Mitchell Robinson, who teaches teachers at Michigan State University, recently told Teach for America that they would not be allowed to recruit in his education program. Here he describes his conversation with the recruiters who wanted to know his problem with TFA.

 

One of my students was contacted by a Teach For America recruiting representative, and asked if she was interested in getting involved with the organization. She sent me the note, and I replied that TFA was not welcome in my teacher preparation classes (á la Mark Naison!). I received a reply asking for a meeting, to discuss my “problems with TFA.”

 

And so I met with the two TFA recruiters, both of whom had taught for three years as TFA corps members and then moved into leadership/management roles with the organization. The discussion went just about as well as I thought it would.

 

They asked how they could work more effectively with traditional teacher education programs, and I asked them how they justified sending out recruits with five weeks of “training” into some of the more challenging classrooms in our state.

 

When I suggested that TFA was contributing to the displacement of veteran teachers in Chicago, Detroit and other urban centers, looks of shock and disbelief registered on their faces. They said that was not their goal.

 

When I asked one of them to explain TFA’s goal, she said it was to improve education in urban schools. I asked her to list the factors contributing to the “problems” in those schools and explain what TFA was doing about those problems. She didn’t answer.

 

He tried to explain his objections. They didn’t understand. There was a failure to communicate.

 

 

 

Ras Baraka, Mayor of Newark, wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times that shows what a disaster state control of the public schools has been in Newark, New Jersey.

 

The state took “temporary” control of the Newark schools in 1995. Reforms came and went; new programs came and went. Promises were made and broken. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million went to a failed merit pay plan (merit pay has always failed yet politicians and naive philanthropists never give up).

 

Newark has had top-down control for nearly 20 years. Democracy was suspended. The children are no better off.

 

The state’s maladministration of Newark’s public schools continues to this day. When Superintendent Cami Anderson’s “Renew Schools” reform plan ran into difficulties because of its lack of public consultation, foundation dollars went to a community-engagement program. Yet the latest iteration, the “One Newark” plan, has only plunged the system into more chaos.

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Consider the reports I’ve received of Barringer High School (formerly Newark High School). Three weeks into the school year, students still did not have schedules. Students who had just arrived in this country and did not speak English sat for days in the school library without placement or instruction. Seniors were placed in classes they had already taken, missing the requirements they’d need to graduate. Even the school lunch system broke down, with students served bread and cheese in lieu of hot meals.

 

Baraka, an experienced educator, knows what should be done, but neither Governor Christie nor his hand-picked superintendent Cami Anderson listens to the elected representative of the people of Newark.

 

Baraka writes:

 

The real issues that reform should address are ensuring that every 3- or 4-year-old child is enrolled in a structured learning environment, and that all our teachers get staff development and training. We must be more effective at sharing best practices and keeping our class sizes manageable. If necessary, we should put more than one teacher in the classroom, especially for students from kindergarten to third grade.

We also need to fix additional problems like a historically segregated curriculum, which offers stimulating choices in wealthy suburbs but only the most basic courses to our inner-city children. And we must break the cycle of low expectations that some educators have of the children they teach, merely prescribing repeat classes if students don’t pass.

The first step in a transition to local control of Newark’s schools is a short-term transfer of authority to the mayor. I would quickly appoint a new superintendent. Once basic functions were restored to the district, we would move as soon as possible to return control to an elected school board with full powers.

It is clear that we cannot rely on the good faith of the state to respond expeditiously. Federal intervention appears our only recourse. I have written to the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights in support of the lawsuits that parents, students, advocates and educators in our city have brought, requesting that the federal government intercede. The right of Newark’s citizens to equitable, high-quality public education demands the return of local, democratic control.

 

 

 

Rick Bobrick is a veteran teacher in New York. He is sick of the punitive high-stakes testing that he is compelled to administer. This regime is child abuse. He is a conscientious objector. He thinks that teachers should have the same right to opt out that parents and children have. He knows if he refuses to give the tests, he puts at risk his job, his income, and his pension. He asks a simple question: why not a law protecting the rights of teachers to refuse to do what they know is wrong? Why not give teachers the right to be conscientious objectors?

