I encourage my students' civic voice through the Touchstones Discussion Program

#CivicVoices @touchpebbles discuss. prog. builds confidence and competence in civil discussion and deep learning in all areas.

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@TeachersGuild i encourage Ss Civ. voices by coaching Speech and Debate. Also, 20 + yrs w/ Touchstones disc. Prog. #civicvoices

— Garreth Heidt (@Ed_by_design) September 13, 2016


[Optional] Synthesize a little! What's one take away or insight to leave people with?

Confidence in public discussions=confidence in civic roles

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One last build up of this process: 

Touchstones discussions to promote civil discussion and civic engagement outside the classroom or as a leader within his or her community?

I have two responses. The first is that I also use Touchstones in the classes I teach for a local teachers’ college. Exposing teachers to the program not only for the program itself but as a way to expose teachers to the wider concept of how discussion can be mediated and used as a teaching method, technique for prewriting, and as an alternative to the “win-lose” competitive nature of debates helps me to speak to the civic goal of education. Few teacher recall that there are at least three specific goals of public education in America: the personal goal (help each child realize and utilize their talents for their own as well as community benefit), the economic goal (a thriving economy propels the capitalist democracy to higher levels of achievement and discovery), and the civic goal (in a democracy, when civil discussion breaks down, when Jerry Springer and “Soledad and Sununu” are the only models we have of civil discussion, we are doomed to follow the lesser angels of our nature and the democracy will fail in a more or less Hobbesian fashion). I take these goals seriously, and there’s only one program that I use “straight out of the box” that helps me meet the civic and personal goals at the depth I desire, and that is the Touchstones Discussion Project.

But let me state as well that I’d not be a teacher if I were not also constantly learning and bettering myself. My students, our experiences in class everyday…they lead me to ever-greater levels of enlightenment. For example, Touchstones has taught me to listen, to understand that the boy I was, the one who used to jump at every chance to offer an answer and who still goads me to voice my opinion on most everything…that boy didn’t have to be in charge, if only I would sit and listen. Because Touchstones is more about listening than it is about talking (at least it should be) for the students and the teacher, I have become a keen listener (modeling my patience and attention on a particularly sagacious member of my local Phi Beta Kappa chapter) and it has made me a better person. My colleagues recognize that skill set and have “rewarded me” with a 10-year-long position as our union spokesperson. Though I have recently resigned this position, I am keenly aware that my ability to address issues calmly, to listen and respond to community concerns in a reasoned and mannered way . . . these are largely based on what Touchstones has taught me about listening before responding. In that way, Touchstones is a very mindful practice. And mindfulness is something truly needed if we seek and healthy and successful democracy.

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So the process of "unschooling" students from the habit of sitting and listening is especially troubling.  I have two decades of experience with this program and only when students engage with it over extended periods do we see true growth.  Many teachers will try things like class discussions or even the Touchstones program and give up after a few classses...the chaos of students trying to manage their own voices in to a productive discussion becomes too much.  My own experience is this:  We mus understand that all learning begins in chaos, but with guidance and urging,  the mind takes over, seeking to find order in the chaos (M.C. Escher: We adore chaos because we love to produce order).  These things take time and a lot of gentle nudging.  But at the end of a full 20--30 sessions with Touchstones or regular engagement with patterned discussions that move the students from guided to self-initiated discussion of texts or artwork or issues...with such regularity, the growth is tremendous and students, even those who might consider themselves introverts, come to understand the value of their own voices in these situations.  

While I no longer have student responses from  my days as a middle school teacher, I did ask for "advice" from my current 10th graders (I loop with students from 9--10)  to the incoming 9th graders regarding the program at the end of last school year.  Below  are several of their responses (I will try to do some empathy interviews with students tomorrow.    What's most important to me as the teacher is that these are the voices of the students speaking to those who come after them, so there's a definite attempt to build community and usher in new voices to a program they have found.

You are in charge.
Quench your passion! Temper your eagerness to jump in and disagree. Be more understanding.
Don’t be afraid because people are appreciative of all ideas.

Don’t box yourself into a certain role by “self-talk” like : “I’m just a listener.” It’s ok to recognize your strengths, but try to diversify and stretch yourself. 
Jump on in! Once you do, it becomes easier.

Don’t worry about silences. Ebbs and Flows are natural in discussions.

Be more open. There will always be differences of opinion.

Have fun, but connect with each others ideas.

Don’t judge yourself for not speaking every time. Listening is important.

And finally, this more lengthy response, which I sent to the Touchstones Program in Annapolis, MD:

“If I were to say anything to the people starting Touchstones next year, I would tell them to not take it for granted. The Touchstones experience is so unlike anything you will ever find in the rest of your classes. Rarely do you get to just sit there and have a deep discussion with your classmates. Touchstones has really been an enlightening experience for me. I leave each class feeling like I’m different in some way. Students should take advantage of Touchstones because it is such an astounding chance to think deeper and connect with the people around you.”

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Hi Garreth, Thank you so much for this insightful post about teaching students important skills for civil discussions. I would love to hear what students are saying about the program. Check out the Hacktivities. A student empathy interview would be a good next step to get a student perspective.

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So I'm still trying to get a handle on just how this design sprint is different than those in the past and how to use the Hacktivities.  Your suggestion here seems to help me in that direction.  I've used the empathy interview format with my design-lab students when they were interviewing users in our classroom redesign, so I can certainly engage with that again.  However, I do have responses from student reflections at the end of last year (after a year of the project) that might also be useful.  I'll pull something together.  Thanks.

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Hi Garreth, I would love to see the student reflections. They would give some good insight that others could use as we move forward into ideate. The student interview would be great if you have time.