Questions about Running Feedback Sessions

Introduction

I recently worked on an intensive two-week course for teacher trainers. 33 teachers from Lebanon were learning (about) trainer skills, qualities and thinking. Each of them in turns experienced leading one group feedback session with a group of peers. After two or three lessons followed by a feedback sessions we (trainers of trainers) were facilitating reflection on a so-called ‘feedback on feedback’ session where we reflected on the process, content, strengths, challenges, solutions, doubts, questions, and many more exciting things related to the art of giving and receiving feedback.

The post below is based on one of the last ‘feedback on feedback’ sessions where each participant (trainer being trained) received one question card and had to ask two other peers (ideally, with different points of view) about their own answers. During the session, we never had time to discuss the results in-depth, so I hope that this post below might become some sort of ‘summary’ or wrap up for that session. (some of my course participants might be reading this post, which I am excited about!)

I am sharing the questions below, adding some context and/or background to explain why the question was there, and then writing some of my own answers/thoughts, etc.

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  1. Side conversations during a feedback session: do they need to be managed? If yes, how? If not, why not?

Background/context: in a group of 6+ participants, it is sometimes hard to keep everyone’s attention on the people who are talking. Sometimes peers start to talk (in whispers). Sometimes it is about the subject of the discussion. Sometimes it is L1, or English (or L3!)

Zhenya’s thoughts: I am still trying to formulate my belief about this. On the one hand, I like quiet working atmosphere, especially at the time when a peer is sharing their important learning after teaching. My idea scenario would be a group of people who are listening quietly and making notes (to ask questions later) On the other hand, our world is not ideal and there are often questions or ideas that are ‘burning’ and need to be shared. It also depends on the culture I am in a lot. How can the ‘ideal’ be ‘merged’ with reality? Still thinking…

  1. ‘What if’ [statements] as a way to give feedback: advantages and disadvantages for participant learning.

Background/context: I heard sentences like this on that day ‘What if you had 30 students, not 6 — the instructions would have to be very different’ ‘ What if your students were of different age…’.

Zhenya’s thoughts: I strongly believe in feedback on the lesson everyone saw, with the number and age of students we actually had. I don’t think ‘what if’ can help much, especially the teacher who gave the lesson and is expecting to learn from everyone’s feedback. I heard a nice differentiation between the two kinds of sessions: a feedback on the lesson taught, and a discussion on teaching (in general). If there is time for both — wonderful. If there is only one thing to choose, then it would be feedback/reflection to me.

  1. ‘You did not do ________’ or ‘You could have done ________‘ . Which stage of the Experiential Learning Cycle is it (if any)? How might feedback starting with these help/hinder participant learning?

Background/context: During the course we (trainers and participants) practiced giving feedback to each other using the ELC, which means starting with a clear and as objective as possible description of what happened in the moment you think is/was crucial for student learning. This detailed description is followed by analysis of possible multiple reasons why the moment might have been (less) helpful for the student learning on that day, by generalizations/conclusions based on this learning. The final step of the cycle is formulating clear action plan based on the point discussed. It took me 3 minutes to type this, but it sometimes takes years to fully grasp the technique.

Zhenya’s thoughts: If you believe in the power of the ELC for giving and receiving feedback as much as I do, you will easily guess that starting your reflection with the words ‘You did not do ________’ or ‘You could have done ________’ is not description, but mostly analysis. It might even be a ‘hidden’ generalization’ or belief I would like to impose on you (when I say you did not do something, I believe you should have done it, because it helps learning). The form of such feedback might be not the most helpful for the teacher, as it comes from the speaker’s belief, not from the observed lesson or observed student behavior or reaction.

  1. How might trainer contributions (ideas, opinions, suggestions, etc.) help/hinder participant learning?

Background/context: it is a question about whether or not a trainer needs/has to add their own opinion about the lesson seen. I am aware that there are training courses where it is an absolute must, and trainer needs to grade the observed lesson according to stated criteria. The course I am training on is more open to teacher’s own beliefs and ideas, and is based on the idea of individual learning pace and specific context of the culture where the course is taught.

Zhenya’s thoughts: based on the description above, one can already guess my idea (no insisting on ‘the’ right answer and not imposing my opinion on a teacher) I must add, however, that a participant still receives my detailed written notes on the lesson plan and observation notes on everything happened in class. The question above is mainly about sharing or not during the group feedback session on a lesson.

