Archive for May, 2006

Working on a Change Gang

May 28 2006 Published by under borderland,education

Clarence Fisher wrote a post called Thinking about Change in which he shared a critical thinking tool for problem solving. The idea came from a book called The Medici Effect. It’s a simple idea, which makes it versatile and applicable to any number of problem situations.

Clarence posted an example of a grid that would apply to classroom change.

Medici Grid

Anyone who has taught for even a short time knows that schools are very resistant to systemic change. As Clarence pointed out, one of the obstacles to change is that we have a hard time escaping our assumptions about how things are, which interferes with imagining how things might be otherwise. The grid allows us to lay out our assumptions in a neat and tidy list, and then negate them in a second column. There is a third column, not shown, in which a positive description of the new – changed – condition is generated. That’s an important column.

I thought this grid was a great learning tool, and made a note to remember it for a future classroom need.

Clarence supplied an opportunity to put the tool to work for teachers with his next post in which he announced the development of The Classroom Change Wiki. This is a great idea, and I urge anyone who cares to see something new happen for education to participate in this project. I made an edit to the Assumptions about Classrooms page.

I’m still locked in the problem-describing mindset. Over the last few years I’ve successfully undermined most of my beliefs about schooling, and haven’t had a model for a replacement. One of the problems with many inspirational success stories that I’ve read is that they don’t seem to translate well into practice. I think that’s because a success story in one place is rooted in the social context of that particular place, which is invariably different than MY place. The Medici Grid, I hope, could help to supply a general description based on general principles rather than specific practices, so that we might see how to make classroom change happen in a broad range of contexts.

If you’ve never participated on a wiki before, they can be a lot of fun. All you have to do is click the Edit tab for the page you want to write on, and supply the password, which is right on the front page of the wiki.

I want to work toward that third column! It’s a roadmap for change. The country is uncharted.

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A Wink, a Link, and a Nod

May 28 2006 Published by under borderland,education,politics

From looking through my referrer stats, I found that Borderland has been linked from Parade of the Edublogs: Oh look, there are clowns from NCTE. What a boost, getting linked from one of my favorite literacy-advocacy organizations. I’m going to have to start reading the other edubloggers I’m not familiar with to learn more about the company I’m keeping. The other “clowns” I’m in league with may be able to set me right when I start taking myself too seriously.

I wasn’t familiar with the SLATE Newsletter, so I looked around a little bit, and found NCTE’s Anti-Censorship Center, which offers support for teachers who are challenged by censorship and internet filtering policies that obstruct their instructional goals. Of particular interest, given recent discussions across the network is Guidelines for Dealing with Censorship of Nonprint and Multimedia Materials, and Defining and Defending Instructional Methods. These materials appear to thoroughly cover the territory around censorship and its harmful effects on education. They also provide talking points for teachers who may need to respond to critics of their instructional decision-making.

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May 27 2006 Published by under borderland


Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not political legislators, who implement change after the fact. Art exerts a profound influence on the style of life, the mode, range and direction of perception. Art tells us what we know and don’t know that we know. (William Burroughs)

I was down at the creek at the bottom of the hill behind my house. I took my camera and looked around. Space. Quiet. I was listening. Trying to quiet the noise of my own thinking. Too much trying-to-understand. Not enough Being. It’s time to cool off. The end of school always leaves me feeling blown-out. I need to practice listening.

It’s difficult to explain the muddiness, the irrelevance, the pointlessness of anything I can think of to say. It’s a writer’s problem. I was looking for a word, an edge to grab. I lost my grip. I was out on my bike – the bike is a meditation machine – on a road cruise. There. It was Kerouac’s word. I’m beat. That’s all.

I got to wondering what Kerouac would have done with a weblog. He offered some advice to writers:


1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. Youre a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
As ever,
Jack [Kerouac]

“Belief & Technique For Modern Prose: List of Essentials” from a 1958 letter to Don Allen, in Heaven & Other Poems, copyright © 1958, 1977, 1983. Grey Fox Press.

There’s a lot of stuff broken and in need of repair around here at the moment. Living in the country a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle brings challenges that can’t really be ignored. Summer is short and sweet. Intoxicating endless daylight for two months. I come unhinged. There’s magic in it. With plenty to do, the joy of getting the days and nights mixed up is beyond telling. For anyone who cares to look in, keep an eye on my recent photos. The edge of nowhere is where the work is now.

