Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
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Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Need a laugh?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Upcoming webinar....

....check this out!


Member Number: 1632903

Dear Katharine,
Membership Means More with the ASCD Member-Only Webinar Series
ASCD is excited to announce the next Member-Only Webinar featuring ASCD authors and presenters at the upcoming 2014 ASCD Annual Conference Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford. This membership benefit provides exclusive access to highly regarded experts in the education field. At the end of each session, members will walk away with a deepened understanding of the topic and strategies they can implement immediately. Over the course of a one-year membership term, you’ll have access to four new member-only webinars, including all of the archives.
Engage. Learn. Implement.
Webinar Title: Engaging Minds in the Classroom: The Surprising Power of Joy
Date: Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Time: 3:30–4:30 p.m. EST
Description: What if my students don’t want to learn? Michael Opitz and Michael Ford will examine this question in light of a growing body of research on the need to promote joyous effort in classrooms.
In the webinar based on their new book, Engaging Minds in the Classroom: The Surprising Power of Joy, Opitz and Ford will discuss practical ideas for creating a sense of urgency, agency, and responsibility in learners, which often lead to greater success.
This session will begin a conversation about how we can move school programs to a place where students achieve ultimate joy in their learning experiences.
Webinar Registration Button
About the Authors
Michael Opitz photoMichael F. Opitz is professor emeritus of reading education at the University of Northern Colorado, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses. An author and literacy consultant, Michael provides inservice and staff development sessions, presents at state and international conferences, and works with elementary school teachers to plan, teach, and evaluate lessons focused on different aspects of literacy.

Michael Ford photoMichael P. Ford is chair of the Department of Literacy and Language at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. He is a former Title I reading and 1st grade teacher. His work with the international school network has included staff development presentations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, South America, and Central America.

 Webinar Registration Button
Best Regards,

Bonnie Kasander
Membership Director

P.S. We are very excited about the Member-Only Webinar Series. This new benefit is part of our commitment to provide our members with the resources they require to enhance student achievement. Visit to learn about this and other new and enhanced benefits you can now access.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fantastic article about learning from our "bad" students!

This is a long excerpt from a fascinating article about how our most difficult students can be our BEST teachers. What a concept! Happy birthday to me!

Link to the full article:

When Students Are Our Teachers

By Alexis Wiggins

What if we thought of our most difficult students as opportunities to learn?

Here's a paradox: We teachers are skilled in the art of teaching, but often we don't recognize the most teachable moments for ourselves. These are moments in our classrooms or careers that challenge us and make us grow for the better, moments in which our students are teaching us to be better teachers—if we would only learn.

Shortly after having my first child, I was at my wits end and came across a book called A Path with Heart by Jack Kornfield (Bantam, 1993). I was a typical teacher, looking to books for answers to my problems—in this case, a chronically fussy baby. One passage caught my attention. Kornfield talks about the small, daily challenges that undo us one knot at a time—the student who doesn't have his homework again, the colleague who snips at you unfairly, that parent's e-mail with a certain tone questioning how you handled an incident with her child. Kornfield, a Buddhist monk by training, suggests that for one entire day, you imagine that everyone and everything you encounter is your teacher, a personal Buddha existing solely for your growth. Whatever crosses your path—no matter how terrible—Kornfield suggests treating that person or experience as a teacher giving you the lesson you most need in that moment.

I tried this and experienced a radical shift. I'd been focused on the exhausting demands of new motherhood and what a difficult time I was having. On the "Buddha day," I saw my son not as a crying, anxious being who sapped all my energy, but as an opportunity to cultivate patience. And I realized, almost lightheartedly, that I really needed that opportunity. My son was a teacher—and I hadn't realized it.

