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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tin Plates & Twine

Tin Plates & Twine

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            This summer has been more of a challenge for my wife, Wendy, and I, as we plant and tend to our garden.  The deer in our yard are more active, and we can no longer secure protection for our seedlings by using simply the same posts and chicken wire that kept rabbits at bay in the past.  After a few tomato-plant top-offs by our four-legged friends, we resorted to a combination of sprays and granules, and even a plastic-encased deer-repellant contraption that we heard was much the rage on golf courses.
            Didn’t work too well -- More nibbles, just about when the nurseries were starting to run a bit short. 
We needed something else.
            What we found was a YouTube video showing a gentleman who had constructed a tin plate hanging by a string, which banged against a stick that was stuck into the ground when the wind would blow.  With an old bamboo pole, some twine from the garage, and a three-pack of tin pie pans from the local shopping center, we had a better fix than all of those sprays, granules, and golf course solutions combined, for a total of only 88 cents. 
Works like a charm.

            Made me think of what we do nowadays in K-12 schools to protect our own seedlings as they grow and develop.  Might we be overcomplicating what we are demanding that teachers provide to our kids in order for them to blossom? 

            In many cases we’re expecting our teachers to use the most cutting-edge of sprays, granules, and contraptions-of-pedagogical-prowess to promote growth, all in a garden reminiscent of Robert Frost’s poem Lodged, where “The rain to the wind said, ‘You push and I’ll pelt.’”  
In some “best-practice” circles, even the “How” of education is being prescribed (and proscribed), along with the “What.” One example includes teachers being admonished by their principals not to teach from behind their desks – they are evaluated, in part, on how often they move around.  This is intended purportedly to maximize engagement, or at minimum, to increase motivation. 
I would ask, “In whom?”
Today, teachers need to unpack “this” and unbundle “that” . . . they must Professional-Learning-Community “this” and Response-to-Intervention “that,” in order to receive praise from their bosses.  There’s really nothing wrong with these expectations, by and large, yet something begins to derail a bit with universal edict. 
Mike Schmoker’s (2011) approach is more my style, encouraging folks as the title of his book says, to Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning.  In the spirit of focusing on what’s important, I’d like to put in a pitch for an icon once considered “the baby” of good teaching, hence seemingly discarded with “the bathwater” of those who have demonstrated not-so-good teaching.
            That baby – The traditionalist-master:  The teacher who comes to class every day and after greeting students individually at the door, sits down and asks them to open their textbooks to page “such and such.”
The teacher who holds court from behind a desk, with a confident persona that far surpasses the squeakiness of many who break a sweat in their Bobbleheading, running around here and there, while working twice as hard as the students. 
The teacher who offers some tried and true bells and whistles for students who will need skills at navigating textbooks.  I have a nephew who took a firefighters’ certification exam recently, who had to study over the holidays from a book that appeared three inches thick.
The teacher who sits and talks, looks and listens, checks for understanding [yes, from behind the desk], and commands a presence so that all know what is expected of them, and all rise to the occasion.

            It’s precisely this teacher, the traditionalist-master, whose room feels predictably comfortable for students – like a learners’ living room, a public-school/paver-stone patio, a curricular café, or even a scholastic support-group lounge – where the comforts of casual conversation and mutual dignity allow for a pressure release. The traditionalist-master’s classroom is a place where permission is given to be oneself, and to learn.  It is a place where as a student, everybody knows your name, especially the teacher, where cliques don’t exist (because the teacher won’t tolerate them), and where predictability of regimented routine is a welcome respite from the unpredictability of childhood or adolescence.
            Or from Bobbleheads who run around.
            It’s a place where tin plates and twine offer solutions to learning challenges, in a society that has become so technological and chemical in its problem solving, overloaded to such a degree with options that children’s efforts to learn, grow, and prepare for our futures are inhibited.
            Unfortunately, the traditionalist master’s classroom has been given a bad rap by others in our profession who sit while they teach, as well, yet command neither the presence of personality nor the content credentials of our best.  They sit while teaching (or not), yet in these circumstances, desks are not used as altars of learning; they are used instead as fortresses of distance, shields against the discovery of incompetence.
            It’s sort of like what we profess about lectures nowadays, versus what’s really the problem with them.  When lectures are a problem, it’s not the lecture as a teaching strategy that’s the problem; it’s the person delivering the lecture that’s the problem.
            I’d like to champion the use of tin plates and twine in our teaching, and in doing so, put in a vote for those who teach from behind their desks, and are really good at it. 
The traditionalist-master’s classroom may be a more effective way to make a lasting difference on behalf of the children whose needs require the care and feeding that “tradition” provides, where they can find success in K-12 academics, in education beyond, and in life.


