Posts Tagged 'Education'

On Equity Issues in the Maker Movement, and Implications for Making and Learning

Kids at Maker Faire 2012

If you’re interested in the intersection of the maker movement, education and equity, take a half an hour and watch the video Thinking about Making. In it, Leah Buechley, the brilliant mind behind the LilyPad Arduino, compellingly points out the ways that the maker movement has failed to broaden participation and representation in its ranks beyond those who are wealthy, white and male. These issues are ones that need to be heeded, she argues, because the maker movement is at this point not just about tinkering and DIY culture, but about education and thus inextricably linked to issues of opportunity and access. She points out that when priorities are simply about hobbies and hobbyists, it’s potentially fine (though not preferable) to have a limited scope in terms of who’s in the conversation. But when there’s talk about education, and substantive moves to start putting money, human capital and political will behind the maker movement as part of educational reform, she rightly points out that leaving out issues of equity is unacceptable.

I’ve blogged here before about the complicated, and potentially productive, relationship between making and learning. Buechley’s talk has inspired me to talk about where I see things now, especially in terms of issues she raises around race, gender and class. Specifically, I want to talk about how while the maker movement hasn’t internally changed its tune when it comes to broadening participation, we can still take inspiration from solid work being done by equity oriented educators that’s happening at this intersection of making and learning.

Eyeo 2014 – Leah Buechley

Important context here is precisely how I came to the ‘formal’ maker movement, and how this affects the way I think about issues of equity in relation to making. Like many within the educational world interested in making, I was never part of the cultural ‘ranks’ of the maker movement beyond having been obsessed with Legos as a kid. Rather, I was of the progressive education world, specifically coming from a youth development perspective. At Global Kids, I worked with non-dominant communities focusing on empowerment, youth voice and new media literacy development in the context of youth digital media production. When I encountered the maker movement, I was just finishing my work at Global Kids and about to enter a doctoral program in the learning sciences. In the context of my academic work, I began to think more deeply about a variety of cultural changes involving new media, including the maker movement, from the perspective of learning theory. I, like other educators and scholars, was considering the ways that the maker movement might offer some inspiration for the re-imagining the design of learning environments. In contrast to didactic, ‘dumping knowledge in heads’ models of pedagogy that dominate education, the maker movement seemed to value creativity, experimentation, productive failure and applied usages of knowledge within authentic communities. These features, so sorely lacking in traditional ways of thinking about education, made the maker movement an attractive metaphor for the design of learning. Maker environments and practices also happened to line up quite well with Constructionist and sociocultural theories of learning that I began to value then, that I continue to value now, and that are valued by a range of researchers and practitioners dedicated to more equitable and powerful visions of learning.

In a somewhat ironic twist, it’s possible to consider me, and many others that hold similar commitments, as ‘colonizers’ of the maker movement for the purposes of equity. I was an outsider to a culture, looking to appropriate, for my own educational community’s agenda around creating more agentive and empowered approaches to learning, the social practices and tools found within it. I’m fairly unapologetic about this – I think education needs all the help it can get, and if we can be inspired by things found in creative subcultures, I’m all for it.

Buechley points out that the formal spaces of the Maker movement, places like Make Magazine and Maker Faires, have not become spaces with broad participation where equity is fully on the table. That’s a shame, and an ongoing problem. But one thing that is positive is that I’m seeing many of my colleagues within the education community successfully bridging practices and tools from the maker movement into their work in ways that are helping to move the needle on issues of equity. As a way to continue this conversation she started, I thought it might be useful to share some examples of what I’m seeing that look like in practice.

In the context of Hive Research Lab, I have the opportunity to study many organizations within the Hive NYC Learning Network that are doing exactly this sort of work to bridge maker practice and equity-oriented education. Take MOUSE Corps, a program where non-dominant youth engage in participatory design to prototype assistive technologies with and for communities with disabilities. Or Dreamyard, a long-standing community arts organization in the South Bronx that’s incorporated soldering, 3d printing, and physical computing within its Dream It Yourself program. gadgITERATION, a project by the Parsons School of Design, has high schoolers teaching middle schoolers, all from underserved communities, the basics of electronics. At the New York Hall of Science, which hosts the annual NYC Maker Faire, youth and educators in the Collect, Construct, Change program worked to create an open source hardware and software tool that can be used in local citizen science projects that look at environmental issues in low income neighborhoods. Perhaps my favorite example is the Brooklyn College Art Lab, part of the Brooklyn College Community Partnership. This past summer BCCP engaged in an inter-generational, community-based co-design of their drop-in center to create a maker lab within it, working with youth and experts from other organizations around the city in a process that held true to the organization’s values of not just being in but of the surrounding community.

