17 March 2015

Thoughts on The Opposite of Loneliness

Browsing the newly released books in our small town local bookstore, I paused in my tracks upon seeing a book jacket portraying a young woman in a yellow pea coat smiling brightly. When I picked up The Opposite of Loneliness and read the back cover, I was instantly jarred to read renowned Yale Professor, Harold Bloom, refer to the book’s author in the past tense. “I will never cease mourning the loss of my beloved former student Marina Keegan.“

The passing of a young woman leaves me thinking about what could have been—the talent, the beauty of a writer and reader of literature. I didn’t know Marina or even of her until the release of her book, but I was drawn to this young woman’s story because it reminded me of one of my former students, Morgan, who also died instantly in a car accident a year and a half after Marina’s tragic accident.

Instead of dwelling on what could have been, I find comfort in reading the writing left behind by Marina. A lover of nonfiction myself, I quickly read her short stories, aiming to speed through the nine works of fiction so I could feast on my favorite nonfiction. But then something happened while I was reading. Marina’s stories took me to different places, both literal and figurative, and I found myself devouring her fiction with rapid intensity.

From “Winter Break” in suburban Michigan when Addie is home from college on vacation hooking up with her boyfriend and visiting her parents as their marriage declines to “Reading Aloud” where Anna, an older woman, calls on Sam, a man who is blind, to read aloud to him his mail, his textbooks, his cooking directions. Marina’s writing transports us into the lives of ordinary people carrying on with life. The vast differences in the subject matter of the nine short stories struck me because some of the stories surely required research as they were well thought out beyond Marina’s 22 years. The stories conveyed a sense of hope, a hope we find when we connect with people. A feeling, the opposite of loneliness, that Marina found at Yale.

 In the essay with the same title as the book, The Opposite of Loneliness, optimism abounds. "We're so young. We're so young. We're twenty-two years old. We have so much time." Marina's last essay, written for the Yale Daily News upon her graduation went viral. Indeed, Professor Bloom's assessment of her talent reminds us of the "extraordinary promise that departed with her."

07 March 2015

My Journey into a Career in Education

I didn't set out to be a teacher.

As a high school junior, new to yet another school (my tenth in 13 years), a high school counselor told me I would never make it to college. Maybe he said this because my parents did not graduate from college. Maybe he said this because my family worked hard but received assistance. Maybe it was because I had moved so many times and barely had the right credits to graduate in a new state. Most likely he said this because I took the most basic courses, not college preparatory courses. 

Determined, driven, and intent on being the first college graduate in our family, I set out for college and majored in political science/international relations because of a long time interest in worldwide Human Rights. I didn't stay at the first college I attended. No. I continued the familiar pattern of moving. It was only when I finally landed at Piedmont that I began to settle and make peace with my former transient life style. At Piedmont I selected psychology as my major with hopes of working with disadvantaged youth. During an internship where I taught relationship courses at a learning center for teens, I discovered my true interest in not just working with teens but in teaching. After graduation, I got married and began a two year Masters program which also led to a Georgia teaching certificate.

Foxfire & Rabun County High School, Rabun County, GA.
My experiences in the classroom began during my year-long internship at the rural Rabun County High School in Tiger, Georgia. Two full semesters of teaching and observations under Foxfire facilitator, Angela Cheek, provided me a solid foundation for establishing my own classroom in 1998.  If you don’t know much about the Foxfire approach to teaching and learning, you should check it out. The heart of Foxfire’s success is student choice.  The approach to teaching and learning is experiential based and student-centered. 

Following my student teaching experience in Georgia and the completion of my Master’s degree, my husband and I moved to Sylva, North Carolina so he could work on a Master’s degree. I certainly was not prepared for the shift to a small community of public schools interested only in hiring local folks. I spent that first semester in the fall of 1998 teaching English and science at a small private school and teaching adjunct English courses at a local community college.

Cherokee Indian Reservation, Cherokee, NC.
An outsider like me was welcome though at Cherokee High School on the Indian Reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. When they offered me a position teaching high school English in January of 1999 I jumped at the chance and launched head first into an amazing experience for my first five years of teaching. Grounded in the idea that students should have choice in learning, I ran my classroom as a facilitator of learning and became a master at differentiation. 99% of my students were Cherokee, and they all had different learning needs. Again, I equate any success experienced at Cherokee to student choice in learning. They appreciated it, and I fine-tuned how to provide student choice and meet the state required objectives and curriculum through Project-Based Learning experiences.

