Category Archives: Me

#cometothelandoftheiceandsnow: Summering in Iceland = trip of a lifetime

After we moved back to the States 2 years ago, we haven’t had a huge opportunity to travel internationally like we did when we lived in Taiwan. In March, Lisa and I led our school’s mission trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and while it was a very enjoyable trip, it definitely was a work thing, back to a place we’d been before, and not exactly the type of traveling I was hoping to get in. And the bug wasn’t squashed at all—”We gotta go somewhere.”

So when an article online hinted that WOW Airlines, a low-cost 1 Icelandic carrier, was adding direct flights from San Francisco to Reykjavik to their repertoire, we jumped at the opportunity to add the Nordic country to our travel list. A few months and a couple of dollars later, we had a plan to do Iceland’s Ring Road 2 in less than a week. Thanks to a short delay from the aforementioned WOW Airlines 3, that itinerary got squeezed down a bit more to 5½ days. It would be a mad-dash on the road, but were dead-set to make it work.

Luckily, it turned out that we were able to accomplish the trip of a lifetime, seeing waterfalls, glaciers, volcanos, geysers, hot pots, churches, sheep, humpback whales, and one flat tire. Since we were there during the longest days of the year, the sun never set on us 4, so we regularly pulled 20-hour days, stopping often to take pictures, fly my drone, hike around, and experience the most breathtaking nature I’ve ever been privileged to explore. Since we’ve made it home, not a day has gone by that I haven’t fondly thought back on the week we spent up north and giggled at how blessed we were to see what we saw and do what we did.

For inquiring minds, we took pretty darn good notes of all the places in Iceland we explored, pinning them all to a master Google Map that we utilized on the Ring Road the entire trip. Below, you can click on the sites, where we have more details on the trip, where we went, where I flew, and our daily itinerary.

A few months back, Lisa and I saw a great YouTube video by Dax Shepherd and Kristen Bell, where they essentially did a lip dub of their entire trip to the Dark Continent with Toto’s class “Africa”.

Lisa and I got such a kick out of that that we decided we’d be doing something similar for our Iceland trip. After much planning, filming, and editing, we present the Led Zeppelin-themed music video of our trip to the land of the ice and snow:

Also, since I took my drone along all the way there and was able to film much more than made it into the music video, here’s an additional video of just flight footage:

It’s so great to have had the chance to experience Iceland, and while we’re sad that the trip has come and gone so quickly, we’re excited to begin working on whatever our next adventure will be!

Notes:

  1. Low cost is no joke. For just over US$1,000, we picked up 2 round-trip tickets to Iceland. Of course, that didn’t include additional charges for seats, checked baggage, carry-on baggage, or even a cup of water on the plane itself. Southwest Airlines this ain’t.
  2. FYI: On every itinerary we found online, the Ring Road was a 16-hour loop that was suggested to take at least 10-30 days to do justice to. 16 hours? We’re Midwesterners—we can bang out an 8-hour-drive without any effort! No problem! Here’s what we didn’t fully realize—every 15 minutes on the Ring Road, you see something that you have to stop and gape at for 2-3 hours. We drove every day, all day, and we averaged accomplishing only 3 hours gross on the road each day. Amazing.
  3. Oh WOW, how you disappointed me… Our departure from SFO was first delayed by 24 hours, then an additional 3 as we sat at the airport and waited on what turned out to be an all-white charter plane with a no-name crew to “serve” our plane, then an additional 3 hours just for our luggage to get taken off the plane. Luckily, our flight back to SFO was only delayed 3 hours, with one extra hour sitting at the gate while our flight crew just didn’t show up until 15 minutes after takeoff was scheduled. #WOWfail indeed.
  4. We experienced maybe 1-2 hours of dark enough sky that you couldn’t easily read a paperback book without a flashlight.
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Jon Stewart’s final thoughts, or “Here’s what you need to do now”

From Jon Stewart’s last Daily Show, his “graduation speech” on what he wants needs us to know when he’s gone—how to cut through the bullshit.