  1. How can a trainer find out what a participant would like to receive feedback on?

Zhenya’s answer: by talking with the teacher before the lesson, or by reading his/her action points in the written lesson plan, or even by asking during the feedback session. This might also help with the decision/answer to the previous question above!

  1. What are some (possible) advantages and disadvantages of letting a participant finish a (much) longer lesson during a training course?

Background/context: there is a ‘fixed’ number of minutes during a training course (for example, each of the 3 participants have 40 minutes to deliver their part of the lesson). Having one lesson 5 minutes longer, for example, means that the other two teachers have less time. The question is about the decision trainer needs to make about the teacher whose lesson is clearly in progress well after the end of those xx minutes.

Zhenya’s thoughts: Letting the teacher finish might bring a useful discussion about the realistic planning, setting clear objectives, respect and cooperation in the team, etc. Stopping the teacher might help him/her see the importance of timing for the whole group, and might help the other teachers feel better. I don’t think I have a clear answer to myself. No recipe yet — much depends on a culture, on personality, even on students!

  1. If a lesson on a training course was longer than the time allotted, what might it tell us about the learning objective of the lesson?

Background/context: similar to (6) above

Zhenya’s thoughts: most likely, the objectives was not realistic for the students to achieve in this time slot. There also might be challenges less anticipated (such as the number of students, attendance, new students in the group, etc.) – which will now help the whole group to plan better for the future! 🙂

  1. Who are participants talking to during a feedback session: the trainer, the teacher who taught, everyone in the group? How might the choice impact participant learning?

Zhenya’s answer: in the ideal situation, I would prefer to have a friendly group discussion where people are addressing their feedback to the teacher who taught the lesson (i.e. receiving feedback) and not reporting to the trainer. It works for me for several reasons: it is less a conversation about ‘what is right or wrong’ but more about ‘what I saw in class’ and often becomes softer, kinder, and more relaxed. I find the situation where participants ‘report’ to the trainer in front of the teacher less comfortable for me (perhaps even more so for the teacher?)

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  1. How might asking each and every participant in the group about a moment that was successful/less successful help/hinder (a) the teacher learning, (b) the group learning and ( c) the focus of feedback?

Zhenya’s thoughts: letting everyone participate in the feedback session makes a lot of sense (otherwise, why are we doing it in a group?) On the other hand, making everyone speak and pushing an answer even if a person is clearly not ready might not make it the most productive time for a group. There are natural ‘talkers’ and those who need a gently invitation to speak (‘in the next round, let those who kept silent contribute’ is something I might say)

  1. How can Trainer prioritize the focus during the feedback session to help the teacher and the group learn?

Background/context: there is often to talk about during a feedback session; the notes written are very detailed and often take more than 2 full pages of text. The notes of the observers are also very detailed. The more experienced the teachers are (and the closer it is to the end of the course) the more they notice and are eager to talk about) How can we prioritize?

Zhenya’s answer: the key for me is what the teacher wants to start with, and what his/her questions would be. I might have written miles of text, but if the specific question focuses on the concrete 5 minutes of the lesson, let’s talk about them! After all the notes will be shared with the teacher after the feedback session.

  1. Leadership and/or Authority during a feedback session: Teacher? Trainer? Peers? None of these? Why?

Zhenya’s answer: the part about ‘leading’ or ‘running’ a feedback session indicates that there is a ‘leader’ (or trainer) in the room. On the other hand, working with experienced teachers often means that the trainer can’t become a pure ‘authority’ in the room knowing all the ‘right’ answers. Managing who is talking, making sure everyone is on time (as a group), leaving enough time for each teacher who taught on that day — those are some of the things I am doing during a session. Some, but not all…

What other questions are you asking yourself about giving and receiving feedback? What answers above do you disagree with (or have a slightly different perspective to add)? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments — or perhaps on your blog?

Further reading

Larry Porter’s article is one of my favorite on this subject Giving and Receiving Feedback: it will never be easy, but it can get better

The Key to Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback from Harvard Business Review’s blog is another good read I recently found.

