Category Archives: discovery

microscopes and telescopes: students solving problems

Today, a short exchange with a high school senior reminded me of a similar moment years ago.  In both instances, I helped a student solve a physical problem.

Today, the student borrowed a copy of Hamlet because he had left his at home.  Soon into the day’s activity, he brought the book to me because it seemed to be missing pages.  It went from page 2 to page 7, and he didn’t know what to do.  He had hit a roadblock, an obstruction, an impediment.  I saw something, and asked to hold the book myself.  I saw some pages protruding from the rest.  Turns out, the binding had started to come loose.  The protruding pages, stuck somewhere in Act Three, were–you guessed it–pages 3 through 6.  I handed him the missing pages, having solved his puzzle.  As he made his own way back to his seat, I followed him to offer a friendly debriefing of the episode.  I said I had exercised a bit of creative problem-solving–by looking outside the immediate surroundings of the puzzle.  It was then I suggested that the solution involved moving from microscope to telescope.  I stepped outside the problem to see it from another point of view, a larger one, one with a wider perspective.  Simple problem, simple solution, but the student about to head off to college came to me before creating the solution himself.  Who knows why, or what this little episode means, but it reminds me of a similar moment  years ago, but that’s a story for another time.

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photo credit: https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0525/5325/products/3-combo_grande.jpg?v=1446237156

 

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meditation on memory: a flurry of birds

What stays in our minds, and why?

As I walked this morning, as the sunlight started to paint the tops of tall oak and pine, I heard a flurry of birds.  Blue jays gave their screech, which sounds much like that of the red-tailed hawk, towhees spouted their cup-of-TEA, and the tufted titmice emitted their little chirps.  Some mornings I am busy looking at the light arise, smelling the damp oak leaves on the ground, and hearing the various birds call.  This morning, though, I tried to focus on just the sounds, just the bird sounds.  Hence the flurry of birds in my mind.

This phrase, which also lives in the subtitle of today’s post, comes from a play my wife directed some time ago.  It’s a collection of vignettes all set during the American Revolutionary War.  The title came to mind because of the internal rhyme with “flurry” and “birds.”  Poets have been using this tool for thousands of years.  When they want to remember, and help others remember, important people and events, they employ such tools.  Devices like rhyme keep things in our mind.  Witness this morning’s walk.

Another tool is concrete imagery, meaning language that appeals directly to any of our five senses.  This morning,  my mind directed my ears to take the reins.  The flurry of birds became a symphony. I heard nothing but birds.

And here comes one of the values of concrete images like this collection of bird songs.  Now that I have returned to my desk, I will soon start a set of senior essays.  By the time I was climbing our driveway at the end of my walk, I had stored the memory of these birds– to use it as an image for my work.  In other words, the birds will help me listen to the student voices in these papers.  I have long believed that each student sings his or her own individual song.  To help these people grow, my job starts with listening.  I need to know where they are, in order to help them move into new skills and wisdoms.  So, as I grade papers today, what stays in my mind, I hope, is the image of this morning’s flurry of birds.  I am looking forward to hearing the range of ideas expressed by these high school seniors, who soon will fly off to other surroundings.

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the play’s the thing: fun and joy in learning

Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_JigDuring a recent senior class, I was reminded of the value of play.  In lieu of viewing some films, I decided that student troupes would rehearse the opening of Hamlet.  And I’m glad I did.  The troupes traveled to nearby areas outside of the classroom, in order to prepare  the initial fifty-one lines.  This was the very first time we all held these books in our hands, and the players paid memorable tribute to the riches in the text.  Plus they had fun.  One group decided to go outside, using a patio’s walls as Elsinore’s battlements.  When I went out to check on them, I saw three of the boys tilted back in their chairs with feet up on the table.  As I approached, ready to reprimand, the ghost suddenly drifted into view from upstage right with someone’s blanket draped over her head.  The boy actors fumbled in fear to escape the ghost.  Then I realized that I wasn’t catching them goofing off, but was watching their rehearsal.  On the way back to the classroom, when I explained my first thought and subsequent realization, one boy actor exclaimed, “That’s how good we are as actors.”  Indeed.  Another troupe made an artistic choice that stayed private until one of the players delivered their prologue.  Given the appearance of a ghost, they set their scene in Charleston, South Carolina–known for its heavy ghost traffic.  All the players spoke in dialects of the region, lending a special resonance to particular lines and to the scene as a whole.  One girl player, after the performance, when I asked if she had grown up in Charleston, replied that her father had.  From her first lines, her accent rang as true as any in the group.  Each of those players had her or his own version of the regional dialect, which reminds me of Shakespeare’s many voices.  Speaking of dialects, yet another troupe had a boy player who relished the chance to tour the English-speaking world with his performance.  I don’t remember which character he played, but I clearly recall that across the span of his lines he guided us from London to Cork to Johannesburg and finally to Sydney.  In other words, whether consciously or as an accidental linguistic tourist, he entertained us with his expressive exploration.  In all, we had fun while playing.  I was nervous, as I often am, when we hit day one of our study of this most majestic of plays.  These seniors reminded me to trust the power of this text, and to trust them to have fun.  It was the final day of Winterfest at school, and what better way to enjoy the day.  Such moments convince me, if I needed convincing, that with a bit of guidance about theatrical tools like speech, movement and props or costumes, and with clear encouragement to have fun interpreting and inventing, students come away from the experience having learned these opening lines at a visceral, bodily, emotional level.  They heard and responded to lines much more than if they had watched someone else, like Olivier or Jacobi, render those same lines.

Postscript: Play presumes fun.  Play also exercises confidence at several levels. When students play together, they build things together–memorable things.  This building looks like collaboration to me.  Finally, I was recently part of a faculty discussion that touched on these subjects.  For example, we were considering Physics students who face the idea that a given problem has multiple solutions.  What to do?  Can’t I have just one way to produce the answer?  The recent Hamlet class suggests that something similar faced these student actors, and they enjoyed finding the solution–the interpretation–that worked best for their troupe.  Fun, I contend, played a role.  As did joy.  They enjoyed the work of interpreting the lines.  That joy took them deeply enough into their rehearsal that they came out and up onto the stage with more confidence, and confidence matters when students face a challenge, whether in the lab or on the stage.

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Learning through Exams: Henry Redbird interviews Mr. Brown

Recently, Henry Redbird sat down with Mr. Brown to ask him about semester exams in high schools.  Lately, students and teachers have been wondering why have exams at all.  In the wake of this wondering, I asked Mr. Brown for his thoughts on the subject.

How long do students spend writing an exam, and how long do you spend reading them?

Most students write the exam in two hours.  Those approved for extended time take either three or four hours, depending on their individual accommodation.  For my part, I typically need twenty-five to thirty hours to read the tests thoughtfully.  I take breaks every few hours, so that I stay fresh and attentive to the nuances of individuals’ performances.

What do you look for in a student’s exam results?

As happens during the semester, a rubric governs my assessment.  The basic rubric expects students to organize and express their ideas clearly, to develop those ideas beyond an initial statement, and to provide compelling evidence from the literary texts.  I use these same criteria for the exam.  To help students grow towards greater mastery of content and skills, I usually publish model responses from their classmates, after the exam period.  People who review these models can see where to strengthen their performance on the next exam.  Rather than showing each student where he or she went wrong with a particular question, an impractical idea given the time I already spend reading exams,  I prefer this  model-method for the type of exams they take in this course.  With this approach, students can make the comparisons themselves.

What did you learn from this most recent set of exams?