When thinking of the traditionalist-master, Dr. Ryan Donlan oftentimes thinks fondly of those from his past who he has seen make such a positive difference in the lives of students who struggle in school.  Dr. Donlan offers admittedly that his perspectives here are more those of intuition and observation (at times, n=1), than from science or research.  If you would like to offer friendly points of debate, please feel free to contact him at 812-237-8624 or at


Pickerick1. (2013, March 19). How to keep deer out of your garden or tomato plants organically. [Video file]. Retrieved at

Schmoker, M. (2011). FOCUS: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Out-of-the-Park" Summertime P.D.

“Out-of-the-Park” Summertime P.D.

[This article was originally posted this week, one year ago.  We thought a re-run might be of interest and timely.]

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Educational leaders across the country are fine-tuning and implementing their summertime professional development for K-12 faculties and staffs.  As I am asked from time to time to comment on leadership and staff development, I would like to share some “must have’s” that I would use, myself, for the most impact and best outcomes. 

My ideas are not necessarily out-of-this-world; however, at minimum, they’re out-of-the-park. 

I’m betting they’ll make a positive difference in outlook, perspective, and even the professional efficacy of faculty and staff as we move from one school year to another, mindful again of what conversations we have … and how.

In hosting summertime P.D., I would encourage you as school leaders to employ the following TOP TEN:

#10 – Provide as much for the needs of adults attending the events as you provide for the need to have information disseminated.  Focus on relationships over tasks, as the more important goal should be to develop people.

#9 – Teach faculty and staff on how to become better teachers of students, more so than how to become better teachers of content.  Students who are at-risk of failure at times will learn more for the people they admire and the feelings they have about themselves, than they will for extrinsic rewards (or threats) or love of content.

#8 – Avoid mentioning “the state” (state or national government), unless you are speaking about positively (and then, use their agency’s actual name).  Saying “the state [this or that]” foments an “us” versus “them” mentality, through verbal inflection alone.  It then trickles down into teachers’ lounge conversations and eventually to classrooms.  It really doesn't do anyone, any good, and speaks ill of your leadership and management.

#7 – Similarly, try something completely different:  Make no mention of last year’s test scores or the upcoming year’s assessment cycle.  Avoiding the term “data-driven” would be a good first step, as those who are driven by numbers oftentimes fail to learn from those who are “data-informed.”  Would a conversation on teaching and learning be more appropriate?

#6 – Ensure that all on your leadership team listen to faculty and staff, much more than they talk.  As my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Marrs-Morford, mentioned this week in a meeting she was facilitating, “That’s why we have two ears and one mouth.”

#5 – Use theories of andragogy and heutagogy, when discussing pedagogy.

#4 – Hold the event somewhere else than your school or the school district (speaking of “out-of-the-park,” what about a park?).   Ensure a festive atmosphere, with music, food, and comfort.

#3 – Provide child care and children’s activities during the event, so that the attention of parents can be fully on the event.  Wouldn’t something fun and educational for the kids be really cool?

#2 – Incorporate stories that inspire.  If you do not tell the story of what you’re all about, someone else will be assuredly telling theirs.

#1 – Thank folks for what they do and especially for whom they are.


