Grateful for Stories


What’s their story?

I was in California over the weekend with my husband and we had a surprise encounter with thousands of migrating monarch butteries wintering at a small grove of eucalyptus trees at Natural Bridges State Beach. We arrived when the sun was filtering through the leaves and warming the orange and black wings of these delicate creatures. Seeing thousands of butterflies wake up and begin fluttering through the grove filled me questions. Why are they there? How do they know where to go? Is one of the senior butterflies their director of story?

Seeing them made me think about the gala we attended on Friday evening and how I have a serious case of job title envy. My husband and I were at the Digital Innovation in Learning Award gala and heard the Karen Cator, the CEO of Digital Promise introduce the keynote speaker and his position within the company.  I thought I misunderstood what she said, and had to check the facts on their website.

Director of Story

Digital Promise believes in the power of story enough to actually have a person be a Director of Story. Not a Communications Director.  Not a Media Relations Specialist.

Director of Story.

I think that job title speaks volumes about the vision and uniqueness of this company whose dream is for all learners to have access to learning technology.

And a storyteller he is. Marco Torres spent the next 20 minutes illustrating how math and music can integrate through GarageBand and iPad orchestra. Within minutes he had created a musical composition without ever touching a “real” instrument. Then he shared his story of how some students in Geneva, Switzerland saw a similar demonstration and then proceeded to make their own version of Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel. You can view this incredible piece here:


What I took home from that gala event were the stories about amazing educators being recognized for doing amazing projects in their schools. Administrators bringing coding to entire school communities. Teachers finding ways to connect their students with peers around the world. Companies bringing cross-cultural and meaningful exchanges to school aged children. Everyone in the room had a story. Stories with heart. Stories with vision. Stories with children as the core element. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in the DILA gala event as one of the honorable mention award winners in the Busting Boundaries category because I could share the story of how my students have worked to make our world better through generosity and literature. Their story deserves to be heard.

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That story and those of our partners in Africa will continue to be heard in 2015-16 within the Microsoft Expert Educator program. Educators around the world have been celebrating for the last week after receiving their congratulations letter. Me too.

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My letter highlighted a spectacular week – acceptance into this amazing program, the DILA gala, and a Skype call across continents with 120 students from different cultures. I am grateful for the opportunities Microsoft has opened for me to meet and collaborate with teachers around the world and close to home.


I have been involved with the MIE program since 2012 and it has changed my life. I am not the teacher I used to be. I don’t regret the way I taught, but now I’m thrilled with how my lessons are evolving and integrating technology in meaningful ways. The world is coming inside my classroom without the need of a passport. This year my students will be making book trailers with students in Spain, writing cards and mini-stories with a teacher in Turkey, creating videos for students at a refugee camp in Kenya, plus continuing our Books to Africa program. All it takes is technology and a willingness to experiment and step outside the traditional box. I am not the extroverted person in the group and I certainly am not the most talented. I need quiet to re-charge my batteries and time to write. What I am willing to share is what my students want to say to the world. I am grateful that the MIE Expert Educator program has helped me find the voice for my students and myself through story, technology and education.

I am a teacher. I am a librarian. I am a Director of Story.


A Cross Continent Learning Round Up


What do you get when you combine 120 students in two classrooms in two different continents to share their research? A cross continent learning round up of course!


This morning (7:30 am Seattle) and afternoon (5:30pm Durban) our two schools – Cougar Ridge Elementary in Bellevue, Washington, USA and Highbury Preparatory School in Hillcrest, South Africa made the world a little smaller via Skype.

Our students walked into the library with breakfast and the boys at Highbury were looking forward to a South African “braai” which is similar to our barbeque. Their head master (principal) was cooking a special kind of sausages for all the 5th grade boys.

The head master of Highbury cooks boerewors (sausages) while the boys Skyped with us.

The head master of Highbury cooks boerewors (sausages) while the boys Skyped with us.

These students broke down the physical classroom walls and connected virtually for nearly an hour. Their conversations crossed two continents and 13,000 miles. It’s a perfect diagonal line between our schools from the northwest corner of the US to the southeast corner of Africa!


