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Earlier this week, in the media build-up to the one-year anniversary of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick wrote a thought-provoking column in which she offers a long tally of incidents from the previous week when schools in America went into lockdown to ensure the safety of the students. A few of these lockdowns occurred in response to legitimate causes for concern, but, in hindsight many of them, maybe even most of them, were overreactions to marginal threats. A domestic dispute in a nearby residence. A bank robbery in the local area. Likewise, writer Lenore Skenazy, on her wonderful Free Range Kids blog, reported last year about a school that went into terrifying lockdown in the days after Sandy Hook because some boys using an umbrella as a prop in a video project about the immune system were thought to be acting suspiciously.

At my school we have gone into lockdown twice that I can think of in the past couple of years. My understanding is that both were prompted by police chases in the general area. And once we evacuated the building because something was making noises in a locker.

Dahlia Lithwick levels the following charge at this lockdown culture:

We routinely terrify and traumatize kids to spare them terror and trauma.

I don’t know that any of my students were alarmed in the least during any of these incidents except for those who needed to go to the bathroom, but Lithwick raises an important point, that there are often unexamined costs to our attempts as educators and parents to make our kids safe. To prevent the abnormal tragedy of school shootings, we’ve normalized turning our school routine upside down on a surprisingly regular basis. Based on the extremely small chance that they might be abducted by a stranger, we make it 100% certain that our kids will miss out on the physical and psychological benefits of walking to school on their own. We no longer allow kids the independence of roaming the neighborhood with their friends, telling them “just be home for dinner.”

I’m not saying that schools shouldn’t be prepared. Lithwick writes, “Let’s agree from the get-go that doing nothing in the face of lethal school shootings is not an option.” When the Atlanta Police Department calls our school switchboard to warn that a suspect in a police chase is headed towards campus, I agree that erring on the side of caution and locking everything down is probably the right thing to do. And I’ve written before about how hard it is as a parent to imagine letting my kids explore the neighborhood woods on their own like I did growing up. When it comes to keeping our kids safe, we may not examine these costs as carefully as we should, but that doesn’t mean these costs are too high. We’ll do anything for our kids.

And yet.

When I read Lithwick’s column, I thought immediately back to a passage in A Natural Sense of Wonder, by Rick Van Noy, where he wonders about the threat of climate change to our kids’ futures:

As a society, we have been good about preparing kids for other kinds of dangers. We have “red alert” days in school when the kids have to duck down and crowd in the coatroom. When I was young, we hid under desks in case of a bomb or a tornado. The principal and teachers are worried about strangers coming in, the man in a dark van driving near the school, but about this heat-trapping blanket in the sky we say very little. Kids study maps and geography, but if sea levels rise as predicted, because of ice melt and heat expansion, the maps would need to be rewritten. The man in the van has been out there all along.

We say very little, indeed. We earnestly guard against tragedies that thankfully have almost no chance of happening to our kids—I have been in faculty meetings where we have had discussion about which classroom wall is best to cower against in a Code Red situation (bullets will pass right through sheetrock, you know)—but don’t talk at all about how to prepare them for the much higher likelihood of serious climate disruption.

It’s not something we talk about as parents and educators. And someday our kids will ask us why.

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Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as the stones beneath a waterfall . . . I’m trying to get there—to peace, and it’s powers—but I just don’t seem able to. The river keeps falling.

The sound of it, in my ears.

—Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak

Thursday night, at a fine dinner in a nice restaurant, I found myself drawn into talking passionately about climate change, a topic more deadly to polite conversation than politics or religion. To be fair, this was with a group of young conservatives who get together regularly for the express purpose of discussing politics, and the discussion leader, looking to ignite a new discussion thread as the meal was winding down, specifically prompted me to talk about global warming and to share some details about how I have used environmental topics in my classroom. I wasn’t about to go there on my own, but, given the opening, go there I did.

