Archive for the 'differentiated instruction' Category

27
Feb
17

interconnecting literacies

I face the challenge of interconnecting ideas. When I encounter a thought-provoking book such as this one, I both associate and resist various ideas and memories of the classroom, students, philosophy, and fiction.

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While at times I see such interconnectedness as an obstacle frustrating my simple enjoyment of a book, many times I feel each connection as an intimate part of my transaction with a text.

The back and forth, the push and pull — nebulous, binary, contrary — describe the innumerable voyages that readers like me have taken. Like me, Joseph Rodriguez, author of Enacting Adolescent Literacies Across Communities, found refuge in his school library and in the books and librarian and authors residing there.

His book, subtitled Latino/a Scribes And Their Rites, is both a handbook of effective literacy img_0013instruction and a catalyst for both more intertextual connections and new approaches that invite all students, not just Latinos/as, to a fondness for literacies.

I use the plural — literacies — because Rodriguez is careful throughout his book to enumerate the various ways young people can engage with words and ideas in the communities they inhabit. The classic modalities of reading, writing, speaking, and listening continue to be enacted as literacies; but he persuades us that becoming literate in history, for instance, involves the interest and ability to ask whose history, and by extension why this history?; and then to enact their growing understandings in their communities, through multiple literacies: I think of learners creating documentaries, interviewing family members and activists, apprenticing in ancient handicrafts, volunteering at museums, or teaching others the relevance of great books – old and new.

His book makes me want to wrestle with, cheer for, and work alongside with such teachers, librarians, and students.

The best thing this book does for me is to convince me that teacher education programs in this country have not given up but, on the contrary, have

turned their very resistance into the art of teaching

signified by the Master of Arts  degree, and represented by the author and his pre-service teacher-practitioners. If such programs are successful, in whatever regions and for whatever populations are served by teachers who care less about a test performance and more about whole human beings, they may restore hope in public and private schools which have chased dehumanizing business models, fragmented texts, outdated grading systems, isolated subject knowledge, and chased away some youth by disengaging learning from schooling.

Rodriguez’s book is a shot in the arm for public and private secondary school and college teachers. It goes a long way toward restoring my hope in the future for students and their teachers.


[Images: a. Creative Commons no attribution, Clkr-free-vector-images located by Pixabay; b. GH (l) with J Rodríguez in Washington, D.C. 2015.]

 

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23
Jun
16

from “how do you know?” to “let’s find out.”

I became an English teacher because of Kaye Clohset.

It was 1977. We were reading Jane Eyre in my tenth grade accelerated class, and Miss Clohset made the claim that the lightning-struck tree was a symbol for the love between Rochester and Jane.

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“How do you know?”, I asked with a raised hand.

Ever since that day I have been seeking the best answer to my own question.

My quest involves numerous strands, such as the art of interpretation, analytic reading, historical-biographical criticism, the canon, student-led inquiry, authority in the classroom, and literary period. It also wonders, along with my 15-year-old self, how much an author “hides” things in a text to be discovered, and when analyzing a book moves from an appealing activity that enhances enjoyment to a monotonous speculation that detracts from the pleasure of reading.

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This week, as I read Claire Harman’s compelling biography of Charlotte Bronte, “A Fiery Heart”, I am transported to the Brussels and England we visited last summer, and back in time to my introduction to Bronte that sophomore year. However Miss Clohset answered my question that day, I determined as a teacher that I would try to equip students to address such questions openly, whether they openly resist a particular reading of a classic passage, or hope to demystify the reading process of an experienced reader.

I can trace my interest not only in reading instruction, but also in composition theory and the teaching of writing to those early high school days, when we might have been asked to demonstrate in an essay test that a recurring theme or symbol had value, though we students didn’t actually do the work of digging through an assortment of selected passages, drawing our own conclusions about them, and forming an original controlling question or thesis.

I have stepped further and further away from making pronouncements about literature in my teacher role, and closer to encouraging exploration and discovery in student reading and writing.

I also experiment with how best to answer student questions, like my own how do you know? Here is a range of potential comebacks

“Does anyone see it differently?”

