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Where’s the change?

December 19, 2012 3 comments

We’ve moved yet one more year into the 21st century. Yet one more year towards the future. ‘Tis not a future with flying cars or the Jetson’s robot maid Rose cleaning your house; no, we haven’t gone that far. However, there’s seems to be no denial we’re in the middle of a very important revolution. Or are we? The fact that there’s a lot of change taking place due to the role that technology has been playing in our lives is undeniable. It’s been ages – especially when years account for a lot more than they did in the past – that educators have been advertising the benefits of technology in education, the end of an era, and that technology has the power to transform everything we do.

"Would you exchange, a walk on part in the war..." | Photo on Flickr by love2dreamfish

“Would you exchange, a walk on part in the war…” | Photo on Flickr by love2dreamfish

Needless to say, a tad after that, other educators decided to shed some light into the matter. It’s not tech that will revolutionise education nor will it change the world as we see it. The “digital natives” should be seen as individuals, not as a label, and this has certainly helped us move yet one step forward. A while after the buzz that new tech caused and all that it’s stirred in the lives of tech aficionados, it was clear that anything new that we could bring to the equation had to be seen for what it truly was – a tool. Just like any tool, it requires a skillful educator to use it effectively to actually help, and not hinder, learning.

Apps and sites bombarded us with myriad choices – we could pick and choose from thousands of different tools that always offered to be THE one solution to make teaching effective. Some teachers were able to take things as they were supposed to be taken instantly (cautiously and carefully), others needed more time to realise that it’s not about using lots of different things – ’tis all about making the right choice for each one of your learners, and helping them realise you’ve been very careful with your choice and aren’t simply tossing things at them bringing a new gadget every day.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether we’re even close to tackle the problem of changing the face of education as we see it. I wonder whether we’re prepared for that, or even if we actually have any kind of control of how things will evolve. We talk about teacher-centred and learner-centred education, but all that we do is simply repeating what we’ve been doing time and again. In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson went on stage to talk about schools killing creativity and the urge for change. Sugata Mitra showed the results of his “a hole in the wall” experiment on a later talk, the Khan academy initiated some sort of revolution that seems to be a possible way forward for some subjects.

Despite all that, the vast majority of teachers I know is still oblivious to all that’s been written above, which is a lot worse than being against it. Many teachers and administrators simply don’t care about new things and are absolutely OK with doing the same thing that their teachers had done to them 50 years ago, and each one of them – teachers and admins – has his or her reasons for doing so. Some might even read about success stories from different schools and educational systems around the world, but it all sounds too far-fetched for them and it is understood as something that “would never work in [add your city/country here]“. It’s a lot easier to keep doing things the same old way and going with the flow, isn’t it?!

How much of a change has there really been? Our kids still are educated in a classroom where there’s one person who tells them what they need to learn. One person standing in front of them and leading the way and, even when there’s a certain amount of flexibility given to students, such flexibility can only go as far – we do have a syllabus to follow, after all. It’s imposed on us, teachers, and we’re expected to teach it as students will be tested on such syllabus in the years to come. Where’s all the empowerment we hear so much of, yet do so little about? Have we really been able to teach children how to think critically about matters when they haven’t even been taught to criticise whatever it is that the one person standing in front of them says? Are most teachers even prepared to be questioned like that?

If we simply talk about a learning model for teaching instead of a teach-learn model, but we don’t walk the walk, it’ll be years before we can attest its efficacy or lack of efficacy. Few have really taken the plunge, and out of these few, we hear even fewer stories, and most of these are from the ones who happened to have succeeded. It is hard for us to publicly acknowledge defeat, though we praise those who are sufficiently self-assured to do so. We all make mistakes, we should all learn from our mistakes, but apparently we’re afraid of what others will think of us if we show our weaknesses, particularly when we’re so vulnerable for judgement in this new world of social media where many truly believe to be the upholder of the truth. How silly is that, huh?!

Where’s the real change? To be honest with you all, whenever I wonder if we can drive such change, I’m 100% positive that we can. I also know this won’t happen overnight. There’s no such thing as the right answer for the problems we’re facing in the world of education and the challenges that lie ahead. This I’m pretty sure of. And, finally, when I ponder what big change I’d like to see in most of our schools, I guess my answer doesn’t seem to be any different from the answer of many who have been involved in education for quite a while. What shocks me is that we’ve been struggling hard to implement simple things and we are rushing to the-next-big-thing without pausing and reflecting, analysing and criticising whether or not this or that should be the way forward. Isn’t this kind of reflection we’d like our kids to do?