Here is his letter:

I teach 8th grade science in a small city school district located in the Mid-Hudson Valley. I am in my 35th year in the classroom, the last 13 of which I have been required to administer punitive, high-stakes tests in math, ELA, and science. Last spring I hit the wall and I have decided that, in all good conscience, I no longer want to participate in this detrimental practice. However, like most teachers, I am unwilling to risk losing my income, or my pension, or my even my reputation, in order to take a principled stand against this new wave of failed reform. On the other hand, why should I have to risk anything in order to stand against what I know is wrong?

No teacher or administrator should be required to ignore their moral and professional compass out of fear of violating NY state law. No teacher or administrator should have to comply with educational policies more harmful than helpful to children. No teacher or administrator should be forced to remain complicit to policies that are tantamount to educational malpractice at best – and child abuse at their worst. No public school educator should ever submit to inaction out of fear of jeopardizing their professional standing, personal well-being, or their family security. The fear, the veiled threats, and the de-facto intimidation are all very real concerns for many NY public school professionals. There is something deeply wrong with a system in which teachers and principals are afraid to act in the best interest of children.

My proposed solution to this professional dilemma is to try to establish legal protections for any NY educator who no longer wishes to comply with New York’s RTTT commitment. Following the advice of my local NYSUT representative, I have drafted a resolution that would establish a ‘Conscientious Objector’ status for any NY teacher or administrator who wants to abstain from the malpractice of high-stakes testing. I have never been politically connected, nor a particularly strong supporter of our union. All I ever wanted to do was to teach science and provide my students with the best learning opportunities possible.

I will be working with a group of like-minded citizens to convince lawmakers to support this initiative. If this proposal is submitted as a bill and passed into law it would provide legal protection for any teacher or administrator who wants to opt out of the testing debacle. As has been seen over the past two years, parents can ‘refuse the test’ without fear of legal consequences. Nearly 60,000 students across New York State sat out the 2014 round of Pearson testing, supported by parents who wanted nothing to do with tests designed to fail students and intimidate their teachers. It is my strong belief that teachers and administrators should have the same right of refusal, a legally protected right to, ‘refuse to test’. Passage of this resolution into law may be viewed by some as a long shot; if successful it would open a very messy can of worms for Governor Cuomo, the Board of Regents, John King, and the State Education Department.

Regardless of the end result, the message this sends to our political leaders could open some eyes and help bring this federal testing regime to an end, sooner rather than later; one more nail in the coffin of New York’s Regents Reform Agenda. At the very least it would let parents, boards of education, and the media get a better handle on just how much opposition there is from the educators who are being forced by the power of state and federal law to pursue education policies and practices that we know are inflicting harm to our students. Teachers whose voices are being silenced by fear of professional retribution, would be muzzled no longer. To sit back and continue to be a part of this testing madness, in my view, makes us part of the problem – ‘refusing to test’ makes us part of the solution.

If we do nothing, this whole mess will eventually die a slow death by a thousand cuts, collapsing under its own weight – but not after a generation of students has been short-changed by the educational blinders of the Common Core and damaged by the pressures of punitive, test-based reform and all the negative labels that come with it. Parents, college professors, and others will be pointing fingers and asking very serious questions as they try to make sense of what happened to our collective professional voice if the majority of us remain complicit through inaction. The ‘Nuremburg Defense’ doesn’t cut it for me. Burris, Farley, Naison, Lee and a small handful of other strong voices from within the trenches of New York’s schools are not enough. We have a choice to make, nearly half a million strong: defiance or compliance?

If adopted, the Conscientious Objector legislation will make it possible for the majority of NY educators to speak out against the misguided attempts of reformers; changing fearful whispers into strong and meaningful action. By granting the right of refusal, this proposed resolution would also help to restore our status as professional educators whose judgment and trust are valued by the communities we serve. Teachers, coaches, supervisors, principals, and parents, please keep your ears to the legislative track and when the time comes lend your support at the local and state level. Together we can make this happen and bring the joy of learning back to our children’s classrooms.

Rick Bobrick

Steven Singer, teacher, describes the accumulating series of insults and indignities heaped upon teachers by the federal and state governments and by politicians who wouldn’t last five minutes in a classroom.

