Be together. Not the same.

Recently I was given this phrase and asked what it means. Along with two other colleagues, we were asked to come up with our own blog post with the same title without reading each other’s blog post.  I’ve pondered quite a bit about what it means to,

“Be together. Not the same.”

So often in the world of education, we feel the need to mimic what others do in the classroom. We are often encouraged to adopt certain methods of teaching that are used in other classrooms. I remember after a few years in successfully flipping my classroom an administrator whom, after I changed jobs, told the incoming teacher they wanted them to also teaching using the flipped model. After plenty of hard work from the teacher, it was abandoned for the traditional way of teaching through no fault of the teacher. Why didn’t it work? It didn’t work because it wasn’t her style or the methods that worked for her.  Trying to mimic someone else will never work and it shouldn’t as it’s not intrinsically motivated.  We must have control over our classrooms to create an environment that works best for us and our students.

As teachers, we need to have choice in our own classrooms. We need to have autonomy to develop our own pedagogy that works with our style. We must be encouraged to get better and to explore methods of teaching that we as teachers want to explore. We must also work together towards an end goal. How we get there is up to us as the individual.

When I think of “being together,” I think of a group of individuals working together for the betterment of the students and school culture. I think of a collaborative environment that encourages growth for everyone in the school. Being together does not mean that you have to be the same. Lets look at a classroom math example. As a teacher, I am teaching a unit on solving systems of equations. I have equipped my students to solve systems using a variety of tools. The end result to successfully solve systems of equations is expected of all of my students, but how they get there is completely up to them. They are together is working for the common goal yet none of them have the same pathway.

I must often remember that what works for others in their class may not work for me. More importantly, if it doesn’t work that is okay. We have to develop our own pathway to reach that common goal. It’s always important to be together. Not the same.

9 Things that Happened When I Changed the Way I Assessed Students

The methodology of testing seems to be a timeless tradition in the math classroom. Halfway through the chapter, you would give a quiz and at the end of the chapter, the students would take a test. Until recently, that’s what I did as well. During the last year, I have changed the way I assess students. While changing the way I assess, I have made some observations.

  1. I no longer differentiate between a test or a quiz. I simply refer to my quizzes and tests as assessments. If the purpose of a quiz or a test is to assess students over material, why do we put a different emphasis on them by calling them something different? Worse yet, I used to assign different point values or percents in the grade book for each test or quiz. By calling them assessments, it doesn’t skew the importance of what we are assessing.
  2. The assessments I give are now aligned to the standards. With the implementation of Standards Based Grading (SBG), I now put the standards next to each problem. While doing so, it made me take a hard look at the quality of my assessments. I also realized that there were standards that I wasn’t assessing to the extent as what I thought. I also give students the standards so they know what is expected of them. The following picture is what I put on their open-ended assessment I gave them this week:
  3. Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 10.39.44 AMStudents have choice in their assessment. When you think of an assessment, you often think of using paper and pencil to assess students. While I still give paper and pencil tests for some assessments, I also have been allowing students the opportunity to show their mastery of the content in the ways they choose. I have now given open-ended tests where I will say, “Prove to me you have mastered the following standards.” Students present their mastery by using whatever they see fit. Some students made presentations while other students present it on paper.  In the following picture, this is all I gave them for proving 7 high school standards for analyzing lines of fit.
  4. Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 10.42.58 AMStudents can reassess. If you think about any part of life, we constantly improve ourselves by redoing. However, in education we often give a students an assessment and then never allow them to improve. How does this help the student understand the material? I was one of those educators who had no problem allowing a student to retake my class but never allowed them to retake an assessment. Reassessment is not about giving them the same test again in hopes they memorize the material. It’s a chance to offer students ability to improve from their mistakes and apply it to different problems to master the content. Reassessment just makes sense.
  5. The quality has improved. By giving students autonomy over assessment paired with better questions that are aligned to standards, the quality of what I am receiving is by far the best I have ever seen in my classroom. Students not only make up their own problems and make sense of it, they can present it to me anyway they see fit. The following pictures, handwritten work and a Prezi, are examples of what students are turning in within my classroom.
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  6. Students perform better. It’s no surprise that with better assessments, student ownership, and reassessment comes a better understanding of content. Students are performing higher on all standardized tests and in the understanding of what they are being asked to do. If a student can explain the concepts to someone else fluently, then they truly understand the content. They understand the why and the how behind the concepts.
  7. Time limits are gone. No longer do I give students a single class period to finish an assessment. Just this week, I carved out two days to do the line of fit assessment shown above. After two days students weren’t finished so I am giving them another day. I am often presented the question, “Since students already have seen the test, can’t students go home and study some more?” The simple answer, “Yes.” What does it matter if students use the resources available to them to help them with understanding content? In life we have those resources at our finger tips as well. If a teacher is more worried about students looking at the test and then going home to cheat after memorizing the problems so they can get the problems correct the next day, then the teacher should rethink the quality of the assessment. I know that’s what I had to do.
  8. Every test is an open note test. This changed recently for me. Research shows that students who are allowed to use their own handwritten notes, they perform better. It forces students to prioritize the material to which they need to study. In addition, if given a quality assessment, students will not be able to just look at their notes without studying and be successful on the assessment. In our life and at our own jobs, we are able to look up any resources we need to in order to be successful. We should teach this to students as well.
  9. I don’t give a grade. All of my assessments no longer have a grade at the top. With SBG, I provide feedback and a level of proficiency for each standard. The student no longer focuses on the subjective grade, but on their own mastery of content. This is an example as to what is stapled to every assessment to show the student’s level of proficiency:Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 11.09.38 AM