Bullshit is everywhere. There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit. Not all of it bad. Your general, day-to-day, organic free-range bullshit is often necessary. Or at the very least innocuous. “Oh, what a beautiful baby. I’m sure he’ll grow into that head.” That kind of bullshit in many ways provides important social contract fertilizer and keeps people from making each other cry all day.

But then there’s the more pernicious bullshit, your premeditated institutional bullshit designed to obscure and distract. Designed by whom? The bullshit-talkers.

[It] comes in three basic flavors:

One, making bad things sound like good things. Organic all-natural cupcakes. Because “factory-made sugar oatmeal balls” doesn’t sell. Patriot Act – because “Are You Scared Enough To Let Me Look At All Your Phone Records Act” doesn’t sell. So whenever something is titled “freedom, fairness, family, health, America,” take a good long sniff. Chances are it’s been manufactured in a facility that may contain traces of bullshit.

Number two, the second way, hiding the bad things under mountains of bullshit… But I’m not really interested right now in reading Tolstoy’s iTunes agreement, so i’ll just click “agree” even if it grants Apple prima nocta with my spouse…

And finally, it’s the bullshit of infinite possibility. These bullshiters cover their unwillingness to act under the guise of unending inquiry. “We can’t do anything because we don’t yet know everything.” We cannot take action on climate change until everyone in the world agrees gay marriage vaccines won’t cause our children to marry goats who are going to come for our guns.

Now, the good news is this: Bullshiters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time. Like an “I Spy” of bullshit. I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

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What Inspires Me: Louis CK

***Warning: The below video has some NSFW language, but I believe its big thesis makes it well worth it.***

Louis CK is one of my favorite comedians of all time. He’s brilliant, uncouth, controversial, and incredibly inventive. That last quality in particular was one that I grew to appreciate after watching the above video. Louis has taken a cue from the great George Carlin in not just reusing stand-up material from year-to-year, but in totally reinventing his act every year. He’s constantly starting from square one, not only resting on the laurels of his previous stand up specials and performances.

For some reason, stand-up comedians absolutely inspire me, especially as a teacher 1, who, to some extent, is a daily “performer” 2. From year-to-year, it makes sense that I’d keep my curriculum the same or hone it down to the best possible iteration of it, but Louis inspires me to keep it fresh, both to myself and to my students. From my last years in Taiwan, where thing became so repetitive that I hardly had to prep for each class, I’ve had to find ways to twist what I do, and I think taking a cue from this brilliant funny-man can/will help me better reach all my students.

Notes:

  1. I’m SUCH a planner person—I’m absolutely averse to being impulsive or off-the-cuff at all—so seeing someone who appears to be just casually having a monologue (but clearly has rehearsed what they’re saying) is absolutely enthralling to me.
  2. I know that it’s constantly preached to put the students first, not the teacher, which I totally agree with, but one of my strength of my own teaching is me and my own personality which I use to hype up and direct my students.
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Thoughts on my 10 days in Israel

So… where do I start? How do I describe the life-changing trip I just took to the Middle East? What can I say about all the amazing things we experienced? Here are some fleeting thoughts from my (jet-lagged) mind:

  • Easily connected. Before we left, both students and teachers were all concerned about internet access in Israel, and we’d done lots of research about getting 3G cards for our cell phones so parents and our school could contact us in emergency situations 1. Turns out that that wasn’t an issue at all, as Israel has wifi absolutely errrrrrrverywhere. No prob, Bob.
  • What I wish I woulda known… I spent literally 2 years working with Doron Yodan, our AMAZING tour planner guy 2, and I was pretty sure I knew everywhere we were going and why it was important, etc. Turns out that I was/am totally ignorant to so much of Israel’s history (and present), so I learned so much in every place we went. There was so much I wish I would have known before—so much that, had I been able to pre-learn, I could have truly appreciated—but, you know, you just don’t know until you go. There was so much learning along the way that I felt like I was constantly soaking up tons of information.17568801 (1)Here’s what made things even cooler: on the day we left, I began reading Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”, not because I was trying to learn about Israel or Jerusalem, but just because it was next on my reading list. WHAT A FITTING COINCIDENCE! Literally 10 or 20 times, I would read about something in the book, and then within 3 hours, we’d be at the site where it happened. I completely suggest reading this book, especially if you’re planning on doing some exploration in Israel—it’s a great, entertaining, informative read that puts everything into context beautifully.