Here I need to differentiate between the senior and sophomore tests. In the case of the seniors, I learned several valuable lessons.  First is that the test produced a spectrum of results, which I take as a healthy sign.  Some students rose to the challenge of the questions by carefully expressing original insights.  At the other end, some students had trouble creating coherent responses.  For most of the students in between, the questions pushed them to consider familiar material in new ways.  The senior exam had three sections: poetry, reflections on our Nobel profile project and an essay comparing Beowulf to elements in current or historical events.  The poetry section was fairly straightforward, testing students’ working knowledge of basic poetic terms like metaphor, imagery and alliteration.  In applying such terms to their analysis of an unfamiliar poem, they showed a significant range of competence.  The Nobel section interested me most, both before and after I read the responses.  This section, just like the Nobel project itself, was a new project.  I didn’t know what to expect, but student reflections from the exam demonstrated that many students waded through the project’s early stages, but over time came to appreciate the commitment of their chosen scientist and their own work in revising the profile over and over.  It was fun and gratifying to see the care students took in writing these exam reflections.  In the last section, students rose or fell depending on how well they could sustain an argument with specific references to the text.  Beowulf is an old text, and I enjoyed reading the creative ways people could connect elements of that poem to patterns of human behavior they see in other moments of human history, including today’s world.

As for the sophomores, they also had three sections: poetry, short stories and comparative essay.  I enjoyed reading all three of these sections for different reasons.  What I learned most was the skill with which the sophomores analyzed a short story they had only seen once briefly before the exam.  I was very impressed with the care and insight everyone brought to that writing.  I knew they would do well in this section, but I didn’t expect such vigorous success across the board.  The poetry section involved some original composition, and I learned who was most able to produce original lines on short notice.  I also learned, once again, how central one’s understanding of metaphor is to the study and writing of poetry.  People who struggled with those questions, struggled elsewhere in the poetry section.  Lastly, the essay asked them to compare two unlikely partner pieces: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.  These essays showed me a number of connections I had not considered.  Again, as in other parts of this test and the senior exam, students who had a basketful of details to pull from ended up producing the more engaging arguments.

In short, the exam results taught me new ways of thinking about the literature we have read together.  It also confirmed aspects of most students’ semester performances, while bringing to my attention the tenuous grasp other students have on elements of our studies.  These later lessons will help me sharpen not only future assignments, but also my attention to the assessment of those exercises.  When I read a set of exams, I would like fewer surprises, especially negative ones.

What, if anything, do you plan to do differently in the next set of semester tests?

I am not sure.  I don’t imagine huge changes in my approach because this most recent set taught me what I was hoping it would.  During the several weeks leading up to the exam, I kept re-calibrating the questions based on what students were showing about their levels of understanding.  I like the way the questions eventually fit their readiness.  I like to challenge students just the right amount.  Call it the Goldilocks effect.   Next time, I will use the same process but with different material and a group of students who have grown beyond their current capabilities.

In your experience over the years, how much do semester exams contribute to the overall learning process?

I am not sure what they teach students.  I’d like to understand that part of the equation better.  Exams do teach me something, however–something significant each time.  For example, in the case of sophomores, this past set has revealed weak spots in some students’ understanding that had not registered with me before the exams.  That’s a weak spot of mine.  With this knowledge, as I said earlier, I can sharpen our course activities to build understanding more completely across all students.  I know that over the years my work with students has become more productive because of what I have learned from exams.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Brown.

Thank you, Mr. Redbird, for bearing with my long-winded answers.  I think about such things quite a bit, and I don’t always know when to stop.  Now looks like a good time.

 

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A few haiku for you at the Paris climate talks

the moon is waning

even oak leaves are falling

sharp bright stars now shine

___

let them fall, all brown

though they cling with reluctance

let all of them fall

___

in winter the leaves

have all fallen to the ground

traffic now sounds loud

___

leaf blowers have stopped

gone are the oak leaves that were

falling quietly

___

we’re quick to move on

but the seasons each take time

may we look to this

bare trees 1

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students advise aspiring leaders

go extra mile when things not going well; take initiative, guide group through task; lead the effort; take control, give honest feedback–without anger, be trustworthy

give voice to voiceless; communicate appreciation; think of others first, help them be better; guide, support, be an example; be a leader, which is different from being a boss; take care of others, take responsibility

trust others; want what’s best for majority; unite the group, be one of them, be experienced

These are my notes from conversations with teenagers (high school juniors).  I asked them what makes a good leader, or what does the word “leadership” mean to them.  My notes record the gist of their answers.  Personally and professionally, I feel grateful to see the patterns in their thinking.