How having points on my math tests masked the truth

I recently gave my second assessment that I graded using standards based grading (SBG). While the feedback I gave was the same as I’ve always given, what really surprised me was how the traditional way I grade a math test was faulty and how it masked what the kids didn’t know.

Lets take a look at a typical math answer key:

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I, like most math teachers, gave point values to each problem. If an equation takes 7 steps to solve I would assign 7 points to the problem. If a student makes an error and then follows through with the correct process, they would miss 1 point. If major computation or conceptual errors were made, more points would be deducted. It was a practice my own math teachers used and was one I learned while student teaching and I thought it worked well up until two weeks ago when all of that came crashing down.

While using SBG, I noticed some students had issues with a few problems on the assessment. I was not used to more than a few students getting a problem incorrect but then it dawned on me. It wasn’t the students. It was the way I had always graded a test or quiz. If I had 7 problems each worth approx. 6 points, that would be a total of 42 points. If 4 of the problems were incorrect with 1 minor error they would maybe miss 1 to 2 points per problem, they’d still earn 38/42 an A- and at the worst a 34/42 B-. The students would look at their A or B, accept that they did well, glance over the ones they missed and file it away in their binder. I always would make note of the problems students struggled with and reteach those concepts as needed.

With SBG, I was able to pinpoint the one standard from which most mistakes stemmed. I identified that concept, retaught and reassessed. The A’s and B’s that students would have received via traditional grading would have masked the concept students struggled with. Currently with SBG, students are in a cycle of consistent improvement. Students go problem by problem looking over what they missed, correct mistakes and then verbalize those corrections to me making sure students understand the why. Each student has to meet with me before reassessment. Having students explain their corrections is a powerful learning experience. They want to understand what they missed, not simply strive for the A or B.

It really opened my eyes to SBG and why it worked. I experienced t first hand the power it had for student achievement. I now could pull apart individual problems and pinpoint the exact reason or standard throughout an assessment that the student was struggling with. This is now how I report achievement to students on an assessment:

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No longer does my traditional way in grading a math assessment mask what the students don’t know. It’s a freeing experience to have gotten rid of points.

9 things that happened when I let students take control of my class.

I used to be a traditional teacher. I stood in the front of my class while everyone stared at me. I demanded silence and for 40 minutes I would teach. I would call on students and students would take notes from what I lectured. While I thought otherwise, I am sure my class looked something like this:

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Then at the start of the 2014, I gave up my control to my students. I let them take charge of their own learning within the flipped classroom. Here is what happened when I let my students take control of my class when I stopped talking the entire period.