What did they talk about? Fun topics that kids are interested in like what does your school look like, what kind of classes do you take, what can you play on outside during recess and breaks, what sports do you play, what are your favorite books or where do you go to get some fast food?

This student dressed for the part as he did a quick explanation of American football and our Seattle Seahawks.

When the librarian Louise MacLeod, technologist Desiree Dunstone and I spoke at Highbury in July, we agreed that our goal was for our students to get to know each other as peers and therefore, the topics they would research and share needed to be kid-friendly. We divided up our 5th grade classes into groups, assigned topics, and the students got busy. For the past 5-6 weeks, the teams have been collaborating and collecting information to share with their counterpart classrooms. Today was celebration and share day!


Topic by topic team representatives spoke via Skype sharing pieces of their cultures with one another. With only an hour  and 22 topics, we couldn’t go in depth on camera. Each team was only able to share a sentence or two of the highlights of the research. However, with OneDrive, we are able to share the complete research projects with each other and will use class time to view the student work in our respective schools.


“We like going to Starbucks and MacDonalds.”

It turns out we both enjoy going to MacDonalds and KFC! Starbucks isn’t in Durban yet, but we both have Burger King. One group also helped us understand what the Durban “bunnychow” is (a bread and curry sandwich).


KFC is popular in Durban.



A camera, computer, Skype and a great internet connection brings students from different cultures together.

We learned about the Big 5 animals and how there is a serious poaching problem of white rhinos in South Africa. The rhinos are killed for their tusks which are then sold to people in other countries who believe the tusks have medicinal qualities. This group in the video explains that the African elephants have ears shaped like the continent of Africa.

I’ve never taken on a Skype experience on this scale before, but I can say it was worth every second of preparation time. I have listened to the excitement build for weeks and then to see students connecting with each other today was priceless. This morning we were all a little nervous and a lot excited before our call began. Yet, the nerves melted away as everyone discovered we are all the same – just separated by continent. These virtual connections make the world a smaller place and bring the learning inside – without borders. It was hard to say goodbye and I know this is the first of many learning opportunities our students will make.

"Thank you Highbury Prep!"

“Thank you Highbury Prep!”

If you want to learn more about how you can use Skype in the Classroom, visit the website. Join the Skype-a-Thon on December 3-4, 2015 and be part of a global movement to celebrate learning without borders. If you would like to learn more about our connection with Highbury Prep and Books to Africa program, here is a post about my trip to South Africa, a video , and a recap of three years of friendship.

Punctuation, Research and Halloween Fun!


For week #4 of the Global Read Aloud Amy Krouse Rosenthal author study, we laughed our way through exclamation mark. This punctuation mark doesn’t understand why he is so different from the periods, until he meets question mark. Her rapid fire questions irritate him so much, he finally yells for her to STOP! In that moment he discovers his voice and learns that his uniqueness is his gift! Again, Rosenthal weaves the concepts of individuality into seemingly silly books, adding a layer of depth to each. Is it a book about an exclamation mark or it is more?


When it comes to Halloween books, I still love my favorite 13 Nights of Halloween by Rebecca Dickinson. There are other versions now, but this goody from 1996 has such detailed illustrations, that I can’t let it go. I also add a little spin to it but singing it to the tune of “12 days of Christmas”. If you ever find this out of print goodie, pick it up.


The fifth graders have spent their class time for the past month researching information about our school, the area, favorite grocery stores, landmarks, facts about Seattle and Washington as well as other related topics. They are creating mini-reports to share digitally with the level 5 students at Highbury Preparatory School in Hillcrest, South Africa. Hillcrest is a suburb of Durban, on the northern east coast of South Africa.


This school is one of our partners in my Books to Africa literacy program delivering books we send to neighboring schools who need books for their libraries. On November 19th, the 5th graders have the option of participating in a before school Skype call to share the results of their research and virtually meet their partners 10,000 miles away. I can’t wait to see my friends again, even if it is through a computer!


Finally it was Friday- Book Character Day! Despite a storm that knocked power out for two hours, the hallways and classes were filled with smiling faces. Who can resist a little literary fun at school? Certainly not the students, or the teachers. Here are a few of the costumes I saw during the day.