I hope I behaved well. This was a great group of people who were genuinely interested in discussing ideas, open to other viewpoints and articulate about their own, but I was there as a mere tag-a-long, my wife being the legitimate guest-of-honor at this gathering. I thought we had a spirited discussion, found it mentally stimulating, but did I take too much of the floor? Get too inconvenient? I didn’t look at Belinda once I hit full flow, but I imagine she was staring blankly into her lap, thinking “there he goes again.” We adroitly ignored the subject in the car on the way home.

I’d like to think I did some good, that I came across as carefully informed and thoughtful on the subject and ultimately persuasive (albeit on an issue I would gladly be flat-dead wrong about). God knows we need conservatives (speaking broadly here, not pointing fingers at this group) to drop their stance of tribalistic culture-war denial on the issue and join the search for solutions. It gave me hope, made me feel less alone, that Thursday night’s conversation could even happen.

But all day Friday I felt emotionally hung-over. Here’s the problem . . . the flip side to hope is worry. Allowing yourself to feel hope opens yourself to a world of worry. And despair. In terms of our environment, if hope is the belief that tomorrow can be better than today, then hope is a sure road to despair. And so I had lately thought I have abandoned hope, had thought that I have simply accepted the bleak inevitability of our outlandish trajectory (really, the science could not be clearer) and accepted that no amount of earnest caring and response on my part was ever going to do anything more than make me miserable. Letting go of hope has been strangely liberating, has allowed me to get on with my life, enjoy the blessings at hand. Psychologist Daniel Gottlieb recently wrote about the importance of this moment and the power of two words—”what now?”:

After loss or trauma, most of us wish that tomorrow would look the same as yesterday did before all of these difficulties. If we are lucky, we give up hope and say the words that open us to resilience and creativity: “This is awful, and I don’t think it will change. What now?”

Of course, “What now?” is a wide-open question. My answer for many months now has been withdrawal, a conscious decision to live in the moment and enjoy the world that most people around me manage to enjoy. Even if it means sticking my head in the sand, too. You can see it in my lack of blog output over the past year.

But I’m not sure that’s the best answer. It’s certainly the most selfish.

I’m sorry, boys.

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In my RSS reader this week, I got this uplifting story about current research in Antarctica: Sea Levels May Rise Faster Than Expected. Much of the story speculates on rather scary possibilities down the road and should be taken with a certain amount of skepticism, the degree of warming we might expect in the future being a question rife with uncertainties. Climatologists rely on computer modeling to predict future conditions, and, as skeptics like to assert, perhaps the climate change models are wrong.

But here’s the thing—as long as I’ve been following the climate change issue, scientists DO seem to consistently have gotten their predictions wrong, just not in ways that Fox News will be in a rush to tell you. Over the last several years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scientist comments like the one from NASA’s Robert Bindschlader in this particular article:

“It’s caught us all very much off guard,” says Bindschadler. “These are not the ice sheets that I was being taught when I was in graduate school. They are changing at magnitudes and at rates that were thought impossible just 15 years ago.”

Particularly where the poles are concerned, reports of current observable climate change routinely include words like “unexpected” and “unprecedented” and “underestimated.”

I dunno. I’ve written before about the difficulty, as a non-scientist, of separating signal from noise when it comes to a complex, contentious issue like climate change. I think the tendency among many people, myself included, is to assume “the truth is somewhere in the middle” when faced with competing narratives about a given issue. When we hear about uncertainties in climate predictions, it’s comforting (and easier) to think that maybe things won’t be as bad as climate scientists project. The scientists could be wrong.

But it’s important to remember that underestimation could be just as likely as overestimation when it comes to future climate change predictions. Yes, the models might be wrong, so scientists test them by documenting observable changes over time. What’s happening now matters, and we need to pay attention.

For that matter, what has happened in the past matters, too. This detail from the PRI article was news to me:

Scientists like Wanless are studying sediments from past warming periods to find clues as to how quickly sea levels changed. And what they’ve found is the stuff of Hollywood movies—rapid pulses in the 20-foot range, and on a time scale that could be not centuries, but decades.

