Engagement Isn’t Everything

engaging.The contrarian in me bristles whenever any idea achieves such widespread acceptance that those who dare question it are subjected to reflexive condemnation. One idea that has gained such universal popularity in recent years is the power of engagement. Spend any time around educators, whether in person or in digital form, and you will have surely seen or heard the following sentiments passionately expressed:

  • Kids are bored because teachers’ lessons aren’t engaging.
  • Kids act out when they’re not engaged.
  • Kids cheat because the work isn’t engaging.
  • An engaged student will never give you any problems.
  • Kids hate school because they’re not engaged.

So at the risk of being ridiculed by the Engagement-is-Everything crowd, let me say that I’m skeptical.

We’re asking engagement to pull an awful lot of weight.

It’s the Wrong Word

First, let’s clear up some terminology. People who talk about engagement are often not talking about engagement. Engagement means that a student cares, that she gives a damn. Engagement ultimately comes from the learner, not the teacher. I don’t care a whit about needlepoint, and it won’t matter how much choice I’m given, how much technology gets incorporated, whether or not I get to work with my friends, how enthusiastic my needlepoint teacher is, or how much relevance she attempts to convince me needlepoint has to my life, I’m just not going to be engaged.

When some people talk about engagement, what they’re really talking about is involvement. Anita Archer, the Guru of Engagement, uses all kinds of involvement techniques that have been mislabeled engagement strategies. She keeps a brisk pace and requires a high rate of response from every student in the room. She expects attention and participation. She keeps kids on their toes. But none of those things ensure that students care about what she’s teaching; only that they’re involved. Anita Archer doesn’t do engagement. She does involvement.

The Student Owns the Learning

Perhaps that’s because Ms. Archer understands that true engagement cannot come from her. She can get students to actively participate in her vocabulary lessons, but she can’t make them care about learning the words. She can lead the horse to the very edge of the creek, but she can’t make it dip its head to drink.

The problem I have with engagement — at least, how it’s used today — is that it conveys the message that a student’s failure is his teacher’s fault.

  • It’s not a student’s fault for failing to do his job; it’s his teacher’s fault for failing to engage him.
  • It’s not a student’s fault for skipping class; it’s her professor’s fault for not making her lectures more engaging.
  • It’s not the salesman’s fault he didn’t sell anything; he just didn’t find the act of selling very engaging.
  • It’s not the teacher’s fault for showing videos all day; she just doesn’t feel engaged at work.

It’s bull.

There’s also this problem: What’s engaging for one student isn’t for another. I often see teachers on Twitter bragging about how hip they are because they incorporated fidget spinners or Pokemon Go or [insert current trendy item] into their lesson plans. But for every student who thinks a particular toy, game, or song is the greatest, there’s another who’s annoyed by it, and some who are flat-out pissed because their parents wouldn’t buy them one.

The Real Secret to Success

Here’s an unfortunate truth about life:

There are things we must all do even though they are not engaging. Those of us who do these things have more success in life than those who do not.

People who create and stick to budgets have more money. Making and sticking to budgets requires self-control. Few would argue it’s engaging.

Buying groceries is almost always an awful experience, but if you don’t do it, you end up at McDonald’s, wasting money and getting fat.

Sitting through meetings requires self-discipline, and your boss may or may not care to make those meetings engaging. You better pay attention anyway.

Doing your taxes sucks. The government makes no attempt to make the process engaging. And if you decide to not file your taxes, you won’t be able to blame the government for failing to sufficiently inspire you. Sometimes, you just have to do things.

In fact, much of life — pretty much everything between all the awesome, engaging parts — is about self-discipline, the ability to stick with or do something well enough even though we dislike the task or find it boring.

Not Everything Needs to Engage

I’ve got nothing against making your lessons more fun or finding ways to involve your students more. There is no question that an involved student will usually learn more than an uninvolved one. Use whatever tricks you can. You can do a whole lot worse than Anita Archer when it comes to involvement.

Nor will I try to dissuade you from creating experiences for students that give them warm fuzzies, create indelible memories, and make you the kind of teacher students remember for the rest of their lives. Go for it. That’s what makes teaching and learning fun.

