Category Archives: Education

wotz da big deal cuz u kno wot i mean

Tomorrow is National Grammar Day in the United States.

I thought I would share some real examples of email communications that I have received over the last 12 months from first year college students.

Please know my intention is not to poke fun at my former students. I respect them and see so much growth during the course of one semester. But I am ashamed of our nation’s education system because I receive communications from students that are peppered with errors like this all of the time. It’s time to pay attention to our children. If we don’t teach our kids to be solid writers, if we don’t give them the skills they need to read and write masterfully, they aren’t going to be competitive in this world which is becoming increasingly reliant on professional international communications.

7 Things That Can Interrupt Solid Grammar

1: Illness

2: Desperation.

3: Pushing SEND too quickly.

4: Contraception.

5: Music.

6: Missing the bus.

7: TMI

Which one is your favorite? Do you think this is funny or sad? Do me a favor, will ya? Show me your grammar skills. Pick one of these messages and fix everything that’s wrong with it. Make it pretty. Please?

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A Wee Presidents Day Quiz

English: Seal of the President of the United S...

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Sadly, most Americans are pretty ignorant about our history, especially when it comes to our presidents; however, if we think of former presidents as characters (and many of them were!), they really come to life.

While he was actually born on February 22, Presidents Day is celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of our first President of the United States: George Washington. This year Presidents Day is today: February 20.

And while I am not a history teacher, I was feeling teacherishy, so I figured I’d give a little quiz to see what you might know about some of our former Heads of State.

• • •

 Question 1:

Which President never lived in the White House?

 Answer: George Washington. (It wasn’t finished being built yet. Duh!)

Question 2:

Yankee Doodle was born of the Fourth of July. Can you name 3 presidents who died on July 4th?

Answer: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both kicked the bucket on July 4, 1826. (How weird is that?) James Monroe died in 1831.

 Question 3:

Who was the first president to have a beard?

 Answer: Abraham Lincoln. Did you know he was the one to declare the last Thursday in November as the official Thanksgiving Day? It’s true. This year, you can remember to thank Abe for the turkey.

 Question 4:

Who was the first president to wear long pants?

 Answer: James Madison. But it should be noted he was also the shortest president. Standing in bare feet at 5’ 4”, it’s possible that he was a little too small for his britches, and perhaps started the fashion trend.

 Question 5:

Which president put a little Dick in his mouth?

 Answer: Thomas Jefferson had a mockingbird named Dick that took food from Mr. President’s lips. (What did you think I meant, you pervs?!)

Other presidents born in February include Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809), William Harrison (February 9, 1773) & Ronald Reagan (February 6, 1911).

Which president was in office when you were born? What is your earliest memory involving a president?

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End of the Semester Evaluations – of Me!

At the end of the semester, I always ask students to give me feedback about my course, my syllabus, and the skills of the freakishly attractive woman they have been made to stare at for nearly 400 hours.

I ask them to type their answers so there is no chance of being identified by their handwriting.

That way I feel like they really do have a chance to give me honest feedback.

No marshmallowy-delicious coating necessary.

Basically, it is their opportunity to let me have it.

This semester, I started out with 27 students sitting at 27 desks.

In the end, I wound up with 13 warriors.

Not everyone earned A’s or B’s.

Some people failed.

But everyone who stayed until the end, showed a kind of tenaciousness that I feel certain will help them succeed in the future.

These people were not quitters.

• • •

Here is a sampling of the answers to the questions I asked.

Question 1: What were some of Professor Jacobson’s strengths?

  • Professor Jacobson is exciting, energetic and up-beat. 

So they liked my singing after all!

  • She’s fun, nice to talk to, understanding, funny and helpful.
  • Her personality makes class much more bearable.

Clearly there are many unbearable aspects to my class.

  • She provides constructive criticism during essay writing and praise when appropriate.
  • She always lets students know what’s going on and makes sure everyone is clear on everything.

I’m not positive, but I think this might have been a little snarky. One of the things I was worst at was sticking to my proposed syllabus. And I constantly revised it.

