Reflections on 8th Grade Socratic Seminar

I’ve avoided Socratic or Harkness style seminars in my class for a number of years because I had honestly had very little experience with them and didn’t know how my students a discussion without me.  Kind of sad, I know.  This year, I made it one of my goals after hearing how successful it was in other classrooms, including the 8th grade Global Studies class that I frequently connect with.  I also have a group of students that love to discuss anything and everything, so I thought it would be a good year to start.  It hasn’t always been an easy process, but I’ve really started to feel like it’s working in the way I was hoping it would.  I thought I’d share my process and reflections on how I’ve incorporated Seminars into my English 8 class this year.

Practice Seminar 1:

  • I decided to start out with a practice seminar so that students could learn my expectations and also so I could figure out what I wanted to do before I assessed them.  We had been reading A Long Way Gone, so I based my questions off the memoir.
    • Prior to Seminar: I started by reaching out to my English department colleagues for resources and received a plethora.  These included planning guides, reflections, and rubrics, which I adapted to fit the need of my class.  I gave students about 35 minutes to work in class and one night to plan for the discussion.
    • Student Seminar Process: I have two classes of 18 and one of 9, so I created two questions for the bigger classes to discuss.  Thus, each seminar was a group of 9 students. For the larger classes, while one group discussed, the other group participated through an online chat. Students started the discussion by creating a group goal and then were free to go.  After the discussion, students reflected on their performance in a somewhat informal way.
    • My process: I created a chart of things I was looking for in the seminar (participation, building off a point, using evidence from the text, etc.) and tallied the student’s performance overall.
  • What Worked? What Didn’t?
    • Students had a good discussion because of the preparation they put in.  After talking to them, I realized that the students wanted more time to prepare.
    • Although I liked tallying the students performance and saw some benefit when I tried to create a grade, I felt like I couldn’t follow the conversation and see the depth of thought very well.  It was also very difficult to keep track of the conversation on paper.
    • Some of the students found it hard to find their voice and some found their voice too much.  Though creating the group goal did help somewhat, I realized I needed to do more work with students surrounding what it actually means to have a good conversation.
    • I found it really hard to grade.  Even after the students reflected, grading them individually was a real challenge, even if this was just practice, so I basically just didn’t!
    • Students that were not actively in the seminar but discussing online did a good job, but it was hard to follow the conversation, and it was also very easy for some students to get distracted by other online activities.
    • All in all, a decent start but still some work to do.

Practice Seminar 2:

  • I chose to do another practice seminar since the first one didn’t go as great as I would have liked and because I still felt like I needed to try some things with my students before I could adequately assess them and give them a good sense of what I was looking for.  For this seminar, students would examine the essential questions for The Book Thief prior to reading the book.
    • Prior to Seminar: I gave the students more time – a couple of nights and some time in class to prepare for the discussion.  I gave them the opportunity to use the same planning guides as I had before but also allowed them to use their own system if my resource didn’t work for them.  To help students think of ways that would help them answer the question, I gave them the opportunity to explore news media and social media to look for possible answers to our essential questions.  Students were also strongly encouraged to seek out evidence that didn’t match their opinion.
    • Student Seminar Process: I once again separated the students into groups of 9 but for the larger classes, students who were not in the seminar group took notes on a partner’s performance.  After the seminar, the outside group would then give feedback to the seminar group.
    • My process: Instead of tallying the student’s performance, I took notes on what each student was saying, thinking that it would allow me to reflect on the conversation and help me better assess the student individually.
  • What worked? What didn’t?
    • Again, the preparation was good.  Students had a lot of evidence and a lot to say.  It was sometimes hard for them to use the evidence to back up their opinion and they relied on lot on vague ideas, but they did have good plans.
    • I really liked having students observe other students.  After each discussion, feedback was given and it allowed the students to see that their were issues in their discussion, and particularly that they weren’t listening to each other or building conversation.  It also kept the non-discussing group very focused on the discussion at hand, and I could tell that they wanted to jump in.
    • It was helpful to transcribe what the students were saying but again it didn’t make it easy to grade.  I found it really challenging to be able to observe listening, participation, and behavior for 9 students accurately, so once again, I didn’t actually give a grade.  Thank goodness this was also just for practice.
    • After the seminar, I had students reflect on what would make the seminar process better and got a lot of good advice.  Students were also able to see their own problem areas.
    • One of the biggest thing I noticed in this seminar was a tendency for certain voices to dominate while others remained extremely quiet.  In addition, some students started to get dismissed or cut off if their voices weren’t loud enough.  Some changes needed to be made.

