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Month: September 2012

Pathways-ED: Charting new directions in the fight against failure


Last night I chaired an evening with visiting US founder of the KIPP[1] Network of Charter Schools – 14 charter schools from Pre-K through to Grade 12. The visit to NZ by Dr Mike Feinberg was sponsored by the University of Auckland, Partnership Schools, The New Zealand Initiative and the Aotearoa Foundation.

A group of a little over 100 heard a presentation full of enthusiasm and much that everyone could relate to. The US faces a situation that is about the same as we do in New Zealand – disengagement, high drop-out rates and middling achievement at tertiary levels. (The Minister released data on Maori and Pacific Island student achievement yesterday and this morning the Principals Federation described the information as unhelpful!)  Fienberg posed the question: Do we accept that this is simply destiny or do we accept that we can do something about it?

That is the question that is being asked constantly here in New Zealand right now. The Minister’s Cross-Sector Forum is focussed on just that issue and on the Better Public Service Goal of 85% of a­ll 18 year olds having NCEA Level 2 (or its equivalent by 2017).

The audience was asked to accept that we, the professionals had to have the mindset and a belief that such targets were possible – and I for one had no issue with that. In fact I still find it puzzling that this is not easily accepted by some professionals who still cling to all the excuses of factors outside of the school.

Interestingly, Feinberg’s “five pillars” for his charter schools were simple and closely connected to some of the reforms currently being considered in New Zealand:

  •          have students work a longer school day, school week and school year;
  •          have unwavering high expectations;
  •          provide choice for students but along with that demand commitment;
  •          give to students the power to lead;
  •          focus on results.

All this is sound. Much of it underpins the approach of the Tertiary High School which is achieving wonderful levels of success for a wide range of students (e,g. easy completion of NCEA targets well within 2 years, enrolled in a University of Auckland degree in Year 3, on track to MIT degrees and completing MIT diplomas in 3 years to go alongside NCEA completions and so on – good results are clearly possible.)

Feinberg had a lot of other material that was engaging:

  •          emphasise the “J Factor” – joy in learning;
  •          give school leaders the freedom to lead, choice as to resource use;
  •          demand results from leaders;
  •          allow students not simply to survive but also to thrive;
  •          make all schools “choice schools”;
  •          giving choice to students and parents is the “game changer”

So where was the controversy in all this business of charter schools? It was question time that brought out the concerns of some in the audience – use of unregistered teachers (response: Feinberg generally uses registered but also gives students exposure to a wider range of people), attrition rates from KIPP schools (questioner: there is research that says its poor, response: there is research that says it isn’t – duelling with statistic left the audience unclear) and the whole question of choice.

Interestingly, the questioning resulting in several statements from people that action was needed urgently, that Pasifika were sick of waiting for effective education for their children and so on (Disclosure: I also chipped in with this.)

Feinberg used some good quotes from Dr Seuss and it was clear that the classrooms in his Charter Schools were pretty lively places. But then again, so are most classrooms in New Zealand. Clearly, he felt his teachers were excellent, so too are teachers in New Zealand schools. The charter school regulatory environment in the US gives freedoms to schools, well you don’t get a more permissive national framework than we have in New Zealand.

So what are the points at which our system seems to be sticking? Is it focus? is it time spent? Is it the basis of employment of teachers?

I think it might be more in an almost throw-away comment that Feinberg made. Having established middle schools, he saw that he needed to establish elementary schools and secondary schools so that students could have a flow in the schooling that they were getting. Perhaps a key message is that the current organisation of schooling into pre-school, primary, intermediate and secondary bits works against student progress.

It was good to have an evening at which ideas about education were tossed around – it doesn’t happen very often these days and it really isn’t scary.

Oh, and Dr Seuss.  What about this?

You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.  And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

And will you succeed?
Yes!  You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So… get on your way!

(Oh the Places You’ll Go)


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Talk-ED: Rdg btwn lines – Have we lost the plot?


Even if the stories in the media based on the National Standards data are wildly astray, even if the National Standards themselves might be flawed, even if a-whole-host-of-other-reasons- and-excuses, there is still good cause for concern about the lag in the results between writing skills and reading skills and the growing gap between girls and boys.