    One more thing: very recently, Lisa and I caught BBC Four’s excellent documentary Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City, another one I’d highly suggest. I can’t tell you the amount of times that, while watching it, we would squeal “I’ve been there! I’ve been there!”

  • Safety. The first and most common question we got about our trip: “Was it safe? Did you ever feel scared?” No, or at least almost never 3. Outside of one close call, I never felt more in danger than I do just wandering around in a city in the US; most of the time, my guard was lowered almost completely. The people were friendly, security was literally EVERYWHERE, and even in driving through the West Bank, I never felt threatened at all. In fact, the most threatened I ever felt was due to…
  • b767elalEl Al’s security = CRAZY. At our arrival in Hong Kong (our layover), each passenger (read: every single one of my students) were individually interviewed about why we were here, where we were going, who we knew on the flight, our relationships to eachother, and what we were doing in Israel. It was about as close to third degree as I could have ever expected—never have I experienced security at that level.For example, of the 11 students we brought with us, 10 of them are current students enrolled in our school; one is a high school graduate of another school, but the sibling of one of the girls on our trip. We know him—he’s family. I didn’t think that there would be a need to clarify all the intricacies of my relationship with each of our 11 “children”, so when I was asked by El Al about who these kids were, I truthfully replied “They’re my students.” 4 Things broke down, though, when the boy told El Al that he was not a student at our school. This triggered an immediate kneejerk response by El Al: Were we trying to pull a fast one on them? Why did I say this was my student? Who was this kid actually? Why had I LIED? It took almost 10 minutes of questioning to get things cleared up, but truthfully, I was certain that the boy (and, by association, I as well) were not going to be permitted onto the flight. SCARY.
  • FOOOOOOD. Just like I felt in Egypt and Malaysia (both Muslim Halal countries), as an Adventist, Israel’s a great place to eat. My religion isn’t quite a strict as the Jewish Kosher laws 5, but after living in Taiwan (aka “The Island of Pork and Seafood”) for 5 years, it was amazing to be able to walk into just about any restaurant and eat whatever I wanted to. Moreover, if I actually lived in Israel, I guarantee I could go full-vegetarian and easily gain 10 pounds. Falafel,hummus, feta cheese… wow. Some of my favorite things:
    • 38c24b1a1c66c00d0c0195088563d98cBourekas
      Baked or fried savory crossaint-y fill pastries, filled with mashed potatoes , spinach, cheese, or olive+cheese+tomato sauce filling, covered in sesame seeds. Every hostel we stayed at had these for breakfast, thrown into the corner like they weren’t manna from heaven. Also could easily grab them at any gas station or market, as if they were an afterthought, when truthfully, they were totally Yum.com.
    • 734551aec8422caba436371b2a939612Baklava
      So I’m not a really big “nut” nut guy, so I’ve always had a healthy respect, but not a huge obsession with these layered pastries stuffed with chopped nuts and honey. Not the case in Israel, where they come in about 256 different varieties, including peanut 6, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, honey, sweet milk, rosewater, and just about anything else sweet. Eeesh.
    • 3b599887fcd6ded2d531d40d18317c1cFalafel
      I’ve had these a couple of times in the States, but nothing like in Israel. I don’t know how many deep-fried ball of ground chickpeas or fava beans I had, but it has to have been about one dose per day. Stuffed into a pita and smothered in hummus, that’s a meal that will alter your perspective on life. Extra points for being the most unhealthy thing a vegetarian can eat.
    • 772b668e9b9c808264d92f9dd3943fe1Halva
      Ok, so this was a brand new dish for me. The first time I had halva, I thought it was a strangely-flavored slice of hard peanut butter, but I came to find out that it’s sesame-flavoured tahini, best described as kinda grainy/grimy Israeli fudge 7.The first one I had tasted very peanut-buttery, but in Jerusalem, Lisa and I came across a place called Halva Kingdom that served it in a bunch of flavors, including espresso, cinnamon, cookies-and-cream, and triple chocolate.
    • b5b57ced07031cf6ae2912d81d4b68f2Hummus
      Am I a hummus snob now? After having it a couple of times, I began to notice subtle differences in the cooked, mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. The winner of the entire trip happened in Haifa (northern Mediterranean coast), where, at a hole-in-the-wall place, we ordered 3 different types with basically all-you-could-eat pita—enough for 6 people to get full—for about US$5. Cheapest and maybe most delicious meal of our trip, and it wasn’t close.
    • 1ebf209000aaec432dbc09460b7b4af9Knafe
      My 2014 delicious food MVP of this trip, Knafe (pronounced kuh-NAH-fay) is a sweet pie-ish thing, with a crust made from long thin noodle threads of shredded phyllo dough 8. On top of that, they spread soft white cheese (similar to un-salty mozarella), more shredded noodle threads, honey-and-rosewater flavored syrup, and pistachios. Sounds weird, right? IS AMAZING.
    • 0693f8a6a7516b66716fb6161634fa65Kube
      I didn’t realize that I had first tried these, 2 months before, at my sister’s wedding in the Dominican Republic, where they’re called kippes 9. Think a really heavy hush puppy, filled with onions, garlic, and Halal or Kosher ground lean beef, lamb, goat or chicken meat, formed into an egg shape and fried. Had one mindblowing kube in Jerusalem, and spent the rest of the trip (unsuccessfully) looking for another hit.
    • 348ed21e5d7e8e2371e53133a52b5406Labane
      This was breakfast for me every single morning: just soft, tart, Greek yogurt that’s been put through a cheese cloth (so it’s thicker and “cheesier”), covered in olive oil, and seasoned with salt and za’atar. It’s basically a more tangy, delicious, salty version of sour cream. Truly, what didn’t I eat this stuff on? Toast, eggs, bourekas… Gosh, I’m making myself hungry.
    • 3b17eecbd0a9147d526dc057d6cbce55Za’atar
      Remember how, during the Jewish Passover, how the Israelites were told to mark their doors with blood using a hissup plant to keep away the Angel of Death? Well I don’t know about the blood, but those leaves (cousins of oregano) are totally delicious. Ground those up, add olive oil, garlic, and salt, and eat on EVERYTHING.
  • Video recap. Finally, using a cool web service called Flipagram, I threw together a little video slideshow of some of the highlights from our trip, stolen from our trip Tumblr, http://tpcast14.tumblr.com/, where our group of 13 set a world record for “Most Selfies in a 10 day period”. Take a peek:

What a crazy-fun time. Lisa and I agree that it was an awesome experience that neither of us will ever forget. I only hope that I’ll have the chance to go back one day—here’s to hoping that things stay/become stable enough that that opportunity comes again!

Notes:

  1. …and so we could upload pictures to Instragram ;)
  2. If you ever are planning on going to Israel, look up the Israel Youth Hostel Association, with whom Doron works. ABSOLUTELY great people to work with!
  3. While wandering Jerusalem one day, we left through the notorious Damascus Gate to go see the Protestant Tomb of Jesus; on the way back, our group got split up, so I stayed back with two of my students while Lisa went ahead with most of the group. On meeting together back by the gate, we walked in on the tail end of a demonstration. We were able to get the group to where we were supposed to be going without them basically realizing what was happening at all. Later on, though, we found out that they were throwing Molotov cocktails just a few meters away from where we had all been standing. #CloseCall
  4. Why this is not a lie: while the aforementioned boy was not a current student at my school, each kid who came on the trip was getting high school credit for attending the trip, so, by definition, the kid was my student.
  5. My reaction to the idea of a cheeseburger by the end of the trip: tumblr_lqxe4xH2du1qlff32o1_500
  6. In the States, baklava seems to usually be made with walnuts or pecans; in Israel, peanuts are “standard”. Cool.
  7. This is not meant to be an insult.
  8. Think like shredded wheat cereal or Weetabix.
  9. After the wedding, I tried these at her reception and was enthralled, but I didn’t get to investigate, as we had wedding pictures to take, and by the time we were done, the kippes had disappeared. I ended up doing the second-best thing: Googling them. Fast forward a few months down the road, in Jerusalem, after eating those kubes, I’m sitting in my hotel room, Googling these delicious meat balls, and the Google search links are purple, not blue… because I had already been to those websites, months before. Cool. 
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שלום ישראל (Shalom, Israel!)

