Podcast: How Advice from My Gen Z Class Made Me Up My Tech Game with Leah Carper in NC on Teachers in America

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Photo: High school English teacher Leah Carper

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Our guest today is the 2023 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year, Leah Carper. She teaches high school English at Northern Guilford High School in Greensboro, North Carolina.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom. This year, we are going to focus each conversation on a specific instructional practice or theme but always include their teacher journey.

In today’s episode, we’re joined by 2023 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year, Leah Carper. Leah is a high school English teacher in Greensboro, North Carolina, who strives to show her students how to be empathetic, contributing members of a global community through literature.

Inspired by her tech savvy students, Leah has taken on TikTok® to share teaching ideas and strategies that work in the modern classroom. Many of her posts have been featured in national and international educational publications.

As state teacher of the year, she serves as an advisor to the North Carolina State Board of Education visiting classrooms all around the state.

Watch out for a follow-up mini-sode with Leah this back-to-school season. Now, let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: We have the pleasure of having what I anticipate to be a fabulous, fun, and informative conversation with Leah Carper. So Leah, why don't you take a little bit to introduce yourself.

Leah Carper: Hey everybody. I'm Leah Carper. I am the North Carolina Teacher of the Year, and I teach high school English, specifically 10th grade. I spent this year on a sabbatical from my teaching job, though, and I'm advocating for education on multiple levels. I talk to legislators almost weekly. I am an advisor to my state board of education, and then I get invitations from districts all across North Carolina to come visit their teachers and to engage with them with different trainings. So, I'm having a wonderful year, and I'm really excited to be here today.

Noelle: Yes, and congratulations. State Teacher of the Year, anytime you're recognized as a teacher of the year, even from your school, it's an honor. So, I'm excited, and I know that our listeners are also excited to learn from you.

Leah: I have to tell you, winning for the state was precious and wonderful, but winning for my school, to be appointed from my colleagues, was the biggest honor that I've ever received because I see what they do every single day, and they're incredible teachers. Every teacher deserves to be Teacher of the Year, to be honest with you. And so for my colleagues, the people who know me best to choose me, super humbling, super grateful.

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Leah was selected as the 2023 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and currently serves as an advisor to her state board of education.

Noelle: So yes. Love that you gave a shout-out to that team. So I know that your journey in teaching started in 2006. I would love it if you could just think about the three years since 2006 that you think either pivoted your career, anchored who you are, or really had you reflect and move on to the next steps.

Leah: The first year of teaching, I think it's probably one of the hardest years of your life because any teacher knows that student teaching does not prepare a teacher completely for what is to come. And so you feel like you're just jumping in headfirst into a pool of unknowns. My first year of teaching, I found out in November that I was pregnant. And so that added another layer of excitement to my life. But it also really helped me recognize what was important and what wasn't important as far as being a teacher. So many of us, from my travels and through talking to other teachers, have a hard time determining what is the most important thing that I need to do right now because we have so many things on our plates, and then we get this email from our administrator, and we think it's the most important thing in the world. We have to solve this right now, and it's super stressful.

But being pregnant and it being my first year of teaching, I really leaned on my mentor teachers, my colleagues, and really said, "What's the truth? What is real here? What's the most important thing?" And it really, really helped me get through. And the secret to that, which the secret that I guess I discovered for myself, was the most important thing is that my lesson is planned for tomorrow. Do I have tomorrow figured out? And then are my students engaged when they're in my room? And then, everything else, duties around the school and things like that, it all works out. Terrible advice, probably. But it was really helpful. So my first year teaching was wonderful for that.

Noelle: You're so right. Leah, what did you notice between your students, pre-pandemic to post? What are you even noticing now about the change in the milestones? Those two classes of juniors and seniors did not get prom or traditional graduation. What are you noticing about the change in that and how you remember thinking about, "Okay, so what do we really need to value?"

