WLFS History Conference: Counsell

The odds are stacked against the poor. They have little chance of climbing into the corridors of power. And the odds are also stacked against peace. In many countries, history is about knowing a particular story and being able to shout that story loudest. This can lead to a lot of rock throwing. 

It is difficult to create a fixed, agreed story that keeps everybody happy – Christine talks about her experiences working with history teachers in Beirut, trying to organise a history curriculum change for the first time since 1968. They look to the British history community as a model of how to come up with a curriculum that acknowledges difference and disagreement, and encompasses it. 

Christine talks about changes in school history in the 20th century and the marginalisation of substantive knowledge. We need to unpack what sits under our own proficiency and fluency, if we are going to be able to prepare particularly the poorest children, to join the speech community at the very least, and then the educated community. 

The responsibility of the history community in this country is colossal – our students, our country, the world – and we must measure up. What locus of authority should we look to as our lead? We should look to academe, and SLT should support that. 

Arguments for knowledge. 

Christine shares a passage from Schama about 1066 (‘bones under the buttercups’). We have plenty of memory space and a fluency that enables us to understand it. This is coffee table history – most people should be able to leave school understanding it. Christine breaks the extract down into words we need substantive knowledge to understand and words related to the second order concept, pointing out that we need to understand the former to help us with the latter. This is a clear argument for specific teaching of knowledge. 

Christine references an article from TH157 by Kate Hammond, which points out a lack of discriminatory markschemes from exam boards. Always worth noting that those are written to go alongside examiner training. Anyway – this led to a masters project on the reasons why some good students collapse in the exam due to a lack of substantive knowledge. 

A critical mass of knowledge is vital to crafting a nuanced judgement; when I explain to parents how their children are doing I say that it’s like clay work. You need to know your clay really well to be able to shape it into the request of the examiner: children often acquire plenty of clay but then present it as a lump, rather than shaping it appropriately. This seems to fit what Christine is sharing (I think). 

Hirsch. Read ch2, says Christine, though the rest is optional. He’s a valuable starting point, because he explains beautifully the psychological structure of background knowledge. He reminds us that we can interpret a text because we can bring schemata to bear on a text within a microsecond. We don’t even know we are doing it. This I’d what we need to teach and foster as we teach. 

Implications? Fingertip knowledge and residual knowledge: consider how they are different, what they are for each lesson and how you can best teach both. 

It’s important to be clear on the fingertip and residual knowledge and what they are in each topic. This goes beyond knowledge organisers. 

Regular, varied, low-stakes assessment, ensuring steady and cumulative mastery of knowledge, in the context of disciplinary processes. 


Genericism – what works for one subject does not necessarily fit all.

Gaming the system.

Grumble, grouse and grievance – it’s hard, yes, but in the end it will make it easier. 

Christine finishes with a comment about the damaging view that the knowledge camp comprises neo-con restorationists. She states that she is not a lackey of the Tories, that the focus on knowledge is much broader than that. Understanding the canon helps us to critique it, so let’s teach it to them. 

What are our responsibilities? Be scholarly.  Model being scholarly. Make it possible for other teachers to be scholarly. Pass on moral courage to enable children to challenge that with which they disagree. Make the child want to be part of the conversation, and provide them with the ability to join it.

(Once again, just a flavour…too much good stuff to write it all down).

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Preparing for Assessment: the Verbal Rehearsal

A few years ago, inspired by some excellent CPD, I introduced the verbal rehearsal to my KS3 students before they completed their assessments. I wrote a little about it here. I did this in a variety of ways – heavily planned questioning, argument tunnels, paired discussion, whole class verbal assessment, group verbal assessment, using the diary room – with varying degrees of success. I found that the most significant impact it had was on the quality of the supporting knowledge students provided in later written responses: having squirmed through the scrutiny of their peers and found the it-just-does-ok? argument to be lacking, they went back to the facts with a vigour that was new to me.

In spite of the success, my verbal rehearsals had rather fallen by the wayside of late, and finding myself with half the curriculum time in my new post I was not convinced I could spare the time for it. However, finding myself with an extra lesson with one year 8 group before Christmas, thanks to a quirk of timetabling, I went back to it and I have regained my enthusiasm.