“Great question. Who else is wondering the same thing?”

“Hmm. Let me turn to the page and see what Bronte writes…”

“I haven’t been honest with you. I read ahead last night and in a later chapter she says …”

There is any number of teacher moves that might occur here, from modeling my own thinking through a “think aloud”, to inviting a student to moderate a discussion/debate on the topic, where students could pair off and prepare interpretations of the tree, backing them up with textual evidence. At some point a determination must be made about whether this question is worth pursuing for its own sake, or whether we need more students to generate more questions and begin a classwide investigation. Conversely, I may offer extra credit (or excuse a future assignment) for looking up some critical commentary, either online or in a resource I have in the room.

These split second decisions make teaching a thrilling adventure for me, especially as the direction the class takes after such a moment can influence careers, with students seeing themselves as confident and resistant readers and writers in an interpretive community. image

I fast forward to today. I have been reading Robert Cormier’s Tunes for Bears To Dance to. It would make a great pairing with The Diary of Anne Frank as an 8th grade book, raising questions as it does about anti-semitism, hate crime, individual conscience, and what makes people feel powerful when they can get weaker people to carry out their hostile actions. The teacher’s gift and art is the ability to extend an invitation to students themselves to raise their questions, as well as to recognize an author’s questions and decide which ones are worth investigating through discussion, writing, research, and further reading. Whether dealing with a classic book or contemporary work; middle grade, YA, or general readership, good writing triggers a questioning and teaching urge–I can’t avoid imagining how I would use it in the classroom.

The counter-narrative here is my high school English teacher’s own strong role in pushing me toward this career long inquiry. Without her firm convictions about that tree, I would not have resisted her reading and become suspicious of critical interpretation. On one hand I desire to let young readers explore multiple points of view, yet on the other I need to offer clear well-argued solutions to literary problems that have already been worked out. It is a bit like playing chess in the summer: I set up the board with a chess problem from a 20th century game in my handbook, Logical Chess, and play along with the historical combatants in the hope of acquiring a more strategic mind myself. I hope students will practice new strategies in order to grow and advance.

Thanks to those teacher we have had who prompted us, in their own particular ways, to pursue our own questions, careers, and passions. Wherever you are, Kaye, I want you to know that your class made a difference in my life.

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Images: top to bottom – http://pin.it/N7iL4sL posted by Megan Murphy

cover art for Charlotte Bronte biography by Claire Harman, 2016 Borzoi Books.

NYT review: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/books/review/charlotte-bronte-a-fiery-heart-by-claire-harman.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek TV series, Paramount.

07
Jun
16

Mastery vs. Understanding: Honoring my students

The whole school year there has been a push for recording and analyzing data, with the parties involved (let me rephrase: with teachers, administrators, and superintendant) using the trigger term mastery. I believe some colleagues were able to engage students in collecting and seeing their own data about standards they had been assessed on, and that as a class they were able to see at a glance how well they had performed on a specific task with respect to its related standard; then were successful at helping the students set goals to improve or re-learn.

I admire teachers who invite students to set and achieve goals; and I dutifully posted and projected daily standards phrased as statements of “I can:” or

We are learning how to:

In retrospect, though, I believe I had greater student buy-in the previous year, using Judith Langer’s concept of envisionment, in which my students agreed upon one or two classroom standards or cognitive procedures chosen from a preselected set–“Ask relevant questions” or “Apply lessons from literature to our own lives”.

 

 I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

 

In either case, deep student learning was connected to benchmark standards, for which various assessments were employed to sample student preparedness, ability, and degrees of mastery. Setting aside for now the class time needed to re-teach for mastery, and the question of involving the already-proficient students in new studies based on new goals or deeper knowledge and thought, I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

I wish, when it came to the big, statewide, district-mandated tests, that my students had been afforded the opportunity to show outside the walls of our school the big things they carried away with them this year, the meanings they constructed in our classroom communities. They did have such opportunities through debate, music competitions, and Schools to Watch involvement; I might have done much more myself to promote visibility and engage the wider community.

Here are a few things my students might have written, spoken, sung, discussed, or asked good questions about:

 

What multiple perspectives about justice compete for attention in this narrative?