Question 2: What were some of Professor Jacobson’s weaknesses?

  • She didn’t have any.

Oh come on? Really?

  • I didn’t notice any.

Whaaat? This person must have been spell-bound by my dancing.

  • She doesn’t know how to work the projector. At all.

There we go. Sad, but true. Technology is my enemy.

  • She kept changing the syllabus around.

Again, true.

  • I didn’t like her emphasis on citation.

Sorry. I’m trying to make it so you don’t get busted for stealing in the future.

  • I thought the class was thought out well and the assignments were interesting.
  • Few and far-between. Maybe a little favoritism. Clearly, X was her favorite student above anyone else, thought she did seem to like us all.

X was actually not my favorite student.

Question 3. Do you feel the expectations were appropriate for a Composition-101 class?

  • Absolutely.

Woot! Got 9 of these. But maybe it’s easier to just write “absolutely” than have to elaborate. Hmmm.

  • I thought she had high expectations for her students to become better writers and that’s what she got.
  • At times, it felt like a lot because other teachers hand out a lot of work as well.
  • I was expecting a more relaxed work load, but I won’t complain because writing this much made us stronger and weeded out the slackers.

Question 4: Did Professor Jacobson create an atmosphere of respect and cooperation? If so, where was this demonstrated? If no, how can she improve?

  • Yes.
  • The classroom setting was super comfortable.
  • She promoted a lot of cooperation during peer review where we read each others’ papers. This was scary at first, but I eventually realized that we were all helping each other and realized no one would ever be cruel.
  • She was a friend to all of us, but strict enough to command respect.
  • She was respectful to us and expected us to be the same to her – and each other. Sometimes I have problems reading aloud, but I didn’t in this class because I knew no one would make a snide remark.
  • Professor Jacobson’s attitude is what made this section of English-101 a successful class. She displayed respect when she asked people to share their writing without pressuring anyone who didn’t want to.
  • There was a lot of mutual respect.

I’m kind of big on respect.

Question 5: Do you feel your writing skills improved over the semester?

  • Before this class I had never heard of MLA citation. I had never generated my own thesis statement. Now I know how to do both.

This. Is. A. Sin.

  • My analysis defiantly (sic) became stronger. And my sentence structure has improved and become more varied.
  • We were writing all the time, and the constant practice helped me improve.
  • I actually know where to put my commas now.
  • I learned to weed out unnecessary words.
  • When I looked back at my first paper, there was so much purple all over the place. Now I am making fewer mistakes, and I am enjoying writing more.

I asked a few other questions, too. But you get the gist.

One comment has to be read in isolation. It was not written in paragraphs. It is what it is. It keeps me humble and reminds me that no matter how hard I try, I can’t reach everyone.

1. I have no idea what your strengths are as a teacher.
2. I have no idea what your weaknesses are as a teacher.
3. I guess your expectations were appropriate.
4. No comment.
5. My writing remains the same.

{Ouch.}

Have you ever been evaluated? What have people said about you? Or what do you think folks might say is your greatest strength and your biggest weakness?

11 out of 13 Comp-101 Warriors 2011 • I'm in the middle

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Are There Alternatives to the College Experience?

Harvard

Image by Patricia Drury via Flickr

Over the last twenty years, societal attitudes have fostered an expectation that all students should go to college.

Currently, 71% of graduating high school students in the United States go directly from high school to college. And while financial aid has made college accessible for nearly everyone, not all students are ready for college (or the college experience).

Right now over 50% of incoming first-year students require some kind of remediation to help retroactively prepare them for college-level work.

So I am wondering: Are we putting too much emphasis on going to college? Is it possible that the pressure and increasing “requirement” that everyone go to college is an unjust expectation? Is it really necessary that everyone have a college degree? To get entry-level work? Or tradesman status? Because it seems like that’s where we are today. People are paying extraordinary amounts of money to attend college, only to find that upon graduation there are very few well-paying jobs.

Should everyone be expected go to college right out of high school? What else could kids who aren’t hard-wired to continue with formal education do rather than menial labor? Or do you believe that college is the only way to a better life?

