Tag Archives: motivation

Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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#37: On Failure

I-am-a-failure

I wrote these short little pieces from various failure perspectives.  There’s such an intriguing and wide variety of ways to fail.  Maybe we gain a little bit of insight by reaching into these mindsets–even for a moment–provided we’re not cynical or simply poking fun.  There’s nothing funny about it.  Each represents an underlying problem that needs solving–if there was ever the will and/or the means for a solution.

On Failure

I
I can’t read
and I can barely
write a sentence.
but I’ve been passed
along from grade to grade
and here I am
in high school failing
every single class.

II
This is just stupid
and I can’t be bothered.
Yeah, my skills may be low
but perhaps not nearly as low
as my interest in everything
except gaming.
Not to mention my family
life is shit and I hate my parents
and I stay up every night until 3 a.m.
playing world of warcraft.

III
I like good grades
but I don’t care much for learning.
Just tell me what I have to do
and I’ll do it, expending
the very least amount of energy
it takes to get the A.
Potential schmential.
If it doesn’t show up
on a transcript somewhere,
I’m not interested.

IV
I don’t know what these tests
are measuring but it must not be
what my teachers are teaching.
How can I do so poorly
on a standardized test
and pass my classes, and
why does my friend do so
well on these stupid tests
and fail his? Somebody has
it all wrong; that’s all I know.

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Reading With My Boy On Easter Eve

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It was a first, a first on this Easter Eve afternoon.  Sure, we’ve read to our son at bedtime almost every night of the week since birth, but this was the first time ever, on this warmest and sunniest day of the year thus far, that my son and I were to sit down together, both independently reading, side by side, because it was a good thing to do.  He was reading Beatrix Potter.  I was reading the new memoir by Jay Ponteri.  And it was a kind of magical moment, magical, because the reading was not foisted on my son in any way, and it wasn’t part of a nightly routine or a homework regimen;  instead, the boy saw his father reading in the warm spring air, and the boy decided that this must be a pretty cool thing to do with one’s time.  After Dad had read solo for awhile, continuing even after the boy had brought him a freshly baked cookie from the kitchen into the yard where Dad was settled into the camping chair in the shade, the boy said, “I’m going to go inside and pick out a book.”  I said all right to that.  Minutes later he came out with a whole stack of Beatrix Potter, from which he chose The Tale of Pigling Bland, the longest of the books in the stack at 80 some Beatrix Potter pages. We were moving our chairs around, negotiating between sun and shade. I found a good spot, and the boy ended up leaning up against the mossy trunk of a gigantic and ancient oak.  And there we read.  He devised a reward system whereby a little badminton or frisbee with Dad followed every 20 pages he read.  But the play served only as a brief respite; after about 5 minutes he’d say, “Shall we get back to reading?”  Then we’d read some  more.

It was heavenly.

This reading with my son gave me hope for him unlike almost any other experience we’d had together in his seven years.  One of my most vital dreams for my son, beyond what sport or what instrument he will choose, beyond which girl (or boy) he will love, beyond which school, vocation, or career he falls into, is that he learns to love to read.  I know in my English teacher soul (bolstered by recent research about what literature actually does to the brain) that the benefits that come with a love of reading will be profound and lasting. I don’t want to jump to conclusions with a premature celebration; one afternoon with a book under a tree is no guarantee he will be a lover of books any more than he will be a lover of trees.  But it’s a start.  It’s a good start, and I’ll take it.

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Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made last year to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution.  Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions.  Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not?  Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice.  And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2013 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year.  Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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The Imaginary Commencement Address

Greetings, class of 2012! You’ve worked hard and you’ve finally arrived at this momentous day, which, just like yesterday was, and the day before yesterday, and just like tomorrow will be and the day after tomorrow will be again, the first day of the rest of your life.  But yesterday you weren’t graduating from high school, and tomorrow you will have already graduated, so this day is in fact set apart, appropriately, as a special day, a day on which you participate in a singular right of passage away from childhood and into adulthood, whatever that means. It sounds kind of scary, actually.

I’d like to begin by thanking you all for not inviting me to speak at graduation.  I appreciate that.  It really takes the pressure off. But even though I have not been invited to speak, I will speak anyway, at least in imagination and spirit, because I CAN, and because I have a few things to say.

