Archive for the ‘Homework’ Category

How much of what we do as educators is done because that’s the way it’s always been done? I imagine that whenever these things, that we do out of a respect for history, were originally executed, there was probably a reason for it. My question is with our society and all of the systems within it changing so rapidly over the past few decades, are those original reasons for doing things a certain way still valid? How would we know unless we re-examined the things that we do in education and see if they stand up in today’s technology-driven culture?

I often use my dentist as an example of obsolete practices in a modern setting. It has nothing to do with teeth, but rather information forms. You may have had the same experience with any medical or dental office. Every year at best patients are required to fill out a form to update all of the doctor’s patient information. The office person hands out blank forms to fill out all of the information that already lies within the computer system. When I asked why do I need to fill out all the information that you already have, I was told that this is the way we have always done it.

Of course the method, obvious to me, would be to print out the needed information that the computer already had, so that I could check if it needed any corrections. That is one of the reasons why we have computers, to do those repetitive tasks that waste our time. Apparently, it never occurred to the dentist or the staff to use the technology at hand to make a dull, time-consuming task for a patient a more productive and less tedious experience. Why? Because that’s the way we have always done it. That leads me to ask, how many policies or practices do we have in our schools that only exist, because that’s the way it has always been done.

In many instances in education there is also a research component that affects everything that we do. At least we hear that as educators all of the time. Does the research support this? That question may not apply to some things however. Research tells us that the teenage brain does not function well in the morning hours. Few schools have changed their AM openings to accommodate the research. The overall positive effects of homework continues to be questioned by research, yet there are still schools mandating homework be given at alarming rates. Research tells us that physical activity enhances cognitive thinking and promotes more lasting learning, yet, as a money-saving effort, playtime, recess time and even Physical education are often the first programs that fall victim to budget cuts. The reason: That’s the way we have always done it.

How many kids have come to hate Fridays because many of their teachers see that as testing day? It is not uncommon for a kid to have three major exams fall on a single day. Is that a valid assessment of any learning in each of those classes? That is a direct result of educators testing on Friday, because that’s the way it has always been done. I could point out that direct instruction and lecture are no longer valued as the most effective methods of teaching, yet they are still the focal point in methodology of too many teachers. Why? Because that’s the way it has always been done.

No, this doesn’t happen in every school with every educator, but it happens more often than it should. We need to have a better understanding of why we do things in education. We can no longer take for granted that just because something has always been done a certain way, that it is good for kids. It is time to apply what we know to what we do. Isn’t that what education is about? It may be time to examine policies and practices to see if they still fit in an ever-changing modern world. The way we do things should always be affected by why we do things. If research, or common sense changes the why, we need to adjust the way. That is progress. If we skip progress, change will come through reform. Reform is never an easy alternative.

There are so many things to look at in education that it is just easy to continue doing things the way they have always been done in the past. We need to look at and consider just where that mindset has brought us. We need to make time to re-examine what we do and why we do it on all levels of education. If administrators don’t want to take it on, than teachers should. As educated people we have the research and the know how to apply methods to maximize learning for students. We need to prioritize that as a goal for education. That is not something that has always been done that way.

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For the first time since I have been supervising student teachers, I have a group at the start of the year, as opposed to my usual assignment at the latter half of the school year. This has brought to light a subject that I often fought against as a teacher, and now have to counsel student teachers on how best to approach the subject. Summer Reading: how do we assess it?

New York State’s recommendation for reading is that each student completes reading 25 books per year. Most adults don’t even approach that goal, but adults have to work and their time is committed  to other stuff. It is understandable that adults’ time must be dedicated to other stuff. Kids have more time to read than adults. In a 24 hour period a kid’s time is taken up by: one hour preparing to get to school, seven to eight hours in school, two hours extra-curricular (depending on the sports’ season), and one to two hours of homework. Let’s allow an hour and a half to eat dinner and chill. That has accounts for Eleven to Thirteen hours. If we consider the ten to twelve hours of recommended sleep, that would leave one to two hours per day that a kid could be, and should be reading to get to 25 books per year. It all works out on paper. I always loved the expression, “Man plans, and God laughs”.

