Poetry Moves the Writer

Last week, I learned what it means to “move the writer.”

My AP Literature students are in the middle of a heavy duty poetry study, and I’ve tried to honor their requests for what activities might best help them tackle Poetry-with-a-capital-P. So far, students have studied plenty of classics and rites of passage poems, they’ve tackled the sometimes scary “exam poems”, accounted for their no-fail poetry analysis strategies, shared their thoughts, ideas, and interpretations with their classmates, read and enjoyed a few “non-depressing poems”, and even “played” with the poetry for a day or two, too.

But one request I see over and over in my AP Lit class has nothing to do with close reading or analysis. Many students seem to have a deeply rooted desire to express themselves, to explore language in new ways, to write creatively. I figure there is almost no better way for students to consider the intentional choices writers make in crafting poetry than to become poets themselves.

The mentor text we studied: Whipstitches by Randi Ward 

whipstitches_cover_rgb_5_1024x1024

image via madhat-press.com

I began this activity with an “in house” field trip. I asked students to grab a journal and take a stroll around the school, noticing ordinary objects that could be a source of great inspiration. We spent 10-15 minutes wandering, journaling, and contemplating.

When we returned to class, I passed out a selection of 12 “whipstitches” as the class has so fondly come to call these wonderful little poems.

And here are more selections from Ward’s web site you don’t want to miss: http://randiward.com/work

After reading as readers, all 12 aloud — in 12 different student voices, one for each poem, which was downright chill-inducing, we then read the poems as writers. What I found surprised me. For as many times as we’ve gone to the “read as readers then as writers” well, and given the various activities and protocols I’ve built to guide students in and out of text analysis and writers’ moves, I discovered with my students that poetry is the sweet spot in the middle — the genre that seamlessly blends reading as readers and reading as writers.

As students applied their poetry analysis strategies and began internalizing and making sense of the work, they shared out their “notices” on the board. I began the list with “Writers of “whipstitches”…

Here’s what they said and what also became our co-constructed guidelines for their own “whipstitches” poetry assignment:

Writers of “whipstitches”…

  • Use simple words that contain deep meaning
  • Create poems that are short, concise, and concentrated
  • Know the themes and ideas they want to explore
  • Are sometimes ambiguous
  • Use figurative language
  • Create feeling and trigger emotions or memories
  • Use only 1 sentence or question for their poems
  • Break or stop lines intentionally for “flow”, emphasis, tone, or rhythm
  • Present work in an intentional and cohesive way (if you get a closer look at Ward’s book, each page is uniquely crafted with a backdrop of what looks like pressings of straw)

Building this list lead to insightful conversations about meaning and craft. I asked students to write six of their own “whipstitches,” borrowing from the writer’s moves, and to present their work in a creative and cohesive way. They had creative control, but all parts needed to work together. Once we’d identified this criteria, students got to work.

And there was an energy in the room that only real thinking can create. It had little to do with my teaching. I simply created an experience for my students. It had everything to do with poetry and art — how it unifies us and inspires us and moves us in ineffable ways. Ways that moved my young writers to make poetry.

Here is some of the work they created, and I am grateful to Mya J., Anayla D., Sydney S., Danielle K., Jessica H., Malerie W., Katie U., Amy F., Hannah B., and Eric J., Hailey M., and David C. for allowing me to share it here.

*To learn more about Whipstitches and poet Randi Ward, make sure to visit her web site or send her an email. After contacting her to ask permission to use her work in this post, she said she’d love to hear from other teachers!

What texts move your students to write? What writing assignments or activities inspire your students? I’d love to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook!

-Karla

Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
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Writers Explore Possibility

thefirstthingToday our school was abuzz with new students arriving for freshman orientation. At certain points in the day I felt like I was fast forwarding through an action movie: students dashed from classroom to classroom at uncomfortable speeds, clutching their schedules, many barely looking up to say hello. Pure relief washed over the face of a new student when he saw me waving his lost schedule in the air. What would he have done without a schedule to tell him where to go and when?

The schedules these students were glued to are stories. Stories other people have written them into. On the first day of school, students are being ushered to classes that (excluding electives) have been chosen for them. They are expected to know what sports they are trying out for, what clubs they want to join, and what electives they want to take. They are expected to “orient” themselves to several fixed points, to discover themselves quickly and painlessly.

