wrestling with uncertainty and the pressure to please


During a recent class activity with high school sophomores, I was surprised to find students checking phones and laptops.  They were working in various locations near the classroom, to which I had sent them with a small set of basic materials: a paper copy Gordimer’s short story, “The Ultimate Safari;” a paper copy of study questions on which they could record notes from their conversation; and a pen or pencil.  When I visited each group to assess progress, I ended up asking what they needed the phone or laptop for.  Since I had imagined them discussing the main question together and coming up with a workable answer to report to the whole class, I was caught off guard by seeing the phones and laptops.  Because of my own imagination and assumptions, it had not occurred to me to ask that they leave these devices in the classroom.  I will next time.  This time, though, as calmly as I could, after all groups had finished reporting,  I asked each individual to email me with a brief explanation of the behavior pattern:  three groups and three different reasons for accessing the phone or laptop.  I asked for individual emails to help me understand the origin of this behavior. In apparently honest and clearly expressed emails, each student offered his or her own analysis.  What follows here is a paragraph summarizing their responses.


Either explicitly or implicitly, all of the emails indicate a pressure to please or perform.  The pattern across the emails shows how these students experienced and then responded to the pressures.  For example, one student expressed the pressure to be “good enough”:  “I personally think that the reason all of the groups went outside the resources is because often we don’t think that our work is good enough. We always are striving to get the best grade possible, and sometimes we feel as if we need a little bit of extra help.”  For this individual, the pressure is tied tightly to grades, even though I never said anything about this exercise being graded.  Apparently, sometimes students operate according to this likelihood, whether or not the teacher mentions grades in the instructions.  A second kind of pressure appears in another student’s email: “In doing a group presentation there is always the pressure to make your presentation pleasing and good for the teacher.”  Even if grades do not go in the grade book for an exercise, students still make decisions according to the impression they think their work will make on the teacher.  This same student went on to write that “At certain times people struggled with interpreting the question and no one understood so they looked to outside resources like a laptop for help” [emphasis added].  Not being sure that their work would please the teacher, they turned to an easily available additional resource.  Pure ease of access helps explain their response to various pressures they felt.  A different student explained the principle this way: “I guess it was an automatic thing to grab the thing that we are most familiar with. The laptop provided more comfort with the assignment.”  Not only was the laptop readily available in this particular case, but it has been available for long enough that reaching for it is automatic.  In other words, it happens without conscious thought.  To put this principle in the words of yet another student, “Another reason is the accessibility of electronic devices. All the groups had an easy time opening their laptops or phones just for a little help.”  Accessible.  Available.  It was as easy as easy can be to reach for one of these tools.  Finally, not only is access easy, but the thinking, the intellectual work is easier, when google comes to the rescue.  As one student beautifully expressed it: “I think the origin of what happened in all three groups going outside of the resources provided is just our dependency on technology. We’re in the age where everything can be found on Google and it’s easier and more convenient to just look it up rather than racking your brain when you have limited time.”  Ease of access breeds automatic behaviors.  Such behaviors, as shown in this email, cause dependency.  Unnoticed, unconscious–some might say thoughtless or mindless–dependency.  I love this student’s reference to “racking your brain” because students need to wrestle with the pressures of performance, and with uncertainty in the face of challenging questions.  They need to turn to each other, and listen to each other, in such exercises.  They need to stay close to the text, as I had imagined they would, rather than outsource their thinking.  At the same time, in order to encourage this wrestling, I need to find ways to reward evidence of struggling.  What does such evidence look like?  I don’t know, but I’d like to wrestle with the question.





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enjoy learning from each other: apples and reactions

advisory apples.17Aug16 Recently, as an advisory group of ten students and one teacher, we were scheduled to discuss a book we chose to read over the summer, When Breath Becomes Air.  To the session, I brought eleven different apples.  Each one an apple, but each one with a different name, shape, color and flavor.  Before talking about the book, we sampled some of the apples, giving each one a score out of ten, and eventually asking the question:  would eat it again?  The clear winners were the Jazz and Kanzi varieties.  Some of us also advocated for Ambrosia.

Once we started discussing the book, we had been fueled by fresh fruit juice and multiple metaphors.  We had what I thought was a wonderful discussion, with everyone feeling free and encouraged to bring their personal reaction to the conversation.  As a result, we left with a richer appreciation of the book and each other.

My hope is that some of us remember the bowl of tasty apples and the exchange of individual opinions.

