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Subtexts: A postscript in support of stronger libraries

In the first three blog posts in this series, I suggested that an effective focus on literacy must include both the science and the art of reading, that most public schools are woefully under-equipped to produce proficient readers (through the neglect of library collections) and that librarians and the libraries they manage are incredibly powerful but generally forgotten agents to produce the results schools want.

This final post is meant to be an afterward, an appendix or a postscript.  A written “…and another thing!” If you were not already convinced that your school’s library should be stronger than it already is, let me share some reasons why it should be.

As I have already mentioned, funding for libraries has been a mixed bag in my state.  There is funding for a librarian for every school – a commitment better than that of other states.  Funding to maintain library collections has been abysmal for the last ten years. If you have been paying attention, you will recall that our world and society has changed significantly in that time.  Here are just three ways in which conventional wisdom has shifted that should be reflected in our library collections.

  1. Most reasonable thinkers today acknowledge the importance of having access to texts that include protagonists and other characters like the reader.  Even a cursory review of the literary “canon” reveals the fact that the hyper majority of protagonists have been male and white. In the last ten years, the publishing world seems to have finally awakened to the importance of producing texts that feature a diversity of characters that more accurately reflects the diversity of humans likely to read those texts.  The twin shift has been the proliferation of texts by a more diverse range of authors. If schools are truly to prepare students for the world they will live in as adults, the texts to which they are exposed must be as diverse as the humans around them. I have no doubt that your librarian is fully aware of the importance of this issue and has made heroic efforts along these lines.  If the funding available is as limited as it is for the libraries I work with, that effort has probably produced no more than a ripple on that ocean of need.
  2. In the last two or three years, the discussion about the work of schools in my area has finally begun to shirt seriously and systematically aware from elevating test scores to actually lifting student learning.  In other words, I am at last thrilled to be part of work to produce thinkers instead of merely answerers.  In the past I have been absolutely transparent about my position on standardized testing both in the blog and in my professional conversations: during this Age of Accountability, public education made the decision to value higher test scores over more learning.  The failure of that movement is well documented by thousands of scholars and voices in the profession.  It was no mistake that libraries have been starved, marginalized and (in some places) literally abandoned: we were spending the resources that should have been allocated to them on the latest magical solution for better test scores.  So the choice seems clear to me: to truly produce young women and men who are critical thinkers, they need a massively wide range of ideas to think about.  There are simply not enough hours in the day to provide students exposure to enough content in the classroom.  They must have access to high quality, relevant, powerful texts that they select to read.  A healthy library directly supports the core mission of producing engaged, thoughtful citizens. 
  3.  Finally, a study of the history of education in America reveals the explicit purposes for which the education of the young has been set.  Too often in our past, the purpose of school has been the training of the young to fill the role set for them in adulthood – roles heavily pre-influenced by class, race, religion and other factors.  In short, education has been the instrument of control. At the risk of being entirely disregarded as alarmist, let me point out that at many, many points in history a recurring strategy for increasing control on a population has been the wholesale destruction or harsh censorship of books.  If public education simply refuses to prioritize funding for libraries in a way that measurably leads to the slow decay of their collections into irrelevance, how can we in good conscience avoid the conclusion that we are denying students access to a resource absolutely essential to their intellectual and social formation?  Many students do not have access to a library other than the one in their school. By allowing those libraries to fall far below reasonable standards of operation, we undermine the efforts we public insist we are committed to undertaking.  Instead of being instruments of control, our schools and libraries should be catalysts of agency in our youth.  Weak libraries can provide no such support.

And there’s more…  There are probably dozens of other ways in which school libraries should advance the core mission of schools but do not.  I would love to hear your ideas. Above all, do something.  If you can’t solve the entire problem, start somewhere. Our children deserve our action.

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The neglected side of literacy

Warning: this series of posts is likely to offend.  Look away if you don’t want that. If you do read on, give the following claims thought before you dismiss them out of hand. Chocolate is usually good for hurt feelings.

This is the first of what is intended to be a four-part series exploring a pretty fantastic “knowing-doing gap” in public education right now.  We know what is right and have always known it; we just act like we don’t know.  To my shame, while I have striven to live and work by the principles I mean to advance here, I have only very recently begun to advocate for a radical change on this issue.  So I include myself in the “responsible party” category.

