Posts Tagged ‘Effective Teaching’

Wyatt Bruton (Fellow ’11, University of North Carolina) teaches English at Zhiying Middle School 植英中学 in Shantou 汕头, Guangdong. He knows that one of his most important tasks as a teacher is to inspire his students to believe in the importance of their educations. This week, he led a group of his students to visit the campus of Shantou University, giving them their first ever opportunity to set foot on a university campus and showing them what they have to gain by continuing in their educations. 

Every day here in rural China turns out to be surprising and fascinating in its own way, but some days stick out above all the rest.

Today, on one of those days. I had the privilege of taking 40 of the students from my class at Zhiying Middle School to

Wyatt’s students at Shantou University

Shantou University. This was a dream come true for me, and was a trip which I believe could have a huge impact on my students’ futures. One of the core challenges that we face as Fellows lies in the effort to invest our students in learning. Only if our students believe that their educations are important to them will they apply the effort and the persistence that they need in order to overcome the obstacles before them. Many of my students had never left the area surrounding their village, much less been to Shantou or to a university campus. I organized this trip so that they could see, for the first time, what they had to gain by continuing to pursue their educations.

We arrived at the gate around 9:30AM, where we met several professors and 10 current university students with diverse majors and stories. They led us around the beautiful Shantou University campus, where we went in the Art & Design Lab, Science laboratories, the Marine Ecology Department and the Literature Department. Students were able to see first-hand what daily life looks like on a college campus.

Visiting a Marine Biology Lab

We ate with local students in the cafeteria for lunch, and then headed to the library (known to be the most modern university library in all of Asia), where we took part in my favorite part of the day. The university students introduced themselves and shared their stories of how they ended up at Shantou University. They challenged my kids to work hard to defy the odds, to start planning now for their future, and to think critically. They challenged them to not just accept the status quo of what everyone in their village has done, but to dream big and set big goals. They gave my students the opportunity to ask questions about everything from daily life to different possible majors.

The Zhiying Stars on this trip today have some of the highest scores in the 7th grade out of their almost 900 classmates, yet most have not had college on their radar simply because they have just never thought it could be possible. Many of their parents didn’t study past middle school, and they may have never before met someone who took the path to college. For someone from rural China, getting into college is difficult, but it is impossible. I believe that the first

Wyatt’s students spoke with Shantou University students about the value of higher education

step to putting my students on that path is to show them what a university education looks like and what they have to gain from it.

In China, going to college is not the only path to success, but it certainly is one, and I hope that today I planted seeds of hope that will grow a passion and resolve to believe that their goals are achievable no matter what the statistics say.

The visit prompted me to look back 10 years ago to when I was in 7th grade—I had no idea at the time of the epic life adventure in front of me that would intersect my story with these amazing students. I can’t wait to see where they all are in 10+ years. I truly believe I’m teaching China’s future leaders in the fields of science, journalism, art, business, education, engineering, government, and math. 


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Zhang Yibin was a shy student at Helong Middle School in Shantou, Guangdong who rarely participated in class. Read how Jennifer Tan (Fellow ’11, Brown University) was able to change his beliefs about himself and his education.  

Ross (Zhang Yi Bin 张奕槟) is one of the 78 students in my class. On the first day of

Students from Jennifer Tan’s class at Helong Middle School

class, I noticed him right away–he was the smallest student, sitting by himself with his notebook open. I crouched down next to his desk and asked him for his name. He just looked away and pointed at his notebook with three Chinese characters written on top. I asked again and he whispered in my ear without looking at me, “Yi Bin.” I smiled and walked away. After a few days of class, I realized that Ross had a very poor foundation in the English language, but he concentrated hard in my class, copying everything down as quickly as he could. After a week, I announced that I had chosen Ross to serve as the class’s subject representative. This was abnormal, as class representatives are typically chosen based solely on grades, and Ross’s grades were far from the best in the class. I hoped that giving Ross the responsibilities of serving as class representative, which include helping me to collect homework, would help him open up. I had no idea how much my decision would affect him.

