The Things I think about when I Differentiate

I recently posted this entry in my blog Ser y Estar at

Many good and tough experiences with differentiation have made me realize that differentiation is not something that we must do because some students need help, or because some students are more able to carry out certain kinds of tasks. We differentiate because learning happens in different manners; because the route to get to it is more stimulating when we are touched by differences; because when we become aware of the warning bells that signal opportunities to conduct different explorations, we can experience creativity and curiosity flow through our veins.

The differentiated classroom is defined and described in many ways, but I could just simply say that it is the environment that recognizes teachers and students as a human beings. Basically my conception means that both of them share the credit for learning successes and the responsibilities for the difficult paths that need to be walked to experience with new ideas.

The classroom is a place where any learning and thinking individual should feel different, for it is the kitchen where good ideas are being cooked; it is the lab where new formulas are being tested; it is the playground where we are allowed to be playful with tools, before we put them to practice in the real world. So, what do I think about when I differentiate? Like any kind of reflection, there is a prior, during and post differentiation stage.

The stage prior to differentiating feels like a roller coaster: it has its ups and downs; it is filled with excitement and anticipation; grains of anxiety could be experienced; but I enjoy the readiness for doing in my fingers; the voices in my head that prompt me with ideas and dangers; the electric sensation that is produced when creating something that will help. There are times when I feel like Ironman or like a great X-Men with awesome skills. Many times I am unafraid, but there are times when I also feel nervous about new things that I am willing to try.

The stage during differentiation defines challenge in every way. This stage forces me to act as a shape-shifter; I need to be whoever students need me to be, since the questions that are asked pursue different kind of knowledge and because each student is operating in a different level of learning. The layers of learning in this stage are simply extraordinary: I need to find ways to stay engaged with the connections students are making, while being observant of what students have to say about the conceptual knowledge that is unwrapped. It is part of my job to remain curious about the learning that is constantly evolving in the classroom, understanding that I need to be willing and ready to let students do the talking and the thinking. This stage is exhausting, but the feeling I experience is the substance dreams are made of.

After differentiation a moment of silence is required; I need to make room for digesting the experience; I need to listen to the voices in my head again. The questions they now pose have to do with the way I operated in the narrative of the class that was just delivered; they ask me how I will talk about learning with students; they ask me to look at how this experience fits in the whole architecture of my teaching and, most importantly, they encourage me to plan the next best thing. And yes, I understand that after each success or struggle, I will have to plan a next best thing.

After a differentiated class, I need to start working on generating a new universe of work. This is normally best done with a good cup of coffee or tea, or with the joy of dialogue with some of my colleagues. This is the stage where I reaffirm to myself that teaching includes the demonstration of the skills we foster and aim to develop in students; that students’ thirst for knowledge activate creativity instincts in teachers and we must, therefore, create environments where this happen. When my attempts did not work as planned, I can feel a maelstrom in my skill toolbox, I can feel the noise; I can sense the silent encouragement; I can touch the texture of my thirst for resource-exploration and problem solving; and I can hear the voices of the dialogues that will follow the next best thing, when students and I celebrate that we have made it.

I differentiate, therefore I learn; and I am convinced that it is part of my job to sail the waves of creativity to generate the environment where students can tell the difference between my teaching style and others’.

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Is this a habitat in which inquiry can thrive? Questions and warning bells for the inquiry classroom

I posted this on my blog a few weeks ago and have had some lively conversations and reflections as a result.  Posting here in the hope that it may spark similar conversations amongst inquiry teachers…

I was reading an interesting post from @langwitches in which she refers to @brholland’s slideshow from a recent ASCD conference. In true domino style, Beth’s post got Sylvia thinking and blogging and Sylivia’s post got me thinking and blogging! The issue being explored by these two educators was around what we are ‘looking for’ when we walk into a learning space/classroom. Beth raised a number of key questions that we can ask to help reflect more closely on the effective use of technologies. The post and slideshow are great…as is Sylvia’s sketched response to it.  You can find them here:

As readers of this blog know, I pretty much obsess over all things inquiry. So of course, this got me thinking about the questions that roll around in my head when I enter a classroom. Most of the time, I am looking through an inquiry lens … looking for connections between what I see (and hear) going on and inquiry learning/ teaching.   I am lucky. I get to walk into many, many different classrooms in many different places and I am often intrigued by the things that signal ‘inquiry’ to me and, equally, by the things that, well…don’t.  So I am wondering: what questions do I ask?

