Dear Google, You Should Have Talked to Me First

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Dear Google,

I wish you’d talked to teachers like me before you made that $40 million investment in Renaissance Learning.

I’ve seen the damage Accelerated Reader can do.

I witnessed it for the first time when I tutored a struggling 5th grader…eighteen years ago.

He hated to read.

He hated being locked into a level.

He hated the points associated with the books.

But more importantly, he was humiliated when he didn’t earn enough points to join in the monthly party or get to ‘buy’ things with those points at a school store full of junky prizes.

I’ve seen kids run their fingers along the binding of a book, a book they REALLY wanted read, but then hear them say, “But it’s not an AR book,” or “It’s not my level.”

I’ve watched them scramble to read the backs of books or beg a friend for answers so they can get enough points for the grading period.

And I watched it slowly start to unravel S’s love of reading.  It’s why I gave her permission to practice a little civil disobedience and Stop Reading for Points.

You see, Google, I’m a reader, and one of the things I’ve loved about teaching is connecting kids with books.

Books that spark their interest.

Books that make them think.

Books that pull on emotions they didn’t know they had.

Books that teach them empathy.

Books that make them laugh and cry.

Books that make them angry at the injustice.

Books that they come back and ask to borrow…five and six years after they leave my class.

Do you know what Accelerated Reader and programs like it are doing to readers these days?

I’ve heard of teachers being reprimanded for not leveling all their classroom books.

I know of school libraries where children have to show the librarian a card with their reading level on it before they can check out books.

I know of kids excited about books being told, “No! That’s not at your level. You can’t check it out. You can’t read it.”

I know of kids who struggle to read in the first place, having to spend an afternoon reading while their classmates who read get a pizza party or a movie or some other special prize.

I know of kids who never pick up a book unless it’s required because the joy of reading has been sucked out of them by leveled reading programs.

I’ve read about teachers who see what I see. Those who lament the Lex-Aisle.

Those who pull from their own memories of AR and how it ruined a great book.

And parents who see their children afraid to read.

Imagine, Google, if you limited your employees the way Accelerated Reader limits our students. How would that impact the creativity of your 20% time?

Oh, I read the Ed Week article that called this investment innovative, but there is NOTHING innovative about Accelerated Reader and their levels and basic comprehension quizzes.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of education in the U.S. when a move like this is praised.

To say I’m disappointed that Google views education through such a narrow lens is an understatement. For a company that has been built on innovation to invest millions into a program that levels books, awards points for low-level knowledge and comprehension, and creates bad data is a travesty.

And you call this personalized learning? What’s personalized about letting a computer system match kids with books?

You’re missing the point about what reading instruction should be, and you are helping to systematically destroy the joy in books.

If you had taken the time to talk to teachers like me, here’s some of the things we would’ve suggested you spend that $40 million on.

  • Books, lots and lots of books. Ones that aren’t leveled.
  • Children’s librarians in public libraries across the country.
  • Picture books, novels, non-fiction, series (many a reluctant reader has been hooked by a series like Captain Underpants or Goosebumps).
  • Full-time librarians in schools, especially those in high poverty areas where they seem to always get cut.
  • Um, books. Books kids can take home to keep because we know having books in the home is one of the best ways to increase literacy. (bit.ly/1fGubAj)
  • Free Little Libraries - take a book, return a book, gather in your neighborhood
  • More books! So many great authors and genres out there!
  • e-readers for schools and public libraries to use and loan out.
  • A Google library of free e-books.
  • Did I mention books?

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

If you need a little more research, check out this list I’ve compiled about the downside of reading for rewards.

You really should’ve talked to me first. I could’ve saved you $40 million.

The Bright Side

Is it bad to start a teacher blog with a Monty Python clip?

I guess it’s a little unorthodox, but I’ve been humming this tune in my head the last few days as I’ve thought about how we see the world.