Leah: The 2020 and 2021 seniors' gratitude levels were out of this world. So many people think, "Oh, they're so mad." But the truth was they were grateful for anything that we could do for them because they recognized the scale that the coronavirus was. They recognized how massive and historic the time period was. But I have to say my students more recently who have learned through the pandemic, they're advocates for themselves in a way that my students prior to that were not because they have more of, I feel like, they feel like their teachers are more accessible. They can talk to them. They know how to reach out to them because we worked on an online platform where they could find a way to access their teachers. I'm really proud of the resiliency our students have, but also that they learned how to say, "I'm not okay right now. Can you help me with this?" Or, "I don't understand this right now." Because for many of our students, learning online was very difficult.

Now, I will say there were many students who did not learn that, and I made it a point to explain and teach and show the importance of that because if all of their colleagues are doing it, if many of their classmates are doing it, our teachers are going to get used to having advocate students who speak up for themselves. And so they need to know, "Hey, when you're struggling, you have to talk to me. These are different avenues through which you can do that." And they have trust in their teachers because we have been through, in my district. . . My district's bomb, y'all. I'm not lying. Y'all should all come work here. I'm recruiting, apparently. But they taught us social and emotional teaching practices and culturally responsive teaching practices to help our students feel safe for when they do advocate for themselves that they're going to be okay. And that's so important.

Noelle: Yes. Two shout-outs in one podcast, definitely give your district a shout-out.

Leah: Guilford County Schools, come on in.

Noelle: Hey, teacher friends, if you're an HMH user, did you know you have access to Teacher's Corner on Ed? Included with every HMH program, Teacher's Corner is a community of teachers, learning experts, and instructional coaches gathered in one place to support you with a new kind of professional learning: Bite-sized, teacher-selected, and teacher-driven. With on-demand sessions, lesson demonstrations, program support, and practical resources, Teacher's Corner lets you choose how you interact with our content. I like to think about it as inspiration on demand.

Noelle: What did your students notice about you that you weren't using all the great tools to connect to them, that during the pandemic you're like, "Okay, I'm going to give it a try," and now you've kind of just blown it out of the water?

Leah: So I'm a character all the time. So whenever we're reading something about astronauts, I'm dressing up like an astronaut. We wrote research papers on space conspiracy theories, and so I spent the whole week dressing up like an alien or an astronaut as part of our research unit. I'm always kind of silly because I have three children; one's in high school, one's in middle school, and one's in elementary school. I noticed in 2020, my children were obsessed with YouTubers [an active YouTube® video creator], obsessed with them, addicted to them, like my human children that I birthed. So I'm like, "How am I going to keep the attention of my students in a 40-minute class period through the screen? How am I going to reach them when they have any distraction possible?" So I spent the summer of 2020 studying YouTubers as if it were my homework. I studied them, and then you're going to laugh, but I studied those multi-level marketing boss babes on Facebook® who sell clothes and jewels online. These people are masters at checking the comments, continuing your narrative, and focusing on engaging every single person. They are masters at it.

And so, I spent time researching that over the summer. So I knew that my class had to be interactive online; it had to be engaging, and I had to be weird. I had to keep them interested by changing things up. So I would ring a doorbell. I would make a doorbell sound happen in my room. I would be like, "Who's here? That's so strange." Walk off-screen and then have a conversation with a pretend person, like, "Oh my goodness, what are you doing? Hello, it's so nice to see you today. I would like to talk to your students about context clues." I'm like, "What are you doing?" And I would show back up in a costume like a guy named Detective Context, "Hello, students. I'm here to talk to you about context clues." And he would teach the rest of 10 minutes of my lesson, and I'm talking high school, and in the chat, my students would be like, "Ms. Carper, you're so weird." Or "Ms. Carper, is that really you?" And they were engaging. Do you see what I'm saying?

Noelle: So endearing. It's so endearing that they're hooked because fun does not end after fifth grade.

