“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.

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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.”

 

How to be Astounded: Volume 1

There are days in the classroom when the experiences my students and I have designed are simply magical, days when the lessons melt from hard, crystallized structures into liquid understandings and we all just float along with the learning.  These are the days where my hard work and planning pay off.  They are rewarding.

howard-zeidermanAnd then there are days where the structures of the class, the routines, and the community are so synergistic that the results are far greater than the sum of their parts…even if it is just for one of the students in the class.

Below I recount, via a series of e-mails, one such day where the class community and the individual, through the method, taught us all more than we ever thought we’d learn.
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(Just a bit of context:  I’ve been using the Touchstones Discussion Project for over 20 years.  I am a member of the board of directors, and I have countless such stories of how it fosters meaningful, thoughtful, dialogue and of how students of any age discover the power they hold in themselves to use their own voices as pathways to powerful learning.  But this story…this is special.)
The E-mail Thread

11/2
Stef, Howard,  [Stef Takacs, Howard Zeiderman:  Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project]

Last year in my HS English classes I began the process of converting from a grading system (which I’ve used for the entirety of my career) to a “grade-less” system in which students are provided ample feedback on substantive work, are asked to reflect on their work and their learning at least once / week, and are then asked to conduct a “grading” conference with me at the end of the MP, because no matter how much I agree with Alfie Kohn, Dylan Wiliam, and others in the “gradeless/scoreless” camp, I still have to put some letter on a grade report.
I’ve outlined what students should include in their conferences, but I’ve not created a recipe for them to follow in terms of how the conference should be conducted.  They are simply told to use the documents I provided regarding how the system works to choose a grade and provide support for that grade in the form of hard evidence and warrants for the validity and applicability of that evidence.  So some students will sit with me and an outline and take me through their documents, others will create a video in which they discuss their progress, and still others find more creative ways to go about it (eg., an “application for a grade”).
To the point, I had a face-to-face conference with a student who has a speech impediment (stuttering).  He had written out a document and moved through it with minimal problem.  When he came to a discussion of Touchstones and the growth he felt (and really, learning that is felt…I know it’s subjective, but learning is a lived experience, and as I do not keep (would not know how to keep) a data driven record of all student’s definite improvement in Touchstones that didn’t in some way alter the dynamics of the discussion, I’ll simply go along with “I felt…” statements for Touchstones)…anyway, he felt that he had grown immensely.  What he wrote is below, but let me preface it 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 told him  I do not grade these discussions and only look for growth over time at the personal and group level.  So here’s what he wrote:
“Out 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 self-improvement.  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.”
I know, from years of speech and debate coaching, that students with speech impediments are often some of the most determined when it comes to the work they do in public speaking, but I never had a student with an impediment like T___’s take part in Touchstones.  His reaction above is a testament to his own drive, something I obviously wouldn’t have known were I simply tallying points on quizzes and tests and “averaging” them out for a grade.  But moreover, it is a testament to the “system,” as T___ calls it, of Touchstones and system’s 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 “system” of school generally ignores.
Thank you again,

 

Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_________________________________________________________
(Reply from Howard Zeiderman, Co-Founder of the Touchstones Discussion Project)
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Howard Zeiderman, CoFounder of Touchstones Discussion Project

Dear T___,
I am very grateful for your thoughts about Touchstones. At 6 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. And that still persists. In confronting stuttering you must master many synonyms but the one phrase that is unique is one’s name. And of course, when you are desperate to speak, as when you are asked or expected to share your name, you frequently bite your tongue which makes it even worse.
My stutter was not the reason I created Touchstones but it certainly 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. It is far greater than I ever undertook.
You are a beacon for others as in this new world that is emerging in which 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,
Best,
Howard
_________________________________________________________
My forwarding of Howard Zeiderman’s letter to T___’s Mom and Dad:

Mr. and Mrs. E___:

Mr. Heidt here…T___’s Gifted Honors English teacher.  I wanted to make you aware of something that arose this past week.
On Thursday, T___ and I sat down for an end-of-the-marking-period conference.  As you may be aware through my initial e-mail in late August, Meet the Teacher Night, or through T___ himself, my class is largely “gradeless.”  Thus, these MP-end conferences are like annual reviews in the work world.  They carry a huge impact.  T___ was prepared and presented in a professional manner.
During his conference, he referenced his work in our weekly Touchstones discussions.  What he wrote was moving, and I asked if I could send it to one of the founders of the project and the board of directors (I’m a member of the board as well).  He permitted such.
I know T___ is quite capable and that he has learned ways to cope with his impediment; it does not define him.  I didn’t send his testimony because I was amazed by him.  I sent it because of his honesty.
What you’ll find above is my letter to the board and above that a reply from Howard Zeiderman, one of the co-founders and the man who has led the project over the past 30 years.   I have known Howard Zeiderman for almost a decade.  I did not know what he recounts below.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Garreth Heidt
Gifted & Honors English
Thought Connector
_______________________________________
The Reply from T___’s Mother

Dear Mr. Heidt,

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, Barbara E___

 

Astounded Every Day.

In 1999, after just a year of using Touchstones, I wrote the company via e-mail to tell them how much I appreciate their product.  I tried to couch my wonder at the project into as small a space as possible.

What resulted is a statement of my teaching philosophy.  Where it came from, I cannot recall.  But then that is the magic of words–we often know they came from us, and yet we do not know where they came from.

I’ve never been hesitant to utter these words, and I thank the Touchstones Discussion Project for helping me to find them and set them free into the world.  I think more teachers should have such succinct statements of philosophy:

“Touchstones is a perfect match with my philosophy of education:  When we trust our students, empower them to take charge of their learning, and offer them the necessary guidance, they will astound us.”

This story I’ve recounted…this is just one of years’ worth of astounding words, acts, and learning that I’ve witnessed in Touchstones Discussions.  More children deserve classrooms where they can and can be astonished.  Touchstones is one huge step in that direction.

When Students Realize “This is Different”

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.

High School VolumesHowever, 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.”

IMG_1308No 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.”

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<I know…I see it, too.>

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.

(In the interest of full disclosure, the author notes he is a member of the Touchstones Board of Directors)