From the category archives:



It’s holidays, and the girls (almost 4 and 6) are miserable with a cold. So they asked if they could work on their book. They are snuggled together in my bed:

  • Using a book (Animalia) to get ideas for each letter.
  • 6 yr old is telling 4 yr old how to type the words into Neon Image Search on the iPad,
    • Making reasonable guesses on spelling with phonetics and environmental clues, then self-checking if they don’t get the expected pictures coming up.
    •  Choose one together and save it. duckling
  • Last time I used Fancy Pages to put the letters in, I’ll see if they want to have a go this time. Lion
  • Then they use WordFoto to choose a picture,
    • Come up with a sight word list for that letter and take turns typing them in
    • Take turns setting the style. horse

And there is their very own set of letter posters to put up around the place. It didn’t last that long, but they work on it a little at a time and move on while they are still happy.

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Standing Desk

My desk is currently covered in boxes, and I’m loving it.

I work at a little table that fits in the space between the window and the bookcase, opposite the lovely large table with the sewing machines on it. I use a laptop that sits directly on the desk and a cheap office chair. It’s crowded with paperwork, rubbish, cords and electronic equipment, things I looked up a while ago and random offerings from my children. I’m a fidgeter and I swing, wrap my legs around the chair base, lean sideways and twist.

None of this is ergonomic, and I’m used to waking up in the morning almost unable to walk because my back has set solidly. Sometimes I’m tempted to get a sling to support my right arm after a night of heavy mousing.

I knew I had to rearrange and get at least the basics right, when I was prompted by a blog post on standing desks. I’ve seen them talked about before in an educational setting, and as a science teacher I love the fact that I get high benches and stools. So I thought I’d try it out.

Two of the boxes I’ve been meaning to unpack from under the sewing table put my screen at exactly eye level. Some paper trays with a shelf on top and more with a favourite hard-cover picture book now hold my keyboard and mouse so my elbows are almost at 90 degrees – it’s not quite perfect. A cleared shelf of the book case holds boxes with all the sorted crap.

And I stand in front of them, rocking from foot to foot while I think, stepping back and considering, even a little pacing and handwaving while I work out the next paragraph. I swing, move, stretch and stand on one foot, then come back and stand in an ergonomic position while I type.

My shoulders are back and my back is straight – I don’t know if it’s even possible to slouch and type when you’re standing. And it’s definitely cut down on my procrastination – standing and flicking through Facebook just doesn’t have the same effect.

I do have sore feet and knees, about equivalent to when I started teaching and was standing all day. And just like teaching, decent shoes make a difference. It makes me appreciate sitting down to relax, but then I find myself fidgetting and want to spring to my feet again. (I don’t work full time, just at night or when my daughter is at preschool.)

The absence of stiffness in my neck is a revelation. I find myself stretching my neck and turning my head several times a day just to feel how freely it moves. I know this probably has more to do with the screen height than the standing but for God’s sake people, MOVE YOUR SCREEN UP TO EYE LEVEL NOW.

I am filled with an evangelical zeal and want to tell the sitting world to cast off their chairs and stand. And can you imagine how cool this would be in a classroom? Difficult to see, sure, most teenagers are taller than me. But look at all the energy they would use productively and possibly even healthily. The difference in perspective and focus I’ve discovered is huge, and I’m someone who loves my work. I could be really annoying for my next line manager.

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Another app I love. It’s designed for iPhone but works on iPad and I think some iPods too. It’s very simple, but beautiful things can be done.

All you do is open a picture in the app and choose or add a set of words. Then you get the fun bit, changing fonts, styles and colours. This is the bit where kids could waste a whole lot of time playing, but no more than they do with other visual media like paint or posters.

I made these examples using a combination of apps on my iPad:

Above, I used Image Search to find the apple and Fancy Pages to put it together with the text before putting it into WordFoto with simple sight words – A, and, an, apple.

Used Image Search to find the 5 picture then text, numeral, arithmetic and counters representing 5.

animal cell
A more complicated attempt, I used MediaSlate to draw the cell and Fancy Pages to label it before using the parts as my word set. I don’t actually think this would be a good classroom use – the text doesn’t really add anything to the diagram.