I greeted many of you four years ago in English 9. You were silly.  You were nutty.  Some of you were interested in learning.  Some of you were not.  Some of you worked hard.  Some of you didn’t.  Most of you are here today, but others of you could not join us this evening.  That should give us some pause.  (Pause). But you were a sweet group.  I mean to say, even though as freshmen, and even more so as sophomores, you were sometimes frustrating to work with (remember that time I got so angry I walked out of the classroom,  and that other time I slammed my open hand on a desk to get your attention and hurt myself?), you were, on the whole, nice, kind, caring. I really appreciate that.  To me, being a decent human being weighs on the scale much more significantly than good grades and academic prowess.  So I will remember you for being decent human beings.  We had fun together. Thank you.

Others of you I did not meet until your junior year.  You came into American Literature or IB Junior English knowing nothing about me–and we got on pretty well.  We studied witches, the Declaration of Independence, the roaring 20s, Coyote, poetry, monster-making, alcoholism, Chile’s dark past, America’s dark past, and love during the Mexican Revolution–and through the Exhibition Project (which you all loved) and the Individual Oral Presentation (which you all loved), you made your voices and your learning heard above the roof tops of the world.  Good work, people.

And I was fortunate enough to have about 37 of you in my IB Senior English class and my good buddy and Evil Twin Mr. Hawking had another 25 to 30 of you.  I think we studied some things in the context of that particular curriculum that might be appropriate to highlight here, on this occasion–in case you missed it the first time, or, in case you were not in those classrooms.  Let’s think of the next few minutes as a “review for the test,” so to speak.  The test we’re talking about is a long one.  It begins right this second.  And it ends–well, it ends–at the end–hopefully a really long time from now. I want you to do well on the test, so listen up.

We studied literature about the Vietnam war and we learned this:

Wars suck.  If you can help it, don’t fight them.  Instead, fight to prevent them. How do you do that?  Live peacefully in your families and in your neighborhoods.  I believe in the ripple effect that good living can have on everything and everyone that surrounds us.  I don’t mean pure living.  I mean good–good in that no one gets hurt, physically or emotionally; that everything and everyone that comes into direct contact with you is left in a better shape, condition, or state than it or he or she was before your paths crossed.  Live peacefully in and with your own mind.  You have to believe in the possibility of a world without war.  You have to start there.  And know this: that you can believe all of this and fall short of the mark over and over.  You will fail.  As I have.  And then what? We do what we can to make things better, to make amends, to forgive and be forgiven, to avoid past mistakes and destructive patterns.  In a 2011 joint venture between Vietnam and the U.S., 32 million dollars was invested for an Agent Orange clean up in Central Vietnam, nearly forty years after the end of the war. It’s never too late, people. And for those of you who serve: thank you, first of all.  And secondly, help us imagine collectively and then realize an armed forces whose primary job is to help relieve suffering and not to inflict it.

We studied literature about American slavery and the Troubles in Ireland, and we learned that history matters. It teaches us primarily not about the way things were, but WHY things are the way they are.  And if you don’t understand that, you’re living in the dark. History also teaches us this one abiding truth that, if we allow it to, can guide our lives:  nothing worth achieving comes easily.

And we studied post World War II existentialist drama and we came away with this: Live your own dream, not someone else’s.  Learn to distinguish the voice in your head from the voices coming from your cell phones and the internet and the television and your friends and family, all of which or all of whom think they know you better than you know yourself.  Technology is a tool, but many of us live as though we are tools to the technology.  Don’t be a tool.  There’s a lot of noise in this world competing with the good noise, the music of your own thoughts.  Try to find some way, some silent space within your lives, to listen to that music within.

And from Beckett we learned that it’s okay to wait, but we have to be careful, because all of what we believe we are waiting for might already be here. And this is the trap, right, that Beckett was describing: in grade school we wait for junior high (which is absolutely crazy when you think about it), in junior high we  wait for high school, and in high school we  wait for college and the concurrent and/or subsequent unemployment.  And once we’re in college or unemployed we wait for a job, a family, a kid, and then we wait for the kid to go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, job, marriage, grandkids, and . . .  Good grief. Stop waiting for life to begin.  Your life has already begun.  You’re in it.  Live it. Be here now.  Tomorrow will come, I guarantee it.

Notice I didn’t say anything about writing a great essay or analyzing text. Don’t get me wrong, here.  It’s not that I don’t think these things are important–but they are not the end–they are the means to an end, and those of you who have taken advantage of your education know this and those of you who haven’t will learn it.  Learning to use your mind well–and I think that has been or should have been the goal of the last 13 years of your school experience–will help you create a more peaceful world, will help you understand and make sense of your society and your relationships, will help you to think your own thoughts and follow your own dreams, and will help you learn to live in the present moment as if it were the only moment left to you.

With love, deep appreciation for all that you have taught me, and with the best wishes for each and every one of your days, congratulations class of 2012.

