Monday, October 7, 2013

Blogging in our Classrooms: Do We Practice What We Preach?

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Many who read this would agree blogging is about writing for oneself ...but with an audience in mind.  Readers who share interests, experiences, passions ...or not.

Where is that audience for our students? How do our students find those readers?

For those who blog, most would acknowledge blogging is also about receiving feedback.  Blogging provides an opportunity to hear from others who may be moved to respond to your post... readers who may then engage you in conversation and perhaps pull you into re-examining your thoughts and ideas, though not necessarily changing them.

Where is that audience for young bloggers? How do students find those readers?

Blogging for our students has to be more than a paper-to-screen swap in order for it to be the writing/representing/responding endeavour we envision. Many teachers talk about 21st century learning and 21st century literacies but how do we support our students really with the [limited or not] technology they have at their fingertips? How can we help them "Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts"  or "Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought" as NCTE suggest in its definition of 21st century literacies?


And for those of us who have been able to facilitate blogging within our classrooms, there are still real issues around fully exploring the opportunities it holds for intentionally connecting with others. We may spend time within our own classroom community building skills with our students as respectful commenters on their peer's blogs, however that is, in my opinion, insufficient. Our digital manners, like those learned at the table, need to be used out in the world!  Our students need opportunities to be 'polite', add information, ask questions... really engage with others.

To do just that, many of us have sought feedback for students with #comments4kids, a terrific source for bringing our Twitter network to our class blog sites.  Many connected teachers do indeed read and comment on student blogs.  Though we have made many students deliriously proud by the comments posted, I am not convinced we've done enough as educators to develop the conversations or the networks we espouse on our own posts and Twitterfeed.

As I have discussed before here and here  it is that wider circle of readers who visit and leave feedback that can be quite motivating. My class has been thrilled to read the comments and questions left by adults; for example, they truly appreciated Mrs. Jones, who dropped in regularly with feedback! 

This feedback from other teachers is an essential part of the modelling of what we would like to see our students eventually do. Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, talks about it as reciprocating, coming from being teachers who are committed to "connecting, conversation and amplification" with someone else's students!  Linda Yollis describes in her comment to this post that ending her reply with a question was her way of trying to engage classes in conversation.

But in order or our students to feel that they are writing for more than a positive comment do they not need a little more?

Teaching our students to reply to comments also has to be integral to the process; it's not just about the positive experience and 'pat on the back' feeling they receive from getting a comment. It's not just the thrill of mapping where your readers is from. It has to be about our students going out and giving comments to others too.

 Comments4kids asks  "Does Commenting Make a Difference?" and the response was clear:

Marie put it this way: The power of blogging! Opening ourselves to the world to share ideas, receive feedback and learn from each other. 

 Greta Sandler added:  Leaving comments on other students' blogs has been really powerful too. We have expanded our classroom walls by blogging and commenting, and this has made a difference for my students.

There are great strides made in doing just that when students connect through such activities as the Global Read Aloud. Here they are able to share reactions and responses to a shared reading/listening experience with their peers in other parts of the world. Many teachers support the development of an extended community with the classrooms they link up with, and through, the purposeful use of various programs and apps such as Edmodo, Kidblog, Twitter and the wiki for the chosen book.

However, I am wondering why the conversations 'stop' once we've done sharing the book.

Why do we not continue to provide opportunities for students to connect with [these] students?

How are you trying to build longer and deeper conversations for your students?

How do you support students in the back-and-forth of comment threads?

How do you feel about this aspect of blogging with students? Is building a learning community outside the classroom valid for you?

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Are we practising what we preach?     

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Begin at the Beginning: Paper-Blogging with your Students

When I first began blogging with my students I made several blunders. But I didn't get it back then. To put it simply I really thought blogging was going to be a transition from paper to on-screen writing and not much more.  I was excited about the possibility of sharing and showcasing student writing with family but never imagined the places we could go or the ways in which we might connect.

