Of doormen and receptionists.

A doorman.

That is precisely how I felt as I pushed the plate glass doors to a brightly lit atrium that housed a sharply dressed if diminutive receptionist with an earpiece. It was late in the evening and, unless she had just walked in for the night shift, she couldn’t have been so alert to my disorientation. I knew I was knackered, having just finished a  grueling three-day workshop for teachers.

‘Apartment 3601?’

‘Right this way, Sir,’ she beamed as she stepped out from behind the marble counter and led me to a bank of six elevators. She was still smiling as the elevator doors whispered shut and whisked me up above most of this brightly lit city.

Stepping out, I looked left and right. There were only two doors at either ends of the hallway. A tiny arrow with ‘3601’ in grey Avenir Light pointed right and I obeyed. Ringing the doorbell, I mused at the hint of a chime.

The door opened to a pair of tan moccasins, a pair of beige chinos, argyle T-shirt and, finally, the beaming smile that I knew so well. A hint of a jowl and the same thinning grey that I, too, had lost the battle denying, but in every other way it was the same smile that I had last seen over twenty years ago.

‘Sam!’ I yelled as I stepped into his embrace.

A little Elsa and a not-so-little Sideswipe, four and six, greeted me with as much warmth as ‘he’s-Daddy’s-friend-so-I-have-to-be-nice’ would allow. Their mother, at ease with her husband’s school friends turning up at a few hours’ notice, was gracious and genuinely curious about another piece of his past.

The family had eaten, so we sat around the coffee table over cozy conversations and wise wine. Little Elsa and I even spoke about Olaf for a bit before Mummy signaled bedtime.

As I nursed the rest of my drink and took in the eclectic artwork on the wall, I heard snippets of their night prayers, and their goodnight kisses. They dimmed the lights in the living room when they returned, and spent what was left of the evening with me.

We spoke late into the night about the twenty odd years that had been. I graduated high school and went on to become the educator I had not envisioned I’d be today: teaching in international schools and travelling to train teachers as well. I was living way beyond my dreams.

And Sam?

Twenty odd years ago, he failed his classes but he was kind to everyone he met. He was a gifted sportsman but was bullied for his unusually big build. Sam was a reject. A ne’er-do-well. That’s how the system branded him. Multiple times. He was deemed unteachable. A strong candidate for expulsion. In the end, they kicked him out of school. I was sad to see him leave; sad as a fifteen-year-old in an all-boys boarding school was permitted to be.

Till I met him again, a well-grounded person as successful as anyone can be. He lives well because he has earned it through whatever life has thrown at him since he left school. What’s even more important, he’s a loving husband and a doting father.  A good man. And the home that he has built for his wife and children is, literally, at the top of their world.

As I pushed open the plate glass doors again, remembering to repay the receptionist’s kindness with a smile, I couldn’t help thinking about Sam’s experience of school and wondering about my own role as an educator.

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Photo Credit: davidmulder61 Flickr via Compfight cc

Schools ought to be brightly lit spaces safe for children of every colour, shape and size of potential to realise just that: their potential, where struggle is seen as effort and not ineptitude, and where failure is not deemed a finality but a springboard for informed improvement. If all we do as educators is value achievement against statistical averages, where on our spreadsheets do we see the dreamer, the artist, the leader, the learner? Where on our spreadsheets do we see Sam, the person? The mean, median and mode of our computations spawn labels that we stick on learners: ‘excellent,’ ‘above average,’ ‘poor’. We brand them each academic year, multiple times; we celebrate the top five percent, showering them with certificates of ‘achievement’ that make us look good.

And what about the rest? Do we challenge the equation of our own effort to ensure that all learners learn? Do we dare to celebrate every colour, shape and size of achievement? Do we watch them all with pride at the end of their journeys as they leave our brightly lit safe spaces?

And should we be doormen, then,

– or receptionists?

Do we?

