Posts tagged writing

Too much of too many people

Yesterday I met with five of my six classes. I just have ONE class today and I need to fill one hour and 15 minutes with activities to keep the time moving. Their Tuesday and Thursday schedule covers the same thing I do in my three 50 minutes classes on Mon. Wed. and Friday. Oy, there is much to learn and DO with kids who don’t want to be taking this class in the first place. That is especially true in my Comp LAB class which is a catch-all place for those students who did not do well in their writing classes in high school. The problem is that I have to have new material for them because I have some of my same students in that LAB that I have in my Comp I class. They don’t want to have things repeated but the repetition would do them some good.

I have one small class of eight students at the very end of my Monday and Wednesday classes. That is where I have one student who from Day One made it clear that she thought she was too good for this lab class. Yesterday she made a “suggestion” that I should NOT say my motto of “everyone to class early, we start early and end early.” She had her reasons and then I told her to talk to those few students who always show up right on time to tell them to get to class earlier. She told me that would be like bullying which is a bad thing to do to other students. I told her that there is a nice and polite way to encourage them to be early or at least on time to class. Here this little 18 year old is letting me know what I should or shouldn’t do and letting me know what is wrong with my teaching while at the same time she rolls her eyes about what I teach and does her passive aggressive act.

Well, the way I can fix that is to keep giving her and the rest of this particular class grammar quizzes. I also suspect that she lifted her first paper and she clearly did not follow instructions. So, I will also give this class a quiz on the syllabus that I put together, clearly she and a few others in this small class have not read it. She has also not gone on Moodle for about a week so that means she has either printed out the syllabus or she doesn’t care to know about it.

I figured out that I have been around too many people with Sunday being filled with my standing behind the booth at the museum. That was our Pioneer Day and I was selling my two history books and one booklet. People mostly came to listen to the old time music but I talked to many people then. So the way I figure it, I have seen and talked to too many people. I need to chill out at home and be away from all this. Maybe it is better to write and not make much money than to teach and make a bit more money as an adjunct teacher. I am invisible to most everyone on campus when they make faculty assembly lists anyway. I guess I am getting the catch-all classes that other comp teachers who are permanent don’t want to teach.

Yes, I am feeling sorry for myself right now. I need to read the revisions of my 85 papers and maybe I will feel better, especially if there are some improvements to what they wrote earlier.

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On Being Student-Centered when giving out midterm grades

I have probably seen at least 90 of my 100 students in the last two days to discuss their midterm grades with them. As I was doing one-on-one consultations with each one explaining the grading for in-class writing, quizzes, midterm exam, self-study assignments, I had them fill out a questionnaire. My most interesting questions, to me as a student-centered teacher, was to find out the following answers to this question:

“What is your biggest struggle with writing a good, clear essay in English? In Russian? Do you have the same problems or how are they different?”

These are some answers from my masters students:

“I think I lack vocabulary in English, Russian is a difficult language and even writing in Russian is also difficult…”

“…introduction part to body, I usually do not write in Russian, but if I do, the problems are the same.”

“In English to find the right words to form an idea…In Russian to formulate sentences…the problems are almost the same.”

“There is no problem to me writing in Russian, you can see my articles on”

 “The biggest struggle in writing essay both in English and Russian is planning essay and orphgraphy.”

Vocabulary [in English] I don’t have any big struggle with writing essay in Russian.”

“Only problem is the topic of an essay…if I am not interested with it, it is very hard for me to make myself even start writing.”

“My English vocabulary is very, very poor.”

“Lack of vocabulary.”

“I don’t like writing.”

“Biggest obstacle is starting and when I start, the essay writing just flows smoothly.”

We as teachers in the Language Center use the process approach in teaching writing.  I did that same approach successfully back in the U.S. as well as Ukraine.  You need to see each students’ progress from A to Z (beginning of their choice of topic to final product of their paper).  However, one student showed me a glaring example of how to try to cheat the teacher.  I had a very stern talking to with her about how insulting it was to get an already finished paper from her ahead of the scheduled due date.  What was she thinking?  I wanted to see her summaries of two scholarly journal articles plus her working bibliography.  Instead I got a completed paper with the correct title page. I was NOT pleased!