Official Seminar 3:

  • I knew it was time to grade an official seminar.  The students would discuss a question from our work with The Book Thief but that would also have them think about current events related to poverty and crime.
    • Prior to Seminar: Before our official discussion, I spent some time really thinking about how to make this better since I had a good idea of what wasn’t working.  Here is some of my process and changes:
      • I discussed various problems and potential solutions with students and had them discuss what they thought would work best for their class.  For example, I did not want to create two EQs for this seminar, so I wanted to come up with a way for students to discuss the same question without copying each other.  We decided to have two seminars going at once for the bigger classes and I would use video to track their conversations.  This would allow me to go freely between the two groups.
      • After talking with our current global studies teacher and my English department, I realized that I needed to stop grading my students individually but instead should grade them as a group.  This would hopefully take away their pressure to perform and would help them have actual conversations.
      • I created seating assignments for groups that tended to have more dominant voices.
      • One of my colleagues suggested I establish a moderator to ask questions and promote equitable discussion.  This person wouldn’t directly be involved in the discussion and would also work with the group to evaluate their own progress at the end.
      • I wanted the students to ask more questions as I feel like questioning is a great way to challenge someone’s point and get people thinking in a different way.  But my students were not good at this and really found it challenging in the previous seminars.  I decided that we would have a conversation only in questions.  We watched a TED talk and did just that.  Not only was it fun, my students realized that it slowed their thought process down, that you could make a point through a discussion, and that it actually added a lot to the conversation.
      • I felt ready.
    • During Seminar
      • I found a large space so that I could examine both seminars but students were far enough apart that they wouldn’t bother each other.
      • Students had had several days and a good chunk of class time to prepare.  I also had given them some sites to explore so that they could see the question beyond the novel.
      • I showed students the rubric I would use to grade them as a group and reminded them why we moved to the group assessment.
      • The moderator led the discussion, asked questions when necessary, and interrupted to make sure all voices were heard.
      • Halfway through the discussion, per the suggestion of my colleague, I had students reflect on points they hadn’t made but wanted to.  At this time, the moderator gave feedback to the group regarding areas of strength and weakness and even called a few students out on too much participation or not enough.
      • Students filled out more formal reflections at the end of the discussion and also completed an individual written assignment based on the essential question.
    • My process:
      • I simply walked around and listened. It was wonderful.
      • In my smaller class, I tracked who was participating so that I could show the group at the end.
      • I occasionally gave advice to the moderator regarding things he could do (call on kids to participate, step back, ask a question, encourage use of evidence).
    • What worked? What didn’t?
      • The  discussions were great, and so many more kids participated. It was clear that the pressure of the individual grade really hindered the students from having a conversation with each other.  Although it was still challenging at times, there was much better flow and I could tell that the students understood they were working together.
      • Students asked great questions.  The strategy we used in class really helped with this, and they even reflected that asking questions was a great way to promote more discussion.
      • I loved the use of the moderator.  Although a little more prep work would help them moderate better, overall it was very successful.  No one could hide in the group, and the moderator also was able to give great feedback.  At the end of the discussion, it was the moderator, with input from the group who evaluated the performance, and because they weren’t participating in the actual discussion, their thoughts were honest and accurate and they were able to help their group members see their strengths and areas to improve.
      • There is definite value to having two seminars at once but also to having students listen to each other discuss.  I think I will try both throughout the year.
      • Students are still having trouble using the evidence that they prepare and using it in a way to support their general thoughts.  This is something we really need to work on and I will have to model for them.
      • I am not stressing on assessing the students through a grade as they will be assessing themselves as a group and then their individual grade will come from their written preparation and their written response.  I not only feel at ease but also feel like their grade will be more accurate.