First, these students, who have been my advisees for two and half years, see leaders as people who make the extra effort.  They push themselves forward in some way, in order to guide the group.  Even, or maybe especially, when things are not going well, leaders are the ones who step forward to help improve the situation.  They take control, perhaps giving feedback to the group or to individuals about what actions would make the group stronger and more productive.  According to the students, leaders do all of this in a way that can be trusted, in part because they guide and provide without anger.

The second constellation of comments shows these students see leaders as people who think of others before themselves.  They want to help everyone become a better person, or better at their particular task or role.  A leader takes care of other people–for example, by giving voice to the voiceless.  Though a leader needs the ability to step forward when necessary, he or she also needs to step back, in order to hear and appreciate other voices.  The strongest leaders also communicate that appreciation, so that people feel supported by someone with experience and empathy.  In short, being a leader is different from just being a boss.

Finally, leaders of groups truly trust the other members of that group.  They don’t pretend to trust, or simply say they do, but actually demonstrate trust–for example, by giving others significant responsibilities.  Motivated by wanting what’s best for the majority, a good leader unites the group.  And uniting the group means the leader is part of it, not just in charge of it.  When the leader speaks and acts from experience, the other members of the group can trust her or him.

Again, I am grateful for and excited by the students who shared these thoughts.  As an elder, I am encouraged by the solid ideas  they have about effective leadership.  Their ideas help me consider the leader roles I take on.  Their thoughts also convince me that leaders appear in many arenas in many ways.  Just because you are in a position of public authority or responsibility does not mean you are a leader.  By the same token, you do not have to be in such a position to lead.

Thank you, Advisees!  Feel free to leave a comment.

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Why do people read fiction?

bookshelves556

“Why do people read fiction?” my father once asked me.  Throughout my career as a teacher, I have been trying to answer this question–for him, for colleagues, for students and myself.  Ten years ago, I had to propose an answer for colleagues with whom I taught Humanities.  Students in this course studied History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy and Art.  I found myself asking, “What’s the big deal about imaginative literature?  What does it bring to the table?”  Eventually, I boiled my answer down to three elements: imagination, empathy and expression.   The study of literature exercises these elements in ways other traditional disciplines do not.  More recently, I have asked my father’s question of students.  For example, they write about what is found in a short story like Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” that does not appear in news articles about families fleeing Syria.  This exercise grows out of lines from a William Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What can we possibly gain from a fictional story on this topic?  Somewhere in Gordimer’s story we find something of value. Lastly, we also study fiction by writing some. This week, while visiting an Engineering Concepts class, I was reminded of what we do in “English” class.  The engineering students faced a design challenge, and the instructions observed that “this problem has many solutions.”  Students had to build a robot that does not “flip over or fall apart.”  These instructions made me wonder how I help students express themselves in a piece of writing that stays upright and cohesive. That’s what the best fiction writers do.  They imagine worlds and invite readers in–far enough in that we can empathize with the characters, struggle with them, experience their elations and deflations.  As I reflect on my father’s question, I am grateful–for two reasons.  First, he showed me that he didn’t know something and wanted to understand it.  Second, the thing he wanted to understand was my experience–in fact, a core part of my life’s work as an “English” teacher.  His question by the bookshelves in our den has stayed with me all these years, and I still wrestle with it.

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reading other lives #1: lessons in humility

double-voicing: writing simultaneously for professional colleagues and college-bound students–i.e., the first of my biography blog posts, as a sample for seniors starting their own independent reading in our April Biography Project.  Soon they, too, will post reflections (of similar length and depth) on their blogs.