For all of the reasons mentioned it is difficult to get all 25 books done in the school year. Of course, if you ever went into a Border’s Book’s during the summer when there was a Border’s Books, you would see an awesome display of Books for the Summer Reading Lists for your school. Summer reading is highly recommended to keep those young brains sparking away. Many districts assign multiple books to really charge up those summer-lazy brains. Hopefully, thought was given to those  book lists to be high interest level books of brevity, so there would be at least a chance of accomplishment. War and Peace is not a beach book. It has been my experience that those who make up these lists are often people who love reading and actually read 25 books per year or more. In their day, they must have been the best students, if we are to consider  the New York State recommendations as an indicator. I do believe that reading is important, and we should, most definitely, provide suggested lists to students for summer reading.

That being said, I need to talk a little bit about my understanding of assessment. I always approach assessment as a tool for the teacher. Formative assessment tells the teacher how well the teaching is going. Is there a reason to re-do something, or is it time to move on? Summative assessment is the final result. After all is said and done, how much was learned? It is like a chef who needs to taste the cooking until the diner gets the plate (formative). The diner tasting the meal is the final assessment (summative).

Now we move on to the point of all of this. Students are told that they MUST do the summer reading. This may be in more than one reading and in more than one academic subject. They are also told that there will be a test within a short period of time from the start of school which will go into their average. By the way tests are one form of assessment, so this test should be formative or summative. If the teacher is using it as formative assessment than it is testing how effective the lesson was, but there was no lesson. Therefore, it must be a summative assessment. How much learning was accomplished from the activity?

One would hope that in an ideal situation, we could get most of our students to at least an 85% achievement level. If the entire class did not get there, it might be necessary for the teacher to revisit a number of things to clarify and expand on some ideas. After all a good chef does this to complete the course for the summative assessment of the diner. Sometimes, if at first you don’t succeed… There is always a re-test after fine tuning. This would be wonderful if that was done.

This does not always occur in the real world of education. Some teachers give the final test and what  a student gets is what student gets. “You should have completed the reading.” “You had every opportunity and all the time of the summer to get it done.” “ You knew the rules going in.” “ This is the way our department does it.” “ That is what summer reading is all about.” “ I don’t make the rules, I follow them.” Does any of this sound familiar?

What does a failing grade on the summer reading test indicate? After all it is a summative assessment so it should tell us something. Does it indicate the student has a reading problem? Does it indicate that the student fails to make connections. Is it an indication that there is a problem with higher order thinking skills? Does it indicate a need for remediation? Are there emotional problems interfering with learning? These are all possibilities. This is what teachers should be asking of any summative assessment that identifies a student’s failure to learn.

Of course if these are not the questions being addressed by the teacher, there might be another reason for this assessment grade to be averaged into the student’s average. It is not assessment, but PUNISHMENT. The student did not do what he or she was told, and the student needs to pay a price in the form of a lowered average. That should require an asterisk on the grade at the end of the year stating that the average is not a true account of the student’s ability to learn. It has been skewed to account for punishment for not reading over the summer.

Many of those students who receive punishment for not reading do not take it as a constructive criticism, for that is not what it is. It is intended to be a negative experience, as all punishment is. That does not promote reading. There are many ways to assess things beyond a test. Group discussions, and projects based on the reading give reasons to students to complete the reading. Teachers need to remember that we are here to promote and nurture learning and not to punish students into submission. Leave that for the behavior policy. Assessment is not for punishment.

I am sure there will be comments on this and they are welcomed. I am off to read book number two, the year will soon be over!

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I was recently asked, along with several other educators, to comment on a post dealing with grading homework. The premise on which we were asked to comment involved a teacher grading homework and giving a zero as a grade to those students who did not do the assignment. This is not an uncommon practice amongst educators. I employed this strategy myself for many years. It was and probably still is an accepted strategy, but after decades of teaching, I have grown to a point where i am not a big believer in giving homework. I stated my homework philosophy in this post, Hmwk: Less Value or Valueless?

If homework is to be given by a teacher, students need to believe that the teacher will value their efforts in completing it. Homework requires a sacrifice of personal time on the part of the student. If students observe that the teacher is not at least checking homework, they will not spend time, which is important to them, doing the assignments that are not valued. A mistake often made however, is that rather than assess the work, the teacher records a zero, or a failing homework grade for the student. This would also apply to a project prepared outside of the class that was to be presented at a specific time, a deadline.