The week ended with the PTSA sponsored Spooky Spaghetti evening. Volunteers spent countless hours turning our school into a monster zone.


The Dads set up dinner, made all the spaghetti and served to over 700 spooky guests!






Next week the monsters will be back for our annual Scholastic Bookfair! Books go on sale Tuesday through Friday. Students can shop during the day and after school. There are extended hours and a movie night on Thursday. Due to the set up of the fair, students will not be able to checkout books. Everyone can keep their books for an extra week.
Often at this time of year people wonder how they can help others in need. We have the answer! We have local and global literacy programs to promote reading.
Our student council is collecting new books or change from your purchases to buy new books for the children at Swedish Hospital. The new Books to Africa program is also accepting cash donations from pennies to ??? which will be used to buy postage to send boxes of gently used books to our partners in Africa.
We hope to see you all there!

Fair is Not Equal

 Pre-"WHOOSH!" lukexmartin via Compfight

As I scanned the room, I could see that every hand was in the air. I had asked my students to raise their hand if they had ever said or heard someone else say, “That’s Not Fair!” No surprises to my eyes, or to a parent volunteer in the room who said, “I hear it everyday at my house”. What is fair or not fair, was the topic of Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s book for week 3 for the author study in The Global Read Aloud.

In this very amusing book, the characters whine about the unfairness of not having something another character has. The koala bear is unhappy about always being on the bottom tree-limb bunk, a child is angry because he can’t have a pet giraffe, a girl is sad because she has to wear glasses and the pig is angry because the bird took all the wings. The babies are crying because nothing is the same. Every situation is unfair, unfair, unfair.

Or, is it?

Krouse’s book is the perfect introduction about the definition of fairness vs. equality. Is fairness when everyone has the same thing? Is it good when we are always treated equally?


We talked about the definition of equal means that everyone gets exactly the same thing. For example, everyone get a fork to use to eat their food, or everyone gets a bandaide for their cut. These examples work until we think about the people who use chopsticks to eat and they have been given a fork to use. Is it fair or equal that the utensil they received is exactly like everyone else’s when what they really need is a pair of chopsticks?

Fairness on the other hand is when everyone gets what they need in order to be successful.

This definition is not easy to understand at first. In class, I used the example of eyeglasses to illustrate the concept. I wear glasses to see and in every class, there was at least one or two students who also need glasses. We need glasses. If we don’t have glasses, we can’t see.  Then I posed the question, “Would it be fair or equal, if every student in class was told that they also had to wear glasses because I wear them?” We talked about their answers and they began to understand the difference.


Then I handed out a bandaid to each student. I asked them to point to a part on their body where they have been cut in the past and needed a bandage. We pretended to put the bandage on that part of their body to illustrate that it was fair for each person to put the bandaid on different parts of their bodies because it was where they needed it. However, then I asked them to put the bandage on the back of their hand in a place I decided what right. The students quickly understood that this situation was equal, but not fair because they couldn’t put the bandage where they needed it.

At the end of the lesson, I followed up with the sentence that I will always be fair in how I treat students, but it won’t always feel equal, and that’s okay. Next week, we will learn about punctuation marks with the book Exclamation Mark, and slip in a favorite Halloween book as well!

Next week is also a Global Read Aloud Random Acts of Kindness week. Amy Krouse Rosenthal wanted to contribute to events for GRA15 and came up with the idea. You can read more about it on the GRA blog post here. Amy has videos with kindness ideas you can try at home and at school. What kindness will you spread? If you are a student, make sure you talk to your family and have them part of the conversation. Please use the hashtag #GRAK15 to share your ideas and acts! Leave a comment and let me know how it goes!

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What do you see?


For week 2 in the Global Read Aloud 2015 we read Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (illustrator). Is the illustration a duck or is it a rabbit? It really depends on your point of view and what you see. This funny picture book helps children understand that there are two sides to every story and sometimes we need to look at another point of view. Here’s a video with a short version of the book.

thX32D94U2After we read the book, we gathered data about how many of us saw a duck or a rabbit and the reasons why using evidence from the text of the book.


Then the students colored their own paper if they thought it was a duck or a rabbit.

