Why STEAM should be SHTEAM!

In some quarters Art has rather begrudgingly been added to STEM, and although some definitions include the Humanities, Art is normally conceptualized as the creative arts, visual art, design and possibly music – a catchall for being creative. This leaves disciplines such as History, Philosophy, Language Arts or Literature out in the cold. Again, this depends on those doing the defining, but I would argue that we need to conceptualize STEAM as SHTEAM to make sure that the Humanities are included all the time! I believe this is vital because many begrudge adding even Arts to the equation! Yes, I am being somewhat facetious, because this suggestion, in fact, returns us to where we were before the STEM movement raised its head. SHTEAM is of course nothing but a well-rounded education! And that’s my point!

On my local University campus, you can see the consequences of neglectful thinking. Crossing campus from the sparkling and obviously well-funded Sciences block towards the Arts and Humanities buildings; run-down, in need of structural repair as much as just a lick of paint, the years of neglect are visible. The Performing Arts building looks positively dangerous to navigate with unprotected stairwells and industrial looking holes in the wall! Now I know there will be some who argue that this is not that problematic. The idea behind STEM Education was to prioritize STEM subjects as they carry key weight in promoting entrepreneurial growth for any country. Science, Engineering, and Technology are vital and fill a skills gap in the economy. I agree, but surely the Arts and Humanities are as vital to our economy? I can almost hear some shaking their heads and saying sure, they are important, but not key imperatives and arguing for a well-rounded Renaissance education dilutes the emphasis on the Sciences.

I kind of get that on a logical level, but it offends my soul! In a world where Artificial Intelligence is likely to make STEM pretty redundant, perhaps we should be cultivating the Arts and Humanities more – they might be all the robots leave for us! The likely effect of Artificial Intelligence is to reduce the number of jobs across all industries, diluting the imperative for Science majors in any case. I realize that current job needs also need to be factored in, but we are educating kids now who will be reaching current retirement age only in the 2060s!

So why do we need the Humanities as opposed to the Creative Arts and Design? History, Philosophy, and Literature give us a sense of our place in the human scheme of things, of our story and our worth as a species. I want you to imagine a world, maybe only a decade hence when Artificial Intelligence has led to the shedding of a vast number of jobs across a wide swath of industries and professions. Universal Basic Income is the norm and employment for life is abnormal. This is not too far-fetched. There are only a certain number of possibilities if this is our future, and most of them look pretty bleak for humanity. Humanity will either exist as a vast underclass kept under control merely to consume the products of robotic armies and keep a small uber class in power, or humanity could assert itself and insist on its worth and value, free from the curse of manual labour, free to explore our creative sides and flourish. The second outcome is highly unlikely, to be honest, but downright impossible unless we start to gain a sense of our worth now and assert our rights! A thorough grounding in the Humanities is, to my mind, essential to this project.

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Posted by on October 5, 2017 in Problem Based Learning, STEAM, Uncategorized


EduTech Africa 2017 Day Two – Spot The Teacher!

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Trying to extract the main theme of the second day at the EduTechAfrica Conference is a bit like trying to spot the ball in one of those popular press football competitions from my youth! Mark Sham set the tone by calling on the conference to dismantle schooling entirely! He reminded us that schooling’s function is to reinforce inequality in society, and in a world where artificial intelligence threatens almost all our jobs, schooling, by stifling creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills is not just broken, but is positively dysfunctional.

Dee Moodley on the other hand talked about the importance of Presence, that almost indefinable human aspect to education, the human touch that all teachers need. Neelam Parmar stressed the need to drive change through reshaping education through experiential learning. People need to look forward to change! Meanwhile the coding and robotics people were agonizing over how to manage a coding across the curriculum agenda, and in another track the process of managing ICT integration technically and in terms of human resources was being poured over. Mark Hayter and Lora Foot reminded us that teachers need to be able to function within newly imagined learning spaces.