How the details of any Edward Hopper painting contribute to its mood.

How an English Language Learner can distinguish between English words that sound or look the same but mean different things.

The way an author uses historic detail from a civil war battle to dramatize the story of a young teen in search of a father figure.

How students’ writing pathways and mindsets lead to a sense of control over their own writing purposes.

Why their books, music and video games are important to their lives.

Where new vocabulary terms and concepts intersect with their own lives.

When, how, and why to use literal, inferential, and critical reading skills.

How can dramatizing a poem help understand what it means?

What process did they use to compare the way two different genres tell the life of a President, and what did they learn about the genres, themselves, and others? Who will tell the stories of their lives, and in what media?

How to listen to all other people, and to address them with dignity and respect.

How to ask the group for help when they do or say something harmful to another person.

How to write a proposal and follow through on an individual plan for learning during genius hour.

How to work with others to establish the criteria by which their work will be assessed.

When making a decision, can they listen to an argument, recognize when someone is using ethos, pathos, or logos in an attempt to persuade me, tell if her or his argument is flawed?

What writing tools and tricks to apply depending on the job they want done or the idea they want to explore.

How to run a class meeting.

How do they conduct research and evaluate, document and cite reliable sources?

How and when to participate in written and spoken dialogue (including comic strips and opinion/editorials) with texts, people and ideas.

If an argument can be constructed and a viewpoint expressed using combinations of expository prose, poetry, narrative, fiction, allegory, and figurative language, then what combination will they use in their writing to express a new idea?


My students did amazing work all year, and I am left at the end of it all imagining that the lasting record of their learning is quantified as “30% growth demonstrated by 45% of students in grades x and y.”

My classes were full of individual human beings, each with her own learning styles, interests, and background experiences to be activated as she constructs meaning for herself. Because a single letter grade, reading level, isolated test score, or even year in school do not do justice to the complex thoughtfulness of each person over a whole year, I resist placing much value in them. I wrestle with the increasing amount of attention they are given and the time they demand.

Today I celebrate the accomplishments of my students, the middle grade classes of 2015-2016! My students showed care for others, worked together on hard things to achieve great results, read a ton of good books, and engaged in conversations all year about texts, learning, and life. They took risks, were willing to fail in order to learn, and stretched outside their comfort zone with many learning activities. They forged deep connections between ideas, experiences and friends.

My students went deeper, with extended and strategic learning (Webb’s Depth of Knowledge). What a privilege it has been to see all this at first hand! Today I honor my students for all the work they did to construct learning that will not show up on a report card, in a statistic, or in a comparison with Finland. I salute the students who ran home last weekend to try their hand at baking cream puffs after reading Wednesday Wars, or who sought me out to have a one-on-one discussion about a question they brought after reading The Giver. Today I commit to remembering the faces of learning this summer, not its frustrations!

Please let me know, via Twitter, WordPress, or your own blogs and FB pages, what you commit to remember and celebrate from this year. Have a great summer!

 

 

 

06
Apr
15

anyone can teach english

Rebecca Mead describes an actual English landscape which Goerge Eliot once wrote about, today tranformed by the addition of trees, which have newly risen due to the absence of shepherd boys and sheep. She writes that it is  now “a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading, transfigured by the slow green growth.” (My Life in Middlemarch, “Finale”)

I love the language of transfiguration Mead uses here, and also Eliot’s repeated usage of related terms of conversion throughout Middlemarch. I enthuse over such things, even to the point of making it the topic of a round table session on close reading of Chesterton and Eliot this fall. Besides liking the words themselves, though, I like Mead’s use of this particular term to describe the complete change – a glorification, if you will – of the landscape of reading after the Education Reform Act of 1882. More children than ever before were given an education, were taught to read and write. Such a fundamental and democratic alteration of the fabric of life was necessary and beneficial. It didn’t require English teachers as we know them today. 

What if every word that came out of an English teacher’s mouth was exclusively at the behest of a learner? 