The tipping point for me that this was either a paper she pulled off the Internet or she did this paper before or bought it from a “friend” was that she had not known how to answer a simple question, “What is an in-text citation according to APA formatting?”  She had in her paper, many examples of citations but she couldn’t answer that question in the midterm exam or when I talked to her last night.  I said that she had better get her assignments done the way *I* want them done before I turn in the midterm grades on Friday.

This morning I got an e-mailed midterm exam, late by the way, from one of my writing students who was supposed to have done a 50 minute timed writing back on October 8th.  I conferenced with him yesterday and told him that I had not received it and that I had e-mailed him back on the 8th that I had not gotten it.  No response, not until I saw what he submitted with a reworked thesis statement in the first paragraph and all the hyperlinks of what he had pulled off the Internet and was claiming as his own. 

I e-mailed this particular student that I needed to talk to him.  He will get a stern talking to also.  Obviously, he is a weak student as is the other student from my masters class.  Weak students and weak people go about cheating tactics.  I feel sorry for them but they will have to fail. 

It seems that all my other students appreciated my student-centered approach and would do better to improve their grade for the last half of the semester.  I should hope so, some are not doing their assignments while others are doing a GREAT job. 

Such is life on our campus while the autumn leaves continue to hang in there on the trees.  If this were Minnesota, they would have been long ago wind blown to the ground.  I love it here in Almaty, Kazakhstan!!!

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My Writing Students’ Responses to “Select Fit”

Galina – The movie clip draws our attention to such inborn personal quality as egoism.  It shows that self-centered people will always try to adapt this world to themselves no matter what others may say.  The clip shows an example of what we all deny, i.e. us being egoistic ourselves.  The most interesting part of the scene is where the man edits the tape to get “You-Are-Everything.”  I believe that this represents the director’s main idea.  I think the film is an appeal to stop concentrating on oneself and start looking out for the world that is around.  No matter how difficult one may think his “miserable” life is, there are people out there who deserve our attention and care…the director is trying to make his audience find a reflection of themselves in the main character of the film.


Rustam – this video clip is about one man who always uses drugs.  One day when he was sitting in a video station, he saw two angels who had started to tell him about helping people and not using drugs…I think this film is really about helping other people, and do not affect them.  Maybe it shows that some bad habits, time and money which persons for them, is really stupid, because person can use them for positive things.  I think that last moment of this film shows that the director really wants to show that… You…are… NOT…everything.


Viktoriya – the movie is about the importance of the society to the single person, and about people’s perception to understand only what they want to understand and to hear only the filtered speech, neglecting what is really important…director is trying to say to his audience: “Listen, don’t be egoistic, be a better human.”


Daniyar – This movie clip describes the angels’ attempt to explain to drug addicted person that all people are alike and he is not special. The most interesting part of the film is the end when we realize that the man didn’t listen to the angels but searched for words that fit him.  He didn’t listen.  It’s my view that the film explains that in real life people usually don’t pay attention to others, they are always thinking about their own interests (like drugs in film(, and it is always easy to turn it upside down about what people all around are talking about.  All people are egocentric and they don’t want to change themselves.


Aina – This film is about one man who takes drugs and two angels who want to help him stop taking drugs.  They give him some money and give him the choice to help other people or do what he does before.  So, this man thinks and remembers what they said before.  He chooses some words from their talk that he thinks is needed for him: “You are everything.”  So, at the end he decides to continue to take the drugs.


Joo Ok – Two angels talk to someone who is taking drugs.  One of the angels asked “what is the meaning of people?” then gave a dollar to the guy.  He uses the dollar to do drugs instead of saving people…He taped what he wanted to hear.  He fitted their sayings because he needed an excuse for taking drugs.  What the film is REALLY about is: You can save others’ lives instead of doing drugs.


Ainura T. – I think this clip is mostly about choice.  Choices that every day made by people.  What to do? To do according to your self interest without concerning of others or think about people surrounding you.  In this clip the man is given a choice: take drugs or not.

Pavel – This film is about a man’s decision about not only the drugs but about life in general.  It is not easy to go the right way under difficult circumstances.


Niyaz – It is about drug abuse. I think that he is a very rich guy and the angels would try to make him understand that there are things that are more wealthier and cleaner, in other words, are better than drugs.


