My [redacted] Journey

A teacher's search for inner peace.

ms kunzmann

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Middle School Madness

new class

My new classroom.

August 26, 2016

Dear Readers,

School is back in session and emotions are running high.  So far in my classroom there’s been laughter and sorrow, smiles and tears, and a whole lot of learning…and that’s only me, the teacher, not my prepubescent charges.  As always, I have so much to learn about the students I teach.

The school year started out better than I had anticipated.  In fact, it started out better than anyone had anticipated, the other teachers, the administration, even the students.  The ‘feel’ of the new school year was much lighter, much happier, and much more chill than the previous three years.  Even the students’ behavior had seemed to mellow over the summer.  The school’s ‘detention room’ had much lower numbers than in previous years, and it began to feel like our school had turned a corner, at least behaviorally.  Which made what happened this past week so upsetting.  However, I have to admit, what happened this past week is part and parcel of teaching at the middle school level.

I have a secondary-education, English degree and in my state that means that I am able to teach 7th through 12th grade English Language Arts.  I have always known that my personality and my teaching style work best with teenagers, ages 14 to 17.  I am both strict and demanding of my students.  I expect every student to reach just past where they think they can and to work just a little bit harder than they think they should.  In other words, I have high standards, for my students as well as myself.

My high standards do not end at my classroom door.  I expect students to behave like they have some sense when in the presence of adults.  I realize that middle school students can act crazy and they can be loud and obnoxious, which is why you’ll find me wearing earphones when walking the halls and/or during school assemblies.  It’s not the crazy, loud and/or obnoxious behavior that bothers me, be cause believe me, I can act crazy, loud and/or obnoxious right along with my students.  No, it’s not that.  It’s the flagrant disrespect, the bullying, and the violence that I cannot tolerate.  And that is what always pushes my buttons.

In my classroom, the rules are simple: 1. Listen and follow directions; 2. Raise your hand and receive permission before leaving your seat; 3. Keep your hands and feet to yourself; 4. Respect yourself, your classmates, and your teacher.  The consequences are equally simple: The first time a student breaks one of the class rules I give the student a warning.  The second time a student breaks a class rule, they are sent to time-out.  This may seem babyish and elementary.  However, my students all work in groups and it pains them to be isolated from their peers.  Needless to say, it is rare that I have to go to step three.  I allow my students to re-enter their group once they have sat alone for a few minutes, thought about what they have done, admitted to me which rule(s) they broke, and apologize.

My last recourse for a rule-breaker in my class is to send them to the office with a referral. Now, once they leave my classroom and head to the office to speak with the vice-principal, any further consequence is out of my hands, and the rule-breaker is out of my hair…at least for a the day.  Fast forward to this past week.

This past Wednesday was quite an eye-opener.  Not only did I have to write one referral in one of my classes, I was close to writing 8, yes, 8 referrals in one class.  I was beside myself.  Before I began yelling (yes, I do raise my voice at my little cherubs), I stepped away from the front of my class to calm down.  That is when I had a small epiphany: my students tune out anger and respond to calm.  I calmly addressed the class.

It worked!  The 8 rule-breakers were subdued with my soft, low voice and my encouraging words of wisdom…for exactly 6 minutes.  Six minutes is just enough time to lull me into a sense of false security!  It was the end of  the period and I just didn’t have the heart to write 8 referrals.  In fact, I was so hurt and disappointed that all I wanted to do was cry.  I excused my students to their next class with the threat of writing referrals for the unhappy eight as soon as school was out.

I didn’t stick around after school to fill out the paperwork, “I’ll do it in the morning,” I sighed to myself.  I do not make idle threats to my students, that just leads to students not taking my word seriously.  No, I had to follow through with the consequences.  However, I would sleep on it and go in to the office in the morning, sans emotion (I hear that is always best).

The next morning at school as I was writing the referrals, I received a call from one of the mothers of the unhappy eight.  The mother wanted to know why I was punishing her daughter, at which time I politely explained my class rules, i explained which rules her daughter broke, and what the consequences were.  The mother’s response?  “Well that doesn’t sound like my daughter.”  Sigh.  Of course not.

There was no getting through to this mother.  She kept insisting, “That doesn’t sound like my daughter!” and my insisting that it was exactly like her daughter was not going to change her mind.  Finally, she said, “Well, I’m good friends with Mr. Vice Principal, and I’m going to give him a call!”  Sigh.  Of course.

