Turn off the TV!

“First-graders’ apparent plot to kill classmate with poisoned lunch foiled by teacher” reads the headline in the Washington Post, in an article by from March 30 at 12:43 PM.

Officials at an elementary school in Anchorage said they uncovered a plot among three first-grade students to kill a classmate using poison, according to news reports.

The conspiracy was foiled when another student overheard the alleged plotters discussing their plan and alerted a teacher, Anchorage School District spokeswoman Heidi Embley told CBS affiliate KTVA.

The plot would never have worked regardless. The silica gel the kids planned to use was not toxic. They had been fooled by a package warning that said “do not consume.”

The article states that officials aren’t sure whether the kids “knew what they were doing.”

I’d say the answer to that will be yes and no. They knew they planned to kill someone. The finality and horror of that death are likely beyond their understanding. In first grade, students sometimes still believe in magic. They may believe that everything can be fixed somehow. They certainly don’t have the long-term view that would allow them to appreciate the future consequences of their choice.

My question was immediate when I saw this article: How did they get the idea? What makes a group of kids get to the point of discussing a plan like this? Of plotting a plan like this?

Eduhonesty: We live in the Too Much Information Age. Especially with younger children, I’d like to plead for less access to that information. Even Law and Order should be off the six-year-old menu. Let’s plug in that Disney DVD or stream Ernie and Bert.

As signals stream in from all over the globe, our kids need us to protect them from the surfeit of information that now enters our homes in dribs and drabs every second of the day.

 

Too much Spanish?

spansay2

I am teaching Spanish right now, filling in as a maternity leave substitute. My own middle school and high school Spanish classes remain fun memories. I am Facebook friends with my former middle school Spanish teacher. I fondly remember that Bolivian guy from the high school, who served his daughters and me red wine when I was over for dinner one night in high school. (Nowadays, I imagine he would lose his job.)

My middle school offered French but I chose Spanish, back then a true choice. I could have taken German as well. I could have skipped language study altogether. In high school, I added French and Latin to my coursework. As a result, I can hack my way through easier books in Italian and Portuguese. Romance languages — bring ’em on!

Too many of my current Spanish students do not share my enthusiasm for language. Some do. They listen attentively, ask questions and put in the time to produce quality work. But I am in my third stint teaching Spanish and I am again wondering why I encounter so much negativity.

I have a few speculations. Many students have been pushed into this elective by their parents or other family members, who rightly regard Spanish as potentially highly useful. “George” hates Spanish, he told the administration and his family. His parents are making him take it anyway.”Henry” also says he hates Spanish, but his grandma won’t let him drop. Parents and guardians can see the advantage to being able to add “Fluent in Spanish” to a resume.

Many, many middle schools now offer only Spanish as a foreign language alternative. The only young, potential German teacher I know has never been able to find a job. The other German teacher I know travels between high schools in a large district. The high school in the district where I last worked is phasing out French. Soon Spanish will be the only language that remains.

This leads me to a couple of brainstorms that I had while talking to fellow teachers at lunch: One reason I believe my classmates and I entered into Spanish more enthusiastically than today’s kids was that we were allowed to make a choice. We might have studied French or German. The class was our pick, a genuine choice, not a demanding subject that had been foisted on us. The other reason I think Spanish might have been an easier sell in the past was that Spanish was exotic. We did not hear Spanish daily, as many of our students now do. Like French and German, Spanish spoke to us of far-off lands and big adventures. We were preparing to be explorers, not hospital translators. For most of us, Spanish was the path to Madrid, Mexico City, Bueno Aires, or Machu Picchu, not a useful addition to a resume.

I would go so far as to suggest that the resume connection may be part of the turn-off that makes certain kids want to avoid Spanish language studies, that combined with the many millions of Americans for whom Spanish is their first language. More than a few students have told me that they feel that they can never be as good as the many native speakers around them, so they do not see the sense in trying.

Eduhonesty: Languages cannot be learned by students who do not have an interest in learning them or at least a strong, work ethic. An unenthusiastic student who works diligently may eventually catch a wave and learn to enjoy language studies. But students without that work ethic will mostly fail to learn a language unless they are highly motivated. We are talking about learning thousands and thousands of words, along with occasional quirky changes in language structure and grammar usage.