Ilyas – The film is about real life that is about our inside world when we already need to make decisions…the meaning of people is NOT to take drugs and to NOT forget about all of them around him.


Answers to questions from my Listening classes about “Select Fit”

What is the meaning of people?

Gaukhar: I think the meaning of people is to realize themselves in this life, to become someone.  I mean that in the end of life you shouldn’t regret about your past.  The meaning is to make people remember you and love you.  I think it’s the best award for all of us.

Valerie: The meaning of people is to live, to bring lives, to help each other in order to survive because this life is about people.  Life is what people are doing, how they’re living, what they’re bringing in life; the relationships.


Why do you think someone would try to edit their own reality?

Rustem: because it’s easier when you have to think only about yourself

Tolegen: Nowadays reality often becomes gray routine so the option to edit the reality, if it were ever possible, seems very attractive.

Yessengeldy: People are creating their own reality because it is comfortable to them.

Galimzhan: because not all people like their reality, so it is human nature when someone don’t like something, he or she try to change it.

Serikzhan: some people are running away from their reality.  They’re afraid of it.  They do whatever possible to run away from it.

Almas: people try to edit their own reality, because everyone makes mistakes.

Valerie: because some people don’t like the reality they have and cannot do anything to change, but they try.


Why do you think the angel wanted Tom to give the dollar away?
Rustem: because the dollar was the first step to start doing something good for others.  And the first step is the hardest step, but after it will be easier with every step.


Raushan: because he had been looking at Tom for a long time and saw that Tom had done nothing to help others and because he wanted Tom to edit his reality.  In spite of all these, Tom did what HE wanted to do.  In my opinion, nowadays there are many people like Tom, who don’t want to help others.  And we should help them to edit their views to life.


Assel – In my opinion, Tom’s life was so empty and unfulfilled, he was thinking only about himself and perhaps he did nothing for others.  So the angels wanted him to make a first step towards people


Zhainagul – the dollar portrays Tom’s knowledge.  Giving it away will mean sharing the information on the “meaning of life.”

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Are Good Writers Born…?

That’s why I came to do the job I do, to train and develop potential writers in a “westernized university” in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Are any of my Kazakh or Kazakhstani students born to write?  I need to discover who they are and encourage them.  I think I have some very good candidates already. I asked my writing students yesterday to grapple with the nature vs. nurture question: “Are good writers born or can he/she develop her skills to become a good writer?”

In one of my groups, they took this question seriously and Abzal was the eloquent note-taker.  Of the five in his group, only one person believed that writing is inborn, the rest believed this is a skill that can be developed through a lifetime.  Sasha believed that writing talent is given by God, his examples were Pushkin, Shakespeare.  He claimed that these kinds of authors and writers are not born every day, and there is not any substitutes for them.

 Then Karlygash argued saying that it always depends on the social environment.  For example, Pushkin’s nanny raised him and developed his writing skills and there are a lot more examples. 

This group continued to discuss about modern authors such as Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, Stepnegae Myer [?] and others.  They probably developed their skills and writing talent came to them through their lifetime and their environment…Then Zhandos and Azamat added that it could be talent can come from you when born, like the famous philosophers Socrates, Aristotle and Al-Farabi, there were no educating environment, but still they are the best and most knowledgeable authors.

 So, finally we agreed that, it’s so true, there is no answer to this question.


In another group, they had this to write:

Nariman:  I believe that a good writer of words has to have some kind of talent and it has to be developed further.

Aigerim:  I think writers develop his work into a writer with his talent which was given him by God.  He uses his own experience and inspiration.

Nargiz: I think its important to be interested in this writing activity because then he or she can develop his talent and become the best writer.

Igor:  In my opinion, I think that every person who is interested in writing can develop his/her writing skills and become a good writer without any talent.

 Another group was split 50/50, this is what their notes read:  We think that everyone has good skills to write, some develop them, others not.  Golden rule:  The more you read, the better you write!”

 One group wrote unanimously: “Good writers are born.”  E.G. M. Sholohov who wrote “Silent Don” he graduated only from two classes in school but he became a good writer without any development.