Dr. Ryan Donlan believes he has this all figured out.  If you would like to join the conversation, please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Protection of Playtime

A Protection of Playtime

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Two evenings ago, I watched as my daughter and two friends ran around our yard for the better part of an hour and a half, giving what appeared to be piggyback rides to each other.  I found out later that one was playing a princess, another was playing her horse, and a third was playing the handsome prince.  It was pretty cute, as they negotiated roles and traveled to another world.
Yesterday, my son and his friend played basketball in the drive, using chalk of different colors to denote competitive shot locations.  They then sat around and looked at basketball trading cards, I’ll bet even brokering a few back and forth, before running through our yards to find something else to play, probably kickball.
I’m writing from the back deck today, as my daughter finishes her BFF sleepover a few doors down with those same two girls, and as my son sleeps-in, something he enjoys when he can.
Things are not always this unstructured. 
At times, my children go from school, to homework in dad’s office, to dance, to soccer practice, to scouting, to dinner, and to bed, as well, pretty much with that much regimentation.  They have been known to be regular’s at University Hall.  Yet, I’m proud to say that typically, they get to play unstructured for at least an hour or so each day.
My wife Wendy and I have the good fortune of having children that behave very well in structured environments.  They have since they were very little, saying “Please” and “Thank You,” and generally treating others with respect.  I remember at times when they would be with me in the barber shop, sitting quietly with saucer-like eyes as other children were misbehaving, asking me “What’s up with that?” when we hopped in the truck.  My children are people-pleasers, and this has worked out quite well for our relationship with their teachers.
Yet, it is when I watch my children play with others during these unstructured times that I truly get a handle on their character and civility, as well as their socio-emotional development.  It’s how they behave when they do not know I’m looking that speaks volumes about them, in a way that compliance during structured activities could never demonstrate.
In watching from the deck or through the kitchen window, I learn much about their problem solving, their creativity, their collaboration, their consideration for others, as well as their responses and resilience when things don’t go their way.  They learn, as well, through trial and error, what among their own behaviors brings them closer to others, and what moves them farther away.  As parents, we can “tell” them what works and what doesn’t, yet it is when they “show” themselves, through their own action or inaction, that the lessons really solidify.
This is the power of playtime. 
I would like us to protect that.
I have the good fortune of having a Department Chair and Dean who are supportive of my allowing unstructured time for my children this summer.  I can work for the most part from home during the day, as my wife serves as an Infant Teacher at the ISU Early Childhood Education Center, then visiting my office on campus later each day, once Wendy arrives home.  In that regard, I am allowed to do what I believe as a society we’re not doing enough of, at present.
Protecting playtime.
I know of many parents, whether in the summertime or during the school year, who must schedule their children out of family necessity into supervised care, typically structured. This is understandable, as a two-parent income is needed for most of us to stay afloat.  Others, however, have their children involved in so many structured activities, that family time each week consists of eating fast-food in the back seat of a car, as a parent leaves one child at one practice while driving across town to another.  This provides students some pretty cool experiences, yet I’m not sure how this is working out for the kids in terms of creativity, collaboration, consideration, or resilience.
These are good folks who love their kids, making the best decisions they can for healthy growth and development.  Yet, playtime is the “cost” of those other, structured opportunities.  Can schools help, and should they?  In terms of the importance of whole-child development, I would argue a definitive, “Yes.” 
Noted author and school visionary Elliot Washor co-wrote Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Student Dropout Rates. He was kind in giving me a copy a few summers ago.  With a website stating, “All students need to leave school—frequently, regularly, and, of course, temporarily—to stay in school and persist in their learning” (, his book echoes these sentiments throughout.
Admittedly, Elliot and co-author Charles Mojkowski focus on high school students, yet could we apply this same notion to students in earlier grades, in terms of leaving the classroom more often, for recess?  Might the notion of leaving to learn be extended to include the intentional design of more K-12 experiences for children that are supervised, yet unstructured . . . that involve “play,” no matter the content area or grade level?
My son’s biggest adjustment over the next few years in school, and the biggest challenge to his development and learning, might very well be just the fact that he will no longer have recess as he knows it.  I couldn’t imagine better schools for him than the ones he will attend locally, yet the structural reality of American education is that his playtime with others, defined developmentally for each age level, will be reduced substantially.
It’s just the way we do things in K-12.
It is interesting to me, that while educators and schools have been deemed responsible for providing “all that society abrogates” in recent years, even if resources are limited or unavailable, we have not recognized “playtime” as something unintentionally yet harmfully abrogated in children’s lives, having an adverse impact on the next generation.
I would encourage friends and colleagues in K-12 to prioritize the protection of unstructured social opportunities (i.e. “playtime”) as a “must-have” for effective student growth and development throughout the K-12 experience.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is interested in learning more about any school at any level in K-12 that prioritizes the protection of playtime for its students, and even for its staff.  If you have any information that you would be willing to share, please contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Organizational Moments of Weakness