Mining ConsMining Pros
Again, used Image Search then straight into WordFoto.

So I have a series of pretty pictures and had a fun time. Is it useful or a time waster? I think useful – primates are, after all, visual creatures and the picture being a thousand words. I think it can let kids who can’t write well-reasoned essays explore emotional and analytical ideas. It can be a stimulus, a mnemonic or a fun way to begin and end a unit. A way of getting kids to use and practice words and tie them to something concrete rather than a list in a book.

Quick ideas for uses (and this is after a couple of days playing, I’m sure there are so many more):

  • Early readers building a word bank.
  • Encouraging use of adjectives and rich description eg developing characters or settings.
  • Vocab posters for a unit.
  • Understanding numbers – this does not not not not mean counting!
  • Remembering formulae and units in different forms.
  • Looking at pros and cons for things like Science in Society or SOSE.
  • Emotional response or exploration.
  • Summary of a business or enterprise – taglines or mottos.
  • Taking a position in an argument with brief reasons.
Can you think of more?


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Yes, spelling or at least vocabulary is important. But spelling tests are deadly dull and have no educational value – all they do is tell you which kids got the letters in the right order in that particular contrived circumstance. They don’t teach anything themselves except panic.

I do think there are circumstances where rote learning is valuable, my daughter is currently learning sight words. But you need to balance the usefulness of the activity against the time it is taking and make a decision on what is the best way for a particular class.

And never forgetting that outcomes need to be demonstrated in a variety of ways in a variety of contexts. Have you checked that the student who got 100% on the test is actually using the words correctly in everyday writing?

Assessment is not a mystery story – we are not trying to trick kids but allowing them to show off what they have learnt. So here are a few quick alternatives for assessing both spelling and the related knowledge. Every single one of them is open-ended, which means they will work for every kid in the class to have success at their own level.

  • Hangman
  • Each student spells a word of their choice and tells you what it means before they leave the classroom.
  • Use the words you’ve been learning to create a mind-map summary of your topic.
  • Have students find ‘families’ of words. This could be rhyming or blends families for younger kids or related words such as pentagon, hexagon, octagon.
  • Create their own crossword then exchange them.
  • Create acrostic poems using words you have been using in class.
  • Use Wordle to analyse your text or a student’s own work and use that to generate their own spelling list.
  • Either individually or in teams have students write as many words as possible they’ve learnt in the class and turn them into posters that can be displayed or added to.
  • Use the posters to divide the words into nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. Colour code them or create new posters.
  • Interactive posters, for example a poster with a large diagram and the labels are laminated, students put them on with string and bluetac.
  • Students complete a table with words in one column and the definitions in the second column then cut them out. Swap them with another student and unjumble them.
  • Have a round robin game where a pair of students give each other a word to spell then move to a new partner.
  • Give students the correct letters in scrabble pieces/magnets/blocks/cards to spell a list of words given orally, automatic self-checking if they have ones left over or run out of something.

How many more can you think of? Rather than a book full of spelling tests, why not a portfolio of individualised vocabulary activities?

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Because right now, we don’t. In fact most of us are still trying to work out what literacy in the information age actually is, let alone practice it or especially teach it.

The first step is to accept that this is truly a different world to the one you grew up in. It’s not just like it was but with better phones. We have the collective brain, early tricorders and skycars are under development. We have the ADHD attention span. Most important, for this discussion, we have independent mass publishing.

When you were a kid and wanted to know something you read it in a book or asked someone. There were occasional oddball books like Von Daniken, but generally they were pretty safe, in fact conservative. This is because books are a big investment for publishers so they are screened and vetted carefully. Then they have to be marketed, and the extreme fringe is, by definition, tiny. So it’s not worthwhile targetting them as your audience. As a further filter, you either had to shell out money for a book or get it from the library. Money is a great way of ensuring people think carefully about what they are reading, and public libraries have guidelines. That adds up to a lot of editorial layers making sure the book is reliable.

Asking someone could be more unreliable, especially because we are inherently more likely to trust people we know well enough to ask. But while in the past that could lead to pockets or lineages of ‘weird beliefs,’ it couldn’t usually spread far or fast, because you simply can’t reach that many people.