Now that I have read the first two chapters of my chosen biography, Philip Levine’s Bread of Time, it’s time to reflect on the questions I brought to this project.  I chose this book because it stretches my conception of the memoir/biography genre and because it discusses two of my passions, poetry and teaching. I have been committed to both for a long time.  When I read Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times, I noticed this book because of the seniors’ reading project and the book’s subtitle, Toward an Autobiography.  I like the subtitle’s statement of intent.  It suggests a shade, an aspiration.  It communicates the author’s working toward something that readers recognize.  I just now realize that this notion of working towards something  rather than declaring a victorious achievement echoes my first impressions of Levine.  His first two chapters run more topically than chronologically, and I have been struck by the theme of his humility.

As I read, I am watching for the influences that inspire and define his poems.  I am also interested in his human teachers–people who shaped his worldview, people from whom he knows he has learned.  Finally, since I enjoy writing, I have already been struck by the joy he admittedly experiences in writing lines and sentences.  I wonder where that started and what sustained it.  I have a sense that his joy is sustained–not necessarily generated but sustained–by his “teachers” and mentors.   By the end of chapter two (about holy cities), he is already humble in my eyes.  He acknowledges that he has many people and places to thank for his growth.  Although he has reason to be proud of his accomplishments, his stance so far, as I read it, is a humble, grateful one.  No doubt some of my colleagues, acquaintances and friends who know him personally, or more deeply than I do, may disagree with my early impressions, but to paraphrase part of Neruda’s “Ars Poetica I,” these are my own manual metaphysics and I am moving on to the next chapter.

 

 

 

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a letter to seniors: who will you choose?

The letter below is primarily for seniors in my current classes.  I invite others to listen in.  Since I am asking these students to email me a letter, I am modeling what I request of them, as they approach April’s “Biography Project.”  

Questions to address in your email to me:  What three books are your current top choices?  How would you rank them today?  What distinguishes each book from the other two?  How did you find these three books and what interest(s) do they represent?  In the case of your current top choice, what aspect(s) do you want to watch most closely?   Phrased another way, what one or two questions will pull you through the reading of this book?  What question(s) will keep you meaningfully engaged?  Organize your answers to these questions as you will.  In my letter to you, I have tried to create a unified piece rather than a simple list of replies in the prescribed order.

My letter to you

For my own Biography Project I am considering three books, two about women and one about a man.  One of the subjects is still living, while the other two have died.  I came across these titles in three different ways, and each book feeds a distinct interest.   My first title I discovered while browsing in our Malcolm Library.  Propped up next to other books on the shelf near the library’s Quiet Room was Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir called My Beloved World (2013). After reading her introduction, I was struck by the personal tone and an overall generosity of spirit.  As one of the few female United States Supreme Court Justices, she has reached a distinctive position of significant influence.  I am interested in the details of how she persevered on her way to this appointment.  For example, what was her early family life like and what kinds of support did others provide as she worked her way through various courts?  What struggles did she face as a woman in these circles?  And as an Hispanic woman?  Where does she find inspiration and strength?  Also, what does she enjoy about this kind of work?

The mention of enjoyment brings to mind Philip Levine’s book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (2001).  I learned about this title from Mr. Levine’s obituary in The New York Times.  He died earlier this winter.  The obituary named a number of Mr. Levine’s books, including this one.  I was intrigued by the subtitle, “Toward an Autobiography.”  The Times described the book as a series of essays, and I thought this approach would also work for our class’s Biography Project.  I would like you students to consider creative approaches to this unit.  Mr. Levine, who has won many prizes and appointments as a poet, fits my strong interest in poetry.  I like his recognition that poetry can speak about anything, even Detroit auto factory work, which he knows firsthand.  Lastly, this book interests me because Levine devotes each essay to someone who has mentored and nourished him as a writer, poet and person.  I think I can learn a lot about him by what he values in his teachers.

Finally, another front runner is one I discovered in a “museum store” on St. Simons Island.  My wife and I had just toured the remains of Frederica, an early colonial settlement off the Georgia coast.  The plaque at one of the town’s house sites briefly describes Mary Musgrove.   James Oglethorpe and other leaders of the emerging British colony depended on her skills as an interpreter.  Her father was a British trader and her mother a Creek Indian.  Given my strong interest in native cultures, I wondered about her story.  As it happens, a recent biography about this woman appeared on the shelves in the gift/souvenir shop at the entrance to the Frederica National Monument: The Life and Times of Mary Musgrove (2012).  The author, Steven Hahn, is a History Professor at St. Olaf College, and has written the most recent biography of this intriguing woman.  At one point, she was among the most significant land owners in colonial Georgia.  I am fascinated by what a bilingual, bicultural woman on the frontier can teach me about not only her ingenuity and “cultural acumen” (Hahn’s label), but also this period in early Georgia history, especially along the coast, which was the first place British colonial ships had to land.