Leah: I'm going to tell you this right now. Anytime I speak with high school teachers, I always say, "You need to go observe an elementary classroom because those teachers can do it all." And I teach high school through elementary practices. We do circle time in a way every single day, talking about our day, asking questions, et cetera. We do anchor charts. There are so many parts of elementary teaching that work so well in high school. Lecture ain't it y'all. Sit and get ain't it. It is all about trying out different strategies. I knew what this generation connected to, and I tried to use that in my teaching methods.

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Noelle: And you're right about YouTubers and their strength. I'm on a team and lead a team that's really about our community and engagement with teachers. And I often am asked, "It looks exhausting, all the comments." And I'm like, "No, I've really embraced how much I learn from the comments." If something's exhausting but there's a high impact, I often encourage teachers to think about, "Okay, what's the exhausting part? And what can you work towards to mitigate that?" Because the value is more rewarding.

Leah: It really is. Or what can you eliminate? What other things can you eliminate so you can focus on this one thing that you know is working really well? Always trying to reduce.

Noelle: Yes, reduce. So I like that you've added that, eliminate, because sometimes something has to go. So I read that your students also challenged you to get on TikTok®. So how did they challenge you, you accepted the challenge, and do you remember making your first TikTok® to what you're doing now?

Leah: Yes, I do. So 2020 school year, before that fall year started, our district asked each teacher to create a video introducing ourselves. And I am a musical theater girl. And so we had a lot of time on our hands in 2020. So, I made a music video, obviously to the theme of Phineas and Ferb.

Noelle: Oh my gosh, love them. And they're coming back. Woo.

Leah: They're so good. And I chose that because my oldest daughter is the age of my students, and I knew she loved that show. And so, I knew that "Okay, this will be nostalgic." That would show my students, "Oh, she gets us," things like that. So, I made the video, and people were sharing it a bunch, and it was super fun. And a student challenged me. She said, "Ms. Carper, if you put that on TikTok," it was the first week of school. These students didn't even really know me. "If you put that on TikTok, it would go viral."

And I said, "I don't think that's true." And she said, "I dare you to do it." And then, of course, in the chat, "Do it, Ms. Carper, I dare you. I dare you." And, of course, I'm not going to say no to that because I have them engaged. And I said, "Now, here's the thing. Obviously, I'm going to do it. However, you guys have to come back and tell me what to do next." And so, it was a great way to keep my students in the class during online learning.

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2020 was a pivotal year in Leah's career as she leaned into technology to create an online, interactive experience for her high school students.

Noelle: Oh, they were finding the moment. Yes, cool—

Leah: They were like, "Ms. Carper, this reminds me of that TikTok sound or this TikTok trend. You should try this one." And it was never during class that I talked about it. It was always the 20 minutes before or after class that we'd just stay on and chit-chat and stuff. Because there were students who wanted to do that. And so I never talked about it during class, but students would come on before class because they'd be like, "Oh, we got to chat about what's going on on TikTok." And one of the guest speakers that I did was a Grammar Grandma, where she came like, "I'm going to teach them children about using semicolons properly or whatever." And I dressed up a full grandma in less than two minutes, by the way. And so I showed how I did that on a video, and it went viral. It had 800,000 views or something. And I'm going to tell you right now—my students lost their minds. They're like, "We did this. This was us."

Noelle: "We told you so." Yes—

Leah: Yes. And so it was wonderful. And so they encouraged it. I don't follow obviously any of my students until they graduate high school, but I know that they're engaging, and I love that. I love that they're proud of me. They'll repost, or they'll "Duet" videos. They'll make a video. Yeah. They'll be like, "That's my teacher in that video." And that just obviously makes me feel like a million bucks. But anything to keep them connected to the school and to education and anything to show them that adults, we're hilarious. We are good times, and we're so smart and funny.

And I think that a lot of kids think that, "Oh, adults, they're so old, they don't get us." Well, I showed up to your "For You" page [on] your platform, and I'm successful at it. And we are connected. So I was just really just desperate to do anything to keep my students engaged.

Noelle: Again, shout out to your students and how you're bringing that in. If they're listening, they're so engaged, and they can then hear and connect it to a trend, that's synthesizing information and creating something new out of it. It's the same critical thinking, but not everything is through a traditional read and respond.