Actually it wasn't until I began a parallel journey myself as a blogger along with pursuing my Master's and  researching about this particular practice that I began to perceive the potential for blogging and other social media in education.  I became more and more intrigued by the notion that there were "new literacies" being made possible by moving from the static of the screen to active participation with the Internet -Web 2.0.  I began to realize something had to change and it had more to with why I was doing certain things than just the activities themselves.

It was through reading Will Richardson's books, including Learning on the Blog that I understood the necessity of moving out of my comfort zone, of "unlearning" so many things I had taken for granted, and from absorbing what so many terrific blogging teachers had to say that I began to realize the importance of connecting with others in purposeful ways.

Pernille Ripp has been a source of inspiration and information when it comes to using technology to blog. Posts such as this and this certainly supported my changed thinking!  And when I read about Kathy Cassidy's work with Grade one students I was further motivated to expand what we were doing.

Which leads me to "one mistake" I have learned from.  I believe it is essential that students understand much more than Internet safety; they need to learn, through modelling and practice, how to communicate with others in the many online forums they now access.  Paper blogging is one simple but powerful way to do that.

But first show them this video from Mrs. Yollis Grade threes!

They give great advice that students really pay attention to...after all it's coming from their peers!

Once you discuss what a quality comment looks like, create an anchor chart with your class for future reference. 

Then pass out the paper and the colouring supplies so students can create their own paper version of a blog. Mrs. Ripp has explained paper blogging so well, why invent the wheel? (Isn't the sharing an amazing part of all this connectedness!)  After all she got the idea from Mrs. McMillan who first heard it elsewhere!  Read her post on paper blogging.

So I have started again... this year, I think, on the right foot.  My Grade Fives have done a round of paper blogging before setting up blogs with Kidblog.   

Learning to comment meaningfully and respectfully starts at home.  Building that sense of the other, the reader, is made more real when students respond to people they know before considering their invisible audience.

Carrying on conversations through threads of comments, providing feedback to other people's posts, even engaging in polite disagreements, will happen more readily by engaging in this important first step.

Have you tried paper-blogging yet? 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Pointers From the Playground

It's was one of those conversations that you're not meant to hear, though it was obviously not a private one. Some days sound really carries and this was one of those days.  I could easily hear the discussion between a parent and child at the playground across the street as I was near my fence doing some fall weeding on this quiet Saturday morning.  Though it wasn't until she was wanting to play on the structure nearer to me that I could hear the words of the girl and the replies of her father.

Image from here
This image is similar to the structure in the middle of our playground; I include it to help you visualize the choices this little girl had before her.  Unlike the 'kiddy' equipment she had been playing on, this piece has higher climbing surfaces, a fireman's pole and multi-levelled approaches to the various slides to accommodate the differing abilities and daringness of the older child.

At first I didn't notice anything except the laughter from a little girl who was moving around the various pieces of equipment with her dad following along behind.  They had the whole playground to themselves.

I was already struck by the fact that the father and child were talking a lot with each other; frequently parents sit on a bench and watch.  As they moved around to the front of the structure, I could easily overhear the interaction between parent and child. It went something like this:

Girl: Which one should I try?
Dad: Which one do you want to try?
Girl: The big pole.
Dad: Go on then.
Image from here
Girl: But I might fall!
Dad: Look, I'll do it first!
Girl: But I might fall. You've done it before.
Dad: I'll stand right next to it.
Girl: You won't move?
Dad: No, if you need me, I'll catch you!

Which he did the first few times.  
Through my fence, I heard her squeal of delight and the sound of her feet running up and around to try it again and again. 

Then I overheard something new; this next time she told her dad to stand back a little. He did. And she landed in a bit of a heap but un-fazed. Up she went again and again.
Her dad reminded her on how to position her body and use her feet but remained back and nearby.

"I did it! I did it!" 

I smiled and was struck by so many many thoughts:

*Isn't this the gradual release model we want for our kids in so many aspects of their lives, their schooling?

*Isn't it wonderful how he showed her first? (I think he enjoyed himself!)

*Don't we want our children to move confidently from the known into the less familiar, from the comfortably easy to the slightly more challenging?

*Isn't encouraging them to persevere part of our role? Isn't letting them know some things take practice, hard work, stick-to-it-ness? That sometimes there's bumps in life?