Overall, I am very pleased at how Seminars are progressing in my class and am so thankful for the advice of my colleagues.  I think it’s going to be a Seminar filled Semester 2!

Would love to hear your thoughts and approaches to Socratic Seminars, especially in middle school.

 

Middle School Memoir Unit Part 1: Picking a Topic and Getting them Motivated

For the first time in quite some time, I decided to teach a unit on memoir writing.  Two years after interning at Nancie Atwell’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I was finally ready to use what I had learned.  I relied heavily on the information learned at CTL as well as Atwell’s book Lessons that Change Writers ,and I am very proud of how the unit turned out and the growth each student made as a writer in the process.  I am very excited to share my process and some of my students’ work with you.

I spent a lot of time working with my students on choosing a meaningful topic as I often find that this is one of the hardest things for a student to do.  Here are the pre-writing steps I took as well as some reflections.

  1. Brainstorming possible topics.  In Lessons that Change Writers, Atwell includes a great list of questions for memoirists to ask themselves when considering what to write about. “What are my earliest memories? What’s an incident that changed my life? What’s a time or a place I felt as if my heart were breaking?” are just a few. I chose to read each question orally and have my students bullet potential answers.  Periodically, we would stop to allow students to share responses to hopefully inspire others in the class.  As I read over questions, I added questions to my own personal list to support students who felt blocked. After reading over twenty questions, students had a giant list of potential topics to choose from and likely a lot more ideas than if I had them brainstorm from memory alone.
  2. Narrowing down topics.  After talking about Atwell’s “Rule of So What” with the students, I asked students to narrow down their list to two or three topics that they felt had a “So What” and they would also enjoy writing about.  Students then met in small groups and interviewed each other regarding their potential topics.  My students are well-practiced in working with each other in a “professional way,” and as a result, their discussions were very rich.  It’s always exciting to hear students question their peers regarding whether or not their work truly meets the guidelines of the genre.  This step did go fairly well, but in retrospect I should have spent more time really discussing the importance of having a “So What” in the student’s pieces.  Later on in the process as students began to write, it became clear that some students were finding this challenging. More time at the beginning would have likely helped students better see that the purpose of memoir writing is not just to record an event but to reflect and show the importance of it.
  3. Writing smaller. Even once the students had a topic, I noticed that many of the topics were broad, which would make it hard for them to write in a way that included thoughts and feelings.  I am a firm believe in modeling work for students for many different reasons but primarily because students often need to see how something works in action.   I think this is especially important when narrowing down a topic.  I knew that my model memoir was going to be about my grandmother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, but I didn’t know what part of the story I wanted to tell.  I worked with my students to discover how I could make this topic smaller.  We brainstormed all of the different elements of my grandmother’s battle (having to help her at her house, deciding to send her to the nursing home, when I first found out she had the disease, her first day in the nursing home, etc.).  We then discussed each idea in relation to my “So What” which was to show how my grandmother’s disease impacted but ultimately didn’t change our relationship.  I was able to uncover, with help from the students, that I thought the best way to do this was to talk about bringing her to the nursing home for the first time.  Students then went into their own work and, again with a partner, discussed how to narrow down their topics so that they focused on one main event that allowed them to explore their “So What?” in the best manner possible.
  4. 6-Word Memoirs: My favorite step in the pre-writing process was the most fun and one that I’ve been waiting for a long time to do.  I wanted my students to really think about why they were telling their stories and thought the 6-word memoir might be a good approach.  We examined and discussed some 6-word memoir videos on YouTube (there are many), and talked about the difference between creating a 6-word memoir vs. a 6-word motto. After I modeled some potential phrases and sentences for my own topic, I then asked my students to brainstorm some ideas that would summarize and show the importance of their memoir in just six words.  This was definitely hard for them at first, but I do think they ended up having fun with it and also believed it helped get them excited for the writing they were about to do.   Students used large post-it notes to brainstorm their ideas as seen below.