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I had a teacher who used to have us play a game called “Good Luck, Bad Luck”. We’d sit in a circle, and it went something like this:

  • 1st person: What good luck! I got all my homework done!
  • 2nd person: What bad luck! I left my folder at home.
  • 3rd person: What good luck! My mom saw it and dropped it off at school.
  • 4th person: What bad luck! She said I had to help with laundry since she went out of her way.
  • 5th person: What good luck! I found $5.00 in the pocket of a pair of pants.
  • 6th person: What bad luck! They weren’t my pants.

And it would continue until we had gone around the circle two or three times. I’m not sure what learning target she had written in her lesson plans, but I know we loved it and it stretched us to think differently. It also forced us to find the silver lining in any situation.

Several things have happened in the last couple of weeks to make me think about how important it is to be able to see that ‘good luck’ side.

First, I spent a couple of hours messaging back and forth with a former student who is now a teacher. She was having one of those days, and when I saw her post on Facebook, rather than giving her an answer, I responded with a question of my own. That led to our private messaging back and forth for quite a while. (I am so proud of this young woman and the teacher I know she has become. Even in her frustration she was being proactive.)

Then I happened to see Jen Merrill’s  Henny Penny Challenge post pop up in my Facebook news feed. Her challenge is to post three positive things at the end of each day, and Jen does a great job of finding the silver lining.

And last week I was inspired (once again) by Krissy Venosdale. Her latest venspired post Understanding My Heart talked about those people in life who actually “get” her.

I understand that. I have those people in my life, too; can’t imagine not because

It’s easy to get discouraged.

Things don’t go as planned.

Some things are outside of your circle of control.

The negatives seem to jump up and down, screaming for attention.

While the positives wave politely and wait to be noticed.

So, here’s my challenge to you.

Find the bright side.

Point it out.

Write it down.

Share it.

You never know, it may be just what someone else needs to see.

Remembering to Say Thanks

Back in November I ran into our school board president at the local coffee shop. We had a great conversation, and as I walked away, I thought “I should really send him a note and let him know how much I appreciate all he does for the district and the community.”

But you know how it is. I got busy with work and class and life, and I put it off, thinking I would get to it over the winter break.

I never got the chance. He passed away on Christmas Day.

It made me think of all the times I’ve let the opportunity pass to tell someone I’m thinking of them, that they are important to me, or that they make a difference in my life.

Then a few weeks ago I came across this tweet.

So, I messaged Joy, she shared a google doc with me, and I wrote this post.

Lucky to Have a Friend Like You

Dena Budrecki: media specialist, technology goddess, passionate educator, colleague, friend. Where do I even begin to express my appreciation for her?

It is rare to find that colleague who matches you step for step, answers your questions with more questions, and just challenges you daily to be your best. Dena does that for me. I’ve been at this teaching thing for a long time (26 years), but I am still learning, still growing. I appreciate that Dena is right there with me.

When I am looking for ideas for a lesson, Dena is there with links, apps, and just awesome teaching tips. She isn’t afraid to throw a lot of things at me, knowing that we can sift through and pick out the best things.

When I am excited about something I have read for one of my doctoral classes, I know I can share it with her, and I get real conversation not just the polite head nod.

When I am frustrated because something doesn’t go as planned, I can complain, but then Dena helps me figure out the ‘So what…now what’ I need to move forward.

When I have an idea but need a co-conspirator, Dena’s right there, too (and I return the favor). Together we have accomplished some good things this year (reviving the Sunshine club at school, writing a weekly digital citizenship blog).

When I am grappling with a new idea or trying to assimilate what I have always done with what I need to change, Dena is there asking tough questions.

When I need an opinion on something I’ve written (blog post, letter to parent, email to one of my kids’ teachers), I can count on Dena to give honest feedback.

When I doubt myself, Dena is there to remind me of what I have accomplished and to encourage me to step outside my comfort zone.

And it doesn’t stop when the bell rings at the end of the day. Dena is my summer walking partner (yes, we still end up talking about school), she is a great dinner companion (especially when she sees I’m feeling down), and she worries about me when I’m off at class and the weather conditions aren’t the best (she calls and tells me to drive carefully).

