Tag Archives: back to school

Five Ideas that Beat the Dread

A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

Guest Post: A Houston Teacher’s Heart

What do you do when a hurricane slams you in the face after four days of school?Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)

This was the best first 4 days of school I’d ever had. Tuesday saw us independent reading with self-selected books for the first 10 minutes of class. A habit we will cherish through June. We were moving in and out of our notebooks by Wednesday. Groups were discussing and reporting their thoughts back to the whole class. A community was rising in all four of my senior English classes. My inclusion para-professional and I had worked through the mountain of paperwork and conferred about this student and that one. I had plans to video a class for a whole week to use for who knows what. Who could believe that senior English students could move so far so fast. Our potential was limitless.

My district sent out a message Thursday evening that school would be cancelled on Friday. Some coaches met up at school that evening to stow away hurdles, high jump mats, and benches. We lamented our missed football scrimmage and wondered when we would resume school.

The hurricane projections said it would hit hundreds of miles away and would only be a category 3. We knew the “dirty side” of a hurricane was not a fun place to live, but a few days of rain and maybe a little wind was all I mentally prepared for.

Friday, I went to school to grab my laptop and a couple of teacher books so I could finish my lesson plans, review the game plan for next week’s game against Pearland, and whatever else needed attention. Having been through hurricanes and heavy rain before, I thought maybe we would go back to school on Tuesday at the latest.

Our football staff has a group text that is mostly silly memes and rude jokes. Now it reads like a timeline of the storm.

As I look back on the text threads, there is a definite change in tone on Friday evening when the rain started. We went from making fun of each other to being seriously concerned for one another. The rain fell Friday night but none of us had water in our houses or were flooded in. I even got out of the house to drive around on Saturday. I went to the grocery store for eggs and drove around a bit to see what was what. We spent the day planning for our week one football game and watched the news as the storm worked its way closer.

Saturday night was when it started getting scary. A flood, a deluge of water fell on our city. My wife and I didn’t sleep. It was one of the scariest most nerve wracking nights of my life. 15 inches of rain fell in 3 hours and we were constantly up and down watching the water levels in the street rise and making sure our flooded pool wasn’t about to merge with our kitchen. The coaches’ group chat filled with pictures of rising water and reports from all over south and west Houston. I’m sure we are all too macho to admit it, but we felt that fear collectively and it was a relief for us to know that we weren’t alone in this storm.

When the sun rose on Sunday, my house was still dry and the electricity was on. Others weren’t so lucky. Neighborhoods within a quarter mile of my house were completely flooded out and many of our students don’t have a home to go back to anymore. I’m sure you saw reports on TV of water rescues happening in League City. Those are our kids. I see those families at parent night and sub varsity football games. We shop at the same grocery store and order pizza from the same place. My twitter feed filled with images from our community of families who were rescued in boats and won’t see their houses for weeks.flood

Despite the destruction we endured this weekend, I can’t help but think toward the future. It will take some time, but the flood waters will abate and the roads will clear. At some point, we will reopen our schools. We will ask the students and teachers to come back and the process of building will resume.

Even those whose houses didn’t flood will bear the scars of this terrifying natural disaster. And those whose houses did flood will be consumed by it.

Where will that process even begin? What will I say to them? What can I reasonably expect them to produce?

I have no idea how to answer most of these questions. All I know is that I’m going to tell them that I love them over and over. My classroom will be a refuge from the aftermath of the storms. We can be safe together. We can write about our pain and share our fears. My Student Council class will work to bring some normalcy back to people’s lives whether through food drives, donations, or lending a hand to those who need it. I’m going to give my linebackers the biggest hugs they’ve ever gotten and I’m going to tell those boys, who think they are men, that I love them.

Harvey’s footprint will always be seen on this school year for these students and teachers.

Maybe we can learn about survival and community and love. I think my classroom is the perfect place for those lessons. I hope I’m up to it.

Charles Moore is the senior English team lead at Clear Springs High School in League City, TX. He enjoys leisure swimming, reading, and coaching linebackers. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach

Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

I’ll be honest. I’ve started this post three times. At first bemoaning why I can’t believe summer is over. Then whining that I didn’t get enough done, and finally, justifying why I can’t seem to get in a writing groove. None of it matters. I started back to school yesterday. Kids come next Monday.

I will be ready. And I’ll love it.