What can we do to help our students? A few days ago, I suggested that maybe not everyone needs to take algebra. I’d like to extend that thread. Maybe not everyone needs to take Spanish. A kid who hates Spanish ought to take something else — at least until he or she WANTS to take Spanish. Without interest or enthusiasm, languages become throwaway classes for too many kids.

I’d also like to make the case for those lost French and German positions. We ought to bring them back. If we wanted to add or substitute Russian or Japanese instead, that would work, too. What we need to bring back is choice. We need to bring back the idea that language learning can lead toward rollicking adventures in mysterious, distant lands. Language students can find themselves taking trains to castles and ancient aquaducts, while journeying through histories much longer than America’s own. That vision can get a child to study direct object pronouns, even when those pronouns aren’t much fun. Kids like to dream big dreams.

They mostly try to avoid thinking about resumes.

I’d start language learning much earlier, too, but that’s another post.

 

 

Dumbing, dumbinger, dumbingest!

Is Algebra an Unnecessary Stumbling Block in US Schools?

Who needs algebra?

That question muttered by many a frustrated student over the years has become a vigorous debate among American educators, sparked by a provocative new book that argues required algebra has become an unnecessary stumbling block that forces millions to drop out of high school or college.

“One out of 5 young Americans does not graduate from high school. This is one of the worst records in the developed world. Why? The chief academic reason is they failed ninth-grade algebra,” said political scientist Andrew Hacker, author of “The Math Myth and Other STEM Delusions.”

Hacker, a professor emeritus at Queens College, argues that, at most, only 5 percent of jobs make use of algebra and other advanced math courses. He favors a curriculum that focuses more on statistics and basic numbers sense and less on (y – 3)2 = 4y – 12.

“Will algebra help you understand the federal budget?” he asked.

Many U.S. educators, including the architects of the Common Core standards, disagree, saying math just needs to be taught more effectively. It’s fine for students to have quantitative skills, they say, but algebra is important, too.

“Every study I’ve ever seen of workers in whole bunches of fields shows that you have to understand formulas, you have to understand relationships,” said Philip Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and of public affairs at the University of Texas. “Algebra is the tool for consolidating your knowledge of arithmetic.”

Bill McCallum, a professor at the University of Arizona who played a lead role in developing the Common Core standards for math, said he would oppose any division of K-12 students into an algebra track and a non-algebra track.

“You might say only a certain percentage of kids will go on to use algebra, but we don’t know which kids those are,” he said.

 

 

There’s more to this article but I thought I’d throw the gist of it out for reader perusal.

I must admit I feel conflicted as I read this article. I’d say the article captures a huge American, educational dilemma in a nutshell. I have taught high school and middle school math. I love algebra, and I always did. I want to share algebra. That desire may not always be in my students’ best interests, however.

Failing 9th grade algebra does seem to be an excellent predictor for high school failure. Failing middle school math and English are also great predictors. Kids who don’t understand their math and English classes tend to leave school early. Those who stay often become part of the class of functionally illiterate graduates whose high school degrees do not net them the same benefits that academically stronger graduates receive.

I am going to go out on that proverbial limb here, and say that Andrew Hacker may have a point. High school algebra may precipitate some high school failures. The gut response to this fact may be to say, “Well, then teach them algebra!” To put this response into a commonly heard phrase, “Raise the bar!”

If merely raising the bar worked, I believe No Child Left Behind would have worked.

Eduhonesty: The idea of putting every child into college-preparatory classes may sound good, but that track has failed many children, those children who don’t understand how to manipulate the “x” and “y” terms we throw at them. Forcing algebra and other high school mathematics classes on all of our students does not seem to be working. We should at least consider the possibility that the “Make them learn it!” strategy may not work. Our college track may be toxic for some students.

Finland and Germany have well-developed vocational tracks. We need to start looking at what we can do to create realistic vocational education.

When I thought up the headline for this post, I was reacting to the dumbing down of American education, but I shifted my position as I wrote. I’m not happy about simpler math and SATs with fewer vocabulary words. But I am willing to consider Andrew Hacker’s viewpoint. I can see where we may be creating failures by throwing some kids into fights they cannot win.