  1. They talked more. I talked less. The emphasis was no longer on me talking and students listening. I let them have a voice (and what a powerful voice they have)! I want to know what they think while they are working. I now have time to go around the class, listening to the math conversations that are happening.
  2. Students lead class. I strongly believe that if a student can teach a concept to someone else, then they have truly mastered the content. What better way to know if students understand the material than by having them teach each other. They love being able to teach each other, not only reinforcing their own understanding but conveying different methods to others.
  3. 20150921_085246Some students work ahead. Students who no longer needed to waste class time listening to me on concepts they already had mastered now could work ahead. They set their own pace and follow their own schedule.
  4. The students have in-depth conversations with each other. With no time in class spent on traditional instruction, they have plenty of time to argue their viewpoints or strategies in how to do something. It’s a wonderful thing to watch them reason with each other.20150917_113915
  5. Students love choice. When I give projects, I now give them a choice as to the method of deliver. They can create a movie, poster, brochure, etc. When studying for an assessment, I used to give students a review assignment. Looking back, what purpose does this solve? Students would do problems they have already mastered and don’t practice enough on the ones they haven’t. By giving choice, students now have no review assignment but an independent study. They choose what to study and what they need the most help with. Students now create projects of much better quality and do better on assessments.
  6.  They feel welcome. By taking control of my class, they can make the environment their own. Moving desks, sitting wherever they want or listening to music through headphones while they work gives them choice. With choice comes freedom and with freedom comes improved engagement and learning.20150219_083833
  7. I no longer have rules. I have expectations. I used to have a bunch of, “You can’ts.” Now there are no rules whatsoever. This in no way means that my class is a free for all. I now have expectations. The students know what is expected of them in their behavior and their academics.
  8. Students can’t hide. No longer can a student sit in my class without being noticed, being quiet the whole period without ever contributing to the class. Every student is now an active part of class, engaging in cooperative groups and conversations. When a student falters on a concept, I can identify it before the student is assessed.
  9. We have fun. What would an effective classroom be without laughter? I want to have fun just as much as the kids do. If class is not fun for me, then it definitely wouldn’t be fun for them. I love teaching students and I have fun doing it!20150522_084821

10 things that happened when I stopped grading and collecting homework

In my shift to standards based grading (SBG), I started this school year with a huge mindshift on class work. For the last 14 years I would collect and record grades for nearly every assignment I’ve given. This year I did just the opposite. I not only didn’t grade and record each assignment but I didn’t even collect them. Instead I give valuable feedback, both verbal and written, while students are completing assignments and after nearly a month, I’ve noticed 10 things that have happened:

1. The students do the work I assign. I expected my students to stop doing the work, however, they still do it.  It’s an expectation and they also know I wouldn’t assign something that wouldn’t be beneficial to them.

2. They revise their work. The students still correct their work. I post the answers and they now look at every answer they miss and revise it. No longer do they look at a “B” and file it away as a good grade, not even looking at the ones they get wrong. They now want to know why they got a question incorrect.

3. They don’t cheat. With no grade to earn, there is no incentive to cheat.

4. The quality of work is better. With no rush to complete the work for a grade they spend more time on it. They are more concerned about the content than a grade.

5. The feedback is instantaneous. No longer do students have to wait for me to pass back papers up to a week later after I have recorded grades. Once corrected, students can do one of two things:

a. Keep the paper and instantly have it for review.

b. Turn the paper in for more detailed feedback from me. I then will return by the next day. Without endless amounts of papers to enter into the gradebook I’ll only have a small handful of papers to give meaningful feedback for and am able to hand it back quickly.

6. I have a lot more time. Without grading, collecting and recording over 100 assignments a day, I now spend my time on other things. More time is spent on quality instruction planning than doing busy work. I also have more free time for myself.

7. Students are solely assessed on the content they know. No longer can assignments be a safety net for those students who don’t do well on tests.  The focus is solely on the learning of standards.

8. Students are not afraid of failure. Now that students know that they won’t be penalized for failing an assignment, they learn from their failures rather than being upset by them. Why should we grade an assignment over a concept if it’s their first try?