Button-Pushing Buddhas – It Was All About Jack

Alert to this idea when I went back to teaching, I was stunned to realize that my classroom was full of Buddhas—especially the students whom I've had a hard time reaching. All teachers know there are particular students who get under our skins, the ones who push buttons, challenge authority, challenge our lessons and assignments, act as if they're just daring us to disagree with them …

One of my best teachers in this regard was Jack, a high school junior who monopolized all discussions, loved to shout down everyone else, and relished saying things to provoke his classmates or me ("Women are whiny"). Early in my career, I'd have agonized over having Jack in my course and felt that he was ruining the class dynamic by being an intellectual bully. But after reading A Path with Heart, I began to see Jack as an opportunity to do two things: ask myself what I most needed to learn as an educator, and reach out to a kid who wasn't expecting it because he worked hard to push others away.

Early in the year, Jack's mom scheduled a meeting with me to make sure I understood his unique qualities, one of which was challenging his teachers and going head to head with them. She explained that he'd had a teacher his freshman year that he hadn't liked; Jack didn't believe she was a good teacher because she didn't teach grammar. In a clash of personalities, Jack and this teacher battled all year. The battle involved many meetings with parents and administrators, and Jack's mother felt that a lot of negativity could've been avoided with a different approach. I was grateful for these preemptive insights and vowed to "kill 'em with kindness," as my mother always advised.

From the first weeks, I understood the challenge. Jack loved to hear himself talk and think. I use a kind of Socratic seminar in my classes called SPIDER Web Discussion. The approach requires students to discuss a topic in a balanced, collaborative way and assesses the class's performance on each discussion as a whole group so students all get the same grade. Any student who leads the group away from good collaboration with his or her individual behavior, whether shy or boisterous, brings the group grade down.

Jack stymied the process by responding to every single student's observation throughout every discussion. The pattern of our discussions was such that one student spoke, and Jack responded. Another student spoke, and Jack responded again. A third student spoke, and Jack responded to her. Jack began every response with, "I agree," or "I disagree." I realized that Jack believed discussion in English class was an exercise in deciding whether or not he agreed.

I tried a variety of tactics. I talked at length during debriefings about the importance of having a balanced discussion, not letting one person dominate. This subtle message was lost on Jack, who continued to believe discussion was all about him.

After a few days of this kind of fruitless discussion, when I happened to be talking with Jack one-on-one about a separate issue, I took advantage of the occasion to encourage him to be more of a leader in discussion, to use his talent and intellect to help raise the level of conversation by asking interesting questions rather than always spouting his opinion. During the next class discussion, Jack did ask a couple of interesting questions, but as soon as one student gave a brief or superficial answer, Jack swooped in with his own insights, unable to let the conversation develop without him at the center.

… Until It Wasn't

Jack was trying my patience and my repertoire of tricks, and he was affecting my morale. I went back to the drawing board. How could I get Jack to listen—really listen—to his peers and allow them space to communicate in a way that didn't seem like a punishment to him? That's when I hit on it: roles.

I designed a series of roles for the whole-group discussion that asked different students to accomplish different tasks. One role was to be the "feedback giver," a student who doesn't participate at all by speaking but takes copious notes on the discussion—what went well and what could have been stronger, given our rubric. The first time I assigned Jack this role, he stayed silent the whole class, then gave very critical feedback on all the ideas the students didn't discuss—or discuss well enough—in his opinion. Another role was "three question asker." Students in this role could speak only three times during the whole conversation, with each contribution being the best discussion-inspiring question they could think of. Once Jack had asked his three questions, he tuned out completely. He began to do homework for another class. It was still all about Jack …

Jack awkwardly turned to a bright, insightful student who also happened to be shy and asked, "What do you think, Marcus? What did you find in last night's reading?" Marcus didn't skip a beat in sharing what he'd noticed reading Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army (Vintage, 1994).

During the debriefing of this discussion, I focused on that moment and showed how Jack, someone who usually has trouble allowing others to share their thoughts, had tossed the ball to Marcus—and we'd all benefited. It was a perfect illustration for Jack and everyone else of the erroneous thinking that shy people have nothing to say and that the loudest kids are the "smart" ones with all the right answers. This was a turning point for the discussions in general. I think it might have been the first time that Jack realized he could actually benefit from others in the room, especially from someone shy.