I see assessment having two functions. The formative assessment is to tell me how much the student understands, so I can decide to move forward, or if I need to, change my strategy. The summative assessment comes at the end to determine, how much of what I taught, was learned by the student. A zero for a homework grade does not seem to fall into either of these categories.

It would seem that the zero grade is a punishment for non-compliance. Maybe an argument can be made for assessing the student’s understanding of deadlines, but that might be a stretch. That may be more of a work-ethic value and I don’t know how to assess that in number terms. The issue is bigger than zero for a grade of non-compliance. It is a question of the relevance of homework.

If the grade is an assessment of the work, and the student’s understanding, but it was not done, how can it be assessed? If the homework is more important to the teacher than it is to the student, who benefits? The zero seems more like retribution for not finding value in what the teacher values, or has been told to value. It’s more of a control thing, and not an assessment thing. If a student consistently performs well in class, how is it that when assessed on the same skills performed outside the class in the form of homework, the work gets a zero? It is a power issue.

Maybe we need to change the emphasis or at least offer an option for change. We could give control to the students, by giving them a homework opt-out option. Of course the ultimate control would need to be given to the parents, but let us consider this option. Students, with parents’ permission, could opt out of a homework grade for the year. The teacher would give homework assignments to the entire class, but would only be required to assess the work of those who have opted in for it. Students who have opted in, get a homework grade as an extra grade in their overall average. Every student will be given an opportunity to do the assignments, but, the only grading the teacher needs to do would be for those who opted in. If, as the teacher would hope, the homework makes a difference, it should be evident to all in the grades of the students who have opted-in. The opt-outs could still do the work, but it would not be assessed for a grade. Additionally, if opt-in students miss a specific number of assignments, they would be opted-out and parents would be informed. The group choosing to do the homework is now perceived as having the advantage in grading, making it very desirable for all. Of course that only works if the homework is relevant and if it does make a difference. There is a very good possibility that homework may make no difference at all in the students’ learning. In that case, those who have opted out, have not been harmed at all.

I believe homework should be given as infrequently as possible, and only if necessary. It should take no more than brief period of time. If homework is given to students, it must be valued. Their efforts outside of the class should be recognized. If we consider the schedules of our students and value down time, homework becomes less important and class time becomes more valuable.

This topic of homework is often a huge magnet for teachers’ comments on a blog post. For some reason educators feel a need to defend or attack the homework issue as a matter of professional pride. I await those comments.

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This post is the third and last on a topic involving a change in the way most schools incorporate technology into the curriculum for the benefit of students and teachers alike. The overall idea was spelled out in Piece of the Pie, and suggested changes on the elementary and secondary levels in our approach to technology integration. A more detailed description of the Elementary piece was explored in An Elementary Idea. In this post I would like to offer a suggestion for an approach on the secondary level.

Many of the obstacles to integrating technology into the curriculum as tools for learning are the same on the secondary level as they are on the elementary level. Insofar as teachers needing to seek professional development the problem remains the same. Too often teachers don’t know what it is that they don’t know when it comes to technology in education. It goes beyond just learning tech. It requires a continual commitment to learning with the ability to provide the time to do so. Beyond that commitment, the idea of comfort is always worked into the discussion. Teachers seem to have a need to be comfortable with technology in order to learn or use it. Little of this helps get technology into the classroom. The time restraints and discomfort of some, deny the access of technology in the curriculum for many. Beyond the teachers however, the other obstacle is a lack of support on the part of the district. This is usually a result of lack of money, or understanding, or leadership. Too often it’s a combination of all of those elements.

The plan for the secondary level is as simple as scheduling a study hall. It will require a model very familiar to special education teachers. It is a resource room with access to technology. The teacher in charge of the room may become a jack of all trades and a master of none. It will require the teacher to be a mentor more than a content expert. The teacher’s expertise will be in knowing where to direct kids to go for an exploration of content. The room will require access to technology or at least the ability for students to use their own personal tools to access the internet.

In this scheduled class students may be directed to any number of tutorial sites like the Kahn Academy. This will enable students to explore subjects in ways that may be different from those presented in the regular class. The idea of open source exploration may also slip the bonds of the textbook of the classroom with the guidance of the tech resource teacher. This will be a place of exploration to teach students the ability to explore subjects independently in an effort to develop independent life-long Learners.