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No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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No More Carrots, No More Sticks: A Classroom Without Grades

You might think I’m crazy. After all, things (and people) must be measured. And they must be measured against other things and other people. Only this morning in a staff meeting our school’s principal talked about how the only way to improve a thing is to be able to measure said thing.  And while my principal was talking about system goals and not individual humans, we’ve been acting (forever) as if the same thing might be the case for our students.  We must score them, grade them, award points, measure them up.  Otherwise, how can we ever distinguish the good from the bad, the exceptional from the mediocre, the mastery from the failure, the outcome from the starting point? Without a system of measurement, how would colleges know who to admit? How would companies and businesses know who to hire? How would men and women know who to date? You’d have pure chaos, that’s what you’d have!

I’ve written in earlier blog entries about the distasteful nature of how our public schools tend to sort human beings–through activities, through classes, through tracks, through grades, through standardized tests, through a series of hoops to be jumped into or at or through towards a diploma and towards the next step, be it college, a job, or prison.  And I’ve talked about my discomfort with all of that while working in a system that seems to require it of me. I must give grades.  I must have some “meaningful” way of determining grades.  Thus, I measure.  Is it wise? Is it, in fact, meaningful? Is it humane?

My colleagues complain all the time about incoming freshmen from middle school not having been fully measured, not having been accountable to grades, having been socially promoted regardless of skill or knowledge level.  It is true that students come to us unprepared for high school, but I am not so sure that social promotion is to blame.  I don’t have a ton of knowledge about how middle schools operate; I know little about even the one that feeds my high school, which is sad, I think.  But I do know that what happens inside the school day for any particular student is only a tiny factor in a multitude of variables that shape their intellectual, interpersonal, motivational, and emotional health.  The fact that we grade them or not I believe is a minuscule factor in the equation.  If social promotion were to stop forever at the lower levels, the reality is that no program exists for remediation and services for recalcitrant 8th graders–and they would come to us anyway, as unprepared as ever.  If you could throw gobs and gobs of money at the lower levels for interventions, then maybe we’d be in a better place–but still, in the end the grades kids get would have little to do with how well they would do later.  What would matter is whether or not they have the knowledge or skill and the proper motivational mindset for academic success.

I guess my beef is not with measurement itself, but in the way we measure, ultimately, by letter grades. And grades are bad, as I’ve said before, because they are often arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable, and never revealing in a specific, meaningful way.  They are extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, that coerce students into compliance.  I have a colleague of mine in my mind’s ear right now, and he’s saying, “What’s wrong with carrots and sticks? They’re everywhere!”  And I would say, sure, they’re everywhere, and most of us have been conditioned to think this way.  But that doesn’t make it good, it just makes it ubiquitous.  Especially in the realm of education, the life of the mind, and in relationships with other humans, wouldn’t it be infinitely better if people acted a certain way for its own sake, because they understood its worth and value and inherent goodness, and NOT because they were going to get a cookie?!

So I’ve started a little thought experiment that I’d like to share in this blog (which might become a series) about what a carrot-less and stick-less classroom might look like. And I’m realizing that in this particular entry I’m only about 300 words away from my self-imposed 1000 word limit.  So even before I say the next thing, whatever that might be, I would extend the invitation to whoever is listening out there to chime in on the subject.  Whether you are a teacher or not, I’d invite you to imagine with me how a class without grades could possibly work.  Any takers?

Okay, let me begin.  It has to start with the premise that the learning is the thing at the center, and that WHAT we are doing and WHY we are doing it is infinitely more important than HOW WELL we are doing it.  And so, in the spirit of moving forward with this, the WHAT and the WHY are from the beginning ever-present, super-explicit, never fuzzy, so that no student at any time could possibly be confused about what they’re doing and why.  So, simply enough, it begins with a shift in focus.  And then, secondly, to eliminate the distraction, and because, ultimately, there does have to be some kind of performance benchmark, we eliminate grades altogether and replace them with two marks: Pass and In Progress. In the one-hundred and eleven words I have left I will, rather than continue with this initial description, instead anticipate some questions: Wouldn’t a system like this just encourage kids to do the bare minimum to “pass”? If we’re not supposed to obsess about how well students are doing, how will students ever improve? How would one determine what level of skill or knowledge earns a “pass”? How would the really motivated or highly skilled individuals distinguish themselves? Isn’t it important to have a hierarchy of a certain number of marks, let’s say 5, to effectively sort our humans? Is the writer of this blog some kind of communist?  More on this stuff later.

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