 Viktoriya wrote for her group the following:  “Aina thinks that the good writers are born because usually there is a talent and passion to writing.  Ilyas doesn’t agree and states that good writers are not born but are developed.  You can always improve and gain new skills.  Madi agrees with Ilyas.  He says that talent needs to be developed, cause it can fade away easily if it existed before.  Pavel is also for writer development.  There are two types of writers:  the one who is born with talent, the other who develops it.  I, Viktoriya, can agree with the guys. I’ve met a lot of journalists who did not have any skills in writing at school but after gaining some interest and skills became excellent authors.  But I also have some friends who are born talented writers.

 Rustam believes a good writer is born (Pushkin)

Daniyar says they can be developed (Churchill)

Youngsu: good writer is born (Shakespeare)

Ainura: can be developed by reading

Aigerim:  can be developed but writer should have some talent

Conclusion:  good writing can be achieved by working hard, but excellent work is usually done by very talented people.


Our opinions are different.  We have two opposite sides:  One thinks that a person is born a good writer while the others think that a person can become a good writer.  Those who think that a person is born a good writer considers that one person cannot be good at two fields.  Meaning that if he is good a mathematics, he cannot be good at writing.  However, the other group thinks that a person can become a writer developing his skills.

We came to the conclusion that everything depends on the person, we cannot judge everybody in one way.  There are some exceptions as one person could be a good mathematician and a good writer.  Some are born good writers and some become a writer through hard work and time.


Finally, this group had the MOST to write from their discussion group about writing:

Jeon:  I think a good writer is born.  If someone wants to be good at something, t least they have an interest.  

Niyaz: I believe that a good writer is born to be a good writer…actually good writers just do not know about their skills, so in order to be a good writer, they just must develop it.

Galina: I think that a good writer is neither born nor develops his/her skills.  I believe that in order to be a good writer, one has to first be born with a certain talent and then has to work really hard to develop this talent.  There are a lot of “writers” out there but their writing is nothing but some words combined together.  In order to create something really outstanding, one has to involve his/her soul in the process. [YES!!!]

Azamat: I think that everyone can develop into a writer.  Moreover, it should be improved from earlier age, using some games which can improve verbal ability and skills.

Zhuldyz: I absolutely disagree that writers have to be born, because, in our life everything is possible.  If you really want to reach something or to become a better writer, you can do this. You have to think about this, and try to reach this every day.  As Napolean Hill said: “If you will do what you do, you will get what you get.”  You don’t stay in one position.  You are not a tree, if you dislike your position in this life or society, just change and everything will be perfect!!!

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Philosophizing about Mini-Dramas and Breakthroughs at Ramstor’s Skating Rink

Last night after a long, hard week of teaching, my husband and I decided to meet up at Ramstor. While waiting for his arrival, I had a chance to observe dramas in the making between parents and skaters or later with trainers and their little ducklings to be eventually transformed into graceful swans.  Combinations of novice skaters and experienced skaters of all ages abounded on the ice, each with their own dramatic story of  breakthroughs. (read to end to find out my philosophy on skating and writing)


First, the two tall, slender females, I’ll call Wobblies, were dressed inappropriately for skating.  The Wobblies were not bounding about but hesitantly navigating the rink in fits and starts.  One long haired blonde girl had tight hip huggers with a pronounced rhinestone belt.  Maybe the worst to see wasn’t her “get up” but the way her skates were loosely tied.  She looked very precarious merely because of her height and the distance she would fall down at any given moment.  I was afraid her pants would split in the process and she would lose any grandiose idea of dignity in this skating process.  Her companion dressed more sensibly but both should have considered workout clothes befitting for fast falls to the hard ice.  They had young male trainers help them around the ice but at first I thought they were dates to the young men who actually DID know how to skate.


Once the two ,young female Wobblies time was up, which probably wasn’t soon enough to their liking, they promenaded around the food court area in their street clothes, dignity restored and looking a lot more comfortable.  TIME for the little squirts to be on the ice ranging in ages from 5 to 9 years old.  One little Kazakh girl in a black and red leotard was being scolded presumably by her mother who was on the other side of the partition.  Their faces were 3 inches from each other and the little girl was wiping away tears.  Whatever her infraction, she got over it once her fellow skaters came and she was whirling around with the best of them.  She was all of 7-8 years old and was missing a front top tooth.  That was the first melodrama I witnessed, let’s call her Tearful I.