Next, a disclaimer.  I am not a literacy “specialist” or “expert”.  I have not been trained by my state or a university in the technical knowledge and skills associated with this area of practice.  I am not a librarian, unless you count the work I do to curate my personal and professional libraries.  But I am a non-stop reader.  I have read the literature.  For years I have read the writing of the professionals from all around the world who have written on this topic.  There are more qualified, more polished and more experienced voices making this case.  But their voices are being ignored, willfully misunderstood or given patronizing lip service by far too many in education.  Perhaps by adding my voice to theirs, I can help make the case for just one more educator who can in turn impact just one student.  That will be good enough for me.

We have a problem with literacy in public education.  We can’t get kids to “read at high levels”.  Scores on all manner of standardized tests consistently indicate that high percentages of students fall short of “proficient” attainment, no matter what that mark is.  Much higher percentages of minority students and students who are poor fall short of these marks.  For skeptics of standardized testing (like me), there is still no denying the fact that loads of students in high schools across the country cannot read at all or read so poorly as to make the distinction irrelevant.  We’ve known the problem for a long time. We’ve been trying to fix the problem for a long time and we haven’t.  

It would be disrespectful of me to suggest that there is a silver bullet for this problem that we have simply refused to see.  Our problem is not astigmatism though, it’s myopia. We have been hyper-focused on just one half of what it takes to become a great reader.  

In this age of accountability, we have focused more and more of our energy on reading instruction.  Individuals more experienced that I am can trace this (inappropriate) narrowing of focus in more detail, but the facts of recent trends in education are clear: we believe that the solution to the issue of poor reading is more and better reading instruction.

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on an interview panel for a position that requires extensive knowledge and expertise in curriculum and teaching.  One question asked applicants to identify the two most important parts of an effective literacy program.  To my great dismay (but not to my surprise), only two applicants event mentioned books.  Every other applicant focused his/her answer on some aspect of reading instruction.  The significance of their answers was not at all lost on me and mirrors our decision-making at all levels of education: a focus on literacy means teaching students how to read.  This is the science of reading.  It breaks the act of reading and learning to read into its component parts and determines the “research-based” way to execute each part.  It tracks student progress against specific metrics meticulously.  It requires teachers to follow the reading program “to fidelity”.  It believes in the power of the basal reader.

And this part of literacy is not wrong.  There is a science to reading.  We can understand how it works and we can apply that understanding to our work to teach young minds how to read.

The problem is that this part of literacy actively seeks to deny the value of the other side of the coin.  The cult of the science of reading is deeply skeptical of the art of reading.  It demands that students’ “independent” reading be tightly controlled – for their own good, of course.  It insists that students document their reading – through a standardized test whenever possible.  It calls time spent in class on independent reading “wasted” if it is not organized and documented.  But mostly, it starves the art of reading but demanding all the resources.  It needs all the personnel, all the funding and all the time.  It is happy to give stickers and cupcakes and even free books to the kids who find a way to read a bunch anyway.  It even makes a show of promoting a “culture of reading” with special events like reading days – which, by the way, also provide amazing photo opportunities for adults.  But on every other day, it is very specific about how many minutes must be spent on reading instruction.

Because science is easier to quantify and measure than art (whether the results are good or bad), we accede to the demands of the science of literacy.  The numbers look bad so we use other numbers to fight the first set of numbers.  We hire more people.  We buy more programs.  We budget more minutes.  We take more reading tests.  

And nothing really changes because that’s not how reading works.  It takes both sides of the equation to grow proficient readers.

Part II: The Missing Avalanche

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Galactica Actual

October is Principal Appreciation Month.  This post is dedicated to all the amazing principals I have had the privilege to work with as a teacher and colleague.  

The best metaphor I know to explain what it is like to be a principal comes from the show Battlestar Galactica.

