Category Archives: Pam McMartin

#Disrupting Texts in our Senior English Classes

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Stories that mirror the lives of our students are an important part of our reading lives.

Last year, due to a colleague’s illness, I ended up teaching a section of English 10 part way through the year. It had been years since I had taught English 10 and years since I had taught the main novel that our Grade 10 students study – To Kill A Mockingbird. While I hadn’t taught To Kill A Mockingbird in some time, it had been the subject of much of my professional development reading lately as there is a shift happening towards questioning some of the traditional texts we teach in North American and whether they are the best texts to explore issues of race and other complex issues. In particular, I had been exploring the concept of disrupting the texts we traditionally study in high school as outlined in this excellent series by Kate Stolzfus in ASCD’s Education Update. When we look at disrupting the classic, largely Eurocentric texts traditionally taught in schools across the country, we start to explore how the classic cannon does not necessarily reflect the experiences of the students in our class. Children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Simmons first explored the idea that children need mirrors, windows, and sliding doors in the stories they encounter. While windows and sliding doors allow children to look into or enter into the world of people different than themselves, mirrors in literature – where children can see themselves reflected in what they read are equally as important. While Rudine Simmons was talking about children’s literature, this is just as important in the literature we study with our young adults in our high school classes. When we look to disrupt the texts we teach in class, we look for opportunities to provide “mirrors” for all of the students represented in our class, as well as “windows and sliding doors” into the lives of others.

Because I was starting the class midyear, I was not in a position where I could change the books for the course, so I would have to teach To Kill A Mockingbird, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with teaching it in some of the more traditional ways I have seen it handled. Like any teacher faced with a new class with only a short time to prepare, I headed to the internet to see what inspiration I could find. What I found has become a valuable resource not just for my Grade 10 English class, but also for my other classes – #Disrupttexts. The #Disrupttexts movement is a grassroots movement started by teachers to disrupt the traditional cannon and to provide resources to do so. The movement was initially a Twitter movement and if you search #Disrupttexts on Twitter, you will find many valuable resources. As well, there is a website where you will find suggestions, lessons and unit plans that suggest alternate titles to the traditional cannon, or texts to teach in conjunction with them in order to bring in other perspectives.

While it may not always be possible or necessary to replace the traditional canon in our English classrooms, by shifting the way we looking at these texts and by “disrupting” our thoughts on the literature we share with our students, we help our students access the powerful experience of seeing themselves reflected in the literature they read.

 

Pam McMartin in English Department Head, Senior English Teacher, and Middle Years and Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, BC, Canada. When she is not disrupting texts in her classes and her school library, she is spending her time reading reviews and building her to-be-read list from all of the exciting new books from diverse authors coming out. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin. 

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Reading on a Snowy Monday and Canada Reads

We had a snow day last Monday. For those of you that know anything about Vancouver, Canada and the surrounding suburbs, a snow day is incredibly rare. I also know that those of you who live in more wintery climates may have been inclined to laugh at the amount of snow that constituted a snow day as I am sure it would have been considered a light dusting in many other areas of the world. In British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, however, a dumping of snow is a rare event and a school closure due to snow an even rarer event.

For my Monday snow day, I decided to take advantage of the unanticipated day off to do some reading. There is something to be said about being able to immerse yourself in a book and read it cover to cover in one sitting as snow softly falls outside your window.

marrow thievesThe book I ended up reading was The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, which is a powerful modern dystopian novel where the world has nearly been destroyed by climate change. The majority of the people who have survived the natural disasters that comes with climate change have lost the ability to dream with the exception of the indigenous people of North America who can still dream. Because of this, the indigenous people of North America are being hunted for their bone marrow because their bone marrow carries the key to recovering the ability to dream.

I picked up this book on that snowy Monday because I wanted the time to read it more closely. I had actually first encountered the book a few years ago when it was part of the CBC Canada Reads competition and have since added it to the rotation in my dystopian literature circle unit. Canada Reads is a yearly competition where several Canadian novels are nominated (each year the nominated books all centre around a theme). The Canada Reads website describes the competition as being like a “literary survivor” where each book is read and championed by a Canadian celebrity. Each week the champion of each book will debate the merits of their book and one book a week is voted off until the remaining book is declared champion.