I honestly don’t know what to do with this information. Am I being alarmist for highlighting it? What do we do when the science is alarming? I’ve always liked the analogy about humankind and the climate that we’re poking a sleeping tiger with a stick, unsure of exactly what it will do. Well, I’m a wee bit alarmed to find what this tiger has done upon waking in the past.

I’ll be in New Orleans this weekend, trying hard not to think about these things (especially there).

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I’m way overdue in putting up a new post and giving an update on the Environmental Writing class that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching. It has been, without question, one of the most interesting and challenging teaching experiences of my career, and we’ve both admitted to each other that, relatively speaking, we’re a little bored teaching the conventional English curriculum in our regular English classes. (If you’re interested, you can access our class blog here and see what the students have had to say about it.)

At any rate, I’ll write a thoughtful and thorough update at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it’s been exciting for us to go through something of the same learning process as the kids. I’ve followed the climate change issue fairly closely for a decade or so now, but teaching this course has pushed me to dig deeper and question my assumptions, to examine loose ends and fill in the gaps in my understanding, and to follow developments in the scientific arena more closely than usual.

Among other things, watching the science unfold in real time gives one a perspective on the media that you don’t otherwise get.

Yesterday’s big news? Well, I’ll use the headline of the column in today’s WSJ, written by the lead researcher of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team (BEST), to sum up the very latest research findings: The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons to doubt, until now. The BEST team undertook a series of studies designed specifically to test questions raised by climate skeptics about the validity of global temperature data sets used by climate scientists (regular readers of Nealz Nuze, for instance, will remember breathless revelations about temperature stations sited next to heat sources like airport runways) and came to the following conclusion (in the words of lead researcher Richard Muller):

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups [of climate scientists]. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections . . . Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.

Anyway, if you want to know more about these findings, you can read the summary report released by BEST.

What I found particularly interesting and want to comment on, however, is the media coverage of these findings. I first read about it yesterday in The Economist. The Washington Post has reported on it. The New York Times has reported on it. CNN has reported on it. The BBC has reported on it.

And FOX News? Nothing.

We’ve been having an interesting discussion in class over the past couple of weeks about whether or not it was ethical for Peyten and me to create a sense of false equivalence about the science of global warming by giving equal time to “both sides of the story” when the scientific community has reached a remarkable degree of consensus about the issue. False equivalence in the name of “balance” is actually a form of bias, after all. But FOX News doesn’t even seem to reach this level of objectivity. They’ll gleefully report on and hype a single study by a single scientist (one so flawed that it led to the resignation of the editor of the journal that published it) that questions the scientific consensus on global warming, but when a research team—formed in the wake of “ClimateGate” and headed by a noted climate skeptic—releases findings supporting the scientific consensus, there’s not a peep from them.

Fair and balanced? You decide.

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Earlier this week, I gave an overview of the new Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing course that Peyten Dobbs and I are teaching this semester. Today I want to address a pointed concern about our methodology as expressed by a colleague from our Science Department and then echoed by a commenter on my last post. They raise some terrific questions, and indeed we’ve had some of the same questions ourselves.

Physics teacher (and award-winning edublogger) John Burk first pushed back when Peyten tweeted the first writing prompt we used with the kids:

He was quick to point out that scientific understanding isn’t a matter of “belief” but a matter of evidence and investigation:

Soon afterward he expanded on his reservations in an email:

I find what you guys are doing to be very interesting, and it really sounds like one of the most exciting courses in the school. But I also would love to learn more about the decision to show both An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle. The self-righteous and professionally trained scientist in me doesn’t think that the facts of GW are something that really has two sides . . . I just worry about the the idea of trying to teach about global warming by pulling out two controversial films staked at opposite sides of the spectrum, since this might heighten the “controversy” students perceive, which might be counterproductive for developing a deep understanding of the subject.