We have reached the point where many districts only offer a college-track program, in a time when we are importing skilled machinists and suffering shortages of skilled tradespeople. In the meantime, student loan debt has climbed to $1.3 trillion dollars. The dumbing down of America’s educational landscape certainly ought to remain a concern, but I might give the vote for “dumbingest” to an educational system that is funneling everyone into the same classes without regard for either students’ interests or abilities.

She Added Salt

blog5This is the healthy snack provided to preschoolers at a local school. It’s a small cup of cucumber slices with a carton of milk. Snack time comes near bus time so I guess the fact that this whole snack is only a little over 100 calories does not matter much.

What I liked was the part where the teaching assistant went around the room with her salt shaker, adding salt for students who requested it. Almost all the students wanted salt. Healthy lunches and snacks tend to omit the salt, but if you want four-year-olds to chow down on cucumber slices, a salt shaker’s a great idea.

How Much Lead is Too Much Lead?

water fountainl

From the following article:

Lead fears grow in Newark schools, but the problem isn’t new

Associated Press

HOW LONG HAS NEWARK KNOWN ABOUT LEAD IN THE WATER?

The district has been tackling the issue of lead coming from water sources, such as old sinks, in some schools since at least 2003, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

John Martin, an EPA spokesman, said the agency found elevated levels in two of Newark’s schools that year. It offered the district help in addressing the problem. But he said Newark turned down the offer because it had its own lead remediation program in place.

Newark schools superintendent Christopher Cerf recently acknowledged that the district has been addressing issues of lead in water sources for more than a decade. For instance, the district had been replacing faucets and adding filters after taps showed higher levels of the toxin.

The district has only started to release test results to the public. But in each year since 2012, an outside laboratory has found elevated levels in the taps of some school buildings. For instance, 15 percent of the water samples taken during the 2014-15 school year showed amounts of lead that require action from school officials.

___

WHAT IS THE SCHOOL SYSTEM DOING TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM?

Newark is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection as well as the EPA to tackle the issue. Efforts include testing every tap at every school. The district is also offering blood tests of as many as 17,000 kids who were potentially exposed.

In a press release, superintendent Cerf said last week’s test results prompted him to take action.

“By the time school opened Wednesday morning, we were shutting off all water fountains and other affected sites at any school that had received a positive reading,” Cerf said.

But Newark’s teachers union has criticized the state-controlled district for not taking such action in previous years. And Elise Pivnick, director of environmental health for Isles, a New Jersey-based environmental community group, added, “It’s really an old problem. There’s nothing new here. That water hasn’t changed in the last three years.”

As I noted in my post a few days ago, the water in Newark, New Jersey, has not changed. Nothing has changed there except suddenly the public became aware that Newark had elevated lead levels in the water in some of its schools. It appears Newark has known for some time the district needed to replace faucets and add filters “after taps showed higher levels of the toxin.”

Why new faucets? It’s not the faucets, it’s the pipes. Adding filters certainly seems like a good idea regardless, and I imagine that’s what the above article meant. They bought new faucets that had filters to take out the lead.

I hope they are on top of the water fountains. I am not so worried about hand washing as I am about those fountains. For one thing, fountains are an excuse to get out of class. Kids who drink little water at home may drink a great deal at school. They can’t go to the fridge for a drink they like better. They are served milk at lunch, which is healthy but not exactly a thirst-quencher. New health and nutrition guidelines have often eliminated the pop machines, or resulted in rules that allow pop purchases only after school.

On hot days and after gym, requests to go the fountain come regularly. Especially before my school added air-conditioning (only three years ago) I almost always let kids go during the high heat of fall and late spring. The line of water drinkers was trooping out there, one at a time. When temperatures were in the eighties and above in classrooms, administrators regularly reminded students to stay hydrated. Even in schools with cooling systems, some rooms simply run hot. Many cooling systems cannot begin to keep up with a wall of windows that faces sunside.

Eduhonesty: Are you working in an older school? Encourage your students to bring water bottles from home. I’d add those bottles to the list of expected supplies. Encourage parents to send water. I don’t know how much lead is too much lead, but I suspect Newark’s problem may be the tip of an iceberg. Teachers might even consider bringing in gallon jugs of water and little Dixie cups, especially in elementary school.