This is a lot for a ninth grader. This is a lot for a human!

What can we offer to these students in this first week? What can we offer to these students throughout the year as they continue to be bombarded by fixed curricula and well worn paths?

The writing classroom. It can be an oasis. An escape from the crazy. Because in the writing classroom, students are invited to discover rather than receive, to turn rather than stand still, to explore rather than orient.

I want my students to know immediately that writing is not about right answers, or formulas, or worn paths. Writing is about possibilities. A writer’s purpose is to explore possibility.

Writer's(1)

How writers explore what’s possible in their writing:

Writers explore what’s possible in their writing by practicing writing every day; trying on new ideas, structures, and patterns; and talking with other writers about their thinking and craft.

One way I will introduce this concept to my students:

Notebooks. I want notebooks to be EVERYTHING this year. Like an athletic field on which my student athletes practice and try new formations and fiddle with moves, the notebook is a space where students can capture thinking, emulate mentor sentences, plan out a piece of writing, jot down ideas for future writing projects…the list goes on and on. I figure that THE FIRST THING we present to students says volumes about what is important in our classroom, which is why I plan to introduce the writer’s notebook on the second day of school, and all the rhythms and routines of workshop will spring up from there. My notebook minilesson will include a tour of writers’ notebooks — my own and famous writers’ notebooks I have found images of on the internet — as well as some suggestions for how to organize (or de-organize) the notebook, ideas of what to keep inside, and some notebook work for the day.

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives:

Writer’s explore what’s possible in their own lives by closely examining their lives, by looking forward and backward and noticing patterns across moments; by reflecting on things they’ve seen, experienced, and thought; and by sharing that thinking and writing with others.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Poetry. For many reasons — and especially because Nancie Atwell told me to — I like to start the year with a study of poetry writing. Robert Frost said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.” What better way to help students understand the power of language than with poetry?

Even more important, I have found that poetry is the best invitation to students to explore their inner lives. So many of our students arrive at our classroom doors at the beginning of the year with the introspection beaten out of them. They have been tested and SOL-ed and standardized more than we’d like to know. And even if they aren’t come from high stakes testing environments, many of them hail from classrooms in which the first person pronoun has not been allowed in their writing.

But the beautiful poems of Greg Orr and Faith Shearin and Jed Chambers and William Stafford can set them free again.

Beginning with a study of poetry can rekindle the same introspection and reflection and care that all genres of writing demand — because writing without an I  — without a thinking, feeling, vested person behind the words — is empty writing.

How writers explore what’s possible in the world:

Writers explore what’s possible in the world by reading actively, trying on others’ ideas for size, and writing into those ideas; by making research a daily practice; by drawing connections with other thinkers and writers.

One way I will introduce this concept to my writers:

Noticing ideas too. I’ll admit that I can get carried away by mentor texts. I love mentor texts and what they do for my students’ writing (and mine!) so much that I sometimes skip the important part that comes before the reading like writers: I skip the reading like readers. I jump to the chase after we read a mentor text together: What do you notice? What techniques do you see? Why do you think the writer used that craft? How might you use it in your own writing? And when we skip over reading like readers, we missing something really, really important: the pulsing heart of the piece itself. The ideas. This isn’t good for us as readers, and this isn’t good for us as writers.

Because writers MUST also be readers who think and talk about ideas — about the what — rather than just the how.

I love the how. I love noticing craft moves and naming them and seeing what my students come up with. Out of order adjectives. Whispering parenthesis. Absolutes. Circular structure. I eat craft for breakfast.

But without a what there would be no how. And I want to raise writers who care about the what. So this year, when I teach a lesson on reading like a writer, I will amend the guidelines I typically give to writers:

Reading Like Writers (the old way)

Reading Like Writers (the new way)

  1. Notice something about the craft.
  2. Name is using language that makes sense to you.
  3. Think about why the writer used this craft.
  4. Try it in your own writing.
  1. Find and think or talk about an idea that strikes you.
  2. Notice something about the craft.
  3. Name it using language that makes sense to you.
  4. Think about why the writer used this craft and how it enhances her ideas.
  5. Try some writing yourself on this topic and/or using some of the craft in a piece of writing.