In that case, students were preparing their answer to the question of whether the action of Charles I or Parliament were more to blame for the outbreak of the Civil War. Having given them prep time, I asked the students to divide in the classroom – Parliament to the window, King to the wall. One student could not make up her mind. “I can see both sides!” she wailed. I couldn’t have planned this better, as both sides then had to attempt to win her by making their arguments. This was so successful we overran into break and nobody noticed. The written up responses were robust: more so than those of the group with whom I did not verbally rehearse.

So, today I gave over part of a lesson to the quietest year 8 class I teach, and we completed an argument tunnel.  It was period 1 and they were silent: I was a bit nervous that nobody would say anything, but I needn’t have worried. It was a good sign when, after the first pass, all the students who’d left their books on their desks got up and fetched them. After about 10 minutes of arguing, they went back to their seats and wrote in silence for the final half of the lesson. Marking is yet to take place, but my in-lesson peeks suggested success.

The other thing that has inspired me to revisit this is a student in my year 11 class. She wrote nothing but her name in the mock, which I surmised was fear of failure rather than lack of knowledge, so we sat down together to do the first three questions. It quickly became obvious that she knew a great deal but was not able to articulate it: she literally did not have the words to be able to write it down. Her KS2 scores are at the lower end but she has no specific need: she’s just very quiet. Talking through the answers with me helped her to find the words she needed to be successful.

Reading would obviously help with this too, but I don’t think we should underestimate the value of class discussion here either. How many of us have read a student’s conclusion and been unable to find a single historical fact in it? That sort of thing does not pass muster with a gang of mardy teenagers who are just itching to win, and using discussion and argument in the classroom is the best way I have found to demonstrate what really makes a strong argument to students. I think teenagers are naturals when it comes to arguing, but using evidence to support their points is an area for development.

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Nurture 16/17

Time to review the past year and look forward to the new one.

1. Teaching
I began the year as Head of History at the school where I had worked since I was an NQT, a post which had been made permanent but from which it was becoming abundantly clear that I need to move on. I had reached the point where I was starting to wonder if teaching was really what I would be doing for the rest of my life. Luckily, I applied for a new job – a sideways move but that was exactly what I wanted and I was delighted when they agreed to take me on.

Leaving the school that grew me as a teacher and that enabled me to pursue a dozen other roles outside of teaching at the same time as doing the job I loved was terrifying but I haven’t looked back. Sometimes I miss it but I don’t regret it and I feel like my teaching has a whole new lease of life.

There are some challenges: I’ve got new-to-me courses in Y10/11/12/13 and I’ve finally had to engage with the Tudors (I knew I couldn’t run from them forever) after a career of 20th century A-level teaching; I no longer have my own classroom so I am constantly missing bits and pieces I’m used to having to hand; but I am enjoying all of them.

2. Writing
In January I was going through the (sometimes painful) edits on the GCSE textbook I was writing. That was finally published in August and I am immensely proud. I even managed to smuggle my 92 year old gran in as a source. My new favourite thing to read on the internet is people complaining that it has too much detail. Like, who wants to drop nearly £20 on a textbook that has just the bare minimum in it?
I use it with my students. Some of them bought their own copies and had me sign them – surreal. I like the fact that most of the activities in it are ones I would plan for my own lessons – it has really helped cut down on my planning time.

I also wrote a Cunning Plan for June’s Teaching History on teaching the new thematic unit.

3. Presenting
#Bristhist finished its second year of gossiping about History teaching with a Teachmeet inset on sourcework in June, where I spoke very briefly about what I’d managed to do with sources last year.

I spoke at SHP this summer on the theme of Stickability, and in June I re-ran the Philip Allan “Preparing the Teach the new GCSE” that I first ran in October 2015. I was surprised by how many people attended this one: I anticipated that it would be cancelled due to lack of interest. As I mentioned last year, presenting to peers, especially those who have paid money for the privilege, is never going to get any easier. In October I was really pleased to be invited to run a session on assessment for the PGCE keeners at Bristol University. I’m really hoping we’ll be able to host a PGCE student next year.

Perhaps my proudest speaking achievement of the year, though, was speaking for Pearson on the new thematic studies at an HA conference in June, at the British Museum. The British Museum! My uni was just up the road from here so I am very familiar with the place. Here is a glamour shot of me being stupidly pleased with myself about it.


