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Defining Professional Learning Communities (PLC)

I wrote this post in 2005 where it is cross posted on Rethinking Learning. I read it and thought it needed to be posted again with a few updates.

A Professional Learning Community (PLC) is comprised of people (teachers, para-professionals, administrators, and other community members) who collectively examine and collaboratively work to improve teaching practice. A PLC can but does not have to be situated in one school or district. With the ability to work online from anywhere at anytime, members of the community can connect, find others with similar interests, study and review existing teaching practice, and do action research to improve teaching and learning.

Being a teacher is challenging work and can be isolating. Many teachers teach the way they were taught which many times tends to be traditional lecture style: the expert or the giver of knowledge. Now with accountability issues, teachers are pressured to meet standards and teach to the test. What I am seeing is more teaching that is prescriptive in nature. In some areas, especially for at-risk students, this style can be  effective in teaching reading but less effective for students to retain deeper concepts. When teachers can interact with other teachers who have similar teaching situations, take the time to test and challenge their ideas, inferences and interpretations, and review and process information with each other, they grow professionally. This learning experience grows exponentially with the expanding exchange of ideas and multiple sources of knowledge from a variety of participants of the PLC.

A PLC can be a powerful professional development opportunity that encourages change and improves professional and personal learning.

Attributes of PLCs: the Five Dimensions
(adapted from source: http://www.teachinflorida.com/teachertoolkit/PLC.htm)

  1. Supportive and Shared Leadership. The collegial and facilitative participation of the administrator shares leadership with his/her staff by facilitating their work.
  2. Share Values and Vision. All PLC members develop a shared vision based on their commitment to the needs of their students and their desire to improve their teaching practice or grow their own skills and learning.
  3. Collective Learning and Application of Learning (Collective Creativity). PLC members move beyond existing procedures and teaching methods to design strategies for improvement based on high standards, latest research, and best practices.
  4. Supportive Conditions. The environment is risk-free so all members are safe and comfortable to collaborate, communicate, learn, make decisions, problem solve, and share their results and products.
  5. Physical Conditions and Human Capacities.
  1. Time to meet and talk
  2. Small size of school or PLC
  3. Physical proximity of staff to one another
  4. Teaching roles that are interdependent
  5. Communication structures
  6. School autonomy
  7. Teacher empowerment

I agree with the first four dimensions for any school. An online PLC can take the fifth dimension beyond the classroom and school walls.

  • PLC members can meet anytime from anywhere.
  • The PLC can be multiple sizes with the support of  eCoaches who guide and facilitate the process.
  • Anybody can be the teacher and learner and eCoach.
  • Communication online is a paradigm shift for teachers and needs to be designed into daily routines.
  • Teacher and Learner empowerment.
  • Learner centered environments.

The PLC as an Organizational Culture

Most learners adopt the organization’s guiding principles. If these principles are top-down decisions without input from all the stakeholders, the members of the organization may implement them without commitment and belief that they will affect positive change. The organization will be more successful if all members are valued and involved in the decisions on the direction of the community right from the beginning.

A sense of relational trust – linking the notions of respect, competence, personal regard, and integrity with academic achievement – also strengthens the community and makes shared decision-making possible. (Gordon – 2002)

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Creativity in Education

There is a lot of talk about bringing creativity into the standards-based classroom. What does creativity mean to you? Does this mean that a teacher is defining the type of curriculum and classroom environment? Or does it mean that students have a say in what they learn?

I want to challenge you to think way outside the box about this. If we are going to design a learning environment where students are creative critical thinkers that have the skills to be collaborative global citizens and become the best they can be, the focus needs to be on the learner. If we do this, then everything changes: the school, the classroom, teacher education programs, administration, and the relationship with the school with the school community especially the parents.