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Brexit, sheep and students: knowing the bones of the land

First a picture of James Rebanks, and a passage from his recent book The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District.rebanks.sheep.beck.road.dogs

Apparently the Bedouin can navigate the Sahara because they have an extensive knowledge of the dunes and sandy ridges, and even though they move slowly over time, they can count the ridges and know with a degree of accuracy where they are and how to get to where they are going.  Our cultural navigation, our placing of ourselves and other people, works on a similar structural basis–if you understand the bones of it, you can navigate the detail.

My grandfather and father could go just about anywhere in northern England and they’d usually know who farmed the land and often who had been there previously, or who farmed next door.  The whole landscape here is a complex web of relationships between farms, flocks and families.  My old man can hardly spell common words, but has an encyclopaedic knowledge of landscape.  I think it makes a mockery of conventional ideas about who is and isn’t ‘intelligent’.  Some of the smartest people I have ever known are semi-literate. (22)

Mastery, knowledge, insight and appreciation of context–that’s what I admire in this passage.  Knowing the bones of a place makes navigation possible. I wish this for my students.  At least, I want to help them build foundations for such navigational skills, especially in their reading and writing.  I understand Rebanks’ criticisms of conventional ideas about intelligence.  At the same time,  as I consider my particular hopes as a teacher in a more-or-less conventional classroom, I remember my earlier post on a related topic: What I Wish For, What I work For.  As I review that post, several sentences stick out because they echo my response to the Rebanks passage: “He knows his subject because he has made the commitment to inhabit the place.  As transplanted correspondent, he has credibility.  In a sense, he has done his homework.”  These sentences describe a former student turned international journalist, someone who lives with his family in Cairo.  The idea corresponds to the Bedouins and Lake District farmers because in all three cases these people know their workplace and its surroundings more thoroughly than any outsider to the terrain.  They can navigate the details because they know the bones.  This is one of the beauties of the human mind, that it can create a framework into which it places the particulars.  Think Plato’s idea of forms, for example.  Think mathematical theorems, for another.

Rebanks describes the landscape as a “complex web of relationships”–the fell’s (hill’s) relationship to the valley, his own relationship to the curves of the land, the family’s relationship to neighboring farms, and many other such connections.  Thinking of these relationships  in terms of students, especially for them as writers, I ask them as they start any written piece: What and for whom are you writing?  What is the central purpose?  How can you best shape the writing for this audience and this purpose?  If they can some day walk their own farm of written works and ask themselves these basic questions, out of habit and without my walking alongside them, I have prepared them well. Keeping in mind that they study with other teachers, too–not me alone.  Through multiple influences they develop as writers, and as human beings.  At schools, at home and elsewhere, young people find or encounter influences from various people and life experiences.  To paraphrase a friend and mentor who recently died, I hope to be one link in a chain of people who help build confidence and skills.

And these two qualities, confidence and skills  are related.  I wish for and work for young people to find clear expression of their ideas–in writing and speaking.  Strong skills breed confidence.  Writing skills close the gap between a student’s perceived and actual thoughts.  As C. D. Lewis says at the end of his poem, “Sheepdog Trials in Hyde Park,” writing is a kind of “controlled woolgathering.”  



photo credit: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03282/Shepherding_3282255b.jpg


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an unlikely line in the genome for compassion: Lady Macbeth

I had trouble writing this piece because I was composing for two audiences: myself and the general reader on one hand, while also for my students on the other.  For example, I enjoy the discursive circling around the two parts of my main idea, but I fear the elaboration may confuse some of my students.  This time around, I will err to the side of the general reader.  Students, hang in there while I try to explain.  Part of what I am doing in the paragraph below is developing the main idea–by rephrasing it, and by explaining the context from which it arose.  The main idea appears most simply in the first sentence, while the subsequent sentences develop that idea.  Part of the development answers the implied question of “Why are you spending time on this idea?  Why does it matter?”  In the case of the paragraph below, the main idea matters because many readers express a particular opinion of Lady Macbeth, and I disagree with aspects of that opinion.  I want to test the validity of that opinion against a different interpretation.  In my experience, the most compelling introductory paragraphs not only state the essay’s main idea, which some call a thesis statement, but also develop it enough that readers understand the value of the forthcoming analysis.  We tend to read things more carefully, when we have a sense of why the thing matters.  So here is my paragraph about Lady Macbeth.

