Category Archives: Education

The Way of the Reader

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Reduce Reuse Recycle Resist

FullSizeRender-6Earth Day 2017                                                                                                             ©donnaesgro

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Treat the earth well

It was not given to you by your parents

It was loaned to you by your children

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors

We borrow it from our children.

Ancient Indian Proverb

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Earth Day 2017 took on greater meaning than ever before. Since Trump took office his administration has systematically undermined and dismissed scientific facts such as global warming as liberal hysteria.

In a mere 100 days he and Congress have implemented unprecedented easing of environmental protections beginning with the Orwellian act of excising all mention of climate change from the White House website. This draconian editing process was followed by the appointment of the fossil fuel shill, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt, outspoken in his opposition to the very values that the agency upholds, has stated that “carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change.”  He sued the EPA for supporting President Obama’s Clean Power Act – an important piece of legislation that for the first time set Federal limits on carbon pollution. Pruitt is a man who Trump praises highly, stating that his new head of the EPA “will reverse an out-of-control anti-energy agenda.”

Appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is akin to placing someone who believes that the earth is the center of the universe to head NASA. We will not let the current GOP lead our nation down a perilous path with their “Roadmap to Repeal” (An actual document compiled by The Freedom Partners – a group of wealthy political donors organized by the Koch brothers).

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of things in terms of hundreds of thousands of years (or light years). But, as seen by the massive worldwide turn out for the Science March on Earth Day, the boundary between politics and science is now an illusion.

When Trump repeals environmental safeguards such as the Clean Water Act, which protected the fragile eco-system of our streams and rivers from becoming dumping grounds for toxic waste, and when agencies such as NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) are being treated dismissively as extraneous, scientists have been forced to become activists.

Trump’s careless tweets, his mendacity, his toying with the grave issues of global warming and nuclear war, reveal the vulnerability of our dreams for our children and the world they will inherit. Dreams that are worth fighting for – that have always been worth fighting for…a world that is cleaner, safer, more compassionate, with liberty and justice for all.

Gather your friends and family and lace up your boots. We have seen in the last 100 days that our voices are powerful. We are all connected, just as all waterways are connected as they flow to the sea. Hear the call to action. There is no time to lose.

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“What used to be a wish list of the oil, coal, and gas industries has become the to do list for Congress and the White House.”

Michael Brune – Executive Director-Sierra Club

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttwP02WXB0I

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Art is Not a Luxury

 

art-therapyArt work by Suha Wanous, a Syrian refugee child

Conservative estimates are that 10,000 children have died from the Syrian War. Art therapy programs have helped to heal the survivors who have wounds that can’t be seen.

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“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”              

 Ray Bradbury

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Last week Trump released his budget proposal in which federal funding for the renowned Corporation for Public Broadcasting is cut to zero and the highly respected Institutions of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are eliminated completely. If Congress concurs, this will be the first time in American history that a president has pulled the federal arts program from the people.

In support of these cuts, Trump’s administration has stated, “ Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs? The answer is no. We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will. But we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

CPB, NEA, and NEH combined cost the average citizen about $1.35 per year

Our country deserves better and our citizens deserve more respect. Trump clearly disregards the intelligence of those who struggle and the dreams they have for their children’s future by dismissing such illuminating shows as Sesame Street, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Masterpiece Theater, American Masters, Independent Lens, Live From Lincoln Center, Front Line, PBS News Hour, Ken Burns, NATURE, Bill Moyers, NOVA, PBS Kids and PBS America as unnecessary excesses produced by and for the elite.

Particularly in a country in which preschool is not available to all, and many local libraries have been shut down because of the cost of maintaining them, public television and radio are some of the only free inlets of unbiased information, objective journalism, and commercial free educational programing. It is no surprise then, that the same president who “loves the poorly educated” and considers journalists “the enemy” would not believe in funding universal access to knowledge. Public Broadcasting may be the only window on the world that impoverished children are exposed to. Ask yourself why looking through that window is not something that our current president wants them to do.