Science journalist and blogger James Hrynyshyn chimed in with more of the same after my last post:

Academics and the media have for far too long given climate denial far too much credit. The simple facts are that 98% of climatologists agree with the basic science of anthropogenic climate change. We’re long past the point where that’s a subject of legitimate debate, so why imply otherwise to your students?

Indeed, when climate science gets taught at our school within our Science Department, there is no “equal time” given to perspectives not supported by the scientific consensus.  So why are we going this route in Writing Workshop? Are we doing our students a disservice?

My initial response to these questions is that we’re not teaching a science course but a writing course, and so an understanding of the political debate and the public confusion around the issue is a part of better knowing both the issue and the audience. Moreover, experiencing and understanding and working through this confusion is great fodder for writing and thinking.

As I responded to Hrynyshyn earlier, this is in some ways as much a course in practical epistemology as anything else, as can be seen in the list of “Guiding Questions” that we’re asking the students to continually think about through their writing:

  • What do I understand about the sustainability debate? What do I have certainty about? Where do I still have questions? What would it take to change my mind about my current stance?
  • How do I know what I know? How do I know this? What are my sources of information? How do scientific facts and cultural values influence my opinion? How do I know who to listen to? 
  • What are the personal implications of this knowledge?

Moreover, the list of “Essential Learnings” that we will use to assess our students has language describing their developing skills in writing, research, discussion, collaboration, and presentation—but no expectations for scientific understanding or environmental ethics. We took this stance partly to diffuse potential criticism; we’re not science teachers, after all, and we can’t weigh in as authorities on a politicized subject. But we also don’t presuppose outcomes of scientific understanding because we want to allow space for authentic “uncoverage” (to borrow a term from Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe) precisely because we do care about our students’ having a better understanding of the issues in question.

We won’t simply be showing the two films and then turning the kids loose to go with whatever opinions they may have at that point. Wiggins and McTighe propose five steps toward discovering depth, and that’s the journey that we want to attempt together:

  • unearth it
  • analyze it
  • question it
  • prove it
  • generalize it

When Hrynyshyn asks “why expose students to [sources that dishonestly portray the science], unless you have the resources to fairly critique them?” I have to point out that they do, indeed, have all the resources they need. In today’s world, we all do, anywhere that we have an internet connection. As our students try to sort out the claims and counterclaims of the two films, they can email actual climate scientists for clarification! The problem today isn’t that we don’t have access to information but that we don’t know how (or don’t have the inclination) to dig and filter and sift and evaluate. In this respect, the most precious resource that we’ll be making available to them is time. Our role is not to teach them about environmental issues. It’s the (sometimes long, sometimes messy) process of writing and researching and thinking and discussing that will help them learn.

If we presume to predefine the destination, then we shortchange the process. We’re hoping, by starting with controversy, to supercharge it. But it is, admittedly, a little scary to set a ball in motion without having certainty as to which way it will roll.

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Last October, I wrote a post thinking about the 21st Century Education movement that concluded with an idea for a new course:

What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindlenot in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic . . . think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon.

Well, I quickly managed to ensnare my friend and wunderkind colleague (and edublogger) Peyten Dobbs to help me propose, develop, and teach the course, and my principal leapt at the opportunity when we presented it to him (having Peyten on board no doubt helped). So here we are, two and a half weeks into just such a learning expedition, one that will likely rank among the most interesting of my career. It’s high time I put up a blog post with a few details and some early observations.

The official title of the course is Writing Workshop: Environmental Writing, and it’s one of a slate of semester-long writing courses that our 8th graders can sign up for as a supplement to their year-long English course. Workshop has been a course offering for at least the 15 years I’ve been here, but this year marks a substantial (and needed) revision in that we’re offering themed sections (others include screenwriting, journalism, and literary magazine) with an emphasis on publication to an authentic audience. Compared to the previous incarnation of Workshop, which had the students writing a series of short papers with perfunctory purpose (a descriptive paper, a persuasive essay, etc) and an audience of one (the teacher), Environmental Writing looks to capitalize on the the allure of real-world relevance and controversy and provide compelling reasons for writing—writing first as a tool for learning about complex issues and later to communicate our findings and positions about what we’ve learned.