tumblr_n2ucirHCyI1tw5abco1_1280It was about 2 years ago, at our spring Parent-Teacher conference, when the idea of a study tour to Israel first came into my mind. A parent came in to talk to me about her son, who was taking my English II class at the time, and she was especially curious about my Spring Holocaust Literature curriculum 1.  The parent, who was Israeli, was not only excited about her son developing his English skills, but also about how some of his own culture and history was being incorporated into it. “He’s learning so much from your class, and he’s really excited about going back to Israel to see his country with new eyes.”

“By the way… Have you ever been to Israel? Would you want to go? How would you feel about leading a trip there?”

jake-is-amazed-o

And that’s how it started. Those questions led to a few solid months of planning for a trip over our school’s 2013 Spring Break, where my students would get to explore Jerusalem, the Judean desert, Galilee, and even more. Everything was going well until, in October, some crap went down, and like that, our trip was off 2. Having worked so hard on trip-planning, without a payoff, I felt spurned enough to decide on not doing it again.

But apparently, not spurned enough to remember my decision 3, because this Fall, when it came time to propose trips again, and I hadn’t heard of anyone else with an idea, I dug up my old itinerary, made some adjustments and, TL;DR, we were approved. Within a few months, 11 students signed up to join Lisa and I on the trip of a lifetime.

So here it is—just a few hours away from boarding our El Al flight from Hong Kong to Jerusalem—and we’re so excited. Over the past few weeks, we’ve done meetings with the students where we’ve studied the places we’re going to be going, tasted some of the food we’re going to be eating, and Skyped with Doron Yodan, our travel agent/trip planning-guru:

Curious about our trip? Inspired by David Theriault’s awesome Instragram-to-Wordpress IFTTT recipe, I built a similar recipe where each Instagram photo & video tagged #tpcast14 will be automagically sent to our trip blog, http://tpcast14.tumblr.com/. All 13 of us attendees are going to be posting pictures and videos like crazy, and we hope that you’ll follow along and check up on our site every few days. We’re excited about what we’re going to see, learn, eat, and do, and we look forward to sharing it with all of you!

Notes:

  1. For the past few years, I’ve dedicated my Sophomores’ 2nd semester to Holocaust literature—we use The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s “Night”, Schindler’s List, and other Holocaust stories as our subject matter while we study grammar, writing, reading, speaking, and listening. My favorite thing about our school, as a teacher, is the academic freedom that we’re granted in planning curriculum. As long as I’m still hitting the course objectives, the subject matter is mine to determine. #DreamComeTrue
  2. True story—I was due to announce the study tour location on that Friday, so I had been working on a presentation for a few days to “sell” the trip to our students. Late on Wednesday night, my wife/principal told me that, due to the increased security threat, our trip was off. Isadpanda was crushed, but I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel 100%. In a move of manic desperation, I contacted EF Tours to develop an alternative study tour to Turkey & Greece and somehow managed to get it approved by the school, all within 24 hours. On Friday, I presented the trip to our student body… who weren’t impressed. Only 3 kids signed up, and our trip was cancelled for not reaching the minimum bar
  3. Do I have a tendency to revisit things I swear to not do again? NO, WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT?
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#edcampHOME, or “The best PD money can’t buy”

ECH_logoWhat’s the greatest thing you’ve ever done at 1am? 1 Not too many people are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get better at their job while in their pajamas, but thanks to the awesomeness of #edcampHOME, I was blessed to have a remarkable learning experience from the privacy of my own home just this morning.