For me, the biggest effect of the Internet is the democratisation of information. I get my news through Twitter and learn from blogs. And I don’t mean the big commercial ones, why not keep an eye on my old field by following John Hawks? For educators, think of Teacher Tom or Dy/Dan out of hundreds of useful edublogs. And there’s the rub. How do you know which ones are useful?

Anyone can set up a blog. Design is getting easier, especially with so many themes already out there you don’t need to go for a premium or custom job to get something that looks professional. Hosting is everywhere and domains are incredibly cheap. For a hundred dollars, maybe two, you can look like a trustworthy professional organisation rather than a crackpot working alone in a grungy flat. And as yet there is no way for readers to check up on you, except by looking at the quality of your information and making their minds up for themselves. Which is easy if you already know something about the field, very hard if you don’t.

Which brings us back to those poor people looking for information.

Cue critical literacy

There are all sorts of skills that go into it to do with comprehension and spotting logical errors or inconsistencies. But one of the first things to ask yourself is

“Why should I trust this person?”

What clues are there, before you even listen or read, that tell you this person has good information –

  • Are they publicly backed by an organisation such as a university or government department that would have checked it for you?
  • Do they have relevant qualifications openly displayed?
  • Is there an easy way to contact them and ask questions and do you get answers?
  • Do they link or direct you to other reputable sites that have that information?
  • Do they back up their statements with evidence or is it all their opinion (rather like this post)? And what is the quality of their evidence?
  • Can you find out how they have dealt with or answered people who disagree with them?
  • Are they urging you to do something, and who will directly benefit from that?

Try it –

I’ll do this blog for you, shall I?

  • No, it’s a private blog.
  • Yes, see that ‘About‘ tab up the top?
  • Yes, contact tab off to the left and open comments. You can see answers on some of the comments.
  • Yes, lots of links off to the right and within posts. However you would have to check if they are reputable, there are no universities or education departments.
  • Mostly opinion, it’s a reflective blog after all!
  • It’s a fairly limited blog. You could follow the links to Science@home, which I’ve mentioned in the About page has been going much longer. It has some controversial posts, but you would have to look around a bit to find them. So while it’s not impossible, it would require some digging.
  • Not really. Be what I consider a better teacher? Your students would be the ones to benefit, and they’re almost certainly not my kids!
So it’s relatively reliable with some caveats – it’s designed to clarify and record my thinking and make you think, not give you facts.
Try it on another site the next time you are looking things up, it can be a very interesting exercise.

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Google +

Google plus is the new kid on the social media block and it’s growing explosively. However numbers of users only tells a small part of the story, as many of those users only joined up to check it out. Even the ones who like it are still fitting it into their routine and finding a place for it.

This is a good thing for teachers, because the exploration is throwing up all sorts of interesting ideas on ways to use it. And of course I’m going to add my suggestions to the clamour.

For me, Google + seems like a cross between Twitter and an old fashioned forum. Of course there is a bit of Facebook thrown in, but I’ve never used Facebook professionally. Overall I think it’s going to be great in the NT, because I think anything that makes it easier for teachers to connect and network with each other is a good thing.


–  Like Twitter, you can follow anyone you want without being approved. The caveat is that they need to be on it, and I’ve been a bit shocked at the number of people who either don’t have Google accounts or aren’t searchable. Doesn’t everyone these days have YouTube or Blogger or iGoogle or Gmail or Google Docs or Google Reader or Picasa or something? We keep being told that half the world has jumped onto Google +, so where is everyone I know? Weird.

–  If someone is following you but you aren’t following them, there is an ‘Incoming’ stream you can check them out with. Watch for a while and decide if you want to follow them back.

–  You can group people into Circles, but the advantage is actually that you can easily decide which circles to share with for every update. It would be quite easy to isolate yourself if you did it all the time, but occasionally being able to direct something to only specific people might stop you from boring everyone with the irrelevant bits. Especially useful if you mix family and business.
The ability to use webcams for a video conference with 10 people. Outside of a professional setting, that’s amazing. It also lets you watch a YouTube video together, which opens up real possibilities.

–  It encourages long form comments – none of this rubbish hitting enter and your comment has posted!