The mantra for the day was perhaps “the teacher is still the driver”. And yet the role of the teacher is clearly a contested space. There are many visions of the teacher at stake: the teacher as someone who needs to be converted as ICT Champion; the teacher who needs coaxing and mentoring to overcome their fear of technology; the teacher who must nurture or engage her students; the teacher who must experiment and play; the teacher who must surrender control of the classroom. The teacher who must oversee the dismantling of the schooling system itself!

What is perhaps most clear is that the role of teachers is as uncertain as the role of technology in education itself. We are at that wonderful moment, perhaps, where there are as many visions of the future as there are eyes to see, and anything is possible. What frightens me, frankly is that the rise of big data may well overtake these democratic impulses and squash them with a technocratic Taylorist vision of educational efficiency. In a world where Betsy de Vos can run the education system in America, technology may well become an authoritarian nightmare!

Perhaps the only bulwark against this might be to find the teacher in the picture and ensure that teaching and learning remains a deeply humanistic endeavour. Only by finding the teacher can we ensure that values are central to our schooling system.





EduTech Africa 2017 Day 1 – The Search for Soft Technologies


I am once more attending the EduTech Africa Conference and I like to try and distill from the presentations and conversations at the Conference a sense of where we are sitting with Educational Technology in South Africa. As usual there is a narrative, repeated almost like a mantra, around the desire that technology will transform educational practice and deliver a more student-centred curriculum and pedagogy. Margaret Powers delivered a powerful keynote which summed this up succinctly and persuasively. There was an air of optimism this year which replaced the more messianic tone of previous years. Maybe it’s a sense that that goal is a little nearer, a little more achievable. Or perhaps it’s just that there is generally a new optimism abroad, despite the election of Trump, a return to the politics of hope reflected in the rise of Corbyn and Sanders, a sense that no matter how massive the task, the monolith of schooling can be re-imagined and re-envisioned just as there is a sense that the bastions of the political establishment can be assaulted.

But the highlight of the day for me was Stephen Heppell’s address. Heppell’s work on re-imagining the architecture of the school through the design of learning spaces that offer affordances for the kinds of educational transformation the Conference is calling for, is legendary, but it found a particular resonance this year with the track that I followed, that to do with the rise of coding and robotics. This link between designing classroom spaces and coding may seem tenuous, but ultimately it is about the locus of agency. Heppell spoke about the need to give agency to students through the design of learning spaces, and coding and robotics gives the same agency over machines.

Technology may be considered hard or soft, and what I mean by this is the ability to be flexible. Hard technologies do not alter easily, they are solid and fixed. School buildings are hard technologies. You cannot just knock down a wall to accommodate extra students. Soft technologies are flexible and versatile, they can be re-imagined and re-purposed on the spot. Teacher’s pedagogies are soft technologies, in that they can be changed at a moment’s notice to suit what is happening in the classroom. This is why teachers normally change their pedagogies to suit the space they are in. Teach in a lecture theatre and anything but teacher-centred pedagogies are nigh on impossible! As a teacher I have twice been the incumbent computer teacher when the computer room was re-designed, and not once was I or my students consulted! I loved Heppell’s insistence on building learning spaces to children’s specifications!

To my mind what coding and robotics offers is a soft curriculum to replace a hard curriculum, a curriculum based on problems defined by the students themselves, to which solutions are sought collaboratively. Marina Myburgh’s presentation on her exploration of a coding and robotics syllabus at Crawford, Sandton defined for me the journey many schools will be taking over the next few years as we seek to replace our now out-of-date computer skills syllabi with a new curriculum which seeks to map out how computational and algorithmic thinking can enhance all learning. There was a remarkable sense of purpose in the coding and robotics round table discussion that allowing students to explore solutions to problems they define is the way forward. The task is now to research and explore the optimum learning paths to achieve this.