Real change will take place when students no longer see their teachers as the one on stage and the one whose words they should copy and abide by. This may sound simple, but if you bear with me and look at things more carefully, you’ll see it’s not exactly happening. The more resources learners have available to check their facts, the lazier they’re getting. I’d like to see students able to analyse their own opinions and thoughts critically. I’d like to see teachers feeling confident enough about what they’re doing so that they won’t be afraid of being questioned, hence the importance of being knowledgeable.

I think we’re amidst a revolution. I think things are indeed changing. I don’t think we’ve been able to make sure most of us realise the importance of keeping abreast with this change and the necessity of taking risks to actively control what’s to come instead of passively waiting for it. Things will change whether we want it or not. We should have been prepared to lead such change consciously, but apparently we’re still a couple of people short. But I do see that, little by little, things are a-changing. I just wish that, for the year to come, we were able to move the spin of change faster, that we could get more people onboard – not virtually, but mainly those who work right next door, within the same school borders. This seems to be the way forward to me. We can’t expect change to happen if we’re scattered all over the globe. Getting teachers to think critically about their actions and learning how to work collaboratively so that we may, in the near future, feel comfortable with leading our students towards the same path. How can we teach, inspire or simply engage people when we ourselves seem to lack what it takes to get things going?

Then again, this might all change in my head tomorrow. It’s been a hell of a busy year, but I think it’s important to remind myself that it’s OK to have your thoughts, to write about them, to have others agree, disagree or simply not mind them. It’s all OK as long as we’re trying to move forward.

Consumers, reproducers and producers

If there’s one thing that has changed in education with the advent of new technologies and, chiefly, the web 2.0, this has got to be how easy it is now for us to shift from consumers of information to producers of data. There’s absolutely nothing new in this statement, and any report or information sheet from the early days of the web 2.0 will tell you this. One of the main benefits of the web 2.0 was the fact that it made it easier for people to actually produce content rather than simply receiving it. Simply put, it’s only logical to assume that schools and teachers everywhere would quickly leap at the opportunity for their learners to stop being so passive in their learning roles. Right?!

Unfortunately, I don’t think the answer to this question is affirmative. As a matter of fact, if there’s one thing that has been going on is that the easy access to information has only allowed for teachers themselves to embrace a kind of teaching that prevents them from, well, teaching. I don’t mean to say that all teachers have been doing that – a quick look at the blogosphere will certainly give you an idea of the numerous movers and shakers who are trying hard to change the rules of the game. I just wonder if this will be enough. Why?

Well, it seems to me that whenever people who are online share the benefits for being online and sharing with their PLN, they tend to say that this was  way out from the kind of sluggish attitude towards change that they see in their co-workers. I’ve constantly wondered what it’d be like to have all like-minded educators who actively share and disseminate knowledge online working together in the same school. Would it work? I honestly believe such a school would either be a fantastic place for learning to take place, or it’d be absolutely chaotic. However, there would certainly be enough of the mere reproducing of data we demand of most learners everywhere.

We may call it learner-centered, or learning-centered education, but simply saying that learners are free to choose what and how to learn doesn’t make you an educator. More often than not we are at a loss for what exactly it is that we’d like to do, and we only find out what we’re truly passionate about after having had the chance to experiment with different things – this means, in my opinion, that even living vicariously counts. The point is understanding that a learner-centered approach doesn’t mean total and complete freedom, at least not until a certain point when we’ve already learned how to learn, unlearn, and critically think about our beliefs and ideas.

Despite the large number of schools and teachers doing an amazing job, and the fact that those who do it do it so passionately that they simply couldn’t care less about what others think, there’s strength in numbers. If one teacher alone is trying to make a change, there’s something in our own nature that will prevent students from giving it a go. They usually change their mind once they’ve been able to start it, but getting there may be the problem. Living in a test-centric educational world, learners have absorbed the concept that what matters is how much information you can amass in your brain for that upcoming physics test. It is also deeply ingrained in them the idea that certain subjects count more than others. And this is widespread even by teachers, when they say that students shouldn’t worry so much about studying English, and that mathematics is far more important than biology, for instance. This is a lesson our students quickly learn, and they learn it from the ones they’ve also learned not to question.

