Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…


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My class is digging Minecraft. I’m digging ‘stealth assessment’.

Ever since my kids started playing Minecraft a few years ago, and beginning my teaching degree, I’ve been wanting to use Minecraft in the classroom. Way back in 2011, when my son was in his final term of year 1, he made this epic video on how to make a cannon in Minecraft.

For me, this clearly demonstrates how Minecraft can be used in and outside of the classroom for kids to meet a wide range of syllabus outcomes and, more importantly, demonstrate their learning in a way that’s clearly engaging and enjoyable for them. I wrote a blog post about this some time ago, and looking back at it, there is so much more that this game allows students to do that I didn’t even go into in that post. Anyway, like I say, I’ve been thinking about Minecraft in the class for a while and, luckily for me, I was given a folder towards the middle of last term which allowed me to get Minecraft up and running on the school computers.

At first I just kinda used it in a carrot on a stick fashion to motivate student writing. I set up a K/1L Minecraft world in which students were able to begin building their own houses, all linked to each other along a K/1L world cobblestone pathway. Students had to write blog posts for me, telling me what they were planning to build in our world, drafting them in their books for me to mark before posting them on their individual KidBlogs. This was fun and was quite effective in getting them to write and in increasing the volume and quality of their writing, but this term I wanted to do a little more group work with Minecraft by including it in this term’s project-based learning.

Some of my students are also in their final term of year 1, just like my son was when he made a screencast of his Minecraft work back in 2011, so I know that they’re capable of doing something similar. They’ve been doing #PBL for a while now, so their teamwork is pretty good, and I’m confident that my year 1s can help their kindy peers do what they need to do in order to get through what they need to do for the project, too. The project outline is below.

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Initially when I floated the idea of ‘sharing their learning’ in Minecraft with them, they all kinda looked at me with blank faces like, “What?” I tried speaking with them about what we’d been learning in class and all of the stuff we’d been doing in Minecraft. We spoke about what some of the other classes we have connected with have been doing and they were still like, “What?”

The thing that finally made it click for my students was sitting together as a class and watching a whole bunch of Youtube videos of kids that had used Minecraft in school and what they had done. I don’t have the links handy, but if you have a bit of a search around, you can find some cool stuff. We then had another discussion about what we had been learning and I asked my class if they now thought they might be able to think of something they could build.

Immediately one of my students said, “I could probably build equal groups”. Great! She is now in the Equal Groups team building stuff with her peers. At the moment I have 6 teams for this project, and the things they are building are 2D and 3D shapes, the silkworm life cycle, dragons, castles, the equal groups I just mentioned along with something that I think is really abstract and awesome – a maths game.

The game goes like this. You walk into a house and you are met with a series of signs telling you the instructions for the game. You walk on and find another sign with a maths problem. Behind the sign are 3 doors, each with a sign above them displaying a potential answer to the problem. If you choose the door with the right answer, you are allowed to pass through into another room in which you are met with another maths problem. The questions get harder as the game progresses. If you choose any of the doors with the wrong answer, you are locked inside a room in which you get attacked and killed by Minecraft nasties! It’s evil, sadistic and I love it!

So far this project has been really fun, and as an added bonus, it’s allowed me to formatively assess the kids on a range of topics in a non-obtrusive and engaging manner, without them really even being aware that I’m testing them. For example, with the maths game group, one of the students said, “At first the questions will be easy like 1 + 1 and then they’ll get tricky like 20 + 20″. I explained to the student that people should be able to answer that easily just by counting by tens and that so should he and he was like, “Oh yeah!” and we decided to come up with questions that would challenge students of his age at maths. Now I have a really good idea of where he is at with addition and subtraction and how to extend him.

This is called ‘Stealth Assessment’ in the research literature – the notion of embedding good assessment within video games. You can read about here and here, I think it’s great.

Below are some screenshots of some of our builds, including our developing dragons and maths game! I can’t wait wait to get started on the screencasts and uploading them to Youtube. A cool way to end the year.