He writes, in indignation and fury:

“You can’t do that.

“All the fear, frustration and mounting rage of public school teachers amounts to that short declarative sentence.

“You can’t take away our autonomy in the classroom.

“You can’t take away our input into academic decisions.

“You can’t take away our job protections and collective bargaining rights.

“You can’t do that.

“But the state and federal government has repeatedly replied in the affirmative – oh, yes, we can.

“For at least two decades, federal and state education policy has been a sometimes slow and incremental chipping away at teachers’ power and authority – or at others a blitzkrieg wiping away decades of long-standing best practices.

“The latest and greatest of these has been in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“Earlier this week, the state-led School Reform Commission simply refused to continue bargaining with teachers over a new labor agreement. Instead, members unilaterally cancelled Philadelphia teachers contract and dictated their own terms – take them or get out.

“The move was made at a meeting called with minimal notice to hide the action from the public. Moreover, the legality of the decision is deeply in doubt. The courts will have to decide if the SRC even has the legal authority to bypass negotiations and impose terms.

“One doesn’t have to live or work in the City of Brotherly Love to feel the sting of the state SRC. For many educators across the nation this may be the last straw.

“For a long time now, we have watched in stunned silence as all the problems of society are heaped at our feet…..”

“Teachers dedicate their lives to fight the ignorance and poverty of the next generation and are found guilty of the very problem they came to help alleviate. It’s like blaming a doctor when a patient gets sick, blaming a lawyer because his client committed a crime or blaming a firefighter because an arsonist threw a match.

“The Philadelphia decision makes clear the paranoid conspiracy theories about school privatization are neither paranoid nor mere theories. We see them enacted in our local newspapers and media in the full light of day.

Step 1: Poor schools lose state and federal funding.

Step 2: Schools can’t cope with the loss, further reduce services, quality of education suffers.

Step 3: Blame teachers, privatize, cancel union contracts, reduce quality of education further.

“Ask yourself this: why does this only happen at poor schools?…”

“Poverty has been the driving factor behind the Philadelphia Schools tragedy for decades. Approximately 70% of district students are at or near the poverty line.

“To meet this need, the state has bravely chipped away at its share of public school funding. In 1975, Pennsylvania provided 55% of school funding statewide; in 2014 it provides only 36%. Nationally, Pennsylvania is 45th out of 50 for lowest state funding for public education.”

“Since the schools were in distress (read: poor), the state decided it could do the following: put the district under the control of a School Reform Commission; hire a CEO; enable the CEO to hire non-certified staff, reassign or fire staff; allow the commission to hire for-profit firms to manage some schools; convert others to charters; and move around district resources.

“And now after 13 years of state management with little to no improvement, the problem is once again the teachers. It’s not mismanagement by the SRC. It’s not the chronic underfunding. It’s not crippling, generational poverty. It’s these greedy people who volunteer to work with the children most in need.

“We could try increasing services for those students. We could give management of the district back to the people who care most: the citizens of Philadelphia. We could increase the districts portion of the budget so students could get more arts and humanities, tutoring, wraparound services, etc. That might actually improve the educational quality those children receive.

“Nah! It’s the teachers! Let’s rip up their labor contract!

“Take my word for it. Educators have had it.”

Don’t be a scapegoat any longer, Singer says.

Here is his clarion call, his war cry: Refuse to give the tests they use to label you and call you a failure.

“It follows then that educators should refuse to administer standardized tests across the country – especially at poor schools.

“What do we have to lose? The state already is using these deeply flawed scores to label our districts a failure, take us over and then do with us as they please.

“Refuse to give them the tools to make that determination. Refuse to give the tests. How else will they decide if a school is succeeding or failing? They can’t come out and blame the lack of funding. That would place the blame where it belongs – on the same politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists who pushed for these factory school reforms in the first place.

“This would have happened much sooner if not for fear teachers would lose their jobs. The Philadelphia decision shows that this may be inevitable. The state is committed to giving us the option of working under sweatshop conditions or finding employment elsewhere. By unanimously dissolving the union contract for teachers working in the 8th largest district in the country, they have removed the last obstacle to massive resistance.