Organizational Moments of Weakness

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

If a moment exists when a person improves, then a moment may exist when an organization improves.  If these are true, moments may exist when an organization becomes weaker, as well.  
Our better leaders are aware of moments when their organizations are about to become stronger and will protect those moments.  Yet, we would argue that it is rare, indeed, when leaders are able to discern when their organizations are nearing a point of becoming weaker and intentionally do something to arrest those moments. 
Comfort precedes an organization’s potential for becoming weaker, while discomfort precedes an organization’s potential for becoming better.  Discomfort strengthens organizational acuity.
Further, as we are comfortable, we perceive one’s becoming weaker as more a 10K walk, than a 100-yard sprint.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
People experience moments of weakness, perhaps when they are trying to diet and are surrounded by food, or while trying to quit smoking is in an environment full of smokers.  In just about any case when a person is trying to change a habit, it becomes difficult when others are holding onto that habit, even enjoying it.  It seems the person trying to change would be better off to avoid these places of temptation.  Maybe so, however, people cannot expect completely to do so for the rest of their lives.  
Those who are more resilient make it through, and those less resilient typically do not. 
What provides for the resilience people need when they face moments of weakness?  Can organizations develop resilience to help weather those times as well?
One way to examine this is to first break down what it is people actually do to improve, and to consider at what point in any training regimen does a person get better.  It seems that we may see gradual improvements over time, yet do not as often consider when “moments” happens.

The question posed here is, “At what exact point (moment in time) does improvement occur?”

·      When a person starts the training and an emotional change surfaces?
·      When a person continues the training after the initial charge has faded?
·      When a person begins thinking about the task in a new way?
·      When a person first finds the task getting easier?
·      When a person reflects upon his or her new capacity, thus, raising the bar?

As we reflect as authors about the personal and/or professional learning experiences that we have had in our own lives, we think back to such activities as playing sports, doing school, making friends, dating, teaching in K-12, assuming that first principalship, networking professionally, and more recently, chairing dissertations.  In all of these situations, we started with one skill level, then over time (in a training regimen, with intermittent bouts of becoming a bit weaker here and there, as implementation dips are to be expected), we more often than not, improved our skills to tackle the demands placed upon us.
We were seen as more effective over time. Something must have sparked forward progress along the way. 
A spark. A moment.  A very brief period of time. 

Can we make the conceptual leap to the organization with all of this?

When organizations attempt to change – change a habit/ritual, change a performance expectation, or change the outcomes of performance investments – what kind of structures may be necessary for the organization to have moments, and along the way, to become resilient to challenges (moments of regression) from internal/external forces attempting to draw the organization back to equilibrium?
To comfort.  
Whatever these structures may be, they exist as “moments,” and not in extended episodes, or even in windows really.  Our strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunity and threat from without, accord us only fleeting, oft-indiscernible, and hard-to-hold-on-to moments that are most crucial in leveraging what could be a year-long, or multi-year strategy for organizational improvement.
Is there a crucial point in time when the improvement is about to happen and those in charge of protecting it unintentionally sidetrack the progress?
Cluelessly, as well? 
Can a teacher teach something, then begin the next lesson component too soon . . . just (perhaps seconds) before the previous lesson was internalized as useful, or relevant?  
Just before it was learned? 
If that grain of possibility exists, then perhaps leaders need to think not only about the classroom implications as teachers dump too much content onto students, but also how this applies school-wide, to organizational learning among adults.

