A Reflection on 180+ Days of Blogging

After 164 posts spanning 178 days of regular-year school plus 11 days (and counting!) of summer school, I finally feel ready to share what I learned from the experience and why I think daily reflection should be a part of your practice, too.

TL;DR

I wrote a blog post every day this past school year. It was awesome. If you want to make a 180 blog, I recommend: 1) be ok with the fact that not many people will read the blog, 2) include a picture every day, 3) have a routine to remember to take said photo every day, and 4) focus on one detail from your day rather than summarizing the day.

Statistics

Unless you’re a rockstar, your 180 blog will be pretty much you and your mom reading it. That’s ok! To give you a measuring stick, here are my three most popular 180 blog posts of all time:

  1. Day 105: Flappy Bird Physics 146 views all time (93 of which were referred from Frank Noschese’s blog)
  2. Day 118: A Little Knowledge 70 views all time
  3. Day 79: Circuit Sudoku 66 views all time

I don’t get a ton of readers to the 180 blog — maybe 25 views in a day is typical.

Twitter refers 10 times more readers than the next source, search engines. Connect your 180 blog to your Twitter account so they’ll auto-post. I make sure post titles are short and all start with the day number for consistency’s sake.

Efficiency & Routine

Screenshot_2014-06-30-14-26-09Use the WordPress app for your phone. I usually upload the pictures directly from my phone, save the post as a draft, then type your reflection on the computer.

Most 180 blogs feature a classroom picture every day. You should, too because pictures are more interesting than words. I had days where I forgot to take a picture so would recreate something that happened in class, take a picture of student work, or find an image online (in that order) to use. 180 blogs scream for photos.

It’s easy to forget to take photos, so I recommend you come up with a way to remember. Here are a few ideas I’ve used at various times:

  1. Get your students in on the fun by telling them about your blog. Ask them to remind you to take pictures of interesting stuff you do in class.
  2. Set an alarm for some time every day where you’re at least close to doing something interesting.
  3. Carry your phone on your person at all times so you’re prepared to take photos.
  4. Encourage students to take photos and share them with you afterwards.

By the second half of the school year, I entered every class looking for the blog photo. Sometimes, though, we just had some boring classwork going on. That’s when I felt the pressure. I can’t believe I’m about to admit this but I found that those 25 readers per day got me to up my game. Blogs that post a photo and discussion about student work are cool, so that was a fallback for those dull days.

Nice Touches

Be sure to anonymize your kids’ faces. I like Skitch because it has a pixelate tool that I can apply right on my phone. Better yet, get creative about camera angles so faces are never even in the pictures.

Good camera angle = anonymous students.

Good camera angle = anonymous students.

Link to the activities, labs, and assignments you’re describing in the post. I noticed folks would sometimes click on those files. We, your readers, prefer editable documents over PDF. Sharing docs is my small way to give back because some of my favorite lessons have been created from a picture or a few words on the 180 blogs of my friends.

So what do you do if you fall behind as I did for most of April? The way I see it, you have three options: 1) carry on as if nothing happened, picking up at the next day you think about it; b) do a catch-up post as I did; iii) say “screw it” and quit blogging all together. I hope you’ll choose one of the first two options.

What to Write About

I still don’t think something all that interesting happens every single day of my school year. So the trick is to think like a marketer: what one thing would you share from your day in a commercial about how awesome your class is? Even in a dull day, you must’ve seen or done something interesting. I enjoyed sharing organization tricks I appreciate, robotics season updates, and even a small about weather craziness.

My opinion? Don’t summarize the entire day. I think 180 blogs are most successful when they focus on one detail from the day. Also don’t be afraid to think outside the (school) box — that one detail may not happen between 8a-3p.

Reflection

Many 180 bloggers cite daily reflection as their reason to post every day. In fact, my friend Justin reflects more than many mirrors. I’m impressed with his transparency and willingness to hash it out in public. I, however, am way too concerned with public appearances to make that move. Doesn’t mean I’m not reflecting — I found myself reflecting as I was writing, even if the text didn’t make it onto the blog.