True to the blog post that started us on this path, we’ve started the year by jumping straight into the political controversy and cultural confusion surrounding the issue of global warming: on Friday we completed our viewing of An Inconvenient Truth, and this week we’ll begin The Great Global Warming Swindle. We’ll follow these two films with a short piece by science writer Peter Hadfield that takes a critical look at both. By this point we expect the students to feel both bewildered and bestirred, suffering from some serious cognitive dissonance and ready to dig a bit deeper to find out just who is telling the truth, so we’ll set them up in groups to identify and investigate their questions and make sense of the confusion. Ultimately, each group will tasked—after choosing a format and audience—with communicating what they have learned, both about the issue in question and learning in general.

At least that’s the idea. There are lots of details still to be worked out as we go, as we’re not entirely sure what directions the class will want to take and want to leave the options open. So far, we’ve settled into a comfortable routine of watching film for about half the class period and then quietly writing to process our individual thoughts, feelings, and questions. Then again, perhaps “comfortable” is exactly the wrong word—already, I think, the students have a sense for just how much of an intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride they have ahead of them. Conversely, Peyten and I are pleased that relevance and controversy have animated the classroom and ignited learning as we had hoped. Starting later this week, we’ll inaugurate a class blog where two students per day will give updates, sharing what we’re up to and what they have to say about it—I’ll be sure to provide a link once we have it up and running.

Well, I started this post promising some early observations, but I see I’ve gone on long enough (and the hour is late enough) that I’ll just have to save them for now. I’ve already got several months’-worth of blog fodder after just the first couple of weeks, so watch this space. And fire away with your questions—one of my favorite things about blogging is how comments and push-back from my readers (all five of you) help me question my assumptions and hone my thinking.

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During the week before last, I traveled with a group of colleagues to attend Solution Tree’s 21st Century Education Summit in Chicago. It was a largely laudable conference, focused on transforming modern education in order to be relevant in and responsive to our students’ rapidly changing world. Colleagues Bo Adams (my Principal) and Bob Ryshke (Director of the Center for Teaching) do a nice job of processing the various sessions and messages herehere, and here in their own blogs. (Evidently they were communing with their keyboards in the evenings while I went out on the town with my less productive colleagues—shame on us.) Anyway, I found much to think about and much I already agreed with, having long placed an emphasis on the “4 C’s” (Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and Innovation) in own my classroom, in addition to my designated territory within the traditional “3 R’s.”

Nonetheless, with each successive speaker, a part of me became more and more disquieted, as all this talk of “how to prepare our students for the 21st Century” never substantively broached the subject of sustainability.  We heard, instead, a lot of talk about technology and Web 2.0 skills, about wikis and blogs and podcasts and Twitter, about providing and encouraging and leveraging connectivity among our students. Nothing about humanity’s running into non-negotiable ecological limits on a finite planet, about our need as educators to respond to and prepare for the ramifications. Searching for some sign of recognition of the latter, I kept looking at the upcoming session descriptions—surely, I thought, Robin Fogarty and Brian M. Pete will have to talk about the environment in a presentation titled “21st Century Thinking: What Will Our Kids Need to Know 25 Years From Now?” But alas. Kids evidently will need to know they can use their cell phones in class.

At the end of the second full day, I had the chance to raise this concern in the form of a written question for a panel discussion:

We live in a time when the scientific community is sounding alarms that human activity is beginning to alter the physics of our atmosphere and the chemistry of our oceans.  Why, then, does environmental sustainability not even make the conference agenda if our focus is on preparing students for the world they will live in?