The highlight of our project-based learning experiences together was no doubt the Renaissance Festival the students selected to create as a way to learn the required British literature curriculum.  Student centered and community involved, we even had the Asheville television station run a segment on our event as part of their Never Stop Learning series in October of 2002. Leaving Cherokee after five years of teaching was tough for me because I felt successful as a teacher and had even earned an award for 2002-2003 Cherokee High School Teacher of the Year.

Fayette County Public Schools,   Lexington, KY.
Alas, we had to move again because it was time for my husband to pursue a PhD at the University of Kentucky. So, two weeks after giving birth to my second child, we moved to Kentucky where I obtained a teaching position at the county’s most inner city school. 

This brought new challenges in part because I thought I had figured out how to teach and was comfortable in the profession. Maybe a shake up was exactly what I needed to become an even stronger teacher. In Lexington, the school where I taught had a very diverse student population. The experience of dealing with diversity brought new challenges and caused me to question what I thought I knew about being a teacher. But I was determined to meet my students' needs. New state. New school. New colleagues. New parents. New community. New students. New standards which were skill based. New content area, too, because in addition to teaching English, I taught arts and humanities. It was at this new school when I decided to pursue National Board certification. Earning my NBCT status was a highlight in my career because the process brought professional learning. Analyzing student work, writing and reflecting on my teaching practices, and producing evidence of my practice and my students' work were fantastic ways to help me improve as a teacher which ultimately led to me being recognized in the district teacher spotlight segment in 2008-2009.

The NBCT process also taught me more about being a leader because it required me to show evidence of how I was a teacher leader, not something I had given much thought previously. When you take the time to think intentionally about what you are doing, it improves your outcome. The year after earning NBCT status, I became department chair for our 13 member English department of young teachers. My leadership experience and demonstration of effective teaching were important and relevant factors for my position, which still required me to teach a full 6 courses. I taught everything from arts and humanities to AP Language, AP Literature to elective courses such as Shakespeare and Women's Studies to general 10th grade English. There was no release time for building capacity of other teachers. We really caught our groove though and created a cross disciplinary literacy team and started on a literacy plan based on meeting the needs of students in our school. Two years after achieving NBCT status, I decided I needed a change of pace.  Leaving the classroom was not an easy decision as you might have noticed if you've been following my blog. If you haven't been following, you can read more about that decision here, here, and here

State Department of Education In the winter of 2009, I accepted a position as literacy consultant at our state's education agency. Three months into this new position, a key piece of legislation (commonly known as Senate Bill 1) was passed into law. This sent our entire state into an era of new reform. I went to this position very naive about politics in education. I paid close attention and spent time learning, reading, researching, and listening.  Needless to say, it was a very interesting experience

It's About Kids Support Services (District Office). After weeks of soul searching and even conversations about returning to the classroom full time, I accepted a position in late August 2012 in my home district in Lexington, Kentucky. Returning to Fayette County Public Schools was a rewarding learning experience. I served as Secondary English Language Arts Specialist for the district and spent my time working with teachers. I visited classrooms, facilitated professional development sessions, provided Literacy Design Collaborative Training to English, Social Studies, and Science teachers in collaboration with teachers in those disciplines, planned for Response to Intervention work in the district, planned for literacy teams and writing program reviews, started a new blog, and contributed to the district Innovation Team. 

A Nonprofit Organization.  In the spring of 2013 I was recruited for a new position with a brand new organization designed to promote change and innovation in Kentucky's schools.  After more soul searching and a realization that I should walk the talk about taking leaps, I accepted a position leading an initiative for a curriculum project and research study with schools in Kentucky and Colorado collaborating to create units of study to meet the needs of their students and the demands of the Common Core State Standards.  Because we are a brand new organization with only a few employees, I also contribute the blog and initially helped run some of the social media accounts.  (I love this!)  I remain steadfastly committed to raising the voice of teachers and students in public education in my new position.  We need changes in our system, and my new position is offering me additional opportunities to promote changes and to encourage teachers along the way.