For all the good we literacy specialists (for that’s what English teachers and reading & writing teachers are) do, I wonder if we wouldn’t be doing the world a service by just turning kids loose in a big public library and hanging out with them there as accessories to their curiosity. 

We experts would spend our entire day at the library, familiarizing ourselves with branches of knowledge, and with new and older titles in the catalogue, from YA to Wittgenstein. We would become resource specialists who could channel our expertise into guiding each child to join The Literacy Club (as Frank Smith calls it) and then to discover the more challenging and interesting books, articles, art and music that standardized classrooms haven’t {usually!} time nor individuality to offer. 



Every student would be required to leave school and go to a library for 2 and a half to three hours daily, which would be staffed by a host of language arts educators. No longer would we have to face the sometimes embarrasing act of grading young readers and writers, nor of manufacturing “evidence” of their progress toward problematic standards. 

I see learning materials still being advertised to English teachers today which diminish a poem by asking pedantic questions about it, labeling it, putrefying it before it has a chance to be lived through, savored, digested, and felt. I would hope that by taking the English teacher out of the school system, the true enjoyment of learning and reading could be coupled with the good that language arts experts want desperately to give to all young people. 

The title of today’s blog occurred to me as I strolled along the Pacific coast on a clear Easter morning, watching waves, cormorants, and harbor seals. There is an immediacy which classroom teaching cannot replace: a learner of any age must only be caught up, surrounded by events (natural phenomena, books, art, music), stimulated to enjoy and learn. I know full well such statements are naive, yet on this first Monday of spring break, after celebrating resurrection and rebirth, and following a week of experiential learning with a group of 21 students and adults on nature walks, in a theater, & making meals at hostels, I envision celebratory learning. 

I really think that with coaching, all content area teachers can help students read and write for school. What we English teachers truly offer is something meta-school. Transfigurations. We want to actually see kids change because of their enjoymemt of STUFF! We know that reading and writing both contribute to such change and also grow as results of it. 

YES, the humanities are crucial for the development of young minds and hearts — of “souls”, as George Eliot might put it, though her complex shades of meaning for this term deserve more space — but when I watch the harbor seal pup following close beside its mother, it learns to swim, feed, climb without a specialized teacher. She is specialized: who better to show her young exactly what it needs to survive in the wild? She provides about a month of such imposed closeness, then he is on his own to continue the learning process. 

I don’t propose to reduce all instruction to 30 days per lifetime. But I do think much of what I do in the classroom is common sense. Seriously, I didn’t need a college degree to help someone read a poem, tell a story, or write a letter. 



But I do use every bit of my classroom teaching experience and pedagogical reading when I have a writing conference; I summon my knowledge of books and people when I discuss books with students. I listen as well as I can. Putting me where I belong, in a library, would ideally pair the thought of luxury (a treasure trove of books!) in a learner’s mind with the adventure of self-improvement, of choice.

I suppose I end up as always, seeing that as long as I am called classroom teacher I will always have a type of authority which be inauthentic. My authentic authority is as an experienced reader and writer. But when I choose to share authority with my students for their learning decisions, it is I who share with them. If I were not associated with a school, but were instead a fixture at the library, readers would see me as a resource at their service, an authority like a text, to be used, questioned, resisted, or enjoyed rather than a teacher who exists to grade them and assign homework.

What if every word that came out of an English teacher’s mouth was exclusively at the behest of a learner? I think of the way I check out music, books, DVDs from my library. I check out only what I want to. 

Of course I am half playful here, knowing that such a system would be dependent on county taxes, and a host of HR (human resources) issues. But when we step back for a minute and ask how we can actually contribute to new life in young people or adults ready to catch the fire of literacy, such invention and playfulness are needed.

Maybe it could be treated like Driver’s Ed: everybody wants to learn how to drive, right? If literature reading and writing were seen by kids as the class you go OFF CAMPUS for, that demands a road test in the real world, that’s worth paying extra for, and signifies a rite of passage, who knows? Instead of a set of keys at graduation a student gets the key to the executive washroom at the public library, or the unlimited items at checkout; kids would, instead of a parking space, get their own study carrel! They could help select the books displayed in the “new arrivals” shelf, and receive an allowance to apply toward new acquisitions. 