This will involve not only teachers of Computer Skills, for coding & robotics extends across the curriculum. The focus on STEAM and the Maker Movement emphasizes the extent to which we need to ensure that a future in which AI and robotics increasingly threatens our job security needs to be tempered by a concerted effort to ensure that we as human beings are able to retain some control, some agency in our lives. Coding and tinkering may be the most liberating and humanist of all the academic disciplines as the 21st Century starts to get a grip!




Critical Thinking & ICTs – Part 2

In Part 1 I looked at three models which might be helpful in building a framework for understanding how ICTs and Thinking Skills offer affordances for enhancing students’ critical thinking abilities. I would like to start by looking at ways in which Bloom’s Taxonomy might be integrated with Semantic Wave Theory.

Bloom’s Taxonomy remains probably the best known framework for evaluating thinking in the classroom, but is of little practical use beyond a general sense that there needs to be more higher order thinking, or that a certain percentage of any examination questions need to call on higher order thinking. What it does not reflect is the interdependence of Lower & Higher Order Thinking, However, if we see thinking as a process over time, and not a discrete moment fixed in time, then it becomes clear that what is crucial to critical thinking is how ideas are linked, situated in context, grounded in evidence and logically connected.

If we look at Maton’s (2014) work on semantic waves, discussed more fully in Part 1, or how meaning is constructed and deconstructed in the classroom, we can see how critical thinking depends upon movements between abstraction and the concrete. Any claim of knowledge rests upon the logical coherence of the claim and upon its foundation in the evidentiary base. Maton’s (2014) work on semantic profiles suggests that in classroom talk, or student essays, it is the range between abstraction and the concrete that makes for rich, generative thinking. Talking in abstractions alone, or just in concrete terms does not lead to what we might recognise as critical thinking.

Two common classroom routines involve the teacher unpacking an idea for students, giving examples, metaphors, anecdotes which help them understand the concept. This represents a strengthening of semantic gravity, an unpacking of academic language, appealing to the ordinary everyday to help mediate the content and grow understanding. Learning, however, depends on the contrary movement, the student’s ability to take the raw stuff of experience and draw conclusions, analyse, synthesise and shape their thoughts into more abstract, academic formulations. This represents a lowering of semantic gravity and lies at the heart of what we expect those who display critical thinking to do.

I would argue that it is useful to think of Bloom’s taxonomy in terms of a full semantic profile which both strengthens and weakens semantic gravity as ideas are unpacked and repacked in the unique voice and understanding of the student. Higher Order Thinking (HOT) occurs, I would suggest, when the distance between abstraction and the concrete is bridged and where the amplitude of the wave is most significant. Lower Order Thinking (LOT), by contrast represents shallower crests and troughs. Remembering, Understanding and Applying, considered Lower Order Thinking skills involves less movement between abstraction and contextualisation than the Higher Order Skills of Analysing, Evaluating or Creating.

Let us be clear that both LOTS and HOTS are vital to all thinking. But it is useful to think of critical thinking as being characterised by fuller and more complete movement between the concrete and the abstract. Scientific Laws, such as Boyle’s Law, are formulated after repeated experimentation, measurement, observation and hypothesis formation. The Humanities likewise depend upon the formulation of abstract concepts, supported by rich contextual evidence. In the discipline of History, for example, a concept such as Hobsbawm’s Social Banditry draws from commonalities observed in a range of historical contexts, all of which provide support for the formulation of the concept and its ability to illuminate a narrative.

In this way I believe we can usefully conceive of Semantic Wave Profiles as descriptions of the direction of critical thinking, the strengthening or weakening of semantic gravity and Bloom’s Taxonomy as an indicator of the amplitude. The crucial takeaway for teachers is the need to provide opportunities for these movements of semantic gravity. Semantic profiles offer a way to visualise what is needed to create the conditions for better critical thinking and better learning.

In the next part of this article, I would like to suggest ways in which we can extend this framework to incorporate key insights from the Paul – Elder approach discussed in Part 1.


Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Maton, K. (2014). Building powerful knowledge: The significance of semantic waves. In Knowledge and the Future of the Curriculum (pp. 181-197). Palgrave Macmillan UK.


Critical Thinking & ICTs – Part 1

critical-thinking-cartoonThere is a narrative which says that ICTs offer unique affordances for critical thinking in the classroom. This argument sees the introduction of new technologies in the classroom as a prerequisite for a new emphasis on critical thinking. The 21st Century Skills Movement sees change itself as a rationale for the need for critical thinking, and technology as a central skill set for success in a changing world.

Now, this blog is dedicated to exploring how ICTs and Critical Thinking intersect, so I have rehearsed elements of this narrative many times. I do believe that ICTs have affordances which can be leveraged to achieve greater critical thinking, but the relationship is not simple or direct, and I have been around long enough to remember when teachers sought to foster critical thinking quite independently of digital technologies. As one who considers himself a champion of ICTs and Critical Thinking I believe it is important to have a theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between critical thinking and technology adoption which helps us to understand better how we can use technology to build better critical thinking.

Thinking around what critical thinking means is often somewhat woolly. For some students it appears to come naturally. Their arguments are well structured, well supported, with greater nuance and generative power. Other students struggle to present or analyze ideas effectively, and teachers are often unsure exactly what to do to help improve thinking. What exactly does effective thinking look like anyway?

Many teachers are using particular thinking strategies to foster critical thinking. Tools such as De Bono’s Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps, Harvard’s Visible Thinking or Tony Ryan’s Thinker’s Keys are designed to provide particular pathways to better thinking. These strategies represent pedagogies claiming to offer affordances for critical thinking in much the same way as claims are made that ICTs afford critical thinking. The claims for these strategies rest on the affordances of specific thought processes. For example the Thinking Maps offer scaffolding for promoting defining, describing, comparing and contrasting, classifying, sequencing, analyzing cause and effect, identifying part/whole relationships and seeing analogies. The Thinking Hats are said to maximise and organize thoughts and ideas by deploying parallel thinking techniques. The Visible Thinking routines represent attempts to increase metacognitive awareness, for example to draw on previous knowledge, explore diverse perspectives or deploy active reasoning or explanation. These cognitive strategies represent something of a toolbox. Much as a DIY handyman reaches for a specific tool to tighten a bolt or screw, remove a nail or fill a hole, particular cognitive tools can be used for different cognitive purposes. The teacher’s job becomes that of modelling and scaffolding student’s thinking, helping students recognise which tools are appropriate for what purpose and how to use them effectively to improve their thinking so that increasingly students are able to use these tools appropriately without prompting.

This way of looking at critical thinking is not the only way to conceive of it, but it is a useful metaphor for teachers and offers a focused approach which teachers can apply in their classrooms. The question is, is there a similar way we can think about how ICTs may be used as tools for cognitive education?

blooms_digital_taxonomySimilar approaches have been tried. For example Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy represents an attempt to map digital tools to Lower Order and Higher Order Thinking Skills. So, for example podcasting is seen as a Higher Order Thinking Skill of Creating, while Social Bookmarking is seen as a Lower Order Thinking Skill of Remembering. What this model lacks, however, is a nuanced understanding that tools in themselves do not mean much, it is how they are used, and for what purpose, that is important. One can use twitter, for example, at every level of Bloom’s taxonomy. One-to-one mapping of tools to a taxonomy of thinking regardless of purpose and use does not make much sense. Digital tools are not, therefore, the same as the cognitive tools described above. Any framework for digital cognitive tools needs to include their use and purpose.

For example, Google docs carry massive affordances for collaborative thinking. Students can collaborate on writing or problem solving tasks, using comment and joint editing to develop ideas collaboratively. But twitter can also be used in this way, and so can Skype, and many other tools. Google docs can also be used in ways which do not display collaborative thinking at all! Over the course of the last few decades teachers have identified uses of technology which can be used to aid cognitive processes such as collaborative thinking. It seems to me that any framework of cognitive digital tools needs to focus on the cognitive purpose rather than the technology. A useful approach would be to look at teaching practice and try to map cognitive digital tools to thinking processes. In order to do this, however, we need a much less woolly framework for understanding cognitive processes.