“Teachers want to opt out. They’ve been chomping at the bit to do this for years. We know how destructive this is to our students. But we’ve tried to compromise – I’ll do a little test prep here and try to balance it with a real lesson the next day. Testing is an unfortunate part of life and I’m helping my students by teaching them to jump through these useless hoops.

“But now we no longer need to engage in these half measures. In fact, continuing as before would go against our interests.

“Any Title 1 district – any school that serves a largely impoverished population – would be best served now if teachers refused to give the powers that be the tools needed to demoralize kids, degrade teachers and dissolve their work contracts. And as the poorer districts go, more affluent schools should follow suit to reclaim the ability to do what’s best for their students. The standardized testing machine would ground to a halt offering an opportunity for real school reform. The only option left would be real, substantial work to relieve the poverty holding back our nation’s school children.

“In short, teachers need to engage in a mass refusal to administer standardized tests.

“But you can’t do that,” say the politicians, bureaucrats and billionaire philanthropists.

“Oh, yes, we can.”

Peter Greene, in his incisive and typically humorous style, explains here why performance incentives don’t work in the public sector.

 

He offers as one example the case of fire fighters. Imagine if they were paid based on how many fires they extinguished, and how much money was saved as a result of their doing so.

 

We have always paid public servants a flat fee, untethered to any sort of “performance measures.” That’s because we want public service to be completely disconnected from any private interests. (And if you just thought, “Damn, this is a long post,” you can get the basic point here and decide if you want to travel down the whole web of alleys with me.)

Fighting Fire with Money

Imagine if, for instance, we paid fire fighters on sliding scale, based on how many of which type fires they put out at a certain speed. This would be disastrous for many reasons.

 

Fire fighters would refuse to work in cities where there were few fires to fight, because they couldn’t make a living. In cities where there were commonly multiple fires, fire fighters would look at each fire call through a lens of “What’s in it for me?”

 

For instance, in a system where fire fighters were paid based on the value of the flame-besieged property, fire fighters might view some small building fires as Not Worth the Trouble. Why bother traveling to the other side of the tracks? It’s only a hundred-dollar blaze, anyway. Let’s wait till something breaks out up in the million-dollar neighborhood.

 

In the worst-case scenario, one of our fire fighters depending on performance-based pay to feed his family may be tempted to grab some matches and go fire up some business.

 

He writes, later in the post:

 

It makes business-oriented reformy types crazy that the way I do my job doesn’t make any difference to my pay. I understand the terror for them there, but that Not Making A Difference is actually the point of how we pay public servants.

It doesn’t matter it’s a big fire or a small fire, a rich person’s house or a poor person’s house– the fire department still does their job. It doesn’t matter whether I have a classroom full of bright students or slow students, rich students or poor students, ambitious students or lazy students– I will still show up and do my job the best I know how. I should never, ever, ever have to look at a class roster or a set of test results or a practice quiz and think, “Dammit, these kids are going to keep me from making my house payment next month.”

 

Why I Won’t Suck

 

Reformsters are sure that human beings must be motivated by threats and rewards, and that the lack of threats and rewards means that I can too easily choose to do a crappy job, because it won’t make any difference. They are wrong. Here’s why.

 

1) I knew the gig when I started. I knew I would not get rich, not be powerful, not have a chance to rise to some position of prominence. There was no reason to enter teaching in the first except a desire to do right by the students.

 

2) Teaching is too hard to do half-assed. Do a consistently lousy job, and the students will eat you alive and dragging yourself out of bed every day will be too damn much. There isn’t enough money to keep people flailing badly in a classroom for a lifetime. Just ask all the TFA dropouts who said, “Damn! This is hella hard!” and left the classroom.
And Most Importantly

 

Threats and rewards do not make people better public servants (nor have I ever seen a lick of research that suggests otherwise, but feel free to review this oft-linked video re: motivation). Threats and rewards interfere with people’s ability to get their job done. Threats and rewards motivate people to game the system.

 

And any time you have a complex system being measured with simple instruments, you have a system that is ripe for gaming. In fact, if your measures are bad enough (looking at you, high stakes tests and VAM), your system can only be successfully operated by gaming it.