Next on the ice was a very mature skater who whipped around confidently with great speed.  This man is one whom I have seen before many times at the rink and is perhaps a former Olympic skater, at least I like to think this late 50s male figure skater with graying hair once was.  Mr. Olympic skater has an infinite amount of patience with his young charges and they seem to adore him.  Simultaneous to his presence and those of his little ones, Tearful II made her appearance on the rink.  She was trying to do her spin and jump and was crashing to the ice or never completing a graceful landing to her satisfaction.  Tearful II was mad at herself and everyone else around her.


Tearful II put on a frown whenever other novice skaters got in her way.  Meanwhile she was under the ever watchful eyes of Mr. Olympic skater.  I saw her bad attitude worsen with each failure and then an older woman, maybe her grandmother with coke bottle glasses, was giving her a talking to from the spectator section of the rink.  Unbelievably, Tearful II kept rehearsing and not getting it right until she miraculously got one spin, jump and turn out right. This breakthrough must have been her tenth try, I could see she was keeping track by counting it out on her fingers. 


Finally, Tearful II showed what might have been mistaken for a smile after her innumerable times she would cry or pout to the side.  If she wasn’t getting instruction from Mr. Olympic Skater, she would continue to give herself a stiff talking to.  In any case, Tearful II was about 11 or 12 years old and maybe trying to prepare for an upcoming competition.  I thought she was a bit high strung and prima donna-like but that is probably what continued to compel her into the air and down again.  I was encouraged by Tearful II’s inner drive to succeed.


Making a short appearance on the ice was a woman trainer with a harness around the chest of another little girl about the same age as Tearful II who was practicing her jump, spin and landing. No doubt she was Tearful II’s future nemesis in figure skating competitions. The spinning duo must have practiced that tricky move about five times before it became too congested with so many younger skaters getting under skated foot.   By this time, there were probably about 15-20 skaters on the ice which maxes this particular small rink out at the size of about 60-70 feet long and about 50 feet wide.


Another cute little girl who had my undivided attention was probably about 3-4 years old.  She had a little purple dress on with white leotards underneath.   I marveled that “Cute-T’s” mother on the sidelines had probably watched this little blondie with the pony tail take her first baby steps just two years earlier.  I say, start them young because if you don’t, they turn into the Wobblie sisters and then it seems a lost cause. At one point, Cute-T took a terrible spill while she was with her lanky and young male trainer.  She produced copious tears and he quickly scooped her up and skated her over to Mama.  About five minutes later Cute-T came skating by me again, concentrating hard on staying aright.  She looked all mopped up from her earlier tragedy and obeying her trainer to keep her arms out straight, looking like a Cute, little T.


Sitting next to us was another mother reading a thick classic book in Russian, her darling daughter would spin by and talk to her periodically.  Every now and then this mother would peek up from her novel and watch her daughter practice her figure skating moves.  Parents are responsible for bringing each of these little skaters and paying the trainers and instructors for helping them learn more refined, figure skating moves.  One little boy stole my heart with his cautious moves on the ice in his figure skates, not much older than Cute T. Many more girls than boys aspire to be skating champs or it may be that there is another skating rink solely dedicated to the future male hockey players of Kazakhstan.


Waxing philosophical, I thought of my writing students as being similar to these young skaters.  My students have parents who are indirectly paying me, as their instructor, to teach their children to know how to write academic essays in English.  Many of them look like the Wobblie sisters because they have not had early training about the importance of writing.  Others may be very frustrated with what is expected of them with our convoluted assignments (in attempts to avoid plagiarism) and are acting like Tearful II as they struggle to get their papers done just right.  Hopefully there are other writers in my classroom who have Cute-T’s early education on how to write.  My Kazakh students all have had to start somewhere as do these skaters. 


My guess is also that these trainers and instructors don’t get paid much while they try to encourage budding talent.  However, they probably have as much heart about wanting all of their charges to succeed as I do with my writing students.  Teaching future skaters and writers in English is not a lucrative business.  But it is the joy to see breakthroughs which is our final reward.  I am just now beginning to be paid in “breakthroughs.”