A little more Kerouac:

…And for just a moment I had reached the point of ectasy that I always wanted to reach, which was a complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiance shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but didn’t remember because the transitions from life to death and back are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. (Sal Paradise, Ch. 10, On the Road)


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An Agent of the System

May 23 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

“I’m sorry. This is a dead end.”

I’d like to be Neo, but I’m cast as Agent Smith in this story. I’m programmed to keep order in the system. My job is to ensure predictable outcomes. I was a rule-abiding program until I got infected with a (critical) virus, and now I’m a renegade, overwriting otherwise stable programs.

from a review of New Literacies , quoting Lankshear and Knobel:

…in its current and foreseeable states of development, the Grid, [ironically, now defunct] is more likely to impede than enable efficacious learning. The mindset informing its design and construction militates against its being "˜reformed"™ in ways likely to support expansive educational goals and to attract and sustain the interest of learners with alternative access sources to online environments. Unfortunately, the Grid and the mindset it betrays are things we think teachers and learners with an eye to today and tomorrow would be better off without. "¦ Our arguments incline us personally to regard the practices and literacies coalescing around the Grid as "˜faux new"™. They replicate long-established practices and prejudices in a context of using new technologies. Aspirations that the Grid will transcend the logic of preparing learners for tomorrow"™s needs by teaching yesterday"™s skills seem misplaced. The Grid is "˜faking it"™. It is an outsider imposition on what should increasingly become insider spaces. (p. 105)

[source:C. Lankshear and M. Knobel (ed) 2003 Open University Press ISBN 0-335-21066-x]

The connection I made between The Grid and The Matrix was irresistible. The association was coincidental, prompted by the arrival of my students’ Benchmark test scores. I tend to receive these things with very mixed feeling, wanting to disown any scores that are disappointing and take credit for the good ones. Where standards are concerned, mine are double. Heh.

I don’t know what to make of the numbers. Do I take credit for all of them? I like the good ones, but what about the low ones? They are a problem, and they’re nothing new. I’m thinking that even if they were all Advanced, it wouldn’t matter because the things that are measured don’t tell the whole story. What if they were mostly below proficient? The numbers are only meaningful to me in my role as an agent of the system.

The distribution tells me that the achievement gap in testing is alive and well. I’m doing my job preserving the status quo. I showed in my previous post that I’m doing as Lankshear and Knobel say, replicating “long-established practices and prejudices in a context of using new technologies.” It’s the Matthew Effect [see Stanovich: Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy]. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer-in school. Computers aren’t changing that yet.

Don’t read this as self-flagellation, but rather as a growing awareness that it is easy to get stuck in convention, and ICT’s are not going to change long-establishhed patterns of behavior. New technologies will support the propagation of existing patterns of behavior. We’ve all been authored by the institutional roles we play, and a conscious effort is needed to break old habits of mind before we can see real changes. A new vision is called for. I’m rethinking myself.

To participate in something truly different, we have to step outside the situation. Teaching is visionary work, but we need to focus inward. We have to transform ourselves before we can expect to see change in a system that feeds on entrenched abuses of power.

It shouldn’t be hard to see that I’m hung up today doing end-of-the-year recordkeeping.

As soon as we started thinking for you it became our civilization.

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Classroom Writing Conferences

May 21 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

After my students began writing on Tell the Raven, my role as a writing teacher changed. I used to teach the writing process. Now we write and use a writing process. It’s an evolving practice that my students and I work out together. This is a look at my classroom now.

  1. Keyboarding practice. The kids use Alphasmart keyboards every day (15-20 minutes) to work through a keyboarding tutorial. Some type up to 55 wpm now. Daily practice is key.
  2. Rough drafts. Students write every day. All rough drafts are written on the portable keyboards. I have a keyboard for each student, and 7 computers in the classroom. Students who are ready to conference about their writing dump the file into a text editor on a computer, and save it to the building’s file server. They print their story and take it to the conference table.
  3. Peer conferences. There is a small table for conferences. It defines a space for talk that doesn’t disturb (in theory) others who are writing. At the table students meet to discuss meanings, not mechanics. They take marked-up copies of their work from the conference to the computer so they can revise the original work. Then they paste the piece into the text entry field for the website. They tag the piece “final draft” as the category for work they want to publish.
  4. Teacher conferences. I read through all of the student entries each day and make notes about any questions or suggestions I have. These notes become a conference agenda that I propose for the student to work on with me. I maintain a checklist on a clipboard so that I can track who I meet with each day, and what we discuss. We set a goal for a “next step” at the end of our conference, which I note. At the conference I sit with each student at a computer asking questions and making observations about their writing. This is the primary teaching time I have with each of the kids when we can individually discuss their work. Dialog is the primary teaching method.
  5. Mini lessons. Early in the year students need to learn about basic writing conventions and the workshop processes that I want them to observe. Later on we can focus on content and storytelling. I usually choose one (1) thing to talk about for no more than 15 minutes. Then, “Go.”