But let’s stop putting so many eggs in the engagement basket. Students who learn to do what needs to be done, regardless of how they feel about it, grow up to be adults who have the self-discipline to balance their checkbooks, do the laundry, get out of bed early enough to make it to work on time, get the oil in their car changed, shop for khaki pants (just me?), and clean everything from their teeth to their dishes to their showers.

Instead of focusing so much on engagement — an endeavor that is, at best, a crap shoot — why not teach students what self-control looks like in different situations? Why not teach students that people with self-control lead more successful lives? Why not show them how to exercise self-control through talk-alouds and modeling? Why not even intentionally teach something that’s not engaging at all and explain to kids that successful people must sometimes will themselves to complete uninspiring tasks?

We don’t do students any favors when we send the message that they must always be entertained. And we’re sending our teachers the wrong message when we imply that every problem in their classroom comes back to their inability to engage their students.

Top 5 Online Resources for Teaching Writing

A guest post by Paul Bates, a teacher in Fresno California

Throughout kindergarten to the final year of high school, students should have acquired appropriate vocabulary, punctuation, style, and grammar skills for essay writing. Learning and practicing skills through technology is an incentive to learning since students consider it a ‘fun’ activity. There are hundreds of websites available for teaching writing and hundreds more are continually being created as technology advances. Online resources have improved the art of writing by providing available information that would have otherwise been out of reach.

Below, you will find a list of some of the best online resources to use when teaching writing.

Time4writing

This website offers free writing resources as well as 8-week online writing courses. Educators use this site to impart writing skills to students. The site incorporates the use of resources such as:

  • visual aids; for example: posters, flipcharts, and slides.
  • grading conventions; for example: K-2 in primary grading.
  • writing conventions; for example: spelling, grammar, capitalization, and punctuation.

Full guidance is provided to the student. The creative inscription, paragraph, and essay writing are inclusive in the teaching package. Time4writing.com incorporates students from elementary school to students in high school. The site focuses on assisting students to put their ideas and thoughts in order before they are conveyed to a writing surface.

SolidEssay

This is an essay writing service that has been active since 2005. It offers professional and timely services to students who require writing services. The service opts to offer hired essay writers assignments that would otherwise be very time-consuming to a student. Solidessay.com has become one of the most reputable companies. This is mainly because work is assigned to experienced writers that hold a doctor of philosophy degree (Ph.D.) and a Master’s degree in the specified fields.

Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Purdue’s writing lab was created in 1994. It provides resources such as handouts, articles, journals, grammar and mechanics, citations and formatting styles. The teaching writing category is partitioned based on education level from grades 7-12 to college. Purdue’s OWL provides useful information to teachers and students in relation to writing. This includes instructions and formats for expository essays, email writing, letter writing, poems, etc. Basic information on writing citations and extensive research processes makes it a reliable educator to students. Students who are interested in becoming proficient in basic writing skills, formatting and styles, have a wide range of resources to acquire knowledge from.

Education Northwest

The Education Northwest website provides a writing program that focuses on the 6+1 writing traits. These traits are:

Identifying the idea and content
Structural organization of the essay
The tone and voice of the message being conveyed
The choice of vocabulary
Sentence fluency and clarity
Conventions and presentations

These qualities define standard writing. Learning experiences are catered for students in colleges as well as adults (parents and teachers). Writing skills offered to students assist in critical thinking and reasoning, especially in real life experiences. The website’s core resources are the K-2 rubric and 3-12 rubric which are educator-friendly.

Quill

This is a nonprofit organization that provides writing and grammar activities for students from elementary school to high school. Educators use quill activities to jog the minds of students before and during class. The activities have been researched and approved by language instructors. With the integration of device applications that educate on vocabulary, grammar, and writing. The website is preferred by most teachers in classroom assimilation. Quill activities cover over 300 convictions on grammar giving students a substantial amount of skill and knowledge needed in writing. This website is bent on improving writing skills of students between kindergarten and grade 12. The site provides favorable circumstances by instantly grading tests and providing individualized feedbacks and instructions. This contributes to their divulging writing skills.