This learning environment will also allow students to understand and develop their own Personal Learning Networks. The idea of responsible digital citizenship will be reinforced on a daily basis. Emphasis can be placed on the positive aspects of social media and social learning. The skills of collaboration and communication will be the focus. Students needing to work on projects or presentations will also benefit in this learning environment. The ability to Skype with experts and authors can take place to benefit all in this collaborative environment.

The age of the students should not matter. Freshmen to seniors mixed in one place can all benefit from this mentoring process. The mission of this environment would be to create a mentoring environment with access to technology to supplement, and enhance that which is being taught in the various classes of the students in this environment. This will remove the classroom barriers as students gain independence in learning outside the classroom. The idea would be to make them participatory learners, directing their own learning. There would also be a need to teach and strengthen critical thinking skills in order to improve the ability to acquire accurate and relevant information. These students will be media literate. The benefits of this learning environment hopefully will spill over to the other classes.

That would be my proposal with some of the benefits spelled out. It will meet certain academic and media literacy needs. It will require a change in thinking on the part of some, but it would be fairly simple to implement. It addresses the 21st century skills that we hear and talk so much about. This proposal however, will also probably never go anywhere but this post for two reasons. One, It cannot be measured by a standardized test. Two, it requires people to think and do things differently from the way they are doing things now. Our need to talk, debate and argue endlessly about reform without change will continue. I will however probably feel compelled to continue making suggestions for reform.

Comments are welcomed.


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This is a guest Post I did for Shelly Terrell’s Blog, TEACHER REBOOT CAMP, back on Friday, July 24th, 2009. It was one of my first toe-dipping experiences in the world of blogging. Shelly was very kind and encouraging. She also formatted this in a way that I would never have thought. I am grateful to her for starting me blogging.

I thought about this topic recently and considered doing a new post, but after revisiting my guest Post, I thought a resurrection might be as effective. I guess the problems are still here even after almost two years. Evidently,  few people read or implemented my suggestions.

Parents, Who Needs Them?

After tweeting about schools needing to teach parents about educational technology, I was quite surprised to find out that the idea was widely tweeted all over the twitter-sphere. This is geek speak for a message being sent and resent around on Twitter. I imagine that even Ashton Kutcher read my thought. Since neither he, nor Demi, tweeted me back however, I have no way of knowing for sure, but I hold out hope.

Parents, A Problem for Teachers?!

I was a single and very arrogant high school teacher in the beginning of my career in the early ‘70’s. I made certain observations of parents in general.

  • When most parents came to our school building, they were not there to praise their child’s teacher. This was a problem for teachers.
  • Many parents caused administrators to react to requests, resulting in edicts and orders for teachers. This was a problem for teachers.
  • Parents attended Board of Education meetings demanding and getting changes resulting in administrators giving edicts and orders for teachers. This was a problem for teachers.
  • Parents’ Night required teachers to come back to school at night wearing jackets and ties for the men and dresses for the women. This was a problem for teachers.
  • As a result I concluded that parents were a problem for teachers. To further this “well-founded opinion,” I came to realize that students did their best to block parents from their world in school. They would always share the negatives with their parents but rarely the positives. Again, this was a problem for teachers.

Because everyone in the system reacts to parents, sometimes policies are formed around what administrators perceive as the least objectionable policy in order to make the parents happy. These are policies, which are not solely based on the advancement of learning. These were my observations and not necessarily facts.

Wearing the Parental Shoes

My life as well as my perceptions and observations all changed when I became a parent of two daughters, four years apart. Now, I observed that in elementary school children were enthusiastic about learning, and as a parent, I was with them every step of the way. I knew what they did, and how they did it. As they moved to the middle school, I was less and less involved. By the time they got to high school it was a dinner discussion.

My observation now has been that as parents become less involved with their child’s education, the children became less involved with learning. I know, “The chicken or the egg?” theory.

Technology is Changing our Schools

Now we reach the age of Technology. Classrooms begin to look different. Things can be done in schools that were not even conceived two years ago. All this is taking place while some parents are saying that they cannot even program the VCR. The kids have to do it. By the way, it is now a DVR. I can never understand why some adults pride themselves in being computer illiterate.