One warm tropical Sunday morning eleven years ago, we were on our way to church in a battered taxi jostling aggressively for every inch of space between other battered taxis and shiny rich SUVs at a Jakarta roundabout trying to beat the traffic light. Just as we thought we’d made it, we came to a jarring halt when the driver of the car in front suddenly hit the brakes. My wife let out a protective scream, cradling our infant daughter’s head inches away from the window of the rear door, and I froze, my breath caught somewhere between my lungs and my throat. Our driver stepped out of his cab to assess the damage and waited for the owner of the car he’d hit to begin what I knew would be a long but not surprisingly civil negotiation about compensation. Neither party would want to get the cops involved; there were none about anyway.

I found my breath again when I checked that my wife and daughter were unharmed. I wrote this off as yet another traffic incident that we had grown used to in the years that we had lived there. I checked the time on my watch and thought to myself that we’d be lucky if we caught the tail end of the service that morning.

A sharp rap on my side made me whip my head around. Pressed against the pane was the face of a young girl, no more than eight years old, pleading in mute expectation for me to buy that morning’s edition of an Indonesian daily. She had a school uniform on – that white and rust that local schools make them wear. I don’t read Bahasa well enough to want to buy a paper, so I waved her on. She should have moved on immediately to snag the next car but she didn’t. In that moment, I looked straight into her eyes and I froze a second time.

Her eyes! Where was their innocence? And why wasn’t it there? Why was she in uniform on a Sunday morning? What was this child doing at a dangerous roundabout selling newspapers? And where were her parents? How could they?

Pinned by her momentary stare, I couldn’t make sense of these questions. I escaped only when she decided to move on to the blue Lexus behind us. I craned my neck as far as my seatbelt would allow me to watch her move purposefully on to the car behind the Lexus.

Our driver returned, visibly upset at the few thousand rupiah he has managed to gain from his negotiations, and we moved on. But I didn’t. I did, however, squeeze my wife’s hand reassuringly and kissed my daughter’s cheek like the relieved husband and father that I was.

But this is not about that unnamed girl with the eyes.

This is about Em. Today. In my class. In China.

At fourteen, she has ‘tude exuding out of her oddly bohemian dresses that only a fourteen year old can carry off. She is gifted with a beautiful mind; she works brilliantly alone on assignments but eschews group work with most of her classmates. She ranks at the top of her class and yet runs afoul of school rules frequently. The school, as I understand, wants to take her down for infractions of most of page 167 of the Student’s Handbook.

Her eyes. I have yet to look right at them. At every gentle attempt to speak with her, I find that they are always averted, resting on a stray paperclip on my desk or on her iPhone. But never at me.

And I wonder, just as I did eleven years ago.

What story lies in those inkwells? Is there any innocence left in them or has something caused them to dry out way too early?  She texts on her phone every free moment out of class and yet stonewalls any attempt at conversation by her peers. Does she have a life out of school that consumes her attention to the point that she cannot function socially at school? Are her conversations on the phone with her parents, neither of whom have registered a presence at a school-mandated event? Has she slipped through their fingers? How could they?

Which brings me to the bigger question about teachers and parents.

Do we write Em, and those like her, off as none of our business? Do we adhere to the letter of Page 167 to a point where the spirit doesn’t matter? Do we judge her parents, trying to beat the chaotic roundabout of academic, and only academic, achievement?

Or do we let out a protective scream, cradling Em’s innocence inches away from that window of opportunity that is waiting to destroy her?

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Photo Credit: thirdblade Flickr via Compfight cc

 

And this is my point.

Aki slouches at her desk at the back of the class. She has found it easier to disappear there since the second week of her first year in middle school.

She does not remember the curious child she used to be in primary school. It was only a summer ago, but it already feels like it was ages ago. Back then, and in spite of her challenges with English, she was a happy, engaged learner.

Back then, she enjoyed doing Mathematics the most: counting numbers, dividing shapes, even doing fractions on the pizza that she made in class with ingredients she brought from home. And the poem she had written – with her first set of complete sentences about her cat Milo – still hangs in the hallway of the primary school building, weathered by the summer heat but without any lessening of the pride she had seen and loved in her parents’ eyes.

Pulled back into the now by a loud command from the teacher to a student in the front of the class, she realises that she is in Math class. Only this time, she does not understand most of what the teacher is saying. A few of her classmates – always the same few – respond to the questions the teacher asks while the rest of the class tries hard to figure things out for themselves as best they can.