I’ve spent hours working on my new room. It’s almost done (I’ll post photos soon), and I classroom culturefigure if I can get my room perfect, everything else will fall into place. Misplaced priorities? Maybe, but that’s how I roll. The aesthetics in my classroom matter to me, and if you’ve visited (and many teachers and admin from around TX did last year), you know what I mean. Book shelves just right. Colors and furnishings that invite. Places to chart skills taught and showcase students’ thinking. All of this matters to the culture I work hard to cultivate in my classroom.

And while I’ve worked, I’ve thought about the students whose names rest on my rosters. Who are they as readers and writers? Who are they as individuals with needs and wants and passions? How can I help them know of their potential and of the possibilities that await them not just this year but beyond?

I’m teaching seniors for the first time this fall. Since my school is on an accelerated block schedule, I will have these students for one semester. Just one. One semester at the end of their high school experience. One semester to create a community, build a culture, bridge gaps, shape literacy identities as individuals about to face the big wide world — hopefully as citizens unafraid to face their fears, and the frightening things in our society.

One semester to read and write and think — together. One semester with a dream for a lifetime.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of building community lately, and I’ve talked a lot about the first day of school in most of the pd I’ve facilitated. I used to think, especially with my AP Lang classes, I had to knock ’em dead with my syllabus the first day, list my expectations, explain my grading policy, discuss my plan for how and what they would learn. Scare them into understanding the complexities of my AP class. I blew a lot of opportunities over the years. That “my” got in the way a lot.

How can it be “our” learning community if I am the one laying out all the learning plans? If I am the only one talking about what the learning must look like?

I wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome students on Day One. The last thing I want is to ignite the fear, flight, freeze response, which so often happens with that same ole same ole flood of student expectations. Students are already experiencing high levels of stress the first day of school. I do not want to accelerate it

I’ve thought about reading the poem “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymorzska. I wrote about how my students and I used this poem to begin our understanding of rhetorical analysis last year. I’ll do that again, but it’s probably better as a week two activity.

TeacherAuthorBio

author bio, Linda Sanchez, Wylie ISD

I’ve thought about reading author bios and asking students to write their own. Lisa and I wrote about our successes with students writing author bios last year and even modeled writing author bios with our teacher friends during pd this summer. So many talented teacher writers! Author bios are a new favorite, but they’re probably not for day one.

I’ve thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked up

composition notebooks

I bought 170. The cashier at Walmart scanned them one by one.

and have one for each student ready at the bell. Now, I’m wondering if setting the notebook up is as important as just writing down some thinking on the first day of school.

Susan Barber wrote about her First Day of Class activity, and the idea of beginning with reflection resonates with me. I just don’t know about a trek to the football field — our students graduate at the UNT Coliseum miles away, and TX weather means it’s still hot hot hot. I can already hear whining. I love Susan’s idea though and want to think about this more.

I keep coming back to community. And culture.

My instruction works because of the community we build as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Or is it a culture we create as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers? Is it possible to have one without the other?

When Lisa was in town, we sat in my car in a parking lot and talked about this very thing. Lisa shared her wisdom: “Community is the classroom. It’s more immediate.” Mentioning her teaching before her move to workshop, she said,  “I built community to help us get through the things students didn’t like — like Huck Finn.”

Interesting. So community is good — sharing likes, dislikes, working toward a common goal, getting along, respecting one another.

We talked about get-to-know you games, icebreakers, we’ve all used on the first day of school. Many of them good ideas for building community. Then Lisa asked: “Do we get-to-know for the get-to-know — or the value of learning who are students are as readers and writers?”

Ah, the beginnings of building a culture.

“Culture is more pervasive,” Lisa said, “A culture of learning in an English class values reading, writing, talking, and thinking that goes on — that has demands beyond the classroom.”

And now I’m wondering:  On the first day of school, how do I build a community that begins creating a culture, a culture that validates, shapes, and inspires my students’ identities as thinkers, readers, writers, citizens, and humans that goes beyond the classroom?

Not an easy feat. But maybe there’s an easy start.

I don’t know why I clicked on this headline, but I think I’ve found my first day of school: “Completing this 30 minutes exercise makes teams less anxious and more productive.”

I think we will write personal user manuals. It’s a task business leaders are using to help

user_guide

I’d like a better name than “user.” Any ideas?

their teams work better. Why not try it in the classroom?

The article states, “The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings.” Since student talk and collaboration is central to my instruction, I think writing one-page user manuals about ourselves might put us on the fast track to better communication and the culture that fosters better learning.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states: “My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge, while putting it out to the world that I know I am – and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.” And the article includes the structure Abby used to write her manual and a link to the manual itself. Mentor text, y’all!