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Planning for project-based learning in primary school

Below I am going to post a .pdf of one of my typical programs for a primary school #PBL project. I’ve been asked to share this before and have previously given this link to Drew Perkins from the BIE, but I thought I’d also post it up here so that I can more readily look back on my awesome in years to come – lulz.

K:1L PBL

 

 

 

 

 

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You should be able to download the .pdf from the link above the photo, but failing that, you can get it via the link to the google doc here.

You will see that up the top, along with the project outline showing the DQ, need to knows, product and audience are a bunch of syllabus outcomes. These are here because, as a responsible teacher, I like to plan with the curriculum in mind. In actuality, not all of this content was explored as well as I would perhaps have liked, but it’s good to aim high! Also, as is always the case with #PBL, there is content that unexpectedly sneaks its way into the project, leaving you surprised and stoked with what has naturally and authentically been ‘covered’, with purpose.

I also like to plan for proper project-based learning, so you will see that I have outlined how the 8 essentials will be given the respect and consideration they deserve. As Bianca and I have said on numerous occasions, if you’re not including ALL of the 8 essentials, you’re not doing PBL. You might be doing elements of, but not the actual ‘thing’, ugh.

You will see that I have also attempted to give a weekly run down of what the class is expected to be doing. This is, of course, fairly vague and open ended because project-based learning is considerably less teacher driven and students are expected to have greater ownership over the learning process. If the program had a massive chart of explicit lessons, it would look like a traditional unit of work, not PBL.

To give an example of what I’m on about, I’ll briefly explain what’s happening with my current K/1 project which has unexpectedly become bigger than Ben Hur.

Last term we were working on some imaginative stories for a class of students in Wagga Wagga, NSW. I went overseas, the class over in Wagga were very slow in communications, and the project kinda went downhill. When I returned I started thinking about how I could ‘rescue’ the project and still keep it PBL. I decided to share the stories with Bianca’s year 7 class and we are going to publish them as a compilation of short stories with illustrations made by her class. We’ll be sharing them with our local libraries.

As we’ve an assembly item approaching, I thought it would be nice to perform one of the stories for the school. We have chosen our story and started practising and making costumes and props. I have had close to zero creative control over the process of costume and prop creation, aside from making a couple of templates for dragon wings and some of the complex Sellotape engineering required in order to keep them intact. You can see some of the works in progress below. What my little 5 and 6 year old students have done has truly astounded me. Powerful, student-driven #PBL #FTW.

No amount of lessons plans could have predicted that this!

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What’s the best design for a dragon trap? Introduction to PBL.

Today, Bianca and I went out to the Novotel at Rooty Hill to run a couple of workshops on project-based learning for the staff at Model Farms High School. We got there about an hour late due to a mix up with the directions, so the two workshops actually ended up being one massive workshop with around 50 attendees, lulz, but this is how it went.

As usual, we wanted the session to be hands on and to engage the learners in the process of PBL. This time, however, rather than getting teachers to see PBL through the eyes of a teacher by designing a hypothetical project for their students as we might usually do, we decided to have our learners see PBL through the eyes of a student. We did this by giving those present a Driving Question to guide their inquiry and having them design, create and pitch a product in order for them to demonstrate their learning  in response to that DQ – just like students do in PBL.

Of course, we ran through what project-based learning actually is, and Bianca gave her characteristically awesome presentation running through the 8 essentials from BIE, some tried and tested of our project outlines and examples of student work. We also ran through our preferred Discover, Create, Share model, pioneered by Jimbo and tested in primary school by myself and others. But what did exactly did we get attendees to do? Design a dragon trap, of course!

To complete the task, teachers had to pitch their design to Bianca and I at the end of the session. To facilitate and authenticity and significance of the task, we reluctantly assumed the roles of CEOs for Dragon Keepers Inc. We also generously provided a cheque for $1,000,000 to be awarded to the team with the best design – lulz.