For the few months that remained in the school year, Jack was noticeably less "alpha" during discussions. His aggressive approach to answering everyone abated; he was still a very active participant, and he loved to challenge others and disagree, but the edge was gone. There was far less arrogance in the way he spoke. Marcus's insight had truly excited Jack, a bright student who wanted to see everything important in a text. When he finally realized that it had taken his own silence to allow that important textual detail to emerge, there was a subtle but real shift in his behavior. I think we all breathed a little sigh of relief.

Embracing Our Jacks

This situation is one example of how a challenging, abrasive student—one who put off teachers and peers alike—offered me a learning opportunity as an educator. I could push back and push Jack away and feel justified in doing so because he was so difficult and his behavior was often counterproductive. Or I could see Jack as a Buddha, an opportunity to push past my own limits, to invent new ways of reaching students and helping them work through their own intellectual and social blocks.

I learned something about myself, too. Reflecting on this situation with Jack, I realized that I needed to be a more inclusive educator, inviting many different kinds of voices, experiences, and critiques to the table. I wasn't always good about that, crusader that I was for certain values …

So I thank Jack Kornfield for teaching me that we sometimes need to embrace difficult realities, if only to see that what seems like a menace is actually an opportunity. Both the other Jack and I benefited from my view of him as a Buddha, not a nemesis. It takes humility and patience to approach challenging kids in this way. But if you do, you may find that your least favorite student (or parent or colleague) becomes your greatest teacher yet.

Alexis Wiggins (Twitter at @alexiswiggins) teaches IB and high school English at the American International School in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and is an education consultant.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Interesting article on spelling instruction!

Hey all,

I just read a great article
on spelling lessons for English speakers. This clip was the part that really intrigued me:

"English has a fascinating and constantly evolving history. Our words, and their spellings, come from many languages. Often we have kept the spellings from the original languages, while applying our own pronunciation.
As a result, only about 12% of words in English are spelt the way they sound. But that doesn’t mean that spelling is inexplicable, and therefore only learned by rote - it means that teaching spelling becomes a fascinating exploration of the remarkable history of the language - etymology.
Some may think that etymology is the sole province of older and experienced learners, but it’s not.
Young children are incredibly responsive to stories about words, and these understandings about words are key to building their spelling skills, but also building their vocabulary.
Yet poor spellers and young spellers are rarely given these additional tools to understand how words work and too often poor spellers are relegated to simply doing more phonics work."
The article reminded me of previous discussions with colleagues about grammatical rules and how they intersect with race/class/schooling, etc.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spotlight on Charlotte Danielson and Robert Marzano

If you've been around the block in education, you probably recognize at least one of their names. Both Danielson and Marzano are famous for their research in teacher development, lesson planning, and effective teaching. Here are some updated book titles they wrote you do NOT want to miss!

New Books & Resources by Charlotte Danielson

1. Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, 2nd Edition
2. The Handbook for Enhancing Professional Practice: Using the Framework for Teaching in Your School
3. Implementing the Framework for Teaching in Enhancing Professional Practice: An ASCD Action Tool
4. Enhancing Professional Practice DVD Series

New Books & Resources by Robert Marzano

1. The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction
2. The Art and Science of Teaching DVD Series
3. A Handbook for the Art and Science of Teaching (with John L. Brown)
4. Effective Supervision: Supporting the Art and Science of Teaching (with Tony Frontier and David Livingston)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Need some new spring cleaning?

I'm getting ready to add to my current reading list and hope you are too! Here are some great suggestions for new titles...