This is after I’d finished, of course. Before, I was the obligatory bag of nerves.

4. Examining
As well as completing my 7th series as Assistant Principal, a job I have come to really enjoy, I applied for, was interviewed for, was offered and accepted a new role for the new GCSE. In a year of proud achievements, it feels like a big one to say this tops the list, but I think it might. The act of having to go through my first non-teaching interview since I’m-embarrassed-to-think-about-when (What? Only an hour? Don’t you need to watch me do something?) was quite nerve-racking. It was nice that all of that time I spent completing training courses last year actually paid off. I’m really excited about the new role, although I will miss being AP for my current Principal. I think I’ve held this examining role the longest out of any.

5. Other
What else? I staffed three foreign trips in the space of 12 weeks – Berlin in February, skiing and Naples in April. I ran the first two. My colleague Tom attended them as my senior staff member and ran the third. In April we only spent about 30 hours and the final weekend apart. I’m not sure how I’ll run another foreign trip without him.


Easyjet FTW. Italian tans and it’s-nearly-time-to-rest expressions.

I did a few local trips with students at my old school: Parliament with Y9 and Y10; Farleigh Hungerford with Y7; the New Room in Bristol with Y12. I went on personal holidays to southern Italy (Normans), Vietnam (Cu Chi Tunnels; war museum; Communist art in Hanoi), Singapore (shopping) and France (Bayeux Tapestry, FINALLY) and got myself a National Trust membership.

I kept on thinking about assessment. I still don’t really like using 9-1 for assessing KS3 but I am getting closer to understanding what this really looks like.

The SHP website relaunched and I’ve been managing that this year.

CPD? I managed to get a ticket for TLT in October (stayed up until midnight to bag one, only to find they’d changed the ticket launch time to 6am…sigh) which was very enjoyable. I went to the Life After Levels conference in Sheffield in May, which was interesting but felt a bit too primary-focused to be relevant. The SHP conference in July was an obvious highlight: so good to share practice and hang out with like-minded History geeks.

Since moving to a school based in Bristol, and much closer to home, I’ve also been able to take advantage of some local resources, attending a twilight inset on teaching sensitive subjects at Bristol Museum and meeting with the local Heritage Schools rep to discuss building local history into the curriculum. This is how I found out Elizabeth I entered the city of Bristol down the same road I get the bus to school along every morning. This is a great comfort to me at 6.50am, as I wave regally out of the window.

Best of all, as was my hope last year, I have worked a bit less. I look back on last autumn and am mystified as to how I managed to squeeze in everything I did. I have consciously withdrawn from things this year, to the point where I said no to a writing project I really, really wanted to say yes to. It was the right choice: I have really enjoyed the headspace afforded by not juggling about 17 different deadlines.

So, onto 2017!

I have a couple of writing projects in the works, both of which I need to get moving with. I anticipated this sort of thing might dry up now that the new GCSE is basically resourced, but seemingly not. I’ve also got plans for a longer Teaching History article, though maybe 2017 will just be about prepping for it.

For the first time, I will not be examining GCSE this summer. I gave it a lot of thought, and decided I needed a break before the new role kicks in in 2018. It will be really weird. I have signed up to mark A-level, on the basis that this will be the first and last time I’ll be able to, but they haven’t offered me a role yet, so I might not be doing any extra marking. I will not know what to do with those long June evenings to myself. Between this and not having to mark Y13 coursework on May Bank Holiday weekend for the first time since 2010, I will not know I am born. My husband will be sick of the sight of me.

For the rest, I’m just working on my practice. Nailing down a great KS3 program of study and fleshing out the assessment mapping; developing and resourcing new schemes of work that feed into the new GCSE and A-level; reading even more about the Tudors; preparing the department for hopefully applying for the HA quality mark; building a solid enrichment program. It’s a really exciting (” “) time to be a teacher and I am really pleased to be refreshed with time and energy to put into it.

I’ll finish with a couple of pictures. The first is sunrise from my old classroom, which overlooked the school field to the White Horse. The second is sunrise from my new office, which overlooks Bristol. Both gorgeous in their own way; both make getting up in the dark a bit more worthwhile.