By the beginning of October, I began buke 补课( supplementary study sessions) every day after school. Almost every day, Ross and his good friend, Marshall, would come into my office with their notebooks, English workbooks, and English textbooks in hand, asking me to review the day’s materials or to learn more vocabulary. I was energized and inspired by their eagerness to learn. They spent more than an hour with me every after school session working on grammar problems and writing creative sentences with the words we just learned. In September, Ross averaged just 71 out of 150 in my class. In his last exam, he scored 102 out of 150. In class, he constantly raises his hand to answer questions, and even frequently volunteers to perform dialogues in front of the entire class! Ross inspires me to work harder for all 77 of my other students.

Recently, his Chinese Literature teacher (another Teach For China Fellow) showed

A banner hanging in Jennifer’s class

me an entry in his diary. The prompt was: “Your teacher calls you into his/her office. What happens next?” Ross wrote a creative piece about how nervous he had been to be called into the office by his English teacher, and how sweat had trickled down his forehead as he walked to the office. The story continued: “I didn’t know what to do so I just addressed her and stayed silent. She told me that she wanted me to be her class representative! I couldn’t believe it! I was scared at first! But after a few days, it didn’t seem so hard to help her! When I was younger, I did not work very hard in school, but my teacher told me that she believes I could succeed if I work hard, so this year, I am going to work very very hard! She makes us read the giant banner in our classroom every day: I will work hard, I will succeed! I think this is true!”

I was touched by what Ross wrote. I didn’t know that I could have such a big impact on another human being in such a short amount of time. Ross isn’t a high-achieving student; not yet, at least. I know that if he were in a different class, he might not have been encouraged as much. In another class, he certainly wouldn’t have received after-school sessions to reinforce difficult material. Most of all, the teacher might not have told each and every single student that he/she believes in them. I Teach For China because I truly believe in all my students, and if I could help Ross believe in himself, I only have 77 more to go.

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In this post, Caitlin Moss (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University) describes some of the invaluable lessons that she has learned from local teachers at her school and from her Teach For China teammates. This process of ongoing feedback and improvement is crucial to Fellows’ efforts to become even more effective teachers.

Here at Manghuai Middle School, we have an open door policy about observing classes. Pretty much any teacher can go observe any other teacher’s class at any time. At first, I was somewhat intimidated by this policy. As a first time teacher, it seemed pretty scary that I would have other, more experienced teachers scrutinizing my every move. Never mind that I had been formally observed by my (American) Program Manager during Summer Institute–I was pretty freaked out by the idea of local teachers watching me. “What if my Chinese doesn’t make sense? What if they hate my teaching style? What if they wonder why the heck I’m here and would rather that I just go back to America?” These doubts all ran through my head like a broken record. And thankfully, none of them turned out to be true.

Caitlin Moss ("Fellow '11, Georgetown University)

When Lu Laoshi 老师, my mentor teacher, started observing me during the first week of school, I got earfuls and earfuls of advice. A lot of it was actually really helpful, but sometimes the packaging it came in was not always my favorite. I didn’t particularly enjoy being told what I could be doing differently immediately after class, in front of all of my students. Thankfully, things have changed for the better. When Lu Laoshi  comes to observe my classes now, we usually have a quick debrief afterwards in the teacher’s lounge, which is a much better way of interacting (at least in my opinion!). She is still extremely direct with her advice, but most days, I’m glad that she is giving me her honest opinion.

During the first few weeks of school, I was still trying to get used to my class, and wasn’t able to make the time to observe other teachers’ classes. But I soon realized that it is a two-way street with Lu laoshi, and that observation should be a priority of mine. Given that during our school’s opening ceremony, she was one of a handful of teachers to receive a hongbao 红包, or a bonus, for getting some of the highest test scores in the school, it was very obvious that she could be a great resource for me. So, I have started popping in to the back of Lu laoshi’s classes whenever I can find time. By watching Lu Laoshi, I have learned her methods for giving her students quality opportunities to practice new material and then to demonstrate mastery to her. She has a great way of having students practice writing new vocabulary individually, and then assigning a word to each student to write on the blackboard.  Occasionally, I’ve also picked up good explanations of some really tough grammar points from her class. After class, she always asks me if I have any advice for her, and sometimes I help her with the pronunciation of tricky words like “dictionary.” As far as collaboration goes, I think we’re on the right track now.