For a child that can speak, reading should come easily. Once the penny drops that those marked on the page are representation of something he or she already knows – words – then progress should follow. Once a child realises that those stories are about him or her and the world they live in then it quickly follows that the developing reader seeks the company of others through print and in worlds beyond their own.

So how does this process, mastered by so many, go astray? One answer has to be over issues of quantity. Some children read more than others, are read to more than others, receive books as presents more than others, snuggle up to Mum or Dad in an evening for a warm read more than others. They put in the hours and are greatly advantaged. Even though this all happens out of the reach of a teacher or a school, they come to the classroom task fitter and better prepared.

Then there are the considerations of relevance of material and so on. Reading is an inside out process in which children get meaning from print by bringing meaning to it. If the increasing diversity of students is not matched by diversity in the materials being used there will be an impact on progress. But schools are on to this.

So why the lag in the writing results? Well, it is obvious that you learn to read by reading but a little less obvious that you learn to write, no, not by writing but by reading. If reading development slows, writing development slows even more.

Comments following the stories in the press were initially on the impact of texting on language development and especially reading and writing. This was, I would suggest, well off the mark. Text language is a sophisticated use of language and requires sound reading skills to “de-code” the truncated forms of words. Even in reading conventional texts, readers get more clues from the skyline of the consonants than they do from the shape of the vowels. If texting impacts negatively on language development then it should impact much more widely and clearly across the whole cohort and yet it seems not to do so.

Now, what is this with the boys? This data makes sense only in relation to historical trends for there has always been a gap between boys and girls that flattens out over time. Boys start a little more slowly but do catch up. Has this gap increased? It is hard to tell from just one instrument.

So what would be the challenge posed by these media stories? Well, instead of indignation the education community could respond by taking a good look at the picture and assessing a little more closely any messages that are in it. I would guess that there is a concern about reading and writing – who cares about how large it is in national terms, the impact is at the level of each and every child for there has not been delivered to a school ready to learn these things (with the exception of the rare occasions when a child who cannot progress into uses of the printed word). The access to early childhood education could be a factor but one which primary schools have to deal with.

I wonder whether enough time is spent on teaching actual handwriting. The self-discovery of a version of printing seems to me to leave too many with a slow and laborious means of writing. On the other side of that question is the matter of using technological devices apart from a keyboard, can the touch screen be used effectively for writing without the skills of using a keyboard effectively – touching the letters one by one in the style of a hen eating grain does not constitute the skills of the touch-typist.

There is all that talk after Gladwell about 10,000 hours being important to really reach the highest level of proficiency in a skill. New Zealand students spend about 8,000 hours at school between the ages of 5 and 14 so clearly what happens outside of school is critical. Harnessing the community in the battle for proficient readers and writers will be critical. But first there has to be a clear emphasis on those areas.

Perhaps the curriculum now needs to be clearer in its expectations in these areas. Immediately I hear a great shout that this would be exactly what had been pointed out as the key danger of national standards – they would influence the curriculum. Well, if the curriculum is currently not producing readers and writers that would be a jolly good thing!

Finally, it is not enough simply to have only proficient readers and writers. As Vygotsky put it – “ideas are not merely expressed in words but come into being through them.” If we want our community to be nourished by elegant ideas then we need to have a supply of elegant readers and writers, those who use the language for good purposes and in ways that can inspire, challenge, clarify, argue, defend, express emotions, paint pictures, guide others and wallow in delight, mischief, light heartedness and powerful use of powerful words.

Reading and writing are much more than merely behaviours on a list is some educational statement, they are about the quality of our lives.



Talk-ED: Solutions for a Solution


The Christchurch earthquakes and all that has gone with it have placed demands on a community that are alongside the devastation that the two world wars wreaked on the communities of New Zealand.

But if you can put the events of the quakes to one side, there might be lessons in the proposed re-organisation of schooling in Christchurch that has recently been announced. Perhaps all communities in New Zealand should be taking stock of current provisions, places and procedures of schooling and ask whether they deserve close examination.