Leah: A hundred million percent agree with you. I did get [pushback] from—not from my district or anything like that. They love it. They actually published my TikToks on the websites of the schools, which is so funny to me. They're so cute. But parents, some parents are like, "It's inappropriate for a teacher to be on TikTok." I'm like, "I'm not doing dancing." You know what I'm saying? I'm speaking teacher truths and connecting with teachers and students. I feel I'm speaking my students' language—you have to meet them at their place and then bring them more knowledge and more things. And so it looked different 10 years ago. It looked completely different. We weren't talking about technology as much. We weren't talking about what was happening on their phones. It just looked different. And so we have to change with the times.

And that's really hard for teachers to do, especially because it's exhausting. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so much we can do. But I promise you that if you look for ways to connect with students using their language, using their pop culture, they recognize that you're trying, and they build trust. So my class isn't a million percent everything is fun all the time. It can't be, right? But they trust that there will be something magic every day, something interesting, something funny, a reference to something they know. There will be a connection every day. And that's how I keep my students with me through Walt Whitman or whatever it is that might be more difficult or might feel more inaccessible. We've built that trust where today might not be great, but tomorrow, don't you worry. I'm going to make it up to you. I'm grateful for their attention and their time.

Noelle: Well, you had a platform before Teacher of the Year, and now this year of your sabbatical and going into different schools. Leah, what would you describe as a modern classroom, and in that modern classroom, what is necessary? What should be on a wish list, and how do you encourage a teacher to ask and acquire what they might not have but need?

Leah: That's a toughie. Okay. I mean, technology obviously is necessity. And I feel [that] post-pandemic education world, we're getting there, which is nice. My district was not one-to-one ratio for student-to-device. And now we are because of the pandemic. And I'm curious, and I talked to lawmakers about this pretty often. What's the sustainability of that? Do we have money set aside so we can keep this up when our precious Chromebooks™ die? That's a conversation. And we have to have people who are willing to make sacrifices to make sure that our students have technology in their hands every day, but also, more than the technology, I think it's a mindset. The necessity is the mindset of we need to be teaching our students durable, global skills. We need to teach them skills about empathy. We need to teach them resiliency. We need to teach them how to recognize other people's ideas and to not immediately shut them down because we're uncomfortable.

And when our students recognize that they live in a global society and we're all connected through this technology, it helps build that empathy. So something that I do in my class is we try to read all around the world, and you'll see a couple of TikToks about the map in my classroom. So I have this big old map that my sweet dad gave to me when I started teaching. He says, "Every teacher needs a map." And I was like, "I teach English." And he was right, though, because A, no one knows geography, but B, our students need to see that these ideas all the way over here in India or all the way here in Sierra Leone, these situations that kids are going through here, "Dude, I'm going through that too!" We are not so different. And the things that are different about us don't feel as strange when you learn all the things that are different about each other.

So every time we read something in my class, we label it on the map, we put a little Post-it® note next to where we've read, and we discuss a tiny bit about that culture because that culture impacts the writing. We know that; it impacts the perspective on the writing, and it helps us understand different people. So I guess one of the things is this mindset of we have to teach our students we're living in a global society. Wish list, I'm always going to say books forever, right? Books from all around the world, but also training. We need the training to be more globally aware, culturally responsive, and filling the needs that our students have. When we get feedback from testing, it's too late. When we get that feedback at the end of the year, those kids are gone.

It'll be like, "Here's your scores, Ms. Carper." And I'm like, "I missed a whole group of kids, and now it's too late. They're already in another class." We need help. We need to know what to do to help our students develop the skills they need to be successful. So here's the thing about it, you asked how to encourage teachers to ask. What's so cool about the education field right now is we need teachers more than anything. Y'all can ask for almost anything you want, and they're going to try to keep you.