 

Greene explains his case so clearly that even a child can understand why performance pay creates perverse incentives. (As Krazy TA, a regular reader is sure to say, quoting Groucho Marx, “please send for a child.”)

 

 

Jersey Jazzman warns of a very serious malady found in the charter industry: Charter cheerleading.

 

He says it is perfectly normal to be proud of your school and its accomplishments. It is normal to want the world to know that your teachers and kids are terrific.

 

But charter cheerleaders go beyond the bounds of normal pride. Their schools are far, far better than yours. They quote statistics that ignore the reality of skimming and cherry-picking. They even boast when their school has not been open long enough to have produced any statistics. The simple fact of being a “charter” makes them say that they are better than any public school.

 

These people need help.

 

 

While tech entrepreneurs are rubbing their hands together gleefully about the dawn of the new age of technology in the classroom, Clay Shirkey of New York University has resolved to ban all electronic devices from his classes about the new media. Why? Students could not pay attention or learn what he was teaching because they were so distracted by the messages on their cellphones, laptops, tablets, etc.

Clay Shirkey is not just any technology professor. He is one of the leaders in the study of new techologies and social media.

He writes:

“This is all just the research on multi-tasking as a stable mental phenomenon. Laptops, tablets and phones — the devices on which the struggle between focus and distraction is played out daily — are making the problem progressively worse. Any designer of software as a service has an incentive to be as ingratiating as they can be, in order to compete with other such services. “Look what a good job I’m doing! Look how much value I’m delivering!”

“This problem is especially acute with social media, because on top of the general incentive for any service to be verbose about its value, social information is immediately and emotionally engaging. Both the form and the content of a Facebook update are almost irresistibly distracting, especially compared with the hard slog of coursework. (“Your former lover tagged a photo you are in” vs. “The Crimean War was the first conflict significantly affected by use of the telegraph.” Spot the difference?)

“Worse, the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on. (Does that sound like the upper-right corner of a screen near you?)

“The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is—really, actually, biologically—impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both. Asking a student to stay focused while she has alerts on is like asking a chess player to concentrate while rapping their knuckles with a ruler at unpredictable intervals.”

Shirkey realized he had to choose between teaching and watching his students interact with their devices. He chose to teach.

Madeline Scotto loves to teach. She has been teaching math at St. Ephrem’s in Brooklyn since 1954, when she was 40 years old. Now she is 100, and the school will celebrate her birthday. She coaches the math bee now. She loves teaching.

She graduated from St. Ephrem’s in 1928, then graduated from St. Joseph’s College for Women, where she majored in French. After having given birth to five children, she decided to try her hand at teaching. And she has never stopped, other than to transition from full-time to part-time. St. Ephrem’s is a Catholic school. Catholic schools are dying out because of the competition from tuition-free charter schools that claim to offer the same climate but can’t because they do not have the moral foundation of Catholic schools.

A few days ago, I attended a memorial celebration for my friend Sister Nora Ashe at the Oratory of Saint Boniface in downtown Brooklyn. All of the students and about 40 of the Sisters of St. Joseph from far and wide were there. The school used to enroll 1600 students; now it enrolls 300. It rented some of its empty space to a charter school. Sister Nora was tragically killed a year ago when a box truck slammed into the back of her car at a red light. Sister Nora loved to teach and loved to learn. She was 65. She never got a VAM score. No one was trying to measure her effectiveness; they knew she was effective by the spirit in her classrooms. St. Joseph High School named its technology room the Sister Nora Ashe Technology Center. Nora is the kind of sister who would have taught to 100 or even longer, had she survived.

Isn’t it great to be able to teach without being harassed by state and federal officials and mandates?

Sarah Jaffee attended the October 11 meeting of Public Education Nation in Brooklyn, convened by the Network for Public Education, and she saw the emergence of a new and vital spirit of resistance and dedication to public education.

 

She noted the well-known bloggers and advocates on the stage and in the crowd, but the show-stopper, she said, was a student activist from Newark named Tanaisa Brown.