There are some lessons that I think we can glean from these examples, lessons that can be heeded by others interested in making and learning who want to make sure we keep equity at the heart of the conversation. The first lesson is to bridge making practices into valued cultures of non-dominant youth. Dreamyard, as an example, has teens creating musical instruments, and brings fashion crafting into its programming. The second is to link making practices with taking action on social justice issues. Both NySci and MOUSE do this when they, respectively, engage in making for the purposes of shedding light on environmental conditions in a neighborhood or creating technologies that make life easier for those with disabilities. And a final lesson is to design maker education initiatives with, not just for, local communities. Brooklyn College Community Partnership is a wholly grassroots organization, and in figuring out what the maker movement might mean for their educational programs, they made sure that a full range of stakeholders, especially youth, were at the table. In many ways these lessons are not new – theories of culturally relevant pedagogy, funds of knowledge, co-design and participatory design would all suggest creating learning environments in similar ways. We just need to remember to continually apply, and advance, such ideas as we explore this intersection of making and learning.

There are, of course, many more examples that we can look to of people and organizations bridging maker practices into equity oriented education work in inspiring ways. Not least of which, and a good final example to mention, is Buechley’s own work on the LilyPad Arduino, a technology platform that has successfully created greater opportunities for women of all ages to engage in creative computing through electronic textiles. The maker movement itself, as Buechley points out, has been slow moving to incorporate values of equity into its cultural spaces. As it continues to gain steam and legitimacy within educational circles, we need to continue to voice that this is not an acceptable status quo, especially as more resources are directed towards this intersection. And we can look to examples that are rooted in the work of innovative, equity-oriented educators to see what good practice looks like so that, as Buechley says, the new boss doesn’t look the same as the old boss.

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Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school

I have a confession to make. I’m learning. In school. No joke. I frame this as a confession because I’m someone who’s generally pretty hard on institutionalized education, and especially schools, and now I might have to go and revisit my stance a bit.

First, some background. I’m not one of those people that looks back on their school experiences, even those in higher ed, and feels like I was inspired, or particularly well equipped, to scale new intellectual, personal or professional heights. There are some small exceptions of course and probably some very positive aggregate effects, but looking back there are no teachers that really stand out as changing my trajectory, no courses that shook the foundations of what I thought my place was in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any “bad” experiences in school beyond feeling like high school sucked on a social level (but hey, who didn’t have that experience?), but I when I look at the other places that I’ve really learned in my life, it doesn’t really stack up in comparison.

When I think about the kind of learning in my life that was foundational and life changing on the intellectual, personal and professional level, I look outside of school. I look to life experiences of the informal variety. As I look back on my adult life, three places in particular strike me as the ones where I’ve learned the most: my meditation practice, my time living abroad in India, and my time working at the youth development organization Global Kids. And as I reflect on these experiences, I can see why I’m in a situation here in graduate school where I’m learning – in each of these areas I can see some quality that I’m now finding in my current experience.

I starting meditating when I was about 18. For me this has been part of a spiritual journey that I won’t go deeply into here (feel free to explore some other writings if you’re curious), but one that I will say has been meaningful and important for my development as a (at least somewhat) reflective, mindful and conscientious adult. This development has been grounded in the exploration of a practice; a continual refinement and commitment to a particular technique that has stayed with me through most of my adult life, evolving with me. Directly engaging in a practice, learning from others about how they practice, paying close attention to the contours of this particular practice, and, importantly, persistently applying the practice in new contexts and integrating new insights into it has unquestionably been one of the deepest (and at ten years, most ongoing) learning experiences I’ve had in my life.