I was certainly upset with this exchange.  However, I had the whole morning to decide how I should handle the whole referral mess, the afternoon would come soon enough.

As the unhappy eight entered my classroom, I realized they were happy and smiling.  The mess from the day before was long forgotten.  What had broken my heart wasn’t even a  blip on their radar.  Oddly enough, this made me smile.  The were 11 and 12 year old kids and they had been acting like 11 and 12 year old kids!  It was then that I had a little bit bigger epiphany: they are only 11 and 12 year old kids!

The class began with light and airy conversation between me and the (now) happy eight.  I was certainly in a much better mood, as were they.  As we all came to an understanding, the student whose mother had called me that morning raised her hand and asked with a smile on her face, “Miss, did my mother give you a hard time on the phone?”

I smiled back, a genuine smile and said, “No, she just kept telling me, ‘That doesn’t sound like my daughter.'”

My student chuckled, “Yeah, she doesn’t know how I act at school.”

Of course not.

Peace, ~v.





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Death with Dignity?

July 4, 2016

dignity – the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect

Dear Readers,

There is nothing dignified in death. In fact, dying is a messy business, at least for the living. Our five senses are on high alert and death is indelibly imprinted on our soul.

Although we face the unknown alone, we hope those we leave behind will find comfort in each other. Because trust me, there is no comfort in watching a loved one die. 

There is no honor in death; honor is in the way we choose to live our lives. There is no dignity in death; dignity is in the way we choose to live. 

I do not fear death. My passing is inevitable. I fear that my loved ones will have to witness my dying. And as I stated before, dying is a messy business. Watching a loved one die is honorable, but difficult and not for the faint of heart. 

Death with dignity is a misnomer or rather, it’s an oxymoron. There is nothing dignified about death, at least for the living. 

Death with dignity? Never. Peace, ~v. 

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Reflections for the Living


Our garden of peaceful reflection

June 29, 2016

“I know you are anxious to get on with the business of living, but she’s just not ready yet.  I’ve taken care of her, led her and loved her for over 57 years.  Yet, I never had the heart to prepare her for something like this.”

Dear Readers,

This is the dialogue I imagine I am having with Mr. Uruguay; or rather, the conversation he is having with me.  I have taken up my post on a plastic couch directly across from my dying friend. Should he open his eyes, I would be directly in his line of sight. However, that is not likely to happen.

Mrs. Uruguay is generally seated to her husband’s right, in a recliner of the hospital’s finest plastic.  Now however, she is bustling about on the other side of the room as the nurses are fussing about their patient, “Trying to keep him comfortable.”

The Uruguay’s son is pacing anxiously at the foot of his father’s bed. He was in the middle of shaving Mr. Uruguay’s three-day stubble, as per his mother, when the Nurse Angels flew into the room. By his nervous gait, it is obvious that Mrs. Uruguay’s son is not used to not following his mother’s directions, thus the nervous stutter-steps.

Mr. Uruguay’s daughter-in-law is curled up, crossed legged on the other available recliner, pecking away on her iPad, sending and receiving messages to and from parts unknown. Daughter-in-law is a registered nurse.  So, this appears to be old hat for her.

The Nurse Angels flit out of the room as quickly as they flitted in, and the process of death falls like a hush over the room’s occupants.  And here is where I imagine mine and Mr. Uruguay’s conversation picks back up.

“She needs a little more time to get used to me dying.  I mean, it’s only been three days since we made the decision to stop my nutrition and hydration.  And although she knows I’m dying – thank her for the priest and my last rites, by the way – my lovely bride needs just a little longer to accept that she is going to be alone.  I owe her at least that much.”

And so it goes.  Slipping towards death, just as he was in life, .Mr. Uruguay is still in control.  Mrs. Uruguay is a quick study, however.  And although there is a vast emptiness in her soul, she is beginning to take control of her life and her husband’s death.  It is hauntingly beautiful to watch. And so it goes, and so it goes.

Peace, ~v.


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29 and Holding

June 28, 2016

Dear Readers,

My daughter Jessica died 29 years ago, June 26; she was three years old. Actually, she was 2 years, 8 months, and 10 days old, but I round up; so she was 3. It just so happens that I almost missed the ‘milestone’ day altogether. 