There are many different frameworks for critical thinking. I would like to detail just a few below, and then suggest a way forward.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

revised_taxonomyBloom’s (1956) taxonomy of the cognitive domain remains the standard framework for thinking about thinking in the classroom. It establishes six levels of cognitive processes which are seen as moving from simpler to more complex skills. The model has been revised by Anderson, Krathwohl, et al (2001), and both models are widely taught in pre-service teacher education and represent something of a lingua franca in the educational world. This is a considerable strength in that it is already the most commonly used framework by teachers concerned with cognitive education. However, I have to say that it is not a particularly generative model, and in my estimation is often used simply, and mechanistically to rationalise what is done in the classroom rather than to drive critical thinking. Because categories of cognition are not in reality discrete, the exercise of identifying levels is somewhat meaningless, and the pedagogical purpose of doing so unclear.

The model does not drill down to thinking routines themselves. Analysis, for example implies an ability to differentiate between premise and conclusion, what constitutes evidence, how to expose logical flaws, and so on. But the model tends to obscure this rather than highlight it. To my mind Bloom’s model ends up being a limiting factor in promoting critical thinking in the classroom. The taxonomy emerged as part of a movement to clearly define educational objectives and remove woolly thinking, but is in fact far more obscurational than the liberal tradition it replaced.

As we have seen with Bloom’s digital taxonomy, this woolliness both in the cognitive domain and how they map to digital tools renders the framework somewhat vague. What does it really mean when a teacher says, for example, that they are using blogs to enhance student capacity for creating?

The Paul – Elder Approach

pe-critical-thinking-modelThe Paul-Elder framework attempts to draw up a three-tiered model for Critical Thinking, defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (Scriven & Paul, 2003). The model is based on the structures of thought, universal intellectual standards and intellectual traits exhibited by critical thinkers.

The strength of the model is that it does not focus on discrete thinking routines alone, but integrates the habits and dispositions of successful thinkers into the framework, and that it does manage to drill down to the elements of reasoning directly. Its major downside is its very complexity. For all its faults, Bloom’s taxonomy can be summarized in six words. the Paul-Elder model is more difficult for teachers to navigate. This limits its ability to be adopted more widely. Nevertheless, this complexity does hold out the promise for a more meaningful mapping of digital tools to thinking routines in the classroom. If a teacher were to say that they were using blogs to explore Fairness applied to Points of View to develop Intellectual Empathy, one can appreciate that the model is leading to a clearer notion of how digital tools can be used to sharpen critical thinking in the classroom.

Semantic Waves
10Another way of looking at the problem is to try to drill down to how meaning is constructed and deconstructed in the classroom. A new framework (Semantic Waves) for thinking about knowledge practices in the classroom, derived from the work of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu allows us to bring powerful concepts to bear on semantic practices in the classroom. Maton (2014) has described how the concepts of semantic gravity and semantic density can be used to describe pedagogical practice in ways which allow us to think about the critical thinking implicated in classroom talk.

Semantic waves are descriptions over time of the relative semantic gravity or density of the ideas contained in classroom talk or student essays. Semantic Gravity refers to how concrete or how abstract an idea is, and is represented as SG+ a very concrete, grounded, contextualized idea, or SG- a very abstract, rarified concept, and of course all points in between. The word Revolution in History, for example, is an abstract idea, relatively free of particular contexts. A particular incident from the Russian Revolution, however, is more contextualized and concrete. One thing that teachers tend to do is to take abstract ideas (SG-) and help explain and contextualize those ideas by giving examples and instances (SG+), they help unpack concepts so that students can understand them better. They then help students take more concrete instances and everyday knowledge, and package in terms of the more academic language and understandings of the discipline they are studying, as shown in the diagram.

