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A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself) 

Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt proud of my self”

Apart from making my day/week, this little snippet has been playing on my mind. 

The 9th grade student who shared this reflection has been working with his class and the 2nd graders to design and build a picket fence. It is going to run along the perimeter of the Grade 2 kitchen garden. The 9th graders are working on Geometry, design, cost analysis and construction. The 2nd graders are working on perimeter and area, volume (of water when watering the plants), measurement (as the plants grow) and graphing (all the data they gather during the growing). The Art teacher will use the fence as a canvas for the Grade 2 students to decorate, illuminate, illustrate. I’m taking part as the Woodworking teacher, utilising the skills I learned in high school (and have refined ever since) to help build the fence.

That this 9th grader should highlight the building of a fence as a source of pride is funny on one level, and deeply significant on another.

“Why?” Is the question I am asking myself! What is it about this activity that has resonated for this student in a way that (seemingly) nothing else has?

Is it the fact that he/she is building something? Is it the sense of accomplishment having designed the fence, cut up the timber to create the pieces, drilled the holes and assembled it all? Is it that he/she is working with the 2nd graders and contributing to their learning? Is it that he/she is not sitting at a desk staring at a whiteboard of death by Google Slides? Is it that he/she is getting dirty, getting splinters, risking the amputation of fingers in the power tools, wearing safety goggles and generally making a lot of noise and banging things with big hammers? Is it none of this? Or is it all of this?

Or is it because this is different to what he/she has sat through every day, in every class since August 15 last year?

I intend to find out.

Because once I know, I will let his/her teachers know. And then, they can try to use that piece of information to change the way they teach him/her so that every day, he/she can reflect that his/her learning felt great and that he/she felt proud.

If our students cannot honestly share a reflection like this every day then we need to be doing a better job! Our students should not be coming to school to be bored!

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Do You Need To Change Anything?

Being a BIG proponent of reflecting, I asked everyone to complete a short survey reflecting on our recent Symposium II day of PD. Overall, the responses were positive, but like anything, you can’t please everyone.

Being completely anonymous, the responses were quite candid. One respondent answered, “It was nice to have a wide range of choices. I enjoyed learning with other teachers who I normally don’t have chance to hang around with.” to the What-went-well question. This was balanced by a What-could-improve answer – “Encourage inclusiveness vs. cliques by having beople [sic] work with those who are not in their regular social circles.”

There were some very positive comments – “The workshops offered were interesting, fun, and engaging. They helped us to get out of our comfort zone and learn things that we wanted to learn. It was also nice to be able to put on a workshop about something that we enjoy. Seeing other peoples’ talents also helped me to appreciate and admire the staff more as well.”

Some a little critical (from the What-could-be-improved question) – “Making sure that all teachers went to the sessions. I know of one teacher who skipped out and did grading instead of attending one of the sessions :(. It would be good to make sure all teachers are involved all day.”

And some very critical – “The creativity and fun aspect of the day is certainly a plus. But I question whether “remember what it’s like to be a learner” is a significant enough of a goal to spend an entire day this way. I wonder if the goal were something like “learning about other subjects with the goal of integrating,” it could lead to more valuable learning while maintaining the creative aspects. Then if we have sessions on art and dance and movie making and photography, teachers can learn those skills to better help students develop them and use them in their science and English and Korean and math classes. It might provide a better focus for choosing and developing sessions. And it might result in a bigger impact on teaching and learning. Also, it would have been really helpful if you had asked teachers their opinion about how to spend all three PD days AHEAD of time. Teachers really should be playing an integral role in the planning process of every single PD day at this school.”

My experience in developing these sorts of programs for faculty and staff across a number of different international schools over the past 15 years has led me to know that this range of opinions is expected, and even more importantly, is essential.

As an administrator it is important to know how things can be improved, what worked really well and that some colleagues felt the day was a waste of time. It is important to hear that the value I see in devoting a whole day to professional learning is shared by most, but not by all.