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The Knowledge

I’m coming clean now and admitting I thought the knowledge vs skills thing a false dichotomy (and an enormous distraction, but that’s for another time). This is a conclusion I came to after spending a great deal of time mystified as to how anybody can think history teachers don’t teach knowledge. I have always placed myself at the progressive end of the spectrum: I love a good card sort and have witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of a well-planned role play in tethering knowledge to a student’s brain. But then I see the sorts of things the other end of the spectrum favour – detailed fingertip knowledge, reading in depth, among other things – and I like and do those too. They’re not mutually exclusive in my classroom. Rich Kennett wrote about this a couple of weeks ago. I felt pedagogically confused.

The thing that was most confusing, though, was the whole knowledge issue. I could not understand the claims that an entire sector of the history teaching community didn’t teach it. I started to suspect that, in a number of discussions that masquerade as trad vs prog, it was what knowledge was being taught, rather than knowledge in general that fuelled the fire: the tired old stereotypes about the horror of children not knowing, for example, who Winston Churchill was. But what knowledge is a political beast. Nobody tells us what knowledge: that’s the whole point of the National Curriculum. Surely dictating what knowledge is just intellectual snobbery?

Well. Then I started working in a new school. My year 9s started to ask questions like, “Miss, when are we going to study Titanic?” I had to say it was not on the curriculum for this year. They looked disappointed. I looked at my one hour a week and knew it couldn’t be justified. But, I went to Twitter anyway, to see if there was something I was missing. I mean, I’d teach Vlad the Impaler as an interpretations study – there are no stones to be left unturned around this glass house.

Unfortunately, Twitter left me unconvinced. I don’t see how it can fill the twin requirements of providing a good second-order concept focus AND fit into the big picture of history that I want my students to have by the end of year 9. ‘Why did it sink?’ – causation? Maybe – but there are tonnes of causation studies that I think fit the bill better, and I’m recently of the opinion that we could all spend a lot less time on causation at KS3 anyway, because I think it has become the path of least resistance. Societal structure at the start of the 20th century? Mmm. I don’t teach it, but if I did I’d do it with the Liberal Reforms. It’s fun and engaging? ALL History is fun and engaging, isn’t it? That’s not a valid argument in my book.

This leaves me twitchy, though. It’s not up to me to dictate the content of everybody’s KS3 curriculum. I don’t see the rigour or benefit of teaching the Titanic, so I won’t teach it. Why isn’t it OK if other people do? Isn’t that intellectual snobbery? Isn’t that like when an outgoing HoD said to me during a job interview, “Medicine Through Time might work in state schools but our students need something that will prepare them for History at degree level”? (No, I was not offered that job. Would love to know what she thinks of the new GCSE.) That’s not ‘knowledge vs skills’. That’s ‘knowledge I value vs knowledge I don’t but you clearly do, for some reason’. And that’s not the same debate.

It is, however, up to me to decide on the KS3 curriculum for my school. That is my role as a HoD. That is the product of more than 13 years of teaching, averaging a teaching load of 41/fortnight. I’ve done my 10,000 hours, if you like that sort of theory. I am employed to make decisions about what is best. Here are some things I teach at KS3 that most people probably don’t:

  1. British Diet Through Time. It helps me cover some key events and themes in British history whilst practising change/continuity: society in 1000, the Crusades, the slave trade, the rise of the Empire. I’ve had a lot of flak for my obsession with the potato but it’s an important consequence of Tudor exploration and a herald of the Agricultural Revolution. It’s part of the big picture. And I am obsessed, and I’m not sorry about it.
  2. WW1 as a social study. My colleague has a politics background and is fresh from teaching the Modern World GCSE for several years; she taught a Y9 WW1 study that included the Schlieffen Plan, which I’d heard of, and the July Crisis, which I hadn’t. Mine was about soldier motivation, propaganda, conscription and conscientious objectors. I squeezed in some change over time. We read some Harry Patch, who’s a localish boy. Both of these are valid approaches: students need some understanding of WW1 to underpin future study, but the devil really isn’t in the detail here. If it was, we’d probably need to spend most of Y9 on it, sacrificing breadth for depth.
  3. Interpretations of Harold Godwinson’s death. This doubles as my favourite G&T History taster for primary students. We do Hastings in a more traditional sense as well, but I chuck in a comparison of the Bayeux Tapestry and the Carmen at the end. This was our A-level coursework for a short time before the 2009 revamp.#
  4. Impact of the British Empire on Britain. Surprisingly difficult to resource. I do miss the more traditional British Empire bits – the plate, the excursions of the East India Company, the scramble for Africa – but this study fits more neatly into our survey unit of what had changed Britain by 1900 and picks up the Slave Trade study from Y7 and the arrival of tea and sugar from the diet study.