9. I am happier. I am no longer in this constant mode of trying to get assignments turned in or calling parents because a student is missing work.

10. My students’ achievement levels have risen. The quality of the work they now do far exceeds the quality before. Instead of never looking over mistakes they missed when they got an A or B they now want to fix every mistake since they are now learning for mastery rather than a grade.

Change is good!

Change. That six letter word that people love to hate. For many, when we enact change, there is pushback. I used to also dislike change and when confronted with change I sometimes put up a wall because I am unsure of what the future holds. I never used to like change. Over the past three years, I have have embraced change and have made quite a few changes in my own teaching while changing my mindset. But whenever I make changes in my teaching, it still can be challenging. Sometimes my natural instinct is to reject the change.

This past week Open House was held at our school. It was once again a great time and I was excited to meet all of my parents. As I was preparing my Prezi for my presentation, I noticed I was still using the same account since 2011 and my past Open House presentations were all saved. I decided to take a glance at my first presentation and what I saw not only gave me a good laugh, it was quite clear that I had a completely different mindset 5 years ago than I currently do. Lets just cut to the chase and take a look at this one wonderful slide…

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Yes, you read that correctly. I gave a detention if a student didn’t turn in an assignment but this slide doesn’t even tell how bad it really was. Not only did I give a detention, when the student turned in the assignment I only gave them half credit. If a child didn’t serve their detention within 2 days, they were suspended from school. Typing this now makes me cringe. It was a policy that I enacted and used for a good chunk of the first part of my teaching career. I wanted homework. I wanted compliance. Of course at the time I was doing what I thought was the best and didn’t realize I was striving for compliance. My kids even told me they liked the policy. Kids turned in homework and I was happy but truth be told, it was all about me. It wasn’t about the learning even though I thought it was. I spent more time trying to get compliance with getting homework turned in than probably anything else during these years. I was still considered a great teacher by many but I was a great teacher with bad policies.

I look back at this slide and I shake my head in disbelief. I remembered when colleagues and others tried to tell me they disagreed with my policy. I remember after each passing year I had to defend my policy more and more. I was stubborn and didn’t want to change. Eventually I let the policy go thinking homework would tank. It never did.

Thank goodness that this policy is long gone and I now focus on the learning and not homework. If I had not embraced change, where would I be? Now when change occurs, I embrace it with an open mind as we all should. Is it hard at times? Absolutely but this slide will be a constant reminder of where I am today as a teacher because of change. Change is what has made me a better and what keeps helping me grow.

Grading classwork: Just Say No!

As I begin a new school year, I look back at a very successful first year. I have grown and reinvented my class taking full advantage of the flipped model. This year, I am tackling grading and classwork. I am fully implementing Standards Based Grading and I did the thing that I thought I would never do. I’m no longer grading classwork and putting it in the gradebook.

Yes, that’s right. A math teacher that is not putting a single assignment into the gradebook. It sure sounds absurd and even when I type it sounds so weird. I was expecting a revolt when I was going to make this known to my students and parents. I envisioned my students taking this opportunity to never do classwork again. Since I’m not grading it, why would they want to do it? There would be no reward for them since they weren’t earning a grade for it. So earlier this week, I braced for the worst. I informed my parents and I told my students and so what happened!?  Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Students continued to do their work as if nothing had changed. There wasn’t even a slight bump in the road. When finished, they checked their own work and rather than turning it in they put it right back into their binder. They had no problem that I wasn’t collecting their work. Over the course of the last year, I worked hard at setting high expectations and letting students take control of their own learning in the flipped classroom. My students no longer needed that reward of getting a grade in the gradebook. They had put all of their focus on the learning and not the grade. They were intrinsically motivated to learn.

You may be asking how I know if they are understanding the material if I am not collecting and grading it. The truth is that I am actually assessing their work but it’s as I am walking around asking them questions. In addition, if they still have questions about a concept or still struggle after they’ve checked their work, they can turn in their work to me and I will now give them feedback. Feedback to help them get better. Feedback with no grade. Here is to another great year. A year ahead to engage, inspire and empower students.