The project outline for the day is posted below, along with some examples of the wonderful work of our magnificent students. We were honestly blown away by the creativity and ingenuity that came out in the designs, and by the collaboration, critical thinking and communication skills that were displayed throughout the whole process. People really were researching and discussing dragons and how to catch them, keep them alive (or kill them) and how best to pitch their finally decided upon best design!

We both walked away feeling that most present were thoroughly engaged and enthusiastic about their learning, walked away with a greater understanding of project-based learning and, perhaps just as importantly, definitely came out with some sticky learning about dragons and how to trap them. Well done, #FutureLearningTeam!

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Minecraft mobs and digital citizenship

Last week, I (at last) got around to working in Minecraft with my class. It really is an exciting milestone for me as it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Also, it’s related to a writing project (The #20WC/#30WC/#50WC) that I started with my class, and which has grown over the course of the year. You can check out what my class has done here.

Basically, kids write about the stuff we are doing in class, share it with an audience, and we get feedback from there to help guide us in what we should do next. I try to give my students a writing focus, but mostly this focus is to be interested in learning and writing. The kids have their own blogs, and these are commented on by kids from all over the country and around the world.

I love them all, but am particularly stoked on this one by a visiting kinder kid who came to my class this week for just two sessions.

The way it works is that students tell me what they plan to be building in Minecraft, they write it down in their books, I help them edit it, then they draft a post before checking it, correcting it and publishing it. After they have done this they get some time to work on their builds in Minecraft before coming back and writing another post about what they have been doing.

It’s been very engaging for both myself and the kids as I like to be in Minecraft building with them also. For instance, the kids kept getting lost when going between each others buildings, so I built a cobblestone pathway between them all and placed signs displaying who was building where – scaffolding at its best! You can see some screenshots of our fledgling K/1L World below.

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Something quite amusing happened this week, which was actually also quite serious form a six year old’s (or a teacher who knows anything about Minecraft) point of view – one of my students decided to spawn a wither! For anyone who doesn’t know what a wither is, it’s basically a three-headed skeleton boss mob which floats around shooting exploding skulls at anything it sees. They actually take a bit of effort to spawn – you need to find soul sand, place it in an upstanding ‘T’ and then place a wither skull on top. This kid knew what he was doing!

You can see the destruction they are capable of below. I spawned one in my own personal world and it went around shooting at all of the NPCs and other mobs that were hanging around. I tried to kill it with a diamond sword and the fight went on well into the Minecraft night – lulz.

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The incident in which one of my students spawned a wither actually provided an opportune ‘teaching moment’ in regards to digital citizenship and the effects that your personal online/virtual behaviours can have on the others with whom you are sharing that space. Immediately upon hearing, “Mr. Hewes! Student A has spawned a wither!”, I rushed over to the computer, shut Minecraft down and gathered students together to have a class discussion on digital citizenship.

I explained that withers are very destructive and that spawning one introduced the possibility that all of our hard work building could go to waste. I explained that no one would be allowed to reenter K/1L World until we figured out how to get rid of it, knowing fully that all I had to do was switch Minecraft over to peaceful mode and then back again. We discussed how what we do within K/1L World has effects on everybody else in the class and that we have to act responsibly. We discussed how the wither had already caused damage to another student’s home.

The kid who spawned the wither apologised to the class and we told him that we forgave him. He agreed to write a blog post explaining what had happened, that he realised it was a bad idea and to write what he had learned from the experience. In his post he is going to explain:

What happened.

Why it was not the best idea.

What I have learned.

The beginnings of that post is below:

I spawned a wither and it killed T’s home.

The wither destroyed some of the world. 

I learned…

I am currently about to start pushing kids a little bit harder for a greater quantity of writing. So I might get him to write at least 3 sentences for each section to make it his most epic blog post yet (I’m a meanie). Then he can get back in and play!


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Project walls in the #PBL classroom.