I was reading today about the number of jobs available and that there are not enough people qualified in the US for high tech talent. Tapan Munroe stated in “It’s a seller’s market in some fields of work” that it is a myth that there aren’t job openings in America. Education is focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to help build these skills, but the US student is just not prepared to fill these jobs. US launched the Common Core standards that are separate skills that do not seem to relate to today’s kids. We have all the standards in My eCoach and teachers match their projects to them. We have people who are adding resources and projects to the standards. Here are two seventh grade Common Core Math standards:

 

Analyze proportional relationships and use them to solve real-world and mathematical problems.
MATH-RPR.7.3. Use proportional relationships to solve multistep ratio and percent problems. Examples: simple interest, tax, markups and markdowns, gratuities and commissions, fees, percent increase and decrease, percent error.
Expressions & Equations
Solve real-life and mathematical problems using numerical and algebraic expressions and equations.
MATH-EE.7.3. Solve multi-step real-life and mathematical problems posed with positive and negative rational numbers in any form (whole numbers, fractions, and decimals), using tools strategically. Apply properties of operations to calculate with numbers in any form; convert between forms as appropriate; and assess the reasonableness of answers using mental computation and estimation strategies. For example: If a woman making $25 an hour gets a 10% raise, she will make an additional 1/10 of her salary an hour, or $2.50, for a new salary of $27.50. If you want to place a towel bar 9 3/4 inches long in the center of a door that is 27 1/2 inches wide, you will need to place the bar about 9 inches from each edge; this estimate can be used as a check on the exact computation.

How do you use this in a real-world situation? I asked Ken Bakken who is an eCoach on my team to help some 7th grade teachers create a real-world project that would make sense to students. Percentages can Make and Save you Money

This is still teacher-driven curriculum but it is a step in the right direction. The idea is to make the curriculum real to the learner. What if we tried a different approach where learners were given a problem or concept and they came up with the driving questions? Give them some real-world concepts like…

  • Climate Change
  • Pollution
  • Water Quality
  • The Price of Oil

If you look at one of these concepts, you could probably think of questions that will engage students in amazing discourse. Letting go is good. Let the students brainstorm the questions. Give them the standards and what is expected of them and then let them go again. Let them co-design the activities based on the standards. You provide the structure, the guidelines, and facilitate learning and collaboration. Just watch the creativity take off.

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Brand Yourself

What is your Unique Selling Position (USP)? How do you stand out in a crowd or in social media so you are remarkable and different enough to get noticed by an employer or client?

You can do this by branding yourself. The job market is tough and sending thousands of resumés may not be the right way to get that “job” you want. I am older than most job-seekers but I learned some things about using the tools available to get known. I read this article from AARP and thought I’d share and adapt the tips for you.

  1. Find your passion. It’s all about what you believe in and thinking and looking positive about it. Believe in yourself and what you are doing. If you do, others will too. “Accepting yourself is the most important ingredient in the self-confidence formula.”
  2. Give an elevator speech.Come up with a short 60 second pitch that comes across who you are, what you do best, and why others should believe in you. Make it authentic, strong, and personal and make it stand out from your competition.
  3. Validate your passion.You believe in what you are doing. You are positive about it. Find others that do to. Encourage your believers to share your passion and get the buzz out all over the place. Find your “Google Quotient” using the Online ID Calculator (www.onlineidcalculator.com) to see how many relevant hits your name generates in a web search. Use social media like Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter to build your PLN (Personal Learning Network).
  4. Promote your passion. Design business cards that promote you and your brand and give them out to everyone after your elevator speech. Link to your website that promotes you also. Have all of your contact information so people can find you.
  5. Come up with your look. Come up with your look and dress the part. You may have a signature accessory, color, or shoes. Just look as professional as you can with crazy boots or wild glasses.

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Defining Quality Education

President Obama seeks to end the ‘status quo’ of education law. He got it right that schools are struggling to meet the requirements of the act and Duncan said “under the current law, it’s one size fits all. We need to fix this law now so we can close the achievement gap.” We are talking about designing a quality education that measures how students are improving. I’d like to propose a new movement that defines what quality education means. One size does not fit everybody so how do you define one type of education?

Not only do we have to call for more flexibility but be real about where students are. Not every child is ready or right for college. If we compare our students to students in China, India, and Brazil, then maybe we need to look at those students and where they really are based on achievement, prior knowledge, and goals. The students in these countries and others are tracked. We are comparing all of our children on their college bound students: the best of the best.