 

Our writing classrooms must be places where students can feel safe trying on ideas, playing with new forms, and exploring what they may or may not think. I believe that what happens in the notebook is directly linked to what happens in the brain and the heart. And I want to nurture students with open minds, open notes, open hearts.

-Allison

How can you facilitate exploration in your writing classroom? How can you invite students to explore, discover, uncover their ideas, their preferences, their opinions? How can you help show them the possibilities?

 

HAMILTON, the Mentor Text

THE NEW YOU

Image via hamiltonbroadway.com

So I’ve been thinking a lot about Hamilton. And by thinking, I mean obsessing. One morning, I was awakened at 4:00 AM by my loving and lively four-year-old, and after some time of trying to fall back into a peaceful summer slumber, the state in which she now rested, I gave in to the sunlight and began my day. My day was to consist of hard-core housecleaning and home organization, the latter, my least favorite of all the tasks on the to-do list.

My husband and children slept on, and I found myself with a few hours of quiet solitude. So, I plugged in my ear buds and got to cleaning. My playlist? The Hamilton soundtrack in its entirety – front to back, top to bottom, in order.

Besides being moved to tears more than once, I felt the way I feel when I’m reading something good, something rare, something special. Like when I read East of Eden last summer after dodging it all those years, or the first time I ever read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” or a William Trevor story. Just sheer force and beauty, so mindblowingly beautiful you can only stand back and watch, slack jawed.

I’m sure you’ve read or seen the many Teaching Hamilton resources. Megan wrote about using Hamilton here on Moving Writers in the spring. And there are some other great ones out there – this one from The Teaching Channel, this from The New York Times learning blog, and this, especially this, from Atlantic Records and Genius.com which includes complete annotations for each and every song. How fascinating that this musical, this story, can now be a part of our classrooms and our students’ learning experiences. How novel and engaging, how exciting and challenging. To borrow a phrase, “How lucky we are to be alive right now” as educators, when hip-hop, history, and story-telling are so readily available and seamlessly blended.

Take for example the opening track: Alexander Hamilton.

The song opens with Aaron Burr’s character posing the overarching question of the play:

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a

Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten

Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

 The lyrics continue, with several characters (who also happen to be important historical figures) delivering lines:

JOHN LAURENS:

The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father

Got a lot farther by workin’ a lot harder

By bein’ a lot smarter

By bein’ a self-starter

By fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter

 THOMAS JEFFERSON:

And every day while slaves were being slaughtered and carted

Away across the waves, he struggled and kept his guard up

Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of

The brother was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter

JAMES MADISON:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned

Our man saw his future drip, drippin’ down the drain

Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain

And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

BURR:

Well the word got around, they said, “This kid is insane, man!”

Took up a collection just to send him to the mainland

“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and

The world’s gonna know your name! What’s your name, man?”

ALEXANDER HAMILTON:

Alexander Hamilton

My name is Alexander Hamilton

And there’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait, just you wait

ELIZA HAMILTON:

When he was ten, his father split, full of it, debt-ridden

Two years later, see Alex and his mother, bed-ridden

Half-dead, sittin’ in their own sick

The scent thick

COMPANY:

And Alex got better but his mother went quick

 GEORGE WASHINGTON and (COMPANY):

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide

Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, somethin’ new inside

A voice saying “(Alex) you gotta fend for yourself”

He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf

BURR and (COMPANY):

There would’ve been nothin’ left to do

For someone less astute

He would’ve been dead or destitute

Without a cent of restitution

Started workin’, clerkin’ for his late mother’s landlord

Tradin’ sugar cane and rum and other things he can’t afford

(Scammin’) for every book he can get his hands on

(Plannin’) for the future, see him now as he stands on

The bow of a ship headed for a new land

In New York you can be a new man

COMPANY and (HAMILTON):

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man (Just you wait)

In New York you can be a new man

WOMEN:

In New York

MEN:

New York

 HAMILTON:

Just you wait

COMPANY and (COMPANY):

Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

We are waiting in the wings for you (waiting in the wings for you)

You could never back down

You never learned to take your time

Oh, Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton)

When America sings for you

Will they know what you overcame?

Will they know you rewrote the game?