The Casualty in the Blue Room, Drinking Rooibos Tea

polka dot pantsThe Common Core hit me up the side of the head last year, combined with the full weight of the State of Illinois as it took over my district. To that I’d add the complication of whole new sets of Charlotte Danielson evaluation requirements. With all that new noise to process, it took me awhile to appreciate the meaning of rigid common lesson plans written to a set of standards that were set years above the academic operating levels of my students. I had always had some freedom to create original instruction for my students until 2014 – 2015, despite growing time shortages resulting from other demands, mostly demands related to the rising desperation to raise test scores.

I also lost my favorite principal during the 2014-2015 school year as part of the conditions of a government grant which required replacing school leadership. Time demands unrelated to instructional imperatives soared. For all intents and purposes, I did not have a reliable planning period during much of the 2014 – 2015 year. On lucky days, I salvaged some planning time, but I had math meetings, science meetings, grade meetings, school meetings, and bilingual meetings that I sandwiched into that alleged planning period, at least one meeting daily. On Wednesday, I typically had three meetings. In theory, I was supposed to get half of my planning period for actual planning, but my Dean[1] had a bad habit of running overtime, sometimes through the whole period. I also had to regularly double up math and science meeting days.

I am sitting at a pleasant oak desk in a quiet blue room. I get up when I want to. I meet former colleagues for lunch and dinner, a number of whom retired before they had intended to do so. I had planned on working one more year, but I hit my personal wall. I hit my can’t-do-it-I’ve-sucked-up-enough wall. I can work hard, but I will not work stupid. I want to nurture my students, and the tests I gave last year felt more like bullying than nurturing to me.

Substituting has been working out fine. As I write this, I am ignoring a website filled with substitute requests for today. The system has been trying to call me since 5:30 AM this morning and I could still step into any number of classrooms for the day. No one will step into many of those classrooms. Many of these requests come from top-flight local districts that pay well, too.

Today I am writing my book, though. Yesterday, I covered for preschool teachers who had IEP meetings. My favorite part was taking colored, sticky Styrofoam, yarn, paper and glue and making brains to tape on traced bodies that the kids had made. I liked playing restaurant, too. Restaurant seems to be a pretty good deal. You get a piece of pizza, then they open the cash register and hand you money. I explained a bit about how it actually worked, while I admired the plastic rectangle students now swipe as part of the process before they open the drawer to hand me random sums of money. I admired original Lego creations. I pretended to eat a lot of plastic food that students made for me. I had a great day.

Eduhonesty: All’s well that ends well, I guess. Those former teachers I meet, though? Some of them were excellent educators. Most or all would probably still be in the classroom if the world had not decided that somehow testing for 20% of a school year — while using tests that many students could not even read — somehow made sense.

[1] I don’t want to say a negative word about my Dean, however. She was the best Dean I ever saw. She worked endlessly, and she sweated the small stuff until kids were seldom tardy, and usually well-behaved in class. When I worked until six in the evening, she was always still in her office.

The IPADs are always on

This post is especially for newbies. Please pass it on.

From CBS News, AP March 16, 2016, 11:42 AM

Student: “Teacher called me “dumbest girl I have ever met”

GREENSBORO, Ga. — School officials say a Georgia teacher has resigned after a high school student said she recorded him calling her “the dumbest girl I have ever met.”

Greene County School System Superintendent Chris Houston tells The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that teacher Cory Hunter resigned at a school board meeting Monday night. Houston said the teacher apologized for any “disruption” caused by the ordeal.

She says Hunter replied, “I have been around for 37 years and clearly you are the dumbest girl I have ever met.” She says he added that her purpose in life will be to have sex and have babies.

Shaniaya Hunter was recording the lesson on a school-issued iPad.

The phones are always on. The IPADs are always on. I am not concerned about the teacher who just resigned. He needed to resign. That comment was too toxic for any educator to share in a school setting.

But I do want to reach out to new teachers to share some advice: Watch the jokes. Watch the dry humor especially. Watch how you phrase perfectly reasonable demands for students to pay attention. Especially watch anything you say when your temper begins to fray. Your words now can easily be taken out of context.

If you feel the pressure building and feel that you are about to explode, get a colleague to take your class while you pull yourself back from the edge.

Let’s be clear that almost every teacher in America has blown up at some class or another over the years. Teaching can be a highly stressful job. When students are not listening to our labor-intensive, carefully-planned lessons, we sometimes take their lack of attention and interest personally. We get angry.