Take the placement of schools. The principles by which school were located were originally that a young person should be able to walk to school or be taken to school by a school bus ride that was not unforgivable often along unsealed and poor roads. Those criteria have been well and truly shot to pieces in many communities, especially in the cities and towns where the middle classes and the rich take their little ones to school in SUVs and suchlike. It is really only in what we identify as low decile communities that walking is the norm. The school walking buses are a commendable exception to this rule. In the space of a generation biking to school has all but disappeared. And in country communities there are now generally better and sealed roads and better buses and it is conceivable to consider longer distances. 

So what powerful arguments exist that schools should continue to exist in the exact locations that they have in the past?

Well, tradition might be one reason and I can see the old secondary school sites being retained. But many of the old primary schools were located in parts of towns that might no longer have the communities of little ones to sustain them. A huge number of our schools were built in the 1950s and 1960s to cope with the baby boom and so the “traditional” argument might not be all that strong. It could simply be that we have too many schools, and some in the wrong places.

Then there is the matter of school size. I hear from many teachers that where schools use size to advantage then bigger is better. Just how much bigger might well be a moot point but where the resource base is able to provide choice and support across the entire diversity of a school population then it is a good thing. Where it is not then it is a pointless argument.

But perhaps the largest question I have about the “Christchurch Solution” is that it fails to address the sectors and their current structure, the place of senior secondary schooling and the development of choice through multiple pathways for students. It is in essence a housekeeping exercise with the existing ways of working which rearranges the furniture.

The results of schooling in New Zealand suggest that a more radical set of reforms is needed. If we were to look at the Finnish reforms that have taken the education system in that country to the top of the world three might be an argument for considering:

  •          changes to the sectors where a comprehensive “primary” sector would have responsibility for ages 5 to 16 with the eldest three years of this group (“lower secondary schools) starting the process of preparing students for the next step but doing this within the sector;
  •          the introduction of three year upper secondary schools that offer choices to students through academic tracks to university and vocational pathways into the trades and professions;
  •           rethinking the nature of a “local” school.

This last point is the most challenging. The Finnish put together teachers who previously worked in different kinds of schools and working to the view that understanding and working through human diversity was in itself an important educational goal, brought together students from different backgrounds, ethnicities, aspirations and circumstances. At the same time they eased the central controls on schools so that each school could introduce practices of a small-scale democracy (vivat Dewey). Teachers managed difference in the classroom through differentiated approaches often supported by assistant teachers.

This of course implies a more controlled system of allocating school places to produce the balance – the Finnish did it, such courage. Could we accept that parish pump and self-interest needs to be replaced by diversity and national goals? Do we really want to perform like Finland?

A system based on the principle of equal opportunity is one we aspire to but while we continue to work in a system that is structurally in opposition to such a goal, equitable outcomes will remain elusive. The cities and town of New Zealand should all be addressing these issues and starting to exhibit a willingness to consider new structures and ways of working or do we simply continue to do the same thing and get the same results?

In many respects the Christchurch proposals don’t go far enough – disruption on that scale that will lead simply to a perpetuation of the same way of working which is a disappointment. On the other hand it is a little unfair to expect Christchurch in these stretched times to alone make changes that should be permeating through the entire country.


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Pathways-ED: Intervention for good


When I went to primary school we were prodded, inspected, examined and injected to within an inch of our lives. My recollection is that in the primers barely a week went past without us being summoned (and in some cases taken) into a room to strip for some medic who we did not know to perform some examination on us that we did not understand.

Or we were summoned to the “murder house” for another tooth inspection which was usually followed by yet another lecture on nutrition, toothbrush technique or both.

We were injected for TB and I think there were others, injections never brought out my most courageous side. We sipped the Sabin to stave off polio.

I am sure that few of these procedures had informed consent procedures in place although you could never tell, in those days parents acted with great complicity when it came to giving school licence. Indeed on one occasion when I fled school claiming unbelievable stomach pains to avoid one such medical adventure – my brother having informed me that the needle being used was only slightly shorter but no sharper than a broomstick – my mother plonked me unceremoniously on the back of her bicycle and took me back to get my dose which was apparently in my best interests.

My point is this – in those days adults did whatever was necessary to see that young people grew up to be healthy and to be effective learners in school. Presumably this was regardless of the cost and the net was cast wide and finely. It was interventionist. We were healthy young blighters but were caught up in a net designed to miss no-one for whom it was essential.

