On Not Solving Problems

I’m writing today at the tail end of a National Writing Project Building New Pathways for teacher Leadership Convening in New Orleans.  For the last year, I’ve been working with a smart team of NWPeeps to think about the role of badging and micro credentials in supporting new pathways for teacher leaders in the National Writing Project network.  It’s been powerful work for me as I’ve been trying to understand how best to help the network help local sites to create new and strong pathways to bring people into the network.

New people. In new ways. It’s been about asking ourselves and each other what it is that has made the traditional pathway into NWP leadership – the Invitational Summer Institute – work so well. In asking that question, the work has also been framed around how to create new opportunities and experiences for folks who should be in the network to be in it.

But asking that question can be scary – because in a way it’s saying that there will be writing project people who are in the network who didn’t come in the same way that others did.

Of course, nobody came to the NWP in the same way. It just feels like maybe we did.

The last couple of paragraphs probably won’t make much sense to anyone who isn’t familiar with the way that NWP, a national network of near 200 sites, works. Local sites are university-school partnerships that stand up opportunities for writing together, asking hard questions, and developing teachers to become better teachers of writing.

And the role of the National Writing Project is slippery, though not in a bad way. It’s slippery in the same way any governing organization of organizations is. Loose ties and local contexts mean different ways forward. I regularly forget that.

And as I was listening to teachers and professors share their experiences of trying to “create the magic” of their writing project site for new audiences, in new ways, using some new tools, I heard a couple of phrases I want to remember.

One was my friend Tanya sharing that there are a couple of ways to think about what it means to be a resource to others1. It might be that you look out into the world and see a group of folks and say, “Hey. I can fix you. I can make you better.  You need what we’ve got.”  Think traditional PD. We know what you need. Come and get it.

But there’s a second way to think about it. “Hey,” you might say as you look out into the world and at yourselves and see that there’s a group or perspective missing from your organization, or that there’s an audience that’s new that you might should be in conversation with, “That’s a group that is interesting and isn’t here.”

What you might say next then, is, this: “We need you. We’d be better if you were here and we were there a little bit.”

That’s a better way. I don’t know what you need, but maybe I need you. Let’s get better together.

Another piece I want to remember from this week, and likely keep learning and forgetting as I work again and again with the National Writing Project. As I look back from when I entered the network as an early career teacher, and as I look ahead now as someone doing work as a representative of the NWP in multiple ways, this is the thing I forget.

It’s not that my work at the national level is to make you like me. It’s not my work to solve your problem. My work is to help you remember what’s important and special and true about our shared experiences and work. My work is to help you remember just enough of that, and to help you explore how you can solve your problem yourself. Because it turns out you can.

And then you need to help me solve mine, and to remember all the stuff I worked to help you do. Because I’m going to need your help to help me do the same thing.

The work of the NWP isn’t transactional. It’s not measured in deliverables.  It’s generative. It creates the opportinity and capacity for you to solve the next challenge, and to head out on a new path, and to help the next group of folks solve their next series of challenges. Then rinse and repeat.

We’ll never be done, but we can sure make things better. I forget that in new projects and rush to get into problem solving mode. That’s not quite the right way to do it, and I’m always frustrated for myself for forgetting and grateful for the network for the reminder.

One last takeaway from this meeting for me. When I came to the badging work, I got really excited to make some badges, and build out some pathways. That was, it turns out, the wrong way forward. The better way, which it took us a while to figure out, was to instead ask the network a very hard question. Rather than making badges, we needed to ask the network was with important, what wasn’t, and how we tell the difference.

The answer to that question has turned out to be far more useful than any badge I could’ve made. Our team will spend the next year planning out how to continue to educate the network about itself. What a neat thing to get to do.

  1. She didn’t say it quite like I’m about to – the good ideas are hers, and I’ll likely screw it up a bit – but know that she’d say it better. []
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Badges. #nwpleads Badges.

I’m writing this morning from the last morning of the Building New Pathways Working Meeting, which stopped being a Listening Retreat and became the Working Meeting at around 10:30am yesterday, as the larger group of assembled National Writing Project leaders headed home and a smaller subset of the group stayed to begin their work as action teams, tasked with synthesizing the stuff we heard, and additional needs and experiences of the network, into something tangible for local sites to use to build new pathways for leadership in their work.