But not Aki. She checks her phone for messages waiting for her. There are none. She cannot wait for class to end. She cannot wait to meet Chiaki and Riri, her only friends these days, again for a game of cards during lunch break. They had all received detention against playing cards in school once for breaking rules (something in ‘The Handbook’), but then they had found a quiet place in the lunch room. No teacher ever checks.

Daryl is in his first term into senior school. Middle school was mostly a blur, and all that he remembers is the time when his parents gave him his first iPhone and an iPad with a data connection on his Middle School Graduation. He downloaded apps and games that opened up a whole new world of intense friendships. He spends most of his time playing online games and is now fast gaining some respect as a skilled gamer. His skills on the basketball court are equally worthy of respect from his teammates, a really big deal considering that he is the youngest player on the team.

But his GPA really sucks. C’s to F’s are his comfort zone. Apart from his basketball coach, no teacher seems to worry about his grades. He, on the other hand, does worry once every quarter when his report card is sent home in the mail. Only once was he successful in pulling one out from the mailbox before his parents got home. They did not ask about it. And he didn’t tell.

They do not ask him about the detentions he has been raking up recently. And that is just fine: more time to challenge his partner-in-crime as they fight to get to Level Extreme!

man-77495_1280Neither Aki nor Daryl are ‘rotten eggs’ or ‘bad apples’, of that I am convinced. What they are, or have become, are  convenient labels that some teachers have stuck on them. Teachers who wish they’d just go away. And when they don’t – when they, the Akis and Daryls of the world, keep turning up to class because they have to, these teachers find it easier to simply leave them be. That is how easy it is sometimes, how convenient.

Both Aki and Daryl are but snapshots of a very vulnerable demographic in any school. Transitioning from one age to the another, one class to the next; more importantly, from primary to middle or middle to senior sections of any school, is a traumatic experience for most young people. Sticking labels on this demographic is like sticking tissue paper on a shaving nick.

Except that this nick is really not a nick but an ugly gash. A gash that exposes a systemic failure in some schools to recruit right, to train right, to support right and to empower right. Failure to do so is a disservice of monumental proportions.

And this is my point.

Let it go

From the very beginning of our teaching careers, we are taught to take control – control of our classrooms and of the children we teach; control of our unit plans and pacing guides, and of the ice-tray timetables that divide our teaching into arbitrary slots on any given week. Our success is often measured by how much control we can demonstrate and document – in planning our unit plans down to the tiniest detail, placing time codes to the sequence of learning teaching activities, deciding when students may stand up or sit down. Over time, we get very good at being managers of our practice. In fact, we become very gifted control freaks.

So, when do we really listen for learning?

This is the point of this post, inspired by a very rewarding week I spent in Australia recently.

In contrast to the mugginess of Shanghai, the refreshingly low if fickle temperatures of a Melbournian June was the backdrop of two opportunities where I learned, and applied what I learned, from teachers who listen for learning.

The first was at meeting at Mount Scopus Memorial College that I was invited to, where teachers shared evidence of unleashing learning in their classrooms. A common theme that emerged was one of relinquishing control and giving students the agency to drive their own learning. Teachers felt increasingly surprised at the richness of learning that they found in their classes when they let go of the reigns: students decided on short and long term goals and strategies themselves, they worked together to empower each other and, most importantly, they had fun! I walked into a science class where the teacher had let go of some control to let her students take charge of the projects they were working on together. From planning to experimenting to failing and trying again, it was all student driven. They, the students, were articulate about how they applied the concepts their teacher had taught them to making real life models with their science kits. The teacher had stepped back; the students were in control of their learning. And both shared in a common sense of pride, of achievement, though for different reasons.

chain-297842_1280The second opportunity was at the three-day workshop I led for twenty-two adults. Control freak that I can be and true to my training, I had spent hours planning every minute of the twelve prescribed sessions. My intention was to micromanage the entire process from the very beginning. That went out the window after Session One. The wealth of experience in the room was far too great for me not to tap into. They, the participants, wanted to collaborate, to try and fail and try again – they wanted agency. Having seen what giving up control can do to children just the day before, I dared letting go: tentatively at first, I’ll admit, but with more enthusiasm at each successive session. On the last day, I stepped back completely, for twenty-two adults had decided what and how they would like to apply the concepts they had picked up at the workshop. In the end, they and I shared in a common sense of pride, of achievement, though for different reasons.