First, some background—what is an EdCamp? Edcamps are “unconferences”, run by real teachers, all around the world, especially in the US. As opposed to a regular educational conference 2, where invited speakers will stand up in front and preach about ways to better serve students, Edcamps go by a wholly democratic, horizontal structure of topic suggestion, moderation, and discussion. There is no set agenda before the day of the Edcamp—people just show up with a list of things they’d like to talk about, then cluster together with those of similar interests. The only big rule in Edcamp is that if you aren’t “getting” anything from a breakout group, you are free, welcomed, and encouraged to move to another group that better suits you. Got it? No? Well look at this:

video_2Now, this works really well for places with lots of innovative educators with lots of connections (like small communities in the States), but what about for teachers like me, off alone in a far-away place, with limited others to explore with? This is where the magic of the internet kicks in—there have been (to my count) three attempts to duplicate the experience online, utilizing Google Hangouts to have group conversations with others around the world. I was fortunate enough to attend my first back in October, and from that moment, I was hooked. I knew that, as long as I was stationed out here in Taiwan, there would be no way I was going to miss the next one. Turns out, that next would be held a few months later, just before I was heading back to school for second semester.

As someone who understood the basics to setting up a Google Hangout On Air, I volunteered myself to moderate any sessions needing someone to “get the ball rolling.” Mind you, I never fancied myself an expert in any of the proposed subjects—just a “lead learner”, willing to be the first one to ask the questions. Once the party began (at 1am here in Taiwan), I settled in, got my setting-up-a-breakout-group instructions from the incredible #edcampHOME organizers 3, and settled in to learn a lot about two really fascinating subjects:

Augmented Reality:

Standards-based Grading:

So what did I learn? Wow… where to begin? If you don’t know anything about Augmented Reality… well, frankly, you should be checking out the Two Guys and Some iPads blog, where Drew Minock (@techMinock) and Brad Waid (@techBradWaid) have literally forgotten more about AR than I’ll ever even learn.

Check out the video posted above (or here) for our whole 30ish minute discussion, where you’ll learn about how different teachers are finding ways to incorporate AR into their classrooms. REALLY neat stuff! Special shoutout to the participants of the chat @karenblumberg, @brenda_bjones, @ddteaches, @mstavi3@techmonious and champion lurkers (with some AMAZING insights and links!) @terrieichholz & @Mitchlehan.

The second topic I moderated, Standards-based Grading (watch the video above or click here), is something I will be exploring more on this blogg 4 in the future, but it essentially works out to, instead of grading assignments, rating students on how well they understand set standards. It’s an unbelievable idea that I’ve been pondering for a couple of months, and I was lucky to be tutored in it by one of the godmothers of SBG, Garnet Hillman (@garnet_hillman). Special thanks to her and my fellow breakout group members @LovePhyEd,  @mrPiercey, @apannie7, and @chuckmaddoxjr. And thanks to @RickWormeli for his contributions via Twitter!

The evening 5 ended with some short SLAM presentations, and due to my being the world’s SLOWEST WRITER 6, I’m going to embed those SLAMS and let them speak for themselves:

Suffice to say, though, there’s some REALLY cool stuff that some REALLY great teachers are doing out there!

In conclusion, my only complaint 7 wish re: #edcampHOME is that it could somehow happen more often! If these were monthly or even weekly meetings, I’d gladly pay money to join in with some amazing educators talking about some great stuff! While I definitely feel like the dumbest person in the room listening to the great stuff that my colleagues are doing, it’s a really amazing room that fascinates and inspires me! I can’t wait for my next Edcamp experience, and I hope that many more will join in!

Notes:

  1. Ok, don’t answer that.
  2. Still have never really been to one—online Edcamps have been my only foray into professional development!
  3. How fortunate am I, really? I’ve written before about the isolation I’ve struggled with as a teacher, far away from my colleagues, friends, family, etc, and about how much I’ve benefitted from the professional relationships I’ve made this last year, thanks to Twitter, Google Teacher Academy, and more. Here I am, in the middle of the night, miles and miles away from some of the most amazing educators in the world—the people I revere—and I get to have video chats and exchange tweets with the likes of David Theriault (@davidtedu) & Kelly Kermode (@coachk), people I was privileged to learn alongside at Google in Chicago. It’s the edu-version of some weak high school bench player ballin’ up alongside NBA greats. As Wayne as Garth would put it:
    tumblr_lga79iMOyk1qg4ayxo1_400
  4. Fingers crossed!
  5. Morning?
  6. This simple little post has taken 2 hours to write… and that’s why I don’t blog more :(
  7. Too harsh… not complaining, as the work that the #edcampHOME organizers have done shouldn’t be taken for granted!
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