*Don't we want them to try new things they are truly interested in, even if they don't know how...yet? 

*Shouldn't they believe we (as parents and teachers) will catch them if they fall? Dust off their knees and help them with the next step?

*Shouldn't they know we have many ways to support them in their attempts ... pointers, information, ideas? 

*Isn't celebrating their accomplishments, especially the little ones, an amazing opportunity to show them we care?  

Dad (next to car): Oh, we said we were only going to be gone half an hour. We're a little late.
Girl: That's alright, Daddy. Mommy will understand when you tell her about the pole.

I'm sure hoping she does!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Well Worth It

We went for a walk this morning. The whole class kept fingers crossed, carried jackets and umbrellas and braved possible showers to visit the local museum. We could have easily stayed in the class and talked about artefacts, even examined a few that are coming in for our mini-museum but that would not have come close to the experiences we shared together today.

As 29 children and three teachers strolled along town streets, past the oldest documented residence in the province, past the harbour, past the dead bird, we had a very different opportunity to get to know each other than would occur in the classroom.

"Miss, that's my pop's boat!"
"Miss, did you ever go jigging?"
"Miss, that building is haunted...isn't it?"
"Miss, that's where my dad used to work."

Image from here

Discussing sheep's wool and old-fashioned skates, "pee" pots and bed-warmers, WW1 gas masks and rusty cannonballs provided so much more than 'teachable moments" or connections to the curriculum to be studied later. It gave us a chance to share our enthusiasm for learning, to be truly curious with the kids and to be just as impressed as they were about the stories embedded in this artefacts from the past. 

Watching them scour the museum for items on the scavenger hunt, listening to them ask questions of the interpreters, noting who was curious enough to ignore the "Do not touch" signs, seeing partners pull each other to the next must-see ... also gave us a little more insight into the very different learners we have this year.  

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Eating snacks together on the boardwalk next to the ocean on this warm fall day (Yup, crossing your fingers works!) before heading back also added to the day in unplanned ways.

Added time to ask more questions, to joke, to notice our surroundings.

"Miss, did you see the stuff dentists used to use back in the old days?"
"Miss, do you like cinnamon buns?"
"Miss, look at that dead fish stuck down between the rocks!"

Added time for the building of the relationships amongst each other and with us, their teachers, that will be so important in this new classroom community to which we now belong!

I would have walked in the rain for that!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Shining the Light

A lot has happened in the last few weeks! As a result of our principal taking a position that became available at the Board level (Congratulations again, Dan!), the names on the office doors in our school have changed.  Our former vice-principal was a natural fit for leader of the administration team (Kudos to  LeighAnn) and, after some scrambling to put together and submit my first real CV in over 20 years, I was asked to become assistant principal.

I have to admit I did hesitate for some long moments before deciding to apply. And not because I lacked confidence or doubted my ability to lead others.  As I started to compile notes for my resume, I was sort of surprised by just how often I had been involved in leading professional development at the school level and beyond.  But for me, those opportunities to share and learn with and from others has been a natural extension of being a teacher at Matthew Elementary. Our school has, for a long time now, emphasized teachers working together as grade level partners and across divisions.  The spark of an idea, the light in each others' eyes as we discuss the progress of a student, the warmth of  teachers' affection for each other and especially for their students...all visible in our school!  I was already part of a great team of dedicated teachers...why change direction now?

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I have always welcomed teachers into my classroom ...many have dropped in after school to ask a question, seek resources or discuss issues that arose.  (Being the "most-seasoned" elementary teacher on staff helps!)  Others have visited during the day to observe such things as a Writing or Reading workshop or to see grouping strategies being carried out. 

And I love sharing my passion for teaching.  I truly enjoy discussing the big ideas and the small details that go into making the most of the experience for everyone in the classroom. Being a sponsor-teacher to three student-teaching interns was one such experience that provided me with opportunities to nurture a love of teaching and model the reflective practice of life-long learning as a teacher. (One of those young women is my teaching partner this year!) 