In the pantheon of sci-fi television series, Battlestar Galactica must surely deserve consideration as one of the greats.  In case you have forgotten, the series depicts the odyssey of the last remnants of the human race as they are pursued through the universe by a race of humanoid “cylons” they had created. The ragtag fleet of ships is lead by Laura Roslin – who is promoted from Secretary of Education to President (of the human race) when the 42 government officials ahead of her in succession to that position are killed in the initial attack by the cylons, and by Commander William Adama – captain of the only surviving vessel of war: the battlestar Galactica.

Commander Adama’s ship has a squadron of “Vipers” – flying machines that function in space the way fighter planes function in terrestrial conflicts.  The command of military maneuvers is coordinated between the Galactica and the Vipers by radio transmission.  As with naval ships and fighter galacticaplanes on Earth, each has a call sign.  For example, Commander Adama’s son Lee Adama flies under the call sign “Apollo”.  Pilots attempting to communicate with the battlestar address their communication to “Galactica”.  As in “Galactica, this is Apollo.  I have made visual contact with the enemy.”  In a practice that mirrors that of battleships in the United States Navy, a junior officer on the Galactica is the one who operates the radio and speaks to the pilots most of the time.  When they hear from Galactica, it is his voice that comes over the airwaves.  

But he is only the voice of the ship.  When pilots need to discuss something very important, unorthodox or otherwise unusual, they ask for permission to speak to the Commander himself.  They say “Give me Galactical Actual”.  They are saying, in effect, ‘I have been speaking to the voice of the ship but now I need to speak to the ship itself’.  When Commander Adama says “This is Galactica Actual”, he is is saying ‘Go ahead, you are speaking to the ship’.  

When I saw the show for the first time, I was a principal and I made an instant connection to that concept.  You see, psychologically, it is is the same for a principal.  You are the school.  If you are (or have been) a principal, you know what I am talking about.  On the other hand, if you have never been a principal, you can only understand what I am saying theoretically.  To be the principal of a school is to be the school.  Of course, you are legally and professionally responsible for every detail in the school.  But beyond that, your personal identity becomes entwined with the school.  When your school is mentioned in the paper because a frozen pipe flooded the school or because there was a fight at the football game or because test scores were released last week, you were in the paper – whether your name is mentioned or not.  There are plenty of factors that make the principalship a difficult job – an ever evolving set of expectations, pressure to create change quickly, a steady barrage of deadlines and due dates, and an endless stream of decisions big and small that must be made.  The one that is most difficult to understand until you have experienced it yourself though is the psychological weight the job carries.  It is as if you must become the school.  Whether the individual in the office is a great leader or not, the school begins to take on the personality of the principal; and the principal assumes the identity of the school.  Whether it is more accurate to describe it as being the school or carrying the school, it is a heavy task either way.

Metaphors aren’t useful unless they lead to greater understanding.  Here are just a few hints and suggestions to help make this one worthwhile.

Principals:

  • You are your school but you are not alone.  Wear the mantle of leadership loosely.  Build a team that works together.  You do have to be a heat shield to protect the folks around you but they can keep you sane by strengthening your hands for the work you do together.
  • Do everything you can to keep your work out of your home.  If you do not take a single task home, you are still carrying hundreds of people and their problems and needs home on your back.  Don’t make it worse by stealing time from your family or personal time to catch up on paperwork or any other tasks.
  • Keep perspective.  Either your school got along fine for a long time before you came along or it will for a long time after you leave.  Or both.  Education certainly did and will.  You are valuable and important but a healthy perspective (from the lens of history especially) will help you stay grounded.

Educators:

  • When you get frustrated with your principal, keep in mind that they are people too and that this phenomenon I am describing has an impact on how they do the job.  This is not an excuse for poor practice but it might help you understand how to relate to your principal.  
  • Being a principal is not synonymous with having a huge ego.  Admittedly some school leaders appear to be engaged simply in the pursuit of power.  For most though, it is a monumental task to fulfill all the requirements and expectations they face every day.  What looks like ego is often just an attempt to make enough good decisions every day.  
  • On more than one occasion I sat in my office and cried because someone took a few minutes to write me a personal thank you note.  Have you thanked your principal lately?  If not, think about taking five minutes to write a quick note for just one thing he/she does well.  You will make their day (or maybe their week)!

Galactica out.

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Supercell on the Power of Purpose

I play Clash of Clans.