Caitlin Moss in her classroom

I have also listened to a number of my co-fellow Karman’s classes. From Karman, I have learned so much about how to take a lot of the tools given to us during training and modify them to better suit the rural Chinese context. For example, we have a 5 – step lesson plan framework that is designed to fit within a 45-minute class. It goes something like this:

1. Opening

2. Introduction to New Material

3. Guided Practice

4. Independent Practice

5. Closing

At first, I was sticking rather closely to this structure and tried to use it in almost every lesson. However, 45 minutes is often not enough time for students to master a tough grammar concept or completely memorize 15 new vocabulary words. Karman’s method of stretching out the 5 – step lesson plan over the course of a day (over two or three class periods) has worked much better in my classroom. If students have more chances to practice new content, they do MUCH better on their dictations, exit tickets, and other mini-assessments. Now, I grade fewer, but usually better quality assessments that inform me about students’ level of mastery for our material each day.

Observing both Karman and Lu laoshi has been immensely helpful to me. One of the most difficult things about being a brand new teacher is that the learning cycle keeps going and going and going. It’s a LOT of hard work.  I plan classes, execute them, and in doing so, experiment with new ideas, ALL the time. I get feedback on all of this on a class-by-class basis. Even if no one observes my class, I can tell, based on how my students are doing, what worked and what didn’t. Observation definitely helps to speed up that learning process. Sometimes it can be hard to watch yourself fail. But the thing is, I know that I fail in at least one minor way (and often a more major one…) every single day. Since I already have that awareness, having someone else point out my weaknesses to me is that much less painful. And sometimes it helps me focus my energy on the more pressing problems that I must resolve sooner rather than later. It gives me priorities and a direction for my growth as a teacher.

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Many rural school systems don’t offer English education until middle school, leaving their students at a huge disadvantage to those students who start learning the language earlier. Last year, former Fellow and Program Manager Ken Saathoff oversaw an exciting new pilot program that brought English education into rural elementary schools, with extraordinary results: read his story below. 

My name is Ken Saathoff. I’m a graduate of Harvard University, where I studied English literature. After graduating, I came to China as a member of the initial cohort of Teach For China Fellows, teaching in Liuhe middle school in northwestern Yunnan. After completing my Fellowship, I came on staff, working to train and support new Fellows.

One of the most challenging things about teaching English in rural Yunnan is how, from the first day of the first year of English, your students are already so far behind. Seventh grade students at my school, for instance, were taking their first year of English. And yet, the final exam that assessed their performance at the end of the year was the exact same test as the one administered to their peers in Dali and Kunming, who had been studying English since first grade and, often, spent years doing private tutoring in English after school. The playing field is anything but level.

Ken Saathoff (Fellow '09, Harvard University)

Looking at how far behind our students were, it struck me: it didn’t have to be this way. Our Fellows were already providing a quality education to these students in middle school; what if they could start working with these same students at a much younger age, building solid foundations and preventing students from falling behind in the first place. The impact our Fellows could make in elementary schools would be tremendous.

However, across the board, schools prioritize middle school English, and think of elementary school English as a placeholder at best, or completely unnecessary at worst. It was difficult to draw the correlation for them between students’ experience with English in elementary school and their performance on middle school exams. It would take too long to measure. It was a waste of time and resources.

It took extensive planning, much collaboration with local partners and the enthusiasm of Teach For China staff and Fellows alike, but we finally found a partner in Xingfu elementary school. In fact, Xingfu’s principal was so eager to pilot the program that he dramatically increased English hours for all students and brought in three Teach For China Fellows to co-teach all third and fourth graders in the school. At Teach For China’s recommendation, that also adopted an international standard curriculum that has proven results with young learners of English. The pieces were in place, and it was time to see what would result.

A few months after the program was implemented, I got a chance to visit Xingfu. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I told myself to reserve judgment – after only a few months, particularly with new teachers who had not been trained to deal with young children, it would be an accomplishment if these students were well-behaved and making real progress on the alphabet and phonics.