In this digital and modern age, students have tools and resources that assist them to become exemplary writers at their disposal. Writing is the framework of basic communication and it is important to nurture the skill at a tender age. Educators who have access to the internet and its resources, enhance the learning experience of the student while propelling the desire to express themselves through writing. Inscription skills are related to credibility. Having good writing skills is a gateway and requirement for careers such as journalism and therefore it is a skill essential to those in media-related fields.

Author bio: Paul Bates is a school teacher from Fresno, California. He loves helping his students become better and stronger writers.

What Jesus Can Teach Teachers About Priorities

jesus.

Nobody, not even the Son of God, can do it all. In the Gospel According to Mark, we learn about a trip Jesus takes to the bustling and sin-filled city of Capernaum. Jesus heads into the synagogue there and starts teaching. The people are left slack-jawed by his awesomeness and one guy, possessed by an evil spirit, wants to know if Jesus has come to destroy them. With a handful of words, Jesus exorcises the demon and everyone is even more amazed. (Mark 1: 21-28)

After preaching, Jesus takes his pals James and John over to the home of Simon and Andrew, where Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. So Jesus goes in there and cures her. By night, word of the exorcism and the fever healing has spread and the whole damn town gathers outside and starts screaming like a crowd calling for an encore at a Stones concert. Jesus obliges them. The gospel says, “Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons.” (Mark 1: 29-33)

The next morning, before the sun rises, Jesus gets up, leaves the house, and wanders off to a solitary place, where he prays.  His buddies eventually find him and are all, “Hey, man, everyone is looking for you!” I imagine that by this point, anyone with a runny nose or blisters on their feet were looking for some free health care. (Mark 1: 35-37)

Jesus, perhaps growing weary of his celebrity, says, “Let us go somewhere else — to the nearby villages — so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1: 38)

It happens again a bit later. After healing a loquacious leper who, in defiance of Jesus’s instructions, blabs to anybody wearing sandals about his miracle, we learn that, “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places.” (Mark 1: 40-45)

There are a number of lessons here for busy teachers. First, it’s important to notice that the gospel doesn’t say that Jesus healed all who came. It says he healed many and drove out many demons. Jesus got tired, and he called it quits. Second, Jesus was wise to get away from it all and pray. He took time for himself. Third, Jesus recognized that he couldn’t accomplish his main goal of teaching if he spent all his time healing people, so he decided to get out of the city and go to nearby villages where he could teach, because that is what he was there to do.

As teachers, we have many opportunities to do good. We are offered chances to join committees that do important work. We are encouraged to attend before- and after-school activities that benefit our school, students, and parents. We could coach, run an after-hours club, write grants, be a class sponsor, or volunteer to help our principal with state-mandated reporting. Our time and efforts are requested for a lot of worthy endeavors that will help others. But we have limits. We have to remember to take time for ourselves. And we shouldn’t forget what our purpose is. Like Jesus, we need to focus on what we’re there to do.

Our main goal is to be the best teacher to our students. And while taking on extra work to help our colleagues, our administrators, or students in other classrooms is good work, it’s not our main work. We need to recognize that we can’t do it all. Even Jesus couldn’t add more hours to the day. Even he couldn’t escape the hard reality of trade-offs. When Jesus spent his time healing people, he couldn’t preach. And when teachers spend their time doing important work that isn’t teaching, they too have less time to focus on their greatest contribution.

So be like Jesus. Be careful how you use your time. Take care of yourself. Keep the main thing the main thing. Remember why you’re there. And when things start getting in the way of your teaching, stop doing those things.


Related Content:

A More Effective Way For Teachers To Say No

When Teachers Should Be Selfish

American Teachers Should Work Less


I write a lot about how teachers can do a better job taking care of themselves. That’s because you can’t help your students if you’re overworked, stressed out, and exhausted. If you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe to Teacher Habits and receive new articles in your inbox.

 

 

8 Best Language Learning Apps for Teaching ESL Students

Today we have a guest post by Ethan Miller. Ethan is a private ESL tutor who has taught over a dozen classes. It’s an area I know absolutely nothing about, so I’m thankful to Ethan for providing the recommendations below.   

8 Best Language Learning Apps for Teaching ESL Students

English is known as a universal language of communication and many non-native students in the United States are learning it today. If you are one of them, or if you teach ESL students, then this post is for you.