The main reason I don’t often bring that fact up in professional settings is that imagethe game does not make me better at my work.  “I play games” provides common ground with students but not very many adults.  I could make a connection to the power of applying the “rules” of gaming to learning, but that case has been very well made by others already. I see oodles of opportunities for application and professional reflection in many of the in-game features, the psychology of the game and the social interactions it facilitates. Ask me for those insights next time you see me if you are interested.

Supercell is the name of the company that created Clash of Clans. I visited their website today for the first time.  What I read in the section titled Our Story inspired this post.  In the words of a colleague, here are my two “takeaways”.

1.  “…the sole mission of the founders and management [is] to acquire the best talent, create the best possible environment for them, and then get out of the way.”

Is it possible that this approach could work for schools too? What if we spent time hunting down the very best folks, recruited them to be on our team, equipped them for their work and then let them do it?  Supercell leaves no illusion that their employees are free from oversight. In fact, the piece talks about how they “kill” projects that are not working (and how they celebrate their failures and then move on).  But between the point of starting a project and its ultimate launch or abandonment, their very small, very talented “cells” of people “have complete control over their own roadmap.”  Autonomy does not mean freedom from responsibility, high standards, or direction. It does mean the ability to do excellent work by finding the best path. Supercell seems to think that approach is part of what makes them successful.

2. “…the best people … make the best possible impact and nothing [stands] in their way. Everything else, including financial goals, [is] secondary.

Most people would say that the purpose of establishing a company that makes games is to make money. Success is determined by how much money the games earn. Supercell, however, seems to be saying that the only way to be successful is to refuse to be driven by the bottom line.

The measure of the success of a school today is its performance on standardized test scores. We are great at offering endless reasons and rationales for that fact but ultimately “improvement”, “growth”, and “success” are all essentially synonymous with higher test scores. What if we took our cue from Supercell in this as well? What if we began acting like the only way to get test scores up is to stop trying to get test scores up? What if we focused on producing more learning instead?

Public education is not a business and our work is not a game but I believe we have something to learn from Supercell about priorities.

By the way, even though “financial goals” are “secondary” for Supercell, they do just fine in that department too. They take in about $5M (five million) dollars every day.

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Don’t Call it a Promotion

Tomorrow is the first day of my 17th year as a professional educator.  For the first time, I will not work in a school building.  I was transferred to the position of “Director of Middle School Education” several weeks ago.  I asked for this job, am deeply honored to have been selected and am looking forward to working with the principals and faculties at all seven middle schools in our system.

There is one thing I need to address though. Almost everyone to whom I have spoken since my transfer was announced has congratulated me on my “promotion”.  To all of the well-wishers (including the ones I have not yet seen), I make this request: please don’t call it a promotion.  I am delighted to be in my new role and can not wait to see what the future holds.  But I am very uncomfortable calling this move a promotion.

Here are two reasons why:

  • It underscores and perpetuates the “just a teacher” mid-set.  We live in a culture that has largely lost its respect for teachers and generally work in organizations where teachers are treated as problems to be fixed rather than as unimaginably valuable resources.  If people who stop being teachers are “promoted”, what does that say about the educators who chose to continue being teachers?  By extension, what are we implying about principals when individuals who accept Central Office jobs are “promoted”?
  • I became an educator because I love young people.  I did not discover that I get along okay with teenagers after I chose to be a teacher; I became a teacher because I knew I needed to be in a career that allows me to interact with lots of folks all the time.  And to try to enrich their lives in the process.  My new job will require me to make up excuses to interact with students: calling that change a “promotion” seems at least a little bit insulting to them.

I could go on but my entire point is very simple: education is about teaching and learning.  Both happen as a result of interactions between human beings.  Describing career steps that move away from those interactions as “promotions” is backwards thinking in my book.  Longer list of stuff to think about?  Sure.  More responsibility?  Maybe.  Promotion?  No.

imageThere is no need for you to feel uncomfortable or avoid mentioning my new role when we see each other.  I have a suggestion for what to call this transition: I have been exiled.  Feel free to offer either condolences or congratulations on my recent exile.  From what I can tell so far, that imagery works just fine.