Think how they would transform the landscape of their library, their learning, their lives.

02
Dec
14

full frontal

At the first whiff of plagiarism, I am quick to launch a full frontal assault. Check the plot summary or, for my student, uncharacteristic phrase against its occurrences online; assign a zero for the assignment, request a meeting, send a parent/guardian email, deliver the offending evidence to an administrator who can track other screw-ups by the same perp.

These are all in my arsenal of responses to the Demon Plagiarism. From there it is a short walk to sending a herd of pigs off the cliff, and having the teachers-only job satisfaction of seeing a student crumple into tears as years of bad behavior are repented of, and finally wading into the water with him, emerging with faces to the sun, both knowing that Creative Commons has our allegiance forevermore, and the laws of copyright shall remain inviolate. “from this day to the ending of the world.”

But today yesterday I brought out a new weapon; a kinder gentler means by which to assert my dominance over the spirit that bedevils young writers. In my feedback to the writer I referred not once to the “P” word. I made no mention of credit. I appealed to the writer’s sense of authority, personhood, audience and purpose. [See images below of writers at my school creating and sharing their work for a variety of authentic purposes and audiences in secondary English and science, also second-grade/tenth-grade collaboration.]

Because of my recent focus on expressing “what the words do to the reader” — both in peer and teacher response to student writing as well as mentor/class texts — my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged for responding to cutting and pasting of another’s work.

my vocabulary and tools have been enlarged

Rather than corner the student with an awkward out-of-class confrontation, I took a different approach by responding just as I would to any electronically submitted draft. Instead of using the authority of our student handbook and its policy, I appealed to the authority of the reader.

➡️Will your reader know these big words?
➡️Where does the reader hear your voice?
️➡️Why should your reader be interested?
➡️Which class discussion or personal inquiry question got you thinking about exploring this topic? If the reader can see your thinking process, you might persuade her to thoughtfully consider your point of view.

Although I have slightly modified these to protect the anonymity of the writer, they differ drastically from my typical frontal assault: Is this your own work? Where did you get it? Why didn’t you cite the source? What did you think was the goal of the assignment?

All of which are mere pretenses and preamble to the often unstated Big Gun: Whatever could have possessed you to think I, all-knowing, would not recognize this as another writer’s work? You have insulted me, broken our trust, and demonstrated that you do not value the deities of the writing process (insert constellation of choice, for me Bay Area Writing Project, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Sheridan Blau, Tom Romano, Dons Murray and Graves to infinity and beyond)?

As I often remark, I am the one doing the learning here. Because of my interest in authority in the classroom, I see this as an opportunity to wait and observe the outcome — just as I do with every other paper at this later drafting stage. By turning the focus inward, I am able to monitor my own problem-solving process, identify the place where my own ego gets in the way, and try an innovative or at least creative solution that eases the burden for the student in one way by subtly shifting it.

The student’s responsibility would have been to justify himself (his cheating behavior) to me and to his parent, at least; but now it becomes more about justifying his writing choices to his readers. If the writer is willing to assume creative control over this writing task, the finished written product will communicate a chosen purpose clearly and strongly to a specific chosen audience, which it does not yet do.

The paper will have voice and the student will exercise choice. This is my first blog entry ending with the term “Voices and Choices.”

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20
Nov
14

mirror exercise

In drama games we play mirrors, where the goal is to “follow the follower.” First one partner leads and the other follows her/his gestures and expressions as if facing a mirror; then they switch roles: the focus is on following the leader, on close observation. But as they continue, a fluid exchange of leadership occurs, until when both members of one mirroring unit function perfectly, neither an observer nor even the twain can tell who leads. They have achieved the goal of following the follower.

In my English classroom such moments occur as frequent flashes, but just as in drama those spectacular star bursts of creative energy have brief half lives, until you look again and once more it is obvious who leads who.

I have practiced the co-leader co-learner philosophy for at least 8 years now, in class and in my St. John’s College Alumni seminars, at CEL conferences and at church book studies; it even shows up in jazz music when I try to work on songs at the piano with a sax player, and this year it adds a new focus to my Professional Development circle of 4 teachers each struggling to learn about ourselves as instructors with the observations and insights of the other 3.