Not only does Lady Macbeth have a conscience, but she also shows us where it comes from.  She reveals what lies at the heart of compassion.  She shows us a line in the genome for compassion.  Audiences often argue that Lady Macbeth is evil incarnate.  She is immoral to the core.  Yes and no.  She does act in a way that suggests this.  At the same time, though, she is not without a conscience.  Several spots in the play’s opening show that she has to work at being cruel, implying that she is not naturally so.  She has to force herself into ruthlessness.  For example, not long after she has read her husband’s letter about his good fortune, she says this to herself, trying to ready herself for Macbeth’s return home: “Come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here / And fill me from crown to the toe topful /  Of direst cruelty” (1.5.38-41).  She calls on these spirits, in order to make herself cruel.  And not just cruel, but filled through and through with the strongest type of cruelty possible–the “direst cruelty.”  Why would she invoke the help of these spirits, if she were already cruel and without conscience?  She has a conscience and wants assistance in overriding it, expunging it.  This wish for inhuman cruelty explains what she worries about in her husband.   She wants to think Macbeth is equal to the task of murdering Duncan, yet she says, “do I fear thy nature, / It is too full o’th’milk of human kindness” (1.5.14-15).  She is afraid of his kindness.  Why?  Because it will get in their way. It will block the path to their being crowned.  She not only worries about this obstruction, but she is also afraid of Macbeth’s nature, in part because she understands kindness.  She has a conscience of her own, but she fears it.  We know she recognizes kindness and compassion because later, as Macbeth approaches her after having killed the king, she says, “Had he not resembled / My father as he slept, I had done’t” (2.2.12-13).  Notably, she says this to herself before he reaches her.  He is within earshot, but not close enough to hear her express this acknowledgment.  Perhaps she does not want him to hear her admit this.  With her private statement, Lady Macbeth reveals an essential ingredient in compassion.  Conscience is based on compassion, and Lady Macbeth’s whisper to herself reveals that it is much harder to harm people close to us.  When we know them, we hesitate.  At least, that is how natural conscience and compassion work.  Of course, Shakespeare’s play focuses on unnatural events.


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Bio intro #2: “The Year of Lear”

This is the second of sample introductions meant mainly for students in my senior classes.  The previous post describes my interest in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  memoir Between the World.

I have just started reading a biography of  Shakespeare.  A particular kind of biography that increasingly interests me.  One that focuses on a single year in the life of its subject.  This sort of biography first came to my attention when my wife gave me a copy of  Rise to Greatness, a study of Abraham Lincoln in the year 1862.  The author, David Von Drehle, chose this one year because of the particular challenges the President faced during that year.  Von Drehle organizes the book by months.  He gives each month its own chapter.  One of the threads running through many of the chapters is the pressure the President faced not to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.  He signed it in January 1863.

James Shapiro’s biography is called The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.  I have started it because I read an earlier one of his called A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599.  I liked his earlier book well enough to read this one.  An interview at the back of his 1599 book reveals that he has made a conscious choice to write for the general reader, and I can see this decision on almost every page.  He writes lucid sentences, and anticipates my questions.  I had chosen the earlier because it recounts the year in which Shakespeare started writing Hamlet, a play I have taught almost innumerable times.  Each time I read it,  this play finds new ways to astonish and teach me.  I thoroughly enjoyed Shapiro’s book because it helped me understand the context, personal and political, of one of my favorite plays.

Shapiro’s writing makes me want to read more of his work.  I chose The Year of [King] Lear because 1606 saw the composition of Macbeth.  I am teaching this play to sophomores at the moment, so the timing works out well.  As I start this second Shapiro, his forceful scholarship and inviting tone bring me immediately into the world of Shakespeare during the reign of the Scottish King James.  In this time, England has a new set of challenges represented, for example, by the terrorist plot to blow up Parliament and begin returning the country to its Protestant past.  In short, the book will show me the nation’s political struggles and Shakespeare’s responses to them in his plays.

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Bio Intro: “Between the World and Me”

This post, which is under construction (as of 29 March 2016), is meant to model a post that students will produce–those students who have chosen the biography* track as their final project. (Others are choosing the commonplace book option, and they can produce their introductory post based on the collection of questions I have supplied on the course blog.)  For the biography students, I want to model, and experience for myself, the composition of a first post that will appear on each student’s personal blog.  I am writing this piece after having already started reading my biography. Recently it dawned on me that this book puts me in roughly the same stage as my students.  Even though I have started the book, I can re-create the experience of writing an introduction for a general audience.