I lived in India twice over the course of about two years, the first time more related to some of the interests I just mentioned, the second more related to my professional life (again, if curious, you can read the old blog I kept while living in Bombay). Beyond the particulars of first the study abroad program and then the NGO-based fellowship that I participated in, the big learning experience for me here was about cultural immersion. One of the unique things about living abroad is that it makes visible the taken for granted mechanisms of culture by exposing you to mechanisms wholly different from your own. In immersing myself in the drastically different culture of India, I came to see more clearly the contours of my own culture back home in the US. More generally, I learned how to experience and interpret the world through the lens of culture and see the critical role it plays in the learning process – how a given culture both structures our lives but also provides the basis for our own agency.

As my first extended professional experience, my time working at Global Kids has so many things that I can say about it in terms of my own learning to be a professional (and I have, if you’re again curious), but I’ll limit myself here. What I’d really like to focus on in terms of that experience is my immersion in work and a field that I feel passionately about. I came to Global Kids coming off of my second trip to India, with a deep commitment to working on issues related to human rights, though not really knowing very much about that area as a field. And Global Kids was an interesting place in terms of that – it isn’t a classic human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It’s a youth development organization that does education about human rights, and works with teens to foster their own identities as global citizens. Even more than that, my place within the organization, in it’s Online Leadership Program, put me in a position where I was exploring the question of how youth can be civically engaged through the lens of new media. This led me to become deeply engaged in the emerging field of Digital Media & Learning, and over the course of my time at Global Kids I became more immersed in that space through work on collaborative projects, presentation at conferences and development of a network of colleagues whose worked I respected. In this experience I came to understand what an impact working in a field that I’m passionate about has one my own learning, motivation and development.

Circling back – here I am in graduate school, and looking around me, I see practices, I see culture, and I see a field that I’m passionate about. And I see how these three components are intertwined in a way that supports my learning. I’m developing a set of distinct practices related to the investigation of questions of learning – they involve the application of theory, utilization of research methodologies, and development of analytic and argumentation techniques all used to produce new knowledge about the world. I’m surrounded by a productive culture that’s supportive of my development – one that’s inquisitive, innovative, experimental and rigorous in the ways that it engages with the questions it cares about. And I’m able to work on the things that I’m passionate about through the work I do in my courses, through the work I do in my lab, and through the interactions I have with the community around me.

I share all of this because I’m surprised. I’m surprised at the ways that I’m developing and learning in a formal education context and how different it feels from all of my other encounters with the formal educational system. I’m sharing my own experience as a learning scientist who’s researching informal learning spaces and technologies because he believes in their potential to help inspire new educational innovations, but finding, suddenly and surprisingly, that it’s wholly possible to have a robust learning experience in formal learning context that contains all the markers of the most effective informal learning I’ve experienced. The irony is not lost on me here.

In one sense the implications of this realization feel daunting – how can I look to my own positive experience with school and integrate that into my work as someone looking to transform education? Is it even possible to have a learning experience like this in an educational space that currently looks so drastically different, with classrooms that are increasingly under pressure from standardized tests, schools that look increasingly like prisons, and students who haven’t been encouraged to pursue their passions? In another sense, this insight it feels validating and empowering – it is possible to have a schooling experience that’s personally meaningful and robust in terms of learning. And I’ll just have to do the work to figure out what it means for my work as someone dedicated to good learning for all youth.

Avoiding the “Creepy Treehouse” When Using Technology to Connect Learning Ecologies

Photo by AlmostJaded, licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-nd

In going through a series of readings this week on the topic of games and learning, I found myself looking at the model for technology and learning that I’ve been working on in a new way, and asking a new question, namely: if we create technologies that connect the various nodes in a young person’s learning ecology (online communities, libraries, school, pop culture, etc.), how do we avoid the phenomenon of the “creepy treehouse”, whereby youth avoid participating in a given space or using a given technology because of its affiliation with institutional structures and adult cultures?

I’ll say more soon about this “creepy treehouse” phenomenon and how I’m thinking about it in terms of my model, but first it’s important to acknowledge the ways that I’m seeing various technologies already doing work to connect youth learning ecologies. For those that haven’t gone through some of my past posts on the subject, one of the things that I’m very interested in is a system that personalizes youth learning via creating automated and social recommendations (like Amazon and Yelp, respectively) that allow youth to follow their interests and connect the various places in their life that they learn (more on that here, if you’re interested). While reading about Quest Atlantis this week, a educational game that I’ve known about for quite a while as it was developed and housed in the very Learning Sciences department that I study in, I remembered that there are many existing projects already out there that do work to connect these nodes in youth learning lives, though not necessarily in the way that the particular project I’ve been thinking about does.