There are two working teams:

  • A Knowledge Base Team, tasked with curating and collecting and helping to make more visible, discussable and useful the many collected existing resources of the National Writing Project to help local sites think about and bring to life the work of building new pathways to leadership in the NWP.
  • A Badges Team, which I’m co-facilitating, tasked with identifying ways to use microcredentialling and badging to help local sites make visible and discussable (and actionable) some of the many, many characteristics of “NWP leaders” or “teacher leaders” or “educator leaders.”1 It might also be that badges are visible invitations to help people who wish to adopt a role of “NWP leader,” formally or informally, begin to explore and adopt that role.

Later this week, the NWP will release an RFP2 to provide some support to local sites who want to explore and develop some new pathways to leadership, too. Neat stuff. Prototypes. Design sprints. Massive success and failure potential all at the same time. Hooray, bravery!

Our tasks are great.  While we’ve got two years to develop the things we were tasked to make, we’ll be sprinting our way to drafts that the network can see, review, and critique and improve every few months along the way.  There are many paths we could take through this work, but  sometimes the hardest part isn’t following the path to  the finish line – it’s finding a place to start.

So we’re working today to identify some of our roads into the work. Already, the intersection of experiences, expertise and thoughtfulness has provided useful friction to modify how I’m thinking about the right place to start, and the right checkpoints along the way. Pretty cool.

Though I’m humbled by the work ahead, I’m excited today to work with thoughtful colleagues, friends, and new friends, to build tools and resources to support leadership in and beyond the NWP today and tomorrow.  Putting smart people from all over into the same spaces to work through difficult problems of practice matters.  It’s important.  It’s how pathways get built.

Deep breath.  Here we go.

  1. It’s tricky to get the right words to talk about the people, both in and out of school, who work to, as Ben Bates said it so well yesterday, “Work to develop young people.” Those folks are the allies in this work, and the types of leaders I’m thinking and talking about. []
  2. Yeah. You know me. []
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Me, #nwpleads, and 2 Metaphors for NWP Leadership

The Greatest American Hero (13948198067)
I’m working this week from Austin, Texas, where I’m at the Building New Pathways event with the National Writing Project. One of my more interesting consulting projects right now is working on this project, a deep dive into how we build and sustain new pathways for leadership development in the local sites, and the national network, of the National Writing Project. I’m co-facilitating a piece of this work, with my emphasis on helping to think through how we can identify and help others to identify and build the attributes that are essential for NWP leaders.

We’re defining “NWP leaders” broadly. Earlier today, Executive Director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl asked us to think of NWP leaders as those who are entitled to do work in the name of the Writing Project.

We’ve talked about many things, and you should follow along if you’re able and interested. There’s a Yammer group where much of the conversation and work so far is being collected and discussed, and the conversation is on Twitter as well under the hashtag #nwpleads.

I’ve thought a lot these last few weeks of what we hold to be the essential characteristics of “National Writing Project people.” For some, this means people who have been through the traditional entry point for NWP Teacher Consultants – the Invitational Summer Institute. For others, it means people who have glommed onto, into, or through projects sponsored or inspired by NWP principles, people and ideas.

I’m struggling with how to think about what an “NWP leader” is, how we know, and how one can enter into thinking of themselves or others in such terms. Jim Gray is heavily on my mind. So is the notion of what’s the “minimum viable NWP leader.” And metaphors abound as I try to think about these things. Is NWP leadership, NWP-ness, something that is learned? Lived? Experienced? Grown? Developed? Inoculated?1

Plenty of questions, and as this is a project I’m committed to for the next couple of years, I’m certain the blog will become a scratchpad for many of them. But right now, I want to get down some thinking about two metaphors in particular that are helping me think through leadership pathways and how we might recognize – or help others to recognize – what an “NWP leader” is.