Yes, there were horrible days of me trying to wing it with poorly planned materials. Instead of sharing that with the world, I opted to find one good thing in every day to share with you. This is based loosely on the inspiration I get over at the One Good Thing blog.

If this post inspires you to start a 180 blog, would you do me the favor of posting your URL as a comment here?

Getting Work Done When You Really Want to Goof Off

I struggle to get started on work, which means everything takes forever to accomplish. Here are two requirements I need for focus:

I. Get started working

by getting off Facebook/reddit/Twitter/whatever. Get yourself some personal Web Blocking Software (something that’s configurable to times, days, and sites blocked). I’ve been using StayFocusd for a number of years:

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StayFocusd is my extension of choice for blocking distracting websites.

Here’s how I set it up:

  • allow me 30 minutes per day Monday-Friday 7a-6p on distracting websites
  • block these sites: facebook.com, feedly.com, instagram.com, netflix.com, reddit.com, tumblr.com, twitter.com
  • I cannot change settings for the current day
  • sometimes, I’ll use the nuclear option for an hour — which blocks everything except mcgraw-hill.com (my textbook), seniormbp.com (attendance system), westminster.net (my moodle site)
  • make a $10 donation to the developer every time I use my full 30 minutes in a day

Get StayFocusd or similar browser extensions to stay off distracting websites whether you use Chrome, Firefox, or Safari.

II. Keep working

by managing work and rest time in a sustainable way. I don’t want to marathon for two hours then be done for the day, for instance. I like the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes break) for its simplicity. Get a timer for your computer or desk.

 

What do you use to get focused and stay working?

Favorite Moodle Uses

Timon Piccini recently asked for some feedback on Moodle because his district’s moving to it for online course management. You can find tons of Moodle tutorials and articles online. I want to do something new: share with you my favorite uses for Moodle.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.15.37 PM#5 Pages Can Look Nice

Lots of former users at my school like to complain that Moodle is ugly. At left, I show you one of my nicer lab setup pages where I showed kids how to use the equipment. It was as easy to create as a blog entry. If you hear Moodle is ugly remember most folks are comparing it to commercial tools like Schoology. Those tools draw you in with a Facebook-like appearance but the tradeoff of less functionality kills it for me.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.21.45 PM#4 Flexible Gradebook

Will you be using the Moodle gradebook? I really like it for its flexibility. At left is a section of the student view.

Aside from the usual stuff (setting up categories with grade weights), I can choose from way more methods of calculating a score than I even know what to do with:

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I’m still not a huge fan of web-based gradebooks because they’re slow but Moodle’s got the best I’ve used in the genre.

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 5.12.58 PM#3 Plays Well with Others

I’ve embedded Google Calendars, YouTube videos, and Dropbox files into Moodle pages. I like that Moodle doesn’t require me to play in MoodleLand with all my existing content.

 

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 4.56.38 PM#2 Random Question Quizzes

Do you do Standards Based Grading? Oh right, of course you do. Reassessments are a bear to deal with, amirite? Not with Moodle Question Banks! Whenever I write a quiz or test, I pull random questions so that reassessment is as easy as allocating a second attempt on said quiz.

The screen at left shows a bank of questions for a homework assignment. I could manually pull individual questions into the assignment but no, that’s so 20th century. I head to the bottom of the window and “Add x random questions”. Bam! Homework created!

(Requires some assembly — you have to create the question banks yourself.)

 

 #1 Calculated Questions

I’ve written a bunch about Calculated Questions because they’re so awesome. Moodle isn’t the only game in town — ExamView has a similar feature, too. The gist of it — you write a question with variables embedded in it. Then, you define parameters for those variables. Finally, you write a function for computing the correct answer. Students receive different values in their instances of the questions. All of the sudden, one question becomes 100.

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The downside? These questions take time to generate, even when you know what you’re doing. Add on top of that the challenge of being a newbie wading through THREE LONG SCREENS of features and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s so worth your time, though! In my opinion, this is the feature that sets Moodle apart.