Below are some that come to mind. Brainstorming this list has been a useful exercise in considering what might count as ‘evidence’ of inquiry – albeit in a ‘snapshot’ visit to a classroom. Obviously, one needs to spend more than a lesson in a classroom to really get a feel for the kind of learning habitat it creates BUT, Here’s my list anyway…I would love you to add to it!

  • Are (thoughtful, connected) questions being asked by students?
  • Are students’ questions visible and valued in the learning space?
  • Are students ‘doing the learning’ rather than having the learning ‘done to them’?
  • Are students doing the cognitive ‘heavy lifting’ or is the teacher doing all the hard thinking work?!
  • Are students collaborating – teaching and learning with each other?
  •  Is there movement? Are students free to move around the learning space? Is there flexibility and fluidity here?
  • Is the teacher moving around, interacting, observing (as opposed to standing and delivering)
  •  Is technology being used as a means to an end – to gather, sort and share learning?
  •  Can I see how this learning moment is part of a ‘bigger picture’ as opposed to being a fragmented/one-off activity?
  •  Do the students know why they are doing what they are doing? Is the teacher transparent in her/his discourse?
  • Is there a sense of curiosity/wonder/intrigue/anticipation?
  • Is the communication between the people in the space (teachers and learners alike) respectful and warm?
  •  Are the teachers excited/curious/engaged/energized?
  •  Is there some laughter? (the good kind)
  •  Does the physical/visual environment tell me something about the learning in this space? Can I connect with a narrative of inquiry? Are students using the visual environment to support them as independent learners?
  • Can the students talk with me about their learning? Can they articulate not just what they are doing and why but HOW they are learning and why?
  • Does this space make ME curious/engaged/intrigued? Does it invite me to want to learn, to be here, to participate, to investigate?

And, while I am at it, I also got to thinking about the things that act as ‘warning bells’ …. Perhaps a sign that a classroom might not be the best habitat for inquiry learning. It can concern me when I see/hear…

  • Each child doing the same thing, the same way at the same time.
  • Total, sustained silence.
  • A noise level that makes it difficult for me to have a one-one conversation with a student
  • Teachers doing much more talking than students
  • Learning products on display (art work, worksheets, etc) that ALL LOOK MORE OR LESS EXACTLY THE SAME (yep – it still happens)
  • Tables in rows
  • NO space for students to gather in a circle/group (no ‘campfire’ gathering space)
  • No spaces that allow students to retreat and be in their ‘own’ space
  • The teacher at the desk.
  • A teacher’s desk.
  • Mess. Just plain old, can’t–be-bothered mess. Not the glorious creative chaos that comes with many inquiry experiences but just mess. Sorry…but inquiry requires organization, management a respect for the learning environment. Beauty, even. And yes. I have a thing about that.
  • The interactive whiteboard being used as a chalkboard with buttons.
  • No evidence of any use of digital technologies.
  • Worksheets.
  • Bright, beautiful, laminated things on walls but NO artifacts that share students’ learning
  • Lots of commercially produced posters (even if they say good things, if that’s all that’s on the walls it makes me suspicious)
  • No evidence of what the students are inquiring into. The classroom should tell that story in some way.
  • Kids checking in with the teacher about everything…’Can I? Is it OK if? What do I do now? I don’t get how to…’
  • Kids that can’t tell me why they are doing what they are doing
  • Teachers raising their voice. A lot.

What questions would you add to those we might ask ourselves/others when looking at classrooms through an inquiry lens?   And what are your warning bells?

 ….just wondering….

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Learning & Play: Ten ways to interact with children in play  

Originally posted at

As I prepare to re-enter the classroom next year, I have been reading up on all things PLAY. We will be diving head first into a play based curriculum that is clearly defined and structured. It is exciting/inspiring. One of my questions is; how do we, as adults and teachers, interact with children while they play?

