Tag Archives: teaching

Slice of Life #10: What I Like Best

Slice of LifeI have an American lit class that meets after a half hour period we’ve designated for collaborative learning and talking and working with peers and teachers. Many of my students came to class quite early today. Some of the students were discussing a quiz in history, sharing strategies they’d used to study and lamenting faulty memory when reading their history textbooks. I shared with them that my 8th grade math teacher had taught us the SQ3R method for reading textbooks, and since they hadn’t heard of it, I explained it to them. I mentioned I found it helpful for reading history textbooks in particular, but that I thought it also worked well for science. Maybe not so much for English, and I never used it in math. One student mentioned it was kind of strange that a math teacher taught it to us as it might not have been directly helpful in studying math. I said she was the kind of teacher who shared general success tips, such as study hints and note-taking methods, with us, even if it wasn’t necessarily going to help us in her class. She also taught us how to take cluster or web notes. I have never found that technique useful myself, but I’ve taught it to students who have found it quite helpful. My teacher—I still remember her name, Mrs. Sands—cared about our success and not just in her class. I knew she cared about us.

What I like best about teaching is not necessarily teaching the subject, but helping kids learn, whatever it is. I love sharing ideas and hearing from students. The conversation I described was a five-minute conversation before class, but it was a lot of fun for me, and I felt like we shared a bond over the study tips. Will they give SQ3R a try? I don’t know. But it only took a few minutes to show, and it didn’t take a lot of effort either, that I cared about my students’ success, and not just in my class.

I was in a colleague’s classroom either late last week or early this week (I forget which), and he had a small stack of writing taken up from his seniors. I noticed the names of former students, so I peeked (my colleague didn’t mind). I pulled the second paper out of the stack and started reading. It was good. I felt so proud of the student who wrote it. He had spent two years in my English classes, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence when he came in, but he worked very hard. He came in to work with me. He revised. He volunteered to have his writing workshopped. He is reaping the rewards of the effort he put into improving his writing. Of course, writing is an integral part of the English classroom, and we should be teaching students to write for a variety of audiences and purposes. It’s such an important skill to take forward, and I loved helping this student learn how to improve his writing. But make no mistake: he did the work that resulted in that improvement. He’s carrying that success forward in his English classes this year, and I don’t doubt he’ll carry it forward to future writing he does.

It doesn’t take a lot of work, I don’t think, for us to show our students that we are interested in their lives and struggles beyond our classroom walls. They will remember how we cared for them many years after they no longer remember content. Relationships are important. I remember most of my favorite teachers because of a combination of how interesting their classes were and now much we connected as people beyond the subject. I can clearly remember having teachers who made me feel invisible in the classroom, and I knew they didn’t really care about any of their students, or at least I didn’t feel it. In fact, I have had teachers who really seemed to dislike their students. I am not sure why they were teaching. Students are what I like best about teaching. More importantly, students are why I teach. And perhaps most importantly of all, I really like my students.

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Meeting Students Where They Are

meeting halfway photo
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about how important it is to meet students where they are. I am not saying we should not have standards, but we are going to have students in our classes, and they are going to be all over the map when it comes to backgrounds, experiences, interests, and ability (for lack of a better word).

I know sometimes I am frustrated that my students don’t know something I would have expected them to know. Granted, I also teach in a private school. Just like any other school, however, we have students from a variety of backgrounds. With those caveats in mind, I would venture to guess that all of us have heard teachers we have worked with who complain about students not knowing something. It might be nice if we didn’t have to fill in what we perceive as gaps, but it’s not realistic, given the different places from which students arrive in our classes.

It took me some time, but I have come to the conclusion that we really need to meet students where they are. I know that many teachers are stressed about high-stakes tests, and yes, that’s not something I need to worry about, so maybe it’s easy for me to talk. Bottom line, I think students need to feel we like them and care about them. Otherwise, it can be hard for them to invest in our classes. Did you invest in classes in which you felt the teacher didn’t like you? I remember I didn’t. Oh, I did my assigned work, but I wouldn’t ever put myself out for a teacher who didn’t care.

I try to see to it that all of my students make some progress while they are in my classroom. For some students, that means feeling more confident. For others, it means turning work in on time. For others, it means reaching for AP classes. Maybe I will feel differently about this issue next year (though I suspect I won’t), when I am teaching an AP class myself, but I am going to try to have the attitude “How can I help this student be successful on the AP exam given where they are now?” rather than “Why is this student in AP?”

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Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

surface photo

Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

Ferris Bueller's Day OffI went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater the summer before I started ninth grade. We had just moved to Maryland Heights, MO, and I would be attending school at Parkway North High School in Crève Coeur in a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone. I remember feeling scared and stressed. How would I be expected to dress? How would I make friends? Why hadn’t my mother signed me up for band?