About Zhenya

teacher educator, evidence-based instruction trainer, PD Coach https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/
This entry was posted in Trainer Reflections and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Questions about Running Feedback Sessions

  1. Hana Tichá says:

    Such a wonderful set of thought-provoking questions, Zhenya!

    About three years ago, I was a teacher trainee myself, and apart from delivering my own lessons, I was required to give feedback on my co- trainee’s performances. Also, one of my responsibilities now is to observe my colleagues, so I can connect to all your questions. Here are some of my random thoughts:

    For me, the most sensitive part is the you-might-have/why-didn’t-you bit. No matter how good your intentions are, asking these questions may be interpreted as patronizing. Don’t expect a recipe from me, though; I myself struggle with this part, both as a recipient of feedback and its provider.

    Regarding prioritizing during feedback, I’d suggest focusing on one issue at a time (in case there’s too much to discuss); and it can be something different each time. Once it can be the trainees’ board work, the next time it can be error correction, for example.

    I agree that talking to the participants, not the trainer, encourages a ‘softer’ feedback. We all know that it’s easier to criticize indirectly. If you have to look the listener straight in the eye, your discourse is likely to be more friendly, too.

    As for side conversations. I’d try to keep them to a minimum. They can be really annoying, both for the speaker and the other listeners. I know what I’m talking about; there are some notorious chatterboxes in ours staffroom, who ‘side talk’ (very loudly!) all the time during meetings.

    Instead of *leader*, I’d prefer to use the term *moderator*. Moderators are authorities, to a certain extent, but usually not in a superior way.

    I’m with you when you say that letting people contribute as much as they are willing to has its advantages. Teacher trainers are adults after all so they can handle this pretty well on their own. Still, if I came across someone too dominant, I’d probably interfere as a trainer. But otherwise I’d let things flow naturally.

    Well, I’d better stop or I’ll spend the rest of the day commenting 🙂 I hope I didn’t sound too patronizing 🙂

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    I meant: Teacher *trainees* are adults after all so they can handle this pretty well on their own. 🙂 Sorry.

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    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Hana

      Thank you for the great input – I was so curious if the questions would make any sense to someone outside the course I was referring to, and to my relief, your comment proved that it is ‘readable’! Also, a quick one re sounding patronizing: I don’t think you did, and I don’t think the idea of sharing our views as trainers/supervisors can be interpreted as such (at least, not in the context we are trying to see things, namely, helping other teachers develop)

      Now, some of my responses to you thoughts:

      Re: ‘you-might-have/why-didn’t-you bit. No matter how good your intentions are, asking these questions may be interpreted as patronizing’ – agree 100%, and try to avoid using these as much as I can. My course participants would be able to prove if I am telling the truth 🙂 Yes, that’s my recipe about those: avoid them.

      You wrote: ‘We all know that it’s easier to criticize indirectly.’ – I think it is true for the cultures we represent (Ukraine, Czech) and is possibly true for others. Will keep exploring this further.

      I love your term *moderator* instead of a *leader*! It is like having a ‘peer leadership’ – almost temporarily. Very cool, a keeper for me in the future courses!

      So very true about the thin balance between moderating a discussion, treating adults like adults, and interfering, for the sake of group learning. Something I am still learning to do in class.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts Hana – no, not patronizing at all! If you keep thinking about this and have something else to add, please do. If there is a question you had, or still have about giving and/or receiving feedback, would be cool to discuss it!

      Zhenya 🙂

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      • Hana Tichá says:

        I think that every teacher can relate to your post, no matter if they are (planning to be) teacher trainers or not. At some point, we will all have to give feedback to our younger colleagues, for example. In a way, we’ll become their trainers for a while. So these are really useful questions to consider. By the way, regarding the edit above: by teacher trainees, I actually meant trainer trainees. 😀 Is that correct? Looks confusing to me; trainees will suffice, I guess.

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        • Zhenya says:

          Yes, a confusing moment in terminology, I agree! 🙂 We were using ‘trainers being trained’ on the course (can’t say it’s shorter though!) Thank you for your supporting and positive attitude!
          🙂

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  3. Amal says:

    Thanks Zhenya fir taking the time to answer the questions. I found especially helpful how you presented the ELC. This framework, though might sound simple at first encounter does require a lot of thinking time at first but with practice one gains automatic in going through th le different stages. Practicing ‘descibing’ at the beginning of a reflection session requires patience and trains one to think more objectivity.