Teachers had an advantage in the past. When they blew, no one recorded the incident word for word. Students might say, “Mr. Smith got really mad. He yelled at Shaniaya.” They might even add that he called Shaniaya dumb. But second-hand reports never have the weight that recordings do. Mr. Smith might have gotten a stern lecture on never calling students dumb. If enough students complained, he might even have been suspended briefly. He would probably have held onto his job, however. Memories fade and second-hand accounts lose drama and intensity in the telling. We used to accept a few streaks of human weakness in our teachers, too.

Eduhonesty: When you feel yourself slipping off the leash, go get help. I recommend making a reciprocal agreement with a colleague to share students who are creating problems and making it difficult for the class to learn. But if getting one or two students out of the room does not fix your rising temper, get yourself out of the room. Create an agreement to briefly swap classes with another teacher when needed.

However you manage it, get out of the room before you become the next viral video that students are sharing across town, and board members are watching in the district conference room.

 

I Buy Bottled Water

water fountainlAccording to ABC News, Newark, New Jersey, is about to test up to 17,000 children for lead poisoning because elevated levels of lead were found in drinking water there. Apparently,around half of the schools in New Jersey’s biggest city failed their lead tests. The district plans to start with the toddlers in its early childhood centers. Those lead levels are much lower than the ones that afflicted Flint, Michigan, but lead percentages are still above approved levels.

Governor Chris Christie is doing damage control. He claims the elevated lead levels are no crisis, but Newark schools will be testing students to make sure that the lead does not become a crisis. Of course, he does not actually have real data yet. He will not have that data until those 17,000 students are tested. His administration claims that it is “unclear” how long the children of Newark have been exposed, but I would like to make an observation. The lead crisis in Flint happened because the city changed its water supply. Newark has not changed its water supply. That suggests those elevated lead levels may have been streaming out of school water fountains for years.

Seattle had a lead crisis in its water fountains a few years ago. I don’t know if my former district has a lead problem or not. I know the water from bathroom faucets sometimes came out orange. I almost never drank the school water in my last district and I advised the kids to stay away from it too. I had no data to suggest lead was in the water. But I had no reason to believe the district had ever checked for lead or any other problematic substances, either.

Many of our school districts are old. Much of our piping is old and sometimes even ancient by modern standards. Do you work in one of these old buildings? If you do, do yourself a favor. Get a personal water bottle and fill it daily at home before work. Stop by Walmart or Costco and pick up a case of water for your trunk for those days when you use up your water or forget your own bottle. I hate to fill the landfills with those empty pieces of plastic, but I have enough trouble finding my car keys now. A few years drinking that oddly orange water, even filtered through the water fountain, and who knows if I would even know what the keys were for?

Finding lead no doubt proves hugely expensive for the districts that run up against the problem. I can see where a district might decide to postpone that water evaluation until “next year.” And next year, and next year, and next year.

Eduhonesty: I would not trust the plumbing in many of our older schools. Those schools often run hot in warmer weather, too. Some do not have air conditioning. Students and teachers drink water regularly. On some days, my water has names like Nestle, Dasani and Aquafina, etc. I recommend readers pick up some of those waters. If your school water comes in funny colors, I would definitely tell the kids to bring their own water bottles from home, too.

water bottles-group-shot_slide

The Wounded Warrior Project Charter School

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The push to disband public schools in favor of charter schools frightens me. As readers know, I don’t think American education has been doing nearly as badly as many sources claim. Given the rapid influx of English language learners, skyrocketing birthrate to single parents, and significant decline in recreational reading, I would say our stagnant test scores are absolutely a sign of educational success. Under the circumstances, those scores ought to be declining and, in some geographic areas, nosediving.

When people suggest charter schools — which I am not against per se — as a replacement for public schools, I can only wince. I have suggested my daughter open a charter school. She will have the credentials. Between my Masters in Secondary Education and my Masters in Business and Public Management from Rice, I have the credentials. If I had the energy, I could create the plan. I could round up the financing. I would create a real school, too, one dedicated to pulling up children in tough circumstances.