We measure all of our students…that is… the ones that don’t drop out. We base the tests on standards. The problem with the way state standards and Common Core standards are designed is that they are separate skills that don’t connect to the real world. Tests teach to each standard. This type of assessment is confusing for the test-taker and difficult to design.

Instead of focusing on each standard and how to teach to that standard, I suggest designing real-world projects or activities that meet those standards. You can map your curriculum and standards and even design collaborative projects with other teachers.

The Obama Administration has invested $350 million to support states in their efforts to create more sophisticated assessment systems that measure problem solving and other 21st century skills and that will provide teachers will timely information to help them improve instruction.

So in defining quality education, problem solving and 21st century skills, let’s look at authentic assessment i.e. portfolios. The portfolio is a collection of evidence of learning. Some of the evidence includes tests, essays, presentations, pictures, and reflections.

Questions to reflect on:

How do you measure improvement? How do you design this new type of learning environment that measures success of each student? This is not going to be easy but I’m up to the task. Are you?

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Going to CUE

I’m looking forward to going to the CUE (Computer Using Educators) Conference in Palm Springs  (March 16-19) – not just because of the weather. But because of the people — connecting in person with people you know virtually. This is my time to recharge, learn, unlearn, and take some risks. I’m presenting four sessions, so you probably have figured out what I’m doing right now. finding lots of resources and goodies to share.

CUE Conference 2011Come and Get It – Free Stuff to Use Right Away
Thursday 9:30-10:30 in the Oasis 4 of the Convention Center

Digital Storytelling and Web 2.0 Workshop
Thursday 11:30-2:30pm  – registration required
Plaza B Hilton Hotel – Windows Lab

Mobile Technology – Learning on the Go
Friday 11:30 – 11:50
Oasis 1 – Convention Center

Quick Ways you can bring Joy to Learning
Friday 3:30 pm to 3:50 pm
Oasis 1 – Convention Center

I’m putting together a website with lots of resources with a backchannel for participants to share resources. Let me know if you are going and share any presentations you are doing. If you are going to or presenting at a different conference, please share that also.

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The Educated Unemployable

Thomas Friedman’s article China, Twitter and 20-year-olds vs the Pyramids wrote:

“Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia today are overflowing with the most frustrated cohort in the world — “the educated unemployables.” They have college degrees on paper but really don’t have the skills to make them globally competitive. I was just in Singapore. Its government is obsessed with things as small as how to better teach fractions to third graders.”

This issue is not the middle East’s problem alone. The world is changing and education is not looking at the bigger picture. We are in a global crises everywhere. Young people 15-29 are realizing that their education or lack of it is impacting their ability to get the type of jobs they need to live. They are finding they have a voice: on the Internet. People making sure they are heard: on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Friedman writes:

“The Arab world has 100 million young people today between the ages of 15 and 29, many of them males who do not have the education to get a good job, buy an apartment and get married. That is trouble. Add in rising food prices, and the diffusion of Twitter, Facebook and texting, which finally gives them a voice to talk back to their leaders and directly to each other, and you have a very powerful change engine.”

What if oil prices rise? They will. It’s inevitable. Then food prices. Yes, they will rise too especially if more countries have government turnovers and the people of the country revolt. It is now happening in Algeria. What about developed countries like the United States, the UK, Australia, and Europe. If the unemployment rate does not go down in the US to 8%, the US is going to make some changes maybe not to where we need to go. Also are the numbers correct? What about the 99ers who have been unemployed for over 13 months?

We have educated people who have been looking for work for months. Work has changed. Businesses are running slimmer and cutting costs because of the uncertain economy and less cash flow. So things have to change all over. If people 15-29 are educated, use social media, then maybe we need to teach them how to use social media to create businesses and entrepreneurial skills. For those in under-developed countries, this will be a very big challenge. How to create enough jobs or businesses for 100 million people? Oh my!!

There just are not enough jobs for everyone. When I look at organizations like Kiva that provide small loans for people around the world who want to start their own businesses, I see hope. Everyone of us has a dream somewhere down deep. We were born as unique individuals who have interests and passions. If we continue to teach the same way we have for hundreds of years, we will continue to get the same products. People looking for work that is not there.