My gripe? Moodle isn’t as nice as ExamView with calculated graphs or some other math-specific tools. You can totally use TeX notation when writing questions, which rocks.

In Conclusion

At this point in our edtech lives, we’ve all heard about how it’s not the tool, it’s how you use it. Sooooo true of Moodle. In its basic mode, Moodle lets you post files for kids to download, post links, and host your PowerPoint notes. So can about 100 other tools.

Where Moodle really stands out is with the question bank and quiz/test  options.

I have a few questions for anyone figuring on using Moodle so that I can tailor my responses to your needs:

  1. What other class management systems have you used?
  2. Will your kids be 1:1?
  3. What do you want a class management system to do?

Open-Internet Quizzes

All my quizzes are open-internet* AND students may reattempt quizzes if they think they can do better. Yesterday, I was cruising around the room and saw this on a kid’s screen:

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Searching for “how do i find the angle of the equilibrium force”.

I figure one of two things is happening here:

  • kid has zero idea how to find the problem and is searching for a howto online
  • kid wants to confirm that what she’s doing is correct

My gut says it’s the first scenario. As I kept moving around through all my classes, I also spotted kids copy/pasting the whole question, hoping it was published online (gotta admit to doing that myself). One kid was really pissed to learn the result he used to answer his question was incorrect. In his words, “Google lied to me!”

This Googling led me to wonder what my kids search for on open-internet quizzes:

myavatar mgolding
Would love to have a list of what all my kids google for during my open-internet quizzes. http://t.co/TREirQUamS
3/20/14 10:58 AM

Oh, it’s on. I have a few different plans here:

  • classifying the kids’ queries because I’m curious
  • helping them search better
  • planting Easter Eggs on Yahoo Answers (yeah, I just want to mess with them a little)

The first step is to intercept the exact queries. John Burk pointed me toward the idea of a Google Form that hands off to a Google search query. I’d collect the data in the form and the kids’ searches would be automatically run. The key lays in convincing kids that me seeing their queries will in no way harm their score nor will I change my practice because of something I see. They need to believe me to use the form.

The second step is to learn if the query led to a result they used to answer the question.

More on this story as it develops.

*my quizzes are taken on Moodle, so the kids’ computers are online for the quiz. Also, we’re a 1-1 laptop school.

Virtual School on a Snow Day

Should my school, which is a 1-to-1 laptop school with over 90% of the students on high speed internet connections at home, consider calling a virtual school day when the weather keeps us home? (Note: my school isn’t actually considering it, I’m just wondering aloud here.)

I say yes but it needs to be formalized and supported with the right tools.

Fact: snow day work is a thing

Expectation to check class websites.

Expectation to check class websites.

If schools with the technology infrastructure and access among students assign snow day work, isn’t school effectively in session? And if we’re in session, why not count it as a day of school? My school does the former (work) but not the latter (call it school). Here’s the email my school sent out Tuesday announcing our snow day for Wednesday:

The expectation from my employer is that if a class was scheduled for a snow day, then the teachers will send out that work online. Yeah, I get that not all the kids will do the work, not all the teachers were planning independent work, and you can’t exactly hold a lecture or discussion online. (I don’t buy all these arguments, they’re just the ones the teachers will throw out there.)

Snow day work.

Snow day work.

I argue you can do anything online that you would’ve done in class — if you have the right tools available and the will to make it so. My assignment yesterday looked like this.

I’ll grant you that the online assignments aren’t as high fidelity as the in person work and some kids will lose power or internet.

Fact: makeup days are poorly attended

Here in Atlanta, we’ve already missed six days due to weather this semester. As the school looks toward the best ways to make up this missed class time, the natural inclination is to either tack days on after Memorial Day, our usual end to the school year OR to convert school holidays to school days.

My school’s already done the latter — this coming Monday, Presidents’ Day — has been converted from teacher workday to school day. Because of the last-minute nature of conversions, many students already had trips planned and will be granted an excused absence. All else being equal, do you think the number of kids who can’t access your online content during a snow day exceeds the number of your kids who can’t be at a makeup day?