    After a good chunk of time, we placed their work all over the classroom for a gallery walk.  As the class (me included) silently examined each other’s work, they starred the phrases they loved, left comments, and asked questions. Following this peer revision technique, the writer then finalized their choice and illustrated their point using a poster, which I later videoed. 

    Although I don’t know how much this activity helped my students really understand why they were writing, I do think it helped them think about their stories in a different way. Some students eventually decided against their original topic later on, so their 6-word memoir didn’t end up matching up with their final project, but I firmly believe this activity helped get their creative juices flowing while also creating genuine enthusiasm for the unit.   Not to mention that it created a sense of community and made students a little less afraid to share something personal. I would do this again in heartbeat.

Would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions on my work.  How do you start off your memoir unit?

How to Silence 8th Graders

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I love Brandon Stanton’s work.  I find it mesmerizing, inspiring, thought-provoking and countless other adjectives.  As I’ve delved into my own work around equity, I also find it a great place for me to further and challenge my own perspectives about the world.  I’ve wanted to use the site in my classroom for some time but couldn’t think about how I could without feeling like I was forcing it down my students throats. This past weekend, I finally figured it out.

We have been reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and I have been using this masterpiece of a novel to have my students examine the following essential questions (some for the year, others just for the unit):

  • What is the power of story?
  • How does an individual influence a community? How does a community influence an individual?
  • What do we risk by being apathetic? Where do responsibilities lie?
  • Why tell the story of World War II?
  • Are there elements of the Holocaust still alive in our world today?

We have been spending a great amount of time discussing how the book connects to our current world, specifically around ideas of poverty, privilege, and inequity.  Our discussions have been intense and memorable.  They are why I teach.

As I worked to produce seminar questions for students to wrestle with as they work through the novel, I knew I wanted them to think about our school motto “Achieve the Honorable” through the eyes of the book and considering our world today.

Liesel, the main character, and her friend, the beloved Rudy, are suffering through the Holocaust, are poor and desperately hungry. They steal food to survive but never, as the reader, do you feel like it is wrong for them to do so.  Liesel’s family, like many brave throughout Germany, also harbors a Jew, risking their own life to save another’s, something that people now consider an unbelievable act of courage.

My seminar question quickly became: Is crime and dishonesty ever okay?  An extension resulted in: What does it really mean to “Achieve the Honorable?”  I want my students not only to think about these tough choices that the characters had to make but to think about how examining these characters could help them better understand the choices millions around the world and in our own backyards have to face daily.

As I thought about resources I wanted to share with my students to help them grapple with these questions and to consider various perspectives, I finally realized that this is how I could use Humans of New York.  I happened to luck out as Brandon is currently interviewing prisoners at several New York City jails.  It couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it.

A very few of my students had knowledge about the site or spent significant time visiting it. All it took for them to quiet down and become engrossed was for me to share the website.  I’ve NEVER seen my eighth graders, or any eighth graders for that matter, so quiet and engaged for a significant time period.  They did not talk.  They did not ask to get a drink of water.  They didn’t even realize when I needed to leave the room for a moment. In fact, they barely moved.  And when given the opportunity, they discussed and only stopped because I stopped them.

This week, they will try to become storytellers themselves and will harness their inner Brandon Stanton.  I cannot wait to see their results, and I cannot wait for them to answer our seminar questions.

It’s amazing what happens when people are given the opportunity to share their stories. It’s amazing what happens when people take time to read those stories.  It’s amazing what Brandon Stanton has done.

So thank you, Brandon, for not only inspiring millions around the world, but for helping my students think.  Thank you for quieting my 8th graders in the best way possible.

What I Read This Week

Books:

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult.  This was a re-read for me.  I picked it up again after quite a few years when I overheard a teacher talking about it in the hallway. I remember how much this book created my love for all things Picoult and knew it would be a great way to pass the time over winter break.  It was as good as I remember – an interesting look at a school shooting and the elements at play.  One of the reasons I love this book is it makes you think about the shooter’s family, in a way that you might not have before.  When someone behaves monstrously, who is to blame?

