrated this, but the best of our parents or relatives do this as well.  There must be compassionate ears and hearts behind the work we do as students and teachers if we are to reform the toxic culture of our current national dialogue…if we are to (re)learn that we must talk, listen, and seek to “only connect” lest we “surely . . .  hang separately.”