I am blessed to have such a friend. Thanks, Dena. :-)

Looking forward to the next big adventure,

Jennifer

It was originally posted here. Check out the blog for more examples of the power of appreciation.

So, if you’re reading this and think there is probably someone you need to thank, do it. You never know how far those words go.

Eating an Elephant

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“When do you sleep??”

I get asked that a lot when I talk about my life – two active kids, bookkeeping for Tim and the farm, full-time job, work committees, volunteering, blogging, candy-making, baking (You should see the cupcake request S has made this year!), and, oh yeah,

that doctoral program.

I love it.

I love the challenge of the material.

I love the diversity of my classmates.

I love the seminar format.

I love that I am mentally exhausted at the end of each class.

But it’s not been easy.

I’ve learned to read slowly and to reread and reread again.

I’ve learned to write about what I KNOW not what I BELIEVE, and that’s been quite a mind-shift.

I’ve learned to use my time differently because waiting until the last minute doesn’t work. (Okay, yes, I still finish up papers the night before or morning of the due date, but I don’t start them then which is what I did as an undergrad…and even in my Master’s program.)

And the time away at night has its challenges.

S has gotten pretty good at making dinner.

Tim gets to share in the joys of running both kids to various practices and games.

Homework gets done, although I sometimes come home to a book and a note on the table saying, “I need help with…” so I know to get up a little earlier the next day.

But this is my last semester before dissertation.

Last semester of coursework.

Last time I have to attend an actual class.

As far as credits go, in May I’ll be 80% done.

People ask how I do it.

Sometimes I’m not sure.

All I can think of is the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

I’m 80% done.

But that last 20% is research and dissertation.

It will happen in small steps.

It will go slowly.

I need to remember

(image used with permission from its creator, Sean Gallo, http://seangallo.com)

Cutting My Daughter Some Slack

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This morning, just as I was about to walk out of the house, this text popped up.

textFor those of you who know S, you know this is NOT a common occurrence. She is one of the most responsible kids I know; mature way beyond her almost 13 years.

But every once in awhile she has a moment where she forgets things, just like the rest of us.

It would have been easy to ignore the text (my phone is usually in my purse in the mornings) or to tell a little white lie and say I was already on my way to school (taking the flute to her would make me a few minutes late). I could have also tried a little tough love; “You forgot it; take the consequences for your actions.”

But I thought about what was the lesson I really wanted her to learn and the decision was easy. Here’s the rest of our text conversation.

text reply

I am a firm believer in holding my kids responsible for their actions, but I am also keenly aware that they are human.

It’s not something that happens often. She acknowledged that it was her mistake. She would’ve understood if I hadn’t been able to bring it in, but I could. I can’t/won’t fix everything for her, but sometimes we all need a little slack.

She was waiting for me when I got to the middle school, and her smile matched the ‘Thank you!’ that bubbled out.

She knew it was out of my way.

She knew I didn’t have to bring it.

She knew I understood about forgetting.

In the moment, I ‘rescued’ her, but I’m okay with that because in the big picture I showed her that it’s okay to make mistakes and ask for help.

 

Why I’m Not Sold on the Five Finger Rule

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“There is no such thing as a child who hates to read; there are only children who have not found the right book.” – Frank Serafini

One of my favorite things about teaching has always been helping kids find the right books. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of watching a student get lost in a story. I brought in books I had read at that age, purchased books from the book clubs, shared favorite authors, and asked the other students to recommend books.

I discovered that one of my reluctant readers loved reading the manuals that came with his dad’s power tools, so I introduced him to the work of David Macaulay, starting with Castle I had another student who loved fairy tales but had read all the traditional ones, so I introduced her to Robin McKinley’s books, starting with Spindle’s End. I had a student who was fascinated with history but really hated reading novels, so I shared a book from my home collection – What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. He could pick and choose from topics that spanned thousands of years of world history.

My matches weren’t always successful.  I tried connecting a Harry Potter reader to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, thinking the whole magic/good vs. evil theme would interest her. She was gracious enough to read the first three or four chapters before giving the book back to me with a shake of her head.