Back in muggy Shanghai, as I reflect on the great things that happen when we choose to let learners lead their own learning, when we stop controlling, I realise that my biggest takeaway – and resolve – from my Melbourne ‘experience’ is to:

Let it go.

This time each year

This time each year there are gaps in my timetable where I would normally have had a class full of senior IB students. These are now filled with the quiet that comes with my reflections of two entire years spent on a journey that for some began with nary a clue as to what the future will hold, and for others already knowing, a sense of mission to accomplish. Between the two extremes of this spectrum, I have been privileged to share in the collective effort of cohorts as they journey from being overwhelmed to being in control, from being tentative to becoming confident; from the shift that happens from giving up to going the extra mile, sometimes on little less than mere fumes, from toil and tears to triumphs and trophies.

This time each year I have felt the need to pin my thoughts down before they disappear for yet another year. But somehow I had not gotten down to it. Creature of habit that I have become, I  have found it far too easy to fall prey to the trance of a rhythm, a sense of complacency that has unwittingly become a habit. And, so, I have let it pass. The IB exams are done and so is the senior prom. In the week and a half between the latter and the formal turning of the tassel, final exams for the rest of the school, reports and comments have filled the silence. And that has been that.

Until now.

This year, I have been startled by a new realisation, another rhythm that I should have recognised earlier. For this time each year many also return: some from their first year of college, others from their last; still others after a few years as working men and women having landed jobs in an impressive array of multinational corporations and institutions, well on their way to becoming captains of industry or luminaries in their chosen fields.

They are startled, and yet not, to find that I am still here. They comment respectfully on my head of thinning if greyer hair; they acknowledge mischievously my widening girth. They shower me with mugs and hoodies with university crests emblazoned on them, ties and writing instruments, fridge magnets and coffee – lots and lots of coffee: priceless tokens of their appreciation. I cherish every one of them. Every one.

IMG_2704But what I cherish more are their personal stories. Stories of their several journeys – from being overwhelmed to being in control, from being tentative to becoming confident; from the shift that happens from giving up to going the extra mile, sometimes on little less than mere fumes; from toil and tears to triumphs and trophies. Every one of them.

I am grateful for the privilege of the many who did return.

And in the silence that follows yet another leave taking, I remember the many who did not.

I hope that they, too, are safe. And well.

#unleashinglearning has only just begun

International conferences for educators have three very distinct categories of people in them:

  • Either you are about to embark on a new course or role and need, or have been told by your admin that you need, to learn the philosophy, standards and practices that drive it. Sometimes, you return to an interaction of the same conference a few years later to upskill as you find yourself growing from a novice to a natural. Whatever your reasons, in the end your role is set to that of a learner.
  • Or you are an expert in your field. Perhaps you were one from the very beginning or have grown to be one over the years. You are invited to conferences to share what you know so others may learn from you. Your role, in short, is that of a teacher.
  • Or you may even be one of those who wait for your colleagues to return from such conference to share what they have learned. And if your colleague is a USB warrior who copied everything they could from any one they could on a thumb drive, you can sit back and sift through all the resources for ideas.

I have attended such conferences for several years now. At first I was there as a learner. Having earned my professional chops over the years, I now attend a few as a presenter: a teacher. In my earlier years, I would spend my breaks between sessions to network over coffee or sit eat a table with other learners to trade notes and name cards over lunch. Lately, I have sat in rooms full of other presenters as we decompressed from one session and prepped for the next. Without question there was a lot of learning and teaching that I did as I moved from common spaces for participants to designated ones for presenters. But I have found these  roles and the mould of these conferences rather fixed. And in that sense, participants and presenters land up to ‘do’ a conference.

It is true that in recent times some of the boundaries have been breached with the advent of Twitter. Participants and presenters are increasingly taking to sharing their experiences through hashtags that conferences create as part of their branding. These are the digital campfires around which much conversation take place. And if you did not or could not attend the conference itself, you can follow the conversations from where you find yourself – at home or at work, on your laptop or your personal device.