Ever tried learning a new language? It’s undeniably hard. If you too have sailed those waters, what I’m saying will make sense.

There was a time when teachers were burdened with the task of coming up with interactive ways to make learning English simple for their students. Today, the pressure on teachers has eased as there are many online tools that aid teachers to do their jobs more effectively.

While there are many tools that you can use, which ones are right for you? How much will they cost? Are they easy to use? Do they have good exercises?

To answer these questions, I have compiled a list of eight English language learning tools that are easy to use, interactive, and free to download on both Android and iOS.

Here we go!

Memrise

Memrise is a free language learning tool that offers courses that are user-generated, i.e., by teachers who are experts in teaching the language. The app is visually appealing and students can select whichever language they are comfortable interacting in (French, Spanish, German, etc.) and enroll for the courses that they want to learn.

Memrise provides many mnemonic methods to learn and remember new words, the best of them being the Elaborative Encoding technique. You can even submit your own methods in order to keep the content fresh and share your ideas with other learners.

You get to review each lesson multiple times after completion through a feature called spaced repetition testing. As an incentive to motivate learners, points are awarded for learning new words and completing each level.

Busuu

Busuu is primarily a free language app and users can access the lessons, vocabulary, and practice sections by creating an account. The lessons are designed for beginners, elementary, and intermediate level learners.

Busuu provides highly interactive resources as a mixture of text, audio assistance, and images to help you learn and remember the lessons. You can listen to the words and sentences again and again and switch between lessons whenever you want.

There is a practice section where learners can connect and interact with millions of other native speakers during the lessons and correct their mistakes.

After every lesson, you’ll earn Busuu berries, which are points you can use to upgrade to the paid version and unlock premium lessons. However, even the free lessons are quite comprehensive.

Cram (Free)

Cram is a free flashcards app that is being used by millions of students and teachers as an aid for learning a new language and memorizing difficult concepts and subjects. It’s very popular because of its easy-to-use interface, vast collection of flashcards, and the Leitner’s system of memorization.

Cram is useful in a multi-user classroom environment for teachers to create and share flashcard sets with their students. Teachers can add images and record their audio on each flashcard to teach proper pronunciation and improve the vocabulary of language learners.

Flashcards help students remember what they learn. Cram has a feature called the ‘Cram Mode’ where students pass through five levels of questioning for each set of flashcards.

To make learning fun, Cram also has two pre-installed games – ‘Stellar Speller’ and ‘Jewels of Wisdom’ – for every flashcard set.

Babbel

Babbel has become one of the biggest online language learning apps due to its interesting features and affordable pricing. It uses the quiz style learning method and has courses designed for both beginners and advanced users.

Babbel has a good variety of courses divided into bite-sized lessons of 10 – 15 minutes each to give you just the right quantity at a time without overloading you with excess content. The courses are developed by linguistic experts and contain interesting exercises for reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar, punctuations, and vocabulary skills.

Babbel makes learning English fun and easy with its intuitive course design. Other features like the intelligent review manager and integrated speech recognition help embed the lessons in your memory and bring accuracy in your pronunciation.

Duolingo (Free)

If you want to learn English for free, Duolingo is one of the best and easiest tools to do that. It’s a tool for both the beginners starting from scratch and for someone simply looking to brush off the ring rust.

Start by browsing through the list of languages on the course page and select English to begin taking the lessons. The lessons are divided into ‘skills’ that are arranged in a tree format. You need to clear each skill to move on to the next level.

The skills start with Basics and expand into different categories like Food, Family, Numbers, Questions, Colors, Grammar, etc. It’s very important for the beginners to understand these skills to move into the advanced sections.

Each skill has different types of questions to help you understand and remember the words and sentences. There is a unique option called ‘test out’ where learners can take a single test for all the basic sections and move directly to the advanced lessons.

Another unique feature of Duolingo is the ‘Immersion section’ where you get to translate real-world articles from the web. You can speak out words into a microphone to check your pronunciation. Points are awarded after completing each level.

MosaLingua

If you are short on time and want to learn a language quickly (for business travelers), give Mosalingua a try. With this app, you can learn English anywhere – while traveling, waiting at a coffee shop, or simply when you’re taking a walk.