I think it is also up to me – as it is to all of us – to be the critical friend here. I might be picking up students at GCSE and beyond that have followed a history curriculum elsewhere that has not adequately prepared them for further study, and it makes me ache when I hear about history departments staffed by non-specialists teaching good stories without any thought for the important concepts that should underpin them. Those are the tricky conversations we should all be having to check that our curriculum is the best it possibly can be for our students – and with each other, unless we have the benefit of subject-specific line management. This can be awkward because, as I’m fond of pointing out, teachers build their entire careers on being right all the time and that makes it all the more difficult to face up to making changes. But there’s fun in the rigour, the challenge and the high expectations, and this is the kind of fun that can’t be provided by Horrible Histories. So, this is the kind we need to step up to provide.

In short: I think we should be wary of people telling us what we should be teaching, but shouldn’t get complacent with it. There’s always room for improvement.

[This post sort of ran away with me. As always, writing about it has helped me to get it straight in my head. I was thinking about it so hard whilst walking home last night that I apparently ignored my husband, stuck in traffic and waving at me, and walked right past him, oblivious. I made Rich read it and give me feedback: super helpful as always, thank you.]

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#youreallyshouldteach…Vlad the Impaler

Ben Newmark and Mike Stuchbery over on Twitter have been hoping to highlight some obscure bits of history that are worth teaching. I’m going to bang my Vlad the Impaler drum again.

In my final year at university I took an excellent module on travel writing and perceptions of east and west in Europe. It was marvellous. I vividly remember finding a book on Vlad and his more famous alter-ego, Dracula, in the course of my wider reading and making a point of finding it after uni when relevance was no longer top of the list when book choosing. As a peachy keen NQT and having attended an HA/Christine Counsell weekend on interpretations, I wrote a whole unit for year 7 about him; but I’m a little longer in the tooth now and think six weeks on an obscure Wallachian prince might be a bit of an indulgence.

Vlad would make a great one off for World Book Day or something similar, though. Ruler of a country on the dynamic border between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires in the 15th century, Vlad had seen his brother and father buried alive for upsetting the Sultan and his countrymen pushed into poverty by monopolising German merchants. If he was extremely tough, it was because he needed to be.  This was the 15th century, after all – England was witnessing the brutality of the Wars of the Roses. Brutality got one’s point across.

It was the conversion of Vlad to blood-sucking monster that interested me the most. It seems those German merchants, banished to their homelands, carried tales of their ejector back with them where they seeped into the folklore and found their way into the British Library. Bram Stoker came across them there, at a time when suicide victims in Britain were still sometimes buried with stakes through their hearts to prevent blood-seeking resurrection, and the rest is history. So, while Romania celebrate him on a stamp, in the west he’s the stuff of nightmares.

This made a great interpretations study for me and helped my year 7s to understand how important it is to understand the context of the people telling the history.

You really should teach about him, because he is much maligned and misunderstood, and he provides a gory introduction into how history is written by, if not the winners, then the people who could make their stories travel furthest.

Here are some resources: character cards, a writing frame and a newsflash (How do these people feel about Vlad the Impaler?) and a card sort of four stories, found in both Romanian and German chronicles and therefore told from two different points of view. I loved using this for a literacy exercise: how does the language make you feel about Vlad?

Next time…the assassination of Tsar Alexander II: is this the most d’oh moment in history?

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#TLT16: Final keynote

Lindsay Skinner invites us to consider teacher presence in the classroom.

Think about what moves a lesson from a cover lesson to a lesson: the teacher. Focus on the voice, the body, the person. What is it that makes one person someone the kids want to listen to? Clear, fluent, emotionally engaging: eloquent.