NOTE: This post used to appear on my About page, but when I decided to update that page today, I wanted to preserve my longer bio, so I updated this a bit and added information about my decision to get into education in the first place.

~~~Please tell me about your journey in the comments area below~~~

06 March 2015

Dreaming of a Teacher Powered School

Back in 1999 a year after I started teaching in Western North Carolina, I began dreaming of teaching in a school with distributed leadership, a school where all stakeholders have a voice. You see, my father-in-law, a fifth grade teacher in Georgia at the time, and I spent time talking about how we could better meet the needs of our students if only we would be allowed to do so--if only we were permitted to allow students choice in how the school operated. Back then I didn't know Teacher Powered schools could be a real thing. Young and enthusiastic, I placed my focus on learning all I could about being an effective teacher, an effective facilitator of learning. All the while, the running of the school continued to pull at me.

Snowy View from Capital Plaza Tower Frankfort, KY

Flash forward ten years to January 2009 when I began working at the state department of education. One wintry and snowy morning from the KDE Capital Plaza Tower in Frankfort, Kentucky, I called my former professor, Hilton Smith, to tell him I had left the classroom. I was taking a break from teaching with hopes that I could learn more about how education policy happens, how decisions that impact students and teachers are made. Hilton was the one who taught me about student choice in learning and about creating more authentic learning experiences like he and his colleagues used with the Foxfire approach. Not sure what he would think of me working for a government agency, I asked for advice, and he provided it. "Pay attention to how decisions are made at the state level. Pay attention to how policies are made--really made--behind the scenes, not the posturing that we all see in the public arena. Pay attention and learn because what you learn will benefit you when you leave."

The following December, Hilton sent me a letter (a real snail mail letter, not an email) about The Forum for Education and Democracy and the Coalition of Essential Schools (we had read Ted Sizer's work in grad school). In the evenings, I spent time researching and learning more about the founders and leaders recognized by these organizations.  Hilton Smith, Theodore Sizer, Dennis Littky, Elliot Washor, George Wood, Debra Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond, etc.

About this same time, teacher-led schools in Minnesota and Colorado opened, so I followed the happenings from afar with secret dreams of helping open a school like this in Kentucky. Released in 2012, the book Trusting Teachers With School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots by Kim Ferris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager provided an analysis of numerous schools around the country operating with some type of teacher autonomy.  My evening research kept me motivated and moving, eager to learn more about the type of school we might be able to open in Kentucky--one focused on providing students choices in their learning.

Ultimately, this is why I'm interested in teacher powered schools. I'm interested in schools where not just teachers have a voice but students also have a voice in their learning. I used to believe the only way to make an impact or be involved required me to teach again. As I reflected in a recent blog post, I no longer believe teaching is the only way I can make an impact. Raising the voice of teachers and students matters and so does thinking differently about how schools operate. It will take people thinking and behaving differently to make these changes. Now I have the great fortune of working for an organization focused on recruiting, coordinating and supporting expertise to inspire and scale innovation and excellence in Kentucky's public schools.

Fortunately, education leaders in Kentucky have also begun investigating alternative school models such as the Big Picture Learning Schools I explored all those years ago when I was working for KDE. Additionally, teachers in Kentucky have begun investigating distributed leadership models and Teacher Powered Schools.

I'm ready. I've been ready. Students deserve it. Let's do it!

22 February 2015

Snow Day Reads

A snowy whirlwind two weeks since my last Sunday Salon post and it's been full of both online reading as well as two more books in my book a week journey. Since we've had a Kentucky snow storm (the most snow the state has seen in over 15 years), there's been plenty of time to curl up with books and my iPad to read. Naturally, keeping up with friends on social media has also been a fun way to know what's happening around the state and nation. My friend, Robin, captured this beautiful photo earlier in the week on her way to work. Fortunately for me, I work from home, so there was no need to venture out onto the treacherous roads. A foot of snow may not be much for places like Boston where they are also experiencing record amounts of snow, but for Kentucky, 12-18 inches of snow almost completely shuts things down. Both the public school system and the University of Kentucky cancelled classes this week.

Photo by Robin Hebert. Christianburg, Kentucky Winter 2015