I am Malala by Malala Yosafzai

I have finally started the memoir, and I am enjoying it so far.  It is an interesting look into a world that I know very little of and one that is often only highlighted in certain ways through the media.  I am taking this one slowly and just reading little by little.

Articles that I particularly enjoyed:

  • All Teachers Should be Trained to Overcome Their Hidden Biases” by Soraya Chemely – posted on time.com on February 12,2015.  This is a really interesting discussion of the dangers facing both boys and girls in school when teachers don’t stop to examine their hidden bias.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we actually took the time to video our lessons once in awhile and examined our own teaching for potential bias?  New Years Resolution, perhaps.

Some of my student blog posts this week:

 

 

 

What If Wednesday

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One of my goals is to blog more regularly.  To do so, I have decided to start a series called What If Wednesday as I frequently find myself asking questions related to the field of education that begin with that said question.  Sometimes they will be thematic, sometimes they won’t.  It’s just a series of questions that’s on my mind.  Feel free to answer or share your own.

What if…

  • Students were given a time limit on homework?
  • Homework only consisted of practice?
  • We gave students the homework to read or write whatever they want?
  • We told them that after school they were required to play?
  • Students created their own assignments?
  • Students had a series of assignments to choose from?
  • Students knew all their homework at the beginning of the week?
  • Students created the schedule to complete their homework?
  • The students’ homework was to reflect on what they learned and practiced in class and prepared questions and a plan for the future?
  • Homework wasn’t considered a requirement?

The Courage to Admit We’re Flawed

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Photo Credit: James Vaughan

In 2015, I spent a large amount of time devoted to learning more about equity and inclusion.  My work at the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA and the National Diversity Directors Institute in Potomac, Maryland transformed me and lit a fire within.  I truly am committed to making the school experience of my students a more equitable experience, but man, is it hard sometimes!  It’s hard for me and it’s hard for others.

Despite my dedication and knowledge, I make mistakes.  I don’t always realize when I am creating disadvantages or inflicting bias. I don’t like when people question my beliefs or behaviors.  I struggle with my own privilege and often still don’t see when I am advantaged. I get frustrated with other adults who don’t see the importance of these issues or cannot admit they may have a role.   In doing so, I may sometimes put them off instead of turning them on.  I worry.

The one thing I have taken away through all I have read, listened to, and communicated is how much this is a journey for me and everyone else.  And what I have to remind myself is though the destination may be the same, how we travel and the roads we take are very different.

I need to accept that I do not know everything yet and that I will learn more. I must remember that I may know more than others and be inspired by small growth.  I have to acknowledge that this journey is one of the most difficult I will face as an educator, that failure is inevitable, and forgiveness is sacred.

All these things take courage, which is why they are so difficult.  It takes courage to admit we may be prejudiced.  It takes courage to admit that we are in fact biased.  It takes courage to admit that not all students share the same experience and we may have a role in that.  It takes courage to look deep inside ourselves and admit we may have done things wrong in the past.  It takes courages to acknowledge that even when we try our best, we can still fail. It takes courage to admit we’re flawed.

But it also takes courage to not give up, to keep fighting when people are fighting you, to be willing to learn more, to be uncomfortable, to feel alone in the fight, to find solace in others, to admit you don’t know everything.  To ask for help.

This year, 2016, my intention is to be courageous.  Are you with me?

The Great 56: What I Read this Year

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I had set a goal of reading 75 books this year.  I did not make it – I blame the fact that I went on a close to two month reading hiatus where I just couldn’t get into reading.  Oh well!  I did manage to finish 56 books, listed and categorized below.  I provided some commentary for the ones I could actually remember!

I’m a bit heavy on the popular fiction and am going to try to branch out a bit more next year when 75 will be reached!

Thanks to OverDrive for letting me download books for free, thus enabling me not to go broke on books this year.  And thanks to Goodreads, for making it so easy to keep track of what I read!  I think I got them all.

My absolute favorite books this year. 