The world will never be the same, oh

BURR and (COMPANY):

The ship is in the harbor now, see if you can spot him

(Just you wait)

Another immigrant comin’ up from the bottom

(Just you wait)

His enemies destroyed his rep, America forgot him

MULLIGAN/MADISON AND LAFAYETTE/JEFFERSON:

We fought with him

LAURENS/PHILLIP:

Me? I died for him

WASHINGTON:

Me? I trusted him

ANGELICA SCHUYLER, ELIZA, MARIA REYNOLDS:

Me? I loved him

 BURR:

And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him

COMPANY:

There’s a million things I haven’t done

But just you wait

BURR:

What’s your name, man?

HAMILTON & COMPANY:

Alexander Hamilton!

 

As an AP Literature teacher, I’m constantly searching for unique ways into reading and writing about literature. Although it seems “there’s a million things” we could use for classroom instruction here in this first song, for my money, the song Alexander Hamilton serves as an excellent mentor text for writing about a novel’s (or any text’s) critical information and context. It perfectly and succinctly catches the audience up to speed on the first 19 years of Alexander Hamilton’s life, all while establishing themes, revealing character, and foreshadowing future conflicts in the story.

The musical functions as an answer to the question Burr initially poses. How did this unlikely immigrant become one of our country’s most important Founding Fathers?

As a fun and challenging end-novel assessment for this upcoming school-year, I’m going to have students create their own “Alexander Hamilton.” Students will, of course, need to model closely from the original, being careful of rhythm, rhyme, and form.

Here are some sample directions for students:

Your task: Create your own Alexander Hamilton song for any character from the novel we’re studying.

  • Choose a character from the novel we’ve been studying.
  • Identify an overarching question for the character that the novel provides the answer to. For example, this for The Cather in the Rye:

How does a prep-schooled, downer, brother of a kid-forgotten and a writer,

dropped in the middle of a well-trodden spot in New York City,

confused and bemused, grow up to be a symbol and martyr?

  • Determine the critical information from the novel that establishes character and theme.
  • Modeling closely from “Alexander Hamilton”, create a song or rhyming narrative poem that provides your audience with the most crucial information about the character you chose.

You should…

– Begin with the end in mind. (Like Burr’s, “I’m the damn fool who shot him.”)

– Make intentional choices about what characters deliver which lines.

– Have some fun with language, rhythm, and rhyme.

– Include the most prominent features of the song’s form.

– Create a catch phrase and refrain like “there’s a million things I haven’t done/just you wait” for the character you chose.

Besides getting a serious mental workout and having a little fun…

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Golden Shovels are ‘Real Cool’

Today, we are thrilled to bring back an old friend, Mentor Text Wednesday, and a new friend, Jay Nickerson.  

Jay is something of a mentor text Jedi — magically and mysteriously finding amazing, current, engaging mentor texts and pairing them with oodles of ideas for uses in lots of different classroom contexts. We are so excited that Jay will be joining us on Wednesdays with fresh mentors texts and fresh ideas! 

You can find out a little more about Jay (and our other new contributor Stefanie) on our About Us page! Leave him some love and a welcome in the comments below!

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MentorTextWednesdayGolden Shovels are “Real Cool”

Mentor Texts:

Goodness in Mississippi” by LaWanda Walters

The Golden Shovel (1981 & 1991)” by Terrence Hayes

Writing technique: Poetic form

Background:

Over the holiday break, I received an email from Allison asking if I’d consider writing some mentor text posts. I was taking my holiday quite seriously this year, and since that hewed a bit close to work, I didn’t respond right away.

However, over the break, I was also reading The Best American Poetry 2015. Reading poetry has actually become a bit of a habit since I decided that it’s something that I want to get better at teaching. So, even though I had dedicated myself to a work-free holiday, I was reading this book of poetry, flagging pieces that I would use in my classroom.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 9.36.39 PM

LaWanda Walters

And, I came upon LaWanda Walters’ poem, “Goodness in Mississippi”.

Right away, I knew I was using this piece in my classroom, and I knew I had a post I’d be forwarding to Allison for consideration.

So it is that I find myself taking a break from marking on the first day back in January, working on this post.

And learning.

Because the first thing that I did was try to find a copy of the poem online.

Instead, I found an article about Walters’ poem, explaining that it was a Golden Shovel poem. And I learned what that meant. Developed by poet Terrance Hayes, the Golden Shovel is a poetic form in which the poet uses the words of an existing poet. The last word of each line in the new poem is a word from the existing poem. If one reads only the last word of each line of the new poem, they read the existing poem.

