Amplifying Minds

Learning and Growing Together

Archive for the category “Choice”

Priorities–we all have to make them.

So, in late August, I committed to some folks over Twitter (through Shawn White,  @swpax) to writing a blog post every day–or trying to–for the month of September. I had ups and downs, but I did it, and a few days I even wrote two posts.

BUT, it wasn’t the most fun I ever had writing.  I thought about what was I going to write about when I wasn’t ready to write.  I worried about it, even.

When I knew I had a post due and I had no inspiration, I found myself thinking, “What can I do to get’r done?”

I hated those days.

BUT I found out some things, both about blogging and myself:

  1. I can do it–write a blog post every day. The question is, do I want to?
  2. Some days are more inspirational than others.
  3. I have had some incredible administrators in my tenure as a teacher in my county. They rock in so many ways and often gave me encouragement in September. (My former principal is an amazing friend.  She needs to tell her stories!)
  4. My colleagues in Albemarle County Public Schools are incredibly supportive and kind. (I knew that already, but I was reinforced in that belief this past month.)
  5. Many of  the people on my staff were reading my blog!  One even commented here, many over email or to my face. Thanks to all of you–your encouragement means a lot.
  6. I found myself looking at the stats and the retweets, and I found myself looking for patterns in the posts I wrote.
  7. While I started this blog to share what I was doing in my classroom and describe that (how I was working to amplify my students’ minds), those seemed to be the least read posts, looking at the stats.  They were definitely the least retweeted and commented on.
  8. While people didn’t often comment on here, the things I was saying were starting conversations face to face and other places.
  9. I received several DMs, or had conversations that people felt uncomfortable posting to the web. While I wanted conversation, I understand sometimes a reaction just isn’t appropriate to post online.
  10. I hate feeling forced to write on someone else’s schedule.  And, while I KNOW I was the one who decided to do this, there were times I wanted to blame someone else for feeling irritated I had a blog “due”–even if it was just due to myself.
  11. The days I felt like “Get ‘r done.” weren’t worth it to me. I love writing and want to continue to love writing.  I don’t want to feel like writing is a chore.
  12. The commitment kept me going and writing, even when it was hard… and that’s got me thinking about making a commitment-any commitment.

So, as I think about doing this every day of the year, for 365 days, I’m just not sure  I want to do that. I tried the photo 365 one year, where you take a picture every day for one year.  I lasted until April or May before I quit, I think… and while the project was amazing for getting me to look at the world around me differently, I began to see it as a chore. Writing a blog post a day for one month seemed really doable to me back in August.  Looking at 365 days seemed unsurmountable. I’m now pondering long term and short term goals (365 days versus 30 days, in my case.).

I guess I really want to think about what we do to kids when we set their goals for them.  That’s what the state standards do, don’t they?  The standards define their minimum learning for the entire year…and we all know kids who could–and should–go WAY beyond those bare minimum requirements. So when we begin a unit in Social studies, or science, or even math or literacy, do we tell the kids from the get-go all we’re planning to teach them?  Do we ask them what they want to learn? Do we gather their thoughts and consider them in our planning?

Part of why I’m asking these kinds of questions is because Stenhouse just publicized a book called, “Celebrating Writers” which has a preview of the entire book you can read online.  I began it last night, and read through part of the first chapter–a story about a kid named Mason. You see, Mason looked like he was doing nothing during writing workshop–but the teacher gave him space, and was able to then use his behaviors to motivate others and help them learn…

The whole book seems really worth reading, says she who has begun the first chapter.  Go check it out.

Well, I took some space this past week, after September 30,  because I was out of town, at two different summits and incredibly busy.  I had no time to write, I had no inclination to write, and I had no brainpower to write after having been in some pretty heavy conversations each day, all day.

Having taken that space, and doing the reflecting I’m doing today, I’m not even going to think about doing 365 posts. I like writing and don’t want to look at it as a chore.  I want to model good habits of writers for my students and I don’t think this is one. Writing on a regular basis, yes. Writing even daily, probably.  But writing just to post a post each day?  No.

And, here’s a funny–I was going to point you readers to the list of people who had joined the 365 blog-a-day group.  I knew Shawn had created a Twitter list, so I went to his twitter feed to find it, I went to his blog  to find it, and I found this instead.
Priorities–we all have to make them.