  • We Were Liars (E. Lockhart) – I adored this young adult suspense novel I read over the summer.  Kept me intrigued and surprised me in the end. Plus I loved the island setting close to Martha’s Vineyard – one of my favorite summer destinations.
  • The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah) – Great World War II read.  I am a sucker for this genre, and I have always liked Hannah’s work – though usually I find them more guilty pleasure readings and less thoughtful works.  This was both a bit of a guilty pleasure and a unique look at World War II.  Very well done.
  • Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys) – Another World War II read, this time by brilliant young adult author Sepetys, this book was recommended by a former student (with a note that it has nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey).  It is a simply gorgeous book that I fell in love with.  Cannot wait for Sepetys’ new one this year.
  • Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Claude M. Steele) – This book changed the way I think about stereotyping and is a must-read for any teacher, or anyone really.  Fascinating look behind stereotype threat and the effect it has on various identities.  And I read this on the beach – that’s how interesting it is.  Please do yourself a favor, read this book, and grow.

Books that made me think.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) – This book was required summer reading for my 8th grade students’ Global Studies class.  LOVED it.  Laugh out loud funny while forcing you to think.  Gave me a whole different perspective to thinking about how to teach through a diverse lens.  This book also encouraged me to seek out other books that allow my students to see things from a different perspective.
  • Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology (Leah Remini) – I have loved Remini since Stacy Kerosi caroused on the Bayside Beach with Zach Morris.  I have also found scientology interesting but didn’t know much about it.  This book was fascinating, and though I know it is told from a single perspective, it made me question the practices of this so-called religion and whether or not Leah’s claims are truthful. I will be doing more reading on this subject, for sure.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Patrick Lencioni) – Read this if you want to better understand how to work with others and what each team member brings to the table.  It’s short, funny, easy, and thought provoking.

Books that reminded me what it is like to be a young adult.

  • Out of the Easy (Ruta Sepetys) – an interesting look at life in New Orleans French Quarter in the 50s.
  • The Beginning of Everything (Robin Schneider)
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Meg Medina) – Fantastic book about the real threat of bullying in schools.  Piddy is a character everyone should read.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews) – Another young adult book about kids with cancer.  I enjoyed this so much more than The Fault in Our Stars – it just seemed more real and less melodramatic (though I do love that book too.
  • Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell) – It was good; for me it wasn’t great.  Maybe because I don’t really understand the Fangirl world, I couldn’t get it into it. I found myself skimming through the Simon Snow excerpts.  But I know many adore this book – maybe it’s for a younger crowd.
  • I Love You, Beth Cooper (Larry Doyle) – Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it.

Books I couldn’t stop reading.

  • The Vacationers (Emma Straub) – Thouroughly enjoyed this read about a dysfunctional family vacationing in Mallorca.  Beautiful scenery, well-written, at times laugh out loud funny, and a great depiction of true family life.
  • Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) – I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book as usually I have a hard time with particularly gruesome war stories.  But this was masterfully written and such an amazing story, I couldn’t put it down.  Another World War II addition to my list and an inspiring look at the human spirit.
  • Where’d You Go Bernadette? (Maria Semple) – Fantastic, couldn’t put down book.  Her flaws make Bernadette easy to root for and identify with.  Original plot and superb characterization left me recommending this book to many.
  • Home Front (Kristin Hannah) – An interesting multi-perspective book about the relationship between a married US soldier deployed in Iraq and her stay at home husband.  Hard to put down.
  •  Defending Jacob (William Landay)  – I really loved this book.  So suspenseful and an ending I did not see coming.

Books I finally read. Continue reading

How to Procrastinate Part:2

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How to Procrastinate Part: 2

If you were able to successfully do what I said earlier, then you should be ready for the next step in the great world of procrastinating! But if not, keep on practicing the basics until you have mastered them. However if you have,  continue with these next steps. First make sure that you know what you need to do because if you have many things to do, you don’t want to give yourself too little time. I would recommend checking your planner, asking people or any other way that would tell you what you need to do. I would also see if your sources agree with each other because if they do, you know that they are probably true.

Check the time while you are procrastinating so you can fully experience the procrastinating and still be prepared. I would recommend having a clock or some…

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