I read a variety of books aloud, picking genres and authors my students weren’t normally drawn to. I picked books for whole class novels that were written in dialects my kids had never heard, and we had great discussions on idioms, word choice, registers of language, and colloquial speech.

The one thing I never thought about was reading level. Oh, in the back of my head, I was searching for books that matched what I knew about each student, but I didn’t look at lexile scores or grade level equivalencies. I looked for books that would grab their attention and pull them in.

In the last few years, one of my greatest concerns has been the obsession with reading levels, readability, and just right books. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to assess where a child is as a reader, but it seems to me that we obsess about it way more than we should.

We label kids with guided reading levels, Accelerated Reader levels, and lexile scores, and, too often, we only let them read within those levels.

We spend time talking about just right books, good fit books, readability, fluency based on how fast one reads, and the Five Finger Rule, but we forget about interest levels, peer influence, and raw desire to read something outside the comfort zone.

Somewhere along the line we have forgotten how important it is to just leave kids alone with books.

This hit me earlier tonight as C started reading You’re a Bad Man Mr. Gum by Andy Stanton. He’s excited about the book because it was a gift from his friend in Ireland, but he asked way more questions than normal.

  • Duvet? Is that like a comforter?
  • What does he mean by ‘absolute lazer’?
  • Wait a minute; you can spell color c-o-l-o-u-r?
  • Friendly as toast…that’s funny. Who would call toast friendly?
  • Hey rumor is spelled r-u-m-o-u-r in here. Do they do that with all o-r words?

None of these questions kept him from understanding the story, but he did slow down on a few parts – rereading sentences, even reading them out loud so he could hear the words.

By some readability standards, this would not be a just right book for him. On some scales it would be too hard (the rereading would kill his fluency score). By others it would be too easy (he cruised through 40 pages in less than half an hour).  He would be on the border using the Five Finger Test because there were words that he had to think about more carefully than normal.

The only test I need? Watching him read, hearing him giggle, and listening to him self-talk his way through the questions.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t give kids guidelines for picking out books. I’m just saying the focus should be on the reader not the rules.

Appreciate the Journey

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“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” ~ Ferris Bueller

Make mistakes

Take chances

Be silly

Be imperfect

Look at things through the eyes of others

Trust yourself

Say thank you

Say I’m sorry

Tell people how you feel even if you’re scared

Laugh

Cry

Speak up

Know things happen for a reason

Question the reason

Follow your heart

but most of all….

Appreciate the journey

Eleven Random Things

I read Krissy Venosdale’s blog faithfully. She inspires me every time. I love her passion for teaching and learning. I love that she puts herself out there so her kids feel comfortable doing the same. Although we’ve never met face-to-face, I know we are kindred spirits.

So, when I read her Eleven post earlier today, I thought I’d play along. Here are eleven random facts about me, followed by answers to the eleven questions Krissy posed.

Eleven Random Facts About Me…

  1. Every year, on Christmas Eve, the kids and I make cookies with my grandmother’s cookie cutters just like I used to make with her.  C has already asked how we’re going to divide them when he and S grow up and move out.
  2. I hate to draw. I’m not good at it. I’m too much of a perfectionist to even try to get better.
  3. I climbed to the top of Ayers Rock in Australia. Since I’m not fond of heights, it was more than a little scary, but it’s one of my proudest moments.
  4. I’m working on my doctorate and I love it. But some days I think, “There’s a reason they call it a ‘terminal’ degree.” That’s why I have this quote on my office wall: “The jump is so frightening between where I am and where I want to be…because of all I may become I will close my eyes and leap!” ~  Mary Anne Radmacher
  5. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is my favorite museum.
  6. I make great birthday and class party treats – cupcakes that look like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a Chinese dragon, and 3D basketball hoops with truffle basketballs, to name a few.
  7. When I’m really tired I start talking with a bit of a southern drawl. It’s a funny mix of my parents’ Kentucky twang, 17 years of living in southern Ohio, 13 years in Texas, and 17 in Wisconsin.
  8. My favorite way to spend a rainy day is curled up with a good book.
  9. The best comment I ever received on a classroom evaluation was during a 5th grade health class. We were talking about the human body and how your skin holds you in. The principal said that I “used many age appropriate hooks to engage students, including their gross out appetite.”
  10. I have an uncanny memory for detail. I wouldn’t say photographic, but pretty close. It is both a blessing and a curse.
  11. The best way to get me to do something is to tell me I can’t. :-)

Now the answers to Krissy’s eleven questions….