What Does it Mean?

Championing Kids–What DOES it mean?

In the past few years, we’ve had a fairly large turnover at my school, for a variety of reasons…growth, retirements, people moving…but that means we’ve also had a fairly large number of new teachers join us, and that’s been good. The ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with are extremely conscientious, hard working and most of all, care deeply about kids.

And that’s the first step to “championing kids.” You absolutely have to give a hoot about the kids–all kids, not just the teacher pleasers, or the ones who play school well. We’ve got kids in our classes who don’t play school well–or who have learned to play a version of it that doesn’t get them ahead–in either gaining privileges through showing responsibility OR the learning arena. So, teachers who champion kids work on those skills explicitly (as well as implicitly) while teaching and scaffolding learning.

For example, in a collab fifth grade class last week, my collab teacher, Betsy (@bagee1), and I spoke to the kids directly about body language and what it says when you’re in a group listening. We talked about the fact that you could be paying all the attention in the world to the speaker with your ears, but if your back is turned, the speaker may think you are not interested. I spoke a bit about body language and listening and how to code switch and how to know when to code switch, then Betsy added some comments about personal behaviors and how to manage them.  She addressed the fiddlers, the wigglers, the kids who simply learn better if they are moving a bit or not concentrating all of their energy on sitting still.

But she didn’t tell them they had to stop–the message was be aware of how your behavior is impacting others. Betsy never put anyone down for tapping a pencil or squirming around, or clicking a pen (one of my habits) or fiddling with their belongings or doodling, or any of the other thousands of  things kids can find to entertain themselves (and drive otehers around them nuts). Instead, she was clearly saying we accept you, and let’s figure out a way for you to be yourself, but be considerate of others at the same time. Her message was definitely to be yourself, but consider how your behavior is impacting others and change something if you are distracting others.  Then we gave explicit strategies.  Put the pencil down, move away from the person you’re distracting, move to the back of the group, etc.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy collaborating with teachers, but especially Betsy.  She champions kids all the time.  She doesn’t raise her voice, she never appears perturbed, but she is constantly pushing kids to excel, to work together, to accept others, to recognize strengths and to honor and respect the community in the classroom.

Championing kids means setting up a classroom community to accept differences and honor what we all bring to the table. It means recognizing that people will use different tools, work in a variety of different ways and have varying preferences for where to work, which tools and methodologies to use and that individuals even care about when to work and with whom they work. It’s about providing meaningful choice and acceptance and challenge to constantly grow and learn and work cooperatively with and around others.

My next post will be on rules that support championing individuals.

Technology Enabled Learning

technology infused…

technology integration…

technology enhanced…

technology whatever….

There are a lot of ways right now to talk about using technology in the classroom.  I guess there always have been, but my favorite at the moment is about technology enabling learning that is different–learning that allows for deep understanding and envisioning. It’s about learners using the technologies in ways that enable choice, creation, collaboration, creativity, and making in the pursuit of understanding.

Is the learner using the technology for consumption, creation, entertainment, what? Because it’s what the learner does with the technology that makes the learning meaningful and useful or not.  I think it’s important that we all share with one another what our kids are doing.

Can learners in your school use the technology in ways that enable them to learn more deeply, and in better ways than without it?  Or, do teachers and students simply use technology  as an electronic worksheet, word processor, or video/game machine?

Does your school allow the kids to envision new ways to use it, or are they stifled?  Can teachers use technology in innovative ways to move beyond lecturing, powerpoints and being the sage on the stage?

In this day and age, learning can be enabled by technology, and/or it can be accomplished without it. But, given a chance, teachers and students can set up learning episodes where the technology enables the learners to go further, deeper and faster in ways that have not been possible before.  And I think it’s important that we all share with one another what our kids are doing.

How are you using the technologies you have to enable learners ?

The Need For Time

All teachers need a 3 day weekend (so we can have 2 with our family and one to work) and a bit of time during the day throughout the day. Our bodies weren’t made to wait all day before going to the bathroom, or needing a few moments to refresh or reflect on an incident that happened that day. But, it’s part of the job we all know.