Which brings me to #unleashinglearning.

Disrupt L2 UnleashWhat began as a tiny seed of an idea between Edna, Jina, Lana, Stephanie and I, with Sam and Rebekah providing fertile ground for planting as part of the Disrupt Strand at Learning2 in Manila last year, saw the light of day in Melbourne earlier this month in Unleashing Learning – “a conference by educators for educators.”

Teachers are not without the powerful personal IMG_3495narratives that they bring to their calling. These are what lends an authenticity to that what they do in their classrooms. And so it was that both conference days were bookended by a series of 5-minute inspirational talks from teachers and students – each personal experience resonated with those who listened. They were all powerful. Very.

Throughout the conference, purpose driven educators – some for the first time, others for the nth time – ran workshop sessions on a wide range of topics that all focused squarely on learning – and how to “unleash” it for our students and for ourselves and educators. There were no areas designated for participants or for presenters, for everyone at the conference was a learner learning to unleash learning.

It has been an unmitigated privilege to have been part of this experience. I am still ‘at the conference’ in my head.

campfireFor those who were there with me: hold on to #unleashinglearning for a while yet: document and tweet every instance in your classroom, at your school, among your students and your colleagues, when you find learning unleashed.

For those who could not be there: come, gather around because no one who left the conference put the fire out. It’s still raging. Take in its warmth. Add your own kindling, Keep in alive.

#unleashinglearning has only just begun.

I’m younger than that now

I began this journey I am on as a teacher twenty years ago. I was so much older then.

Photo Credit: Demmer S via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Demmer S via Compfight cc

With a quiver full of high ideals, optimism for a shield and newly minted teaching degree for a sword, I was ready to change the world. Sequestered in traditions more than a century old, I was comfortable in the chalk, talk, brick and mortar school that I worked in. I was something of an authoritarian – a sage on the stage – like the teachers who had inspired me, decreeing what and how students should learn what they had to to become captains of the industries that were then available as career choices. Personal irony aside, I had, in Dylan’s words, A self-ordained professor’s tongue / Too serious to fool / [who] Spouted out that liberty / Is just equality in school / “Equality,” I spoke the word / As if a wedding vow.’

And then shift happened. The future came and left, before I had the chance to say hello. Equality gave way to equity in my classroom, to fairness that demanded that I step aside and let my students take the stage to decide for themselves what they wanted needed to learn in a world exponentially changing. No longer are career choices finite entities today. They are fluid, demanding skills more than content as industrial age careers dry up and new ones emerge, demanding transference of critical thinking skills for my students to thrive in, not just survive.

Technology has brought new hardware into the classroom in the form of devices, devices that breed faster operating systems that spawned more intuitive software for all ages and kinds of learning. Riding this surging wave are reams of research on brainware – on how cognition has changed in this new landscape of learning that calls on teachers to rethink their old ways and adapt. Or atrophy.

I have grown from chalk and talk to student-led inquiry. My learning space has moved from brick and mortar spaces to digital ones. I have shed the mantle of the authoritarian and donned the one my students wear – that of a learner. And like them, I am no longer sequestered in traditions but breaking new ground as we, together, wander and wonder.

In twenty years, I have seen education go from books, MOOCS, to gadzooksKhan Academy and School In The Cloud are but two examples of how far we have come. I have moved from parochial purposes of teaching to personalised professional development that focuses on student-centred learning. And I have thrived, not just survived; for I sip from the hydrant that is my PLN – a tribe of teachers who are also prosumers of best practices, passionate educators who don’t think twice before engaging in conversations in this community and doing what they must to make the experience of learners beyond their own classrooms richer.

Where and how will I be teaching in the next twenty years? Truth be told, I haven’t a clue! Just as I didn’t have a clue then about how I would be teaching today. But looking back on the beginning of my own journey as a teacher twenty years ago, I know this:

I’m younger than that now.


Originally posted on my COETAIL blog, Kripscape.

Prophets

Prophets came and prophets come

speaking testaments

with voices of the numb.

Walls are painted, they’ll be painted more

in colours that bleed

the promises they swore.