We also tweeted with our friends in Klein, Texas as our classes tried to figure out if the drawings were ducks or rabbits. Because the intent of the Global Read Aloud project is to build connections around the country and globe, I have started a Cougar Ridge Twitter account. We talk about our lessons with other library classes. Follow us at @CRidgeLibrary
duck tweets
With the third graders, we took it up a notch and studied some common optical illusion drawings. Sometimes it is not easy to see the two views of a drawing.


In the drawing below there is an old man and a young man. I could not see the young man and it took numerous students coming forward to try to explain how to see the young man. To be truthful, I was ready to give up, but the students wouldn’t let me. Finally two students helped me break through my optical illusion block.  My cheer of “I see it!” made everyone laugh! Can you see both?

I was thrilled when after our lesson students found the optical illusion books to check out! I would also like to thank Kelly at for the Duck! Rabbit! lesson ideas posted on Pinterest. Next week we will be reading about what is fair in the book That’s Not Fair!

Chop, Chop, Chop!

How are you at using Chopsticks? We got some great practice last week after we read the book Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. This book about how two chopsticks learn about independence  when one chopstick breaks his “stick” and then can’t do everything with his partner while he’s resting and healing. It’s a book about chopsticks, friendship, independence and learning new skills.


Chopsticks is book one in our six week Amy Krouse Rosenthal author study. Amy was chosen as the featured author in the 2015 Global Read Aloud program. This project started October 5th and will run for approximately 6 weeks.  The idea behind it is very simple; teachers around the world read the same book aloud to their students and then use technology to share the reading experience with these other classrooms.  It is a free project and it fits perfectly into the standards we have to cover.

During the project, our class will be reading and connecting with students around the world who are reading the same book.  We will use technology tools such as Twitter and this blog to facilitate these connections and conversations.

The founder, Permille Ripp, a teacher in Wisconsin, started “GRA” in 2010 with one goal in mind: Connect the world with one book. Now it’s grown to over 500,000 children in 60+ countries around the world.  This project will allow for our students to use technology tools in a meaningful way, as well as learn about other cultures, all while listening to a fantastic read aloud.

Our school is one of the red markers hovering over Washington. There is only 1 marker per state or country. Each week we will be reading one of the selected picture books and then connecting with other classrooms around the world via Twitter. Students will get an authentic global experience by talking about books with other librarians and students.

Speaking of connections – we have a new school Twitter account! This account is only for our library classroom use only. If you are a family member,  teacher or librarian with a designated library/classroom account, please follow us. Search for @CRidgeLibrary and you will see our #GRA15 updates live from our library.


Families who would like to participate at home can also join the GRA movement. I highly suggest you visit the Global Read Aloud website. You will find the books chosen per grade level and connections you can make with the books and sometimes the authors.

Happy Reading!

Intro to Makerspaces


Our students had their first introduction to Makerspaces in the Library. Makerspace in the library is all about dreaming, creating and inventing. The activities focus on  Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art and Math.  Think Legos, K’Nex, Cardboard creations, origami, LED light crafts, 3D MagnaTiles. Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher on Twitter, recently published an article Essential Information on Maker Movement on her blog explaining what the Makerspace Movement is all about.   Sylvia Martinez, coauthor of Invent to Learn, also believes libraries are perfect places for makerspaces. Students can come to a safe learning environment and have the freedom to create and experiment.

This is our first year with Makerspaces in my new library, but my second year using it as a librarian. You can read more about other blog posts here, here and here. In our introductory experience, I opened stations with 3D MagnaTiles, Legos, Snap Circuits, Coding, Magformers, Ozobot Mini-robot, and plastic cups. Students listened to the story Press Here by Herve Tullet, which is such an amazing example of creativity and simplicity in early children’s literature,and then they had time for Makerspace and check out time. Here are some images from the week.image image image image










Judging from the enthusiasm of the students all week, Makerspaces will be a fun learning addition to our library curriculum.

Book Care Funny Videos


Hurray! Everyone is checking out library books and taking them home to read. We have also been learning about book care rules to make sure they don’t get damaged when they go home. To help out, the second graders made some Sock Puppet and ChatterPix videos in the iPad. We hope you enjoy our latest funny book care videos!

Keep your books away from siblings!