What I saw in Xingfu shocked me. Walking down the street in the village, young children would approach me and speak to me, not in Chinese, but in standard, unaccented American English. They would engage me in the types of conversations that eluded most of their high school-age peers. English was clearly alive for them, something they felt comfortable communicating with on basic topics, rather than a series of memorized phrases and grammar rules. By the end of the year, the local teachers and administration at Xingfu were so impressed with our students’ English level that they served as willing ambassadors for our elementary school program, advocating with other local partners for the benefits of prioritizing early education. Today, we have over forty Fellows placed in elementary schools in Yunnan and Guangdong, a number we expect to see continue to grow over the next several years.

These types of experiments, this type of partnership building – it’s utterly crucial to our work. Seeing the impressive results at Xingfu fills me with hope that this system can undergo the change it so desperately needs. It’s the kind of work that’s happening in Xingfu that will dramatically change the face of rural education in China.

I teach for the children of Xingfu. I teach for China.

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“I know that if the student at the bottom of the class can succeed, then they ALL can.” 

Chen Yanmei 陈燕梅 (Fellow ’10, Shantou University), told this story to the guests at last week’s Teach For China benefit dinner in Hong Kong, about the student at the bottom of her class, and how she pushed him to achieve.

My name is 陈燕梅. I graduated from Shantou University. I majored in Journalism. Now, I am a 2010-2012 Teach For China Fellow. I currently teach 7thgrade Chinese–last year I taught in Yunnan, and this year I am teaching in Shantou, Guangdong.

Chen Yanmei (Fellow '10, Shantou University)

When I first arrived in my classroom in Yunnan last year, I was completely overwhelmed by the challenge before me. I had 44 students on the first day of school and after only half a semester, 9 boys had dropped out. They were all significantly behind in their school work and felt that their efforts in the classroom were pointless.  After a few weeks, it became clear to me, that my students had it in them to succeed, they were simply not motivated. I set forth a goal for my class: 98% of them would improve their test scores.

One of my students, Li Ronghua, who comes from a Dai minority village, presented a unique challenge. He had scored a 2 out of 120.  He could barely read or write Chinese. In class, he looked down and did not dare to speak.

I became determined to help Li Ronghua succeed. One day, I decided to visit his family. His parents informed me that he is very shy and can only speak a little Mandarin. But, they told me about his passion for driving cars. He learned how to ride a motorbike on his own when he was 9. I saw a glimmer of pride in his parents’ eyes when they spoke about Li Ronghua’s driving. I told both him and his parents, if he graduates middle school, he can find a technical school and he can prepare for a career as a professional driver. But, in order to do this, he needs to gain a basic education.

I made a plan to focus on Li’s writing and speaking.  In order to get him to speak, I encouraged him to speak with me in both mandarin and Dai dialect. I don’t understand Dai, so his best friend would translate for me. I asked him to write 5 sentences, twice a week, in Mandarin Chinese. He could write about anything he wanted—even motorbikes!

Li Ronghua had the lowest test scores in Chen Yanmei's class

But the process wasn’t easy. He would often forget to turn in his writing homework despite my reminders. At times, I doubted if it was worth spending so much time on him. But I knew we were on the right track when I read what he wrote on his midterm exam: “Chen Laoshi, I do so poorly but you never give up on me. This semester is the happiest I’ve ever been in school.” Much of the words he wrote were incorrect but I was so moved when I read it. I promised myself to be more patient with him and to celebrate every small achievement.

Once day he tried to speak in class, I asked his classmates to applaud and support him. He was so surprised and inspired by this and he began to feel more and more confident speaking Mandarin and he began to hand in his homework. I’d call his parents regularly to praise his improvement in school.

He still has difficulties speaking and writing, but he is not afraid of them anymore. On the last test, he scored a 38. He is still the lowest score in the class, but he no longer fears the hard work that he KNOWS will lead to his success.

Li Ronghua is just one of the many students in my class. But I know that if the student at the bottom of the class can succeed, then they ALL can.

At TFC, We set big goals for our students because we know they can achieve them. We challenge our students and ourselves because we see great potential. We work hard because we believe that we should be the change we want to see in the world.

I teach for Li Ronghua. I teach for China.