From among these three books, I favor Levine’s book–largely because he writes about mentors and teachers who have shaped his life and his love of writing poetry.  I said earlier that the idea of enjoyment reminded me of his book.  In the introduction to The Bread of Time, he says that the most influential mentors have been those who helped him see what he enjoys.  Simply put, he enjoys the writing of each sentence.  He likes the work.  I look forward to reading someone who takes such pleasure in writing.

_______

postscript

Naturally, I have thought often about this project.  Plus, I am older and have more experience from which to draw ideas.   Therefore, this letter to you may seem too long or ambitious.  I offer it, however, as a sincere picture of my current considerations.  It also serves to illustrate what’s possible in your thinking.  When you email me, I’d like to know what you are considering and why?  Develop your letter with as many specifics as will clearly communicate your prospects.

 

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Poetry Fridays and Islamic Art: they shall not hurt nor destroy

reindeer lampAt the start of this school year, back in August, I introduced an experiment: Poetry Fridays.  Now, as March approaches, the benefits of sustaining this practice are blossoming.

At the end of each week, sophomore World Literature students celebrate with poems.  We study some and write some.  I believe strongly in mixing reading with making.  Typically, the poems match the material we are studying during the other days.  For example, last week we began reading Henrik Ibsen’s  A Doll’s House, set in Norway.  On Friday, I introduced students to Tomas Transtromer, Swedish winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 

During February, while reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, which revolves around Afghanistan, we studied and wrote ghazals.  This traditional form began in Arabia with the qasida. Persian culture then adopted the qasida’s opening section, turning it into what poets know as the ghazal.

In a later post, I can describe the various benefits of Poetry Friday.  For now, let me say that more have emerged than I expected.  For example, students and I look forward to Fridays–as much for the material as for the end-of-week signal.  We have come to expect fun discoveries–made by being open to surprises–for instance,  in Transtromer’s poem, “The Open Window.”  We mine poems for warm-up exercises.  In this case,  students each wrote lines that give life to an inanimate object.  Then they shared objects and wrote more lines.

Last Friday, one student selected as his object a leaf of grass–presumably a dead one to fit the instructions.  His choice allowed my brief comments about Leaves of Grass and  about finding Whitman’s poems under our boot soles.  Poetry is always underfoot.  It is everywhere.  Not in a designated unit (typically in spring), but everywhere.  Committing myself and the students to poetry every Friday embodies the ever-presence of the art.  Poetry does not hibernate.  It is not a special-delivery package at holiday time.  It is in you and me, every day.

So, you cannot knock it down with a sledge hammer.  You can’t murder it then share the video of your destruction. It’s not going away–not this week or next week.

I’d like to end with a student ghazal from last month.  This poem is part of our cultural inheritance because it borrows from pre-Islamic Arabic poets, Medieval Persian versifiers and modern American high school students.  Here is her poem.

 

Stays in Motion

We cannot see, but we are collections of echoes.

We think we know the real jurisdiction of echoes.

 

When we think, our thoughts bounce each other like echoes in a cave.

The thoughts we decide on are final productions of our echoes.

 

Our parents may seem completely different than us.

Keep in mind we are imitations of their echoes.

 

There is a vast future and a dead past to an echo.

We all die, but we are the never-ending echo.

 

Some think you can’t change an echo once it has begun,

Keillor, it can be done, the revision of an echo.

 

art work by Franz Richter, from cover of Tomas Transtromer: Twenty Poems. trans. Robert Bly (Madison, MN: Seventies Press, 1970)

 

 

 

 

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