My (possibly controversial) reflection is this…

At it’s core, “Teaching” is about “Learning”. You cannot be a great teacher if you are not a great learner. We spend a lot of time (comparatively) learning about teaching (as expert learners), and in the process learn very little! (Generally, not a lot of our fundamental teaching practices change after a conference or a workshop!) We spend very little time (comparatively) learning about learning. This day of learning was designed in the hope that we would experience what being a NOVICE learner was like again. Because that’s what it is like for your students – EVERY day! Maybe EVERY lesson in a given day! Adults are rarely NOVICE learners. And even more rarely do they spend an entire school day being a NOVICE learner.

Before you begin to teach today, consider what it will feel like as a student to sit in your classroom to LEARN today. Do you need to change anything?

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How Hard Is It? Really.

As an international educator, there is one phrase more than all others that invokes fear. “Recruiting!”

Image Source: http://tiearticles.usprogramming8.com/articles/227.jpg

Those of us who have run the gamut a few times remember with fondness the excitement of the first job fair. The thrill of donning a suit and tie, tucking your CV’s under your arm and lining up at tables advertising Argentina or Israel or Laos or Japan. We remember that excitement. Vaguely.

By the time you hit job fair number three, that excitement has turned to something else. Like having a toothache and knowing there is an inevitable dentist visit on the horizon. Drill. Suction. Spit.

It almost becomes a second job during the months of August, September, October and November. Updating the CV, writing the philosophy statement, getting a decent looking photo, writing the cover letter. Then there’s the job listings. Getting up every morning to check the job openings. Yelling back to your spouse, “How about Ethiopia?” or “What about Kuwait?” or “Where the hell is Bokchovia?”

When the decision to give Bokchovia a shot is made, then comes the research and the application. Find the website. Read the mission statement. What curriculum do they run? How big is it? WHERE is it? How cold does it get? What is the governance structure? Is that really the uniform!!!!

Then comes the cover letter. What is the focus…??? Mission statement? Strategic plan? Me? The fact that I speak Bokchovian? Maybe the fact that I love Bokchovian beer???

It is HARD work. Time consuming work. Done BEFORE and AFTER work. And in the quest to be employed in 10 months time, it is done again and again and again and again and again. To Bokchovia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, North Korea (I’ll go anywhere!), the Southern Hemisphere (almost every school in it!!!!).

And then… you wait.

And you wait.

And you  w  a  i  t.

And you   w   a   i   t

And you     w     a     i     t.

andifyouareluckyyougetaresponse. From one school.

One. Single. School.

Bokchovia sends an automated response, “Thank you for your application.”

Immediately, because you haven’t heard from any other schools (and you’ve begun discussing a “sabbatical year” with your spouse), you start imagining yourself in Bokchovia. Speaking Bokchovian. Drinking Bokchovian beer. You head back to the school website and start imagining yourself in the classrooms and the lunch room. You search YouTube for anything from Bokchovia. You find “Bokchovia’s Got Talent 2014” and spend 23 minutes and 15 seconds (that you will NEVER get back) learning that this is the place for you. Over lunch with your colleagues (the ones you will be leaving) you mention you might be going to Bokchovia. They nod, eyebrows raised. They’ve never heard of it.

And then, as a few more responses come in your colleagues retreat to eat somewhere else because they are tired of hearing where you might go. You become the world expert on which countries have talent and which don’t.

Eventually, if the planets align, the automated response is followed by a request for a Skype interview, which leads to a second Skype interview, then a face-to-face meeting at a job fair and then an offer and a contract. You check the country is still financially sound and politically stable, and sign. Done.

But what about all those schools you applied to and never heard diddly-squat from?

They should have their accreditation revoked, their Superintendent/Headmaster/Director removed and fined a bazillion Bokchovian gringotts!

That’s right! Revoked. Removed. A BAZILLION!!!!

I mean, how hard is it?

How hard is it to automatically send a message to each applicant to say thank you.

Thank you… for taking the time to consider our school and reading through our website. For carefully writing a letter telling us how much you are interested in working for us and for sharing how you think you would be able to help the school grow and develop. Thank you for sharing with us everything there is to know about your professional life and thank you for putting it all in a single PDF file not exceeding 450MB!