So why all the fuss about school meals for low decile school students as suggested by David Shearer this week? In Finland, a country we aspire to equal in our education outcomes every student grets a free school lunch from age 7 when they start school to age 16 when they complete the basic schooling.

It cannot be the case that all the students in Finnish schools are actually hungry to the point where wide state intervention (in a very minor and mild way compared to what was done to us in the 1950s) is both necessary and a priority. But I imagine there must be some students who do need that added boost of one good meal a day. So providing such a meal for all students ensures that those who need it badly will not miss out nor will they be stigmatised by any selective process. Yes it might make the policy wonks tremble at the thought that it is poorly targeted but many policies are so get over it and move on, there is a bigger fish to fry here (“fish is on Friday dear” I hear the response).

School meals in the United States and the United Kingdom (where it seems that Jamie Oliver is charged) are a long tradition but are selectively available for the deserving. This generates much discussion.

But why should we do this? For a start regular good food is helpful to sound growth physically and mentally and which country in the world has a better capacity to produce food than New Zealand? A balanced diet is critical so this suggests that the comfort the Prime Minister finds in some children having an apple a day might not be well-grounded. Think back to the school milk days – yes it was luke warm – that provided the daily quantity of a substance known to aid health and promote growth. We just did it until someone who saw dollar bills instead of milk bottles called the whole thing off. The scheme has started again in a small way up North but this time relying on someone other than the government stumping up with the cash.

And that really is the issue that gets in the way of making decisions that are in the interests of young people – who pays when in a time of user-pays those that would benefit most can’t pay and those who can would claim they don’t need it?

It is up to a body like the government to simply decide that it will be done.

Meals in schools? Sounds good to me. Now let’s focus on nourishing the brain!



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Talk-ED: Keeping the register: who should be let in to teaching?

Stuart Middleton
10 September 2012


The continued debate about the use of unregistered teachers, this time in the Partnership Schools, seems to me miss the point of the real issue.

On one level it is clear that people who work in schools should be subject to a set of criteria that ensure so far as is possible, the safety of young people. The importance of this is constant at all levels but has increased intensity with the younger students. Police checks, established identity and perhaps other tests of character are important and a “registration” process is one way of maintaining a standard across the education sector.

But when the demand that teachers in schools be “registered” is code for a view that teachers in schools should have qualifications from the current set that typifies teachers then the argument breaks down. If the educational outcomes of schools is to change, and I hear no arguments being pursued that this is not the case, then we do need to think through the question of “who should teach in schools?” This is not the same as saying that all teachers in schools be registered.

With younger students there are many schools in the country that would benefit from having a wider set of language skills reflected in their teaching staff. Te Reo Maori, Pacific community languages, the languages of migrant groups are all very special in their contribution to the language development of young members of different communities and to the richness of an education in New Zealand for all young students.

Teachers trained in the Pacific who have fluency in both English and a Pacific community language are available and would add greatly to the effectiveness of education in linguistically diverse settings. But the current registration process seems to get bogged down because of its pre-occupation with course approval. (Health has the same issues.)

At the secondary level, much of the work currently being done indicates that many students when offered the opportunity to engage in what many still persist in calling “vocational education” (so as to mark it out from “academic education”) will make better progress and reach higher levels of attainment across the board. But this requires teachers who have a different career trajectory from the traditional school to university and back to school track that the conventional qualifications imply.

Such people do not sometimes meet the criteria for “registration” because of the courses they have undertaken. But they are needed as teachers and given a “clean” background ought to be able to work in schools without financial penalty

At all levels there are roles for people to work in different ways to contribute to effective education outcomes. Short bursts of input in specialist areas, the instruction in specialised settings that broaden the education experience, and specialised contributions from people whose lives are spent predominantly outside of the school and such other people all have contributions to make. They are, if their backgrounds are appropriate, “fit to teach”.

This all adds up to saying that teaching requires a set of people with wide skills to bring out the best in a set a young people with wide needs, interests, aptitudes and capacity to make progress.

I promised some more snippets from my recent reading about Finland.