In a paper on Quest Atlantis (Barab et al. 2005), the designers reference this idea of connecting different learning nodes, if not explicitly. One way that the game is framed is as a space where education, entertainment and social commitment are intertwined to create a compelling learning experience. In terms of the learning ecology that I visualize in my model, this is doing work to connect formal school (the “learning” part of the triad where Quest Atlantis is mostly used,) to online affinity spaces and popular culture (“entertainment”) and civic and community action (“social commitment”). They reference some of the issues I talk about in my model in terms of popular culture’s success in engaging young people but failure to effectively leverage this success for learning purposes (p. 90). They also claim that the game’s connections to real world issues “are frequently as motivating to children as are the entertainment aspects of the project” (p. 98). Clearly, a lot of thought went into considering the various places that youth learn and engage in terms of the design of this project.

One other project that aims to do some linking of learning nodes that I’ll mention briefly is called RemixWorld, which comes out of a Chicago project called Digital Youth Network (DYN). DYN is a youth development program that trains youth in various forms of new media production via both in and out of school programs. An innovative project in and of itself, DYN does good work to integrate media production into the core content of schools, leveraging skills developed in afterschool hours within the classroom to create richer learning experiences. RemixWorld, though, does unique work to link the out of school lives with time spent in school and afterschool DYN related programs. A private social network where youth post their media creations, the space serves as a bridge between many of the interests that youth have outside of school, such as anime, video games and hip hop, to a program that recognizes and validates these practices in more intentional learning contexts.

Acknowledging that there are numerous projects that aim to weave together the learning lives of young people, we come back to the question of how to avoid the “creepy treehouse” effect. First, a couple of words on what I’m talking about here. One definition of “creepy treehouse” (among many variations) is:

Any institutionally-created, operated, or controlled environment in which participants are lured in either by mimicking pre-existing open or naturally formed environments, or by force, through a system of punishments or rewards.

It can also refer to practices of educators requiring students to friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, resulting in an institutional encroachment on friendship driven spaces. More often though, the educational technologists using the term are referring to created online environments that are meant to be reminiscent of things that “digital natives” love, such as “the social media”. Online learning management systems with personal profiles, “friend feeds” and a variety of other features often find themselves guilty of evoking the “creepy treehouse” effect. Students know that these spaces still represent the often conservative priorities of the educational institutions that house them, and many use them as minimally as possible. This often has both to do with who’s controlling the technology as well as the fact that the spaces it aims to create are inauthentic.

So what to do? Not all technologies that promote learning fit the profile of the usual suspects accused of being “creepy treehouse” (Blackboard tends to get a lot of flack in this regard, and I have to say they’re not going to get any sympathy from me), but ones that aim to connect to places where youth learn outside of school certainly might be at greater risk since they are interested in many parts of youth lives often considered off-limits to adults, such as hobbies, pop culture, and other interest driven activities.

In terms the technology driven personalization/recommendation system (which needs a much snappier name), I’m thinking about a couple of things. For one, something like this can’t be affiliated with an existing formal learning institution, period. To begin with, most of these institutions have their own internal logic and agendas that would likely corrupt such a system, but moreover being actively affiliated with institutional educational is a great way to lose credibility with a young audience. More importantly, the system would be an example of technology that’s both for youth as well as by youth, with youth actively involved in it’s design and development. I’ve seen in earlier work that when youth are actually involved in creating a space or technology, they implicitly have greater ownership over it and don’t see it as “other”. Finally, I think that in and of itself, a technology like this naturally avoids falling into the “creepy treehouse” trap mostly because it’s not aiming to be a space where youth are meant to spend significant amounts of time – it’s meant to connect them to the spaces where they actually want to do that. Think of it this way – the time I spend on the social recommendation site Yelp itself is minimal compared to the time I spend eating at the restaurants it recommends. What I’m envisioning is less a learning destination in and of itself, but rather the connective tissue that links other legitimate learning environments, and thus would (hopefully) avoid the taint of the “creepy treehouse”.