The lessons are short and designed keeping in mind the time constraints of language learners. The best part of Mosalingua is the 20 – 80 approach, called the Pareto principle. The app first focuses on the 20% of vocabulary that we use in almost 80% of our everyday life. This way, you understand the basics and bring fluency in your conversations.

The app has around 3000 words and, interestingly, there are 100 common words that are used regularly in half of the world’s writings and conversations. The vocabulary lessons are divided into 6 different levels with each level having small sentences and phrases comprising commonly used words.

MosaLingua has trademarked its learning method that they developed using the spaced repetition and active recall memory techniques.

Talk English (Free)

The most difficult part of learning a new language is to be able to speak comfortably in that language. The English Conversation Practice app (ECP) by TalkEnglish helps you do that by holding conversations with you in English.

ECP is a free app that helps improve vocabulary, correct pronunciation, and aid in forming grammatically correct sentences. It has 200 different conversation lessons for developing your listening and speaking skills.

The conversation topics are divided into categories of regular events like taking a vacation, eating dinner, playing football, talking about children, etc. The lessons are made up of listening exercises, recording your own voice, and speaking exercises for conversation practice.

Fun English

The Fun English app, as the name implies, is a fun way to teach English to your children using games and activities. It is currently rated as the best English learning app for kids aged 3 – 10 years. What makes it best is the fun factor. Kids have fun with their parents while learning.

Fun English is released by StudyCat and has garnered a lot of attention from parents and ESL teachers. The course is divided into 12 lessons to teach you about Colors, Animals, Numbers, Human body, Fruits, Food, clothes, etc., and over 80 learning games divided into these 12 lessons.

The free version comes with 2 lessons on Colors and Animals and 14 games. You need to upgrade to the premium version to unlock all the remaining lessons.

Besides teaching English, the app teaches other important skills like developing concentration and hand-eye coordination. It’s again a fun way to get your children engaged and comfortable with technology at an early age.

Conclusion

Technology has made learning easy and fun. These were some of the popular language learning apps to help you learn English without actually burning a hole in your pocket.

Although, if you don’t mind spending more, there are a couple of extremely popular apps, such as Rosetta Stone and Voxy, that you can try.

Have you used any other English apps that you would like to share with us? Leave us a comment. Happy learning!

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Ethan Miller is a private ESL tutor and apart from his passion for teaching, he loves to write and holds a degree in creative writing. When he is not teaching or writing his book, Miller loves to blog and is a huge fan of educational technology. Follow Ethan on Twitter and his blog.

 

What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best For Kids”

best for kids.

There’s a YouTube video called, “The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made.” It lives up to its name. It shows people cutting tomatoes wrong, mixing M&Ms and Skittles, scraping utensils against the bottom of an empty bowl, and other cringe-worthy crimes against humanity. Each example in the video makes me reflexively recoil. It’s the visual equivalent of the many phrases in education that induce the same reaction:

“Teach with strict fidelity.”
“College and career ready.”
“Unpacking the standards.”
“Jigsaw this article.”
“Let’s put that idea in the parking lot.”

And also, “Doing What’s Best For Kids.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone — usually an administrator trying to make teachers feel guilty for self-advocating — say that we all just need to Do What’s Best For Kids. The phrase tends to show up during contentious contract negotiations with regularity. That’s no accident, because all too often it means, “Do what we want you to do, and if you question it, then you’re looking out for yourself instead of your students.”

Some teachers are guilty of using it, too. Questioned about why they made a certain choice, they will hide behind, “It’s What’s Best For Kids” without actually explaining why or how they know that to be true. It’s a way for anyone — teacher, parent, principal — to claim an ethically superior position and send the message that their actions, unlike yours, have selfless motives. They’re doing things for the right reasons, while you may be not.

It’s almost always nonsense.

The Problem

The problem with the phrase, “Doing What’s Best For Kids” is that it can be used to justify damn near anything.

“I’m spanking my kids to teach them right from wrong.”

“I allow my son to eat whatever he wants because I want him to learn he’s responsible for his own choices.”

“We’re taking away recess because students need more time on task.”