Abby’s user manual centers around these six topics:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

I’m thinking of including prompts that probe other topics more specific to what I need to know about my students literacy histories — kind of like a reading/writing territory — and topics that can jump start connections and trust between students. Maybe things like:

Describe yourself as a reader.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Write a simile about your writing life. 

When it comes to English class, where do you feel you want to grow the most?

List ten things you like to do in your spare time.

Of all your memories, which three are the most indelible?

What five adjectives describe your disposition?

I also like these questions I read regarding building trust in Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent, a book I just started and am already loving for content, stories, and ideas:

Have you experienced fair treatment, either by family or by the system?

How do you express appreciation? Do you often receive appreciation for your acts?

How important is it for promises to be kept, either those made to you or those you make to others?

Do you feel that you are a part of decision making that affects your life?

Are you dependable? Do you feel others are dependable?

How do you generally resolve conflicts?

How important is truthfulness to you?

Too much? Maybe. But students will have choice in what they answer — and how. And like any time we write like this, we will talk first. Talk matters in a writing classroom.

Of course, I will write my own user manual. If I get my act together, I’ll have it ready on Day One as a way to introduce myself to my students. Hopefully, I can write it in a way that lets them know that while I am intense, passionate, and purposeful in helping them grow as readers and writers, I am also pretty vulnerable, and an introvert on a stage cast in the role of extrovert.

I’m thinking we will use our user manuals a lot. I’ll include a copy of each students’ in my conferring notebook for easy access and review when I meet with them. We’ll share with our table mates. We’ll share in our book clubs and in our writing groups. We’ll share when we do group projects or collaborate on writing.

We will use our manuals like leaders in business do because “the ability to share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment—has been repeatedly proven the key to innovative, happy teams. Whether you’re a manager or young employee, writing and sharing a user manual has a clear business payoff. The better a team knows one other, the easier it will be for them to navigate conflict, empathize with one another, and feel comfortable sharing, critiquing, and building upon one another’s ideas.”

What do you think? How will you (or did you, if you’ve already gone back) start building your classroom culture?

 

Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

First Days of School: Listening Leads to Learning

‘Tis the season of back to school–that time of year that is ripe with fresh school supplies, empty notebooks, and an as-yet-un-ransacked classroom library.  This time of year always delights me, and I got to experience it early because today marks week two of having students for me.  I hope you’re one of the lucky ones who hasn’t seen students yet, but if not, cheers to being back already!

Untitled presentationI’ve been thinking carefully about what tone I’d like to set in the first days of school.  I didn’t want to leap into things with a review of the syllabus, a distribution of the many forms my preservice teachers will need to fill out, or a review of the big tests that loom large for them at the end of this school year.

I wanted to start with something, instead, that would build our community into one of support and anticipation, rather than one of anxiety and pressure.

Naturally, we began with writing.  I asked students to brainstorm four questions they’d like every teacher to be able to answer.  We spent some time in our writer’s notebooks writing, then paired off to ask one another a few of our questions.

img_1627

After a few minutes of talk, which is always invaluable, I asked students this question to elicit some sharing:

Who heard a good response they’d like to share?

Students began their replies with, “I loved what Sara said,” or “I thought Sean made a great point,” or “Jake had an interesting answer.”  As many of our responses touched on the importance of building communities that were inclusive, we noted how simply shifting the way we shared responses to focus on listening rather than talking emphasized the former.

As we moved through our day, I returned again and again to this theme:  we selected critical friends to partner with who would read our work and provide feedback; we read an article about student-faculty partnerships before setting professional development goals we’d work toward in teams; we set up a Google Drive folder to encourage collaboration and negotiated feedback protocols and submission guidelines; we did some yoga to encourage the notion of disequilibrium and read an excerpt from Pose, Wobble, Flow about being teacher-writers.

My first day of school thinking around listening hearkens back to my work with the C3WP Institute I led through NWP this summer, which is focused on argument writing and how we can encourage students to consume, create, and negotiate real-world arguments more skillfully.

It also reminds me of a passage I read about compassionate readers in Disrupting Thinking this morning (a book I refer to as Interrupting Thinking, thanks to a certain 16-month-old in my life):

Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them.  It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus understand motivations and thinking.