Swinging the Pendulum Too Far on Teacher Training

Photo by Pseudopam. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC

While it’s generally not my area of research, I’ve started to pay more attention to current debates about teacher quality and training that one inevitably encounters when in the education field. Even outside of taking any policy or curriculum courses, Learning Sciences students and professors at my University teach courses, mostly educational psychology, to undergraduate pre-service teachers and so invariably have to grapple with the questions about what it means to prepare those students well for their roles in the classroom. And so this article in the New York Times about teacher education programs caught my eye.

The article reports, mostly positively, on a new movement in teacher education that’s focused almost exclusively on in-field placements and instructional practice and technique. The movement builds off of, in my opinion, valid critiques of traditional teacher education programs in which students mostly spend their time in courses, with some field placements that are often largely observational. I know of at least one undergraduate teacher education program where the students don’t actually get into any sort of direct instructional role until their third semester spent in the field. That there are enormous retention problems for teachers in their first three years in the classroom is no surprise – they’ve been ill-prepared by a broken teacher education system.

Both personally and as student of learning, I’m not a huge fan of the model of education we find in higher education courses (with some recent exceptions). The best learning experiences I’ve had were after I left college and were a result of diving deeply into real problems, grappling with solutions, and watching others. The best learning theory agrees with my experiences here too. And yet I’m deeply disturbed by this new, entirely practice oriented teacher education movement’s apparent disregard for theory. Take a look at this quote from the article:

“I can study Vygotsky later,” said Tayo Adeeko, a 24-year-old third-grade teacher at Empower Charter School in Crown Heights. She was referring to another education school staple — Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet theorist of cognitive development who died in 1934. “Right now,” she added, “my kids need to learn how to read.”

Ok, never mind that I happen to be a huge fan of Vygotsky and have never read anybody that articulates how learning happens as well as he does. Never mind that the article also takes some pots shots at John Dewey, Howard Gardner and Paulo Freire, all people whose ideas, if they were actually well heeded, would result in a radically different, more creative and more equitable society. Never mind that. This comes down to a basic truth about the relationship between theory and practice.

Kant, among many others, put forth that theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind (and yes, the irony of quoting a philosopher’s theory on this point is not lost on me). But I truly believe that any good teacher, and really any good practitioner or designer, will have balance between these two realms. In most of the tech world, for instance, companies both large and small engage in iterative design processes that lead to the emergence of design principles (aka, theory), which lay the groundwork for more effective design processes (aka, practice) down the line. Learning Sciences’ core methodology, design-based research, does the same.

I understand and empathize with the desire to be more practical and hands on in our approaches to education. Hell, this is everything that I study and advocate for and that I think young people’s learning environments, including but not limited to school, should be based on. But if we swing the pendulum too far on this one, if we cut out spaces that allow teachers in training to pull out patterns in their experiences working with kids, we do just as much a disservice to them as we’re doing now by not giving them enough direct experience.

Getting Clear on Priorities: Save the National Writing Project

It’s true. I haven’t blogged in six months. So this had better be important, right? You bet. I’m writing because we need to get our priorities in order when it comes to this great experiment we call democracy. And that has everything to do with the fact that the National Writing Project has been defunded.

Let me work it backwards. I started working in public schools ten years ago, at the ripe young age of eighteen, as a tutor and mentor. I’ll be honest – for many of my early years in schools I was not inspired by the teachers I observed or worked with. There were a few though that were clearly dedicated to the youth, to the practice of pedagogy, to figuring out the best way to be an educator. These people played a role in my own choice to become an educator. I chose though to work outside of schools, in the spaces on the fringes where innovation seemed more possible, in afterschool programs, libraries, museums, on the internet with emerging collaborative communities.

And for years into my professional experience I had experiences in schools that echoed my early ones – not necessarily just with individuals, but rather with cultures that seemed reactive, unsupportive of those that worked within them, that seemed to be allergic to learning and changing themselves. To be clear – this was my own limited experience in a very limited number of schools. I have no doubt that there are many out there that don’t fit this bill. And I point to these experiences here mainly to provide a contrast to so many of those I’ve had since I came into contact with the National Writing Project.