I began this post a couple of days ago because it had been one of those days where I had no time to take a breath–I was busy ALL day! Then today I saw an article in EdWeek about some systems going to 4 day school weeks.  The article spoke to a system in Iowa that is using Fridays for professional development, enrichment and some remediation.  Every other Monday, all teachers are available to  support students, either with enrichment or remediation.  I think that would be an awesome set up. Some Mondays you have time to learn, plan with your team, develop materials around new curricula and explore and be exposed to new ideas and some Mondays you actually have time, without a slew of other students in there, to work with individuals and small groups to increase understanding and retention of knowledge. I wish our school could pilot that! (she says, as she sits at her desk yawning!)

So what are the pros and cons of making a four day week? This system in Iowa did it by adding on an hour each day , T-F.  Some will see that as a pro, others a con…The need for a babysitter an additional day a week…again, both a pro and con, depending on the viewpoint.  I suspect you could make any argument into both a pro and con.

Obviously a 3 day weekend would be kind of cool, for anyone–but there are other ways of giving teachers time. This Iowa system figured out how to provide extra time for both kids and adults for learning. You can always add days to the beginning or end of the school year, but that’s not when we need the time. We need it on a regular basis, every week. Our system has gotten creative with scheduling, using specials (P.E., Music, Art, etc.)  to provide planning time for elementary teachers during the school day, and our secondary teachers don’t need something like that–their breaks are scheduled into the day, since they don’t need coverage for their homeroom kids.   So, beginning of the year, end of the year, breaks built into the schedule and calendar…. how else could more time be found for teachers to learn together, to extend kids’ learning and to plan and work together?

What Gets Tested Gets Taught

We all know the adage, “What gets tested gets taught.”  We’ve (many of us, if not all of us) been in the position of feeling the pressure to teach the state standards in ways that will assure our school a decent, if not high, pass rate.  And, we know that when the principal asks teachers to do something, teachers feel an obligation to do so.  (If you don’t believe that, go read @mssackstein’s book, Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective.) I was lucky enough to help her do some last minute editing and got to read part of her work. She does an awesome job of explaining how teachers feel obligated not to say no when the principal asks for something. So, I see an “if, then” statement happening here.

If what gets tested gets taught, and if the principal can ask teachers to do things and expect them to do it, then   the principal can call the shots as to what and how the teachers teach, right?  That means all of the woes in schools today are the principal’s fault, aren’t they?

So what follows is that we need NOT to fire bad teachers, but instead fire all principals in any school where teachers complain about having to teach to the test and that all they have time for is the state mandated curriculum.  Then, pull in a principal who can lead the school, telling teachers what to do to make schools better, support kids to learn more and in different ways, following their passions, learning to code and make, and becoming well-rounded citizenry.

So why hasn’t that happened? I’ve heard about principals telling their teachers to use our new learning spaces all over our county. I’ve watched my principal tell our teachers they have to get connected-and so they Skype, join the Global Read Aloud, collect and pin on Pinterest, interact with one another on Facebook, and some even blog, have their students blogging, lurk on Twitter, and do who knows what else online? I’ve watched many a principal say “Your PLCs will meet this week” and so they do.  I’ve worked with many a principal who has told us to do many a different thing, and we do.

But, you know what?  No matter how much our legislature and the public point to schools and say “close the bad ones”, or to teachers and say “fire the bad ones” or to principals and say “be a different kind of leader,” it’s NOT about individuals and individual schools, or even, (most times) individual leaders. It’s about systems and changing  them to meet new ideas and our changing world.  It’s not about integrating technology but recognizing and supporting technology-enabled learning for everyone at all times. It’s about belief systems and philosophies and honoring students as learners and everyone asking good questions (not just the adults) and believing in competency and having a growth mindset and trust and a whole bunch of other things that come whenever a group of people congregate. It’s about human interactions and human feelings and expectations and support and helping one another be the best we can be. It’s about acceptance and yes, love–of oneself and others.

So if we believe what gets tested gets taught, why don’t we test whether we treat each other as humans first, and whether we can grow in our abilities to build a better world, for this generation and the next?  Why isn’t our focus on the future instead of solely learning what has already happened to the human race and what science we already know? Why aren’t we fighting to develop our abilities to think mathematically or scientifically or engineeringly, or codingly, or architecturally (that one’s for you, Emilia!) or however we need to think to make our world more sane, more humane and more wonderful for everyone?