With the FREE technology available today, that, “Thank You for considering Bokchovia International School” email is possible to do AUTOMATICALLY! And again, just to press the point, for FREE!

And yet… in my recent experience, less than 25% of all the schools I applied to replied. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Silence. Is there anybody out there?

Image Source: https://media.giphy.com/media/11Wgk9iQJ36hdS/giphy.gif

If you are an administrator at an international school, please realise that the reputation of your school is built on shifting sand. It takes a lot of effort to make it steady and next to nothing to see it come crashing down. Take the time to set up a system that recognises each applicant for their efforts in applying to your school. It is not difficult. It is not expensive. It is a cheap investment.

At the end of my fourth recruiting journey I have been impressed by the schools that responded. Most were automated responses. Some gave the impression of being a real person. One was really real and thanked me for thanking them for the thank you.

I was not impressed by the schools from which I received no response!

Schools are all about communication, and recruiting is the first taste of what’s to come.

How hard is it? Really.

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Perception

A couple of months ago I had a rough couple of weeks. A flight home to deal with some heavy emotional family matters that left me questioning a lot of things I thought were previously unquestionable, feedback letting me know of areas where I have not been performing as well as expected, meetings where the shortcomings of this that and the other have been highlighted, being questioned on decisions I have made and processes I have chosen to implement and follow. And I also realised (after watching one of their pre-season games) my favourite Aussie Rules football team is again hopeless this year! It has been one after the other after the other after the other.

Right now, as I read through this litany of self-pity, it strikes me that you too could read this as a litany of self-pity. One important conversation ago, it was. One important conversation ago, I was struggling to find the positive spin on all the negative. I was humming my favourite Monty Python song but couldn’t for the life of me find the bright side. And then I had the conversation.

Image Credit: http://theologygaming.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/454897499.jpg

It was one I was not looking forward to. It had a good chance of being a difficult one. It was about how I had communicated with someone and how they had perceived the message – what they had read “between the lines” through my choice of vocabulary, FULL CAPS, turn of phrase and overall content.

They were quite blunt. They were honest. I listened. I disagreed. I agreed. I questioned. They answered. I listened. I learned.
The learning, through the conversation, was that the perception of what I had written had become the message, and not the message itself. My message and the reader’s perception of the message were quite different – almost opposite, and the perception won!
This was the conversation that changed my litany of self-pity into something else. It’s not the first time I have learned this truth, but this time I think it will stick.

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“Copy this down…” or don’t. It’s up to you!

From an interesting article about the Primary Years Program… Click here for the full blog post.

If we truly value thinking and creativity, then why would there be a need for students to copy something down. Whether it’s a definition, a list of attributes, or instructions for how to do something, doesn’t the act of expecting students to copy down whatever it is we are looking for steal their thinking? If learning is all about making meaning, aren’t we missing an opportunity to have students construct their own meaning if we are expecting them to copy down someone else’s meaning?

Out of the whole post, this short paragraph has been clunking around in my head more loudly than the other ideas shared within. I’ve been asking myself, “Should teachers be telling students to copy this down?”

When I taught for a year at TongJi Medical University in Wuhan, China (after having taught elementary for four and a half years in Australia) I was introduced to a “copying” culture in my students. Whatever I wrote on the blackboard (with chalk!) was diligently copied into all 45 journals in the room. I didn’t need to say, “Copy this down.” The presumption was that whatever I wrote on the board was important, without necessarily understanding what it was important for. That year made me rethink what I used the blackboard for!

Fast forward twenty years and now we have LCD projectors and interactive whiteboards (not a stick of chalk anywhere!) and the ability to bombard our students with a “blackboard” full of Google or Powerpoint slide after slide after slide after slide of “important” information. My Chinese university students would be most dismayed because they would not possibly be able to copy it all down. And maybe because of that they would begin to ask which information was important to copy, which makes me wonder about why students should take notes at all. Why anyone takes notes at all!

Well, from my personal perspective, I take notes every day. Notes of every meeting I attend. I write down who is there, the date on which it takes place, the time of day and the main things we speak about. If I need to complete a task as a follow-up to the meeting I note that down. But in all of that, the most important element is why. Why I note those things down!