Noelle: I don't mean to laugh because it's serious. I mean, my heart is breaking because I'm so in love with this profession and teachers and teacher life. So I don't mean to giggle, but you're right. Now's the time to be a little bit bold—

Leah: Yes. And don't just ask your principal or your district. There are so many wonderful community members who want to help. That's something I've learned so much. So the principal of a local high school said, "I would like to create a space where my students can go during lunch and unwind and chat and hang out. I would love to get ping pong tables, air hockey tables, and foosball tables." Now, this person works in a school that a lot of people unfortunately think is a "bad school," and he asked the community for this help. I donated an air hockey table that I've literally had in my mother's basement since 1993, and it still works, by the way. It was literally 1993. And he is so excited about it. But there are so many community members and businesses who are like, "Yeah, we'll donate to that; here. Yeah, I'd love to do that." When you ask, right? Just ask. And the thing that I've learned [is] that is the worst they can say is no.

Noelle: True. So true.

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Leah: They're not going to fire anybody for trying to do something that's great for kids. That's the craziest thing I ever heard. Just ask. Now I know there are district policies about donations and things like that, so make sure you're following those things because you could get maybe in trouble for breaking those rules. But the ask doesn't hurt. So I recommend not just asking your school officials but also just asking your community.

Noelle: When you think about going from a professional learning setting, or you've looked at a TikTok, you see a strategy, how fast do you think, try, and reflect on a strategy before you continue with it, or you're like, "No, that's not working for us. I'm going to move on."

Leah: I mean, sometimes it's period to period, right? What was that research study that teachers make more minute-by-minute decisions than brain surgeons? Did you hear that—

Noelle: Yes, I did. Yes, we will find that and put in that piece.

Leah: It always makes me feel better about myself when I hear statistics like that. I'm, "Yes, right? That is why I'm exhausted." I love that. Also, pay me like a brain surgeon. But sometimes it's minute by minute, but sometimes it's after the major assessment. So my kids really like to paint. It's so zen and relaxing, and we'll turn on some music, and they will paint with watercolor images that they see in books, or they create an image, and then someone has to write about the image, or they have to paint the image that was written about. And then you have to see, "Well, did I use enough vivid language?"

And at first, a couple of my friends in my building were like, "Leah, you're just painting because it's fun. You know that's true." And I was like, "Well, the proof will be in the pudding." I always say, "I'm doing cross-curricular things." But the proof was in the pudding this time because the three questions on my test at the end of the poetry unit this past year that discussed what is the effect of the vivid language in stanza three, they got it, they saw it, and the proof was in the pudding. And sometimes, I have to justify in my brain after time, and sometimes it's, "Do my students love this? I don't care. We're doing it, right? They need this time." But sometimes it's minute by minute or class by class.

So I do this activity where I create escape rooms pretty often in my class with real locks and real keys, and you have to put together this puzzle, and then it takes you to another place, and you have to read a reading selection, answer questions, and then the answer choices, if you get them all right, will lead you to a combination. My honor students were killing it. But last year, I taught two just regular English classes, fabulous, wonderful classes, and they were struggling with one reading selection. Just I think in looking back on it, the Lexile® was a little high, to be honest with you, for English 10. And so, during that class period, I started putting hints on the board. Just little things like that where you can help your students move along, I think, is important. So you've tried new ideas. If you have to adjust during the day, do it. And there are sometimes where it's like, this lesson was cool, but I don't think it really impacted student learning. It might not be what I do next year, and that's okay too.

Noelle: Yeah, I always will look and think, "Okay, well, if they're creating that visual, that's just a different medium for annotating." I mean, I would love to ask you, how important to you are your daily conversations with your teammates and your hallway conversation with other adults?