  1. What inspires you most of all? Kids – my own and those I teach. They add perspectives I would never ever think of on my own, and they push me to be the person they think I am.
  2. What is the best food you’ve ever tried while traveling? Gelato from a little shop near Piazza Navona in Rome.
  3. What is your favorite holiday? Why? Christmas. I love the traditions we have with our kids – the ones Tim and I have pulled from each of our families, but also the new ones made just for us.
  4. What is one school supply that you could not teach without? Post-it notes
  5. What’s your typical morning beverage? Cold weather – coffee with hazelnut creamer. Warm weather – unsweetened iced tea
  6. When you fly, window seat or aisle? Aisle. I prefer the leg room over the view.
  7. Describe the best teacher you had when you were in school. Wow, this one is hard. I had so many who touched my life in different ways: Mrs. Dean in 1st and 2nd grade; she let me soar as a reader. Mrs. Cone who taught me more than Algebra; she taught me to believe in myself. Mr. Hoovler and Mr. Wiederhold who taught me to love math and science and to be passionate about what you teach. Mrs. Lady who made me a better writer because she set the standard high and pushed me to want to reach it.
  8. Do you enjoy cooking? Anything specific? Yes, most of the time. I like to let the kids pick out new recipes. I find they are much more likely to try things if they have a say in the menu.
  9. What book are you currently reading? I just finished Wonder by R.J. Palacio and am rereading John Hattie‘s Visible Learning
  10. What’s your all time favorite movie? The Princess Bride 
  11. If at the end of your life, there is just room for one word on your grave marker, what do you think it will be? Hmm….I’m thinking I’d want to be remembered for having made a difference so my word would be ‘mattered’.

Now…

I need you to respond and share eleven random things about yourself. And answer my eleven questions listed below. Link your post in the comments section.

My questions…

  1. What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? From whom?
  2. What’s your favorite children’s book?
  3. What is the farthest from home you’ve ever been?
  4. If you could have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
  5. What is the first thing you notice about someone when you meet them?
  6. Scary movies or happy endings?
  7. What was the most valuable class you took in college?
  8. If you could spend the day doing anything you wanted, what would you do?
  9. What’s your favorite movie quote?
  10. What’s your fondest childhood memory?
  11. What’s your motto?

Kids’ Books Make Me Cry

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“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.” — Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve always loved to read. I’ve been getting lost in books for as long as I can remember. I’ve been crying over books just as long.

I remember sitting in Mrs. Carter’s 6th grade Language Arts class reading Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben and trying not to let anyone see the tears as Mark had to make the heartbreaking decision that would save Ben’s life.

And Little Women? It didn’t matter how many times I read it, I always cried when Beth died…and when Laurie married Amy because he was supposed to marry Jo!

I didn’t outgrow that. Ask any of my former students. I’m sure all of them can remember me getting teary over at least one read aloud. How can you not cry with Wilbur when Charlotte dies in Charlotte’s Web or with Marty when he has to give Shiloh back to Judd Travers? And I refused to read Where the Red Fern Grows out loud because I knew I’d be a blubbering mess.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from reading On My Honor, Mick Harte Was Here, and Searching for David’s Heart – all gut-wrenching stories where a main character dies. I had a sophomore pop in my office last spring to ask to borrow a copy of Searching for David’s Heart, and her comment was, “I remember you reading that chapter out loud, you know, the one where Darcy finally lets go of all she’s holding in? You were crying and so were all of us!”

Then there were the books I read before putting them on my classroom shelf: books like Good Night, Mr. Tom, Rulesand Shabanu - soul-searching stories that left images in my mind long after I had finished them.