It is time to review all this emphasis on testing and standards and question “are we preparing our children for their future?” Our competition is not the school next door. It is China and India. Our children are part of the global marketplace. As long as they believe school as we know it today may prepare them for their future, they are caught in a system that could lead them down a road of failure. Some jobs are definitely needed: doctors, lawyers, engineers. But even if you become a teacher, it does not mean you will be assured there will be a job for you where you want to work.

How about teaching how to do projects, create projects, and market your projects? People who have critical thinking skills and are creative how they find solutions will get projects. Jobs where you received benefits and a pension may not be the same anymore. Just having a job now does not give anyone security anymore. We are in a revolution. Education is the key but what it looks like today is not what we need for the world’s economy. It is not all about jobs anymore. It is about how we are preparing people for their own survival and how it benefits society or the people in your area. If we start children very young asking questions and being curious about the world, they will come up with solutions.

Why not create a project about the climate, the creeks in your area, housing market, or another major issue that impacts your community? Except ask the students to create the project, ask the questions, and own the process. Any project can match standards. Students own the learning when it is relevant and real to them.

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The Purpose of Education

Purpose BadgeThe purpose of education is to provide opportunities for all children to meet their fullest potential. That’s not happening. The dropout rate in the United States is higher than ever. More children are left behind now since the law No Child Left Behind. Now we’re Racing to the Top expecting all children to be at grade level by 2014.

Schools are designed the same way they were hundreds of years ago. The teacher is delivering instruction and facts very similar to the lessons they taught with an overhead projector or chalkboard. Schools were designed after the factory model starting in the 1800s. Grouping by age meant a teacher would have more control over their classroom like a manager in a factory behind closed doors. Standards were developed so at each grade level, students at one age would learn skills and attain specific knowledge that would prepare them to move to the next level. Just because one child is at a five year level doesn’t mean that all five year olds think alike or have similar prior knowledge.

Each child learns at different rates, and has different learning styles and intelligences. One six year old may be reading and writing fluently where another has never had the opportunity to read at home nor owns books and may not even know the letters of the alphabet. Since No Child Left Behind legislation, instruction is more teacher directed with the focus on increasing scores. Textbook companies created content that taught to the test. Several of the textbook companies own or are closely tied to the testing companies.

My dream is for every child to be in control of their own learning. The purpose of education needs to shift to the learner learning in any environment.. Now with digital textbooks, online courses, Web 2.0, social media, and access to everything a learner needs at their fingertips, the purpose of education is changing.

We cannot continue to deliver instruction feeding students facts. We need to rethink how to structure learning. Does it have to be at a school? What if students could review what they need to learn by the end of the year and collaborate with their teacher, peers, and parents to design real-world engaging and innovative activities? Students should be able to assess their prior knowledge and be able to challenge a class so they move at their own speed.

Let’s redesign schools into learning centers similar to Reggio Emilia schools. Teachers as observers and co-learners. Students ask questions that mean something to them. Everything is inquiry-based. This approach can be adapted for K-20 even if you base it on standards. Students can learn at a higher level if they are motivated. Look at collecting evidence of learning in an ePortfolio posted online and showcasing projects that mean something to the world so students celebrate what they know and do. We can bring joy back to learning and create amazing citizens who collaborate on global projects.

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Building a Learning Village

First posted in the Winter OnCUE Journal 2011

“Many of our schools are good schools, if only this were 1965.”-Louise Stoll & Dean Fink

The world is changing. Today everyone is connected to each other with information instantly at your fingertips. Everything is changing, that is, except schools. Teachers and administrators are integrating technology by adding interactive whiteboards, instant response clickers, and even 1:1 laptop programs. However, one glance into most classrooms, you would find very little has changed over the past 30 or more years. Education still mainly involves teachers feeding information to students to cover the curriculum in preparation for a standardized test. 21st Century teachers involve everyone in the community in their children’s learning.