Are we doing what it takes to help students being more comfortable with a position on the other side of the room, in front of these chairs? | Photo on Flickr by sholeh!!

We do have a chance to change the game by giving them more responsibility when it comes to their learning, but this implies that we ourselves, teachers, ought to come to terms with our new role. We should do this at the risk of jeopardising yet another generation of learners. In order to do this, we ourselves need to become producers of data instead of reproducers, and we should encourage our learners to become producers themselves instead of mere consumers of whatever is thrown at them. Most importantly, we should be teaching them to be critical of anything they hear, even if that is told by, well, their teachers. We’re all fallible, and this is the very first lesson that we should learn in order to pass it on to our learners.

How about teaching learners how to assess the validity and reliability of a source before regurgitating what this single source has made public? How about asking them to go being memorising, and starting that by teaching them how to summarise information found by three different sources, and then commenting and reflecting on each other’s work? Ah, but nothing of this is news to anyone who’s been concerned about change and who may actually be reading this post. We, and I dare include myself in this crowd, are not the ones who are doing wrong. The problem is how do we get to the ones who simply refuse to recycle their knowledge of and about teaching? What can we do to instill this need of change in those who work with us, who are right next doors teaching the same kids we’re teaching?

I say that after I had the chance to talk to a group of students who are between 12 and 14 years old. When I asked them whether they feel that they learn more by doing rather than listening, their answer was an obvious yes. However, what surprised me was that when they were offered the chance to actually do something different in class, when they were told they would have to work harder to learn, their quickly said they felt it’d be too much work. After a very quick chat it easy to spot something that has been discussed for a while, but very little is actually done to prevent it from happening – we were the ones who educated them out of their creative selves. Having grown up in a school system where the sage is always on the stage, and where the teacher is always right, they’ve simply been playing by the rules for as long as they can remember. They got used to being spoon-fed, and it certainly is a lot easier to simply sit still and wait for someone to tell you everything you will need to learn. At this age, it is hard for learners to realise that it is exactly because they’ve only been through lectures in their whole school life that many of them can’t succeed. It’ll take them a while to understand that things would have been much easier for them if their teachers had made them actively take learning to their hands. It’d be a lot easier if teachers actually taught.

But here’s the catch: if we try to change, we’re opening ourselves to questions, and we haven’t been trained for that. We were educated as reproducers ourselves, and this has somehow always made sense in the eyes of the vast majority. We’ve learned that we aren’t capable of producing high-quality material and being subjected to criticism on what we’re saying or on what we think. We fail to see growth in differences and this is simply reproduced in our classes. Thus, the cycle continues and we’re raising yet another generation of consumers and reproducers, and these will be constantly wondering why it is that there are a couple of few who actually become very successful by producing what they could have produced. By and large, we’re not raising people who are comfortable with exposing their ideas, these people are raising themselves in spite of what we’ve been doing to them.

Question: how do we change this? How do we stop preaching to the choir and start getting those who are unwilling to change to actually do something that will matter?

True Education is Timelessness (or “Beware of Fads”)

April 7, 2011 11 comments

I’ve recently had the chance to read and analyse a text with some of my college students that got me thinking. Actually, ever since I heard about the idea of digital-natives and all that  goes with the idea of digital-literacy and the changes in education, I’ve been thinking about this topic (you can see what I think about it on this post). The text is called “The Saber-tooth curriculum“, it was written in 1939, but just as the title of this post (which was taken from the text), it remains, in some ways, timelessness.

What's the point in learning how to fight saber-tooth tigers? / Image by burgundavia on Flickr.

It is the story of an educator and the very first school curriculum there was. It all started with the idea of creating schools, and teaching children some skills tha were necessary in the lives of adults at that time. There were only three subjects, and I guess we can allude to Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind and its utilitarianism upon a first glance at the text. If you allow me to do some analogy here, the eternal question, “Why do children go to school?” has always been answered by, “To learn the things they’ll need to know in order have a successful life in the society they’re inserted in.” Maybe you don’t even agree with this answer, and I myself have some reservations, but I consider it quite a satisfactory answer to why schools have been created and why they are organised the way they are these days.