While I have followed Canada Reads for many years, a few years ago I introduced it to my Honours English 11 class and had the students participate in their own version of Canada Reads. In groups, they each choose one of the Canada Reads novels to champion and they participate in our own “literary survivor” in class at the same time as the Canadian celebrities. Using the “literary survivor” model in my class has had a huge impact on my students. They have been introduced to some great Canadian reads, but have also become excited and analytical readers of their novels as they are debating for the survival of their chosen book each week. They love to see how their arguments stand up to the celebrity arguments (and I find my students’ arguments are often much better than the celebrity ones) and to see if the book that survives the longest in our class is the same one that survives in the Canada Reads competition. At the end of the class competition, the students have closely read a novel, analyzed it and debated it without feeling like they have done any work at all.

Pam McMartin is English department head and Senior School teacher librarian at a school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is currently thawing out after our short burst of unusual winter weather and is looking forward to the return of more mild temperatures.

Follow her on twitter @psmcmartin

Using Scrum in the Classroom

As we shift many of our educational practices towards more inquiry focused learning, we must also shift the skills that we focus on in our classrooms. In many of my classes, I have students engage in long term learning experiences that emphasize important skills including communication and collaboration. One issue I have consistently come across, however, is that students often lack the project management skills required to be successful in this type of learning and that we often launch them into assignments that require planning both their task and their time without providing them with the tools the need to be successful. How many times have we given students “a work block” and set them free only to be frustrated by how poorly many of them use their time?

One of the classes I teach is AP Capstone Seminar. In this class, as part of their AP exam score, students are placed in teams where they have to collaboratively produce a problem/solution style research presentation. Because this is considered part of their assessment for their AP exam score, the CollegeBoard requires that I as their teacher am not allowed to provide them with assistance (similar to if they were writing a sit-down exam).  It quickly became apparent to me that for my students to be successful with this collaborative project in their live assessment, I would need to provide them with strategies to help structure their time and that is when I stumbled across Scrum.

Scrum is a technique that has been used in schools in the Netherlands and has been adopted by many schools world wide. It is a style of project management that originated in the computer design world and that has been adapted to help support students manage long term learning tasks.

When using Scrum with my class, I help guide them through the following process:

1.) Set the end term goal for the project – what is the final product you are trying to produce, or what is your final goal? What date must this be finished by?

2.) Break this final goal down into shorter goals that we call sprint goals – essentially what are the smaller tasks that first must be accomplished in order to succeed in the end goal? By what date must be finish the sprint goals in order to achieve our end goal?

3.) Once students have set their end goal and their sprint goals, they are then asked to create their “flap board”. This flap board is where they will break their sprint goals down into the individual tasks they need to complete to reach their sprint goals, they will assign that task to members of the group, and they will track the progress the group has made on the task.

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The flap board for one of my AP Capstone student groups on the first day.

A flap board can consist of many elements depending on the task, but I have simplified it into the following categories for my students:

1.) Task Backlog: This is where students brainstorm all of the tasks that must be completed in order for them to achieve their sprint goal. These tasks are always written on sticky notes so they can be moved. If a task is in the Backlog area, it has not yet been started. This helps students visualize the volume of work they need to complete.

2.)Week Column: Students divide this section into the number of weeks (or classes) they have to complete the task. This allows them to visualize the amount of time they have to complete their work.

3.) “To Do”, “In Progress”, “Done” columns: these columns are where students track their progress on a task. When they are ready to start on a task from the Task Backlog, they move it to the “To Do” Column and place a coloured sticky note on the task indicating which student will be responsible for the task. Once the student has actually started the task, the move it to the “In Progress” column and when they have completed it, they move it to the “Done” Column. We usually have to come to an agreement within the groups as to what they would constitute as “Done”.