This isn’t student blogging in the conventional sense of what a blog is. I wanted the site to be a community writing project more than an aggregation of blogs. I don’t know how much difference the site structure and limits imposed by the CMS itself makes, but it seems likely that constraints placed upon participants by the publishing platform will influence the content and discourse patterns of the community. This years’ group really wanted to be fiction writers. I tried to influence them otherwise, but they were determined, so I worked with them to support that focus. Drupal worked well as an engine for a moderated site that gives kids the ability to comment on each others’ work and to get feedback from outside the classroom. It also gave me an administrative interface that made management of their work straightforward.

I negotiated my teacher role with the kids in one important instance. A question came up for me about how much editing for writing errors I should be doing, so I asked the kids. They told me that they expected me to help them, but not do it for them. They also told me not to publish their work with a lot of mistakes. “How else will we learn?” they asked. I couldn’t disagree.

Lisa Delpit made a case against “progressive” approaches to process writing. She argued that process writing without explicit instruction in the mechanics and conventions of written language perpetuates the “culture of power” for students from non-white, non-mainstream backgrounds. Delpit argued that more authoritarian, task-directed approaches to teaching are preferable for Blacks and other minority-background students who tend to expect teachers to fulfill the role of authoritarian figures.

Progressive pedagogy, Delpit warns, is often informed by white middle-class values and only works to preserve the status-quo.”

Delpit’s book, Other Peoples’ Children, gave me reason to rethink how I implement process learning approaches. I learned that every instructional decision, progressive or otherwise, privileges some students while disadvantaging others. We study grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation in our conferences and mini lessons. I have them do other writing exercises outside the context of publishing. It’s whole language, and it isn’t a free-for-all.

The process I’m working out for writing with my students generated a new approach to instruction that I’m excited about. One of the hardest things about it is the need to turn my back on some of the classroom management/control issues and allow students the freedom to make decisions about how they use their time from moment-to-moment. Part of finding the time to conference individually with kids is teaching them to make decisions on their own when they get stuck. Sometimes they make poor choices. That’s another lesson topic.

I’ve seen real gains this year in my students’ ability to express themselves in print, and I like the intellectual autonomy that comes out of the workshop approach. This is generally an hour of intense activity that goes by in a blur for me each day. It’s productive energy.

These workshop resources and writing conference guidelines may be worth a look.

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Making Inferences

May 19 2006 Published by under borderland,literacy,politics,technology

Making inferences is a reading comprehension skill. I see some possibilities for this.


Google trends.

Thanks Wesley.

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Prior Knowledge

May 19 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology

I was talking with a kindergarten teacher about her final report cards. She has a grid to complete for each of her students indicating which of the letters they can name and sound out. She told me that a better predictor of a kid’s readiness to read is a screening test that they give kindergartners at the beginning of the year. In that test, she said, if a kid doesn’t know the color names (‘red’, for example) they are probably going to have trouble with schoolwork.

Most people who hear this say, “What!? How could a kid not know the color names in kindergarten?” To properly answer that question we’d need an anthropologist or a social worker, so I can’t go there.

But there is another question we can tackle: What’s so important about knowing the color red? Knowing the colors at age 5 is an indicator of background knowledge. Knowing the colors isn’t the important thing. If it was, we would take the Jay Matthews-approach to the problem and teach the kids what red is, and move on. But it’s not that easy. Knowing the color names is only the tip of the iceberg, which is itself an idiom that requires background knowledge to understand, like any other concept. And that’s my point. We need background knowledge in order to understand what we read and hear people talk about.

Brian Crosby took exception to another Jay Matthews curve ball in which Mr. Matthews doubts whether computers are “helping more kids learn.” Brian wonders what data there is to show that paper and pencils help kids learn. And he counters Jay Matthews’ argument with:

Mr. Mathews and way too many others don"™t get it that one of the biggest reasons students are behind in reading is because of their lack of understanding of the world around them and the people and events around them. Most of my own students have their phonics and word attack skills down. What makes reading difficult for them is it is boring to read and near impossible to get meaning from what you read when you don"™t understand the significance or humor or horror or sadness or history or science behind what you read.