Changing the learning environment takes more than adding technology to the mix. It means bringing in the real world, involving the school community, and changing the learning environment so our children have the skills they need to compete in the global economy. Some of the resources we had in our homes 30-40 years ago include:

  • Television without remotes
  • Landline phones
  • Records and maybe 8 track cassettes
  • First personal computers with less than 128K owned by very few
  • No Internet or maybe a select few had email

Today, most children, even those who may be at-risk, have cell phones. Many of these cell phones are Smartphones with the ability to connect to the Internet, text messages, listen to music, and even watch TV and movies. The power of these Smartphones is thousands of times more powerful than what we had with multiple devices 30 years ago.

Culture influences student learning more than even formal learning with easy access to cable television, music, video games, cell phones, movies, and other technology. Before and after school students connect to each other and virtual places that transform them into worlds we have no control over. The classroom can no longer be separated from the real world. Educators need to find ways to make learning relevant and applicable to students’ real world so that they are influenced by intellectual information rather than simply the pop culture of today, which has changed drastically over the past 30 years. [Johnson, B and McElroy, T. 2010]

Authentic Relationships with the Community

Teachers have been and many still prefer working in an isolated environment. The classroom is their domain. The teacher who prefers working in this situation may lack the confidence they need to engage in authentic conversations with parents and others from the community. The classroom door is literally closed to the world. The 21st Century teacher involves everyone in the community that believe in their children and want the best for them. This open and inviting teacher welcomes dialogue, builds authentic relationships with all key members involved, and sees this as an opportunity to develop classroom support for their students and themselves. Authentic relationships are built upon respect between all the members of the school community. Each member has responsibilities in developing and nurturing these relationships. All key individuals are important because of the experiences and abilities they bring to the educational community. It takes everyone in the educational community (the village) to produce an intentional relationship.

Opening up the classroom and inviting the community to be involved with what is happening in the classroom is new for many of our teachers. Even our newest teachers may not have learned these strategies in their teacher education programs. Change is scary. This administrator can build the relationships with the community first by promoting their school and its goals. The administrator can reach out to teachers, leaders, businesses, parents, and other stakeholders to encourage their involvement in designing a shared vision for the school.  Everyone needs to voice their hopes and fears in a risk-free environment. A shared vision gives all stakeholders a sense of ownership and feeling of pride in the outcomes. Asking a business or organization to participate in students’ learning activities may open doors that lead to new doors.

You never know what could present itself if members of the community realize they could help their school. Some ways might include:

  • a plot for a community garden
  • mentors and tutors for the after-school program
  • career day
  • author book talks
  • technology support
  • offering prizes and rewards for events

In turn, students could participate in community service learning projects:

  • reading to young children
  • maintaining the garden
  • teaching technology to seniors
  • being a docent for an exhibit

Bringing Parents on Board

Today’s families have also greatly changed compared to 30-40 years ago. There are extreme pressures on families with the economic concerns and other demands of today’s culture. The number of working moms has doubled from 30 percent in the 1970’s to almost 60 percent today. Just to keep the family together means that Americans work 160 hours more per year than they did 20 years ago. With the economic conditions, some parents are out of work and having difficult times paying their bills.  On top of that, many students live with one parent, a guardian, or two working parents.  Parenting is even more difficult when you consider the gap between parents and their tech savvy children.

The 21st century teacher can initiate new types of relationships with their students’ parents. This teacher contacts each students parents or guardian to learn more about their child, their hopes and dreams for their child, and how they can work together to guide their child to success. They become a team that is a collaborative support system that keeps a close eye on the progress of their child. The school can have an online portal that parents can access to check on homework, grades, and projects. Since face-to-face meetings may not be possible with parents busy schedules, teachers can forge a connection with parents in a virtual environment. Teachers can connect using a variety of tools such as setting up a website or wiki, a newsletter, a contact form, chat, email, IM, Twitter, blogs, and even providing their cell phone number. In this instantly connectability world, parents and teachers do not have to be strangers.