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    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Amal

      I like how you put it about describing: ‘requires patience and trains one to think more objectively’. What’s interesting, sometimes only description can already be enough to see/notice student learning, or opportunity for it.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!
      Zhenya

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  4. Linda-Marie says:

    Thank you Zhenya, for providing an opportunity to reflect on these questions that I also share about feedback. Here are some of my thoughts:

    1. Side conversations during a feedback session: do they need to be managed? If yes, how? If not, why not?

    My feeling about this is unequivocal: It’s a rare gift to receive this kind of feedback from peers. While a participant is receiving feedback, s/he is very vulnerable. Side conversations imply a lack of both respect and interest in the teacher who is receiving feedback. What’s more: I wonder whether the side conversations serves as an alternative outlet for important observations about the lesson, “sanitizing” the shared feedback session, and depriving the teacher and everyone else of the benefit of those observations.

    2. ‘What if’ [statements] as a way to give feedback: advantages and disadvantages for participant learning.

    Regarding sentences like this: “What if you had 30 students, not 6 — the instructions would have to be very different…” While in general I agree that feedback should be focused on the lesson we saw, I also believe the feedback is for everyone to learn from, not just the teacher who taught the lesson. It sometimes happens that what worked in that lesson is something that wouldn’t be a good model for most of the teachers to follow. For example, let’s say the teacher realized they wouldn’t have time to finish their whole lesson plan, so they skipped two activities and went directly to their final “fluency” activity. In this case, it worked because students were ready for it. But I don’t want to leave teachers with the generalization “when time is short, it’s best to skip to the end.” I want to be sure they realize that the key to their decision about what to cut should be based on what students need, and in many cases, it would be best to give students more scaffolded practice, and abandon the planned final activity. In this case, I might use a “What if” question to clarify the generalization: “When time is short, it’s best to decide what the students need, and do that.”

    3. ‘You did not do ________’ or ‘You could have done ________‘ . Which stage of the Experiential Learning Cycle is it (if any)? How might feedback starting with these help/hinder participant learning?

    I think we all have a natural human tendency to lead with our generalizations and action plans. Sometimes they may help, if the teacher sees a meaningful connection between her experience and the “You did not ______,” but it’s also possible that it will hinder the teacher, because it isn’t expressed in terms of the evidence from the classroom, and it’s framed in terms of the teacher’s failure to do something. My response to this sort of statement is “That sounds like analysis. What did you observe that led you to that interpretation?” I often find that a robust description will open up the possibility of multiple interpretations, including the one that was offered initially. Since I believe that this is where the magic happens in the ELC, I want to be sure participants experience and notice the generative power of beginning with description and not jumping to conclusions.

    4. How might trainer contributions (ideas, opinions, suggestions, etc.) help/hinder participant learning?

    I agree with you, Zenya, that it’s not necessary for the trainer to make suggestions during feedback that the participant will receive in written observation notes. But I do often make a note of something recurrent in several teachers’ lessons, and bring that up so that all can benefit. For example, I may have noticed that several teachers gave instructions before they had gotten everyone’s attention. I’ll often do it at the end of the feedback session. Or in a case where the teacher is feeling pained about a lesson that didn’t go the way she hoped, this may be what I offer during feedback, saying I noticed it in X’s and Y’s lesson at particular moments too, emphasizing that it’s something we all can learn from, and I include myself in that. It’s my hope that mentioning something that hinders, but that many teachers struggle with, helps that teacher feel that she’s not alone; she’s in a community of learners.

    6. What are some (possible) advantages and disadvantages of letting a participant finish a (much) longer lesson during a training course?

    About # 6 and #7 – deciding what to do when a participant’s lesson isn’t finished within the allotted time: This is a struggle for me, too. I want to be fair to the teachers who follow, but I also find that if I take responsibility for ending lessons on time, the participants will continue to rely on me to do it. So sometimes, it’s best to let the teacher go overtime, a little, so that all of them realize that they have responsibilities to one another, in hopes that in future they will self-monitor and monitor one another. Interestingly, when I leave it to the teachers, they will most often cede time to their peers. When that happens, I try to get them to teach in a different order the next time.
    7. If a lesson on a training course was longer than the time allotted, what might it tell us about the learning objective of the lesson?