How do kids get this knowledge? They get it by doing stuff with other people, through discussion and interaction, through songs and stories, and by messing around in a language-rich environment. Brian is right. A pencil never taught a kid to write. Neither will a computer or a televsion teach a kid to read or write. These things facilitate instruction. I am constantly amazed at the stuff my students don’t know, and have never heard about. We run into it all the time when we read-especially in the content areas. In an information-rich age, students still need to have physical knowledge of the world and social contact with caring adults who can guide them and help them to interpret their experiences.

School’s out, and I have no plans. Yeah!

One of my fourth-graders gave me an evaluation.

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Three More Days

May 16 2006 Published by under borderland,science

This is the last week of the academic year. Next week I return to my domestic life in the country – full time. I become a fixer of toilets, a killer of ants, a builder a bike racks, a gardener, and a soccer fan. I also plan to read and take naps in the hammock. Long strenuous bike rides are also on the agenda. No university courses. I’m credited-out.

School this week was set up with two full days for Monday and Tuesday, and three shortened days, Wed-Fri. The special programs teachers had a field trip for their students on Monday, so I had a reduced class size. I didn’t want to generate any more graded work for only part of my class, and I didn’t want to write the day off either. So I pulled an old idea out of my repertoire of old ideas.

Kids use newspapers (which I still have a lot of) to build a tower high enough to touch the ceiling. I showed them how to use a pencil to roll the paper into a tubular dowel. We remove the pencil from the tube, tape the tube, and repeat until there are enough to join into a frame for a structure.

sturdy tower
Some of the structures used quite a bit of tape.

Each team had 3-4 kids, and a roll of tape. I did tell them that triangles might be stronger than rectangles, and I encouraged them to use scissors to make their dowels the same size.

The project typically takes a day, or the better part of a day, for fourth-graders. Cooperation and planning play a critical part in the group’s success. My experience has been that the kids develop a good sense of structural dynamics after they watch the rectangles collapse, and discover the benefits of triangular bracing.

See pictures and story on the student site. It’s messy problem-based learning that works well for a time when you don’t need to be too serious about the outcome.

I found this activity in an old dusty book in our school library a few years ago. The book is long-gone, and I don’t know the name of it. All I remember is that it came from The Lawrence Hall of Science. Anyone know the book? I’d like to find it again. They have a lot of curriculum units for the physical sciences, and many other topics.

I carry all my best ideas in my hip pocket, and I’m always on the lookout for more.

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The Politics of Language

May 14 2006 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics

George Orwell wrote The Politics of the English Language in 1946. He wrote about the decline of the language, and his message is still relevant 60 years later. Orwell commented on uses of language that obscure, rather than clarify meaning. His thesis was that foolish thinking leads to sloppy language which, in turn, encourages foolish thinking. This is easily recognized as a vicious circle that would end in terminal idiocy for all speakers of English. But Orwell explained that this condition is caused by habits of mind that are presumably reversible, and so we can be spared from what would otherwise be an inevitable fall into a pit of ignorance if we learn to chose our words wisely. Orwell devoted the remainder of the essay to discussing his pet language peeves, and offered some advice for writers.

Guidelines for Writers
As a writer and reader of English on the internet in 2006, I found Orwell’s commentary useful. Writing gives me the opportunity to revise what I have to say before anyone else hears it, but that doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make an ass of myself on occasion. Any of us can be blinded by our own cleverness and push the publish button before we’ve thought carefully about the wisdom of producing what may be nothing more than evidence of our own conceit. And unlike oral speech which is ephemeral, our written words live on in perpetuity giving us endless opportunities for regret and embarrassment. The riskiness of writing pushes me to hone my ability to express myself honestly and clearly. Rather than belabor all of Orwell’s best points with my own colorless commentary, I encourage anyone interested in the uses and abuses of language to read his essay. For the resistant, I’ll share his few rules for salvaging written English from vacuity:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I remembered Orwell’s essay when I found the Readability Test from Juicy Studio [link via Nani], at Se Hace Camino Al Andar. The first thing you test, of course, is your own blog. The next thing to test is other people’s work because it’s hard to resist making comparisons.