But I shudder to think of the free-for-all if we keep pushing for a widely-based, charter system. Opening all those charters will be essentially creating a system of publically-funded, private enterprises. Even with oversight, many of those schools will be created with a profit motive. I am not against making profits, either, but I think of charities as an example where the charter movement may go badly astray.

That guy at Smile Train? I am sure he has had the best of motives and the charity has done good work, but he also makes a very good living. The Wounded Warrior Project has given around half of its donations to wounded warriors. Many dollars have gone to help disabled soldiers. But when the CEO and COO of the charity were forced to resign, that resignation was overdue. When half of that large pool of donations becomes salaries, parties and other extras, the charity’s original mission has gotten lost or at least badly damaged.

The ABC charter school may or may not set out with the best of intentions. I am sure the Wounded Warrior project started with noble intentions. When salaries are no longer set by union negotiations and involved, community board members, though, we need to ask ourselves exactly how those salaries will be determined. When community school boards are no longer overseeing financial operations, who will ensure that part of the money for computers and software does not quietly become diverted into some charter bureaucrats’ pockets?

Occasionally, America hears stories of school districts that have abused the public trust and stolen funds meant for school children, but there are not many of those stories. Oversight exists and has been developed over time. Oversight by local school boards helps control some factors that might contribute to abuse of funds. Districts hiring processes also help. People go in and out and new hires are chosen for their knowledge of processes. You don’t get a group of people who decide together to apply for grant money to run a set of set of schools. I can easily visualize the scenario where that group of grant applicants sits around drinking beer, eating nachos and discussing the salaries they will give each other.

We could create new state and federal bureaucracies to oversee charter spending, of course, but all I can say about that is NoChildLeftBehindCommonCore, RacetotheTopResponsetoIntervention, PARCCSmarterBalanced, and the Post Office. I should not fail to mention state-takeover-based, required testing for more than 20% of my last year in my mathematics classrooms. We need much less government, not more,

Eduhonesty: Some charters have produced excellent results. Dedicated professionals using public money to create private schools can do an amazing job. But we need to be clear that charters are private businesses with a quasi-charitable justification. If we use them to supplant our private schools, I guarantee the growth of many Wounded Warrior or Cancer Federation Charter Schools. Like charities, the range in quality will be staggering — and America’s children will pay the price.

PARCC days

covered walls(Useful knowledge on the classroom walls must be covered for PARCC testing.)
Still writing book, so I will try to keep this short.

Has the Common Core improved American education? ACT and SAT scores remain relatively stagnant. The first few years of the Core have shown no results to shout about.

Of more concern, we are now basing our state standardized tests on the Common Core. As I walked through school hallways last week, I saw many signs that said, “Quiet! PARCC testing.” We have gone into the first round of a two-round testing process that sucks up weeks of school time.

PARCC is acknowledged to be a more demanding test than its predecessors. My concern about PARCC and the Core can be seen in the grim faces of students on PARCC days. We are adding to the long list of failures that extreme testing regularly inflicts on students. I assure readers that many students are suffering during testing season.

Those kids at the very bottom are not much worse off than before the Core and PARCC. If a student did not know most of the answers to the Illinois State Achievement Test, the impact of not knowing most PARCC answers will feel about the same. The world has not changed greatly for our lowest students.

The world has shifted under the kids in the middle and toward the top, however, the great majority of America’s students. Those kids in the middle may have gone from knowing many answers to knowing relatively few answers. Instead of walking out thinking that they probably did O.K., those kids will leave the testing arena with a sense of having been beaten up or even clobbered. The kids toward the top may end up feeling the same, as they take a test with a greater percentage of unknown answers.

The kids at the very top of our academic tiers should be fine. Except for the fact that public schools are frequently boring these kids to tears (or random disciplinary infractions), our kids at the top tend to function well on test days.

The psychological costs from PARCC testing are high. Educational publications wrote about widespread expectations that test scores would fall throughout the country as students adapted to the new, harder standards. The first PARCC administration led to a fall that was almost a freefall in some schools. Given that we were unable to meet earlier, demanded test improvements after a decade of progressively harsher threats from NCLB, the brainstorm that has led government leaders and other Core proponents to believe that America will be able to meet harder standards now can only be considered mysterious. Believing in zombies might not be a much bigger leap of faith.

If our students cannot meet these standards, what will we have gained? I know what our students are losing: They are losing confidence and hope.