But last night I read Wonderthe book C told me I HAD to read (you can read his take here); the book he finished and said, “I cried at the end, Mom, but not sad tears.”

I was just going to skim so he and I could talk more about the book, but I knew I was in for it when I read the second paragraph:

If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing the look-away thing. Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.

It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed up late to read a book cover to cover, but I couldn’t put this one down.

And I cried, through the WHOLE book.  I cried for the kid who was different. I cried because I know that kid who acts nice around grownups but is a real jerk when it’s just a group of kids. I cried for the kid who said unkind things he didn’t mean so that he didn’t become the target. I cried for the older sister who always took second place to the little brother who needed her parents ‘more’.

But most of all, I cried because C told me, “This is the first book I’ve ever read where I can totally relate to the main character.”

Not because his comment made me sad but because I know he understands what happens when you read a good book. It can make you laugh or cry. It can make you angry or happy. It can make you question things you’ve never questioned before. But, no matter what, in the end it leaves an indelible mark on your soul, and you are never quite the same.

Through the Eyes of My Son

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I love my conversations with C. He keeps me on my toes. There is never a dull moment as his topics are all over the place.

Sometimes I have to laugh out loud, like on Sunday as we were getting ready to go to the Packers game. He came downstairs wearing his cheesehead cowboy hat.  When I asked if was going to wear it to the game, he just looked at me and said, “You know what they say. Go big or go home.”

Sometimes I am amazed by his sense of right and wrong. We went to see Catching Fire a couple of weeks ago, and he kept leaning over and whispering to me, “Why don’t they just say no? They know it’s wrong! Why don’t they just say no?” I tried to explain how fear played into it, and he said, “How can you be so afraid that you don’t do what is right?”

Always I am moved by the depth and complexity of his thoughts. He’s reading a book he can’t put down. It’s one I’ve never read, had actually never heard of until he brought it home, but I plan to read it when he’s done.  For the last hour and a half, I have been fielding questions like, “What is Soho?” “What does he mean by P.S. 2?” “What is a gene mutation?” “Why would someone dress like Indiana Jones when they are studying Egypt?” “By stomach bug does he mean a virus?” “Wait, Chanukah is spelled with a ch?”

The book is Wonder by R.J.Palacio. It’s about a kid named Augie who was born with a face deformity and is attending a mainstream school for the first time as a 5th grader. It’s a book about bullying and empathy. It’s striking a chord with C. He’s talking about things he never talks about – his eyes.

C has a condition called Blepharophimosis. (Don’t bother googling it because the info there will scare the pants off you.) Basically, it means he has weak eyelid muscles. His vision is fine, but he looks like he’s half asleep all the time. He had five surgeries before he was seven; one of them took muscle tissue from his thigh to replace the weak muscles in his eyelids. He has tiny scars on the inside and outside edges of his eyes as well as in his brow line and on his forehead.

People stare. Sometimes they ask inconsiderate questions. Sometimes other kids call him names. Always I want to scoop him up and tell him it’s fine. He’s perfect just the way he is. The toughest question I have ever had to answer was, “When will my eyes look normal like yours?”

But, back to our book conversation: He was explaining to me that  the kids play a game where if someone touches Augie, then they catch “the plague”. He then connected it to the “cheese touch” in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and we talked about how mean it is to treat people like that. He pointed out that you could avoid the “cheese touch” by not touching the cheese, but there was nothing Augie could do to change how he looked. I reminded him, though, that any kid who touched the cheese was made fun of and avoided by other kids.

But, he was emphatic that it was different. “If you don’t touch the cheese you aren’t made fun of, but Augie’s face thing is kind of like my eyes. When kids call me a zombie, I just have to ignore them because I can’t change my eyes.  The sad reality of life is that people judge you by how you look and most don’t bother to look any further.”

He was quiet after that. He read a few more pages before bed, and as he put his bookmark in, he looked at me and said, “I might be a little shocked by how Augie looks, but after that initial reaction, I’d take the time to get to know him. He sounds like a pretty neat kid.”

 

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