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Touchstones Discussions

Touchstones grew out of more than twenty years of experience with the successes and challenges of the seminar program at Saint John’s College, in Annapolis, Maryland. The Touchstones approach to leading discussion groups is grounded in a series of reflections on the nature of collaboration; the relationship between texts and personal experience; the ways in which authority, expertise, and power impede mutual cooperation; and the obstacles that hinder the examination of our most fundamental assumptions about the world in which we live.

Over 250,000 students have participated in Touchstones’ discussion programs. Most importantly, a Touchstones Discussion includes and challenges students of all abilities. While gifted students learn to articulate their thoughts more clearly and to listen to the contributions of their peers, struggling students and students in the middle-those who are often ignored or marginalized-participate in all the activities as equals. In addition to reaching all students equally within a particular class, our school programs are successful in all parts of the country and at a number of other sites around the world. The program is used throughout United States, though most heavily in California and in the Northeast, and is also used abroad in China, Burma, Haiti, South Africa, and Chile.

Touchstones not only helps students think independently and cooperate with others, but it also helps prepare students to be engaged and thoughtful citizens of our republic, our communities, and our places of work. The habits that students learn in Touchstones are especially needed in a time that requires a serious re-commitment to the founding principles of our nation. We all need to respect the rights and dignity of others and to collaborate as citizens to provide an education that enables individuals of all abilities to succeed in a rapidly changing world. The work of the Touchstones Discussion Project is just one attempt to make good on this responsibility.

The Touchstones Discussion Project is the result of more than two decades of observation and experimentation within the seminar-based Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. The primary goal of Touchstones is to build the skills necessary for teachers and students to take part in group discussions without imposing artificial constructs (such as hand-raising, a ‘talking stick’, or a ‘hot seat’) or strict limits on the number or kind of student contributions. These sorts of tools are useful as occasional experiments in group process, but within a Touchstones Program, they are not seen as permanent solutions to issues of group dynamics.

Touchstones materials are intended to be more than merely a great collection of seminar texts-the Teacher’s Guides are also a training course in discussion moderation. Touchstones focuses on process, believing that internalization of the skills necessary to engage in group discussion is a prerequisite to working with groups on other tasks, such as high-level textual analysis or collaborative problem solving. In the end, the three models outlined above each provide teachers with the tools necessary to engage their students in worthwhile seminars in the classroom. Through our work, we have encountered teachers, trainers, and others who are passionately committed to encouraging student discourse, and each has found the particular structure that works for them. What we all have in common is a commitment to helping our students appreciate the struggle that comes with exploring complex ideas, develop the skills necessary to explore problems that have no definite solutions, and learn to work with one another to find meaning. If you are engaging in some form of this work in your classroom, you are helping your students better navigate their world.

Resource Link: www.touchstones.org

Mailing address: Touchstones Discussion Project, PO Box 2329, Annapolis, MD 21404-2329

Physical offices are located at: Touchstones Discussion Project, 143 Log Canoe Circle, Stevensville, MD 21666

For more information, please call 410-604-3309 or send an email to schoolprograms@touchstones.org

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