What I’ve been pondering, though, is whether we’re going in the right direction with all the pressure towards digital-literacy and the way it’s being done. Most of the things that are quite popular these days have just yet been invented; many of the things that didn’t exist in Y2K have already been created, used, and dropped ever since. We’re witnessing a time of change that is as swift as it’s ever been. Is it really our goal to teach our students how to use so many tools we find useful for our lives today? I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think what we have at our disposition these days is what will be around in the next couple of years.

It is my opinion that technology will soon be ubiquitous. It will simply be, and most computer companies are working as hard as they can to make sure computers are as user-friendly as possible. I remember I had to learn how to use Basic in order to create my own software when I was really young (10, 20, 30… who remembers the command lines?), and later DOS (what was it that we had to type, anyway? Cd/? Dir /p?). Then we had windows, and life was a lot easier with the pointing with a mouse and clicking. Even those who didn’t think too much of computers started using it. Let’s face it, the computer industry had their way. As an industry, they wanted to sell more and more computers. As long as computers were complicated to use, not many people would be willing to learn how to use them.

Changes have been happening at an ever-faster pace – just think about how long it took you to go from a touchpad to a multi-touch screen device. If we try to teach our learners how to use whatever it is they have at hand, we’re just trying to catch up with something that will always be ahead of us, and when children finally finish school, they’re likely to have to learn new things over and over again.

This is exactly what makes me wonder whether we can only prepare children for the future if we teach them how to use tech, or if we have technology available in our classrooms. I honestly don’t think it’s a matter of “only if”, but a matter of “regardless of”. Children have got to be prepared to face a world that is entirely different from the world we once knew and that was presented to us when we were children. This is the main challenge teachers ought to face.

More and more often I hear teachers and employers complaining about the fact the new generation of students and workers do not go beyond what they are taught. They can be trained, but they seriously lack any kind of autonomy and independence to face even the slightest challenging of the tasks. A lot is said about fostering autonomy and independence in education, that this is the ultimate goal of education. Are we running the risk of creating another generation of educators who, similarly to many English language teachers, are nothing but repeating a mantra without actually knowing how to do as they say? I’ve had the chance to interview my share of English teachers who seem to parrot, “I use the communicative approach in my classes, obviously!” However, upon being questioned what the communicative approach is, their answers vary (as they have) from merely talking to students to focussing on grammar (??).

We sure need to foster autonomy, and learners have got to be prepared to face the many different things they’ll have to deal with in life. If we think that by teaching them how to use today’s technology is going to help them, we’d better think twice. They’ll use technology because it’s getting easier and easier. It’s soon to be ubiquitous, as I said before. But I’m pretty much sure that the technology they’ll have to use in 5-10 years’ time is going to be far different from anything we may be able to teach them today. We go back to the fundamental question that teachers should always ask themselves before each and every class: Why am I doing what I’m doing in class today?

Learners will be trained in their future jobs, and they will have to know how to learn. This, in my opinion, is what we should be doing. We should be teaching our students how to learn, not teaching them how to use technology because it allows them to communicate with the whole world and gives them a real audience. Speaking to the world is a natural consequence, something that is unavoidable; we need to teach them how to collaborate and work together with their peers, those people who are sitting next to them in the same classroom. What we need to do is teach them the basic skills that will allow them to function in any other setting they may be inserted into. Autonomy is also taught little by little, and we’re only truly autonomous after we’ve achieved a certain level of mastery in whatever it is we’re learning.

Why do we have schools? Why do we teach? We teach because we want to see our children able to thrive in life, regardless of what they face. It doesn’t matter how skilled students are. If they do not learn how to talk to people, how to make and take criticism, how to read, understand, and draw conclusions from what they’re reading, they’ll not succeed. These are the fundamental skills that will trigger the whole system into motion. In a way, it’s a bit like going back to the “bare essentials”. Instead of trying to embrace the world, focus harder on the little things – the big things will take care of themselves.

What’s your take on that?