I have been removed from where the students learn and taken to another place.  I might be allowed to go back some day, but for now that is not my home any more.  I am allowed to cultivate relationships, maintain strong lines of communication, and work to influence what happens where the students are from where I am.  I can even get away with sneaking back for very brief visits.  But I don’t get to live there any more.  Someone else will be there every day and will build relationships and will fan sparks of curiosity into intellectual flame and will change young lives one interaction at a time.  Like Aaron and Hur, I will spend my days strengthening the hands of the heroes who do that work.  And I will rejoice in the privilege to do so.

Just don’t call my move a promotion.

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Protect Common Core: An Open Letter to Governor Bentley

Dear Governor Bentley,

I am writing this letter in regards to the discussion and debate that has been underway in Alabama – and indeed around the country – about Common Core for the last few years.  As you are no doubt aware, this debate has led to the repeal of Common Core in a few states with others giving serious consideration to following suit.  Last year, I wrote a letter to the members of the Alabama State Legislature making the case that we should not repeal Alabama’s version of Common Core – the College and Career-Ready Standards (CCRS).  To my great relief, none of the bills designed to do so were passed during that session.  Last week yet another bill that would repeal Common Core in Alabama passed out of committee.  While I have already been in touch with my representative on this issue, I am writing this letter to you because it seems unwise to wait until it is absolutely necessary to do so to voice my opinion.  Please allow me to share three simple reasons (of the many that exist) why you should never support any effort to repeal Common Core in Alabama.

  1.  Your grandchildren and my daughters deserve to attend schools with high expectations for their learning.  As you know, two of your grandchildren (Katie and Taylor) attend Rock Quarry Middle School, where I am principal.  The standards set by the Common Core have been the norm for their entire middle school careers.  They are expected to extend their learning past the mere collection of knowledge to application of it.  They are expected to understand math well enough to do something with it.  They are expected to demonstrate the skills necessary to write for a real audience.  They are expected to make complex connections between the learning done in different classes.  The standards their teachers build their instruction on start with verbs like “analyze, delineate, integrate, demonstrate, and evaluate”.  We are not just helping them survive until they reach high school; they are thriving academically in large part because their teachers are expected to make school a deep and rich learning experience; that standard of excellence is clearly articulated through CCRS.  My children are very Girls Hats 2young.  It will be two more years before all three are in elementary school.  They are already devouring the world around them – like all children their age do.  They are so curious; make incredible connections; can already draw conclusions that are alternatively amazing and hilarious.  I am terrified that they will attend a school that begins to teach them that correct answers are more important that wonder.  How long will they view learning as completely natural and fulfilling (as they do now) if they figure out that they can get by with very little effort in school?  As much as I worry about my children, I worry so much more for other little girls and boys I meet whose parents themselves learned that the bar is low and were never expected to strive for greatness.  If we chose to go backward in regards to the standards we set for academic learning in Alabama, those children will be hurt more than anyone.  You see the truth is my children will turn out fine and your grandchildren will too because they have parents (and grandparents) who will make sure they learn everything they can whether that learning happens at school or not.  All of Alabama’s children deserve to attend great schools with high expectations.
  1.  Alabama educators think the standards we have are right.  Listen to us!  I have frequently heard that no profession is more heavily regulated than the medical profession.  You would have a better perspective on that claim than me.  A perspective I can confidently share is that few other professions (if any at all) are treated with as great a disregard as educators.  Aside from all the other evidence I could cite in support of this claim, the most compelling evidence I see is the absence of our voice in decision-making regarding education.  I applaud you for making a concerted effort to be an exception to that rule.  First Lady Diane Bentley spends a great deal of her time visiting schools, including a visit to Rock Quarry earlier this semester.  You hosted a group of National Board Certified Teachers for a meeting last month and declared the week of March 8 Alabama National Board Certified Teacher week.  Many other elected officials in our state are literally ignoring educators though.  Not only do they refuse to consider our perspective on Common Core, they simply ignore our emails and phone calls and requests for meetings.  I am not suggesting that this issue is a simple one nor that there is no room for debate.  I do believe, however, that the human beings trusted with nearly half the waking hours of Alabama’s youth should be also trusted to have an opinion about what to do during that time.
  1.  We do need protection from Washington.  Repealing Common Core will not help.  Alabama’s elected officials have not cornered the market on making decisions about education in Alabama.  There are in fact many decisions and mandates from the federal level that I do not agree with at all.  I have been quite vocal publicly about my objections to those issues.  Alabama’s teaching standards in Language Arts and Math is simply not on my list of concerns.  The reason for that fact is simple: Alabama educators are firmly in control of the decision-making process in our state.  I doubt that any other state has adapted Common Core more than Alabama has.  When something did not fit, we changed it.  When the public expressed concerns about details connected to Common Core, those items were removed.  At every turn, we have made decisions that were right for our students whether someone outside our state agreed with those decisions or not.  Unlike many neighboring states, the Alabama Department of Education has taken a stand when pressure from Washington conflicts with what we know to be best for our students.  I agree with the notion that we should not let Washington dictate educational decisions to us.  I disagree strongly that describing the level at which learning should take place puts us in danger of succumbing to anyone else’s agenda.