4.) Impediment Backlog: This section of the flap board is for when students hit a roadblock that impedes their progress. For example, a common impediment in my AP Capstone class is that the student has started to research their topic and has realized there are few reliable sources on their topic. If this is the case, they move the task to the Impediment Backlog section.

The Scrum Process:

At the start of each class where students have a “work block”, each group meets with their flap board and takes stock of their tasks. We call this meeting a Scrum and a Scrum should take no more than 5-8 minutes. In this Scrum, students move any of their tasks that they have completed before the class into the “Done” column and then set their goals for the class period. This may involve moving tasks out of the Task Backlog into the “To Do” Column, or moving tasks from the “To Do Column” to the “In Progress” column. As well, if any tasks have been moved to the Task Impediment section, this is the time to address the problem and to come up with an action plan. In these five minutes, students are taking stock of their progress and setting goals for tasks to be completed during this class period. At the end of each work block class, students will hold another 5-8 minute Scrum where they take stock of the progress they made in class, move tasks to the appropriate column, and set their goals for the next class.

A class Scrum is an easy and quick process, but it has revolutionized the way my students accomplish collaborative tasks that require long term planning. When students take five minutes at the start of the class to set their goals for the block, they are more productive and when they take the time to chunk a larger task down into smaller pieces in a guided manner, they are learning how to manage projects, how to collaborate, and how to problem solve to achieve their goals.

For more information on using Scrum in the classroom watch this, video showing it in action.

For more ideas on how to teach the specific skills required for collaboration, check out this excellent post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head, and Senior Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia. She is always looking for ways to apply the project management techniques she tries to share with her student to her own life in order to help manage the chaos. So far, this has been a work in progress. Feel free to follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Question Storming with Students

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Eighty percent of my teaching load is in the role of senior school teacher librarian and much of this aspect of my job is spent working on research skills with our middle years and graduation years students. One of the hardest tasks students face when starting with research is knowing where to start. Often times students will start with a topic that is significantly too broad and they lack the skills to narrow down their search focus, which leads to a frustrated student proclaiming they can’t find anything at all on their topic.

One technique I have used with my students to help them narrow their focus in their research and to guide them through the search process is a technique called question storming. Question storming is a technique I discovered in the educator section of The Right Question Institute website and I have used it with success in research lessons with Grade 6s all the way up to my Grade 10-12 AP students. Question storming is similar to brain storming, but instead of generating ideas or statements that come to mind, students are asked to generate questions. The following are the steps I take to guide my class through the question storming process.

Step One: I model the process of question storming by walking through the process with them. I love to use images as prompts to generate questions as I find students really become engaged with the images the more they ask questions about it. After I briefly explain what a question storm is, I project a thought provoking image on the screen. With my most recent question storming practice with my AP Capstone class, I used the viral image of the Palestinian protester in Gaza.

Step Two: After projecting the image, I ask students to generate as many questions as possible about the image. In my initial modelling with my students, I have them call the questions out and I record them on the board. I also remind my students that at this stage we are not trying to answer the questions and we are not judging the questions, we  are simply trying to generate as many questions as possible. The first questions generated are often rather surface level, things like why is the man holding a flag or where is he, but after the first few questions, I am always surprised at the depth that starts to emerge in the questions.

Step Three: After a few minutes of generating questions, we stop and review the difference between a closed question (one that can be answered simply) and an open question (one that is complex and has multiple possible perspectives) and we go through the list of generated questions and label each as being either an open question or a closed question. At this stage we talk about how it is the open questions we want to explore in our research, but the closed questions often help us in our research, as well because they help us explore what basic information we need to understand about the topic before we can delve into exploring the open ended questions.

Step Four: Once we have labelled our questions as being closed or open, we then select the one open question we want to explore as our main topic. Some of the open ended questions my students generated about the Palestinian protester photo included: To what extent are the Palestinian protests in Gaza affecting the conflict? How has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the conflict? To what extent has the media coverage of the conflict in Gaza affected the level of aid provided by other countries?