10 Tips to Flipping your Classroom.

Flipping your classroom is no easy task. It requires dedication, hard work and a lot of trial and error. Here is a list of 10 ways that I have found to help flip your class.

1) Determine the purpose of your flip. Flipping your class is more than just making videos for students to watch at home. It changes what goes on in class as well. Determine what your end result is. Do you just want to make instructional videos so students can gather information before they step foot in class? Do you want to inform students of rules and procedures for an upcoming science lab?

2) It takes time. Do not underestimate the amount of time it will take to start flipping your class. If creating personalized videos to upload, it will take quite awhile before you get the hang of it. It will also take time for your students to adapt to the change in instruction.

3) Walk your students through the process. You are changing nearly every aspect of how a student receives information. Do not expect kids will know what to do. If they are pros at taking notes from your lectures, do not assume that this will transfer to notetaking at home. Show the kids how to start taking notes from a video. Set clear expectations what they should do at home.

4) Start small. Remember that this is a huge undertaking. You have to decide what app you plan on using to make your videos, how to upload them and where to upload them to (YouTube, Google Drive, etc.) If you start full steam ahead you may burn yourself out. Start with one class or one subject.

5) Use humor. Kids want to sit through a boring video just as much as they want to sit through a boring lecture. Add humor. Laugh in the video. If you make a mistake, leave it. The kids love it. I had the buzzer to my dryer go off in the video and told the kids to hold on because I was going to fold laundry. The next day they had a hay day telling me they heard my buzzer go off.

6) Have a backup plan. If the students didn’t understand the video or students didn’t watch the video, what are you going to do? As with any quality lesson planning, always plan for the unexpected.

7) Use your own content. Let me start by saying that students like to hear your own voice. That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate other videos into your own. If you wanted to start out with using videos that others have made, that is a great way to start, but try to start making your own.

8) Give kids control. This might be the hardest thing to do. By giving kids control of your class, you are actually taking more control over what happens. This is much easier said than done but remember the purpose of your flip. You should be the guide on the side in the class. Ask yourself if you are talking more than the kids. Your kids should be delving in conversation with each other and you are merely the moderator. This takes quite a bit of modeling to implement but it can be done!

9) Make em’ short. Don’t bore the kids with long videos. I try and shoot for a 12 minute average for the junior high age. Some videos do take more time and some take less. If a video is more than 15 minutes I give them more than one day to watch it.

10) Check for understanding. Don’t forget to check the students’ understanding of the content in the videos. This could be done through a quick formative assessment that is not graded. I have my students go to the board and explain concepts from the video and let them work through the problems with the class. I don’t say a word. If they make a mistake, I don’t mention it. I let the others in the class correct it. This is very hard for myself and any teacher to let a student continue with a mistake. This could take 5 minutes or it could take 15 minutes. It is a powerful thing. I incorporate giving kids control with checks for understanding.
Good luck and always remember to have fun when flipping your class. Don’t give up!

“I’ve Never Been More Productive…”

Over the course of the year, I’ve been trying new things and always striving to give students more control over their learning. This semester I gave students a project that was open-ended yet had a clear SBG rubric. The projects are starting to come in and the work is impressive. This school year has been an incredible experience pushing my kids to new heights, giving them choice over their own learning but there has been one goal that that I had yet to achieve…that is until this week.

This week I no longer gave students a day-by-day schedule. I gave my students the videos and concepts I wanted them to learn and told them it must be achieved by May 29. No schedule, no specific timeline and they were to tell me when they were ready to assess. What happened next surprised me. One group of 6th grade boys pulled out their Chromebook, created a detailed calendar when they were all going to watch the videos do the classwork and the anticipated assessment date. They shared it with each other, their parents and myself. I was impressed.

The students were excited to create their own schedule. They wanted to achieve that end goal and they wanted to achieve it quickly. At the end of the class, a student exclaimed,

“I’ve never been more productive in a class period!”

Students came in today on day two and I had more kids farther ahead than I anticipated. Had I planned out the week, the assessment over last week’s material would have been given on Wednesday. Instead, I had half my class tell me today (Tuesday) that they were ready for the assessment. They were working so hard to understand the concepts and they were excited to be working faster. Why had I waited to do this? At the end of the day a student said to me, “Mr. Humphreys I want it to be like this next year.” Indeed it will be.