Some thoughts on my blog as a word cloud

March 28, 2011 18 comments

Coming back to the blogosphere after a rough beginning of year has been, well, tough! To be honest, ever since I joined the cause I knew it would be pretty much impossible for me to read every single post with all the care and attention they truly deserve, and despite all the learning that the experience has led me to, there are times when your life beyond the computer/Internet does not give you enough time to do the things you both enjoy and profit from. Anyone, I’ve read a couple of interesting posts recently, and decided to participate in David’s mini-challenge. It consists of creating a word-cloud from your blog and then doing a brief analysis of it. I used wordle, and this is what I got:

My blog according to Wordle

Apparently, I’ve been writing a lot about students and language. The words writing and tests were also quite big on the cloud, maybe because I’ve written two recent posts on these topics. However, I guess I’ll look at this from a different perspective and try to give meaning to the way the words appeared together, shall I?

The first thing I noticed was the position of the words L1, English, far, big, and things. When looking at this, I thought about the fact that, yes, learning a foreign does open doors (excuse me for the cliché), it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. If Google and other companies are finally able to perfect online text and voice translators, why would anyone care to go through the hardships of learning a foreign language, say, in 15 years’ time? I guess the answer is that learning other language apart from your L1 allows you to do far bigger things and accomplish a lot more by the simple fact that learning a foreign language, in my humble opinion, does broaden the mind.

The second bit that called my attention was this one on the right that puts the words grammar, reason, and testing together. First, I’m not against tests and I see a good reason for them in the language classroom. However, if the only reason for testing is grammar in some kind of an order, this is likely to fail flat and not allow for learning opportunities. Tests have got to allow for learning opportunities. Otherwise, we’re just pretending to be testing learners, and they’re just pretending they’ve learned the subject for the test. Assessment is a lot different from testing, and teaching is a lot bigger than both.

This was a rather interesting one and I guess pretty much all words are important, so I’ll just talk about it instead of pointing out the words. I guess speaking too much is one of the first problems one faces as a language teacher. there are, of course, times when it’s OK to forget about Teacher Talking Time (TTT) if you know what exactly you’re doing and depending on your approach to language learning. It also seems acceptable, at least for certain levels, to speak a bit more. If you want to teach well, just don’t forget you’re not alone in the classroom and always remember to take your students into account.

Following the train of thought from the snapshot above, it’s only clear to say what good teachers do, or at least should do: help learners. And if you’re in teacher-training, you should get your teachers to help their learners, which will, in turn, change them into good teachers. Got it?! :)

This is also rather interesting. In spite of my personal interest in pronunciation, it’s not just about having a pretty accent. Learning involves many different things, such as grammar, vocabulary, pragmatics, speaking, listening, and reading. Learning, however, also needs writing. It’s not just about writing, obviously. Nevertheless, I truly believe that pronunciation is not the only thing that is neglected in out teaching (for many different reasons), but so is writing. Perhaps we could also look at it more carefully, huh?!

As a dogmeist, I couldn’t leave aside the bit of the cloud that deals with conversation. In a way, if we give our students a chance to talk and really communicate, it might be a lot easier for them to learn the language. Nevertheless, teachers cannot lose sight of the fact that mere conversation isn’t enough – learning has got to be the main point of the activities if we want our students to succeed and come across as independent users of the language.

This last bit I’ve chosen to analyse might be a note to myself. Even though I’ve been feeling like writing more often, perhaps my writing isn’t exactly good. Has it actually gone bad? Has it ever been good? I mean, maybe it’s time I started changing the focus of the blog and the posts, which might perhaps help me improve on my reflections on teaching and learning. Or, you know what, maybe the blog should keep on as it was conceived – a place where I can share my views, hear other people’s voices on the matter, and finally be able to learn a tad more about what I was thinking. To be honest, I don’t expect it to be good or bad, as long as it was worth your time reading up to this point. And if you happen to have the time to leave a comment, or go through some of the old posts of mine I linked to throughout the post, even better!