    I am so glad you raise this question about the learning objective, because I have tended to see this problem as a function of spending too much time on something earlier in the lesson, or getting side-tracked, or unrealistic allowance for how much time each step will take.

    Now I want to look at the Learning Objective too, as you suggest. (Is it SMART? Is it achievable in the allotted time?) I’m beginning a course with practice teaching and feedback next week: I’ll see if looking at the objective leads to different interpretations about what makes a lesson too long.

    8. Who are participants talking to during a feedback session: the trainer, the teacher who taught, everyone in the group? How might the choice impact participant learning?

    Interesting how you pose the question! I have never considered the third option, that participants might be talking to everyone in the group. I feel the word “feedback” clearly indicates that everyone is speaking to the teacher. When participants starting talking to me, I point to the teacher, and they re-direct their attention in mid-sentence. Every time, as soon as the participant turns to speak to the teacher, I feel a huge difference in the nature of the energy in the circle. It ceases to be trainer-centered, and it feels (to me) that the participants are in control of their feedback session. As you say in your comment to Hana, it’s “peer leadership.” I wonder whether they feel it too?

    As I reflect on this, I’m thinking I’d like to find a way to make the same energy change during workshops, when I’m eliciting from individuals or groups after a think-pair/group-share. How can I set it up so that they address their peers and not me? That’s something to reflect on. And I’d love to know how others do it.

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    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you Linda-Marie for the wonderful comment which I enjoyed reading and thinking about!

      Re question 1 (side conversations during a feedback session): the more I think about this, the more I think that this deserves to be a nice discussion topic for the group where these conversations happen. As you said, there is a lot for the teacher to think about and learn during the session, and for peers to help with. I am wondering how this depends on a culture (I don’t remember having this problem in Korea, for example)

      Re question 2 (what if): I am totally with you with the example about the time and the decision taken by the teacher at that very moment. It actually links well to the later discussion of #6 and 7. I like how you put it in the last sentence of that paragraph: ‘I might use a “What if” question to clarify the generalization: “When time is short, it’s best to decide what the students need, and do that.” – It seems to me that in this case you are explicitly sharing your own generalization/belief and are showing teachers that there are more than one possible answers. My favorite part there is about the student needs! 🙂

      Re question 3 (you did not….): I like the question you wrote too: ‘What did you observe that led you to that interpretation?’, it helps teachers/participants realize that this is a different stage of the cycle, and get back to the actual classroom experience. As you said, they either find that evidence and explore the analysis, or can’t find the evidence, which brings back the question of a ‘hidden generalization’ shared initially.

      Re question 4 (trainer input): so much with you about the recurrent themes, or patterns, in the lessons observed. I also like how you remind the teachers/participants that you are including yourself into the ‘we’ and are sharing your own ‘teacher’ point of view. I try to make this ‘trainer input’ or ‘Zhenya talking time’ separate from the participants’ reflections, where possible, so that they could still treat the ideas as ‘options’ but not musts. Note: my latest several courses were with very experienced teachers as participants where I felt I needed to step back with my own comments.

      Re questions 6 and 7 (timing of a longer lesson): I think it is a combination of reasons why the lesson is taking more time (on a planning stage when setting objectives, on the delivery stage, sidetracked by a question from students, or being involved in a warmer too much, etc.) I always face the dilemma about either stopping the lesson and letting the other teachers have more time, or not stopping the lesson and ‘go with the flow’. Learning through and by experience is sometimes a harder choice 🙂

      Re question 8 (who to talk to): I absolutely loved the question you are asking about participant-centered input sessions (and drafting a small post inspired by this question – in the hope to learn more perspectives on this) I think it is one of those skills we trainers can model through a variety of tools and at various times during the course (including input/workshop sessions, and feedback sessions) so that the lessons teachers prepare are more student-centered as a result. More on this coming very soon.

      Thank you for the fruitful discussion – and let’s continue it in the very near future!

      Zhenya

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  5. Pingback: Who are they talking to? | Wednesday Seminars

  6. Matthew says:

    Thanks!

