Burning Down the House at TEDxCCSU – Speaking Truth to Power with a BOOM!

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There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.

We’ll tell you the truth.

Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.

But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.

Just ask any first grader.

“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”

“Oh my, it is!”

“Really?”

“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”

“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”

“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”

That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.

Here was my chance to tell it like it is.

Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.

But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.

Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.

We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.

But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.

No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!

For me, doing one was a long time coming.

The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.

I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization  – a feat he did not once, but twice!

Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”

“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”

“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”

“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”

“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”

And that was it.

I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.

But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.

I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.

What followed was a year of recovery.

I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”

After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.

Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.

And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.

I jumped on it.

How could I say no?

This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.

But that comes with certain responsibilities.

I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.

Even though it is great – the best job in the world.

But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.

The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!

So that’s what I decided to speak about.

Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.

At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.

But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.

I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?

If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?

That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”

I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.

Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.

The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.

But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.

The weeks flew by.

Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.

I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.

All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.

Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.

But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.

The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.

There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.

Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.

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Which brings up an interesting distinction.

This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.

TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.

I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.

The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.

Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.

So I walked to my mark and started speaking.

It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.

Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.

It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.

And I was off and running.

I said it. I said it all.

The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.

When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.

And that was it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.

Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.

When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.

I had done it.

After months, years of planning, it was over.

Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.

But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.

This will be something I’ll never forget.

I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.

Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.

And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.

Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.

I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.

Now to see where it goes.

Fighting for Public Schools Means Fighting Against Systemic Racism – United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit

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What do you do when you hold a civil rights summit and none of the big names show up?

That’s what happened last weekend when United Opt Out (UOO) held its Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas.

We invited everybody.

We invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We invited the National Council of La Raza “The People,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Urban League and several others.

None came.

But instead we were host to many of these organizations individual members.
Just how many people came to the Lone Star State for the summit? Thousands? Hundreds?

More like dozens.

Not only did the major civil rights groups neglect to send their leadership, but the bulk of our nation’s education activists also stayed away.

United Opt Out had just gone through a major reorganization on philosophical grounds. Only three of its long-time board members remain – Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez and Ceresta Smith. They have since been joined by five new directors – Gus Morales, Zakary Rodriguez, Erika Strauss Chavarria, Deborah Anderson and Steven Singer (me).

The directors that left the group did so for various reasons, but some of them split along ideological lines. Some thought United Opt Out shouldn’t work with labor leaders or civil rights groups that weren’t perfectly aligned with all of UOO’s goals. So they left. Those who stayed are committed to working with almost anyone to push forward the cause, piece-by-piece if necessary.

As a result, this organization that had been growing by leaps and bounds, finds itself starting afresh. While last year’s conference in Philadelphia drew progressive luminaries like Chris Hedges, Jill Stein and Bill Ayers, this year’s gathering was more low key.

But it was far from somber. In fact, the board’s vision was vindicated in the most amazing way during the summit.

As Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner discussed the importance of reframing school policy to include students basic humanity, Gus looked up from his phone and announced, “The NAACP just ratified its moratorium on charter schools!”

We all stopped what we were doing and went to our phones and computers for verification. Denisha found it first and read the resolution in full.

We cheered, laughed and hugged each other.

This was exactly the kind of change we’ve been talking about! In fact, Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California and Hawaiian NAACP chapter, had originally been scheduled at the summit as a keynote speaker. When the resolution that he had been instrumental in crafting came up for a vote at the national NAACP meeting, he understandably had to cancel with us. Clearly he was needed elsewhere.

And now one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country has taken a strong stance on charter schools. Not only does the NAACP oppose charters as a solution to inequities experienced by children of color, they’ve now gone beyond mere ideology. They’re calling for action – no new charter schools.

It is a tremendous victory for parents, children and teachers everywhere. And a much needed win for civil rights and education activists. The civil rights community (including the Black Lives Matter movement) is starting to acknowledge that Brown vs. Board is right – we cannot have “separate but equal” school systems because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

Let me be clear – UOO did not achieve this triumph alone. It took many people, some of whom probably have never heard of us. However, activists supporting our movement such as Julian were strongly involved.