As I've blogged about previously, we ended up in Kentucky because my husband wanted to study at the University of Kentucky where so many literary greats were and continue to be. This article by Lexington's Eric Sutherland highlights some of the literary expertise in our area.

Karen Schubert from Meet the Press offers a brilliant conversation with poet and editor of Accents Publishing, Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. I first met Katerina when she and I served on the Advisory Board for the Kentucky Women Writers Conference together. She's an amazing writer and woman.

Horse jockey Isaac Murphy was celebrated this week on a Lexington blog. If you don't know about Murphy, check out the poetry of Frank X. Walker to learn more.

Leadership & Work
Leadership continues to be on my mind. In 10 Negative Results of Believing People are Incapable I learned some valuable advice for working with people. When people appear to possess a lack of passion or a desire to push beyond the status quo, I'm frustrated with them and begin believing they are incapable of doing their jobs. This article reminded me that some of my behaviors fall into the category where I'll end up with negative results--things like acting with impatience and avoiding conversations. Yep. I'm guilty of those things with individuals who I want to change. Fortunately, the article offers me valuable reminders.

I'm interested not only in leadership, but women in leadership. A friend sent me this piece from Harvard Business Review about how Women Directors Change Boards. Fascinating.

I owe my parents the credit for teaching me about possessing a strong work ethic. They modeled this for me, and I've always been a hard worker. This article Worst Advice Ever? "Work Smarter, Not Harder" caught my attention because I've been hearing people offer this advice for the past few years, and I wondered what it was all about since a strong work ethic was drilled into me from birth. The author of the article, also smart and working on a PhD learned the hard way during his graduate work that to succeed he needed to work both smart and hard. Watching my husband, a very intelligent man, endure years of graduate work, I often thought he took the "work smarter" pathway.

One of my favorite print magazines, Cake & Whiskey, arrived in the mail today, so naturally I read it and also enjoyed their new launch of online content as well on their Sip & Slice blog.

Non-Traditional Schooling

Several school districts in Kentucky are experimenting with non-traditional school days when it snows. I start to cringe when I hear they are "doing packets," and I hope the packets are thoughtful and meaningful assignments requiring students to think, do, and learn, not merely complete busy work. A post by Kentucky teacher, Joe Harris, was encouraging since he highlights using Google Apps to connect with students and to encourage them to write creatively.

A school in Sierra Leone also uses non-traditional schooling since students have been unable to attend school in person due to the Ebola outbreak that ravaged the nation. Students tune into the radio to hear their lessons.

For a healthier approach to the school day, some schools are experimenting with standing classrooms. I know my son would enjoy anything that keeps him from sitting all day. Indeed, many schools fail boys by insisting that they sit so still. A Washington Post article earlier this week brought conversation via Twitter amongst a few of us who feel strongly about this topic.

My place of employment is hosting a huge innovation summit this week, and in preparation for that one of my colleagues blogged about the topics featured at the summit, including alternative school models. Read more here.

This post titled Innovation and Improvement Takes a Sustained Push by Tom Vander Ark explores the importance of school superintendents lengthening their stay in districts if progress around innovation is to be made.

Teacher Features
A teacher of deaf and hard of hearing children, Heidi Givens, shared her thoughts about education in this reflective blog post.

National Board Certified Teacher, Sherri McPherson reflected on why she became a NBCT.

It made my day to read this op-ed by Bob Rothamn on the Hechinger Report because I know and work with two of the teachers quoted. Fantastic teachers doing excellent work.

When a Philadelphia columnist wrote a scathing op-ed about why teachers shouldn't get snow days, a passionate teacher offered this rebuttal.

A short Youtube clip titled How the School to Prison Pipleline Ruins Lives Before they Start is worth your time if you care about inequities in our education system.

Literacy expert, Dr. Timothy Shannahan wrote this terrific piece about the importance of teaching content, not just reading. Again, here's another topic I've blogged about because it upsets me to see children offered such a limited curriculum, and it further upsets me that high level district officials demand this approach.

One of my favorite teacher bloggers is Lillie Marshall. She always includes terrific photos, witty commentary, and insightful travel tips. Check out her photos of the record 6 feet of snow in Boston.


The tenth of February brought the fourteenth birthday of my oldest son, so I revisited my blog post from last year where I shared how Ethan taught me to appreciate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Teachers leading schools continues to be a personal topic of interest to me. Read about how districts are beginning to turn to teachers to lead.