Prophets came and prophets come;

Prophets came and prophets come.

Prophets came and prophets come …

While many an armchair martyr

in waiting rocked wild

to the sound of a rattle

– in the hands of a child.


1995. Revisited: 2015.


Time there was when words mattered – mattered enough to hold a steady course, or stay a hand, with reason born of the fine mettle of giants on whose shoulders we once stood.

Like many educators around the world, I am struggling to make sense of the events of this cold and harsh November. The children we teach need to see beyond the instant outpouring of grief on social media – clothed for the moment in red, white and blue; they need to look beyond the half-life of mainstream media memory and learn that the reasons, the justifications, our leaders offer for their actions disregard, if not disrespect, the distance we have covered as a collective civilisation. They must get past the rhetoric of religion and the clash of cultures. They must themselves be giants on whose shoulders their children and their children’s children will stand. 

I penned “Prophets” twenty years ago in response to events at the time. It is a collection of mere words, not reason nor justification. It afforded me cold comfort then but serves to remind me now that educators all over the world have to work harder, much harder, to raise generations of giants whose words will, perhaps one day, hold a steady course, or stay a hand. 

At the end of the day, I still hope. 

Don’t you?

And, yet, we failed Matt

Meet Matt.

At six feet and almost two hundred pounds, he was clearly a misfit in middle school. By looking at him, you could tell that he was also a few years older than his classmates. His grades, not surprisingly, were within the broad range of Ds and Fs, and yet he was promoted each year to the next class.

Photo Credit: samantha celera via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: samantha celera via Compfight cc

I taught him for a year when he came to high school, and got to know him beyond his reputation as one of those ‘slipping through the cracks’.

In fact, when I inherited him, I was warned by his previous teacher about how he would amount to nothing. (There is an alarming trend in some schools where teachers warn their colleagues about how terrible some students were in their classes in previous years.)

He had all the trappings of a rich home – fancy clothes, expensive sneakers, the latest smartphones and a personal set of hot wheels parked outside school. He was loaded with cash and did not hesitate to buy his buddies a treat or two at lunch break.

He was courteous with me at all times – he’d have this childlike smile on his face when he’d bow his head ever so slightly in greeting. And while his grades did not rise to astronomical heights, they did stay out of the F-range for most of the year: he handled tasks better if you broke them down for him.

As an ELL student Matt had strong affective barriers to learning because classes were conducted in a language that he was not yet proficient in; his assignments were not differentiated, as there was no system-wide commitment to providing him with support. Such support was understood to be a decision left to individual teachers, irrespective of whether they were qualified or willing to make them.

Sent out of the class for every little infraction, handed detention as a matter of routine and labeled a “perpetrator”, it is little wonder then that Matt was a self-fulfilling prophecy on two feet! He spent more time in detention than in a classroom learning. And all the while, the ‘system’ waited for Matt to quietly graduate himself out.

This leads me to the  ‘discipline code’ of any school, that is in principle and practice a device to manage student behaviour. Irrespective of local contexts, all discipline codes must comprise The Four Ps. These are best understood as responses to a series of questions:

Purpose:

Why is there a discipline code in the first place? Is it to maintain order or to keep students safe? Is it designed to punish students for bad behaviour or to reward them for good? Does it aim at instilling in them a self-checking mechanism or is the aim to force them to conform?

Policy:

Is the discipline code a written document that is transparent and easy to access? Do all stakeholders know what it looks like and why it is there? Is it reviewed periodically to keep pace with changing times (and laws of the land)? Is it applied fairly and consistently across all students?

Protocol:

Are there step-by-step methods to review and document every ‘discipline’ case? Do all stakeholders know what they are? Is the approach to discipline a dialogue rather than a set of draconian laws? Do protocols aim to find a solution or simply record the problem? What are the privacy settings of such discipline codes?

Person:

To what extent does the school’s discipline code consider the “person” at the centre: the student? How does the school build a safe learning environment and a culture of respect that students come to trust? What is the school’s attitude to failure? What language is deemed appropriate for all stakeholders to use when dealing with students?

These are not difficult questions to answer, are they?

And, yet, we failed Matt.
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