Consider principals who schedule professional development days for their faculties and staffs:
How much do they allow to be placed on their agendas? 
Are only so many minutes devoted to particular agenda items? 
How is this decided? 
How much do principals protect the necessary time for deeper conversations? 
Do principals resist the temptation of moving to the next roundtable prompt, as they notice time for lunch approaching, or a few tables waning in interest, discussing soccer games and checking their texting devices?  Just because we desire a collaborative culture does not mean people know how to collaborate.

Let’s now bring a very important “inverse” to the table: If the moments prior to learning are crucial, then aren’t as well those moments just prior to becoming weak?  

Again, we do not believe that only slow processes of atrophy influence a school’s decline over time.  We believe that actual steps backward take place quickly, and solidify themselves as the principal moves to that next agenda item or calls the group together to make the next big point, all because an agenda checked-off or a lesson plan followed is conceived as best practice in K-12.  All because of a principal’s perceived pacing guide, the staff may have come to the edge of internalizing a new mindset, only to have that moment of improvement stopped due to the clock.
We ponder how often schools create unknowingly, a pernicious moment lasting only a few seconds, through a leader’s action or inaction, as the organization is teetering on the brink of getting better or getting worse, and in that absence of good leadership, the organization then slips backward abruptly, for the longer-term.
Can a missed moment of improvement prompt an unwanted moment of weakness?


One will often see Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan standing far off to the side at professional development events for K-12 educators, watching the organizational learning taking place, or not, rather than walking from table to table listening to the conversations taking place.  What they wish to do at this point is to put research to their theories.  If you have anything to offer, please don’t hesitate to contact them at or at 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Weight-Bearing Limit

A Weight-Bearing Limit

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            My wife Wendy and I feel fortunate to be living in a small neighborhood, a few miles from downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, with most roads in our subdivision designed as cul-de-sacs.  It’s a great place for our children to grow, play, and learn as they run from yard to yard with friends, mostly out of the path of traffic, except for our subdivision’s main artery.
            Most in the neighborhood were excited recently as two of the few remaining empty lots were purchased near the back of the subdivision, and construction began.  The rumble of cement and materials trucks in early spring was something that we hadn’t seen, and nightly strolls past the foundation and rough work were filled with anticipation.  Thoughts of property values going up, admittedly, were part of the conversation among friends and neighbors.

            Forward progress, however, has come at a price. 

It appears that the weight-bearing limit of roads-not-yet-stable from the melt of ice and snow had been exceeded.  Our subdivision’s main artery has crumbled this spring in a number of places.  The once-attractive cul-de-sac of the two new homes is in disrepair, and bicycle rides for the children have become a bit clunky, when moving from someone’s house to another’s.
We hear of an eventual repair, yet ask ourselves . . .
            Why the seeming rush to move things at such a pace, when the fragility of early spring conditions is a blinding flash of the obvious?  Why not wait just a bit more time, and give conditions a bit longer to settle, so that the neighborhood can bear the load?

            As I sit on my deck this evening, I cannot help but think of K-12 education, as I ask:

            Who or what is our “road”?
What can it reasonably support?
Is our “weight-bearing limit” being exceeded?
            Is something crumbling?

            I also ask . . .

            Who is the “truck driver”?
            What is the “load”?
            Are there pressures to move too quickly?
Could we be delivering what we deliver, more carefully?
            Finally, what will happen to the eventual value of our “property,” if we exceed our weight-bearing limit over time, while going too fast for conditions as the roads we’re traveling fall apart?