Reference

Johnson, B. and McElroy, T. The Changing Role of the Teacher in the 21st September 2010. Vol. 7. No 9. Teachers.net. Online. Retrieved September 20, 2010. http://teachers.net/gazette/wordpress/dr-brad-johnson-tammy-maxson-mcelroy/changing-role-of-the-teacher/” target=”_blank”>http://teachers.net/gazette/wordpress/dr-brad-johnson-tammy-maxson-mcelroy/changing-role-of-the-teacher/

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Moving to Student-Centered Classrooms

Teachers only teach what they were taught. Most teachers were taught traditional methods of direct instruction. Theorists like Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky focused on students being more responsible for their learning. Papert focused on constructivism where students make learning happen. Montessori focused on preschool children learning through play. The Reggio Emilio approach, started in Italy after World War II, encourages preschool children to proactively participate in discovery learning while adults chronicle their progress. Bruner focused his research on discovery learning where students are encouraged to learn on their own through action and experience.

Each student is unique. Students learn at different rates and have multiple learning styles and intelligences. (Garner’s Theory of Multiple Intellligences) When you look at how we teach, most teachers are still at the knowledge or remembering level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. (Andrew Church revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy below)

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

Teacher-center vs student-centered classroom

Teacher-centered Student-centered
Traditional Progressive
Standards-driven Curriculum-driven
Factory model Inquiry model
Breadth Depth
Single Subjects and
grade level focus
Thematic and
real world applications
Depth Breadth
Focused on Product Focused on Process
Process- and product-oriented Product-oriented
Short time on each concept Block scheduling and
cross curricular activities
Isolated teaching and learning Collaborative activities for
students and teachers
Rote knowledge Experiential knowledge

Students can be more involved in the decisions of how they learn and what they learn. If they are aware of the standards and tests they need to learn, they can even help teachers design activities that engage them and help them understand the concepts. Most students zone out after 1-2 minutes of anyone talking at them. If they are accountable for a presentation, song, skit, poster, or an exhibit, they take more ownership of the product. The product really doesn’t matter as much as the process, but to the students, it means alot. Writing an essay that only the teacher reads doesn’t mean anything to them. If their peers read their essays, that’s another story. If they have to do a showcase of their work and their parents or others in the school community see it, then they really care. If their work is published on the Internet, then they will work on it overtime, on breaks, after-school. The engagement factor explodes.

So the important piece here is to tie in any projects or student-centered activities with standards. As long as we use tests and standards as measurement of student achievement, we have to do this to show that this type of classroom works. Eventually, we need other means of assessment that are more authentic.

To move to this type of classroom takes time, patience, and being okay with taking risks and learning from failure. That is tough for today’s teachers that are accountable for scores based on standardized tests. What I suggest is to start slowly. If you are a teacher who wants to move in this direction, here are some steps you can take:

  • discuss what you want to do with your administrator
  • introduce the new Bloom’s Taxonomy to your grade level or department
  • identify gaps in learning by analyzing student data
  • choose one area where you can design one project or lesson that includes inquiry
  • check the resources you have available first before you even start planning
  • sit with a coach or colleague to redesign a lesson to include a more hands-on approach to learning
  • ask your coach to model some of the strategies for you or explain to your students honestly what you want to do and ask for their help
  • involve students in more of the design of questions and the type of products they will be presenting

A strong leader helps. If your students have access to computers and the Internet, they can work in groups. Talking about technology is another post.

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Holiday Amnesia

I got this email from Adam Wentz about holidays…

I am currently suffering from holiday amnesia, a clinical ailment that leads to forgetting everything I was supposed to do after a lengthy amount of time not doing anything that I knew I was supposed to do while simultaneously doing everything I could to avoid doing anything.  This of course has many symptoms not the least of which include forgetting passwords to work computers, ah ha moments where I remember something vaguely that I was planning to do before the break (and yet not exactly remembering the details), and of course there is the forgetting of peoples names… who are you people?

I laughed but it hit home. I didn’t realize that it took longer to do things over the holidays. Was it all the sugary treats? Was it that this is supposed to be a time to rest and reflect? The time with family I haven’t seen in a long time. I was going to do so many things over the holidays and hardly touched my To Do list. Someone wrote me. I couldn’t remember who they were. Then a day later, it was one of my good friends. Alzheimers? No, I got it. Adam is right. Holiday amnesia. So now it’s back to work and getting the brain moving again.