Art, in all its forms, is an expression of our shared humanity. We still gaze in wonder at ancient works, identifying with the emotions and thoughts of people that lived centuries ago. Art, then, connects us, not only as a viable expression of modern culture, but across the ages and around the world. It encourages us to think, to feel, to see other points of view, to be exposed to the lessons of history, and to learn about other cultures. Art tears down walls and builds bridges. It seeks out the truth and it helps us heal. It is for all of us, from the preschooler’s first self portrait to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Trump’s plan clearly reveals his vision of a dystopian future in which the arts not only hold no value, but are dismissed as irrelevant.  Universal access to the arts and support of artists is a sacrosanct principle that we cannot let slip away.

One of my personal heroes, Fred Rogers, makes a plea for federal funding for children’s programming – May 1, 1969

https://youtu.be/fKy7ljRr0AA

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The Vital Importance of Diversity

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“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces of people going by.”

What a Wonderful World – Thiele & Weiss

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If we care about mankind and its future, if we care that the most powerful nation on earth has a leader who does not believe in science and who puts immediate gratification above concern for future generations, then it is time that we make a radical shift in how we view education within a global society. The mill of school grinds along, and we are glad that it does, but changes in how we teach at the fundamental level have now become critically important.

“Most of what we teach children today is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market in 2040 or 2050.”

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

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 We cannot survive, much less thrive, if we build walls and keep people out. It is through the permeable sharing of ideas and cultural nuances that we build on our own reservoirs of knowledge, compassion, and the ability to live in harmony.

No one would dispute that teaching our children to share is a good thing, one of the basic elements of social-emotional relationships. When we share, we learn. We show others our good intentions, and they show us theirs. Bridges are built and alliances are formed.

The concept of respecting one another begins at the earliest levels of education. Even preschoolers can understand that their blue marble of a world spins in a beautifully complex solar system. They can grasp the idea that there are lands across the seas where people speak differently and go about their day in different ways, yet share the same joys and sorrows that we do.

We cannot coexist in any kind of peace if we fear each other, and we cannot imagine anything better if we don’t begin to encourage critical thinking skills and the uses of imagination in our schools.

Children feel a close affinity with the creatures of air, sea, mountains, and forests that share the world with us. Have you, lately, looked at a picture book of animals as closely as they do? They have an innate curiosity and empathy that, rather than dismissing as ingenuous, we need to recognize for the wisdom that it holds.

The question “Why?” is asked primarily by children less than seven years old and the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time. Think about that.

Yet we proceed, beginning in elementary school, to encourage students not to ask,  but to answer questions- to memorize facts, figures, and formulas. It is no wonder, then, that the trajectory of education becomes a long distance race to get into a good college, secure a high paying job, and then, finally, get down to the business of living.

The way our competitive education system works is that children learn early on that it is better not to think outside of the box. That imaginative thinking, flights of fancy, and creativity, at best lowers their grade point average and at worse, gets them labeled “weird.”

We are, grade by grade, inadvertently teaching our children not to think more deeply than a test requires.

Worldwide-scholars, tech companies, scientists, educators, politicians, medical researchers, and thousands of others share knowledge; effectively creating networks of ideas that often lead to radical breakthroughs in their fields. When we think and feel and work together at the global level, we nurture compassion for the hungry, the suffering, the refugees of war, all those in need, because the faces and the voices of humanity become real to us. We cannot understand others without interacting with them, any more than we can understand what water is just from knowing its chemical formula. When we  foster bonds with different nations we all benefit. Our minds expand in many different ways as we share thoughts and our hearts grow in equal measure as we become more viscerally aware of others.