And if we had listened to the naysayers who proposed only working with perfectly like-minded groups, this might never have happened.

As a national organization, the NAACP still supports standardized testing as necessary to hold schools accountable for teaching all students. But this was not always the case.

In October of 2014, there were 11 civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reduce standardized testing.

Then in January of 2015, a full 19 Civil Rights organizations including the NAACP wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

What changed in those three months?

All of these organizations accept huge donations from the corporate education reform industry including some of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates. While none of us were present at these decision making sessions, it seems clear that fear of losing their funding may have forced them to make hard compromises.

Should we then as education activists wipe our hands of them? Should we refuse to work with them on some issues because we disagree on others?

United Opt Out says no. We’ll work with almost anyone where we can, when we can. And the results were on display with the NAACP resolution calling for a charter school moratorium.

Perhaps now that we’ve found that common ground on school privatization, we can do the same with standardized testing. Perhaps we can help educate them about the history of this practice, how it was a product of the eugenics movement and has always been used to support white supremacy and keep people of color and the poor in their place.

If we can make that argument, think of the potential. Perhaps leadership at these big civil rights groups would be less willing to compromise if they understood that standardized testing was used to justify mass sterilizations of American citizens and it was greatly admired by the Nazis. Perhaps if they understood that our modern standardized assessments are little better and create a racial proficiency gap by their very design – maybe then threats from rich white philanthropists won’t seem as important. Perhaps if they understood that schools can best be held accountable by reference to the adequacy of the funding they receive and a detailed accounting of what they do with it, these organizations might be less inclined to rely on multiple choice testing.

In fact, this is why we were there together in Houston in the first place. We wanted to make our case to these same civil rights organizations.

They may not have sent their leaders, but their members were already here. And we spent the time working together to find ways to make our case.

It was really quite amazing.

Audrey Amerin-Breadsley, professor and author of the blog Vamboolzed, gave us an incredibly accessible and informative keynote on value-added measures (VAM), the practice of using students test scores as a way to evaluate their teachers. For instance, did you know this common practice was originally based on a model for the cattle industry? It’s junk science and has little relation to education, teachers and students. All it does is pit students and teachers against each other creating a culture of fear where educators can be unfairly fired at any time – not the best environment for learning. Yet ignorant, lazy and/or corrupt bureaucrats still champion it across the country as a solution to improving schools.

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor at Columbia University, explained in minute detail how corporate education reform relies on bad statistics and is bad business. He explained how academics blinded by economics and unencumbered by any real-life experience of public schools came up with this scheme, which has been disproven by the facts again-and-again. Not only do the highest achieving countries such as Finland go a different route, but those that follow this market driven model find student achievement suffering. In short, our current education policies are really faith-based initiatives, a faith in the invisible hand of the market, and an ignorance of reality.

But perhaps most heartening was the series of talks given by the locals. Houston Federation of Teachers is one of the few labor unions to pass a resolution supporting parents rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. In fact, teachers and parents even run a free Opt Out Academy for children not taking the tests so that their education continues while their peers suffer through these useless assessments. We got to meet parent zero, the first parent to refuse testing in the district. We heard the community’s painstaking process of spreading the movement one family at a time. This was in effect an opt out cookbook, a how-to for anyone wishing to bring this social justice action to their own neighborhoods.

It was a weekend to give anyone hope.

We were small but we were powerful. Given a few years to rebuild, UOO could well be much stronger than we once were. Meanwhile parents across the country continue to refuse these tests for their children at an exponential rate.

There are many struggles ahead. But we have made real progress toward our goal of providing an excellent education for all children.

No longer can our governments be allowed to keep discriminating against them based on the color of their skin, their parents bank accounts and other factors. We’re standing for all students, because we don’t see them as consumers or data points. We see them as children, as human beings. And we stand together to protect and preserve that shared humanity.

What better way to spend a weekend?

You Can’t Be Anti-Opt Out and Pro-Democracy

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Our lawmakers have a problem.

This summer they doubled down on one of the most anti-democratic mandates in the federal repertoire yet they claim they did so to protect states rights.

Here’s the problem.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of public school parents across the country opt their children out of standardized testing.