Students, remember that you may be reading a biography, autobiography, or memoir. My book best fits the definition of a memoir.  

I first learned of Ta-Nehisi Coates from his Atlantic article about the challenges of being a black President of the United States.  His article impressed me for all kinds of reasons, mostly because he described President Obama’s need to balance forces and histories inside and outside himself.  We all face such challenges, but, as Mr. Coates knows from personal experience, this balancing act is especially hard  for black men in the U.S.  Later, I started to see and hear Mr. Coates interviewed on the radio and television.

Then I learned about his memoir called Between the World and Me.  Everything I heard impressed me all over again.  As a teacher, I value clarity.  I try to guide students toward clearer expression of their ideas, and Mr. Coates writes with crystal clarity.  As  I saw in his Atlantic article, and as I am seeing in the early pages of this book, much of this clarity comes from not accepting easy answers.  He goes after the hard truths.  Hard because they are difficult to obtain, difficult to hear and difficult to dispute.  He composes his book as letter to his teenage son, and this set-up gives his memoir extra resonance–not only for me as a teacher, but also for me as a white man.  He is taking me inside his experience–the experience of his body and mind.

He is a journalist recounting and reflecting on his experiences–for the benefit of his son.  He wants his son, and his readers, to know, for example, what he thinks of “The Dream.”  Where does this “Dream” come from?  Who says this is “The Dream”?

As I read his book, which currently I am doing in small chunks because of the book’s poetic density, I have several things I am watching.  First, I need to hear about his experience, which differs from mine in many ways.  Where are the places that test me and my experience the most?  This is the first need, and any others are clearly secondary.  I am also interested in his ideas about writing.  It is his writing that first attracted me.  As a journalist, he has a lot to teach me about strong and purposeful writing.  Writing that pursues its subject, rather than runs from it.





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Critical Need for Critical Thinking: Presidential Politics, National Drug Epidemic, and Children

Last evening before dinner, I spent a few spare minutes watching the Billionaire Businessman (BBM) address a crowd of thousands in Kansas City, Missouri.  I found myself sucked in more than I expected, or wanted.  What was the draw of this spectacle?  I listened to him weave one of his stories.  Part of me could not stop listening and watching, mostly out of amazement and wonder.  I felt embarrassed that this “expert provocateur”* was capturing my attention.  He has developed the skill of keeping the camera lights on himself.

This “magic” of the BBM reminded me of the Wizard of Oz.  One of the lines that the BBM threw out to the Kansas City crowd was a reference to the “lyin’, thievin’ press.”  For some reason, this particular line at this particular time stood out to me more than others I have heard.  It was not only the line itself, but also the crowd’s enthusiastic shouts of approval and derision.  Then I thought: the whole press?  Everyone who works as a journalist, regardless of which organization employs them?  His lumping all of the press into one handy package took me around yet another corner in my assessment of these public events.

The crowd’s excited applause at such simplistically critical opinions made me wonder.  How much different was my being drawn in than theirs?  Sure I was at home about to eat dinner and they were in the arena gorging on harsh statements, but we were all being sucked into something exciting, something harmful.

Then I began to see the drug-effect of these rallies.  People who flock to the frenzy are getting high.  They shout, and jump, and say “yessir!” They want more, and the dealer gives them what they have come to believe they want.  After all he is a BBM.  He knows how to create and  satisfy conspicuous consumption.  He can turn a want to a need.  He can make them need him.

Next my mind turned to the United States’ epidemic of opiod addiction (see just one set of statistics below).  Facts from the CDC show that many people struggle with, and even die from, addiction to artificially induced excitement.  I am starting to sense a parallel situation with those who attend rallies designed by BBM and “my [his] people.”

Finally, to the main subject of this post: critical thinking.  As a career teacher of teenagers, I worry.  Any formal schooling they receive must develop skills of critical thinking.  For example, an alarm must go off when they hear someone express an opinion about a whole spectrum of professionals with a blanket reference like “lyin’, thievin’ press.”  Critical thinking involves such skills as making distinctions and asking questions.  When students develop even just these two basic skills, they are equipped to keep themselves and their communities healthy.


  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.
    (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality File. (2015). Number and Age-Adjusted Rates of Drug-poisoning Deaths Involving Opioid Analgesics and Heroin: United States, 2000–2014. Atlanta, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/health_policy/AADR_drug_poisoning_involving_OA_Heroin_US_2000- 2014.pdf.)
source:  American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Opiod Addiction 2016 Facts and Figures”



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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.


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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