I note those things because I know that in the future I will need those pieces of information for something else I will need to do. Those are the things that are important to remember in order for me to do a good job of being the Principal.

From a student perspective, the WHY should be similarly important. WHY a student is taking notes should drive what notes they are taking. This demands that students actually KNOW what they need their notes for, be it an exam at the end of the week or semester, for a project they are developing or for an essay they might be writing. They must KNOW the criteria around which that task will be assessed. Only then can they determine if what is being presented to them on the “blackboard” is worth copying down.

So when we say, “Copy this down” we are missing the most important part of the whole note-taking process – the CRITICAL THINKING that demands the worth of the information be COMPARED to the demands of the task, to result in a CONSCIOUS DECISION to copy or not to copy.

So when the inevitable student question “Do we need to copy this?” comes up (as we all know it will), try answering with a question instead… “Why might you need to remember this information?”

If the student can’t answer that question then you (or the student) might have bigger problems, but it WILL prompt critical thinking.

Note-taking, as the original blog post mentioned, should be about students making their own meaning from information presented to them. Don’t ask students to “Copy this down”, ask students to be critical about what they think is important* and let them choose!

 

*But make sure you are VERY clear with course goals, expected learning outcomes, assessment criteria and assessment details!

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Be surprised!

Over the Thanksgiving break my family and I visited Jeju Island, South Korea and explored its coastline, its many museums and its other unexpected treats. And of the unexpected variety, there were many!

Hallasan SnowThe tomato wine from the World Liquor Museum, while unexpected, couldn’t really be considered a treat (imagine watered down tomato paste), but finding ourselves in 30cm of snow atop Hallasan on our way across the island to the airport definately was! It was completely unexpected, and my absolute highlight (being the deepest snow I have EVER encountered!) of the long weekend. It changed my perception of Jeju completely!

Admittedly, I really didn’t do much research before we travelled. I had heard a lot about the island from others and thought I had a fairly good impression of what to expect. It was a smallish island, had a couple of international schools, apparently not much to do there, but would be warmer than Seoul so a good place to spend a couple of days. I was largely ignorant.

And it occurred to me my trip to Jeju was similar to how we treat our students.

We think we know who they are based on the conversations we have with other teachers, the lunchroom table chatter and the letters in their gradebook. We don’t take the time to learn about who our students are – what they love to do, what they dislike, what makes them smile, where they have lived, what their parents do, if they have a pet, how long they have lived in this country, what other countries they have lived in, how long they spend on a bus each day just to get to school, etc, etc, etc!

I discovered the snow on Jeju half an hour before I left. Spend some time today finding out about who your students really are – maybe there are some undiscovered highlights that will change your perception of who your students really are!

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Who are your “Smileys”?

Miley and Dad

Today is Miley Cyrus’ birthday. She turns 23 today. Interestingly, her birth certificate reads Destiny Hope Cyrus, with “Miley” coming from her dad calling her “Smiley” because she smiled a lot as a little ‘un. Dolly Parton is her Godmother! As she grew up, she attended Heritage Elementary School, in Williamson County, Tennessee, USA. I took a moment to look up their website and find out a little more about the Heritage Elementary School.

As a third grader at Heritage Elementary School, Miley had a music teacher who had a variety of standards he/she was compelled to lead her through. They included the following two…

3.MU.1.1.3 Sing a melody with accurate rhythm, pitch (solfege and/or lyrics), dynamics and tempo. 
3.MU.7.2.3 Demonstrate appropriate audience behaviour in a formal performance setting (live or recorded)

If you were up late for the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards (or awake for the following week or two), then you would appreciate that maybe there should have been a standard in the third grade curriculum relating to appropriate behaviour of performers! Regardless, like we all have/had, there is a “Miley Cyrus’ Dad” (that’s him in the photo above, playing guitar for Miley). He just happens to be another somewhat familiar name – Billy Ray Cyrus – famous for his 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart”, for his mullet hairstyle and for the worldwide uptake of line dancing. Yes even Australia noticed, and in 1994 I taught my class of third graders to line dance – an episode of my teaching career I would rather forget!