There are in Finland five kinds of teachers who work with students in the K-12 part of the education system:


  1.     kindergarten teachers working in the one year kindergarten programme (age 6) prior to starting school (age 7);
  2.     primary school teachers responsible for years 1-6 (age 7-13) in the 9 year comprehensive schools (they usually teach at one grade level and only teach several subjects);
  3.     subject teachers working in the upper levels of the basic school (ages 14 – 16) in the subject disciplines such as maths, physics, chemistry etc;
  4.     special education teachers working with individuals and groups  throughout the comprehensive schools;
  5.     vocational education teachers working in the upper secondary vocational schools.


So perhaps Finland has built into its system greater diversity. But there are some tough requirements too. All Finnish teachers must hold a Masters degree, introduced in the belief that teaching was a scholarly activity that should be based on research. Interestingly, there is only one teachers’ organisation in Finland to which 95% of all teachers at all levels from kindergarten through to university teaching belong. This implies a parity of esteem that we have yet to achieve.

Believing that we need a wider group of people in teaching does not lead to an inevitable loss of standards but rather could lead to a general increase in both standards and quality both in terms of input through teaching and outcomes through learning. With what we know about the importance of teacher quality, this bears thinking about.



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Pathways-ED: Starting with the Finnish

Stuart Middleton
7 September 2012


I have been reading an interesting book lately – Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (2010, Teachers College Press, NY).

There is a wealth of information in this book about the process that Finland went through in changing its education system from an OK system into arguably the world’s top education system. It is a system that Australia and New Zealand envy.

Of great interest to me was the creation of sectors that better provided for young people. This required from teachers from the different schools that had once existed to come together to be part of the key institution in Finland – the Pereskoulu.

In simple terms, the Pereskoulu is a Unified Comprehensive Basic School that covers the range of experiences from entry at Year 1 to Year 9 (Age 7 – 16). It is the school that provides the basic education on which young people can springboard off into the differentiated secondary schools that follow. The lower six years of the school are at the “primary level” while the top three years are styled as the “lower secondary level” but both levels constitute one school. Key features of the Pereskoulu are interesting in the light of the way in which we treat the issues of special needs and careers advice in our systems.

In Finland about 50% of students will have received “special needs” assistance in the course of their basic schooling. Rather than the legal definition /resource allocation and rule-driven approach of meeting special needs that we favour, the Finnish approach says that if a learner has a special need, respond to it.

In the last three years of Pereskoulu, while we agonise over careers information, advice, guidance and education, the Finnish school offers a two hour a week individual entitlement for students to personal counselling as to pathways, a career etc. In addition each student must have a two week experience in a work situation.

It seems to me that they have interpreted individualised learning to mean just that rather than the job lot / batch approach that we take. It must be harder for the incremental slide towards disengagement or failure to get momentum in that system than it clearly is within ours.

An astonishing fact – the Finns believe that learning in a socially mixed environment is in itself an important educational outcome, schools have a similar mix of people from different backgrounds. There is a difference between schools in terms of outcomes of less than 5%.

Then come the Upper Secondary Schools – three years of differentiated schooling from Age 16 – 19 years – Academic Schools (two foreign languages), Upper General Secondary Schools (one foreign language) and Upper Vocational Secondary Schools which are as the name implies offering a range of courses that are oriented to the trades. Now this might seem a little like tracking as we once knew it but there are key differences:


  •          differentiated upper secondary schools start at age 16 rather than age 13 as was the case in our systems back in the times when tracking which was turned into streaming in many schools;
  •          there is a common block of courses that each kind of senior secondary school teaches;
  •          students choose “courses” of about 6-7 weeks duration and can choose to add a course from a different school should they wish to;
  •          students are not grouped in age related groups nor is there a control on progression through the years;
  •          a system of prerequisites sees study increasing in complexity and sophistication over the course of the three years;
  •          students can transfer between different kinds of schools;
  •          students must achieve a total of 70 courses but typically achieve around 90.


Entry into higher education is by way of a matriculation examination. Since higher education in Finland is free there is high participation in universities and polytechnics.

The interesting thing about this entire Finnish story is that the changes occurred relatively quickly with teachers changing the kinds of job they had and accepting that in the interests of the students and the nation, that major change was needed.

What is more accompanying the lift in performance of the Finnish education system is a drastic rise in the esteem with which teachers are held. A teacher in Finland is held in higher esteem than doctors!