Both Hayes and Walters use Gwendolyn Brooks’ powerful We Real Cool.

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Terrance Hayes

What’s neat is that in my research on the form, I found a pair of Hayes’ poems using Brooks’ poem. Right away, I had a nice little mentor text set. Three poems of the same form, using the same source of inspiration, about three different things – no other phrase for that then “real cool.”

In looking more closely at the poems, there’s a nice contrast in Hayes’ 1991 “Golden Shovel”. Instead of simply ending each line with the word as it exists in Brooks’ poem, he inserts line breaks into longer words, “weakened” becomes the “we” needed at the end of his first line.

How we might use them:

  • I’ve taught “We Real Cool” and it’s a poem that students like to talk about. The brevity, the imagery, the word choice, the tone – all those things seem to speak to students, especially those who have pre-conceived notions about what poetry should be, namely something that they avoid. But that’s always been the end of the lesson really. What a great extension this would be.
  • The more I think about this, the more I can’t help but wonder what students’ reactions would be if you presented them with one of these Golden Shovels first, before exposing them to “We Real Cool“.
  • I’m a big fan of Austin Kleon’s work around “stealing like an artist,” and can’t help but wonder what kind of discussions we could have with students around this form. At the very least, we’re modeling the practice of attributing the poet and/or poem being used. There will, no doubt, be students who would term this as some relatively uncreative theft though, or at the very least, some lazy writing.
  • I’ve also done a number of poetry activities using existing texts, blackouts and the like. This form is a fantastic addition. Before researching the form, I knew that this poem would find its way into my classroom. How could it not? I flashed back to last year’s AP class discussing William Carlos Williams’ “So Much Depends”, and how much they would have loved capping our discussion by writing a Golden Shovel using that confounding little sentence of a poem. Or the one about the plums.
  • What if my students chose what they felt was a key quote from their novel, or research topic, and used the Golden Shovel format to write a poem that captured the essence of what they were presenting to me? Wouldn’t that be a lovely addition to a multi-genre project, or honestly, a fine little project all its own?
  • A rock and roll heart beats in my chest. How much fun would it be to use song lyrics as the inspiration of a Golden Shovel?
  • Could we use the Golden Shovel form to compose poetic criticism, or appreciation of folks by using their tweets as a basis? (Imagine a whole class of Jaden Smith tweet-inspired poems.)
  • I teach high school, but I’m married to an early years teacher. The Golden Shovel form could be used in her classroom too, though I’m not sure We Real Cool would be my choice for the wee folk.

In learning about this form, I came across a variety of lesson plans, so I know that this form is not new to everyone. That being said, one of the reasons that I’ve chosen to focus on poetry as of late is that it’s a challenging part of the course for many students. Giving a reluctant poet a form such as this one, one that actually gives them a length, not to mention words, may just be a launching pad for them into some strong poetic writing. As I considered the ways I could use these poems, and this form, I knew that I had something with strong potential to engage writers.

Have you tried a Golden Shovel in your classroom? How might you weave this poetic form into your instruction? What would your students do with this? Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or on Twitter @doodlinmonkeyboy, @msjochman, @rebekahodell1, and @allisonmarchett.

5 Ideas for Using “Dear Basketball” in Your Writing Class Tomorrow

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 11.39.42 AMWhen do English teachers get so lucky as to have a major NBA star validate what we do by announcing his retirement in the form of a poem?
This week, Kobe Bryant did just that — he wrote a poem entitled “Dear Basketball” and released it to the media as an announcement of his retirement. And poets and English teachers and lovers of words everywhere cheered.

We can capitalize on this, strike while the iron is hot, and help our students connect with poetry (and poetry analysis) in the real world! Here are five ideas for ways to use “Dear Basketball” in your writing curriculum tomorrow.  Continue reading

Guest Mentor Text Wednesday: The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha

Today’s MTW post is from a guest, Jennifer Isgitt of Empathic Teacher, whose blog we follow and love!  I originally caught this post on her blog and begged to use it for Mentor Text Wednesday.

Workshop Genre: Poetry

Background: 

I first learned about The Book of Awesome from my friend Amy, who presented about nonfiction mentor texts at the TCTELA conference last year.  I quickly purchased the book, and I have been waiting for the right moment to have my students write about their own “awesome” things.

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