–  It has its own personalised search engine attached. Naturally, this is Google.


–  Supposedly real names only (although I do follow a couple of people using ‘nyms). While you do have control over who can see what in your profile, swapping between pseudonyms and names is making it difficult to match everyone up and leading to people having multiple online identities. Wouldn’t it be nice to just be one person? It’s a bit simplistic to say we should all just use our real names, there are good arguments for separating online and offline identities. At the same time there are good arguments against anonymity, so it would be really nice if we could all have one handle that follows us around but has some level of separation from the people we meet down at the shops and work with.

–  You can group people into Circles, but the disadvantage is that you can accidentally compartmentalise yourself very badly. I’ve picked up ideas from all over the place, I’d hate to miss out on something because someone put me in the ‘Mummy’ circle rather than ‘Science’ or ‘Education’ circles. And yes, you can put people in multiple circles. It’s more a mindset – be aware if you are starting to exclude people.


I’m excited about Google +, I think it’s going to really add something to professional connections online. I love Twitter, it lets me skim a huge amount of information and dip in and out. I am suspicious of Facebook – it’s advertiser friendly rather than user friendly and has so many changes and general weirdnesses. Google + has the ease of use of Twitter but more scope – hopefully you can check out this conversation on the subject.

It’s early, but I think I’m going to keep using Twitter for news, information and connection. My Facebook page will continue to be big for Science@home because my audience of parents tend to be on Facebook. But Google + will be my education professional connection, where I can discuss and get into things.


First and most obvious: Join up! I don’t know if it was because I had a Google account already or because the invitations thing has finished, but I didn’t need one. If you do, here you go. Then play around with it, find people, look what other people are doing with it. After that I have random ideas in no particular order:

  • Use Hangouts to set up a time and video conference with teachers in other schools.
  • Set up a Circle along the lines of “Remote Schools Chat” and organise when you are all available. Then use the exclusive posting function or the threaded replies to have a chat similar to Twitter chats but with much more detail and ability to expand.
  • Get your students on, there are both iPhone and Android apps, and have a student circle for communication and discussion.

Useful Links

Lots of people are thinking about how to use Google +:

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Part three of my list on why Territory (and other) teachers need to use Social Media. Seeing part of my aim is to get more Territory teachers using social media I’m going to keep talking about communities, because that’s where a lot of kids in the Territory live. And when you are isolated in a two teacher school, it often feels like you’re too small to matter and there’s nothing out there just for you. You always have to adapt the ideas you find to make them work in your circumstances, nothing is ever straight out of the book. All of these ideas will work anywhere, but just for once isolated teachers can feel special and remembered.


140 characters is all you have to do to be able to Tweet. The essence of Twitter is short, sharp chunks that show kids you don’t need enormous slabs of text to learn. Reading and writing are manageable and engaging because they get an instant result, not one after several sessions of planning, drafting and finally a good copy.

Twitter is about spreading information and ideas. Most Twitter users have hundreds or even thousands of followers, and if you use hashtags it is even broader. So you can use Twitter for connecting you to a very wide audience without extra work.


Most Territory kids have low literacy levels, which makes pictures a great stimulus to start a lesson. In fact they’re great for all sorts of kids, because it’s something new they have to think about and analyse. Different people see different things in pictures depending on their backgrounds and experiences, which leads to a rich class discussion. But it can be difficult if the reactions you get are completely unexpected. So put it out there and ask.


"I want to use this as a stimulus image for Year 7 science, what do you think when you see it?"

Twitter shares images through services like TwitPic, yfrog, imgur and Instagram, as well as videos, links and of course text. It makes it very easy to broadcast your idea and ask opinions.


Twitter gives you unprecedented access to professionals and therefore experts. Want to contact a published children’s author? A poet? A science journalist? A historian/geographer/economist/lawyer/chef/photographer/you name it? Chances are there is one on Twitter. Living in a remote community drastically restricts the range of people you have direct access to, but Twitter opens it up again.

You can use it as a simple tool to find people then email them,

“Please RT! Looking for an Australian biogeography expert for school questions.”