The Greatest American Hero

I loved the TV show The Greatest American Hero when I was a little kid. I remember tying a blanket around my neck and “flying” around the living room while Joey Scarbury’s theme played from the 45 my parents bought me spinning on my record player. If you don’t know the premise of the show, it’s about a guy who is given a costume by some aliens. The costume gives him access to a wide collection of abilities and powers – super strength, flight, invisibility, telekinesis, etc. The only problem is, that the guy, who happens to be a special education teacher (at least when the show begins), doesn’t know how to make the suit work. And the manual, which the aliens gave him, is lost. So the normal guy is able to adopt a mantle, a superhero identity, but he’s never quite sure which powers he has, and which ones he will be able to draw upon, until he finds himself in a moment of need. Frequently, he’s able to call up the powers and abilities he needs. But not always. And sometimes, the abilities he expects to use to get him through a moment of crisis aren’t the ones that ultimately help him solve the problem.

Other times, the suit itself isn’t the thing that helps the teacher to be the hero.

Why in the world does this story work as a metaphor for me for leadership in the NWP? Here’re a few reasons:2

  1. The hero is the hero because he decides to be. No one forces Mr. H. to put on the costume. He chooses to, because he feels an obligation to adopt the identity of the hero, to help when he can, because that’s his theory of action in the world. Teachers and NWP leaders do similar things. They see a need and adopt a stance that says, yeah, I can do this.
  2. The costume is part of the identity – but it’s up to the wearer to choose the abilities that emerge from the chosen identity.
  3. There’s nothing “special” about Mr. H., except that he chooses to be the hero, or the leader. Others can wear the costume, can assume the identity of “super” or “hero” or “leader.” The power is partly in the costume, but it’s also in choosing to put it on. We can all choose to wear the costume, or to pick up tools. It’s what we do after we’ve chosen to do something that things get interesting.
  4. Even with the suit, things can get messy. The powers don’t always work, or work in the way we intend them to.
  5. You’re not a hero, or a leader, even with great power or amazing tools, unless you choose to be. And you can still choose to lead without access to the costume or the tools.

D&D Character Sheet (for an NWP-er)

Another way to think about the capacities and attributes of leaders in the NWP is to think about a character sheet for a role-playing game. What is “NWP leader,” but a role one has chosen to adopt? And when it comes to characters in role-playing games, it’s helpful to think about attributes that are necessary for all, but can exist in differing levels or degrees. All D&D characters have strength and agility – but each character starts with a different number for these abilities. Wizards are often smarter than warriors. But warriors are stronger than wizards. And even once we’ve chosen a class or character type, we can choose to specialize. Maybe we adopt the identity of a rogue. And we want to be good at lockpicking or stealth. So we choose to adopt those abilities through training and/or experience. And those abilities grow over time. But we can’t choose all of the abilities. In D&D, choosing one character type may open or close doors on the types of experiences that we adopt and/or can grow.

And in a good D&D adventure, it’s not one character facing the adventure – it’s a party. A group of players has to have several different character types to be successful. You need a tank who can take lots of damage, and a healer or two to help recover. Maybe that thief to pick some locks. And a ranger who can see in the dark. It’s not that you need all the types in all the situations. You pick your party sometimes through chance, and other times through intentional selection of roles and attributes that you believe will be helpful in the adventure you’re about to face.

But you’ve got to have a party. You’ve got to have a network.3

In both metaphors, there’s lots to consider to help me think through both what it takes to be an “NWP leader,” as well as lots of problems. Metaphors will only take you so far. But they can be helpful lenses for thinking through what’s bedrock, as Nicole Mirra has been calling core NWP leader attributes. What are the core attributes that every NWP leader has to have to be a member of the NWP “tribe?”
And what are the ones that you want distributed throughout the network, but not necessarily embedded deeply in every member? What are the skills and attributes and pathways that folks might want to dig into as they grow as characters in the network? What pathways do you want to emphasize? What skills and attributes do you want to nurture and develop in the network, but allow individuals to choose to develop for themselves or their parties?

What do you believe makes an “NWP leader” or a “teacher leader” either of those things? How do you know, how can you “prove” it, and how might we share that knowledge with others?