Other lessons from Finland will be detailed occasionally over the next few weeks.


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Talk-ED: Early days and IT

Stuart Middleton
4 September 2012


I was chatting with some people the other day about IT and the various contacts we had made back in the 1980s as a result of what was happening then. I had spent a year in England in 1982-83 and had been astounded to see the extent to which English teachers were using computers. The BBC has put a lot of resource into developing a machine for use in schools. I returned home with the BBC Serial B and, for the kids a Sinclair Spectrum.

At the same time an appointment had been made to the Secondary Teachers College of a “Computing” specialist – radical stuff. The use made of the machines was pretty ordinary. Because you have a plethora of fonts each page in a publication had a plethora of fonts on it. I amazed others by using a computer to print out letters to the marking panels of examinations that I ran and so on. Back in 1993 there had been murmurings of all this IT stuff and what schools were doing.

But it was in 1993 that excitement mounted when the Ministry of Education decided to take a great leap forward. As the financial year was coming to a close there was still $2 million in some “furniture fund” in Wellington.  It was decided to have a competition – these days it would be called a “contestable funding round”. Secondary schools were invited to submit proposals for how they would advance IT in the school if they were successful and secured one of four grants of $500,000.

Aorere College, Decile 2, South Auckland, where I was principal at the time, was one of those four lucky schools.

To cut a lot of few long stories short – the first thing the MOE did was to deduct GST from the money when it was paid across – some things are traditions that cannot be broken! The teachers then worked with energy to advance the ideas they had earlier promoted in a more sketchy fashion in the application. The total now required was about $2.8 million.

Clearly there was not enough money so a breakthrough was needed. It came when the staff realised that we would only get there if we based our plans on the needs of the students and if we worked together, across department boundaries, across classrooms, across each of  those boundaries that in institutions mark territory won and therefore territory to be defended.

A lot of very good things happened. Some of the issues that are still with us emerged early on. Which platform should we go with? The answer was all three PC, Apple and that wonderful platform the BBC or “Acorn” as it had become known by then. It was a great pity that this platform disappeared because it was very sound in its appreciation of learning. It had been a wonderful presence in England and I twice visited their headquarters in Cambridge UK, on one occasion to see how they had developed a network across an entire school community. It was a pity that their risc chip was so good that they turned to servicing the global mobile phone industry and moved out of computers!

One big difference between what we tackled back then and what seems to be happening now is that there was a clearer attempt to advance the curriculum through the use of IT rather than have IT become the curriculum. And there was a heavy emphasis placed on the uses of IT in industry and commerce. For instance the engineering department installed CNC technology, Geography used devices for measuring atmospherics and undertook real studies for the local authority, Social Studies had access to the urban planning data of the City Council, Commerce ran the Business Centre at the International Airport – all real world use of learning that still evades so many young peoples’ school experience.

And we had fun, teachers undertook PD in critical IT skills and worked towards getting the “IT Warrant of Fitness” – the mood was buoyant. Has it all got a little too serious? Well, cheer up and just imagine if Dr Seuss had written the computer manual!


                        If a packet hits a pocket on a socket on a port,
                        and the bus is interrupted as a very last resort
                        and the address of the memory makes your floppy disk abort,
                        then the socket packet pocket has an error to report

                        If your cursor finds a menu item followed by a dash,
                        and the double clicking icon puts your window in the trash,
                        and your data is corrupted cause the index doesnt hash,
                        then your situations hopeless and your systems gonna crash!

                        If the label on the cable on the table at your house
                        says the network is connected to the button on your mouse,
                        but your packets want to tunnel on another protocol
                        thats repeatedly rejected by the printer down the hall,
                        and your screen is all distorted by the side effects of gauss,
                        so your icons in the window are as wavy as a souse,
                        then you may as well reboot and go out with a bang,
                        cause as sure as Im a poet, the suckers gonna hang!

                        When the copy of your floppys getting sloppy on the disk
                        and the microcode instructions cause unnecessary risk,
                        then you have to flash your memory and youll want to
                        RAM your ROM,
                        quickly turn off the computer and be sure to tell your mom!


(Author unknown – but I am pretty sure that it was not Dr Seuss!)



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