Now I welcome the chance to expand my leadership role in our school in perhaps a little more formal way. I look forward to having the time to visit other classrooms and share in their commitment for the work they do each day!  I hope to support them in their professional learning as we aim to implement the best of what is changing about education and teaching practices. 

I also hesitated for another reason ...the position takes me away from the classroom, our classroom,  for part of each day.  I wondered about the relationships I strive to build each year with my students and how they might be affected by my absence. I work with students each year to build a caring classroom community...would that still be possible?

I thought about all the classroom experiences I would not be there for if I wasn't involved in teaching all the subjects.  I also considered the missed opportunity to carry through the full team-teaching model we had intended to implement in grade five this year. 


I reminded myself that many of the things that I love to do in the classroom with my students are in the Language Arts/Social Studies block! Book talks, writing conferences, Global Read Aloud, hands-on projects and so much more... I will have lots of time to get to know my students and them, me.  There will be many opportunities for learning/playing/working together!

I also know the teachers who are in the classroom are wonderful teachers in their own right and they will do amazing things with our students.  I will have some time to get to work with them and that's terrific!  

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I believe this year will be about opportunities to shine a light on the teaching and learning that occurs each day in our school.   I welcome the opportunity to go into classrooms and see (and share) more of what my colleagues are doing!  

I also thought about how my new role will provide opportunities to bring certain activities to more classrooms, especially as I can be there to help set them up! 

And by using part of my new position as Learning Resource teacher to help foster a love of reading and writing for various purposes, I also look forward to getting to know more of our K-6 students and see their zest for learning, creating and collaborating in action!  For example, I have ideas that I would like to put in place to engage our learners in making the most of the technology we have available.  

So yes, I am excited about this school year, in ways I hadn't anticipated.  I love the change of direction for me professionally and the chance for leading new learning opportunities for our school community!  Who knows where sharing those sparks of teaching and learning may take us! 

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 "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." --William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Daring to Differentiate

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I have been thinking about the students who will walk into Grade Five in a few weeks, recalling their faces as they left in June and wondering how I will be able to reach them and teach them, particularly as readers and writers.

I already know some things about them just from our interactions in the hallway and during Lunch Duty!  I know the rascals, the reluctant and the responsible ones! I know who needs help to put on their coat, who likes to gobble down their lunch so they can talk, who gets boisterous in the bus lines. I know who will be the dramatic ones and who are the shy ones. BUT I know very little ...yet... about their reading habits, their likes and dislikes when it comes to books.

I do know that there are students in my Grade five class reading significantly below grade level and that there are strong readers who love to get lost in a book. And of course they run the gamut in between.  This is not unique in my room, in this school or in this part of the province (or state!) The question is what can be done to accommodate the differences (and similarities) among these readers.

While our schools have authorized resources to augment the prescribed literacy curriculum, we have the backing of our Department of Education, the freedom to teach the children, not the textbooks. This does not make our jobs easier; on the contrary it is as challenging as being given a set of books/material to "cover" with the class.

Considering the myriad needs, the wide range of reading ability of the students that enter my classroom each fall can be daunting. However, at our school. we have practices in place that make a difference. We begin in primary to become familiar with the student's progress with the completion of a Language Arts profile (K-3), such as this one in Grade One as well as the usual evidence gathered through in-class activity. Our teachers use running records, Guided reading and an individualized Home Reading program where books taken home for independent reading are matched to the level at which a student will be successful.
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That focus on being familiar with the students' reading abilities and the focus on teaching strategies needed to improve comprehension has been part of our teaching culture for some time now!

  • We long ago abandoned the idea that one book for all students to "study" was appropriate.  
  • We adapted our expectations for responses to books shared with the whole class as Read Alouds to reflect the varying abilities in writing and representing. 
  • We aimed to ensure that all our students were dealing with the same big questions around character, setting, plot ,theme and such... only in language they could really relate to and with texts they could actually read.

Much as the picture below models, students are grouped by reading level (generally), interest and targeted teaching of strategies.

Image from here
And differentiating like that can make a huge difference!