We’re not terribly inclined to do the former, tacking days on at the end of the year. Mostly because it’s too late — that’s after AP exams, so does the AP student zero good.

My sources on poor attendance rates on makeup days? Charlotte schools know attendance will be low on makeup days and the same is true in Indianapolis.

Fact: electronic make up days are a (new) thing

This article from Huffington Post is my favorite discussing the trend of electronic snow days: Virtual Snow Days? Schools Experiment With Online Lessons During Bad Weather. My school has the infrastructure in place for electronic snow days. Not everyone is so fortunate, so this isn’t a solution for schools everywhere. Maybe, just maybe, it could be a solution here and now at my school.

Fact: online teaching tools exist

I see two tough obstacles to writing a snow day lesson: 1) it’s inevitably last minute work and 2) online learning is different from face to face learning.

My own lesson yesterday on reading python code consists of a hastily thrown-together video I posted to YouTube and a series of questions that roughly paralleled my plans for the face-to-face class.

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Here is the toolset I’d want to hold a real school day online:

  • A way to hold live classes: Google+ Hangouts, a BigMarker class community or some other videoconferencing tool.
  • A way to write on the computer: math and science teachers especially need to write by hand to teach, so I recommend a tablet, Doceri, and a stylus. Barring that, I’d want a whiteboard and markers at home.

And the institutional support I need to make it happen:

  • Parental education & support: Are we really gonna do this? Let the parents know that even though it’s a snow day we’re still holding school.
  • A schedule: Will classes hold live sessions at their normal times? I’d love a two hour delay on all classes on snow days so kids can sleep in and/or play in the snow.
  • Students have necessary software and accounts: Our computers are managed by IT,  so we installed all the software and tested it in class before the weather got awful.

My concern is that most teachers won’t be comfortable using these tools yet I need most teachers onboard before we could call it an electronic make up day, so how do I get them there? I’m prepared to teach my colleagues an easy web conferencing tool like BigMarker, encourage them to take home a whiteboard and markers, and hold class as usual in a live meeting over the web.

The Importance of Practice

and routines. Don’t forget routines.

twitterprofile

As part of my Twitter profile, I included the phrase, “trying to be progressive”. This blogpost has been in my head for about two weeks but I hesitated to write it because it’s the absolute opposite of progressive. In fact, it’s downright traditional. Meh, it works for me, so I’m sharing.

I’ve set up a classwork routine that works in my classes to give kids in-class practice that builds their confidence on the homework I assign.

Why classwork? I wanted kids solving problems in class not watching me solve problems in class.

Design Goal

Classwork problem sets should build in difficulty, helping kids to make leaps while I’m in the room for  support.

Here are all the classwork assignments from this semester:

Maybe it’s obvious to you guys but I just figured out that classwork assignments should prepare kids for homework assignments which in turn should prepare them for quizzes & tests.

Setting a routine

I felt like routine was an important thing to implement because of feedback from last year’s students. Many expressed confusion about what was expected of them in class as well as homework felt like it came out of the blue.

My goal was to establish a routine I could live with. The framework of a classwork assignment allowed me lots of wiggle room in terms of the questions I asked — Circuit Sudoku is a great example of a creative assignment that adequately prepares kids to solve basic electric circuit problems.

Here’s my routine:

  1. Kids get assignment. We agree on a reasonable due date — often times the next class meeting.
  2. Kids often can start an assignment with no lecture. In the case of Circuit Sudoku, I let them puzzle over the first drawing and the table for about 5 minutes and asked what they needed to be able to solve the problem. From that, I presented just the information they asked for.
  3. Kids do assignment alone for 20ish minutes (out of a 70 minute period). Duration varied depending on the class and their pace — I was looking for about 50% completion by most of the class.
  4. Kids work on assignment with partner. Meanwhile, I station myself at a lab table to answer questions. My answers are usually more questions but this year, I found bugs in my classwork sets that needed some work. Sometimes, if a question was uper-popular, I’d announce to the whole class a mini-lesson in 2 minutes then walk to the front of the room and say something like “ok, so #4 is messing with your head, right?” and share the morsel they needed.
  5. Kids check answers against the answer key. For any that are incorrect, the pairs return to step 4.
  6. Some kids needed some extra time to finish, so the classwork was never made due on the same day I gave it out.