At this stage, students have a significantly more focused starting point for their research and have narrowed their focus with their open-ended questions. As well, they can use their close ended questions to help provide search terms to help narrow their research down even more.

When students start research or an inquiry with a powerful question they find the research process to be easier and more meaningful and question storming is a technique that helps make the challenge of coming up with the right question easier.

For some more practical teaching strategies, check out Shana’s post on some strategies she learned from the pre-service teachers she works with.

Pam McMartin is a Senior School Teacher Librarian, Senior English teacher and English department head at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When she is not wading through storms of questions with her students, she is braving the perpetual winter stormy weather outside that comes with living in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow Pam on twitter @psmcmartin. 

 

 

Every Child Matters and Sharing the Stories that Matter

residential-school-books-display_origEarlier this week we observed Orange Shirt Day at my school. Orange Shirt day is a day to recognize, remember, and reflect on the many Indigenous children who were taken away from their homes to live in residential schools. The residential school system has a dark legacy in Canada and the United States and the after effects still ripple through Indigenous communities today. In fact, the last residential school located in Saskatchewan did not close its doors until 1996 – a fact that is always shocking to my students when I share it with them.

The tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters and it is a tagline that has resonated with me as I participated in Orange Shirt Day, as we ran in the Terry Fox run as a school to raise money for cancer research, and as I plan with my student council for National Coming Out day on October 11th. While we promote the message that Every Child Matters and we hope our students feel that way as they leave our classrooms, the reality is that in the current world political climate and with the news stories our students are surrounded with each day, it is so easy for our female students, our LGBTQ students, our minority students, our refugee students, or any of our students who feel a little different to feel like they do not matter.

Last year I had the privilege of seeing author Thomas King speak at a conference. Thomas King is an American-Canadian First Nations author who has written numerous novels dealing with the First Nations experience. In his session, King was asked if he believed that story has the power to enact change in the world and his answer resonated with me. King answered that if you had asked him that question years ago, he would have answered with a firm yes, but now that he is older, he can not answer the same way. He was, like so many First Nations people, angry and fed up with the government’s inaction to follow through with promises they had made during the last election. He said that story is powerful, but often not enough and sometimes you just need to get angry and speak your mind. His final point was that if you are going to use story to change the world, you better find those voices that are strong, angry, and give voice to the voiceless because those are the stories with power.

King’s answer has stuck with me as I feel like too often I have used the empty platitude that “stories can change the world” with my students, but then I look at the stories they are being shared and the voices are often so heterogenous and not reflective of their voices and their concerns.

So, I have started a quest to diversify the stories I introduce to my students and to find those angry voices, those suppressed voices, and the voices that speak for them. In this post I will introduce you to a few of these powerful stories and will share others I discover in later blog posts.

The Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King

This powerful work is King’s reflection on what it means to be Native in modern North American. He discusses the historical events that have so impacted his people, but also ruminates on how popular culture has served to frame the narrative that many First Nations people are stuck in. King does not shy away from exploring the darker parts of history in this work, so it would be most suitable for Grades 10-12 students.

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ngozi Adichie’s name may sound familiar. Perhaps you have seen her powerful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story  (I love to use this TED talk to spark discussion about the missing voices), or have read her beautiful novel Half a Yellow Sun. Her work We Should All Be Feminists is a short piece, an extended essay, but it is an important exploration of the need for Feminism in the 21st century and how 21st century feminism must be one of inclusion and awareness. In fact, the Swedish government felt that this book held such an important voice for today’s youth that in 2015 they decided to give every 16 year old in their country a copy. We have used this book with Grades 8-12 students at our school and how found content accessible to all age levels in the range.

These are just two of many amazing books that share the voices and stories of people with powerful and important messages. Over the next few months, I will share some more I have come across and I would love it if you could share some of your own suggested titles in the comments below!