 

Tanaisa Brown of the Newark Student Union perhaps best set the tone for the day when she told the crowd that the movement needs to have a central message, a central idea. “Remember that there’s other people fighting for the same causes that you are,” she said. While each location has its own specific fights – in Newark, she noted, they’re fighting against the “One Newark” plan being imposed by Chris Christie and his appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson – the movement, she suggested, needs a positive vision to anchor it.

 

“We want community schools,” she said. “Not a community school that is now a charter school, but a school that is embedded in the community and helps out the parents, the teachers, and anyone else who lives there that can benefit from wraparound services at those schools.”

 

This idea came up again and again throughout the day. It is no longer enough to simply say no to the top-down reforms, high-stakes tests, charter schools and school closings. It is no longer even enough to strike, to hold dramatic actions, to speak out. The movement, the day seemed to suggest, needs to take the next step and figure out what it is for.

 

Tanaisa is an articulate representative of students. And she is right. Saying no is not enough. But she also knows that you can’t begin to build positive change until the negative forces now crushing students, teachers, administrators, and public schools are stopped. Cami’s “One Newark” must be stopped, and students are trying their best to stop it. It is hard to climb when someone keeps cutting out the rungs on the ladder beneath you. It is hard to make progress when someone keeps beating you with a whip and threatening your job, your income, your pension, your reputation.

 

Perhaps Jitu Brown said it simplest when he said that we can’t work an inside-outside strategy. We must directly confront and block the damaging movement that calls itself “reform.” Closing schools is not reform, it destroys families and communities. Jitu Brown and his group Journey for Justice are bringing civil rights complaints against the school-closing, privatization “reforms” in New Orleans, Newark, and Chicago.

 

When Tanaisa Brown was asked for her own vision, she said she would like to go to a school that had the arts, that had dance and music. She would like to go to a school that had foreign languages and a library. She would like a school that offered the liberal arts.

 

That doesn’t sound radical or crazy or far out. Why is that so far out of reach for students in cities like Newark and Detroit and Philadelphia? Why?

 

We must continue to stop what is wrong and we must continue to fight for what is right.

 

 

 

 

Colorado State Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond sent a letter to all districts warning them not to opt out of state or federal testing. The gist of his letter was: it may be harmful; it may be child abuse; it may violate your professional ethics; Italy be a waste of time and money; but it is the law and in our state, we follow orders.

Superintendent Nicholas Gledich said District 11 did not intend to break the law. “”We’ve never had a desire to not be in compliance with the laws; we’ve had a desire to create change and coordination by which the conversation could be held,” he said.

“But D-11 isn’t conceding defeat.

“We’re not ready to just drop everything,” said Elaine Naleski, vice president of the district’s board. “We’re still having the conversations. At this point, I don’t want to say OK, they said we can’t do it so let’s go back to doing what we have been doing. We believe in local control and will do what we can locally because we believe it’s good for the kids.”

“Gledich said Hammond didn’t shut the door on D-11’s request. In his letter to Gledich, Hammond said he will have CDE staff reach out to D-11 to “explore ways in which the department can continue to collaborate and incubate innovative approaches to these issues.”

“What I see in his response is he’d like to work with us to explore innovative approaches,” Gledich said.

“However, he and I both understand that we have to work within the federal requirements.”

“The mounting resistance to standardized testing is coming at a time when Colorado education officials are reviewing a frustrating picture of a lack of academic improvement over the past 10 years of testing.

According to an annual report the CDE submitted to the State Board on Wednesday, while the percentage of students scoring proficient and advanced on math tests has increased by 12 percent since 2004, it’s only advanced by 
3 percent in reading and 
writing.

“School readiness of 4-year-olds has declined in literacy and math in the past three years and the percentage of third-graders reading at or above grade level has stagnated at about 72 percent.”

Remember how Arne Duncan says he wants less testing? Don’t believe him. In Colorado, such requests are routinely rejected by Duncan’s DOE. Do you think he doesn’t know?

“The U.S. Department of Education “has made it clear to us” that if a state or district fails to comply with the assessment requirements of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, or a state-approved flexibility waiver, its federal funding for low-income students could be in jeopardy, Hammond’s letter to superintendents states.”

Thanks, Arne, for reminding us to watch what you do and ignore what you say or write.

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