But to be willing to take on another’s perspective…you must be willing to enter into a dialogue with the text, to interact and not merely extract.  And through these transactions with texts, we might learn how to better enter into conversations with those in the real world who offer us another perspective.   (45-46, emphasis mine)

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAUQAAAAJDI2MTU1ZjY0LTdhNzgtNDdjNy04MmZiLTc4ZmNjY2YzMTczZQ.pngFar too much of the reading, writing, speaking, and listening that our students do is for the purpose of extraction, and not interaction.  Of course it is–what can be extracted is easier to measure than what can be inferred, experienced, or connected with.  We’ve taught students to read in order to answer a question; to listen in order to reply.

As a result, in our schools and in our self- and social media-saturated society, our students are all too practiced at speaking, and out of practice at listening.  If we want our students to learn, to engage with texts and peers and the world in a more authentic, dialogic way, we must teach them to listen.

This year, I will ask students to more thoughtfully listen to and engage with the ideas of others.  The teachers they’re observing, the authors they’re reading, the students with whom they’re working, all have notions my students will agree and disagree with–but they will learn nothing if they don’t slow down to listen.

How will you encourage your students to learn by listening on the first days of school, and beyond?  Please share in the comments, on our Facebook page, or with us via Twitter!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

Before and After

Our Compass Shifts 2-1Here in Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, we’ve been back to school for a little over a week.  I’ve managed to learn all of my students’ names, most of their reading interests, and a few of their writing hang-ups.  My students seem to be quickly figuring out that stubbornness or apathy are no match for the genuine obsession I have with reading and writing, and getting my students to do both well.  They sometimes look a little taken aback as they sit facing one another in my beautiful blue classroom, watching me do a booktalk or model a writing lesson with the zeal of a stage performer, but that’s okay with me.  I’ve worked hard to portray all of the passion and enthusiasm inside of me as we’ve framed our reading and writing workshop, and when I see all eyes in the classroom on mine, a book, or their own words on a page, I feel like I’m doing a good job.

But the thing is–I feel completely out of my element here.  I’ve only been teaching in this classroom for seven days.  I’ve only been in this state for two months.  And I’ve only been Mrs. Karnes since June first.  Combine that with the fact that this year, I’m giving myself over to the workshop model entirely, and everything about my life feels completely different.

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You see, I had a great teaching job in Cincinnati at a small school north of the city.  I taught wonderful classes–AP English, Honors English, a reading elective–and headed excellent activities–National Honor Society, Academic Team, ACT/SAT Class.  I had a gorgeous lime green classroom, a curriculum I could plan for in my sleep, and cooperative students who answered the questions I asked correctly.  I did a lot, but my job felt easy.  I had plenty of time to plan a wedding, finish my Masters degree, and work a second job outside of school.  All was comfortable and I was content.  But then, I was swept away by love to another state–away from the family, classroom, and colleagues I had all been so familiar with.  I got married and moved here without a job lined up, and quickly realized how frantic I was to teach again.

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I was fortunate enough to land a position at my new school thanks to a unique license type I had due to the Ohio-West Virginia transfer.  Here, I would be teaching general level English and one journalism class, plus advising the yearbook staff.  None of this seemed very glamorous–and my new classroom certainly wasn’t very exciting either–but hey, I was just glad to have a job.  I reasoned that the textbook series was the same, my classroom library held the same books, and I had two big crates full of sample writing prompts, essay questions, reading projects, and test-prep questions to get me through.

Then came the University of New Hampshire and its Summer Literacy Institute.  This worldview-altering learning experience completely revitalized me as a teacher.  I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from our teacher-leader, the amazing Penny Kittle (if you haven’t read her books, get with the program and READ THEM!).  After two weeks of ideas, inspiration, and insight, I decided to take the fact that I was in a new school with a flexible curriculum and use it as an opportunity to completely overhaul my teaching.  I threw most of the contents of those two big crates in the garbage and started fresh.

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So here I am, workshopping it up in West Virginia.  While I’m still getting used to planning and prepping for this model, I’m happy with the way things are going.  I spend much less time “teaching” than I’m used to, but much more time conferring one-on-one with students, helping them find good books, talking about their reading lives, and working with them on their writing.  I still get a jolt hearing “Mrs. Karnes!” instead of “Miss E!”, it still feels strange to bring my teacher bag home to a small apartment instead of my old house, and I don’t have a pile of worksheets to grade or a set of chapters to assign.  But my students are reading.  They’re writing.  And they’re doing both seriously.

I’m in a different state, with a different name, teaching in a different way.  I may not feel comfortable, but I do feel right at home.

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