The Readability Test is based on a formula. Actually, there are three different algorithms that are applied to any piece of writing linked to the search field, and they don’t all work the same because readability is a function of factors that aren’t easily measured. The readability tool looks at a piece of text and computes the average syllables per word, the percent of words with over 3 syllables, and the number of words in a sentence.

It does other things, too, but it can’t analyze any of the semantic features of the sampled text. It is therefore limited in what it can tell us about readability for particular readers. But from a structural standpoint it might have something to say about readability for readers in general. Avoiding long words, you might note, is at the top of Orwell’s list of rules.

I began running little tests on different web pages to see how they compared. The “reading ease” results for a specific Borderland entry fell into the acceptable range of 66.31. We’re told that scores for that index should ideally be 60-70, with 70 being easier to read. I don’t know what it means if that number is above 70. I tested my students’ website and got results that told me it was Very Easy to read.

The tests became a research project. I wondered if the readability of speeches by political figures had anything to say about their constituencies. My thinking was that plain-spoken candidates would be more electable than the academic types (ie. Bush v. Kerry). I tested modern speeches and classic literature to try to gauge the results of the speeches against what are presumably familiar texts. The following is a table of the results I gathered.

readability chart

Unscientific Conclusions
As you can see, Bush’s State of the Union speech, undoubtedly drafted by a corps of speechwriters, had a relatively low readability level. It would serve marvelously for the job of sounding presidential without saying anything concrete. A Bush press conference, though, fell into the 70+ range at 75.99. If you look at the Fog index, the press conference was comparable to the readability of something between TV Guide and Readers Digest. The Bush press conference was bracketed in my results by Moby Dick and The King James version of Genesis, both more complex than Yertle the Turtle. Kerry’s War Speech, you’ll notice, was a nearly-impossible-to-read 48.69. It does appear that more formal speech is less readable, and when the President is spontaneous, he has an edge over politicians who don’t know how to simplify their messages. Who doesn’t understand TV Guide?

The lesson: to get elected you may have to talk more like Dr. Seuss than Senator Kerry.

Remember, the Readability Test doesn’t measure whether something makes sense.

In conclusion, I’d like to simply say, “Take it easy,” and “Have a good day.” ;)

links to sources:
Kerry’s Statement on Iraq before the War
State of the Union 2006
Reagan’s Berlin Wall Speech
Bush’s 9/11 Attack on America Speech
Clinton’s Lewinsky Apology
Clinton at 2000 Democratic Party Convention
George Orwell >> Politics and the English Language
Borderland >> Diffusion
Moby Dick
Bush Press Conference
Genesis:King James Bible
Yertle the Turtle

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Finding Gatto

May 13 2006 Published by under borderland,education

Before blogging was ever a concept for me, Gatto’s book crossed my radar, but I had no background knowledge about him. As I recall, I hadn’t developed a sufficiently critical view of education at the time, and whatever he had to say to me then was very little. I didn’t make the connection to what I do so I wrote him off as a crank. That was a mistake.

My next encounter with Gatto was from Marco Polo, through comments left on Borderland. Marco Polo’s persistence with this book recommendation didn’t escape my notice. Busy with work, I haven’t read Gatto carefully. Yet. Summer leave is about to begin and Gatto is on my reading list.

Several weeks ago I followed a link to Robin Good’s site, called Experiential Learning Vs.Traditional Schooling: John Taylor Gatto’s Educational Ideas Still Worth A Good Look? When I got to the end of the article, and saw this, I got it.

I accept this award on behalf of all the fine teachers I’ve known over the years who’ve struggled to make their transactions with children honorable ones, men and women who are never complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and redefine endlessly what the word “education” should mean.

A Teacher of the Year is not the best teacher around, those people are too quiet to be easily uncovered, but he is a standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as well as mine.

This article is the text of a speech by John Taylor Gatto accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990.

He was talking to me. If you read through his speech, he touched on so many of my concerns, and offered more than a few suggestions that I don’t wonder Marco Polo has been pointing me to him. This post is a response to a comment Marco Polo left this morning.

Inevitably, the end of the year leaves me in a reflective space. I think about my expectations for the year, the limitations that I encountered, the innumerable wrong turns, the plans that worked out, the surprises that I capitalized on, the many things I did simply because I had to and which included some valuable lessons for me. I’m looking forward to summer. Teaching is an excellent career for a person who needs to die and be reborn on a regular basis. Deliverance is near, and I have other work to do.

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