Anyone who reads any of the stuff I post online would probably be aware by now that I’ve been getting into project-based learning for quite some time. One of things that I’ve found useful on this journey is having an active project wall for each of my class projects. I’ve found that project walls are a valuable reflective tool that increase engagement in the learning process for both students and teachers alike, and something that we constantly refer back to, even when the project has finished. As it’s something I like to do, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on how I go about this process.

Initially, obviously, you need a bare wall. It should be completely empty at the start of a project IMO because at this stage no inquiry has taken place and everything is new. From here I like to put up the project outline and the driving question. It needs to be as colourful and visually appealing as possible in the primary classroom cos let’s face it, no one wants to look at a boring wall.

Early last year, in Michael’s classroom, I had a little tiny project wall happening. Here are some photos. I’ve lost access to later ones which show the final thing (perhaps there are some on Instagram) but this is how we started.

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In the photo above you can see an example of the interactive project wall with the KWL I put up with Michael’s class to help us decide where to head with the project.

Later last year, when I moved over to MEPS to work with Ashleigh, we had a larger wall and really began to use it more interactively. We put up the project outline, as mentioned above, and would constantly refer back to it as a means of formative assessment, looking at which stage of the project we were at, which of our inquiry questions had been answered, which might need to be revisited, and from there, where to go next. We’d cross off (or circle) what we had done and use that information to decide where we were headed.

For this project, we also started using a collaboration rubric which was also posted on the project wall and referred to when were engaged in team work or collaborative activities. I’ve posted about this before, so if interested, you can dig back through earlier posts to see how that went. Sadly, the photos of this wall are saved on an external hard drive in an iPhoto library which lags terribly when I try to access the photos. I can now understand why some have significant gripes with storing images in this type of library and must look into alternative storage.

Anyway, I feel that this year my walls have really taken on a life of their own. Below is a photo of the project wall for my term 1 ‘Awesome Aussie Animals’ project. I’m particularly proud of it, and we still actively use it in class.

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This is the finished product, but as you can see from the photos of Michael’s wall, the whole thing starts off bare, and grows as the project progresses from start to finish. On the wall above you can see the project outline on the left, the Driving Question down the bottom, and a whole bunch of student work everywhere else. The little words posted everywhere are a bunch of student generated nouns, verbs and adjectives that we learned throughout the project and we still refer to them as we revise these grammatical features for use in our other writing. The laminated pictures on the right of the wall are the slides we used for our final product, a series of paper slide videos made for a kindy class over in Indiana.

There is also a teamwork rubric on this wall, with student developed criteria, that we still actively use in class, so yeah, some things move from class to class, year group to year group.

At the moment I’m in the process of rescuing a creative writing project that went awry last term as I left to go overseas about halfway through. This is a wall still in development.

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Persuasive writing requires critical thinking. Model that.

I’ve been pushing my year one students through a collaborative writing challenge for most of this year. It started off as the #20WC (20 word challenge), where they each had to write 20 words to a visual prompt posted to our class website. To begin with, all I asked of my students was that they merely described what they saw in the prompt. As we moved into term 2 and started looking at creative writing, I pushed them a little further and asked them to write little stories, and at this point it became the #30WC. At the moment we’ve got to the #50WC and we’re looking at constructing persuasive texts. Mainly because we hadn’t done this before and I knew that it would challenge them and make them think.

I guess that’s the operative clause – “make them think.”

The educational interwebz is awash with terms such as ’21st century learner’, ‘innovator’, ‘problem solver’ and ‘collaborator’, ‘critical and creative thinker’. Incidentally, they’re in the Australian Curriculum too.

Fantastic. But how do we model and teach these things?

I dunno. But this is how I tried to get my little  year one kiddiez thinking critically this term.

Wait, I just wanna say something first. For whatever reason, some might shy away from teaching persuasive writing to kids this age, and the syllabus requires only that they do this: 

plans, composes and reviews a small range of simple texts for a variety of purposes on familiar topics for known readers and viewers (EN1-2A)

this: 

identifies how language use in their own writing differs according to their purpose, audience and subject matter (EN1-7B)

or this: 

thinks imaginatively and creatively about familiar topics, ideas and texts when responding to and composing texts (EN1-10C)

However I know what my students are capable of and I’m a firm believer that if the syllabus is restrictive, we should teach to the child and not to the syllabus. 