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Higher Education: “Chopsticks” vs. Rachmaninoff

Ever heard a rendition of “Chopsticks” on the piano?  It hardly competes with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Opus 3, No. 2” but that is what is happening in our university of higher education in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From my early childhood memories of monthly meetings with neighborhood families and children there would typically be TWO people who would take the piano by storm plodding out “Chopsticks.”  It required no technique, no notes to read but heavy, predictable rhythm. One “player” takes the lead around Middle C with two pointer fingers extended to look like chopsticks, and plays while the other regales from the higher keys all the while harmonizing as they move down the black and white notes. It starts as a solo then becomes a duet and is most monotonous.


I cringe anytime I hear this Chopsticks “song” because it shows a lack of training and is a kind of “in your face” about NOT being properly trained. Call it music snobbery, if you must, but the repetition of hearing the same “Chopsticks” song plunked out every month for years by the under-educated in music would drive anyone to the edge, even the musically dis-inclined. Playing by ear and not reading notes is certainly a gift but it is NOT a gift that keeps on giving when you hear it over and over again.  Believe me, I highly respect and appreciate musicians who can play by ear AND also read the notes.


While growing up, I heard my mother playing the old classics such as Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt and Mendelssohn on our upright piano in her spare time.  Those musical numbers she played most frequently are the ones I can play most fluently because I KNOW how it should sound while reading the notes.  Otherwise, I can sight-read music with the best of them.  (The best training is to go through an old hymnal where you are forced to change time signatures or key signatures with each page you turn.)  I’m a LONG way from Rachmaninoff but appreciated the genius it took for the actor in the movie “Shine” to play those difficult numbers.  I also appreciated the troubled genius of Johnny Cash after watching the movie “Walk the Line” last night.  (two completely different genres of music – classical versus country western.)  I far preferred the latter movie to the former.


However, I fancy composers Chopin or Bach because they are like old friends whenever I take out my old classics book.  In my college years and after I graduated, I had rebelled against music for years before I finally came back to wanting to play piano again.  This happened when I was lonely for my own western civilization while living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1981 to 1983. Fortunately, my host family had a piano and I soon had my music books mailed to me so I could enjoy my self-imposed music therapy.  I came to appreciate the years of music lessons my parents paid for me and my siblings to be able to play piano.  Right now, I would love to play the thick chords of a Prelude piece by Chopin but I don’t have a piano in Kazakhstan, nor my favorite music book to read from.


What does playing piano, classics or otherwise, have to do with higher education in Kazakhstan?  Simply this, we have instructors who are teaching students “Chopsticks” on how to write papers when there are better methods and techniques that should be learned by the students for the benefit of their future academic career.  Our students are NOT served well if they are promoted to the next class without knowing how to write creatively with informal writing or how to write by the more prescriptive rules for a formal academic exercise.  I have found over the years of teaching composition that those students who have had the discipline of practicing either in sports or music are used to the rules set down in writing.  They know to follow my instructions about how to use in-text citations or bibliographies.  They know that they had better listen up when I first tell them about thesis statements or topic sentences.  Writing teachers should have these basics internalized so they can disseminate this important information to their young charges.


Unfortunately, we have piano recitals where our students are up on the stage either playing “Chopsticks” because they don’t know any better or they have a soundtrack playing in the background while pretending to stroke the ivories. (metaphor for plagiarism).  We have teachers who perhaps know how to write in their native language of Russian but have never done the assignments they expect their own writing students to accomplish in English.  I suspect, as final papers are being turned in at the end of this spring semester, that some teachers are turning a blind eye to what will be someone else’s writing, certainly not their students.  My question remains, “Would parents pay good money for their child to learn from a piano teacher who only knows how to play “Chopsticks?”  My second question is like the first, “Would parents invest their time and energy to bring their child to the soccer field in order to play under a coach who doesn’t know the rules of soccer?”  The obvious answer to both is a resounding, “No, of course not!”


My last question is:  “Do we want our students in Kazakhstan to be writing “Chopsticks” kind of papers or rather set their vision for something far higher?”  I’m reminded of the passage from Proverbs 29:18 “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint; But happy is he who keeps the law.”


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