But as a dad, he probably received a report card for his daughter, from the teachers of 3rd grade at Heritage Elementary School, about his daughter. I wonder what the music teacher wrote? How was that PTC? I wonder what the music teacher shares about that time now? And, who will we be telling stories about in 15 years time? And for what? Will they be singers lighting up the stage, or doctors discovering a cure for something, or business men or women successfully businessing? Will they win a golfing major or conduct a philharmonic orchestra or write a Nobel prize for literature winning novel or take a Pulitzer prize winning photograph?

We don’t know, just like the third grade teacher of Heritage Elementary School didn’t know when he/she pondered the report card of MS Cyrus, wavering between a “Meeting” or “Exceeding” when grading singing with accurate pitch!

We do know however, that today we have an opportunity to inspire our students to become any of those things I have listed above. So take a moment to day to do that! The encouragement we give students, the compliments, the high expectations, our belief in them, our support of them, our smiles, our laughter, our trust in their efforts – it all adds up!

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Bluster, the currency of credibility!

So I sat and listened to his whole speech, being aware of the “taken out of context” escape clause. He opened with a moment of silence for the victims of the Paris attacks, mentioned one of the terrorists was from Syria and then mentioned Obama is considering bringing 250,000 refugees from Syria. Something about we all want to help, but… And then the piece that has been sitting in my head for the past couple of days. “If the people in that concert hall had been allowed to carry… it would have been a much, much different situation.”

A number of things about that comment have been bothering me, and I’m not sure which is bothering me more. The fact that a man who is putting his hand up to lead the most powerful country on the planet is saying this, or the cheering from the crowd of people who are lapping it up! Is the ignorance of the leader greater than the mass ignorance of the followers? Or does one prompt the other?

And then after talking about the beautiful “Trump Wall” he plans to build along the Mexican border, he brought onto the stage a group of people whose loved ones lives’ had been taken by “illegals”. These people stood and shared, in graphic detail, the details of how their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters were killed by “illegals”, most of them… by GUN violence! They all left the podium to cheers from the crowd as they thanked Mr Trump for being the only one who cares.

What the heck!

Things would have been “different” in Paris if they “had been allowed to carry” and THEN a stage full of American citizens sharing how their families had been destroyed by gun violence.

In a Facebook post responding to this same Trump rally I wrote:

Dear Mr Trump, in our school we teach our students to think before they speak. We have some spare seats in our AP Stats classes where you can come and practice. Oh, and while you are at it, we could help you understand some statistics – here they are! (http://www.nationmaster.com/…/United-St…/Crime/Violent-crime). Whatever you do, don’t cut funding to education – because if you are any example, we need all the money we can get!

I missed the point!

Only by watching the whole speech did I see where the real horror lies. Trump is not ignorant. He is extremely astute!

What I see is a man extremely adept at manipulating the emotions of his listeners. At this Texas rally he spoke about guns, illegal immigrants, oil, refugees, winning wars, war veterans, friends of his in the area, beards, Eisenhower, border walls, immigration, let’s make America great again, courts, lawyers, sarcasm, everyone’s gonna be happy, jobs, beating Japan, terminating ObamaCare, not caring about insurance companies, winning… and the list goes on.

He doesn’t care if what he says makes sense, is based on fact, is practical, can be substantiated, is possible or is financially viable – and he doesn’t need to! He tells people what they want to hear. He uses sarcastic humor. He is at the same time self-depreciating and self-agrandising. He is self-funded. And he is supremely confident! He is all bluster and no substance – and that is what is supremely concerning.

“Bluster” has become the currency of credibility. How are the presidential candidate debates judged? On who presents best. On who exudes the most confidence. On who has the best “bluster”.

There was a very big room full of people listening to this speech, hootin’ and hollerin’ as Trump delivered this “Trump is what you need” speech.

Trump is the King of Bluster, and Kings have been built on less!

 


 

 

If you want to check it out yourself, here it is…

 

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Facebook posts for Summative Assessment tasks?