To read more about harnessing student voice in a time of political unrest and fear, check out Lisa Dennis’ powerful post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently on a quest to help empower student voice through reading and writing and welcomes any suggestions you may have in regards to either.  Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Summer Time Writing Inspiration

Up here in Canada, we are not quite on summer vacation like many of my colleagues to the south, but we are firmly at that time of year where our minds are more in the next school year than the current one. As we are invigilating our year end exams and saying goodbye to our Grade 12 students, the minds of myself and many of my colleagues are already turned to planning for the next group of students we will be working with in the fall.

While an important part of summer is taking the time to relax, recharge, and delve into my growing pile of guilty pleasure books for reading, I always look forward to the time summer gives me to catch up on my professional reading.

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The Creativity Project – complete with a barcode from my school library!

One such resource that I am so excited to delve into over summer break is The Creativity Project written by Colby Sharp. Colby Sharp may be a familiar name to those of us who have embraced the works of Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild in our classroom practice as he is, among many of his other amazing contributions to the world of education, one of the co-bloggers on the Nerdy Book Club blog.

What has me so excited about this resource is that it combines two of my favourite things and two of the most magical elements of a creative writing class – exciting writing prompts and engaging mentor texts.

In The Creativity Project, Colby Sharp reached out to some of the best authors in the juvenile fiction and YA world – the ones our students are loving and reading- and asked them to create a writing prompt for his book. Contributors to his project include authors such as Kate DiCamillo, Mariko Tamaki, and Lemony Snicket to name just a few. He then shared the prompt of one author with another author and had them write a piece inspired by the prompt for the book. The end result is a book not only chock full of prompts, but also with mentor text gold. After the prompts themselves, the author who created the prompt provides a brief explanation for their inspiration for their prompt, which provides a lovely window into where authors get their inspiration from. The responses to the prompts are honest and raw, humorous and hilarious. There are short stories, poems, and graphic novel panels. What is most wonderful of all is the fact that the pieces are not the final polished pieces, rather they are evidence of published authors engaging in the very tasks we ask our students to do – take a prompt, run with it, and see where it takes you. For another great post on writing prompts, check this one out.

This summer I am hoping to use the Creativity Project to rekindle my own creativity and to use the prompts to get writing again. If I am feeling particularly brave in my next summer blog post, maybe I will share something I have written with you. The next school year, I am excited to see how this book can be used to inspire my students to write.

Pam McMartin is jealously reading the blog posts of her colleagues already on summer break and dreaming of the summer sun, which has been rather absent lately at her school just outside of rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. Her summer plans involve enjoying letting go of the daily schedule, slowing down and enjoying time with her family, and hopefully writing on prompt after prompt from Colby Sharp’s book. Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Using Technology to Extend Reader’s Advisory

While I do teach one class of Senior English and one class of AP Capstone Seminar, the majority of my job is actually as the Teacher Librarian in our Senior School (Grades 6-12). As a Teacher Librarian, I spend a lot of time focusing on Reader’s Advisory as students stop by the library looking for a book to read.

Reader’s Advisory can take some time and is often about asking the right questions. While some students come to the library with a clear picture of what they want to read, more often than not, students have a vague notion of what they are looking for or have no idea at all. Sometimes when students enter the library they have a clear goal in mind, but more often I come across students mindlessly wandering the shelves because they want a book (or have been told they have to get a book), but really have no clue what they are looking for. These students may be in a reading rut and nothing is inspiring them. When I encounter these students, I always start with questions such as: what is the last thing you read that you really enjoyed? What did you like about that book? What didn’t you like about the book? Sometimes the questioning period is short and I have just the right book for the student, but sometimes the process can take much longer with every suggestion I give being turned down. While my role in Reader’s Advisory can be an important one, often the best advisors when it comes to helping students find their next great read is not me, rather it is their peers. While it is important that we as teachers and librarians are reading the books our students are reading and while it is important that we are able to recommend books to students, it is also equally as important that we are creating a culture of reading in our libraries and in our classrooms where our students are sharing the books they love with their peers and where they are engaging in Reader’s Advisory by recommending books to each other.