1. How Teachers Can Turn Data into Action
By Daniel R. Venables

2. Affirmative Classroom Management: How Do I Develop Effective Rules and Consequences in my School?
By Richard L. Curwin

3. Engaging Minds in Social Studies: The Surprising Powers of Joy
By James A. Erekson; edited by Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford

4. Engaging Minds in Science and Math Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy
By Eric Brunsell and Michelle A. Fleming; edited by Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford

5. Managing 21st Century Classrooms: How Do I Avoid Ineffective Classroom Management Practices?
By Jane Bluestein

6. Digital Learning Strategies: How Do I Assign and Assess 21st Century Work?
By Michael Fisher

7. Short on Time: How Do I Make Time to Lead and Learn as a Principal?
By William Sterrett

8. Vocab. Rehab: How Do I Teach Vocabulary Effectively With Limited Time?
By Marilee Sprenger

9. Engaging Minds in the Classroom: The Surprising Power of Joy
By Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford

10. Engaging Minds in English Language Arts Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy
By Mary Jo Fresch; edited by Michael F. Opitz and Michael P. Ford

Thursday, February 13, 2014

More new titles... add to your list!

1. Teaching and Joy
By Robert Sornson and James Scott

2. Five Levers to Improve Learning: How to Prioritize for Powerful Results in Your School
By Tony Frontier and James Rickabaugh

3. Results: The Key to Continuous School Improvement, 2nd edition
By Mike Schmoker

4. Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning
By Mike Schmoker

5. Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success
By Bryan Goodwin

6. Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us the Most
By Jeffrey Benson

7. Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to KIds' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It
By Eric Jensen --> I'm really looking forward to reading this, especially with my Title I student population!

8. Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement
By Eric Jensen

9. Never Underestimate Your Teachers: Instructional Leadership for Excellence in Every Classroom
By Robyn R. Jackson

10. The Well-Balanced Teacher: How to Work Smarter and Stay Sane Inside the Classroom and Out
By Mike Anderson

11. 100+ Ways to Recognize and Reward Your School Staff
By Emily E. Houck

We need SOME controversy!

As a former English teacher, I always liked having lively discussions about current -- and sometimes controversial -- issues in the classroom about issues that mattered to students. These are teachable moments we cannot ignore. Read on!

The Class Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Teaching "Controversial" Topics in Social Studies

Laura Varlas
Rather than shy away from controversy in the classroom, teachers draw on edgy topics as an authentic opportunity to practice the critical thinking and social-emotional skills needed to debate sensitive issues.
The phrase "ripped from the headlines" is often used to hook viewers into a TV show, but in the classroom, are similar topics off limits? Social studies class, in particular, can present a catch-22 for educators who want to engage students critically with complex issues from both current and historical events. Will parents storm the school board, or will classroom discussions devolve into shouting matches? With practice and intent, educators and researchers are making history inclusive and discovering why controversy is good for the classroom.

Truth and Consequences

"Any time you tell the full-circle truth on a topic, that automatically makes it controversial," says Beth Sanders, a 10th and 11th grade American history teacher at Tarrant High School in Birmingham, Ala. Sanders's students have investigated topics such as civil disobedience, covering a range of perspectives from passive resistance and Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X's ethos of "by any means necessary." Deep within historic civil rights country, Sanders says that when young people and their teachers engage with these topics and apply them to current policies such as Alabama's immigration law, they are kicking the hornet's nest.
"What I taught in my American history class might be considered controversial," remarks Bill Bigelow, who taught social studies for 30 years in Portland, Ore., and is now curriculum editor of Rethinking Schoolsmagazine and codirector of the Zinn Education Project. Bigelow recalls that although students easily recognized Christopher Columbus's role in history, none could name the indigenous tribe—the Taínos—who encountered Columbus on his fabled voyage. "To me, standing up in front of the class and saying Columbus discovered America, choosing to take sides and silence the curriculum, that's the real controversy."
Studies show that these silences can be deafening. In October 2013, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at Tufts University, released All Together Now, a report on how to educate young Americans for political participation in a time of deep polarization. CIRCLE Director Peter Levine says that during the fall 2012 elections, about a quarter of the nation's American government and civics teachers believed that parents would object if they tried to discuss politics in their classes. U.S. government teachers, during an election year, were afraid to let students talk about politics.
The primary problem of youth engagement in civics has shifted from connecting students to the community through service learning to providing a counternarrative to bitter political dialogue, notes Levine. "When Congress can't pass a budget, that's bad civic education for kids."
"High school, especially, is a time when kids are developing as political beings," says Diana Hess, professor on leave from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation. "We want kids to develop in the most democratic environment possible because we want them to contribute to and improve what is clearly a highly dysfunctional democracy."