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 6.56.48 AMAs a result of the sad events in Paris over the weekend, Facebook is on fire with people from all over the world responding in various ways. Many have begun posting images of themselves enjoying Paris in happier times. Many have decided to paint their profile picture the colors of the French flag. And many are writing. Writing their thoughts and responding to the thoughts of others. There is considerable emotion involved in this writing, and it is clear that some write with emotion much better than others.
Some posts get the emotion through very clearly with some very strong language, but struggle to hold their argument together under the weight of that emotion. One ends up with the sense that the writer is upset/angry/etc but is not really sure what about.
Occasionally there is a writer who gets the combination right. Strong language, strong ideas, well put together. When I read those posts, I find myself considering an opinion that might be different to my own, considering a change to my own opinion on the matter. These are the posts that I click “Like” for. I like being brought to that point where someone has forced me to consider a new perspective through the clarity of their emotion and ideas in their writing.
So how are we engaging our students today to this level? What would they choose to write passionately about? What is it that would cause a collision of strong language and strong ideas, and how would we teach them to get the balance right?
I wonder if there are any teachers out there who have used a Facebook post as a summative assessment piece? If we are serious about asking our students to compose real writing for a real audience, then we SHOULD be using Facebook!

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Committed to Teaching or Committed to Students?

I am committed to teaching:

This is what I do as a teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. Student learning as defined by grades. THEREFORE. I am a good teacher.

I am committed to students:

I aim to be a good teacher. WHICH LEADS TO. This is what I do for my students. THEREFORE. Student grades as defined by learning.

I composed this dichotomy some time last year, left it in my drafts and found myself thinking about it again this week. The catalyst for bringing it back into my consciousness was two days of training with Dr Virginia Rojas, a leader in inclusive teaching and English language acquisition strategies for English language learners.

Over the course of those two days I thoroughly enjoyed listening to and observing a significant amount of teacher discussion around those topics and could see that significant growth was occurring in the room! And yet… there were pockets where these seeds of new ideas fell on rocky ground and did not take root. In fact, there was resistance and in some cases, outright disbelief that the strategies presented by Dr Rojas, and the need for those strategies, actually existed.

As I pondered this wide spectrum of readiness to accept these practices (shown through research to be effective) I wondered what was going on. And then this little piece I had penned popped back into my thoughts. Maybe it goes some distance towards explaining what is going on.

Those resistors I could loosely categorise as teachers “committed to teaching”. It is teaching that shapes their identity. Observing them at work you would see a classroom where order rules, the teacher talks and the students follow. The systems are running, the routines are set and observed and the teacher has a good sense they are doing a good job. When ideas are presented that will upset the system or routines, those ideas are explained away or minimised in their usefulness. Subtle (or not so subtle) challenges, often wrapped in the “in my experience” bludgeon, place the value and observations of personal experience over the educational research spanning thousands and thousands of different sample sets, and experts are gently asked to sit on the bench and watch the “real” game go on. No need to let any “new” ideas upset the systems or routines that are producing good results with my students! “My students already get good grades in my class, why should I change what I do?”

And then there are the teachers who are “committed to students” – the fertile ground! When an expert walks into the room they lean in, listening. And when those ideas start flying you hear these teachers say things like, “that might work with some boys in my class”, “Kelly would really respond to that sort of approach”, “I wonder if that would work with Suzy?”. There is no thought of routines, or systems or interruptions to “what I’ve already planned!”, there is just a mind clicking through all the students, working out what will help who. This teacher is thinking about what he or she can do for his or her students – to enhance the learning. Grades are a byproduct of the enhanced learning!

I’m not sure I’m at the point where I am ready to begin talking about how to make stony ground fertile, or even the best approach to trying to plant in the rocky places, but I acknowledge that these challenges present themselves. Maybe the starting point is for each and every teacher to recognise the readiness of their own soil. Maybe I can help with that! So…

I am committed to teaching, or I am committed to students… which one are you?

Thanks for stopping by to check out the blog! If you would like to receive an update each time there is a new post, just add your email in below. Thanks, Bruce.

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