Six years after Jessica’s death, my youngest daughter was born. Actually, Mimi was born June 25, 1993, the day before Jessica’s sixth anniversary. For the next 19 years I attempted to let the joyful remembrance of one daughter’s birth, overshadow the sorrowful remembrance of another daughter’s death. I don’t think I succeeded. 

For the past 3 years, I found the elusive acceptance stage. Still, all my focus was on, well, me. And I didn’t want to wait another 28 years for the peace to finally seep into my soul.  

“Please Lord, let me have peace!” I would beg.  “Denial, I did it. Anger, I was it. Bargaining, depression, I’d done my penance. And now, acceptance, I get it, I accept! Now, peace, please?” I would end weakly. 

Perhaps the toughest lesson I’ve had to learn over the past five decades is that I will receive that which I crave the most, when I crave it the least. 

I woke up on Sunday, June 26 sadly empathetic. A friend, Mr. Uruguay, suffered a massive stroke and it was on this day that his wife of 57 years, Mrs. Uruguay, began trying to process the immensity of it all: life, death, change. 

I sat with Mrs. Uruguay as she watched her husband. I cannot stop her pain. However, I can empathize with her pain. And for the past two days, that is what I have done: sit and empathy. My  hope is that Mrs. Uruguay find peace. 

“Please Lord, let her find peace! Please, let her have peace.” 

Two days, sit and empathy. And prayers for peace. And I am peaceful, oddly peacefu. But my peace is secondary to what Mrs. Uruguay is going through. 

I’m on my way back to sit with my friend. It’s sure to get tougher, soon. And I’ll be here, not feeling sorry for myself, not feeling alone, and not feeling anything but the peace I so desperately searched for, for 29 years. 

“It’s in giving that we receive.”

Peace, ~v.

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May 16, 2016

Dear Readers,

It’s test time again across this great nation of ours and apparently I’m not allowed to discuss our state mandated, high stakes test. In fact, neither are my students. Seriously?  Seriously. As I was reading my students the scripted test instructions, I had to re-read the sentence warning students to not even talk about the test. I’m familiar with instructions about not talking during the test. But heaven help me! We can’t even talk about the test? Huh?

Apparently, in this corporate takeover, data driven, standardized reform-y thing we call school, teachers are having both hands tied behind their backs.     We won’t see the results of the tests until next school year, and now the students can’t even talk to us, their teachers, about the questions they had to answer. 

This is a really big deal. Teachers across the nation are being threatened by the almighty PARRC for writing about, thus revealing, how inept and inaccurate their test for 4th grade students is. I strongly urge you to read the following ‘copy and paste’ and pass along the information you deem worthy. Thank you. 

Peace, ~v.

PARCC Can Go Scratch! Please Re-Post on your Blog. Share Widely.

Posted on May 15, 2016 by GatorBonBC

The PARCC Test: Exposed
The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.
I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask — whom are we protecting?
There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.
The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate
In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.
A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]
The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9–12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).
Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6–8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?
So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.
Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.
ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1
Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.
Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”
Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.
The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”
However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school — a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]
The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess
ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2
Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.
Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.
It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”
In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.
However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)
ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3
In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.
Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.
Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)
Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.
Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)
So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.
We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system — such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.
In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.

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The Curious Misadventures of El Mariachi and the Elite 8

May 6, 2016
Dear Readers,
I originally posted this two years ago. I am reposting today in honor of my dad on this, the 15th anniversary of his passing. My dad, the greatest man I ever knew. Peace, ~v.

My [redacted] Journey

El Mariachi El Mariach, aka El Ching@n

El Mariachi's Vieja El Mariachi’s Vieja

July 20, 2014

Dear Readers,

It recently dawned on me that I have never told you my stories of the infamous superhero El Mariachi, aka El Ching@n, and his loyal group of followers, turned proteges, turned superheroes themselves.  El Mariachi and his faithful wife, Vieja, spent a decade recruiting eight of the best and the brightest young people to pass onto them their values and a hope for the future.  They spent the next 38 years grooming the Elite 8 to become superheroes in their own right, so that future generations would, themselves want to emulate  and continue the traditions that El Mariachi and his Veija began.