My classes meet 5 days out of 7 on a rotation. The 5 days often looked like this: 1) introduce a topic, 2) work on classwork, 3) do a lab, 4) continue lab or classwork, 5) maybe extend the topic. As you can see, one classwork per rotation was pretty typical.

Future improvement

Students rarely referred to their completed classwork when they had homework questions. I want them to do so next year. Am considering having my homework questions offer feedback such as “this problem you just got wrong is very similar to something on the classwork”.

I also want to tweak the length and difficulty of classwork assignments. Many are too long and too easy. I’ve left appropriate notes to myself to correct these for next year.

What’s your routine?

Neglect and 180 Blogging

I decided this year to write a 180 blog, which has put this blog into a state of dormancy (is that even a word?) I didn’t expect. First off, my 180 posts are longer than they probably should be, so they simply take longer to write. Also, I do most of my interesting reflection over there. Here are a few ideas I’ve been kicking around the last week:

1. Our projects should be a reflection of what we learn in class.

Pinhole project aligned somewhat with class.

Pinhole project aligned somewhat with class.

I’ve run a musical instruments project as well as a pinhole camera project this semester.

For the musical instruments, kids struggled to see how placing frets on a stringed instrument was an application of our string resonance relationship. Next year, I want to have a lab where we build a monochord (single string instrument) complete with a full octave of frets. This’d hand off to the full project very smoothly.

For pinhole cameras, I will modify to ask for them to calculate the magnification based on object distance and image distance. Then I’ll ask them to predict image height based on magnification.

Do you do projects? How do you keep them closely aligned to the rest of class?

2. Labs are fun to do but my current format is a PITA to grade.

Lab writeups take me over a week to grade. I don’t see that changing. A week is too long for a student to actually use the feedback. How can I create a self-checking lab? Ideally, once a paper is handed in, it’d already be corrected.

I’ve done a little of this — some labs have a section I have to sign off on before the kids move on. When grading, I just look for my initials. Maybe my grading solution is as simple as building similar checkpoints throughout all my labs.

One question of many on a recent lab of mine.

One question of many on a recent lab.

3. How might I better develop units-sense in my freshmen?

What I mean is “how can I get the kids to see that units matter?” If you say you need a pinhole diameter of 0.6, I have no idea how big that is because you didn’t tell me inches or millimeters (it was millimeters). My kids view units in physics like they view showing their work in math — busy work the teacher makes you do that’s just picky details, not actually useful.

I can absolutely see incorporating units into projects in a way that makes them useful. Sometimes I have to control the power tools and the kids have to specify the size of a cut. If a kid doesn’t supply units, I can purposely choose the wrong units. A board that should be 2 inches wide could be made 2 meters wide, for instance. How do you drive home the value of units?

HOWTO Participate in #Twittereen

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#Twittereen is a virtual costume day for the mathtwitterblogosphere and beyond. The rules are simple:

  1. Change your avatar to “be” someone else for Halloween (that’s Thursday, Oct 31 in 2013).
  2. Tweet something about being in costume with the #Twittereen hashtag.
  3. Obsessively read Twitter all day long to see everyone’s costumes.

How did all this get started? I gotta be honest with ya, last year was my first year participating. I knew there was at least one before that. Thankfully, our #MTBoS-historian and Twitter Math Camp organizer, Lisa pinned down the origins for me: #Twittereen began in 2009, where it looks like Sean (@SweenWSweens) dressed as Sam (@samjshah).

Doing #Twittereen

How do you do #Twittereen? First of all, let’s bring Lisa (@lmhenry9) in to eliminate some stress:

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My approach is to first get inspired by browsing avatars of folks in the #MTBoS (or peripherally associated with us!). Then, I choose my target. In 2012, my target was @mrpicc112 who was at the time using one of those arrays of nails that you press your hand into to make cool 3D images. I had spotted one of those thingys in a colleague’s room, so I knew it was achievable. Finally, get set up to represent or recreate your target’s avatar, and simply tweet using #Twittereen on Oct 31 while wearing your new avatar. Don’t give it away right off the bat — the guessing is half the fun.