*How do you meet the needs of the readers in your room?
*What are some of the challenges you face in differentiating for reading levels?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Getting Back to the Reading Zone

At our school the emphasis is on an individualized reading program, one based on knowing what the students' reading level is and supporting each child to become a stronger, engaged reader over time.  While we use some selections from the authorized resources as mentor texts or for small group instruction, the use of  a whole class set of novels is no longer a par of our pedagogy. One of the key components of this reading program is time to read school and through our expectation of Home Reading.

While teachers have worked to include different approaches in their classrooms to support students' growth as readers such as building large classroom libraries, developing a room of shared levelled texts, establishing guided reading groups, incorporating Daily 5 and encouraging Home Reading with logs, several of us have also adopted aspects of  Reading Workshop.

Fountas and Pinnell's Guiding Readers and Writers Grades 3-6  has framed much of what is done in my reading classroom.  Their suggestions and rationale for establishing a Reading (and Writing)Workshop are well-thought out and clearly described.

Reading Workshop (60 min.)
A booktalk/minilesson followed by groups for  
Independent Reading
Guided Reading and Literature Study/Book Club
Then meet for Group Share and Evaluation                     (Adaptation of Fig. 4-1 P. 40)

I particularly enjoyed how this schedule provides structured time to meet with small groups of students and individuals to strategically teach and support readers at different stages.

But I think I have gotten away from something vital in my organization and expectations for reading. The students who enter my classroom as readers stay readers but those students who have yet to be hooked by a book, many of them still struggling to read well, are not always 'caught' by the whole reading response and reading log requirement. Reading is work for them and I have been adding to that association with some of what I have done.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Reading Groups ...Review, Reflections and Revisions

They did it in The Jane Austen Book Club.

You can certainly do it on Goodreads.

They even do it on Twitter!  See as just one example!

People love to get together and share the books they are reading.  Well, most. If we asked our students, what would their reply be?

So how do we provide opportunities for that kind of sharing and that kind of enthusiasm?  And let's be honest; it's not entirely about the books. It's about the interaction, the socializing, the feedback, the discussion!  That's what motivates! That's why people of all ages participate in Book Clubs, reading groups or become members of forums that talk about and recommend books.

So again I ask myself, where is that in my students' day?

While I do many things I am satisfied with in my Literacy/Language Arts time, the reading part has had me tweaking for several reasons for the last number of years. See part of what I am referring to here.  I hoped to generate interest in books being read by the students by having them share their responses on the walls and to their peers.

I have also set-up "book club" type groups as part of my Reading Workshop.

usually established the groups based on reading levels. Though that didn't mean that everyone had to be on the same one. As long as I felt that everyone could have success sharing the book, I would mix up the levels a little. Personalities and other pertinent factors often play a role in setting up any groups as we all know!

 I usually provided the students a choice of books from which they could select one they wanted to read together.  These selections could be offered based on genre, author, or what I thought might interest them as a group.

And I usually scripted the follow-up activity and discussion by giving each group a guide. While some of these allowed individual responses within the group setting, I felt the talk around these topics would engage the students before they actually completed the tasks.

This guide I used early in the year or with readers who needed a little more support.

Sharing the Love of Books...A Chore?

Get your pencils ready.
Order your recess and lunch.
Take your books out.
Settle down.

That's the to-do list in many classrooms each morning, including mine on many mornings. While we may not present it as "orders", the routine-ness of it is an established goal and this tone set. And it is this approach to silent independent  reading that I wish to reconsider. But my reflections are going deeper than that.

When you finish your book, you may choose one of the responses to share your thoughts and ideas. I want you to record the title, the number of pages, the type of response you select and the new total of pages read in your log. 

This is the essence of the expectations I established this year. And it worked...for the most part and with most but not all students!

The choices in responses varied greatly and included such things as:

  • Illustrate a new book cover.
  • Write a postcard to, or from, a character.
  • Create a story map, or a comic strip.
  • Write a letter to me about what and why you enjoyed about the book.
  • Create a glossary of terms related to the non-fiction text you think may be useful.
  • Blog!
  • Write a Reader's Theatre script about an important scene. (Present it or direct it!)
  • Do an Audioboo and share it.
  • Create a movie poster for your book.
  • Sign up for a BookTalk. (with me or a classmate)
  • Use Popplet to create a character sketch (or some other selected topic)
  • Create a presentation about the author and what about their book that stood out for you.
As our outcomes include broad statements such as "Students will be expected to respond personally to a range of texts", the above are terrific ways to provide opportunities to make connections to the text with a blend of modes with which to do so.  Students are able to share their thinking in ways that access their particular learning style.  