Teaching with digital tools explains the importance of re-thinking the way we teach writing in our schools. In fact, I used this article from 2011 in my own recent blog post on the same topic.

With writing (and writing instruction) on my mind, I also enjoyed this post about creative writing in the time of Common Core.

Being cooped up in the house had us experimenting with recipes. We enjoyed this delicious guacamole recipe and chuckled at the accompanying story.

Always a fan of poetry, I and others around the USA were sad to learn of the death of poet Phillip Levine. He wrote about the working class and his poetry, the hardships and worthiness of manual labor.

Something I've never understood in schools are those walls filled with test scores and rankings of students; it's always infuriated me. Kathleen Jasper articulates this same frustration well in her post titled Shaming Students One Wall at a Time.

When my son brought home his first little tokens printed on a 3-D printer, we thought it was cool, but when I read about 3-D printers being used to make prosthetic hands, the innovative possibilities became more clear and important. Imagine the possibilities in our schools if kids can help do something real with their 3-D prints!

15 February 2015

Students Should Create, Compose & Connect Digitally

In the past several weeks I have had the great fortune of working with dozens of teachers, both current teachers and pre-service teachers. Our conversations have revolved around digital literacy and the need to have our students not just consuming media but creating, composing, and connecting. I've heard a wide-range of enthusiasm for the possibilities, a genuine concern regarding access issues, and uninformed complaints about why it's impossible.

It just so happens that my book a week took me to Troy Hicks and Jeremy Hyler's book Create Compose Connect: Researching, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools. What I enjoyed most about this book was the journey described throughout. Starting with Hyler's admission to previously being part of the "cell phone brigade," a focus on being intentional and purposeful emerged as a common thread.

An effective tool for making decisions about writing technology in the classroom is what Hicks calls a MAPS heuristic. Throughout the text, Hyler uses this tool to consider the various digital writing tasks his students create.
Visit the Wiki book accompaniment for more fabulous resources

The book includes practical advice, strategies, and tools as well as connections to the Common Core State Standards with each chapter providing a different focus. My personal favorite was chapter 4 titled Reading Our World, Writing Our Future. The mere title intrigued me, and those of you who know how much I enjoy nonfiction won't be surprised to learn this particular chapter was focused on reading and writing informational texts. Hyler wants "students to understand that informational texts can function in different ways, for different audiences and purposes (61)."

Hyler upgraded the ever popular Article of the Week assignment from Kelly Gallagher to be completed digitally, allowing for more interactivity with the article and collaborative discussion. The chapter also explores students creating book trailers and comic strips with digital tools such as YouTube, Animoto, and WeVideo. Finally, Hyler discusses his thoughts on reading logs, again emphasizing the importance of purpose and intentionality. He wants homework to be meaningful and reading to be enjoyable outside of class, not homework to be dreaded.

Indeed, reading and writing should not be dreaded but rather embraced, and when we move beyond the same five paragraph essay written with pencil on paper in every subject with little meaning and little writing about reading, we open the doors for our students to understand creative processes and writing for the future. In the opening paragraph of a 2011 Education Week article by Liana Heitin, the author begins with statements about how writing has shifted in recent years and then asks why most schools still rely on paper and pencil methods. She quotes Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, the director of national programs and site development for the National Writing Project, saying "school are in catch-up mode."

I contend that in most schools we can move beyond catch-up mode with careful and thoughtful planning and with the use of devices available to teachers and students. Clearly, this takes administrators who support Bring Your Own Device options and districts who support students using wi-fi bandwidth (Two of the recent concerns I've heard from practicing teachers). Teachers who have shared their principal's issues with digital writing claim they are required to write five paragraph essays with paper and pencils because it will "help improve scores on standardized writing assessments."

Heitin's article as well as Hicks and Hyler's book address this concern arguing that technology can enhance writing and learning without sacrificing the fundamentals. Further, Heitin reduces the complaint about test preparation by reminding us "digital writing and standardized test preparation are not at odds. Both require that students know the fundamentals. Digital writing, by showing students how writing can be used, often enhances the drive to learn the basics."