Here are ten strategies for interacting with children’s play to guide them to higher levels of thinking and complexity.



Follow them around as they play. Point out basic observations. State the obvious. Acknowledge the choices they are making, bring those choices to the forefront of their mind. Observe. Tell the story as it happens.

“I see you are making a house”
“You’re pulling the wagon over to the water tap”
You’re digging a deep hole”


Mention what they have done, and point out the effort it took to do it. As Dweck would say, don’t praise the child, but the effort.
“You are following your plan very closely”
“You made a really long bridge, it must have been difficult to make it balance”
“You observed very closely and drew lots of details”.


Focus on specifics, the small details where you see growth. This will bring their attention to these details and cause them to have a quick reflection on your statements. Open a space for a conversation about specific skills.
“You’re using a lot more colors than yesterday”
“Your clay model is standing because you made the legs thicker.”


Bring yourself into the play by discussing your own difficulties, or your own approach to problem solving. Share strategies that are useful to you. Ask them to try and see if they are effective.
“When I can’t think of what to draw I take a walk to clear my head”
“Sometimes when I am angry, I like to sit by myself”

Show (or Tell)

Sometimes there is a correct way to do something, and the child simply needs to be shown the method. We often feel children need to figure out everything by themselves, but it is just as effective to show them how, in real time, and have them copy you. Or other times, they might not know the problem and even after questioning they don’t see the solution. Don’t be afraid to tell.
“Take clay roll it with the palm or your hand”
“Hold the brush like this”
“To unscrew the lid, hold it with one hand, and then with other turn it this way”
“I think the bottom is too thin, that’s why the tower is falling down”


Provoke their thinking. Ask them specific questions to get them reflecting on what they are doing at a higher level. Encourage them to take their wondering to new levels. Key concepts are a good lens to use to focus their questions. Listen to their observations and their forming theories, then question.
“What would happen of we mixed it with water?”
“What other tools does a carpenter use?”
“Why does the shadow keep moving across the floor?”


Different from questions, this is a call to do something. It asks them to manipulate the materials they are using in a different way that pushes them further, focusing on specific skills.
“Can you use all the blocks?”
“Can you make a list of all the items in your shop?
“I wonder if you could make this map go all the way to the edge of the page?”


Lose yourself in the play. Join the scene. Become a character. Help build something. Be a child.


Fill in gaps in their knowledge. If you see them acting out a role, but missing a key element of that role, fill in the blank for them. Provide vocabulary that enriches the play. Inform them of past experiences and situations they have experienced.
“That tool you are using is called is a spatula”
“After the doctor helps the patient, they go to the recovery room”
“Do you remember when we met the Aikido-sensei? He said they always bow before a match”


Tell them what they can or cannot do. Play is not always about student choice. An element of student choice is involved, but the teacher sets constraints. Constraints lead to creative thinking. These constraints are carefully chosen to allow space for exploration emerge.
“You can only use three colors”
“That area is closed today”
“Let’s pretend we are forest animals”

Learning to play is a recursive process that is always changing. We need to be mindful of our own practice. No top ten list will supply the magic formula (though it may give us a framework to think and reflect).

There are many more verbs to add to this list (and in many ways these verbs cross over with each other). Be mindful of when you are using them, and be mindful of why.

Inspired by:
Gaye Gronlund – Developmentally Appropriate Play
Playing With Children: Should you? If so, How?
Play with Children

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Why do we stop children being playful learners and then worry about how we can make them creative?


This post originally appeared on

Mitch Resnick in his article Lifelong Kindergarten concludes with the thought :“Instead of making kindergarten more like the rest of school, we need to make the rest of school – indeed, the rest of life – more like kindergarten.”This reflects the points I raised in my previous blog post about developing a playful mindset in students, (“Do we have the confidence to let students be playful learners?”) that the conditions that are naturally found in play are exactly the ones we are all trying so hard to create in the learning environments of our classrooms.

Why then is it that schools seem to try so hard to suppress students’ natural desire for play only to relabel those desires as creativity a few years latter and fret about students not being able to do them?