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As autumn descends on rural Yunnan, Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10), reflects on her progress with her new class thus far. Among the highlights from the first semester: using music to motivate students to learn, and and getting to know her students’ dreams and aspirations: 

With October already halfway over, winter is on its way. We feel it occasionally, like when we step out of the bright sunshine into a shadow, or at night when the sun sinks and the air suddenly feels unseasonably chilly. But for now, we’re enjoying the last weeks of a sun-drenched autumn and hoping we can cling onto it for just a little bit longer.
A lot has been happening this fall. Laura and I have been working on our unit-

Students from Kristen and Laura's class get a guitar lesson as a reward for learning English vocabulary

planning skills, which means that our English lessons are better than they’ve ever been. Aside from teaching test content, we’ve been working hard on investing our students in their studies and getting them excited about English. Since China doesn’t hold students back if they fail a grade, we’ve got a wide range of levels in our class. While many of our students show a real aptitude for English, others are still struggling with the basics. For some of the latter students, we find time in the afternoons to hold 2-on-1 classes with them to solidify the basics. Laura discovered that even the most unmotivated students can find a reason to study English… especially if it involves a guitar! Below are three of our students who were less-than-excited about learning the words on their flashcards. That is, until Laura told them they could learn a chord on the guitar if they learned every word on the cards! Apparently, our student Art shows some real musical potential!

In addition, we’ve put into action our “Student of the Week” plan. Every week, we choose a student who has been highly motivated to learn, and demonstrates that through asking questions, attending extra classes, helping others, completing all of their work on time, writing neatly, and being a model for others. This week, we announced our first Student of the Week, a quiet but bright and motivated girl named Lola. We told our students that the Student of the Week would get their picture on the wall for a week, but when we asked Lola where she wanted her picture taken, she replied, “With the whole class.” So, after the students finished their quiz, they ran to the back of the room for their first whole-class picture of the year. Here they are… Class 92! (Check out Lola in the front with her certificate!)

Although it’s still early in the year, we’re trying really hard to get to know each of our students on an individual basis. As it turns out, goal setting was a great way to do this. This week, we spent a class period working with students on why and how to set goals. We discussed the importance of goals in school and in life, and how we could use them in English class. Then, we set goals for the next monthly test. Finally, we discussed the importance of making an action plan and outlining the steps students would use to reach their goal.

That night, we read every student’s goals and strategies to reach their goals. Some of the students still wrote vague, run-of-the-mill statements like, “I want to be able to write a beautiful essay,” or “I want to score better on the listening section of the test.” Others blew us away with the goals they had outlined for themselves. Take a look at Emily and Hamlet’s goals (I’ve done a rough translation below):

我的目的是: 1)把英语写得漂亮,为以后上高中,大学做好准备。2)把英语当作自己的母语一样,可以说什么时都以顺利的把英语朕口而来,毫不犹豫。
My goals are: 1) To write English beautifully, in order to well prepare myself for high school and college. 2) Learn English as if it were my own native tongue, and be able to speak whatever I want whenever I want without hesitation.

My goal is to gain a strong understanding of English and be able to have conversations with English teachers in English. I want to test well, and be able to study abroad and learn other languages.

After reading these, consider that only around 30% of Luodang Middle School students from each class will move onto high school. Only a fraction of them will attend college. The fact that Emily is thinking about high school and college shows that she’s committed to her education, only one summer after graduating from elementary school. Hamlet takes it one step further, saying he wants to study abroad and learn even more languages.

Reading their goals reminds me of how much potential our students have, and how much is at stake. I want SO badly to help each of them achieve their goals… I barely know them and I’m already dying to send them all to high school and beyond! I can already tell it’s going to be an intense year, but Laura and I are up for the challenge!

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Caitlin Moss (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University) is working to build her students’ sense of investment in their educations. One of her strategies was to survey her students and ask them about their own goals–for school, for their careers, and for their lives. Some of the answers weren’t quite what she expected…

In the first few weeks of class, I have started to implement my investment plans, which are basically an ongoing reinforcement to my kids (yes, I have started referring to them that way…) that studying is critical to opening up doors in the future. To me, being truly invested means that rather than being disinterested because they feel English is a subject that they’re forced to take (even though that’s partially true), my students will want to study English and be willing to study hard because they understand the importance of doing so for their own good.