In fact, a desire for students to learn and be engaged drove Jeremy Hyler past the point of his place with the "cell phone brigade" and onto a journey to determine exactly what caused his students to be distracted and disengaged. "I had to figure out how to connect with them, make my lessons more meaningful, and engage them in the types of literacy practices that they were using outside of school (1)." He claims this isn't just about the digital devices but about engaging students in meaningful learning that keeps students coming to school and learning what they need to know for success in life. And, isn't that exactly why most of us got into careers in education in the first place?

08 February 2015

Sunday Salon: What I Read Online January 26 - February 08

My work week on January 26th began with a trip to Denver, Colorado. Coincidentally, The New York Times published this article titled What to do in Denver the week before my trip. Though I didn't get to take in all the sites suggested in the video, I did enjoy a couple of meals at local venues. My colleague and I enjoyed lunch at Earle's before a meeting downtown at the Colorado Education Initiative, and we were treated to dinner downtown that same evening. The following day we worked all day with teachers who were analyzing student work and planning revisions to their common assignment units before heading out to the infamous Steuben's (one featured on Diners, Dives, & Drive-Thrus) for dinner.
Morning walk in North Denver

Students in Northern Kentucky took their desire to be makers into their own hands and created this makerspace.

Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world--read about a film exploring this truth.
Pressure for high-stakes standardized tests is apparently ruining creativity in China. Read more here.

"It's now more important than ever to teach students to think and speak critically" says Terry Roberts in this article.

Visions for Shared Leadership from district administrator Mike Stacey are encouraging.

In education (and other field) we are inundated with big data. In this article we are reminded of the importance of human perspective when we analyze data--yes!

Book review for The Test features a school right here in Kentucky using more performance based assessments to measure student learning.

Science teacher, Patrick Goff, writes about re-thinking the way we do science fairs, and I love this idea as a parent and as an educator.

We had the opportunity to see Jack Andraka live last weekend. If you've never heard him, I'd suggest listening to his dynamic TED TALK.


For inspiration to stay active, read about the American man who ran 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.

As we approached the anniversary the 70th anniversary of prisoners being liberated from Auschwitz,  hear and read a survivor's story here.

Female Militants published a manifesto about it being acceptable for girls as young as age 9 to be forced into marriage. How is this possibly right?

For weeks now, I've been following the story of Raif Badawi, and was pleased to hear his flogging was once again postponed, and I keep hoping for his freedom.

Remember the nearly 300 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped? They are still not free. Here's a reminder.

A story about girls from Chibok who escaped and are now returning to school, defying the militants.

Madame CEO, Get Me a Coffee articulates some of the gender bias woman still endure in the workplace.

A story about Bob Dylan's speech at the Grammy's was a fun read as was this article about the intersection between art and literature.

8 New Jobs People Will have in 2025 was intriguing.

A delightful Google Doodle on the birthday of poet Langston Hughes.

06 February 2015

Raising the Voices of Teachers and Students

When I left the public high school classroom six years ago last month, I made a promise to myself to keep in touch with teachers and students and to advocate for their voices to be heard more frequently.  After all, a consistent lack of respect for teachers as professionals, a constant demand to practice for tests, and the lack of time for my family were three of the reasons I grew weary and needed a change from my role as a high school English and Arts & Humanities teacher.

In my blog post about why I left the classroom, I referenced the way I thought often about being back in the classroom because previously I knew no better way to impact education than by teaching students myself. Through the support of mentors and colleagues, I have shifted my understanding in recent months to consider how I can impact public education from outside the classroom by elevating teachers' voices, and one of the ways I do this is through blogging and through encouraging teachers to blog.

In November of 2014 Teaching Channel invited me to blog for them on the topic of teacher leadership. What I enjoyed most about that post were the anecdotal stories and quotes by fellow educators from around the USA. You can read the full post here.

In Kentucky, our movement around teacher leadership continues to grow as teachers throughout the state step forward and let their voices be heard. In preparation for an Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2) event hosted by the organization for which I work, I wrote a blog post explaining why we support teacher leadership as an organization. You can read that post in its entirety here.

Truly, there is no better time to be supporting teachers as professionals. By working together with classroom teachers we can change the experiences for all the students in our state and our country.

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