The Elite 8 The Elite 8

Although the youngest and the last to be recruited, Boy is probably the closest to a mirror image of El Mariachi.  It also took Boy the longest to agree to join the…

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Seeking the Truth

May 1, 2016

Dear Readers,

So often during the Middle School Years, kids are seeking acceptance, self worth, and yes, even their own identities. It is helpful for teachers to remember this when confronted with raging parents, marionette administrators, or the un-truth tellers themselves. It is also helpful to remember that truth is subjective and its extraction, a dance. 

“She won’t teach my daughter!”

I was sitting across from my student, Marta** and her mother, who was raging. 

“Marta said you refused to teach her!  She said you even used those words, ‘I refuse to teach you!’  How unprofessional!  I don’t care if you don’t like her or she makes you mad!  My daughter deaserves her education and you can’t refuse to teach her! She was sooo upset last night, and I wanna know…”

I’m stalling for time here, allowing Mom to blow off some steam. I’m trying to pinpoint in my memory just exactly when I refused to teach Marta…ahh, yes. I had told Marta the previous day that I refused to teach her; but, that’s not the whole truth. As soon as I pinpointed the incident, I came back to the present and Mom was still accusing me of things untoward. I love righteous indignation. And both Marta and her mom had such self-satisfied smiles showing.   I almost hated to see them fade. 

“Excuse me,” I said to Mom. Then I turned my full attention to Marta. “Marta,” I asked, “What is the bathroom policy in my classroom?”

Before she could answer, Mom interrupts, “What does that have to do with anything?”

In my haste to get to the whole truth, I ignore the question and turn once again to Marta, “Marta, would you please tell your mother the bathroom policy for my classroom?”

“Yeah, well, we raise our hand and ask if we can go to the bathroom.”

“Okay. And then what?”

“If you say yes, then we sign out and go!” she says with pride at being able to answer such simple questions. 

“And how often do I say ‘Yes, you can go?'”

“Almost all the time,” Marta answers.  She turns to Mom, “Ms. Kunzmann always lets us go to the bathroom!” She’s picking up steam now, “And we hafta sign all the way out. The date, our first and last name, and the time we leave and the time we come back”

“That’s right. And what happens if you forget to sign all the way out?”

“We can’t go to the bathroom anymore?” she answers with some doubt. 

“Yes,” I answer.  “But only for the next week. And is there anything else your mom should know about my bathroom policy?”

“Ummmm, I dunno.”

“Okay,” I prompt her. “What about the part when you’re in the bathroom and I’m still instructing the class?”

“Oh yeah,” Marta remembers. “And you won’t repeat anything when we get back.”

“That’s right,” I exclaim and I address Mom. “You see, some of my students take advantage of my seemingly loose bathroom policy. In fact, some of my students leave class every day to go to the bathroom. Some days there is a steady stream of students from my classroom to the bathroom and back. Because of this, I have repeatedly told my students that I will not repeat whatever they miss while in the bathroom. It is each student’s responsibility to ask a peer for any information they might have missed.”

I could see Marta squirming uncomfortably as I addressed her mom, because now the whole truth will be revealed. 

“The other day when Marta came back from the bathroom, I had finished my instruction and the students were working on their assignment. Marta sees this and asks me what she is supposed to be doing. I told her to ask one of her peers, she knows the rules. At this point, Marta becomes quite upset at me for not telling her the assignment. Right, Marta?” And I look right at her. But she won’t look at me. 

I go on to explain that I had added up the amount of time Marta had been out of my classroom in the past two weeks: 32 minutes. If I have just three students from each of my four classes go to the bathroom every day, and believe me, I have far more, I would be repeating every. single lesson, every, single day. I refuse. 

Finally, I am explaining to Marta’s mom that what I had said to Marta was, “I cannot repeat my lesson over and over again for those individuals who use the restroom during my class. Heck, just Marta alone would have me repeating 32 minutes worth of instruction every two weeks!  So yes, I did tell Marta that I refuse to teach her while she is in the bathroom. I don’t think that is unreasonable.”


Middle school students are still trying to figure out who they are and what path they should take. Unfortunately, this middle-school-soul-searching often requires dramatics (theirs, not mine). “I refuse to teach you!” is certainly more dramatic than, “I refuse to teach you while you are in the bathroom.”  And, “I refuse to teach you!” is a much better attention-grabber. While, “I refuse to teach you while you are in the bathroom,” is, well, sensible; something middle school students rarely have an occasion to practice. 

And that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. 

Peace, ~v.

**Names have been changed