But Congress voted to keep mandating that 95% of students take the tests.

It all happened with the much celebrated bipartisan passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal law that governs K-12 schools.

While lawmakers made changes here and there to let the states decide various education issues, they kept the mandate that students participate in annual testing.

They didn’t leave that to the states. Whether they were Republican or Democrat, almost all lawmakers thought it was just fine for the federal government to force our children to take standardized tests at least every year in 3-8th grades and once in high school.

If any school district, has more than 5% of students that don’t take the tests – for whatever reason – the federal government can deny that district funding.

Think about that for a moment.

Our lawmakers are supposedly acting in our interests. They’re our representatives. We’re their constituents. They get their power to pass laws because of our consent as the governed. Yet in this instance they chose to put their own judgement ahead of ours.

They could have made an exception for parents refusing the tests on behalf of their children. They just didn’t see the need to do so.

Why? Because they were worried about minority students.

It’s a laughable claim in so many ways.

It goes something like this – without standardized testing, we’ll have no way of knowing if public schools are educating students of color.

Let’s say for a moment that this were true. In that case, we can expect no parent of color would ever refuse standardized testing for his/her child.

First, this is demonstrably untrue. Black and brown parents may not be the most numerous in the opt out movement, but they do take part in it.

Second, in the majority of cases where white parents refuse testing, that would have no bearing on whether testing helps or hurts students of color. If the point is the data testing gives us on black kids, what white kids do on the test is irrelevant.

Third, even if opting out hurt students of color, one would assume that it is the parents prerogative whether they want to take part. If a black parent doesn’t want her black son to take a multiple choice exam, she should have the right to waive that exam and the responsibility would be on her head.

So there is absolutely no reason why lawmakers should have overstepped their bounds in this way and blocked all parents rights about what the schools do to their children.

It is a clear case of governmental overreach. And there are plenty of parents just waiting to bring it to the U.S. Supreme Court for the ultimate Constitutional test.

However, that probably won’t happen for the same reason it never happened through the 15 years of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which also contained the annual testing rule.

The federal government has never withheld tax dollars based on students not taking standardized tests. officials at the U.S. Department of Education have made threats, but they have never devolved into action.

The bottom line is this: they know how Unconstitutional this mandate is, and they aren’t itching to have it tested in the highest court in the land.

It would open a whole can of worms about standardized testing. What is the federal government allowed to do and not allowed to do about education policy?

The ESSA is an attempt to reduce the federal role, but keeping the annual testing mandate was either a grievous mistake or the last vestiges of federal hubris.

But let’s return to the reasoning behind it – so-called civil rights fears.

Various groups including the NAACP asked for it to be included to protect minority students. Annual testing is the only way, they claimed, to make sure schools are teaching students of color.

It’s nonsense.

There are plenty of ways to determine if schools are meeting the needs of minority students – especially since most students of color go to segregated schools.

Even after Brown v. Board, we have schools that cater to black kids and schools that cater to white kids. We have schools for poor kids and rich kids.

It is obvious which schools get the most resources. Why isn’t that part of this “accountability” scheme? We can audit districts to see how much is spent per pupil on poor black kids vs rich white kids. We can determine which groups go to schools with larger class sizes, which groups have more access to tutoring and social services, which groups have expanded or narrowed curriculums, which groups have access to robust extra-curricular activities, which groups have the most highly trained and experienced teachers, etc.

In fact, THAT would tell us much more about how these two groups are being served by our public schools than standardized test scores. We’ve known for almost a century that these test scores are more highly correlated with parental income than academic knowledge. They’re culturally biased, subjectively scored and poorly put together. But they support a multibillion dollar industry. If we allow a back door for all that money to dry up, it will hurt lawmakers REAL constituents – big business.

So why were civil rights groups asking the testing mandate be kept in the bill? Because the testing industry is comprised of big donors.

Only a few months before passage of the ESSA, many of these same civil rights groups had signed declarations against standardized testing. Then suddenly they saw the light as their biggest donors threatened to drop out.

Make no mistake. Standardized testing doesn’t help poor minority children. It does them real harm. But the testing industry wrapped themselves up in this convenient excuse to give lawmakers a reason to stomp all over parental rights.