Twitter users tend to be helpful little souls, especially when asked politely and for a good cause such as school. The RT stands for ‘re-tweet’ and it’s when someone repeats your tweet to their own followers. With a few re-tweets a message may get in front of many thousands of people, and thousands of heads are way better than one.

Or you could get really daring and set up a Twitter chat with your experts. Imagine if you found half a dozen sportspeople who were willing to be available on Twitter during your class time? Tweets are only 140 characters, so you can do a prepatory lesson of writing questions as tweets. Then during your scheduled time your students tweet their questions to your experts and get the answers. How much collaboration, how much literacy, how much analysis afterwards would you get out of that?

The world is a big place

And a community is tiny. An ongoing problem in communities is helping kids to realise just how big the world is and how different other countries are. So back to those helpful Tweeps who get a kick out of helping little kids:

“Please answer and RT for our class – What’s your weather like today?”

“What time is it where you are?”

“Where are you – town, state, country?”

“What do you do after school?”

“How much does a loaf of bread cost you?”

What more would you like to know? Putting out a single tweet then collecting all the answers could be the basis for several lessons worth of research into different cultures, climates and countries.

Current Events

How sad is this – I get all my news from Twitter. Revolutions, political commentary, the US debt shenanigans, riots, earthquakes and celebrity deaths all make their way to Twitter faster and with more angles, commentary and opinions than traditional news outlets. By keeping an eye on Twitter you can learn about world news even from the middle of nowhere, and the richness lets you do all sorts of things with it:

  • Compare two different news sources to see if they present the story differently.
  • Track a breaking story, such as an earthquake, over time and see how it changes.
  • Investigate the difference between factual writing and opinion.
  • Compare different opinions and see how people support their argument.


Quotes are a powerful way to sample and illustrate opinion and connect with people. If they know they are being quoted, most people try to say something significant and 140 characters makes you choose with care. This can lead to powerful and thoughtful language. You can ask people at large for their thoughts and feelings, but don’t forget you can also target specific people.

@KRuddMP @JuliaGillard What is your opinion on Sorry Day?

What other ideas do you have to use Twitter for your classes?

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One of the constant problems is to do worthwhile activities that will actually help kids remember and understand. I know that sounds vague, what I’m thinking about here is taking notes. It is, frankly, nonsensical.

The Problem

  • Kids need a copy of the information to (hopefully) refer back to.
  • Copying notes off the board or out of a book can go in through the eyes and out through the hands, without the brain involved.
  • What is the point of copying when they can’t actually read the information for understanding?
  • Copying can become a long, boring process drawn out forever by kids who for various reasons don’t want to get on to the next bit.


There are several standard solutions to this problem.

  • Given modern technology (or even photocopiers) you can just give the students a copy of whatever it is. Almost completely useless, they don’t even have to look at it.
  • Slightly more effective is to write one or two sentences that are cloze activities and they need to fill in the blank. Not wonderful but quick, requires a bit of thinking/understanding and is usually in their reading range. Of course that assumes they do it themselves and don’t just leave it blank or wait for the answers.
  • Mind-maps. They are lovely for getting all the information including links and relationships in an intuitive format, but without all the reading and writing frills. Copying a mind-map has some of the same pitfalls as copying notes, although hopefully it is quicker, but to get students to create their own is a skill that takes a while to teach and practice.
  • Questions can be a good solution if you’ve been through it or they can read and interpret. It’s very similar to a cloze activity, just the structure is different. It does have the advantage of being open ended, if you have simple questions first and then more complicated ones you can make sure everyone gets the basics while others get extension. If you are going to give a text and questions, you either need to know that your kids can already read for information or construct your questions and text very carefully so it supports them to find the answers.


I’ve just done one with a year 9 group that was a bit different and fun (I thought). I like it because it gave the activity extra dimensions – there were physical actions and arranging the information, and there was some literacy because it required an understanding of how paragraphs work. It was quite simple to set up:

  1. I wrote a couple of paragraphs summarising what we had been doing, all double spaced but with normal punctuation (ie paragraph indents). I couldn’t resist making it a bit of a cloze activity as well and putting some equations in, because that’s what they were practicing.
  2. On the word processor I cut lines and pasted them up and down until it was thoroughly jumbled, then printed it out for students.
  3. Students have to cut out the lines then physically rearrange them into the correct order. To do this they can use clues like indents and full stops, but they also need to read the lines to make sure it makes sense both grammatically and scientifically. Voila – literacy and engagement with the text.
  4. Seeing I made it a cloze they need to fill in the blanks and complete the equations somewhere in these steps.
  5. When they are sure they have it in the right order, they can glue it into their books.