Governor Bentley, we do not know each other personally.  However, I do know that you care very deeply for Alabama and that you are a strong supporter of public education.  I am not asking you to attempt to curtail the discussion about Common Core in Alabama.  My simple request is that if you are ever given a chance to weigh in on our instructional standards you remand that decision to the folks who should be making decisions about education in Alabama: educators.  Please do not sign into law any legislation that substitutes the judgement of politicians for that of educators.

Respectfully,

Andrew Maxey, NBCT
Principal, Rock Quarry Middle School

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Alabama Science Course of Study, A Perspective

The Alabama State Department of Education has posted an invitation for public comment on the current draft of the 2014 Alabama Course of Study: Science.  If you don’t know much about educational jargon, the main content of this document is the instructional standards for Science classes K-12.  All members of the public are invited to provide feedback on any part or all of the draft document between now and January 30th.  After reviewing the document, with special attention to the middle school standards, I have several first impressions and comments to post here:

1. To my trained eye, these standards are exactly on par with the Math and Language Arts College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS).  They call for high expectations centered on doing Science.  In case you missed it, we have allowed science class (among others) to become an exercise in taking notes about science-y things.  In my opinion if you aren’t doing, you aren’t really learning.  Especially in Science.  Major kudos to the authors/editors of these standards.

2.  The Course of Study includes more than just the standards.  I am also impressed by the relevance of each overview section.  The comments and suggestions regarding instructional approaches reveal that the authors know both the content area and what is most developmentally appropriate for the grade levels they are describing.  I’m still looking, but I have yet to find a pedagogical idea with which I disagree in the grade spans of my expertise.

3.  In case you missed it, Alabama has been arguing about Common Core for a while – as have many other states.  As I have written before, one major difference is thatomat Alabama has in substantive and meaningful ways made the Common Core standards our own.  When the state department of education insists on calling our standards CCRS (not CCSS), it’s not a trick of syntax.  Its is because they are our standards now.  To the best of my knowledge, these Science stanards were written entirely by Alabama educators.  And they read very much like the Math and Language Arts standards.  The reason for that is simple.  Experts wrote them.  If we thought the Math or Language Arts standards were not good for our students, we would not be supporting them.  And the Science standards we wrote entirely on our own would probably not look so much like them.

4.  It seems to me that many have been so caught up in all the permutations of the argument about Common Core that they have missed an important point: our students need us to teach them in different ways than we were taught.  They need us to expect more from them.  Teaching them the way we were taught will not prepare them for college and life adequately.

In case you are wondering, this is just one man’s opinion.  I also reserve the right to keep looking and find things to dislike about the proposed course of study.  I will not be shy about expressing any concerns I do develop.  In the meantime, here are a few suggestions.

A.  Read the course of study yourself.  At least read the section that applies to the grade your child is in right now.
B.  Give feedback about any concerns you have.  I have known Dr. Bice for several years.  I have observed that he takes the opinions and concerns of others very seriously.  If you just want to fuss, that might be a waste of your time.  Constructive criticism will not be.
C.  Consider whether the school where you were or where your child attends treats science instruction like the very important part of learning it is.  Do students do science or do they take tests about it?  If it is not what it should be perhaps it could be better with your help.

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