Probably the most unintended of consequences are the new people I follow because of #Twittereen. What? You want an example? So, last year, Sadie (@wahedahbug) dressed as Lusto (@lustomatical), some well-tattooed dude I wasn’t following at the time. But if he’s cool enough for Sadie to emulate, he’s cool enough for me to follow (good guy BTW):

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Some people look forward to #Twittereen for most of October. They plan multiple costume changes during the day. Well, to be honest, I’m mostly just describing @approx_normal. I asked her why she loves #Twittereen and she responded:

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@approx_normal changed costume four times in 2012 #truestory

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@druinok on why she loves #Twittereen

And now, a tour through #Twittereens past:

Twittereen 2013 Contest

(updated Monday 10/28 at 2pm EDT) A challenge for y’all from @approx_normal: GO TO APPROXIMATELY NORMAL IN THE CLASSROOM TO READ AND ENTER

TWITTEREEN WITH A TWIST!!

Last year we submitted our character changes and then voted on our favorite. We are still going to do that, but this time we are going to add some extras.

If you’ve already put on your “costume”, please change back to “normal” for a few days. Why? We will need your original avatar for comparison. Aaaaaand, everyone loves “reveal day”.

So, here are the rules for submission (if you want – totally optional):

1) You must fill out the form at the bottom of the blog post to submit your Twittereen costume by October 30th 7:00 p.m. EST to qualify to win. There are a bazillion of you now, and it will take me a few hours to compile. :)

2) Reveal starts on October 31st! And so will the voting for best Twittereen “costume”! This year we are adding a few extra awards:

a) Best Copy

b) Most Creative Interpretation

c) Best Burn

GO TO APPROXIMATELY NORMAL IN THE CLASSROOM TO ENTER

So again, please DON’T change your avatar until people have had a chance to do the copy. Here is the direct link to the form if you need it. Have fun and we’ll see the “new you” on the 31st!

Twittereen 2012

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Love, love, love the way Timon (@mrpicc112, at left above) swapped the hedgehog in the image for this. There are a few leaps you have to make to get it.

More Twittereen blog posts from 2012: mine and @approx_normal’s.

Twittereen 2011

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You want Lisa’s blog “Twittereen 2011 — for Sam” because she kept record of the Tweets as folks revealed themselves.

Twittereen 2010

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And it looks like 2010 was the year of “dress up as Kate”. Sam blogged about 2010 #Twittereen and has more pictures. I do remember #Twittereen 2010 but had forgotten it till Lisa pointed me to Sam’s blog.

Twittereen 2009

This, apparently, is where it all started. October 2009 and Sam was using this picture as his Twitter avatar:

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I’m gonna let Sam’s blog do the big reveal. See the first ever #Twittereen costume.

Updates

(7:15pm Sunday) Greg (@sarcasymptote) reminds us if  you’re doing twittereen you should save the pic of the person you are dressing as. In his words, “shit gets real confusing otherwise when trying to pull together compilations.” Spoken like a true veteran, Greg.

(4:50pm Friday) Why should someone very new to the mathtwitterblogosphere particpate in #Twittereen? I mean, after all, it’s not like your inspiration would even notice (yeah right, that’s what @ mentions are for). Kate (@k8nowak) mentions all the good feels your target gets when you dress as them:

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Holy crap, yes! I can only speak for me, but I LOVED seeing Julie dress as me last year. What an honor that *she* picked *me*. Y’know?

(4:50pm Friday) Struggling to find someone to impersonate? Katie (@fourkatie) who dressed as @cheesemonkeysf suggests the following for inspiration:

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Here’s her costume:

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Nailed it.

In my attempt to write about the history of #Twittereen, I’m pretty sure I left important people and details out. Won’t you help me fill them in with comments, below?