The conflict wasn’t between civil rights and parental rights. It was between parental rights and corporate rights. And our lawmakers sided with the corporations.

Let me be clear: legislators cannot be against opt out and in favor of individual rights.

The two are intimately connected.

Our schools have no business telling parents how to raise their kids. But our parents DO have a right to do the opposite. In fact, that’s how the system is supposed to work.

We, parents and citizens, control our schools – not you, our representatives. The principal can’t say you haven’t a right to opt out your kid. He’s just your representative. So is the teacher.

Everyone who works in the school is there to do what you want them to do for your child. Yes, they are well trained and have a world of knowledge and experience that we should draw on. And in most cases, they’re being forced to confront us by lawmakers who are tying their hands and directing them to do the dirty work.

We have common cause. We need to stand with our teachers and principals, our school boards and education professors. We need to stand together against lawmakers who think they know better.

In short, we don’t need lawmakers consent to opt out. They need our consent to stop us.

They get their power from us. They work for us.

And it’s time they get to work and rescind the annual testing mandate.

United Opt Out Conference Highlights Dual Role of Technology in Education

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Technology is the most powerful weapon we have against corporate education reform.

 

It is also our greatest foe.

 

Such were the remarks of Dr. Stephen Krashen at the United Opt Out Conference on Friday.

 

The linguist, educational researcher and activist gave the opening keynote address to hundreds of people who traveled to Philadelphia for the conference.

 

Krashen, who is known for his work on second language acquisition and bilingual education, has been a strong critic of the test and punish policies of the Barack Obama administration.

 

He warned the assembly of parents, students, teachers, professors and activists about the dangers of Competency Based Education (CBE), the next big thing in the movement to dumb down public schools.

 

CBE is touted as a way to reduce high stakes standardized testing by allowing students to work at their own pace while on various computer programs. However, Krashen sees this is an increase in testing.

 

In effect, it’s testing everyday. The computer programs used in CBE are little more than the same kinds of questions you’d see on a standardized test. An emphasis on CBE would replace a robust school curriculum with never-ending test preparation and multiple-choice assessment.

 

In the hands of a classroom teacher, technology can be an excellent tool to help kids learn. However, top-down policies like CBE only take away educators’ autonomy and turn them into mere facilitators of prepackaged materials of dubious quality.

 

He noted that the National Governors Association – an organization promoting CBE and Common Core State Standards – admits that there is no research supporting this new policy. But they’re suggesting we do it anyway. In fact, provisions to increase CBE are embedded in the new federal education law – the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).

 

He sees this as a massive boondoggle to swipe the $600 billion we spend on technology in schools. After all, CBE will require increasingly newer computers at every school that will need to be constantly replaced as they become obsolete.

 

Krashen quoted Gerald Bracey: “There’s a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things we shouldn’t be doing at all.”

 

There is light at the end of the tunnel though.

 

The same technology that is being used to pervert the education system can be used to help save it.

 

Krashen advised activists to use the power of social media to spread the word about CBE and other Trojan Horse reforms – policies that look like they’re helping children while actually hurting them.

 

“The Internet is our underground,” he said, “Facebook and Twitter are our weapons.”

 

Though policymakers and journalists rarely listen to experts like classroom teachers, the Internet allows us to spread our message. We don’t need anyone’s permission to speak up. We are all free to do so and should do it more often.

 

I know many people are scared to speak up, he said, but we can all educate ourselves about what’s happening and then share it and retweet it. We need to do more of this. We need to reach a critical mass. We need to show the world the truth and that it can’t be ignored and buried under the dominant media and political narrative being sold to the public as if it were truth.

 

These policies, while dangerous in and of themselves, also overshadow the real needs of our school children – namely devastating, generational poverty.

 

When Congress passes No Child Left Unfed, No Child Without Healthcare, and No Child Left Homeless, then when can talk about No Child Left Behind and Every Child Succeeds, he said.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about this issue, claiming that solving poverty would in turn solve any problems with education.

 

Krashen’s keynote was an exciting beginning to a conference that promises to be eye-opening, exciting and energizing to the community of people fighting to take back our schools from the oligarchy.


 

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