Win-Win, right?

While I do think I am on the right track, one of the issues I have had was with students not meeting the expectation, the goal, of a response for each book in our reading program. (See here for a little more about that.) Now I have been responsive to students' lives and have not been regimental in expecting a response for all books. And in modelling different activities, I have shown how much fun can be had while sharing the pleasure in reading a particular book and the depth of your connections to it. 

I am wondering, like other teachers about what we are doing to promote the love of reading, the freedom to read, the pleasure in sharing a book.

So how do you promote reading in your classroom?
How do we find the balance between passion and pleasure in reading with the chores and work-related tasks we, as teachers, too often attach to reading?

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Reading didn't go quite the way I hoped for in my room this year.

We all know some particular combinations of students will make for different experiences from year to year; this class did have more students who were not reading 'at grade level' when they arrived but was that the reason things were not as successful?  I am not sure.

With all the current emphasis on putting the "right book in the right hands at the right time", with our "baggie" books going home in primary grades, levelled texts and guided reading sessions continuing up in to elementary classrooms now, are more students really engaged in reading? Choosing to read on their own?

I'm not so sure any more. I certainly didn't see it this year.  Have we, as educators, missed the boat with how we are 'doing' reading? Is it just a school issue?

I do know parents have become (overly) concerned about the level of the books brought home, particularly in primary grades here and may be communicating the anxiety about 'moving up' to their children instead of recognizing the time and practice that is built into any process of learning. That being said maybe the Home Reading program needs an overhaul in its approach to record keeping and reading logs and  ensuring that its only "just right" books that go home.

I do know that there are many (and major) distractions in our students' lives, enough that even if the only homework (more on that topic later) is reading, it does not routinely get done or is frequently completed under stress and in less than ideal conditions.

I do know more and more students have devices on which they spend hours after school instead of reading ...or reading in different spaces than we normally consider. That's a factor that has to examined.

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I have tried different approaches to foster the love of reading while aiming to ensure our English Language Arts outcome that refers to students' ability to select and read across genres is met.

Letting Go

So here I am ... in the middle of the first week after school finished.  I have time on my hands for a change (especially after completing my Master's) and so I have been musing about the past year and considering what I would like to do with the weeks ahead.

These first few days after school finishes are for letting go!

In cleaning up my desks (and moving classrooms) I have come across notes, sheets, articles and lots of treasure/junk that I have had to decide to keep or let go.  A lot of it I threw out! If I haven't used it or thought about it in the last year, then perhaps it wasn't as useful as I thought.  Let it go!

Letting go this week also means easing out of the care and concern for the twenty-two students who have been "my" kids for the last ten months.

No longer do I have to wonder if they are getting enough sleep or if she is still thinking  about her little brother and the operation he needs or if he is still fretting about the death of his cat. No longer do I have time to support her growing willingness to speak up or his to pipe down! No more time to spend laughing at her jokes or smiling at his stories.

As the summer goes on, no longer will I have to worry about their grasp of multiplication, or reading strategies or...  No longer do I need to find more time to carry out tutorials, to phone home, to meet with the team to plan interventions, and to prepare for mini-lessons and individualized conferences to address this need or that one.

I also have to let go of the doubts. I have to let go the nagging thoughts about whether or not I spent enough time with each child, if I coulda, shoulda said something else ... done more.

I have to let go of unrealistic expectations and use (some of) the time now to reflect on my own practice...what would I do differently? Why?

I also need to let go of my teacher "hat" and put on ones with more personal labels.  Then I will be ready to meet and greet the next bunch of Great Grade Fives in the fall!

So here's to letting go...
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What in particular are you reflecting about? Pondering and planning?
What hat will you wear this summer?