Without making a definitive change in both our education system and our budding nationalistic and isolationist politics we are in serious danger of losing our ability to engage innovatively and diplomatically. It is unwise, if not foolish, to be unaware that our entire planet is an eco-system, not only from the standpoint of biology, but on deeper levels of cognitive connectivity. We need clean air and water and we need to believe in and take responsibility for climate change, but we must also believe in mutual respect and tolerance despite different skin colors, religions, or ideologies. It is vital that we begin to teach, starting at the earliest levels of education, that we are the caretakers of our world, not its rulers.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/09/epa-scott-pruitt-carbon-dioxide-global-warming-climate-change

Resist

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“A machine that, when you touch the button, it makes the ocean clean for the whales and dolphins and even the sharks.”  Ava – Age 6

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Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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The Adaptation of Children’s Literature

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Tennessee Williams

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Publishers who abridge, adapt, and condense children’s literature use the classics as a commodity. Although the expressed intention is to introduce these writings to a younger audience, this is not a enterprise done with love of prose in mind. These summarized novels are more like CliffNotes in terms of their inability to bring depth and understanding of the original works to children.

I was working with a fifth grader this holiday season and suggested that she read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. She pulled a paperback down from her shelf and told me, listlessly, that she had already read it.  I glanced at the book and saw that it was an abridged version.

A Christmas Carol is a novella, short in length, but opulent in sensual imagery and fervid emotions. Books, unlike films, do not need to fit into certain time frames which necessitate condensing. The only reason, then, to abridge the work is to “dumb it down” so that the young reader has less work to do to get through what often is fancifully arcane and luxurious language.

But, isn’t that one of the gifts of reading the classics? To allow words to transport us, to give us the sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of exotic places and to teach us, through this process, that human needs, fears, passions, cruelties, jealousies, hypocrisies, insecurities, and reckless braveries have always and will always be a part of the elegant tapestry that makes us human.

By reading only the adapted version of A Christmas Carol, my young friend missed such stunning passages as:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling, “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Instead reading:

“You are tied in chains, tell me why.” “I am a prisoner of the chain I made for myself during my life. I chose to wear it.”

I don’t blame any child for not being impressed with such insipid language. I suppose ”fettered” and “forged” are considered to be too archaic? The lyrical rhythm of the language, the repetitions that bring the readers’ attention to the importance of the ghost’s statement, have disappeared in the effort to be economical and simplistic with words.

Our children are more capable than they are often given credit for. A fifth grader should be able to read Charles Dickens without it being predigested for her.

Begin the process of introducing the sometimes odd, yet lovely language in classic children’s literature to your child when he is too young to read the originals himself. Resist the colorful Disney paperbacks of Winnie the Pooh or the Fairy Tales and instead read A.A. Milne and Hans Christian Andersen. Trust that your child will listen, and in this listening, not only become enchanted, but begin to build an understanding of the unique experience that reading can be.

A Christmas Carol was written almost 200 years ago, yet the story, because it is based on essential truths, is immortal. Don’t be a part of the wrong thinking that believes that the rewriting of the classics for easy consumption is a gentle introduction.

These works are a precious legacy from a passionate group of writers. Each carefully chosen word should be valued and respected.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) said about his writing,

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.”

And Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) stated:

“Words are a net to catch beauty.”

Every word in a classic book, whether it be War and Peace or  The Little Prince, is vital. You might as well take the “excess notes” out of Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi to make the melodies easier to follow.

We live in an age of sound bites and texts. It is healthy to balance this diet with something that demands an exacting focus. Better to read less dense classics such as as Charlotte’s Web or Charlie and The Chocolate Factory unabridged than to give your child an abridged version of Treasure Island, Peter Pan, or The Secret Garden.

Reading more difficult text builds both critical thinking (which stems from analyzing, predicting, and imagining) and self esteem (which builds as the child succeeds at tasks that at first seems arduous). When your child feels an eagerness to get back to the characters in a book and a vague sadness when the story has ended, that’s when you know that the bridge between learning to read and becoming a reader has been crossed.

If your child begins to read a classic and then discards it as being too hard, please help her manage, as you once held the back of her bicycle when she went from training wheels to two wheels. Read aloud to her. You may only need to read the first few chapters before she is pedaling on her own.

In the chaos that our modern life so often is, there is nothing more meditative than learning to turn to a book to remind you that although turmoil has always existed, so has abundant spiritual generosity and unbounded love.

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May Our New Year Shine Gloriously Bright with Hope.

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