Obviously the larger message of the film was one calculated to appeal to people in my age group: the sort of carpe diem theme I would later visit in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell (and they were writing in the seventeenth century—there truly is nothing new under the sun). But there was also this notion of defying authority, represented in the movie by the dean of students, Mr. Rooney. Authority wants Ferris in school instead of out and about in Chicago, where he will actually learn important stuff about life. Perhaps no scene embodies the uselessness of school as well as Ben Stein’s famous economics lecture:

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Despite the fact that this film turned 25 years old (yes! I checked Wikipedia!) this past summer, it still resonates. My students were talking about it, in fact, just this week. There is no doubt that it has become a pop culture icon, and it’s interesting to look at its critical reception. Richard Roeper is a big fan. His license plate even says “SVFRRIS.” He says the film is

[O]ne of my favorite movies of all time. It has one of the highest ‘repeatability’ factors of any film I’ve ever seen… I can watch it again and again. There’s also this, and I say it in all sincerity: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is something of a suicide prevention film, or at the very least a story about a young man trying to help his friend gain some measure of self-worth… Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it. That’s the lasting message of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Wikipedia)

Steve Almond says, it is “the most sophisticated teen movie [he has] ever seen” and added that it is “one film [he] would consider true art, [the] only one that reaches toward the ecstatic power of teendom and, at the same time, exposes the true, piercing woe of that age” (Wikipedia). National Review writer Mike Hemmingway says, “If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets” (Wikipedia). One of the film’s stars, Ben Stein, describes it as “the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period” (Wikipedia). I found it interesting that such a diverse group as Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell, and Justin Timberlake call it their favorite film.

I remember the film resonating quite strongly with me and other members of my generation. It remains a cultural touchstone. We have all felt like taking a day off without permission, playing hookey, and getting away with it. But I was thinking quite a lot about the film’s message about school, particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s recent death. In his commencement address to Stanford in 2005, Jobs admits to dropping out of college after a semester and auditing classes he found interesting: famously, he credits one class he took in calligraphy for awakening an awareness of and interest in typefaces that would inform development of fonts on Apple computers. Neither Jobs or his sometime friend and rival Bill Gates graduated from college. I have heard them cited in arguments that college is unnecessary, and the message that school isn’t really necessary and actually can impede your real learning is a big part of Ferris Bueller. I’ve not necessarily heard either Jobs or Gates make that argument, but the fact is that both of them learned by taking a risk and jumping in, failing, then trying again. I’m not sure school could have taught them what they needed to know to do that, beyond the basic skills. Frankly, I have never heard anyone advance the argument that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane would have spent their day better in school.

I don’t think it hurts us to examine whether what we’re teaching students—and the way we’re teaching them—is relevant to their lives, both in the present and the future. Sometimes I think we do a poor job of communicating the relevance of what we teach to our students. I overheard a disagreement about this issue the other day between a colleague and student, and the colleague walked away, while the student remained unconvinced. Listen, I am not sure I would have won that argument either, but I cringed a little when the “I’m the adult with the experience” card was played. Students will use math, science, art, literature, social studies, and all of the other subjects we teach. They might not know it, but they will. We can take this lesson from Ferris Bueller: we have a long way to go help students see school as compelling, and it starts with relevance. A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was “relevant.”

Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn.

Another lesson we can draw from Jobs is to remember our “time is limited” and we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life.” One can hear echoes of Ferris Bueller’s statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I think it’s important that our students don’t feel time spent learning from us is time wasted. I hope instead that they feel it is preparing them for what they want to do and awakening their curiosity.

And we should feel it’s important and relevant work to spend our days teaching them.

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Is Snape a Bad Teacher?

Trust SnapeSeverus Snape can be a nasty piece of work, can’t he? He happens to be my favorite character in the Harry Potter series, but I admit much of my affection for him may be down to Alan Rickman’s portrayal. As J. K. Rowling herself has said of Snape, he’s not a nice guy. My daughter Maggie and I are reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and we just finished the chapter in which Snape finds the Marauders’ Map and is subsequently insulted by it. Each time I re-read this series, I pick up on nuances I missed before. This time, I noticed Snape seems to know exactly who Messrs. Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs are, though Lupin plays dumb as though he assumes Snape couldn’t have known the nicknames he and his friends used in school. Lupin also seems to be using Occlumency on Snape—Harry notices Lupin’s face goes blank and guesses he must be doing some “quick thinking.” Of course, none of this is exactly the point of my post. With all the hubub surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter movie, and Snape’s vindication (as well as Alan Rickman’s performance) making news for those who hadn’t read the final book, I thought it might be interesting to examine his skills as a teacher.