Hearts, Then Minds

With few mainstream exemplars, students need practice developing the skills and behaviors to civilly discuss potentially taboo topics. "You can't just jump into this stuff," Sanders warns. She uses the free, online program Start Empathy as the curriculum for creating a student-centered community.
"You don't want students to compartmentalize their social-emotional learning skills and abandon them when they get into a heated argument," adds Tom Roderick, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. Arguments built on a foundation of respect and empathy are more constructive because people are actually listening to each other, Roderick says. "If this doesn't happen in a social studies classroom, where will it happen?"
In New York City Public Schools, no one bats an eye about teaching controversy, says Stephen Lazar, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Brooklyn. "The prework is building a culture of respect." Lazar sets clear expectations that discussions revolve around ideas, not the people who had the ideas, and that judgments are grounded in evidence. "It's not about being right or wrong but about really trying to understand the issue before taking a stand," he clarifies.

Rooms with Views

"One of the fundamental principles of a democratic society is having a robust exchange of multiple and competing views," says Hess. "You will come up with qualitatively better decisions when views have gone through a rigorous evaluation and inquiry process, and that can't happen if you only have dominant perspectives represented." Teachers have several approaches for engaging students respectfully.
If you set up the space for difference right from the start, says Susan Graseck, you will encourage a natural diversity of viewpoints. Graseck is the director of Brown University's Choices Program, a nonprofit that develops curricula and training for high school teachers on current and historical international issues. To encourage and ensure representative discussions, however, each Choices Program unit centers on a "hinge point," or a set of different perspectives on an issue, which students role-play. "This gives legitimacy to the student who really does see things differently from the rest of the class," notes Graseck.
Lazar teaches a high school freshman course called Looking for an Argument, a curriculum developed by two teachers at New York's Urban Academy. Each week, the curriculum introduces a new controversial question, for example, "Are New York City's 'stop and frisk' laws just?" On Monday, two teachers model a debate, presenting opposing sides to the question, and students discuss the debate. Students then read and research the topic thoroughly, and by Friday, they use evidence from their research to take a stance in an argumentative essay.
When a majority of students line up on one side of a discussion, Lazar says that his job is to introduce more evidence to confuse their made-up minds. "If kids walk out of my classroom questioning what they think, then I've done my job," he beams.
In Bigelow's classes, students held mock trials to decide who was responsible for the death of the Taínos—the king and queen of Spain, the system of empire, Columbus, Columbus's men, or the Taínos themselves? "It's not up to me to make those judgments. We alert students to the best information and then engage them in making ethical decisions."

Beyond the Textbook

"When you teach critical thinking, students need to be thinking about something," notes Graseck. Kids need enough historical content and context to grow their understanding over time and to whet their appetites for more knowledge, she adds.
Plenty of online resources are available for teaching critical approaches to social studies content ( for a sampling). Sanders recommends Howard Zinn's A Young People's History of the United States as especially helpful for students on a lower reading level. Her class reads their traditional textbook against Zinn's works and other texts, identifying points of divergence and convergence.
"Textbooks make a great target," says Bigelow, recalling how he used The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration and a role-playing activity to supplement a U.S. textbook that only devoted two paragraphs to the U.S. War with Mexico. "I want kids to think of themselves as activist readers, rather than consumer readers. Checking the adequacy of textbook coverage is a good way to do that." Sanders says that Twitter has been a game changer by allowing her not only to teach controversial topics but also to get her students' voices heard on those controversial issues. "We're tweeting down the walls of the classroom," quips Sanders. In the past year, her students have hosted live Twitter chats with Jose Antonio Vargas, the openly gay, undocumented immigrant who founded Define American and who is challenging Alabama's immigration law. Sanders's class has its own Twitter hashtag (#standardsTHS), creating a 24/7 backchannel for dialogue that spills beyond class space and time.