“I’m not vaccinating my child because I don’t want her to get autism.”

The phrase, then, is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it’s powerless. It’s an ace up the sleeve, a flag planted firmly in the high ground, and it’s intended to be a conversation stopper. People on the phrase’s receiving end are supposed to look introspectively and question their motives. They’re supposed to think: I should sacrifice more.

How can anyone argue that educators shouldn’t do what’s best for kids?

Because it’s just not that simple. In addition to the fact that Doing What’s Best For Kids can be used to justify anything, there are three other problems.

Kids Are Different

This should go without saying, but since the phrase keeps getting used, someone ought to point out that kids are different. What’s best for one is often not what’s best for another. My daughter, always a reader, needed only to be given time and books to improve as a reader as she went through school. Other students — reluctant to read and lacking basic skills — needed much more direct instruction. Examples abound:

  • Recess is great for some kids, but it’s a source of anxiety and a daily reminder of their lack of friends for others.
  • Inquiry-based science is more authentic and engaging, but some students don’t learn the content they’re supposed to.
  • Group work teaches kids to collaborate, but it also means some students do much more work (and therefore learn more) than others.

Additionally, what’s best for an individual might not be best for large groups. Ryan is continually distracting the class and making it impossible to teach. It’s certainly not best for Ryan to be kicked out of the room, but it might be best for everyone not named Ryan. Spending one-on-one time with a student will benefit her, but what about the rest of the class?

Of course, a solution to this problem is to differentiate because giving kids what they need is what’s Best For Kids. But differentiation leads to a second problem:

Beliefs Are Different

Not everyone agrees about What’s Best For Kids. That’s why we have standards. Teachers, once mostly left alone, taught whatever they thought was important. I learned about dinosaurs every year from age six to age nine (lot of good it did me, too). I know a former teacher who took time out of every day to have her students sing her favorite college’s fight song. Some teachers still waste class time teaching the dead art of cursive writing. All of these teachers tell themselves they’re doing What’s Best For Kids.

Many educators have diametrically oppositional philosophies about what school should even be. Should it be a place of rigorous work with the aim of producing young people who know things and can demonstrate their knowledge on tests? Should it be a place of wonder and discovery, where failure is encouraged? Should it reflect society, or prepare students to shape a new, better world? Which philosophy is Best For Kids, and is that philosophy best for all kids?

Sometimes, determining what’s best is actually choosing between two benefits, in which case the determining factor is almost always something other than What’s Best for Kids. Field trips are great for kids. So is time on task in the classroom. But if you do one, you sacrifice the other. And since field trips cost money, guess which one administrators think is Best for Kids.

The Biggest Problem

But here’s my main objection to being reminded to Do What’s Best for Kids: It suggests sacrifice and that sacrifice, almost always, is supposed to come from one group of people: teachers.

Teachers, the people doing the hard work of actually educating kids, may have the only legitimate claim on the moral high ground, and yet they are often the ones accused of looking out for their own interests above those of their students. Politicians blame teachers’ unions for ignoring What’s Best For Kids, while turning a blind eye to a myriad of other problems. Administrators — people who have intentionally left the one place where they had the most direct influence on students — have the temerity to suggest to teachers — the people whose job is literally all about the kids and who have chosen to remain in that job despite stagnant pay, deteriorating working conditions, greater expectations, less autonomy, scapegoating, and being reminded to Do What’s Best For Kids — that they ought to sacrifice even more. And sanctimonious teachers wield the tired phrase to feel better about themselves, oblivious to the meaninglessness of their words but comfortable in their own moral superiority.

“Doing What’s Best For Kids” is a weapon. It’s the language of teacher-shaming. It’s manipulative. And when you hear it from an administrator, parent, policy-maker, or even a fellow teacher, prepare to be exploited. Because the insinuation behind this phrase is clear: Teaching is not your job; it’s your calling. And that calling requires you to sacrifice. It requires you to agree to whatever thing someone with more power believes is What’s Best for Kids. So sit down, shut up, sign the contract, and get back in your classroom. Go Do What’s Best For Kids. And if you can’t figure out what that is, don’t worry, someone will let you know.

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Related:

A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

 

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