The initial response among the panel was one of embarrassed admission, something to the effect of “Yeah, well, it probably should have.” My question then seemed to hit a sympathetic nerve with panel member Elliot Seif—”This is one of my pet peeves,” he started—who launched into some thoughts about how schools need to tackle the subject head on, about how if ever there was a subject calling for deep understanding through the application of the 4 C’s, this was it. “Why don’t more schools teach a course like this?” he asked.  Good question! More on his idea in a moment.

The panel moderator didn’t read out the second half of my question, which went something like this:

Given that societal disconnect from the natural world is the root cause of our environmental problems, should we be concerned that the 21st Century Education movement’s energetic embrace of technology will only further push our students into the virtual world and disconnect them from the real?

I was tactful and didn’t word my question to say that the 21st Century Education movement was “fetishizing” technology, but that’s how I was feeling at the time. One of the sessions earlier that day had been Bob Pearlman’s fascinating tour of innovative schools whose architecture, schedule, and curriculum had been designed to foster 21st century learning, to promote collaborative, project-based, student-centered work. Cool. And yet he shared several short videos in which the the majority of the screen shots had kids staring into a computer screen, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, and almost always indoors.  In fact, the cutting-edge school buildings he showcased seemed not to have many windows at all, and one architectural rendering he put up tellingly showed the interior configuration and the layout of the parking lot outside while the natural areas around the building were nothing but blank space. In a similar vein, in the conference’s single passing glance to environmental education, presenter Chris Dede shared an example of how students could learn environmental science by manipulating ecological variables and monitoring their effects in a virtual pond.  Sheesh. Have none of these people read Last Child in the Woods?

Look, I totally get it that we have a responsibility to help our students learn to productively navigate and leverage their web-and-media-saturated world.  They face an entirely different playing field than we did growing up, and this is one genie that is not going back in its bottle.  So we can either leave them to their own devices as they wander this new terrain or we can give them guidance.  I vote the latter.  But given our predicament, do we not also have a responsibility, maybe even more of a responsibility, to counterbalance the virtual with the real, to offer a compelling alternative narrative and to help our students connect with the natural world and just what it means to be human?

Ultimately, Elliot Seif was right when he suggested that the skills and practices currently branded as “21st Century Education” could and should be a powerful and productive tool for investigating and understanding what will, no doubt, be the mother of all 21st century subjects. In fact, a perfect example appeared in my RSS aggregator while I was in Chicago, in the form of a blog post from naturalist educator “Rebecca in the Woods,” reporting from the Georgia coast. Rebecca reports a great story of how she taps into the learning potential of the wired and connected world to identify a moth she has photographed—and ends up both learning a lot about moth identification and making a contribution to the science of lepidoptery in the process.  Even as digital distractions are leading more and more children to lead increasingly indoor lives, the internet is proving to be an exciting and powerful tool for naturalists and others.  We just need to be appropriately discerning, perhaps even skeptical, of our headlong embrace of the digital world.

As for Seif’s call for a dedicated course about sustainability, one designed around “21st Century Education” practices . . . well, I have a vision of what that might look like. What if you started a course exploring the issue of climate change with back-to-back showings of An Inconvenient Truth and The Great Global Warming Swindle, not in some lame and fallacious attempt to provide “balance” to the topic, nor in a transparent end-run around the integrity of science under the guise of “teaching the controversy,” but as a springboard for sustained and rigorous transdisciplinary inquiry?  Imagine spending the subsequent weeks and months methodically tracking down the claims and counterclaims, learning about the science and evaluating the rhetoric, and devising strategies to separate “signal from noise” in the flood of information about a contentious topic. What an education in using the “4 C’s” that could be! And think how many 21st Century literacies—ecological, scientific, media and information, political, economic—such a learning expedition would build and call upon. Web learning and digital networking would obviously be enormously important in a course like this, but the context would also prompt students to think about technology from multiple perspectives, would bring our planet back into the conversation.

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