Keep your books out of the rain!

Please don’t take your library books outside on the playground!

Please don’t eat near your books!

Please don’t step on your books!

Keep your books away from little sisters!

Thank you second graders for helping us learn these important rules!

All endings are beginnings


It never fails to be true. Life happens. Not always the way you planned.


Most of you know I spent three weeks in South Africa this summer visiting the schools where we send books for our Books to Africa project. The trip was life-changing for me. In both of the impoverished schools I visited, the only books the children had to read were the ones we have sent. The impact our students are making on the education of these children is real.

If you would like to read more, I published a post on the Bulldog Reader Blog The principal at Pula Madibogo Primary School  also published a video on YouTube about our experience there together.  I left South Africa inspired to do more for these children.

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On the way home however, my life took an unexpected turn. I received an invitation to come back to teach in the Issaquah School district. When you are squished like a sardine in the back of a plane for 14 hours, you have a lot of time to think. I love teaching at Bell. I love the students. I love the staff. I love the parents and Bell community. Sadly, one thing stands in the way – my commute. Driving to school from Sammamish has been taking up to 1 hour each way. The day after I returned home, I applied for the position.


Last week I accepted the offer to be the new librarian at Cougar Ride Elementary School. They are looking forward to adopting the Books to Africa program into their school activities as well. As sad as I am to leave Bell, the decision to teach in my home district feels right. If circumstances were different, I wouldn’t even be writing this blog post.

Working with all of you at Bell has made the days and years fly by. You have always supported my ideas to make the library a great place for kids to learn. Bell has a fantastic community of readers. I learned the ropes of librarianship at Bell and will cherish the memories from my years there.

I know another librarian will come to Bell who is the perfect match for the school. This person will be your new beginning. After all, all stories have a beginning, middle and an end. I hope the Books to Africa will continue at Bell as well.

Thank you for being part of my story. Check back to this blog too. It may make some kind of transition, but it’s not ending.

Mrs. Hembree

10 Takeaways from My Literacy trip to South Africa

IMG_5578I spent countless hours reading to my daughter and showing her by example how joyful reading can be. She is now what I call a joyful 21st century reader. She reads eBooks while exercising on the treadmill. I still sit with my hardcopy book on the couch because I need to touch the pages. What we have in common is experiences with reading because it’s a valued part of our family’s culture.One of the greatest trips of my life ended a week ago when I returned from a three week trip visiting our Books to Africa partnership schools in South Africa. Adjectives like amazing, extraordinary and life-changing only begin to describe my reaction to this experience. Instead of searching for more descriptive words, I thought I’d list my top 10 takeaways of my literacy trip.

1. South African people are generous and caring.

When I began planning this trip from home, my partner teachers quickly stepped in with ideas of where to stay and what to do. Once I landed on South African soil, I was overwhelmed by the generosity and thoughtfulness of everyone I met. From the owners of the guest lodges where I stayed to the teachers who took care of me – everyone stepped way beyond the boundaries of being nice. The side trips to Soweto and the Lion Park, the authentic dinners in teachers’ homes, the trip to see the Natal Midlands and Nelson Mandela’s Capture site, the visit to the Indian Market and beach front in Durban and the extraordinary weekend at the game park each contributed to making my experience epic and came from the generosity of those incredible teachers.

2. Students are the same throughout the world.

When I visited each school, I thought the same thing. The only thing that separates students in South Africa with ones in the US is geography and circumstances. No matter where I went, I found students who wanted to learn. They listened to stories or watched book trailers with the same enthusiasm as my students at home. I think actually I saw more students interested in doing their best school than students at home because of their difficult circumstances. Students who live in extreme poverty know education is their key to a better life.

3. Teachers deserve medals for their efforts.

I visited two very impoverished schools in South Africa – one in the Limpopo Province and the other in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Teachers in both schools handle overcrowded classrooms on a daily basis. Here we complain bitterly when our class sizes reach 30-35. There I taught in classrooms where the average was 60 students per classroom. One class had 78 children squeezed into a room build for 30 students. How do you maintain control, teach effectively and find the time to assess all these children? How do you know your students as unique individuals when they are one in 60? I’m still looking for the answer to that question.