  1. All of these seem viable metaphors in some way. []
  2. And for my purpose here, let’s use “hero” and “leader” synonymously, even though I prefer models of servant leadership to ego-driven, “hero” leaders who save the day. But leadership and saving the day, moving the ball, etc., are often the same thing. []
  3. And, in the case of D&D, someone else builds the character sheet template that the gamers use as a tool. And then the DM and the players create the game together – so things get complicated quickly, and the rules on paper are only useful until they aren’t. That’s when good players improvise. []
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Making a Maker Space. Again.

At the library, I’m working with a team of really smart folks who want to offer the best opportunities for our patrons1.

One of the reasons I wanted to work with the Clearview Library District was the intensity with which they run programs and events. They – now we – are always hosting active, hands-on maker-y events. We were doing maker programming before it was cool, and we want to scale it up.

One of the biggest constraints on the library at present is the lack of physical space for all the events and activities we do. And as we want to expand our active, hands-on programming, that’s a problem.  Taking down.  Setting up.  Rinse.  Repeat.  And more activities and events than we have spaces to put them in.

We want a permanent makerspace of some kind. Two questions:
1. What do we want?
2. Where in the world will we put it?

IMG 2058This morning, at the #COMakerEd event, we decided for a few minutes to ignore the second question, and focus on the first, working through a quick ideation cycle to brainstorm as a team what we’d like to see. Because we support making of many types at the library – crafting, painting, gaming, robotics, cooking, etc – and we want to include more – the team realized that we need to build some spaces that privilege the types. But the genius idea2 below is the idea to build a workspace in the middle that’s common to all interests.

One of the greatest assets of the library, the public library, is the public. We have such a wide variety of people with varying interests, passions and expertise. And at the library, they can mingle and intersect. The best projects, I suspect, will emerge from and within the diffusion of interests that can occur in a common work area. Different folks and different passions. Mixing it up.

We’ve got to solve the second question, and we’re working on it. But I’m so pumped to work in a place that wants to build and support spaces like these.

  1. I’m still getting used to calling the people I serve “patrons.” But I like it. []
  2. I had stepped out of the room when the sketch on the corner of this photo was made. []
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When Programming Becomes Persuasion

It’s probably a month or two ago now that I was talking with my friend Ben about programming and some of the work that he’s exploring and that I’m involved in.

There’s a project in my school district, folks working to figure out how to encourage computer science as the “fourth r” alongside reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic. We are looking to see where computer science and programming live in our district habits and practices while we encourage teachers to incorporate principles of CS into their daily work.

And Ben’s all over top of projects that seek to bring programming as a skill and a habit to students from early elementary through high school.

But if you know me, you know I spend a lot of time wondering what’s new about the new stuff, and why the foundations we’ve already said we value are insufficient to incorporate the flavor du jour, whether it’s apps or programming or STEM or whatever. Most of the new, I’m certain, is covered in what we claim to value already.1

In talking with Ben, I wasn’t quite able to articulate some of my beef with programming and computer science as a new collection of knowledge that we already emphasize and value. Let me see if I can do a better job here.

Alan Turing, more than fifty years ago, made a case for how and when we’ d know that computers were thoughtful. Instead of asking “Can we tell if computers can think?” he fiddled with the question a bit. His question was something like “If a computer is talking to us, and we can’t tell it’s a computer, then that computer is clever enough to be confused with a person.” 2

If the singularity is fast approaching, and if the computers we grow closer and closer to are able to both respond to and decipher voice commands, how far away from a time and place are we when programming (coordinating and sequencing a series of steps that leads a machine to perform some work we’ve asked it to do) is really not at all functionally different from us asking someone to step into the next room and bring us a glass of water (coordinating a person to perform some work we’ve asked them to do)?

Is programming a new task, one of teaching oneself to speak an entirely alien language? Or is it an old skill – one of persuasion? How about a hybrid – language learning and linear thinking? Are we better served to distract attention from these old skills we say we value, or to find room for the new stuff in the middle of the old we already have too little time to work with?

And is programming itself a transitional skill? How long before it’s truly a persuasive task, rather than a language one?