A Surprise Response

Yesterday I wrote about a student who surprised me by withdrawing himself late in the semester. I am not one to take student disappearances personally, but this one spooked me because he was doing so well. And it is so very late in the semester.

During the course of the day I received a response.

No, it was not from him.

But it was from a former student, someone I have not seen with my own eyes for decades.

This person gave me permission to share.

So I am.

That's a lot of boxes!

When my parents moved from my hometown, I wasn’t able to go home to look through my room, so they threw everything I owned in bags and boxes (mostly just opening the drawers and dumping the stuff in). They said I could look through it later.

That was almost ten years ago.

When I went to visit a few months ago, they told me I should look through everything and either move it or lose it. I spent hours looking through all the papers from preschool through high school. I found drawings I had made, essays I had written, and report cards.

And in the mix, I also found a very sad poem I had written.

And a note from you.

Since I work with teenagers, I worry all the time I will miss the signs — and hope that they feel as comfortable coming to me as I did to you.

It is scary when someone you know commits suicide; it can feel like you missed something.

But I cannot be the only person you have taught to say you have also caught the signs.

As a teen it would not have been easy, or even in my realm of thought, to say thank you.

But it is now.

And so I wanted to write and say thank you for caring, thank you for seeing signs that things were not right and especially thank you for simply taking the time to listen.

I cannot tell you what I might would have done in high school because I really don’t know, but I do know that I am grateful to you for being there.

The campaign says: “It gets better”. Well it does, and I am so grateful to be here to prove that saying true.

Much gratitude to the person who authored this letter.

It meant the world to me.

So much of teaching is about delayed gratification.

We teachers spend our days with these people — some of whom we come to care about — and then we set them free, and cross our fingers that everyone will land on his or her feet.

I’m so happy to know this person has.

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A Letter To The Student Who Withdrew Himself

This picture is an example of subliminal stimu...

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Back before the semester started, I lightheartedly joked that I would never be able to learn my new students’ names because there were so many duplicates on my roster. I quickly figured out who was who. While many of their names were the same, they were all so very unique. And it was good.

Not too long ago, a student who had been doing very well withdrew himself from my class.

I kind of freaked out.

One year, I had a student commit suicide while I taught him. I missed the signals. And I was among the last people he’d talked to before he very intentionally decided to wrap his car around a pole.

Nervous, I called Student Services to let them know I was concerned about this student’s sudden disappearance. A woman assured me someone would contact him.

In the meantime, I sent him an email:

Dear Student X:

I noticed that you have been out a few days, but I assumed you were just sick.

I intended to call you today if you weren’t in class — and then I was poking around for your phone number when I saw that you had withdrawn yourself from class.

Are you okay?

I’m worried about you.

Oddly, that day in the hall, when I saw you expertly rolling a cigarette, licking the paper, and sliding it behind your ear, I wondered if something was going on.

I had a weird feeling.

And then you never came back.

You were doing really well.

Was it the research paper that spooked you?

I wish you had come to talk to me. Or emailed. Or called.

Because you are a very good writer, so I hope you left because you didn’t like my teaching style or something.

Because that I can handle.

But I’d hate to think you dropped the course because you thought you weren’t succeeding when you were.

Or that you are in a dark place not feeling good about yourself.

Can you let me know you are okay?

Sincerely,

RASJ

At week 12, the leaves have fallen off the trees. My class roster is down over 50%. Maybe more. I have lost all my Ashleighs, and I am down to one Ashley. My remaining students don’t seem to notice. Or, if they do, they don’t say anything. But they must see that there are more available seats around them, that there are fewer backpacks over which to trip, that there are fewer heads obstructing their view. They must recognize there is more room to move, more air to breathe. But maybe they don’t.

When I was in college, I don’t think I noticed when people disappeared.

Sometimes I blink back tears. Because I wonder about the disappeared ones. I wonder if they are okay. I wonder if they have landed in soft places where people are helpful and offering hands with palms up. People tell me not to worry so much, that I can’t possibly save them all.

I know that. But I don’t have to like it. Right?