Dr. Ryan Donlan is worried about the roadway of K-12 education.  He ponders, “Are standardized test scores, school rankings, and prescriptive pacing guides encouraging students to become test-takers and assignment-doer’s, rather than playground collaborators and inquisitive learners?” If you would to discuss, deliberate, or even debate a point or two, please do not hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Classifieds

The Classifieds

By Steven Bair
Director of Operations
Beech Grove City Schools
Doctoral Student
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            Four thousand eight hundred! 
This is the number of Classified Advertisements or what we call, “Help Wanted” posts that reside on a recent online trip to’s website. 
How did they all get there? Is there that much new job creation occurring? Naysaying political pundits may regale a lack of employment opportunity; however, the fact remains that opportunity exists, yet a good number of these slots go unfilled.
Maybe we just haven’t been watching enough Major League Baseball. 
Major League Baseball you ask?
Yes, MLB.  
Major League Baseball epitomizes the idea of the deft use of the “Talent Scout”!  
The league is loaded with scouts that scour high schools, colleges, minor leagues, their own organizations, and even the world to find individuals with unique talents to fit their positions currently open on their teams. They leave no stone unturned.  Their success at finding matches is directly proportional to their own job security. 
“Help Wanted” is not-at-all passive, on their clock.
Think of your organization for a minute.
Do you have a talent scout in your organization, one not as concerned with a list of skills on a checklist; rather, one with an uncanny ability to find those with the proper talent? Further, do you have one with a thirst for discerning the pearl from the not-so-obvious, answering two very important questions when making a match:
1.     Will the job fit the talents of the employee, and vice versa?
2.     Will this employee’s fit for the role make the organization better from a financial and cultural standpoint?
As Buckingham and Coffman (1999) stated, “The best way to help an employee cultivate his or her talents is to find a role that plays to those talents” (p. 93).
So whom is this scout in your organization that “master scout” who can effectively match talents to a job posting?
Maybe it is you, or could become you!  
Will you carve out time to prioritize this in your leadership role, whether principalship, directorship, superintendent, or otherwise?  The answer to your first question – your willingness to consider scouting on part with “instructional leadership,” is a tough swallow for some.  Yet, in doing so, you are much better able to ensure that your new charges will not only survive their career launches with you, yet will thrive, as well.
            Just like those in MLB, here’s the Playbook for how you do it.  
First, define the characteristics that are needed to successfully fulfill the position. Buckingham and Coffman (1999) would tell you to study the best people you have currently and determine what traits and skills make them successful. Ensure that those who you are scouting have it.  Resist the temptation to hire only on “potential.”  If they don’t have sufficient “actual,” move ON.
Second, take time and observe people. Ask yourself: What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses, and why?  Are they hardwired this way, so that they do this as effortlessly as breathing, or are they laboring to keep the pace?  Is the game at their level, or is it out of their league?  Be honest with yourself, and avoid at all costs desperation hire.  That will COST your organization, and more perniciously, your students.  Great talent scouts then make note of these findings when shopping around, referring back to them frequently when considering opportunity/costs with this applicant or that.  
The final step in the process is for you to approach potential employees and SELL, as would any good scouting follow-up, challenging them to open their eyes to roles in the organization that they can impact, and will in turn, positively impact them!  Keep in mind that the best will be shopping as well.  They’ll have options. 
Your serving as an effective talent scout will make your organization healthier, financially and emotionally.  You benefit from this as well, as the person who finds talent, champions talent, and nurtures such within an organization finds great reward through the dividends of investment, much as would any scout who sees his or her prospects grow in the league.
When you see that next job posting on your business’s website or email, slow down a minute and reflect about being proactive, rather than passive, as moving into scouting mode will certainly minimize the possibility that your competitor will do so without competition.
We suggest that if at all possible and within the realm of what your school attorney will allow, transcend the notion of what was formerly included in the “Classifieds,” and through scouting, keep what you are doing and who you are seeking, more “Classified.”


Steven Bair and Ryan Donlan believe that one of a K-12 school leader’s most important role is proactively seeking talent to fill open positions in our nation’s school system.  In all this talk of running schools more like businesses, to which they take exception from time to time, this is certainly one area in which they would concur!  If you would like to reach them, they can be reached at sbair3@sycamores.indstate or at