Anywayz, back to my class. 

I used a visual prompt as I have been doing for most of the year, the one below from my recent trip to majestic Yosemite National Park. I freaking LOVE that place. I almost cried when I first entered a couple of years ago. 

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We discussed the picture at great length, using as many adjectives as we could muster up to describe the beauty in front of our eyes on the IWB – #Lulz. We spoke about how the air and water looked clean, the trees were lush and healthy, the mountain was beautiful, the stream looked inviting, the meadow would be awesome to play in. We discussed all of the animals that might live there, whether it snowed in the winter and many similar such things.  

Below the picture on our class website I entered the statement, “We must care for nature.”

I asked my students if they agreed, and why/why not?

I explained that persuasive writing has the purpose of trying to ‘change somebody’s mind’ or ‘convince them’ or to ‘make them believe’ something. 

Now, I’m not sure that I did this the right way around, but from here we looked at the Pigeon books by Mo Willems. If you’re a teacher of the early years and you don’t know about these books, I sincerely question where you have been hiding in the last several years. 

Anyway, the pigeon is a somewhat clumsy practitioner in the art of persuasion. He tries to get the reader to let him stay up late, drive a bus, buy him a puppy, and a range of other things by providing a whole swag of peculiar and amusing reasons.

We went back to the books in which he tries to get the reader to let him drive the bus and we pulled out the reasons he offered in his attempts at persuasion. We did the same with the ‘Pigeon wants a Puppy’ book. We then went back to the photo of Yosemite and produced some reasons, both ‘for’ and ‘against’ caring for nature. I reminded the class of The Lorax, another book that we LOVE. We spoke about what the world would be like if we didn’t look after all of the beautiful places in the world. 

We spoke about Thneeds and Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp.

I then told them that it was their turn to persuade me that we either should, or should not care for for nature. All but one of the students chose the affirmative, the one who chose the negative ended up getting really confused and stressed out and it turns out he’ll be starting again, probably changing his position to make it easier on himself.

To give them some structure and something to aim for, I told them that they needed to give me 3 reasons to support their argument and wrote: 

I think [(or believe) that we (should or shouldn't) care for nature]
(I actually only wrote ‘I think’)

1. 

2.

3.

on the whiteboard and I sent them off to get writing. 

Now of course, this wasn’t easy for them and, of course, I went around and helped all of my students as they crafted their works. For a couple of the students in my class I told them that they didn’t have to do this and that they could write whatever they wanted. However the rest worked really hard over the course of a few sessions this week and it was awesome to see them getting their heads around the form. 

One of my students has written her second draft and is up to the stage where she can type it on to her google presentation to share with our mates The Outback Turtles up in North Star and on the interwebz. This is what she has written. 

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Pretty fantastic for a 6 year old if you ask me. 

Now, the rest of my students are at various stages of crafting. Some have almost finished their drafts, some are going to go back and start from the beginning. I do know, however, that all of them will get this done and be well on their way to being masters of persuasion – muhahaha. 

We’re going to continue our journey as the term rolls out, and I can’t wait to see how their writing develops. I’m not going to model that they write it in any particular way, I’m going to model thinking critically about things and experimenting with the different ways we can get our point across. 

Below is another Mo Willems character, Amanda’s Alligator. He has his thinking cap on. K/1MEPS are gonna keep their critical thinking caps on at all times.

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I’ve no idea if this was the right way to go about it. 

I’ve no idea if I was ‘explicit’ enough – probably not.

All I know is that I’m extremely proud of the work that my students are doing, with the effort and enthusiasm they apply to their learning and that I think they should be extremely proud, too.

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Final photo credit: from the Instagram account of the Buck Institute for Education. Word.


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Observation at another PBL school: a kinda ‘out-of-body experience’.