I dunno. But I do know that an “hour of code” is a tease and not a rich, fulfilling experience. And that “covering” programming isn’t really enough.

How are you finding room for the best of the old and new in your work? And do you find programming to be a new set of stuff, or more of the valuable old?

  1. The trick is that we claim in our words and creeds more than we honor with our time. That’s not an empty critique – it’s really hard to squeeze all the important stuff in. []
  2. He and others have done much more articulate and thoughtful work on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, but go with me on the gist of the idea. []
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“Don’t Use the iPad Just to Use the iPad”

Tonight, we held our first in a series of informal meet ups intended to help build collegiality and shared expertise around being a 1:1 school district. Michelle named these events iPad Geekouts, or, for short, iGO.

During tonight’s event, I was responsible for facilitating some sharing and conversation around shifts and issues relating to technology and classroom management. In the group who came to the session was a seventh grader who is working on a design project intended to help the district think about our technology planning and implementation process from a student perspective1.
To close the session, I asked her to share some advice to the group about what she wished her teachers either would or wouldn’t do when it comes to technology in the classroom.
She thought for just a second before she said, and I’m quoting from memory:

Don’t use the iPad just to use the iPad. Have a purpose behind it. Have us use the technology to be interactive. Or to do something we couldn’t do without it. But not just because you want to say we used the iPads.

That’s pretty much the best advice ever. Our students can tell when we are faking it, so let’s make sure we’re not faking it.

How are you working to make sure that you’re using the right tools for the right jobs in your teaching and learning?

  1. I love that our CIO has enlisted a student group to provide intentional feedback on our process and implementation. []
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Learning is Complicated

“Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing.”  – Paul Franz at _The Atlantic_.

Software isn’t really meant to take the place of someone who cares about you and wants to work with you to succeed.  Unless we only care enough to pretend that we care.  

You know?

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Talking iPads and Intention

A little while back, I had the opportunity to discuss our iPad 1:1 work with my friend and colleague, Antero Garcia.  He wrote up the conversation and posted the video.  Take a peek.

Be sure to read his comments about the conversation over at DML Central. I really hope we get the chance to continue the conversation.  Let us know what we should focus on in future videos in the comments.

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On Coaching and Choice

We’re reading Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight together as a large team at work.  This is the third post in my series on that reading and reflection.

This month’s chapter is on coaching, both the role of the coach and the practices and habits an instructional coach can use to make a difference in his or her work.   As someone who’s often in a coaching role, I found the broad strokes of the chapter useful, both as reminder and as a bit of a challenge for thinking through.  

What are instructional coaches, according to Knight?  Well, they’re folks who “partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based practices into their teaching.” Also, the “partner with teachers to help them incorporate instructional practices into their teaching.” (Kindle location 1837)

The thread of choice was woven through the chapter for me, too.  Here’re some choice1 quotes: 

If a coach and teacher come together as equal partners, the teacher must have choices.  Partners don’t do the choosing for each other.  In coaching, this means, most fundamentally, that teachers have a choice about whether or not they want to work with a coach. . . . choice does not mean that teachers can choose to not participate in professional meaning.  No professional can choose to be unprofessional. (1872)

When professionals are told what to do and when and how to do it, with no room for their individual thoughts, that is a spiritual death experience.(1900)

And this, though not directly about choice, seems particularly relevant to my thinking about coaching and the choices that coaches should make:

When coaches focus on capacity building, there are tasks they do not do.  Usually coaches do not sub when teachers are away, do administrivia, or work directly with students except in the service of the larger goal of promoting teacher growth.  Certainly, there are occasions when these general guidelines are ignored.  Just as a principal may be forced to sub if there in no other alternative, so might a coach.  However, this should occur very rarely. (1978)

A little later in the chapter, Knight points to some data that suggests that the coaches he has studied often report that they spend only between 10 and 25 percent of their time as “coaches” instead of the fill in tasks he describes above.  That’s troubling to me because either instructional coaches are making pretty terrible choices about how to spend their time, or (and I think this is much more likely) they are not in the place to choose how to spend that time to begin with.  While they should be advocates for choice for the teachers they work with, their own choices are quite limited.  