To extend student choice I asked my students to find a concept in math that they haven’t been taught, research it and make a second semester presentation on it. That was essentially all I told them. The projects are coming in and what I didn’t anticipate was how seamlessly these projects are impacting their everyday math work. Students are using the concepts learned in their project and applying it to their current math.

For example, my 7th graders are currently learning how to solve quadratic equations. In Algebra 1, students are taught that when they are solving equations they might receive “no real solution” as an answer as there is another realm of math that involves imaginary numbers but they don’t learn that concept until Algebra 2. Quite a few kids wanted to know more about imaginary numbers and after researching it, I am getting work and assessments in which students have catapulted their learning by no longer putting “no real solution” but actually solving the quadratic equations with imaginary numbers. They pushed themselves to understand how to delve deeper into the concept.

In addition students are now sharing their results with others and teaching it to their friends so they too can use these future concepts in their current work. By giving my students choice, they cater to their own needs and show a genuine interest in learning. Tonight I received an email back from a student after I had scored his project and he had done a phenomenal job. He replied,

“Thank you Mr. Humphreys.  I enjoyed making it!”

 They are learning and by their own choice, not mine. My students constantly impress me!

It’s all about the learning…

Today I had one of those, “A-ha” moments. I was talking to a colleague about standards-based grading and was thinking about how the grading would look in my math classroom. My colleague told me to look around at my class and said, “You’re already doing standards-based learning.” That’s when it hit me. I had already set the stage to make the conversion into standards-based grading. My class was already implementing standards-based learning and that’s when I had that “A-ha” moment. In order to make the change to standards-based grading, you must allow yourself to embrace standards-based learning. They are different in many ways but lead to the same end result –

Giving students the choice to improve their own learning while they assess themselves.

The focus of my school year was to give my students choice. I wanted them to take control of their learning by making decisions that would impact their own learning while also holding extremely high standards for them. I had already implemented the flipped classroom which was modified throughout the year. They rely on each other to work through problems rather than coming to me first. I love to sit back and watch them work through thoughtful problems while I am the one that asks them questions. Last week, I was on a conference call and was out of my classroom but in the school. My students asked if they could work in the conference room with me. I surely couldn’t pass that up! I watched as they worked diligently with each other. I rarely interrupted them and if I did, it was asking, “why?” or “how?” to give me that deeper understanding.

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At the beginning of the school year, it took a few weeks to train my students on what was expected. They didn’t know how to respond when I told them they had the entire period to work on what they needed to work on to understand the concept they were working on. I was persistent though. That is one characteristic I would tell any teacher – Don’t give up! Keep pushing the kids to work harder and smarter.

Something I did this year that was new for me was how students reviewed for an assessment. For many years, the day before a test, I would give a review assignment to help them study. This year I wondered why I was giving a review assignment since some kids didn’t need help on certain standards and others did. Why would I make one student do 4 problems on concepts they already mastered when they should be practicing other standards? Then it made sense! Let them choose what they should study. Fast forward to earlier this week and this is what I now see…. students who are creating problems for each other on the concepts that they choose to work on and practice. Again, I don’t tell them they have to do this, they just do.

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Once again, why should I be the one that mandates how they should review!? My entire mindset has changed on how I approach my classroom. My classroom is ever changing and still growing. How can I constantly put less emphasis on me and more emphasis on them?

I am so proud of my students that they simply amaze me. I decided to make my first SBG rubric for their second quarter project. Their project is to make a presentation on any math concept they chose that would be from a future course – something they know nothing about. What my students chose to do on their own amazes me. Here are some choices by 6th graders:

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Sixth graders are choosing trig ratios, quadratic equations…concepts that are clearly high school level standards. I am in awe and so proud of them. I am giving them complete control in their design. Here is the rubric they have and what they do with it is completely up to them.

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So after my conversation today, it made me realize that once you really embrace the standards-based learning in your classroom, then standards-based grading should be no big deal. I’m still nervous about it but much less so. Letting my students discover things on their own is the best gift that I can give them.

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