To read some more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a culture.

While some of the best Reader’s Advisory between students happens in the casual conversations in the library or in the classroom or in the excited moments when a student just has to share this amazing book he or she has been reading, technology can also help us extend our reading culture beyond the walls of the classroom and the school itself. At our school, we have been using technology in an exciting way to help extend the conversations around books beyond the school walls.

Over the past few years, our English department has been using Biblionasium and Goodreads to broaden our reading community and to help our students engage in discussions about reading and to connect to Reader’s Advisory moments in larger communities.

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Some of our Grade 6 and 7 students using Biblionasium to write reviews and recommendations about their favourite books.

 

With our Grades 6 and 7 students, we have introduced Biblionasium. Biblionasium is a free social book sharing platform for younger students (there is a paid version, but the only real added feature to this version is that it allows you to link your Biblionasium class with your library catalogue). It allows teachers to create online reading communities. At our school, our Grade 6 and 7 students all belong to our online Biblionasium community that has been set up by their English teachers and by myself. On Biblionasium, students can log the books they have read by placing them on their own virtual bookshelves, can write reviews of these books, can place books on the group’s virtual book shelf to allow other students to see them, and they can also recommend books to other students. As well, the teachers in the group can send book recommendations to the whole class or to specific students. Because it is a program designed for elementary students, Biblionasium confines students to the class that was set up by the teachers and students can not interact with other users on the site. This allows students to engage with their classmates in their Biblionasium group, but does not open them up to a larger community of strangers.

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Page 1 of many (we have had this group going since 2014!) of our Grades 8-12 Goodreads reading group Recommended Reads bookshelf.

With our Grades 8-12 students, we have moved from Biblionasium to Goodreads, another free platform. While many teachers use Goodreads for their own reading, they may not realize that is also allows you to create groups that you can use in your classes. It is this feature we use with our students. We have created a private group for our Grades 8-12 students and for teachers at our school. Much like the Biblionasium group, this group is a place for our students to place the books they have read on their shelves, to share books on the group shelves, to recommend books to each other and to write reviews. The group itself if private, which means only our students and teachers can access it and our shared bookshelves. Unlike Biblionasium, however, the reviews that the students write on Goodreads are visible to the larger Goodreads community. While this may not be ideal for younger students, for our older students it has extended their Reader’s Advisory community in many profound ways. When they write book reviews for the Goodreads community, they are contributing to a larger global discussion about books and when they are looking for book recommendations, they can tap into the reviews and suggestions of a huge community of passionate readers. This not only gives them the experience of writing for a real audience, and access to many amazing mentor texts for book reviews written by other people in the Goodreads community, it also gives them membership into a vast group of people who love to talk about books. This year one of my Grade 11 students discovered that Emma Watson, her favourite actress, is extremely active on Goodreads and, in fact, runs her own feminist book club through the site. My student quickly joined this club and was soon reading her way through Emma’s reading list and engaging in amazing online conversations with other members of Emma Watson’s book club. She was soon bringing these conversations into the classroom and quickly had a whole crew of students – male and female- avidly reading Emma Watson’s recommended books and debating them every chance they could get. I tell you, there is nothing as exciting as walking into a classroom full of students planning their Alias Grace Netflix binge watching session because they just finished reading the book with Emma Watson’s bookclub and they need to watch the Netflix series to see if it did it the book justice in order to join in on the conversation going on in the Goodreads group on this very topic.

Using technology to extend the classroom reading community can have some challenges and does require a certain amount of work with students in regards to interacting with others in the digital environment. The use of technology through reading community sites like Biblionasium and Goodreads can be a powerful way to have students extend their reading community, explore new books and recommended reads, and share their recommendations and critiques with a larger community.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen BC, Canada. She is also addicted to Goodreads and spends decidedly too much time stalking people’s virtual bookshelves in search of her next great read. She is always looking to expand her Goodreads family, so feel free to add her as a friend. Besides on Goodreads, you can follow her thoughts on Twitter at @psmcmartin.

 

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