That leads me to my larger reflection on this chapter, which is that I find that the role of an instructional coach and the role of a classroom teacher are really quite similar, or should be.  The job of a teacher shouldn’t be to force change on a student, nor a coach to force change on a teacher.  It’s a partnership.  The whole endeavor of learning, as I see it, should be the development of agency in the individual.  And perhaps the problem of instructional leaders choosing to put their coaches in places of fill in is one of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a teacher/coach.  And that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t simply a misunderstanding in the mind of the leader – it’s a deeply cultural mess that we’re in because what we think “teaching” looks like isn’t really what good teaching looks like.

When a teacher is “teaching,”2 what is happening?  Does “teaching” mean the teacher is speaking?  I bet for most of us, that’s the first thought that pops into our heads.  But it shouldn’t be.  What about when a teacher is “listening?” Or “pausing?”  Or waiting patiently while monitoring a classroom writing assignment3?  I think much of what we consider “best practice” in teaching and what we think of when we think of a teacher “teaching” just don’t line up in our heads and hearts as they should.  

And so sometimes we make serious errors in judgment about what a teacher is or isn’t doing.  

I think about all of my friends and colleagues who are wicked nervous about new evaluations in Colorado and other places, and I understand some of their dilemma.  Whenever a principal came into my room to observe, I wanted to be doing something awesome so that they “saw me teaching.”   The problem is, no one learns much in a room when I’m doing all the talking.  The real learning happens when I turn students loose on a concept or problem or task.  But me monitoring a roomful of excited and engaged students isn’t what I wanted my principal to see – because it wasn’t “awesome teaching.”  Except that it was. 

Other teachers I know reschedule their thoughtfully planned lessons and timelines around evaluations so that the principal sees them “in action.”  That’s a problem, because the thoughtful planning and scheduling was done intentionally, for good reason.  And the change is for a crummy, “observing a thing changes it” sort of reason.  

This is a ramble, and only a little bit about coaching now, but that said, let me return to my role as an instructional coach for a second.  Sometimes, the best way I can be helpful to a teacher is to say nothing.  To do nothing.  To sit very quietly and let the words that just were spoken roll back over the speaker. Choosing to respond is a choice.  It’s often what “good teaching” looks like.  But choosing not to respond is also a choice, and should be honored more often.  

Because that’s better teaching, and better coaching, too. 

 

 

  1. Ahem. []
  2. Or a coach “coaching.” I’ll be using these terms interchangeably for the rest of this post. []
  3. Better still would be writing alongside the writing students. []
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"What Apps Should I Buy?"

It sure seems like, whenever I tell someone what it is I do, that somebody wants to tell me about the tablet they just bought. Then I’m immediately asked this question:

“What apps should I buy?”

And I guess I understand why. Once you’ve got a piece of hardware, then certainly you need to put software on it. And there are plenty of “Top 100 Apps for X” posts out there, getting passed along and around like the candy that they really, in almost all cases, are not. It’s pretty easy to think that apps are everything.

But the advice I usually give goes something like this:

I really don’t have a clue about what apps you should put on your tablet, because I don’t know why you bought it. I don’t know what it is that you want the tablet to do. So let me ask you a question back: “What is it you want to get done with the thing?” Then we can have a conversation about what software to buy.

I’ve found there are two common scenarios when it comes to how people put apps on tablets. The first is the app junkie. Constantly on the lookout for the new stuff, they’ve downloaded dozens, and in many cases, hundreds of apps to their tablet devices. They might have spent time organizing them into folders or screens. And they don’t use any of those apps, but they sure do have a bunch of them. Their home screen is like the bookshelf in the house of someone who wants to impress you with his or her reading habits. Plenty of books. Few of them read.

The other common scenario I find is the one I want more people to embrace. This one involves folks who, when they realize they have a particular thing they want to get done, or a purpose in mind, approach their respective app store and search for apps that do the thing they’d like to do. They read reviews. They ask friends. And when they pull the trigger on an app or two, they poke at that app once they’ve installed it, seeking to see if it’s really the thing for them. They don’t have a ton of software, but what they have gets used.

You should be the second type of person.

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