Caitlin Moss with Margie, one of her students

I’ve also been trying to get to know my students better; with 52 of them, that’s not always easy. So part of my solution to that problem was to have them fill out a pretty extensive survey, and to make them reflect on their personal goals for the year and for life (and yes, all of this was done in Chinese, to make sure they understood.)

My students are certainly not dumb. I was really surprised and impressed with some of their self-insight and ability to reflect. I am looking forward to getting to know them more and more in the future, and even though they can be little monsters in class sometimes, I can already feel myself getting quite attached to them. Some of their answers really inspired me to work as hard as I can to support them this year.

Here are some of their interesting responses, synthesized and translated. Who WOULDN’T be inspired by these kids?!

Q: In your opinion, what does the ideal teacher look like? What characteristics does he/she have? What teaching methods does he/she use?

A: My ideal teacher looks just like Miss Moss. Except that I don’t know you well enough yet to know what your characteristics are.

A: My ideal teacher can teach me lots of new things, doesn’t get mad easily, and finds many different ways to communicate with students.

A: My ideal teacher is strict in class but tells us lots of stories.

A: My ideal teacher is just like you, different from all the other teachers.

Q: What are your goals for the future? What do you want to be when you grow up?

A: Go to college.

A: Go to Qinghua (Tsinghua) University.

A: Get a PhD.

Become a…

A: teacher.

A: scientist.

A: public attorney.

A: lawyer.

A: doctor.

A: math teacher.

A: nurse, then a doctor.

A: sports coach.

A: gym teacher.

A: cab driver.

A: migrant worker.

Q: What challenges might you face in trying to achieve these goals? How will you overcome them?

A: There are some things that I don’t do very well at (in school), my family doesn’t have enough money to keep sending me to school, and my parents don’t want me to be a doctor. I will study hard, take out loans, and convince my parents to let me follow my dreams.

A: Well studying might be a challenge. But if I have questions I will definitely go ask the teacher.

A: Some challenges I might face are not having enough money and not being able to find work. I will face them by asking Miss Moss for help.

Q: When you don’t feel like studying, how can Miss Moss motivate you?

A: By simply talking and interacting with Miss Moss, it will make us more mature and willing to study.

A: Tell me to believe in myself, not to give up, to keep working hard, and to always be honest and responsible.

A: Remind me that if I don’t study hard now, I won’t have any more chances to keep studying later.

A: Say: “For the sake of your own dreams, don’t you dare quit!”

A: There’s not really much Miss Moss can do about it.

A: Remind me that I’ll be able to play badminton and other games in my free time after I finish my homework.

A: Remind me that I’m studying for my own sake, and not just to meet my parents’ expectations.

A: Say: “You should believe in yourself. Don’t give up! Believe that if you continue, you can realize your dreams and overcome challenges.”

A: Remind me that if I work hard, I’ll have time to go play badminton.

A: Say: “You’d better go study! You don’t want to disappoint your parents, and especially don’t want to disappoint your dear Miss Moss. ADD OIL! You can do it!”

A: Compare my grades to other students who are doing well and tell me to study harder!

Q: If you could go anywhere in China or in the world, and bring anyone you wanted, where would you go and who would you bring?

A: I want to bring my mom to Xinjiang.

A: I want to go to France with my friends, since when you leave the house, you have to rely on your friends for support.

A: I want to go to Shanghai with friends because it would be a lot of fun.

A: I want to bring my parents to America, so they can live comfortably.

A: I want to go to Beijing, and I’d bring my parents with me. (times 3)

A: I want to go to Kunming because the weather’s nice there, and I would bring my parents.

A: I would like to go to America and bring my parents with me. (times 4)

A: I want to go to Africa and I’d bring my little brother. He’s very curious about how Africans live.

A: I want to go see where you live.

p.s. Another part of my investment strategy is to have lunch with my three most improved students on Friday. I started this last week, and one of my students, Marcia, has such a great attitude. During our lunch conversation, she asked me lots of questions about America, and asked me if there is anything she can do to improve her performance in English class. I’ve gotta be the best teacher I can be to support Marcia’s dream of becoming a doctor, and for all my other kids too!

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