Bracing for Backlash

Sanders advises teachers to share curriculum with parents and to show that resources are credible and fact-based. At one time, her instinct was to put in earbuds and plan a lesson, but now she works with parents to uncover the roots of their concerns. Lazar, who started his career in Virginia and received parental blowback about teaching the 2012 election, says that finding like-minded colleagues and following their lead is key. "Then, if you're criticized, you can point to the model you're building on."
Bigelow suggests that younger students approach the silenced history of Columbus in age-appropriate ways, for example, through Michael Dorris's book, Morning Girl. The book follows the lives of children in a Taíno family; Columbus doesn't arrive until the final pages of the book. The story "recenters the experiences of people who have been marginalized in the traditional curriculum," he notes.

Standards Support, Assessments Lag

Hess and Levine are optimistic that the new College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) national standards, released by the National Council for the Social Studies in fall 2012, will renew support for discussing controversial topics in history. Levine, who helped author the new C3 standards, says that they emphasize discussion much more and are also dramatically more streamlined than current standards. Although C3 standards afford teachers more time to dig deep into challenging, current topics, standardized assessments for civil discussion remain problematic.
"If you use standardized tests in civics, two bad things happen," explains Levine. "Tests lag behind current events, and [they] are completed individually—and civics is essentially about interaction." Currently, Tennessee is piloting portfolio assessments in civics, in which students choose the topic and present their portfolios to peers. These assessments are promising, but questions surround how to reliably score them for accountability measures.
Even though standardized testing doesn't include opportunities for students to civilly discuss current controversies with peers, it need not sideline teacher efforts to make this a classroom priority. "The beautiful thing about a critically thinking class," says Sanders, "is that a standardized test is cake to kids who are having higher-order dialogue, doing close readings, and teaching each other."

Classrooms of Courage

"Students are demonstratively more engaged when there's a real question in front of them," and that, says Graseck, will lead them deeper into the content. Fight the temptation to simplify history and social issues, and kids will come back for more, adds Lazar.
Your ultimate goal should be not to change students' opinions but to help understand and respect our commonalities and differences, says Graseck.
Kids are drawn to "controversial" topics, but they also need engaging pedagogy that asks them to be critics, thinkers, and evaluators, says Bigelow. "I'm not telling students what to think, but I want them to be willing to question the curriculum."
Paraphrasing education scholar Deborah Meier, Lazar adds, "We want to give kids the understanding of the world they live in and the courage to confront it." 


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Monday, February 10, 2014

You want to collaborate, right?!

It's All About Collaboration!

Educators and Entrepreneurs are invited to exchange information about innovative solutions and the needs of classroom teachers.
On February 20th, from 4-7:30PM, educators from the Washington DC metropolitan area are invited to get free, hands-on demonstrations of emerging education technology products.  Make powerful connections with educators, policy makers, and entrepreneurs of emerging and established ed-tech companies. 
We've recruited some of the best education technology startup companies across the country to engage in hands-on demonstrations of their technologies AND learn about best practices for integrating technology in the classroom. 
End the day with a great networking reception. Education technology solutions for STEM, Literacy, Classroom Management, Administrator Tools, Common Core Alignment and Assessments, and Technology Integration.

WHAT: EIA's Education Technology Demo Fair
WHERE: Liason Capitol Hill Hotel - 415 New Jersey Ave NW Washington, DC 20001
WHEN: Thursday, February 20th from 4:00-7:30 PM
CEU: 0.5 available from the Johns Hopkins School of Education upon completion of assignments
For more information on the EdTech Demo Fair, Event Schedule and Registration procedures for Educators and Applications for Presenting Companies, please click here.
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