In a recent report quoted in Forbes Magazine the US based National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) listed the top 10 skills they were searching for in new graduates:

1. Ability to work in a team structure
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
4. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

I have highlighted in red the ones that jump out to me as being the skills that would (although worded slightly differently) be likely to be in the list an average 6 year old would make as key skills for playing with friends.

Don’t get me wrong point 6,7 and 9 are highly important skills that schools need to foster. All students should have high levels of numeracy and literacy and technical knowledge. However I would argue that too often, instead of using children’s natural creativity and playfulness to leverage the effective learning in these area, we focus 6, 7 and 9 at the expense of all of the others. Rather we should be developing a symbiotic relationship between creativity and high levels of technical proficiency and ‘academic’ knowledge to create highly flexible and capable learners who love  learning.

Compared to this if you look into most play based Kindergarten classrooms such as those of my colleague Alison Camire you will certainly see all of the skills in red, and arguably some of the other three as well, enacted on a daily basis. You will see students creating and sharing their creation together in flexible group situations.

In the excellent Lego Foundations  Cultures of Creativity Report by David Gauntlett & Bo Stjerne Thomsen, the authors state “The creative mindset is an attitude to the world characterised by curiosity, questions, and a desire to play, make and share, which children possess in their early years, but which is often tragically lost in the culture of schools and workplaces.”

How is education failing to foster a culture of creativity?

Whilst there are amazing things going on every day in many inspirational classrooms, traditionally we notice a number of things occurring as students get older which go against the development of a culture of creativity:

1) The learning environment (what Loris Malaguzzi so aptly described as ‘The Third Teacher’) becomes less rich. Ewan McIntosh speaks about 7 types of learning spaces. It would be a useful check for teachers to critically look at the learning spaces they’ve created and ask how many of these spaces of learning do they enable?

2) The level of autonomy learners have over their own learning is increasingly reduced. As the work of Edward.L. Deci and others have shown, the feeling of self determination and autonomy have a large impact on students’ intrinsic motivation. Whilst pressures of covering content for high stake exams mean that some autonomy might to be reduced as learners get older this does not mean that autonomy can not be given over factors such as who the learners work with, where they position themselves in the learning environment, exactly how they display their understandings etc.

3) The opportunities for learners to play with ideas and create meaningful products as they construct meaning is reduced. Gradually this time to play with ideas and objects is replaced by being told the correct response and being required to repeat it. The work of Design Thinking argues very convincingly the need to provide time for the discovery, interpretation,ideation, experimentation and evolution of ideas. It also makes clear that this is not a solo project ideas and objects need to be co created and this brings me on to point 4.

4) Speaking of Elizabeth Cohen’s ideas of “Complex Instruction’ Jo Boaler makes the point in maths that group work should exploit the multidimensional quality of classrooms; that groups should be set up so that every member has a valued and meaningful role to play. Again as learners get older too often we see both a decline in group work and a decline in the types of equality of group work you often see in free play where children will pool their talents to achieve a meaningful goal for them.

5) I have spoken in my previous blogs about the importance of creation in the learning process. This is fully evident in the early years of education with classrooms full of artefacts and products made by the children and in which they take pride. As learners become older however this creation of a product which is meaningful to the learner, be that a physical product or an intellectual one increasingly gets relegated to being the preserve of the creative arts. Why should this be the case? Why are all learners not empowered to create with what they are learning?

6) Two weeks ago at my school was one of the highlights of the year the Student Led Conferences. Students in both the Elementary and Middle Schools spent over an hour sharing their learning with parents and in some cases siblings and grandparents. It was an incredibly positive experience for all involved. Ideas and emotions are exchanged when we share products that are meaningful to us with peers, family, teachers, in short communities are built and cultures developed. Web 2.0 has vastly broadened the ways in which people can share their ideas and creations to the wider world using a wide range of literacies. Yet we see eduction often reduced to learners producing a product in which they see no value which is shared in a private interchange between them and the teacher, who often dreads the prospect of having to see it.

Reflection Points as we move forward

How then are educators overcoming the obstacles noted above?

As educators reflect upon the culture of creativity they are developing within their own learning environment, these questions may help them to scaffold their thinking:

1) How has the environment I’ve created inspired learning?