It solves the problem. It gets them the information, lets them physically manipulate it, forces them to engage on some level and encourages collaboration. Of course they can still copy from a friend, and given that it’s a more active class it’s easier for them to hide that they are mucking around. Hopefully it’s more engaging to make up for that.

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Post image for 13 Reasons Territory Teachers Need to Use Social Media

For Teachers:

  1. Twitter lets you form a professional learning network (PLN) by connecting with teachers all across the globe. With literally thousands to choose from, there are definitely some with the same interests or problems as you.
  2. You can not only find out about lots of tools but also have them reviewed by other teachers who are using them right now in the classroom. How about links on using Wordle for improving writing? 100 uses for digital cameras? iPads? All found through social media (specifically Twitter).
  3. Try out lessons” by presenting your focus material online and see what reactions you get and how well it would work. Then you can reflect on the feedback.
  4. Now that interactive whiteboards are becoming more common you can integrate links directly into your lessons with no searching or fumbling. If you ask your PLN there is sure to be someone who can give you a great resource to use, complete with a review and suggestions.
  5. The Territory (and many other places) are isolated. It’s one of the hardest things to deal with, both personally and professionally. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Fora and Nings let you make connections and friends no matter where you are. I’ve lived and had small children in three Territory communities, but I have lots of close online friends. I’ve even met some of them 😉
  6. It may not be as quick, but even community kids are getting connected with social media. The days when none of them had a computer are gone – they have phones or games with internet connections. But they aren’t necessarily going to learn about the new world any better than being surrounded by books will magically teach them to read. To help them get the most out of it, teachers need to be there too.
  7. For Students

  8. It gives them a genuine audience for writing if other people are reading their blogs or tweets, even if it is mainly their class members (and you haven’t connected to another community) that’s still more people than they normally have reading their work.
  9. Online, either using Google Docs, blogs or YouTube is a great way to encourage collaboration. You can even collaborate with other communities by sharing work and commenting, and when kids are away the other collaborators can keep working.
  10. It’s more common to have mobile phones, playstations or cable television at home, so it’s more familiar and less threatening than large pieces of blank white paper. The small screens are much easier to fill and less intimidating.
  11. It gives a genuine reason for writing and reading if they are being shared, and there is a tangible product at the end that can be easily stored and shared without getting lost. Media like Twitter with a strict character limit means they don’t have to write or read a lot, and they can concentrate on understanding and expressing one idea.
  12. It makes it easy for kids to proof and edit their work,on a blog it is easy to read someone else’s work and comment on it to help them improve it.
  13. Social media lends itself to scaffolding longer writing because it can be done in small chunks then put together.
  14. Social media are perfect for using visual media like graphics, photos and videos. These are very helpful for students with low literacy skills to demonstrate their understanding of complex ideas.

Do you have any other ideas? I’m starting to expand on each of these points in a series of posts, I’ll add in the links as I go.

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Another scaffold today, this one a reading scaffold.

Each subject area has its own way of presenting information – reading a science textbook is completely different to reading a novel. Reading in different areas is something that needs to be taught in those areas, not yet another thing the poor English teacher should be picking up. A graphic summary is a great way of introducing a lot of information and showing kids how to pick out the important bits.

It’s very simple – rule columns down the page, given the text we were working from we had four columns for Headings, Sub-headings, Bold and Figures. Then you skim through the section and fill the columns in, but with only one word per line:

graphic summaryYou can see that by the time you finish the whole section you have a really clear summary of the key phrases and how they relate to each other.

After that you can do all sorts of things to play with the information. We turned it into a mindmap using the headings, subheadings and other words as the heirarchy of branches. As we do more on the topic we’ll keep filling in the same map and getting more detail and connections. Instant summary, without all the little joining words that take time to read but don’t really add anything to understanding.

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