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  7. Matthew says:

    Reblogged this on Diary of a Newbie CELTA Trainer and commented:
    A fantastic post by Zhenya!

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  8. Tala Haidar says:

    Thank you, Zhenya, Kate, and Rasha for an enlightening and fun TOT, quite a memorable experience. I was one of the 33 TBT’s ( trainers being trained) that was lucky to participate. I would like to make a suggestion for #1:before the feedback session starts, the “facilitator” can ask all participants and observers to listen attentively and not interrupt the flow of the session because some questions come up based on what is being said at the moment.They can jot down any comments or burning questions and will be given the chance to contribute even after the session ends. I think this might minimize possibilities of side-discussions.

    #5:I like your suggestions here. They sound logical and practical. I will definitely try them in my training.

    #6&7:I share your thoughts here. I might add,though, that some pre-planned lessons take longer than expected while actually giving them, so I guess they need to be modified.Omitting some activities has to respect the scaffolding pattern being used so that the objective will be achieved through a series of controlled, less-guided, and free activities.

    #10:It is very true that experienced teachers and observers tend to write a lot of details and notes, so it is not easy to prioritize. One possibly helpful strategy that I follow is this:just before the feedback session starts,I skim my notes for the most striking “+” and “not so+”, ones that really stand out, and put signs next to them to contribute to the discussions.

    One final note about the sensitivity of some teachers to being given feedback: Isn’t our ultimate goal as trainers and teachers to make our “good” and even “excellent” performance better for the sake of our real target, the learners? If they really think of the objective of the whole TOT and teaching in general, they would take things less personally and be more open to differences in points of view. As for those giving the feedback, it is the “how” more than the “what” that really counts, as in everything else in life. Best of luck to all.

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    • Zhenya says:

      Dear Tala

      Thank you for visiting this space, reading, and leaving this thought-provoking comment! It was a pleasure to have you as a participant on the course we are talking about, and it is exciting to know that we are colleagues (in our ‘trainer’ hats!) I feel lucky, too.

      I like the suggestion for #1 you are making, namely to simply remind the group about the importance of listening to each other, and the reason for this. It reminds me of the principles of adult learners we were talking about – the one about being explicit about the rationale/purpose behind anything done in class. Great one!

      I also agree with the final note you made about the sensitivity of some teachers to being given feedback. What I especially like, and perhaps would take on board while working with specific cultures, is how you put it about the goal for training and teaching being ‘to make our “good” and even “excellent” performance better for the sake of our real target, the learners’. Very well said. Again, related to the comment above: a simple reminder about this at the beginning of a feedback session might make a big difference. It never hurts to be explicit 🙂

      Finally, the very last sentence you wrote, said: ‘As for those giving the feedback, it is the “how” more than the “what” that really counts, as in everything else in life’. – I would like to develop this conversation further and think about the various ways, or ‘how-s’ that exist (and may, or may not, work for each and every individual in the room).

      Thank you for the food for thought, and please come to visit again!

      Zhenya

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      • Tala Haidar says:

        Hello again, Zhenya. I’m glad you liked some of my humble suggestions. I guess the “How” has a lot to do with the culture as well as the personalities of participants. I agree it is not an easy task to really figure out the best “how-s”, yet I think it greatly helps the feedback session to have enough knowledge of the participants’ culture as well as major character traits, though not so easy! Best of luck always 🙂

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  9. Thana Reda says:

    Hi Zhenya and everyone who commented,

    It is an awesome feeling to read this blog and all the comments because when I was on your course I felt as if we were living in a cocoon in our hotel but coming here made me realize that we are part of the “real” world :). I am not going to leave any comments yet since I still have to try the trainer hat, but I have a question about your answer to question 3. ‘You did not do ________’ or ‘You could have done ________‘….”The form of such feedback might be the most helpful for the teacher, as it comes from the speaker’s belief,” ….is it(the most helpful) a typo or am I missing out on something?

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    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Thana,

      And welcome to this discussion/reflection space too! A big thank you for noticing the typo – have just corrected it.

      So true about being in the real world and trying the ideas out. I am grateful for the contributions made in response to this post – both by our group members and by my experienced colleagues. Shows that our community is larger than the training room in the hotel (many of us in the training hats out there!)

      Thank you for reading and commenting, enjoy August (and other ‘hats’!)

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