Today it feels as though my English classes are one long attempt to generate more flashes of following followers. Am I wishing for more beauty in the constellation of student interactions with texts and each other? Clearly, yes.

It seems my students don’t recognize the flash, spark, beauty when I have found it.

Consider my 10th graders, who helped write stories with 2nd graders in October (at our K-12 school): when self evaluating, students didn’t feel their work merited a grade; however, I was able to see that their accomplishment had met at least 5 of our school’s major learning outcomes, in categories of service, critical thinking, and communicating. Grades themselves weren’t the issue, but even as we have begun to move toward narrative feedback of student progress, the language of standards and Envisionment learning (Langer) is not yet adequate to meld in student minds with what they actually accomplish: they do not see reflections of themselves in words yet, but still see themselves as grades.

My seniors notice the problem with being identified as grades, numbers, ACT scores. They desire to be known by colleges for their interests, skills, and personalities; what’s more, they dream of a higher ed experience that they can tailor to their own needs and interests–one that won’t kill off their love of learning things.

I am now focused on starting a Utah StuCamp, modeled on the EdCamp movement, in which a half-day of free meetings with other teens, without an agenda, affords students the opportunity to express themselves and have their voices heard by others, including teachers who assist in the logistics of the operation. I think students need to hear other students, in order to figure out whether they experience learning as more “doing” or “done to”.

Creative problem solving

Continue reading ‘mirror exercise’

06
Nov
14

before vs. after

BEFORE
The time change has wreaked havoc with my sleep system. Waking early, I used the extra time this morning to develop a few conflict cards — improvisation tools for students to use in class today. I have finished, and am certain these will prompt lively engagement from my British Lit students reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

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We are about to read the chapter in which Tess and Angel reveal their past to each other in an agape meal: so named by the author. Sensing that the students will benefit from a sharpened sense of the forces at work in the new bride-and-groom’s minds, I plan to use 1-minute skits in which pairs and trios dramatize the internal conflicts.

I employed a familiar id vs. ego or angel vs. devil motif, generally with opposing forces urging Angel Clare to resort to either his pride or humility, his impulses or reason. I also took the couple through the ages, asking pairs to play similar situations in 1620s & 1850 (American Lit students will recall Hester, Pearl, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale), 1968 and 2014.

Because most have read The Hunger Games, I also included several antagonisms related to literary issues. A gifted screenwriter is offered $15 million to produce a script which in no way criticizes modern culture or society. Hardy and the author who acknowledges his influence on her work, Suzanne Collins, challenge the young writer to refuse the contract, in the name of artistic freedom. My final card is a challenge between Katniss and Tess to see who is stronger.

I can’t wait to see how they will react, but I am pretty certain they will love to be out of their seats and up on their feet doing fast-moving scenes that relate to challenges they face.

AFTER
So, actually it was a good result: it was still a nice day, just before lunch, so we stepped outdoors to tackle the skits.

I was most pleased with the students’ ability to enter into the spirit of the tug-of-war, not over the character’s decision as much as over the ideas that are relevant to lives today.

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Students role-played both earnestly and with melodramatic flair, confessing sordid pasts and buried children, tempting one another to abandon or stay with their partner, to forgive or forget each other.

Because double standards for men and women still exist, it was satisfying to see both young men and women making strong arguments for equal treatment. I was also delighted that all but one person had read The Hunger Games (and even she had read parts) and got into persuading the young writer not to compromise his freedom, citing familiar anecdotes about Collins’ real life cultural inspirations.

Wouldn’t you know it, three people were absent from that one class? Yet that afforded the others a few more minutes of stage time. I even had more cards than I was able to use.

I am pretty sure that these imaginary scenes will serve the students as “frontloading” for the upcoming chapter about the Clares’ wedding night. We had taken a few days away from the novel in order to write and share fiction. I feel confident that with such skits and today’s sense of playfulness fresh in their minds, readers will be ready to appreciate and actually enjoy Hardy’s scene.

Photos of earlier scenes




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