Eloquence tends to be referred to in formal situations. Are our lessons formal, or everyday events when we forget about eloquence?

Attention span. Lower at the start, then rises as you become engaged with the speaker, then falls and rises again at the end, in anticipation of it. Use that: put something at the start to catch attention (an anecdote?) and recap the lesson content at the end. Break up the learning to re-engage attention.

Speed of speech. Conversational English is 5-6 syllables a second; newsreaders speak deliberately slower because they are transmitting important information.

Choose your words: go for a more formal phrase. Realise I do this: the difference between calling attention with, ‘Guys’ and, ‘Year 9’ is a big one. I use the latter when the former doesn’t work.

Give instructions in the correct order. ‘Use key words’ should come at the start, not the end, for example. Begin sentences with an imperative so your instructions are clearly to be follows: don’t give students the opportunity to opt out.

Beginning with a personal anecdote humanises you to your students and gets them on board.

This was engaging, funny and the perfect end to the day. Great conference.

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#TLT16: Workshop 3

Toby French on “Marking and assessment are not the same”.

Why do we think marking is so important?

  • We care. Read what students are writing, but it isn’t always necessary to mark all of it.
  • CCTV for senior leaders – but like a CCTV camera, this shows only some things, not all.
  • We’re in a terrible marriage. Apparently Didau has now changed his opinion on his “Marking is an act of love” catchphrase (for the record, I haven’t) – it’s a loveless marriage. We are trapped by it.
  • We talk about marking: it is part of our everyday teaching chatter.

Marking takes a huge amount of time. It over-complicates teaching. It’s too much about making evidence for the teacher and often confused with feedback.

We discuss the different between marking and feedback amongst ourselves. I mention that I gave up marking classwork as a matter of course a few years ago, with no discernible negative impact, but that it feels odd to be doing this in my new school because the students are expecting it.

Other responses: it’s a territorial pissing contest. One says verbal feedback has to be recorded on the VLE for parents to see it. Toby shares details of a marking scrutiny that he has experienced, that was followed up with a league table of staff, published to all staff.

Who are we marking for?

Toby asks us to discuss what we should do before to ensure students do the work better to start with:
1. Add comments from a piece of work to a spreadsheet and display next time you set the task.
2. Set success criteria with the students (very TEEP).
3. Have a checklist of the key things needed in a piece of work and have them tick them off as they do them.
4. Have pre-agreed expectations and refuse to mark a piece until those are met.
5. ‘What’s wrong with this?’ – write WWWT? next to the work: students have to figure out the answer.
6. Live modelling an answer.

(I missed a couple of these, sorry).

Toby suggests:

  • Modelling
  • Scaffolding – ask a series of questions to help students move themselves on; occasional sentence starters or key words (thinking of Rich Kennet’s ‘This is not surprising’ in sourcework)
  • Common misconceptions
  • Pre-editing
  • Pre-highlighting – ‘I hope you’ve mentioned xyz…’ before they hand it in.

What does Toby mean by feedback? It’s teaching: wandering the room and giving them prompts and help; asking the right questions; facilitating their discussion.

A practical tip: if you start with a lesson question have three colour coded answers on the board at the end of the lesson and ask students to choose one and display the corresponding page in their planner.

Another one: Toby’s take on dot marking – a red dot means you do the blue target, a blue dot means you do the green target and so on. At the top of the ladder you get a written target. This would solve the problem I have with coloured dot marking: once students (think they have) finished their target, they don’t know how to improve further. My coloured dots are a bit more bespoke because they cover content and skill but it would be good to think of a way to combine these things.

Whole class marking: there are several people writing about this at the moment.

How can you promote this? Show its efficacy in your own subject: build a system and show how well it works.
Don’t …

  • Create a whole school marking policy (wince…my successful trial of doing DIRT with a purple pen led to a whole school policy that was firmly laid at my  door when my old HoD did my leaving speech in July. In my defence, I never advocated it for outside of Hums. Sometimes these things just seem to take on a life of their own.)
  • Create more work for anyone.
  • Ask students about marking.
  • Think you care more than others.
  • Think you don’t care as much as others.
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