2) Have learners been able to exercise a degree of autonomy over their own learning?

3) Have learners had a chance to play with ideas and objects prior to creating?

4) Have my learners been able to take on a range of different group roles whilst co creating meaning?

5) Have my learners created something of meaning to them?

6) Have learners being able to share what they have created with people important to them?

I really look forward to people letting me know how a culture of creativity is being created in their learning environment.

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Teachers’ work and students’ work

“There’s no time for inquiry. I’ve got content to cover.”

“Look at this topic list. Where will we find the time to inquire?”

“These kids don’t know how to inquire.”

“There’s an exam at the end of this year.”

There are a lot of different reasons why many classrooms do not make time for student inquiry, and these statements are just a few of the most common.

If we take a look at the four statements above, we find that perhaps the most common excuse for not approaching learning through student inquiry is a lack of time, which seems to be occupied with topic lists and coverage in preparation for an exam. The other one is that students don’t know how to inquire.

What are the bases for these misconceptions about inquiry?

  • Is becoming curious something that cannot be facilitated?
  • Is covering content entirely separate from processes of asking questions and finding out, sorting information, evaluating it, thinking about its relevance, drawing conclusions?
  • If students become personally motivated to find answers to questions they ask about content and concepts, what might happen?
  • Do curiosity, processes of learning, and motivation take up so much time that they cannot be engaged in when content is being covered?
  • Are exam questions not able to be answered using process, skills, knowledge and understanding that might result from well-designed and facilitated inquiry?

By i_yudai (The fork in the road) [CC BY 2.0 (] , via Wikimedia Commons

By i_yudai (The fork in the road) [CC BY 2.0 ( , via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that we might want learners who are:

  • Curious and motivated to find things out
  • Able to construct good questions
  • Able to learn processes and use these deliberately to find answers which are not readily apparent

Covering content is teacher’s work.

When the summative assessment is upon the learner, he or she must do some work.

If the teacher does all the work, what will the student do when the time comes for him or her to perform it?

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Just Make – Documenting Play and Exploration in Robotics

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-ND ) flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs

I have been wondering for a while about all the hype around the Reggio Emila Approach, an early childhood program that focuses on relationships, documentation, project work, personal expression and active listening. Initially my attention was sparked by Dan Donahoo’s keynote for ICTEV13 Conference and the notion of the ‘digital village’. More recently, Cameron Paterson piqued my interest. Firstly, with a post about the links between Project Zero and Reggio Emilia through his discussion of the book Visable Learners. Then more recently in a post exploring the use of documentation in the Secondary classroom. I have been left thinking about what Reggio might offer my own teaching practises.

One of the things that stands out to me in regards to Reggio is the power of play and discovery. The idea of students driving their own projects and inquiry with the teacher providing a space and documenting the various experiences has a lot of potential. Although this could happen in any context, I saw a real opportunity through the teaching of robotics.

I felt particularly challenged by Steve Brophy in regards to letting go. In a post talking about developing a Makerspace, he explained that:

From a facilitator point of view, I purchased everything but opened nothing. I left the whole process to the kids and was constantly amazed by how much the kids would ask “are you sure we can do this?”

Although I had brought in inquiry in regards to wondering about robotics, I was still reluctant to let go of control of the building process. What I noticed in reflection was that for some students this was fine. They liked the structure that I provided. However, there were some that just wanted to explore and I was only inhibiting, rather than harnessing, this.

As I could not find anything in AUSVels that specifically said students must be able to build and program a NXT Mindstorm robot, I decided instead to provide them with the requirement to ‘make’. What unravelled when I handed out the Lego kits was amazing. Some started with instructions, others tested and tinkered. Some explored programming, others making. Some scrapped the instructions part way through, while others picked them up after some initial open explorations. Some walked around to check what other groups were doing, while others supported different groups with their questions and issues. Although I answered a few questions and found some missing parts, I just moved around and documented what the students were doing. All in all, most students demonstrated a depth of understanding and engagement at the end of the first session far beyond what I had ever seen before in a building session.

in a recent post about play, Tom Barrett suggested that:

It is not simply the timeless nature of immersive play but also the way that physical barriers, and even the rules of physics, become non-existent. They are changed, thwarted and ignored. Superpowers ON!