Semantic Density refers to how condensed an idea is. A symbol or metaphor conveys far denser meaning (SD+) than the everyday meanings of words (SD-). Poetry, for example is generally more dense than prose.

waving-not-drowning-7-638From the idea of the semantic wave, or how semantic gravity and density changes over time, Maton has described semantic profiles, or typical scenarios. Often discussion, or a student essay will remain generalised and abstract, never exploring examples, supporting evidence or anecdote to develop an idea or argument. This represents a high semantic flatline, as shown in the illustration. Often the discussion will remain at a concrete level, without any conclusions being drawn. This is a low semantic flatline. More usual in any kind of constructive meaning making is a much wider range and flow between abstraction and the concrete as arguments are made and supported by evidence. Seeing critical thinking in terms of creating semantic profiles opens up new ways of looking at both ICT usage in the classroom, something which I explored in my own research (Love, 2016), and how Thinking Strategies offer pedagogical affordances for meaning making – see the video below, which is an idea which needs to be explored.

I believe that the Semantic Wave framework offers a way of understanding how pedagogical approaches and technologies afford the construction and deconstruction of meaning in the classroom in detailed and powerful ways. It is, however, under-researched and must remain somewhat tentative at this stage. It represents both a pedagogy in its own right and a research framework. The ideas are somewhat abstract and may be off-putting to many teachers. To me as a teacher, the framework instantly made sense, but it is an idea that needs some explaining!


Putting it together

The three frameworks discussed all represent somewhat different ways of approaching critical thinking in the classroom, all with strengths and weaknesses. In many ways there needs to be synthesis of all three types of approaches to create a model which both explains and informs practice; allows for critical thinking learning objectives to be realised, and for tools and pedagogies to be integrated within any particular lesson.

In the next blog post I will try to unpack how I believe this might be achieved and to begin to suggest a tentative framework which meets these requirements.



Anderson, L.W., Krathwohl, D.R., Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Love, D. A. S. (2016). Any Tool Works If You Are Using The Language: The Role of Knowledge in ICT integration in a Johannesburg private school (Masters dissertation, School of Education, Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg).

Maton, K. (2014). Building powerful knowledge: The significance of semantic waves. In Knowledge and the Future of the Curriculum (pp. 181-197). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Scriven, M & Paul, R, (2003), Defining Critical Thinking,, accessed 12/12/2016.



Online Discussions for Deeper Thinking

transitioning teacher

Why Online Discussions?

I recently had an unplanned absence from my classroom for an entire week. Although I was going out of town, I knew there would be down time allowing me to work remotely. Naturally, my biggest professional concern was what to do about my class. My high school seniors would certainly enjoy the unscheduled time, but I didn’t want to lose momentum in this sustainable public policy course.

What I settled on was online discussions — but with a new twist. New online discussion tools provide many options to engage the imagination and stimulate thoughtful discussion besides the standard written prompt. And some online discussion tools have new features such as scoring tools, built-in rubrics, and social media features that make digital discussions practical, interesting, and fun.

discussion-rubricCanvas, a Learning Management System, simplifies Discussion scoring by aggregating each students posts, incorporating rubric scoring, and providing students with substantive feedback. Scores are…

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Posted by on December 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


Digital Literacy Does Not Mean Critical Thinking

Educational Technology and Change Journal

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Recently, in “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (23 Nov. 2016), NPR reported that Stanford University researchers were shocked to learn that students are unable to distinguish real news from fake, ads from articles. The researchers collected and analyzed data from 7,800 middle school, high school and university students. The participants were from 12 states and were asked to evaluate information from various online sources such as tweets and articles.

The researchers’ “surprising” findings highlight that many people assume that young people are technology savvy because they can use their mobile devices and social media with seeming ease. However, their inability to use technology effectively is reflected in the results of this study. The students generally accept what is presented to them without questioning the validity or the bias. They accept it at face…

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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

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