What would you do if someone in your life suddenly dropped out of it? What if Student X were your child, away at college for the first time? What would you want a college professor to do?

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The Gift of Off-Center

It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School, and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class. Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared.

Everything was gone.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records. I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mark Kelly. He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.

“Where is it? What have you done with it?!” I squeaked.

“It’s around,” he said coolly.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing.

Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.

Mr. Kelly taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory, and find answers. It is so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off-center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off-balance – in a good way? What’s the best practical joke someone ever pulled on you? Or you pulled on someone else?

We’re #1… And I Feel Guilty

Newsweek posted its annual “500 Best High Schools” report.** Immediately after the list was published, my local district posted the results in its Fall 2011 Newsletter which indicated that one high school in the district ranked #73 and the other high school came in at #99.

That day, I went to the grocery store. And as I shopped, I ran into folks who were all in a tizzy. Here’s a sampling of what I heard:

How did our school drop from last year? And why is their school better/worse than the other school? And why didn’t our school make the list?

Meanwhile, I kept my head low and kept pushing my cart.

While other people griped, I was content. I mean both high schools in my district made the top 100 list in Newsweek.

Last week, my entire district was just ranked #1 in the State by this report that came out on October 27, 2011.

Awesome, right?

But I’ve been thinking about these lists.

About what they do to us.

How they make us anxious/frustrated/furious/complacent/content.

They get our attention, get us to react, get us to blame, point fingers, worry, obsess, gloat.

And even though I can now wear a t-shirt that proudly proclaims that my child attends the #1 public school district in New York State, there’s something that is making it impossible for me to ride get on my magical unicorn and fly away.

The district deemed “worst” in New York State is also right here in Rochester; The Rochester Public City School District, a District that serves over 32,000 children, came in dead last at #431.

Never has there been such disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

At my nephew’s graduation back in June, the administrators noted that the Class of 2011 was exceptional. Graduating seniors had received astronomical numbers of dollars in academic scholarships. It was surreal. Collectively, their SAT scores were redinkadonk. Sitting in that huge field-house surrounded by well-dressed, well-fed, financially secure families, I felt hopeful. I think everyone did.

In September 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported:

The results from the [2011] college-entrance exam, taken by about 1.6 million students… revealed that only 43% of students posted a score high enough to indicate they were ready to succeed in college, according to the College Board, the nonprofit that administers the exam.

When I read that report, I read its inversion: 57% of students are not prepared for college level work.

And I knew who they were talking about.

On the second day of this semester, I administered a written diagnostic to my Composition-101 class designed to determine if students could write a basic essay on-demand.

Guess what?

I don't like to fail people. But sometimes I have to.

About thirty percent of the class failed the exam.

What’s the big deal?

I’m glad you asked!

In the last four years that I have worked at my local community college, I have learned a lot about the demographic of my students. Most of these students are not as fortunate as the children in my home district.

Many did not graduate high school. Some do not have money for breakfast or lunch and eat out of vending machines. I have had homeless students; one admitted to me that he had been hiding and sleeping in Wal-Mart right before he was caught and arrested. I have students who look down at their shoes when asked to read aloud because they can barely read. I have had students whose mothers are abusive and whose fathers are in prison.

Some students are civilian veterans; folks who have served in the United States military and are now returning to the classroom to try to focus on academics after multiple overseas deployments. Some claim some kind of disability status; and for others, English is not to primary language spoken in the home. Too many come from families whose annual median income fell below the poverty line.

So what do these lists tell us?

They tell us what we already know.

That students who come from an environment where parents encourage education will value education. They will come to school with full bellies, having slept in a bed they can call their own. They come with backpacks stuffed with all the required materials and minds that are ready to learn.

Children who grow up with some kind of interference — whether it be emotional, cultural or fiscal — will have to work harder to get where they want to go. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.

I hate this enormous social disparity.

Pointing out the disparity in reports and newsletters doesn’t seem productive, nor does it seem to result in changes for the people who need them the most.

Here is what I can tell you:

Colleges are spending millions on remedial courses to prepare high school graduates for college-level work.