Cheers!! :D

Some challenges in education (part 1)

November 8, 2010 7 comments

How clear is the road ahead? Photo by Felix

If you’ve been following educators on Twitter, reading their blogs, or simply watching some of the TED talks about education, you’ve probably noticed that most educators feel that a reform is more than needed in the current educational system. Some actually believe that it’s beyond any possible tweaking, and that a revolution is needed in order to ensure that education fulfills its role – helping learners prepare for their future, enabling them to be able to respond to the conditions that will be imposed on them in their lives. The fact that teachers are preparing learners for a future we have got no idea what it’s going to look like seems to be well-established for most. After all, things have been changing so fast that it’s only fair to believe that jobs in 5 years’ time will be a lot different from jobs we have today. It’s actually a pretty reasonable thought that is supported with data. But, what exactly are the challenges we’ve got to face? Are teachers able to fight the status quo and make the necessary changes in time, or will we be powerless when dealing with the people in charge and all the current paradigms that rule the current educational system? I’ve been thinking about a couple of things that I’d like to share, and I’d love to hear your comments on the matter as well.

Challenge 1 – How do we get at least some students interested in becoming teachers instead of engineers, lawyers, doctors or diplomats when they themselves grow up in a world that doesn’t value teachers?

I guess I should first make it clear that I’m an educator in Brazil, and the reality of education here may be different from the reality of other countries. When I think about the value of education I can’t help but thinking that things seem to be really upside down. If we understand that education is probably the most important thing in a person’s life, how come we look down on teachers so much? Most teachers in public schools in Brazil earn, in average, from U$ 400 to U$ 900 per month to work 40 hours a week. If you work in private schools or in large metropolitan areas, you can make some more money, say, something around U$ 1800 a month. Salaries do vary a lot in Brazil (which makes it really hard for me when writing these values), but if you think that a university professor with a PhD starts working, in a federal university, earning something about U$4500 per month (minus taxes), and that there are lots of public examinations you can sit to become a civil servant, for which all you need is a high school degree, that might pay as much as this, but you’ll only have to work 30 hours a week, without worrying about correcting tests or doing anything at home, just guess what most students will choose to do?

I’ve written a post in which I said I was really worried about who was going to teach our children and grandchildren, and I can’t say I can picture a bright future there. Unfortunately, very few, but I mean, very few students actually want to be teachers. Teachers are not exactly respected by the majority of the population, and the profession is already seen as something that won’t exactly allow someone to support a family.How could anyone blame kids, then, when they choose to do anything else but become teachers? No matter how good educators these days are, they’ll eventually retire, and the number of people who are actually following a passion and teaching because they know they can make a difference will be lower and lower. We’re likely to see more and more people who see education as mere transmission of knowledge taking centre stage. And here’s when it gets thorny – if you don’t have a good teacher, chances are you won’t be a good professional. It’s some sort of a vicious circle, isn’t it?

Challenge 2 – How do we get teachers to understand that the world has indeed changed, and that our educational system has got to follow suit?

We still educate our kids in batches, as Sir Ken Robinson says. In an ever changing world, schools are still preparing students to follow orders and listen quietly what they’re told. I truly believe there’s a huge gulf between questioning and being disrespectful, but we’re not teaching this to our kids. Instead, we teach them that if they question authority, they’re being disrespectful. If they grow up in such a setting, chances are they will see questioning as challenging when they become the ones in charge. Schools are still, mostly, organised in orderly rows – a seating arrangement that inhibits sharing and collaboration. What’s funny about this is that most jobs these days (already) ask for people who know how to work in teams and collaborate. The idea of being a genius and only being able to work alone is, fortunately, off the table these days in many companies.

Most teachers still can’t deal with such changes due to lack of teacher training, or even because they’re not allowed to make such changes in their schools. Some like saying that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission, but we all know there are certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Anyway, teachers and principals need to fully understand that changing is not abandoning everything that’s worked for them when they were learners. These changes are only natural and they will take place sooner or later. Why should we hold them back instead of accelerating them? However, teacher training and development is necessary. If you’re into blogs and twitter and, again, follow lots of teachers, you’ll remember how often these teachers who are online “complain” that there are (lots of ???) teachers who work with them who simply couldn’t care less about innovating teaching? I still choose to believe this happens because changing is hard, and most teachers aren’t given the necessary tools in order to bring their teaching to the next level.

Challenge 3 - How can we assess our learners in a way that’s both practical, effective, and fair?

I’ll leave challenge three for the next post. Too many things to say about it. In the meantime, if you feel like it, you can read what I’ve already written about assessment here and a post about teaching here.

Other blogs of interest on this matter:

And, obviously, all the other blogs on their blogroll.

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