That’s where I’d like to see our emphasis–more on engagement, deep learning through the use of various tools, and empowering people to be competent and efficacious learners who lead us to a better place.

(And, for the record, the first part of this post was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Principals don’t deserve to be blamed any more than anyone else does.  I appreciate mine pushing us to push ourselves, and try something new. I wish we all pushed each other a bit more. )

Places and Spaces

Good teachers have always had comfy areas in their rooms, complete with a variety of seating, pillows, beanbags, etc. This big deal about redesigning learning spaces, though, IS a big deal–cause at least in our county , it comes with money to do some of those things that, in the past, have come out of teachers’ pockets. Teachers are decorating their rooms with seating choices, we’ve gotten new tables and chairs in many classes, and our library and our “Wonder Lounge” have some funky new furniture. One whole wall of our Wonder Lounge is idea paint, and our principal has already taken a bunch of pictures of different classes using it.

In fact, she tweets out pics all the time of our school activities and classrooms.  To get a feel for our school, follow @gcrummie on Twitter, and check out all the pictures she tweets.  We also populate both our kid account, @Crozetkids and our school account, @CrozetElem, as well as a Facebook page, a website and several of us here at Crozet are  bloggers, and even more of us participate on Pinterest and Facebook.  I would say many of our teachers are pretty connected, overall. But I have to give credit to Ms. Crummie for being the most faithful about blogging about school–she really uses hers to keep the community informed (  Check here for some great pictures of our new-to-our-school-community spaces and places!

We Want Them to Wonder

In my last post, Great Questions for Learning, I talked a bit about questions.  In the post prior to that, I shared a story about homework. This one will pull both of those together in some ways.

We want our students to wonder.  Learners–lifelong learners–never stop questioning.  They never stop looking at the world–or at least parts of it–with awe and a multitude of feelings–delight, sadness, confusion, affirmation, etc.  Lifelong learners never stop being curious, wondering about inconsistencies, about oddities, about beautiful–and not-so-beautiful– sights, events and objects, both man-made and natural.

My students, over the years, have learned to be critical thinkers about the “facts” I give them and the questions I ask. They know I am going to ask questions that may lead them down a distracting path so they do a lot of skill practice that leads them to doing more.  I want them to be critical listeners to listen for discrepancies, connections, new information and details.  I want them to be attentive, to be active listeners, to know when to ask clarifying questions and especially when to ask for help and when to try something on their own. So, I ask questions that will scaffold them, but also give them practice being thoughtful consumers of information.

Full disclosure: I really don’t believe in a lot of homework. I want kids to go home and enjoy their families, being outside, reading for pleasure, and exploring their world through a variety of activities they cannot do in  the 6 or more hours they are in school.  I want them to have time to learn to clean their rooms, stay organized, help around the house, know their brothers and sisters and play and use their imagination. So any homework I am a part of sending home will generally NOT be worksheets or drill and skill work.  It will be something that helps them make connections, think more deeply about something they have talked/learned about that day, or an extension of our learning here at school.

So, homework in my classes is more like

  • Develop 2 or 3 “Henry questions” as you enjoy your evening.
  • Practice some factor trees–you choose the numbers.
  • Ask someone at home when they use estimation and when they use exact calculations–make a list if you need it to remember which is which.
  • As you go places this week, look for mathematical signs that might encourage you to ask more questions. (They know they can get a picture of it and send it to me if they want, so they can share in class.)

and as far as literacy?

  • Connect something in your book to something that has happened to you in real life.  Be ready to share tomorrow.
  • As you read tonight, think about whether this author is one you’d recommend to your classmates. Be ready to talk specific reasons why you would or would not.
  • Can you find any words in your reading tonight you think would stump the class?  make sure you can use it in  a sentence and give synonyms or antonyms in case you need to help your classmates figure it out.
  • Think about the theme in your book and be ready to share a “text set” of books with that theme if you have read others like it.

Or, if we have a great discussion, and the kids come up with their own questions, we challenge them to go home and answer them.  They often ask, “Can I work on this at home?” and that’s, of course, a delight to us.

The bottom line is that we try to incite and encourage and stand in awe of the wonder our kids have and develop, and we try to set up situations where kids will never lose that sense of curiosity and delight in the world most of them bring to their first experiences in school. We want our students to wonder!