Businesses are having to invest time and money teaching employees basic skills they did not learn in school.

Well-intentioned (but misguided) initiatives like No Child Left Behind as well as our over-emphasis on standardized testing in the core subjects have sent us in the wrong direction. Instead of teaching students to think across the disciplines, administrators have chosen to “cut the fat” — programs like music and art and drama — which are considered esoteric and unnecessary.

And no matter how much I may I want to, I can’t fix students in 15 weeks: not when 12 years of school has failed them.

** Did you see the Newsweek report?

Go ahead and look at it.

You know you want to.

America’s Best High Schools: The List – Newsweek.

What do you think about these lists? Do they get you worked up? Or do they make you feel helpless?

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The Day Monsieur Said Non

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I had enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it; my Algebra teacher had retired two years prior; and I wasn’t on good terms with my homeroom teacher.

Monsieur gives me the finger.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher.

I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season.  Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time my former students are returning to me, asking me to write all kinds of letters: to get into four-year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers — so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality. It is not enough to simply show up: a person must do more than make a good impression.

Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation.

However, the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am strangely grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing to write me that letter, and I see his wisdom in holding up a mirror before me and having me take that proverbial good hard look at myself and the choices I had made that brought me to that day.

I even understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice.

Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf.

If a student cannot find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stephenson: as teacher now, myself, I have learned how to be selective about whom I consider writing letters of recommendation; after all, they are time-consuming endeavors, unpaid labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

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© Renée Schuls-Jacobson 2011. All rights reserved.

The Day Flannery O’Connor Screwed Me

The Misfit

Image by haagenjerrys via Flickr

Someone really smart once said, “Kids seldom misquote; in fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.”

In fact, that person might actually have been sitting in my classroom the day I taught Flannery O’Connor‘s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to a bunch of 11th graders.

I had taught the story dozens of times and found the simple premise and the unfulfilling ending always led to great discussions.

One particular day, I asked my students to take out their copies of the story. A simple directive, right? Only this time, my students started snickering.

Initially, I assumed that perhaps someone had farted or something.

(What? It happens.)

We started to discuss O’Connor’s work, and everything was going along swimmingly. I asked someone what he thought the point or message of the story might be.

Four or maybe five people burst out laughing.

I wondered if I had pit stains or if I was dragging toilet paper around behind me as I walked around the room.

I couldn’t figure it out.

The laughing flared up again. And again.

Finally I couldn’t take it anymore.

“Why is everyone laughing?” I demanded.

Silence.

Of course.

I insisted, “Seriously, I’d like to know what is so funny.”

One brave girl tried to help me. “Mrs. Jacobson,” she said, “The story is called ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find,’ but you keep calling it… something else.”

She pointed at the blackboard behind me.

I turned to look at the board and sure enough, I’d even written it out in chalk: “A Hard Man is Good To Find.”

Oh. My. Holy. Embarrassing.

And did I mention that I was about 6 months pregnant?

Well, I was.

So they were all thinking about how I had gotten it on with a “hard man” and it was “good.”

Or something like that.

Teachers have to be careful to watch what they say whether in the classroom or out in public, and I have found the best approach is to assume that everything I say could be published or broadcast to the world. That way, I have to be sure what I am saying is appropriate, clear and concise. And cannot be misinterpreted.

But sometimes I stick my foot in my mouth.

So I’m guessing I was heavily quoted that night.

Unless, of course, that batch of students forgot all about my faux-pas.

Because teenagers do that.

I mean, a lot of stuff happens between 7:50 AM and dinnertime.

In her short story, O’Connor goes to great lengths to show her readers how meaningless many of the small things we concern ourselves with are in the grand scheme of things: how many of the things that we fret over are really not very important at all.

I mean, obviously, in the larger scheme, there are many worse things than jostling up a few words in front of one’s students.

So maybe that moment was not very important.

I can buy that.

So why do I remember it so vividly?

And can somebody help make that memory go away?

Done anything wildly embarrassing recently? Anyone like to predict some dumb things I’ll probably do this semester?