What was so exciting to observe in the lesson was seeing students enact the greatest superpower possible, the ability to not only learn together, but to in fact drive their own learning.

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Seeing is not believing

Possibility Over the past three days my school has hosted Mark Church, of Making Thinking Visible fame. He visited us to hold preliminary discussions about us developing a culture of thinking and hopefully the faculty will decide that this is something worthwhile continuing so we can begin to delve into some different perspectives on teaching and learning.

I was lucky enough to be involved with several of the breakout sessions and one idea that was raised was that the students we teach don’t necessarily believe what they see. Instead they see that which they already believe. This refers to the notion that a teacher could deliver a lesson in which they think that something has been taught, yet the student still harbours preconceived ideas. The example that we discussed regarding this was of the ideas of two students explaining that in a completely dark room your eyes would adjust to be able to see an object. Despite prolonged questioning and a carefully arranged experiment that allowed the teacher and student to sit in a room with absolutely no light, the student still maintained that her eyes would adjust to be able to see the object. Her original prediction was 2-3 minutes, then 5-6 minutes, then an hour or two and in the end she still maintained that her eyes would adjust – but it might take a year or two! This example showed that, even though the student was willing to shift her perspective slightly, she still did not believe or understand that the eye cannot see anything unless there is a light source. The lesson here for teachers is to recognise that its not necessarily the evidence that is presented that will cause a shift in conceptual understanding, but the ideas and opinions that students have around it that matters. The power is in the hands of the learner.

The acknowledgment that students have ideas and opinions has significant implications for teachers. Discovery learning, project learning, problem-based learning and the variety of other pedagogies fall short of the mark if they are enacted in a way that doesn’t listen to or value the voice of the student. They need to be embedded in inquiry. If the impetus for learning is coming solely from the teacher then they will only produce the same results as behaviourist approaches to teaching.

I’m currently reading a book by Marcia Behrenbruch called ‘Dancing in the Light‘. In this she identifies two approaches to planning in inquiry classrooms. The first she terms ‘planning for purpose‘. This refers to the teachers’ role in planning. It leaves less room for student-initiated inquiries but answers questions such as: ‘What are the significant, relevant, challenging and engaging conceptual ideas that should be addressed? What knowledge and skills could be developed through these ideas?’ This sort of planning in progressive curricula is based on the ‘Backwards by Design’ framework. The second approach to planning is referred to as ‘planning for possibilities‘ – a term that I was immediately drawn to. This process supports the development of student inquiries around the identified conceptual understandings. A variety of frameworks exist and all encourage student questioning at the classroom activity stage. When these two frameworks support each other, a teacher achieves what Behrenbruch refers to as an ‘integrative inquiry approach’. This is student-centered yet also allows for state, national or school requirements to be met within the curriculum. The craft of the teacher is dedicated to managing the interplay between the two frameworks, guiding the development of knowledge and skills identified in their ‘planning for purpose’, whilst also reflecting on the direction that student inquiries are taking. This is managed by formative assessment and focused through the conceptual lens(es) for understanding.

Mark also highlighted three types of data typically gathered by schools. That which we can count, that which we can see, and that which we can hear. He talked about filling up data buckets and that a great number of schools have a very large ‘counting data’ bucket, but much smaller ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ buckets. He referred to the analogy of a 4 year old visiting the doctor. If the doctor weighs the child, measures their height and takes their temperature then they may easily conclude that there is nothing wrong and they’re perfectly fine. However, a thorough doctor would also, for example,  listen to the child’s breathing and heartbeat, look for any abnormalities in or outside of the body. These may point to something else and give reason to further exploration. The point is that all three types of data tell a part of the story but none tell the full story alone. Schools must ask themselves how they are filling and scrutinising their three buckets of data. If we acknowledge that students come to our classrooms with ideas, opinions and preconceptions then we must ask ourselves how we are finding out about these? How are we getting our students’ thinking into our heads, instead of the other way around?

Photo Credit: built4love.hain via Compfight cc

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