Why Can’t Kids Be Responsible For Their Own Learning?

“Wow, young lady, you’ve really put me in a hard place!”  I told one of my kids this morning in math class.  You see, we’re trying hard to get kids to do their homework (and all work) in their math journals, so we asked them to practice a few factor trees in their journals for homework last night.  That, of course, meant they had to remember to take them home, do it, then bring them back.  And, up to this point, we’ve been very forgiving of kids who haven’t come to class quite prepared, so today was our day of “cracking down”–we had made a big deal of how important it was to be ready so we could all move on and that we were giving points for procedures as well as work today.

So, I asked them to open their journals to their factor trees from last night and show it to a buddy and get some feedback.  (This is a strategy my collab teacher and I often use for checking to make sure something was done and each kid getting quick feedback. We watch as kids share with one another and listen for big discussions where disagreement may be occurring or a long explanation may be needed, so we can step in if necessary.)  But,  this morning K turned to me immediately and said, “I don’t have a factor tree–I was too busy last night working on my multiplication tables.”  I said, “What?  Why were you working on those instead of doing the homework?”  (I figured maybe someone at home had given her a different task.)  Her response? “Well, I knew I needed to work on my facts, so I thought I should probably spend some time doing that so I’d be better at factor trees today.”

That’s when I told her she’d put me in a hard place. The kids heard me and it got pretty quiet as everyone watched to see what would happen. This was an amazing opportunity to both give a life lesson and teach them we were not ogre teachers.

I told the kids that most educators’ basic goal in working with them was to help them to be lifelong learners, because we–teachers or parents–wouldn’t always be there and our hope was that they would be independent learners, taking responsibility for their own learning.  My collab teacher added that we wanted to see self-directed learning, questioning and sharing, and that personal decisions had to be based on one’s own knowledge of themselves as learners. “So”, I said, “Let’s talk about what K did last night.”  Was she an independent learner? Yes!  Did she take responsibility for her own learning? Yes! Was it self-directed learning?  Yes!  Was it based on her own knowledge of herself and what she needed as a learner?  Yes!

So how can I be upset she didn’t do what I had given her to do?  She’s meeting the goals I said educators have for her.

I ask again, in a slightly different way, with you, the reader, looking through a slightly different lens perhaps–

Why can’t we allow students to be responsible for their own learning?

Well, we did, for K today.  She absolutely got that check for homework!

Why do we have to be the ones dictating homework?  Why do we set the tasks?  Why don’t kids get a chance to say what they think they need to practice or reinforce?

Well, they will in our class.  How about yours?



Virginia Young Reader’s Choice

If you don’t know anything about the Young Reader’s Choice awards, you can find out here. Basically, this is a process to help young readers get introduced to some contemporary books they might not otherwise read.

I have several 5th graders who are SO excited about this list of books. There are kids all over my school interested in reading this list of books, mostly because of how our school librarian introduces the list to the kids and partially because the kids who read and vote also get to have a pizza party celebration after the voting is over. I’ve never been involved before, but this year, kids from all over the school have been coming and asking me if I have this book or that book.

That’s happening, I guess, because last year I worked with both 3rd and 4th graders in Literacy and the kids discovered one of my loves–books–so they know I have a pretty extensive library.  Many of them borrowed iPads at various points last spring to read books, and discovered I buy regularly from Amazon–so have books the library doesn’t have.  When kids started coming to me this week, I went to Amazon and made a “Young Reader’s” wish list. By week’s end, a parent had given a gift card that covered most of the books from the Kindle store.

So my iPad now has those books on it, and I am spending my weekend reading many of them. One of the kids really wanted to read The False Prince by Jennifer Nielson, so I decided I would read that first.  (Click on the cover to go to Amazon’s page about it.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 12.19.54 PM

So, 2:00 Saturday morning, I finished–and went and bought the sequel and read that, too. I am looking forward to getting to school on Monday and see if the kid saw and read the sequel, too. I am also looking forward to the final installment in this series coming out this fall.  At least I don’t have too long to wait.