Leah: If the vibes in your hall are bad, I am so sorry because my hall vibes are queen vibes. It is so good. My English [department], we all are in the same hallway, which is magic, right? We all teach on the same hallway, which we're so lucky for that. But in between class periods, I'll be like, "Hey, can you help me?" "Yes, actually, I have a resource for this." We are sharing all the time. Also, we're encouraging each other. Also, it's like, "Hey, I know this is your tough class. How'd it go today?" Those conversations. But my professional learning community, with just the content that I teach, my 10th-grade community, we are literally the admins of each other's Canvas® pages online. So when I create an assignment, I put it in the other people's class for them because we're all doing the same thing all day. Or when someone creates 10 questions for a test, and I create 10 questions for a test, we're putting them on each other's pages.

It is an everyday conversation. I never feel we're not talking. Even when I'm teaching, I don't feel like I'm not in conversation with them because I'm thinking about, "Oh, I need to ask them this or ask them that." We are constantly supporting each other, and that's rare. And I recognize that. And it's because we've built trust with one another. And because the rule of our group is we have to follow through. And if we cannot follow through, we have to give people enough time to know that it's not going to happen. And we have to give each other grace. Other times we'll have big ideas, and sometimes we'll get so big into [them], we have to stop each other and say, "Y'all, this would be so great if I had 25 planning periods between now and then, right? And if I didn't have to cover classes." So sometimes we're good about reeling each other in, and I'm so grateful for that too. We help each other see the picture. So that is massive. Find the place where you're safe and you've got people who you can lean on and work with; it's life-changing.

Noelle: Does your daughter love how cool you are?

Leah: So my oldest is in 10th grade this year, and she is my biggest cheerleader. She will dress up with me at school. The other day, I stopped by the school to help the English department with something. They're like, "Hey, can we talk about test prep? And can we go through what we did last year?" "Absolutely. Let me be there." I was there on a teacher workday, and the National Art Honor Society was all there, and they were painting these beautiful murals. And I was like, "Hey guys, do you want to make a TikTok?" And my daughter's standing there, and she goes, "Let's all say yes." That's rare, but it's wonderful.

Now my middle child is in eighth grade, and we know middle school's very different for everybody. And also, your middle school daughter is very different, and she is a little cheerleader. And after each cheer, I say, "Let's go, cheer. Yeah, that was amazing." And the looks I get from her are delicious and furious but in the best way. I think they are proud of me. I do think that if I dialed it back a little bit, it wouldn't hurt my middle child's feelings so much. But she does brag.

Noelle: I love that. Everybody needs cheerleaders. Everybody needs fans. I close every podcast by asking the teacher, "What is your walk-up song?" And Leah, the reason is I believe teachers are truly the top athlete in our society, and we deserve that walk-up song. And if no one else is playing it, it should be in our head and in our headphones as we walk into the building into the classroom. So I want to know, what's your walk-up song? What should we all add to our playlist?

Leah: Oh, I love this question so much. I am a musical lover, so that's difficult to narrow down. It's like, which one of your children is your favorite? Disrespectful. But right now and in the world that I'm in, this world of advocacy and really sharing messages of hopefully hope to people, but also to bring a little bit of awareness to issues that are going on and maybe to inspire others to make small changes. My song would be "Brave" by Sara Bareilles. "Say what you wanna say / And let the words fall out / Honestly, I wanna see you be brave." This is a time in the world where we need to be sharing our stories. We need to be sharing the things that are working and not working, advocating for what is right and what needs to change. And people don't know what they don't know. We have to be brave enough to tell them what they need to know so they can know what they need to do.

Noelle: All right. Well, now probably, my phone has picked up Sara Bareilles, which is on my playlist, and she's the writer of one of my favorite shows on Broadway.

Leah: Waitress.

Noelle: Yes. Yes. So, Leah, I love how quickly you can make a connection, even if it's over a podcast and not getting to see each other. Thank you for being you, for choosing teaching, and [for] using your platform to make those connections and help teachers continue to realize, "You're awesome. You've got this. And if you don't, just ask, and find a place to learn and connect."

Leah: Yes, all teaching is literally all about connecting. When you connect with somebody emotionally, they want to learn from you. And that's what it's all about.

Noelle: Thank you. Thank you, listeners.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of  Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoyed today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.

Thanks again for listening!


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