Practical Advice

It is now time to add up all of my observations and try to make something of this which will benefit everyone.

  • Parents who are involved with their child’s education will see a child who is involved in learning.
  • Some teachers, who may feel threatened by parents, must still attempt to involve them.
  • There may be some administrators making technology decisions based on what they think will please the parents. They need to know that parents have knowledge of what is needed to help their child learn. Parents, if made comfortable with the technology, can embrace the technology and understand its purpose in the curriculum not only to enhance learning, but to make their child competitive in a technology-rich, work environment.

Why Schools Need Edtech Parent Workshops

Schools should conduct parent workshops to explain and demonstrate technology in education.

  • Parents need to know how it is applied in school, as well as out of school, applications.
  • We need to teach them the do’s and don’ts of the internet if they are to prepare their child for the real world, unfiltered and competitive.
  • We need to have people make decisions based on learning and not lack of understanding or fear.
  • The more the parents know, the more they can be partners in their child’s education.

The answer should be obvious when asked, “Parents, who needs them?”

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I know as I begin this post that there will be any number of readers who will run to their bookshelves to find references to nail me on some of the observations that I am about to put into print. Sorry, I should have used the term” text”.  Additionally, those people are not running to bookshelves with hard copies of textbooks or encyclopedias. I forgot we are in the 21st Century and we use computers and search engines. It is sometimes easy to forget. I would hope that comments of this post could bring some clarity to that which I often find confusing. This is the twenty-first Century.

As long as I can remember, I have always pictured the birth of our public education to have started in a conference room of factory building somewhere in the northeast. In my little vision I see captains of industry getting together and determining that if the United States was to move ahead as a manufacturing giant in a someday-to-be world economy, U.S. workers needed to come to work with skills that would be needed to support that industrial effort. We needed them to have a work ethic and a culture that would lend itself to the needs of industry. Of course someone pointed out that not all of America was industrial, so some concessions would be made. To placate Agriculture, they allowed farmers to have their child laborers from June until after the Harvest in August. Of course we needed uniformity, so they extended those dates to be common to all schools.

The idea was to set up the schools just like industry. They started the school day in the A.M. and the shift would then go to the afternoon. An eight-hour day would be great, but these are young people, so they shortened the shift by an hour. They could always get that hour back by giving kids work to take home. They set up little groups to train the needed skills, Reading, Riting,  and Rithmetic. That was a cute way to name the needed skills, the 3 R’s. This is the Job for kids. If the kids show that they get it, they would get a promotion in their job as long as their manager approved. Each of the factories would be managed by a small group of managers under one overall lead manager. That manager, called the principal, would develop the schedules and make sure everyone puts the hours in.

This is how I pictured it in my mind. The facts do not really matter, so do not run to Google to download a firsthand account of who was where, and who said what back on the day as they thought all this up. None of that is important, because the reality is that this industrial model of Public Education is what we deal with as part of our culture. It matters not where it came from. Over the centuries, research has not changed this model. We still have our 8-3 shift. We still send our kids home for the summer to work the crops. We still group kids together and give promotions. We still focus on the 3 R’s. This is all despite the fact that research has supported doing things in a much different way in most, if not all, of those areas.

To take this industrial model a step further our society has come to believe that educators are manufacturing a product. People are paying taxes to support education and they need to know what their Return on Investment is. Hence, the Standardized tests were introduced. They provide an easy explanation, and a way to measure the needed skills of Reading, Riting, and, Rithmetic. It would seem that this is the product people expect to be manufactured. This is what is needed by our labor force to get and maintain job. That must be the goal of education, a job.

Now, I wonder is there a need to change what everyone chooses to believe. Centuries of time couldn’t do it. Research couldn’t do it. An economic downturn couldn’t do it. Huge unemployment numbers do not seem to be doing it. Even the collective common sense some educational leaders seem to have at times has had no effect. It would seem that people are demanding change to get a better Return on their Investment, but they want this without allowing any change to take place. I think that may for me be the most confusing part.

If we are to keep this industrial model, can we agree on what the product is?  Can we restructure our workforce?  Can we fairly hold managers accountable? Can we update our manufacturing tools with technology? Can we improve our work schedules?