I had the opportunity to start working with NWP in 2009 through their Digital Is initiative, where I and my (then) colleagues shared some of the work our organization had been doing experimenting with pedagogical approaches that meaningfully incorporated new media. And while I went in to share the practices that I’d developed, I ended up very much being a learner in the many interactions I had with the people involved in NWP. Immediately I saw a culture where teachers were constantly working to push their practice, share technique, reflect on student work and experiment with new approaches in a way I’d never seen in the schools I worked in. This was not singular individuals – it was a culture of learning among teachers, national in scope, vision and participation and highly specialized to the local contexts in which it worked.

As my friend Paul Oh, a friend at the NWP describes, the Project is both an infrastructure and an idea. It’s both about supporting local chapters (over 200) and partnerships between teachers in the network and local colleges, as well as about a broader idea of, as Paul puts it, “Teachers Teaching Teachers” and trusting in the expertise of a group of people dedicated to their craft and to young people’s expressive capacity.

That this and so many other literacy programs are getting cut is astounding to me. As my friend Bud Hunt, also a teacher in NWP, says, the budget of the organization, when viewed in national federal budget terms, is a rounding error. The effects defunding might have on actual youth, on the other hand, are not. Just so it’s clear that this is not only a personal issue of having friends and colleagues that are effected, NWP has consistently shown through research the efficacy of its work for student outcomes.

Cuts to a program like NWP are problematic on many levels. On one, they set a precedent for future cuts to social programs that reflect an ideology that says the role of government is to get out of the way, rather than to assure that those most vulnerable in society are able to succeed. On another, it plays into a very disturbing current trend in the educational world to strip teachers of support (look no further than Wisconsin for evidence of that). A culture like NWP’s takes time and resources to develop, and losing support will have major impact on the ability of that culture to continue to provide a space where teachers can reflect on their practice. Finally, and most importantly, these sorts of cuts indicate that we now live in a country unwilling to invest in having a future generation prepared to engage in the democratic process in an informed way, the basis of Jefferson’s vision for how this country would work. Without informed citizenry, we don’t have democracy. Education is at the heart of that, and if, when the going gets rough, we decide to stop investing there, well, we are shooting only ourselves in the foot.

Many people are blogging this weekend in support of NWP, check them out, and, if you’re inspired, contact your state representatives to save NWP and put them back into the coming year’s budget.

On Obama’s Speech to America’s Students

Obama Speech to America's StudentsRecently on our family listserv, we had a little back and forth about Obama’s recent speech to students across America, with most giving positive reviews.  I thought it was fine, but had a bunch to add, and to critique, so I thought I’d share here as well.

I agree that the speech was really wonderful, and important, but do have a bone to pick with Obama on this one.  Hear me out.

Throughout the entire speech the predominant theme was that youth need to take responsibility for their own education.  Don’t drop out.  Don’t disrespect your teachers.  Do the work even if it may not seem relevant.  And above all, it’s ultimately up to you whether you succeed or not.  Generally good messages, but really only good messages for students.

For society at large, we know, however, that “it takes a village”, to quote an old African proverb, and that the village that was put in charge of education has failed.  It has failed because it was designed for a different world, and has been ornery in the face of adaptation.  It has failed through cutting costs, it has failed through irrelevant content, it has failed by favoring teaching methods that are at best boring and at worst antagonize young people to the idea of learning.  It has failed to realize that it needs to teach attitudes and orientations as opposed to facts and figures.  And it’s a failure that Obama didn’t mention a word about, glossing over this ossified aspect of American society using a fail safe mantra of rugged American individualism when what the education system really needed was a serious jolt about how this is a problem of communities and systems, of parent involvement and teacher training and of fear in the face of special interests that control testing and textbooks, as opposed to just giving a pep talk to kids saying that they should take their studies more seriously.  After all, if you were given the system that they were, would you?

When taken in the larger context, Obama certainly said some nice things, but no where near enough.  This was a fine thing for the president to say to young people on their first day back to school, but if this President wants to make any impression on me when it comes to education, he’ll have to say, and do, much much more.  This was his first day of school to me, and he did alright.  An A for effort and showing up.  We’ll see what his grades are like, though, at the end of the year.

Photo courtesy of CNN.

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If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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