Most people will read the title and wonder how it’s even in question. After all, Snape is sarcastic and bullies students who are afraid of him (Neville). He is disrespectful to his colleagues (Lupin) in front of their students. He favors students in his own house, Slytherin. He takes away points and gives detentions, sometimes for hardly any reason. Is there anything good about him?

As we learn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape has been protecting Harry out of love for Harry’s mother, and he has taken on the seriously dangerous role of double agent in defiance of the most dangerous dark wizard in recent memory. But what about his teaching? Does he do anything right?

Harry inherits Snape’s old Potions text in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It quickly becomes clear that the notes in the text teach Harry more than he has learned from Professor Slughorn, and he quickly becomes a star in Potions class. It occurred to me that though Harry buys a reference text for Snape’s class (1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi), any time students are brewing potions, he puts instructions on a chalkboard rather than having students read out of a text, as Professor Slughorn does. One can assume he is sharing his recipe refinements with the class, and perhaps if he didn’t scare them so badly as they worked, they might produce the same quality work as Harry does using Snape’s text in sixth year. Dolores Umbridge questions whether he might not be challenging his students too much—she mentions the Strengthening Solution students are preparing when she observes his lesson as being inappropriate for the students. Snape is also capable of brewing immensely complex potions, such as the Wolfsbane Potion he brews for Lupin during his tenure at Hogwarts. He also is able to brew some concoction that extends Dumbledore’s life after he tangles with the Horcrux made from the Resurrection Stone/Peverell ring belonging to Marvolo Gaunt. Sirius Black reports that Snape arrived at Hogwarts knowing more curses than many seventh-year students, and it is clear from his Potions text that even as a student, he was inventing spells and curses.

Hermione compares Snape’s teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts to Harry’s teaching of the DA. She mentions they both speak about the Dark Arts with reverence for the sort of power and harm it can cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Snape is the only Death Eater described as using a Patronus charm. In addition, as Snape is escaping Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore (by agreement with Dumbledore), and Harry is chasing him, Snape easily deflects all the curses Harry attempts to hit him with and leaves him with what I feel is extremely important advice: that Harry needs to work on nonverbal spells so that he will have an advantage as he gears up to face Voldemort. I don’t think Harry recognized it as such at the time—he wasn’t in any situation to take instruction from Snape at that moment—but it does become important later. In addition to attempting to teach Harry nonverbal spells, Snape also attempts to teach Harry Occlumency so that he can close his mind against Voldemort, one of the most accomplished Legilimens. Though Harry doesn’t master either nonverbal spells or Occlumency under Snape’s tutelage, he does learn the disarming spell, Expelliarmus, at the dueling club meeting run by Professors Lockhart and Snape. Harry uses this spell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Voldemort rises again and attacks Harry in the Little Hangleton graveyard. It later becomes his signature. Later, he uses it to defeat Voldemort utterly. A spell to disarm rather than attack—I’ve always found it interesting that Snape chose to demonstrate that particular spell at the dueling club. You can say what you like about his personality, but you can’t deny he knows his subject matter—both Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily make one a great teacher, however.

Snape has several faults that prevent him from being a good teacher. But it could be argued that he is certainly one of Harry’s most important and effective teachers, and perhaps one of the teachers Harry learns most from.

Image credit: You the doormat, then?

Notes on this post:

  1. I am kind of proud to say I didn’t look up anything except whether it was 1,000 or 1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi as I wrote this post. I have apparently read this series rather closely. I also Googled some links I share in note 4.
  2. I keep a Severus Snape action figure on my desk and have a Lego Snape keychain. I’m a big fan.
  3. I hope I didn’t annoy readers too much with this bit of Harry Potter indulgence.
  4. The chemistry teacher J. K. Rowling based Snape on died a few months ago of cancer. He had a good sense of humor about his influence on Snape.

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Teaching Literature

remember to thank all the books you haven't read over the past three years

I love teaching literature. I’m not second-guessing my decision to move into technology. I really love working with technology, and I am excited that I’ll be able to do more of it. I’m also excited to be able to help my colleagues integrate technology or learn about technology. I will also still be teaching a British literature course and a writing course. However, as I teach British Romanticism, I have been thinking about how much I enjoy the material, and one thing I fear is that down the road, my school will decide not to let me teach it anymore. Frankly, I’m not sure I could let it go. I’m certainly not ready to let it go yet. I think it would be good for me to remain in the classroom, even in a diminished capacity, because it will keep me fresh for some of the ideas I want to help my colleagues implement. I am also happy at my school. I know that I can possibly team-teach some material with English teachers, but I must admit that if they remove me entirely from the English classroom, I will not know what to do with myself. At my core, I am a British literature teacher. It feeds my soul. Time will tell how it will work out, but I know I am not done teaching English.
Creative Commons License photo credit: ailatan

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Shutting Down Class Discussion

Dana Huff Teaching

I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.

Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.

I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.

So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.

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New Year’s Day

Flowers / 花(はな)It’s New Year’s Day for me—the first day of pre-planning. I am teaching two sections of British Literature and Comp., one section of American Literature and Comp., the Hero with a Thousand Faces elective, and Journalism/Newspaper. Newspaper is new for me. I have sponsored a newspaper before, but it has been a few years. I think it’s going to be a good year. Of course, a new year is always exciting for teachers, or at least it is for me.

In addition to the wiki I have created, I decided to use BuddyPress for forums, blogs, and class groups. Jeff Utecht discussed BuddyPress the other day, and though I’d seen it mentioned other places, I finally checked it out after reading Jeff’s tweet, and I have to say I think it’s going to be a really powerful extension of my classroom. Plus, I have my own domain, so why not?

I’m going to have trouble getting used to this back-to-school schedule. I am NOT looking forward to school-supply shopping. Poor Maggie has been bugging me to do it for weeks. She wants a new, more grown-up backpack. I’m just glad I don’t need to get anything for my own classroom—for a change. My own children don’t go back to school until the 23rd. Almost all the other school systems around here started today. I think their system just decided to shorten the year by starting later—systems all over the state are doing it to save money. Sad they have to.

More soon!

Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

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Teaching Schedule

Material escolarI received my teaching schedule for next year. I am stepping back into some comfortable areas as well as taking on some new challenges.

I will be teaching two sections (two levels) of British Literature and Composition, same as I did this year, and I will also be teaching my Hero with a Thousand Faces elective first semester and Writing Seminar II second semester. I have taught Writing Seminar II for at least second semester, if not for the whole year, ever since the course was created. The reason for that is the academic research paper is assigned for all tenth graders, including those in that Writing Seminar class, during second semester. Teaching the research paper is one of my areas of expertise, which sounds really self-congratulatory, and I’m not usually like that, but I do understand why I am consistently given the task by my principal.

I am returning to American Literature and Composition, which I haven’t taught for a few years. I already used this word, but that curriculum feels comfortable to me. It will be good to get back into again. I really did kind of miss it.

I am taking on the new challenge of teaching Journalism and running our school paper. I have taught a Journalism course before in middle school, and I feel the course was great considering the lack of support I received by the administration and the lack of materials I received. Aside from getting a local car dealership to underwrite a two-day a week subscription to the newspaper, I had no teaching materials. In my new position, I will have computer access and software, a few seasoned newspaper veterans in the class, and I would wager I’ll have all the support I will need to make a go of it.

As I gave the teacher edition of one of the 9th grade literature anthologies to the teacher who will teach the class next year, I remarked to her that I had taught that course (Grammar, Composition, and Literature CP2) since its inception at our school. Wow. That has been for the last six years. I have taught ninth grade for every year of my high school teaching career. That means teaching Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey every year for 10 years. It was wearing thin, and when I realized a couple of years ago that I was no longer enjoying teaching even these favorites, I knew I needed a break. Maybe I won’t mind coming back to it after a rest.

I think I have decided not to buy a Teacher’s Daybook this year. I find Jim Burke’s planner to be the best I’ve ever used. It’s flexible, but one struggle I’ve had is that I have a lot of preps and a strange alternating schedule, and in my search for a planner that works better for me, I found this: Planbook by Hellmansoft. The video demonstration gives you a good idea of all the planner can do, but here’s a great description from the site:

Planbook is a lesson planning application developed by Jeff Hellman, a high school science teacher. Planbook is designed to completely replace your paper plan book with an intuitive application that lets you harness the power of the computer to make your lesson planning time more productive. You can enter the schedule that you teach (rotating and A/B schedule are easily handled), quickly enter lesson information, attach files to lessons, track standards, print hard copies of your plans and publish your plans to the web for students, parents and other education professionals and more.

Planbook is simple enough to use that you’ll get going in no time, but robust enough to deal with schedule changes, days with abnormal schedules and just about anything else that comes at you.

Given the price, and given all the strangeness in my schedule, as well as all the features and the fact that its on the computer, it just makes sense. I can use iCal or Things to manage any reminders for non-instructional tasks (such as due dates for college letters or recommendation or meetings).

I’m looking forward to next year. I think it will be a good year.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

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