4. Inequality of school conditions is astounding.

I wish I could say it didn’t exist, but from my experience I saw a huge discrepancy between the conditions of schools in town and in rural townships. Apartheid has been over since 1994, but this country is divided into two parts -those with and those without. Schools in rural areas have old buildings with broken windows and floors with holes you have to side-step to get inside the classroom. In the city I saw schools with interactive whiteboards and large inside lunchrooms. In the rural countryside, teachers still use chalkboards and the support staff cook lunch outside in open flame kitchens. I heard teachers from both sides of the line say it’s hard for every child to have a high quality education when the conditions of schools are so different.

5. Teachers inspire learning by example.

My friend and principal, Phuti Ragophala has a saying at her school: Make Every child a Star. When her school opened in 1966, it had 66 students, 4 classrooms and 2 teachers. Now in 2015, it has 1252 students, 21 classrooms and 34 teachers. The classrooms are crowded, but the children hear every day that they are valued – that they are each a star in their own right. Teachers inspire their students with how they dress, walk, talk and teach. They are grooming stars and future leaders and take this job seriously.

6. Reading for enjoyment is a new concept.

I spent countless hours reading to my daughter and showing her by example how joyful reading can be. She is now what I call a joyful 21st century reader. She reads eBooks while exercising on the treadmill. I still sit with my hardcopy book on the couch because I need to touch the pages. What we have in common is experiences with reading because it’s a valued part of our family’s culture. However, the concept of reading for enjoyment seemed to be new to the children I worked with. Their cultures emphasize oral storytelling, and having books at home to read for enjoyment is vastly different from reading a workbook to complete homework assignment. When I read stories aloud to children in the classrooms or outside on the terrace, the children were hungry for more. Children need and want stories.

7. The children need books for their school libraries.

My school has sent hundreds of books to the children at our partner schools. Naively, I thought these would supplement the books they already had in their libraries. Nope, nada, not even close. There are no other books. At one school, I discovered the library in plastic tubs in the school office. The only books they have are the ones we’ve sent over the past 18 months. It’s hard to create a reading climate when you don’t have books to read. The teachers are embracing the idea that “Readers are leaders and leaders are readers.”

8. Teachers want to learn new teaching techniques.

I was nervous about whether teachers would accept me as an equal when I visited their schools. I didn’t want to go in as the American know-it-all and alienate my peers. What happened is the teachers asked me for ideas on how to use story books in lessons. They asked me for tips on integrating technology in schools with limited technology and internet access. They asked me how they could use the materials given to them by the government because they hadn’t had training on how to implement them in the classroom. In most cases, the teachers asked to see different teaching techniques. You can’t change if you aren’t given the tools. The teachers want the tools.

9. This program needs to grow.

As I left one of the schools, a couple teachers and many students said something that’s ingrained in my memory. “Don’t go home and forget us. We need your help!” Our work in these specific schools is having an amazing impact on their education. Somehow, I need to grow the program, so we can send them more reading materials. I’m a teacher, not a fundraising guru, so I definitely need advice and help from others on how to make our Books to Africa more impactful. If you have ideas, please share them!

 10. Animals are amazing.

I saved the animal take-away for last because it was the last thing I did in South Africa. Rod and Desire Dunstone with Louise MacLeod, three of those generous people from lesson #1, took me for a weekend to the Hluhluwe Imfolozi Game Park in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal. These two reserves have over 120,000 acres of land for animals to live and roam naturally. Rod drove us for hours down the red-dirt roads and patiently stopped every time I squealed, “Stop! I need a picture please.” I was overjoyed with every rhino, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, warthog, zebra and antelope sighting. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go to a zoo again after seeing giraffes nonchalantly eat leaves from a tree only a few feet away from our vehicle. Between the Lion Park in Johannesburg and this game park, I was able to see 4 of the African Big 5 animals: lion, elephant, buffalo, and rhino. Maybe next time I’ll see a leopard!

Yes, this trip is one I will never forget. I just don’t want to call it a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip because I want to go back. Here is a short video of the highlights.

Phuti Ragophala, Principal of Pula Madibogo Primary School in Limpopo Province, also made a video of our collaboration.