Loaning my books (or iPads) out to kids so they can read is just something I do. It’s just like Donalyn Miller (@donalynmiller) explains in The Book Whisperer–most of the time books come back, and in the fall, many children return books they “found” in their houses over the summer. Because of my passion for reading and sharing and talking books and because of my ready trust of kids when they ask to borrow a book, and because of our sharing of stories with one another in book discussions, the kids work hard to return the books–they know others want to read them too.

So, I’m really looking forward to the conversations these Young Readers Choice books will elicit. And I’m looking forward even more to reading more of them–so right now I’m going to quit writing and go read…

I’ll share my reflections on the books (at least the ones that touch me) as I read.  Have a great weekend!

Mindsets and Expectations

I think most teachers go into each new school year with high expectations for a new beginning, to try new strategies, and to work anew to be a better teacher.  I believe students go into new school years with enthusiasm for a new beginning as well. The excitement, especially in an elementary school, is palpable– at least for the first few days.

I always have the expectation that this year will be the year I can keep control of the piles on my desk and not let them run away willy-nilly so that I only have enough room on my desk to open my laptop each day.  I expect that I will manage to control those piles, but so far I have not lived up to those expectations.

But mindsets and expectations are so often communicated subliminally…and I’ve begun wondering what all the pre-assessment we do at the beginning of the year communicates.

Recently we gave a pre-assessment in one of our grades, and the test was simply a released state test, usually given at the end of the year to see if kids learned the mandated curriculum.  The reason we give this is to find out which kids know a lot of the curriculum already so we can do an initial sorting of kids for instructional groupings.  It’s not a test we use for remediation, but instead for a kind of acceleration–sorting out the “high achievers” so they can go faster through and further than the mandated curriculum.

Why aren’t we using different kinds of assessments to find out what kids know? We talk about how the state multiple choice tests aren’t the best way to assess….so why use it here? This one was already created and easy is why–and there are times we just do that, for sanity’s sake, to save a bit of time, or to get a quick sort.

We tell the kids that this test is to see how much they already know of what we are supposed to teach them–so they will likely encounter things they have never seen or heard of before and if they truly have no idea, just to skip the question. As the gifted resource teacher, I was given  the kids who were identified, who had worked in math groups with me before, or who were new and records indicated they might be high achievers. I also asked my kids to note the numbers of the questions they made educated guesses on and which they just plain guessed, if they chose to answer one they really didn’t know.

Of course the kids who know how to play school tried to answer every question. Despite us teachers telling them it was okay to skip, not one of my kids skipped a question–and they had several “guesses” noted. So, I would bet their scores were a bit inflated by the fact they guessed–and probably are good test takers to begin with. In another room, though, there were kids who skipped more questions than they answered–and their scores were some of the lowest of the group.  So what does that tell us other than perhaps they give up easily?

Now we’re triangulating data–how they did on the pre-assessment, how they did on last year’s state test, what their records show, etc., to set up our instructional groups.  Did kids who skipped many, many answers end up in a group together?  Did kids who guessed well get given to the group whose instruction is being designed to go faster and further? As we group, are we addressing kids who work fast or slow, who persevere or not, who have strategies or who don’t? Should we? Have we analyzed the data we got beyond the scores, or are we simply looking at the numbers?

My expectation is to look at learning and testing behaviors as seriously as we look at the number they got right or wrong.  My expectation is that kids will share their thinking with me as they go along, marking which questions they guessed on and not simply skipping things. My expectation is that working slowly does not nix you getting into the fast group–I want to know what’s the reason for that slowness?  Lack of knowledge?  Checking the answer a variety of ways?  Inattention to the task?  I need to know more before allowing anyone to knock the kid down a group for the speed at which they work.

And do we really believe kids don’t know when they are sorted into bluebirds and buzzards? What mindset does that give them, to find they are a buzzard?  What expectations do they then have of themselves?

Should how fast or slow a kid works determine what group they’re in? Do we care whether a kid guessed or made an educated guess, or knew the answer on a multiple choice test?

Should we have achievement groupings anyway? Please notice I use the term achievement versus ability.  We know what kids have done–we can document their achievement.  We do not ever truly know what a child’s ability is–and if we profess to, we are using a fixed mindset rather than a growth one.  I’d rather assume kids are capable.

What do we inadvertently teach and show through our actions? What mindsets do kids and/or parents assume by what we do? And, how many of the reflective questions posed here really have to do with learning? With “Amplifying Minds”?

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