If  we cannot do all of that, an alternative might be to examine if this industrial model of educations is still the way to go. Is it serving us the way it should. If the safety, security and continuation of our society and democracy is dependent on the product of Education, it is incumbent upon us to get it right. It is a growing concern that I have, while I  watch the 6:30 P.M. News each evening. It is my twentieth Century habit that increases my Twenty-First Century concerns.

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If I had to name one educational author who sets educators off, it would be Alfie Kohn. The Educator’s PLN.  http://edupln.ning.com. was fortunate enough to convince Alfie Kohn to talk with well over 250 educators about his views in a live Chat. Alfie is outspoken on a number of educational topics not the least of which is his stance on homework. No matter how Kohn positions it, and irrespective of the research used to support his position, all that some educators ever hear is that teachers should not give homework because it doesn’t improve or in any way positively affect learning. This flies in the face of a traditional tenet of education, “Thou shalt Give Homework”.

Kohn’s positions bring out the best and the worst in some people. One great example of academic debate at its best has been on-going over a period of several days. Two members of The Educator’s PLN, George Haines and Tim Furman have continued the most scholarly, thoughtful, and respectful discussion on the subject of Alfie Kohn that one could hope for. The vocabulary is inspiring. You have to love all those big educational words. All kidding aside, I have great respect for both men and their positions.  It is a refreshing change from some of the name calling and disagreeable discourse that I have witnessed in the recent past.

Now that the Alfie Kohn video has been placed on my class’s Ning site and my students have been assigned its viewing, I need to strategize what they should take away from the experience. I am not creating Minnie me’s. I do not want to impose my will and a homework policy on them to guide them through their careers without them understanding or buying into it. After all, I am not an administrator.

Many of my views on homework were not my views through much of my career. Having my own children in school gave me a perspective that I never had in the first half of my career. I have come to appreciate that a student’s day in school begins at about approximately 8 and ends at 3. Many, but not all, are often involved with extra-curricular events for an additional two hours. This puts kids home between 5:30 and 6PM. Work in a little downtime and dinner and it is 8 pm. Of course the student is now ready to work, because it’s homework time. Each teacher has only assigned about 20 to 30 minutes of work, so each teacher feels that the assignment is not too much. That would be okay if the kid did not have five teachers all thinking the same thing. That could be on a given day two to three hours of homework. It is now 11 PM. I understand that does not happen every night, but I must wonder how often does it happen? I do not know an adult who would work those hours for any number of days in a week for no pay. There are actually departments, schools, and districts that enforce homework policies requiring teachers to give homework each and every night.

I am an English teacher. I know that I sometimes have no choice about homework, if I am to get things read. However, if I assign anything more than 10 pages, it probably will not be read by  the class. How successful will my lesson be the next day when only half the students read the assignment? If I were to do a formative assessment, I should not be surprised that half the class does not get it.  So much for the homework strategy. Another consideration: If I put no value on the homework, kids will recognize it as worthless. I must check it and provide feedback to give it value. Homework without value is more than worthless. It is punishment. Students will view it as working for nothing. How often do we hear “Why should I do that work? He doesn’t check it anyway.”

Skills and drills are important to some teachers and rarely important to kids. Some students might benefit by doing them. What about those who do not need those drills because they have a thorough understanding? How do those students, who do not need the drills, view them? If they clearly understand and can do the work, why are they drilling? Might they feel as if it is punishment? Can we assign the drills to those who need them and not to those who need them not? Is that a question of fairness? How can we say that only some of the students will get homework because they need to drill their skills? Are we calling some of our students dumb (their perspective) ?

I would love for my Methods students to realize that, if homework is important for the teacher to give, it should be important for the students to do. It should be creative and reasonable, because we are requiring overtime without compensation. We would resent that as adults, so why do we expect kids to buy into that concept without pushback? I love the fact That Alfie Kohn, George Haines, Tim Furman and my Methods students all challenge me to think, and reflect in order to amend, or change many of the traditions of education I followed so stringently for so many years in teaching. I only regret that I did not have the ability to do this earlier. That is what motivates me to work with pre-service Teachers. I think I will assign the reading and responding to this post as a homework assignment.



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