Today was a great day. Bianca and I were lucky enough to be asked to visit the International Football School on the Central Coast. The IFS is a recently established independent school with a focus on project-based learning and, as the name suggests, football – and when I say football, I mean the type of football which many of us call soccer.

Basically, kids who attend IFS are kids who have demonstrated a strong interest in and talent for soccer and are committed to training every day in the interest of pursuing a career in soccer. They train for two hours every morning, under the tuition of professional soccer coaches before going to class to learn the NSW syllabuses under a project-based learning pedagogy.

Bianca and I were asked to visit the school for the day to share our own approaches to and experiences of project-based learning, before observing classroom practice to give general feedback and suggestions.  I enjoyed the informal, casual approach to the day, the learning that I witnessed occurring and, perhaps most selfishly, the opportunity to be in a PBL classroom other than my own and see first-hand how this works.

Below is the brief and informal presentation I gave to Shane, Karen and Todd in the morning to introduce myself. Basically we just spoke about of some of the reasons for doing PBL, things that should be included when planning a great project, and some outlines of projects I’ve either done or am doing, before jumping straight into teaching and learning.

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XRtcey-8xTZhuVm-sfjYcOmksLRuiMiEztvdqK7rkXU/edit?usp=sharing

The project that Shane, Karen and their students are working on atm is based around getting kids to design and develop their own ‘Sideshow Alley’ – the kind of thing you see at places like the circus or Luna Park where you get to place ping pong balls into clowns’ mouths and throw darts at balloons. The students, all in stage 3, have to research and design their own versions of these games, build them, before advertising, promoting and hosting their own sideshow alley for the younger kids at the school.

I was honestly impressed with what I saw. The enthusiasm, engagement and self-direction of the students was fantastic. If I were to offer any word of constructive criticism for Karen and Shane, it would be to consider how they could make the audience for their project more public. Perhaps by approaching a local operator of a business similar to a sideshow alley, Timezone or something.

Anyway, I should probably address my somewhat hyperbolic ‘out-of-body experience’ reference.

For me, visiting Shane and Karen’s classroom felt very much akin to that. It seems that there are increasingly more educators leaning toward PBL here in Australia, all at different levels of knowledge, expertise and experience. There’s no official ‘training agency’ for PBL and I think that’s the way it should always be.

PBL is about inquiry, and the very nature of inquiry is that you don’t have any or many of the answers. So you can never be an expert at inquiry unless you are willing to admit that you know very little. To be an ‘expert’ at PBL, you have to be an expert of the, “I know very little” mindset.

Another thing about PBL is that as a teacher you are constantly moving around. There is constant discussion, chatter, collaboration and noise. You’re involved and invested in all of this and, at times, not entirely sure of where all of it is heading. It can sometimes feel quite chaotic and it’s not until the project is finally over that you have some time to thoroughly reflect on how it all went.

Today, observing was a release from that. I was able to watch other PBLers in action, to speak to the kids and teachers, to learn with them and from them; to watch, listen, engage with and feel what it’s like to be in a PBL classroom. It was like having a bird’s eye view of my own class – an ‘out-of-body-experience’.

Coming from MEPS, I was also interested in how students were engaging with the open and flexible learning spaces. You can see some photos below. I particularly liked the spaceship table that the students had set up for collaborative learning.

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Later,  I visited the stage 2 classroom. I’d introduced Todd to genius hour earlier in the morning and he was enthusiastic about the concept. So much so that he decided to launch it with his class straight away.

After lunch at IFS, students have a bit of  ‘quiet time’. Today, this took place in terms of independent, personal interest research – AKA #geniushour, #AdventureTime, or whatever else you want to call it. I walked into a class of learners researching their genius hour projects and this is some of what I saw.

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I also saw students independently researching spiders, football players, basketball, NRL, Minecraft, fortune-tellers and dinosaurs.

Next,  students showed me some shelter designs for their ‘Survivors’ project. You can see them below.

 

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Take from this what you will. I took a further enthusiasm for learning.

 

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