A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Obama’s Farewell

I’m going to download a YouTube of President Obama’s farewell address last night. I’m going to play it from time to time to remind myself of what a President of the United States should sound like. I will send to people who come to see Donald Trump as normal and his policies as sensible.

I’ve been disappointed by some of Obama’s policies, especially education. Though completely wrong-headed, I believe he felt a responsibility as our first African American president to through education improve the lives of minority youth. I think he missed the fact that the plight of the poor in America is not remediable through some education magic bullet but must be addressed more broadly through panoply of programs to address the social pathologies our society has produces.

But though I’ve had important disagreements with him, I’m not blind to his very significant accomplishments, from the Affordable Care Act, to the progress on climate change and the shift to renewable energy to this engineering of a way out of the financial crisis. Despite dealing with an opposition party dedicated to his failure, he not only moved our country forward but did so with the honesty, dignity and integrity too long absent from our highest office. I strongly suspect that many who have reviled him will be forced to reevaluate their position in light of the big swindle to come.

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An Underwhelming Speech

AFT President Randi Weingarten gave a major address today to the National Press Club, a venue where speakers of note lay out what they consider to be important positions. Her theme was we can either continue down the path of the ESSA legislation to hopefully see to it that every neighborhood has a great public school, or we can follow Trump and Betsy Devos who are heading to dismantle public schools in favor of a privatized model of education.

Read the speech for yourself. It’s worth doing. Most of my readers won’t find much too vehemently disagree with. But ask yourself when you are finished, is this the speech we want from the leader of one of our two great education unions when teachers and educational support personnel are bracing for attack from every branch of our federal government. Are we to survive the existential threat to our unions and the work we do with clichéd rhetoric about building teacher capacity? Does Weingarten seriously believe that we can educate Billionaire Betsy by inviting her into the classrooms of our public schools? Might it not have been wiser to use the opportunity of a speech that will receive national attention to map out a course of resistance to the war that is about to be declared on us? Read the speech. See what you think. I couldn’t help comparing it to Meryl Streep’s.

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Social Justice Unionism and the Battles Ahead

The talk in progressive circles these days is how to get up off the floor and confront the Trump administration as it attempts to roll-back much of the social progress since the New Deal – all in the name of making America great again. A Day of Action is being planned for January 21st, with protesters gathering in Washington DC and major cities to convey that there is a not so silent majority that doesn’t believe that Trump and the Republicans have any mandate to burn America’s all too limited social safety net. This morning’s op-ed page of the New York Times has a piece by three former Democratic congressional staffers calling for Dems to adopt the Tea Party tactics and pressure federal representatives continually in their local office to reject the Trump agenda. That’s all good stuff, but what should we as unionists be doing? What are we perhaps uniquely equipped to contribute to the cause not only to build a firewall against the incendiary economic and social policies of the incoming administration and Congress but to also lay a predicate for advancing a progressive economic and social agenda in the future?

For some years now, our two national education unions have realized that they had to broaden their perspective, go beyond bread and butter issues and the negotiation of work rules to engage in what has come to be known as social justice unionism. On one level the call to engage in activism aimed at making our country and world more just is a higher calling than narrowly focusing on improving the lot of our members. It’s important to recognize, however, that there is enlightened self-interest in the endeavor as well. Public education unions disinterested in the economic and social conditions of the communities they serve will inevitably find those communities indifferent to their members’ needs.

So unionism that seeks to benefit workers everywhere, members or not, makes sense. Yet, too often our unions have lacked a real commitment to it. Sure, we support a boycott of a struck company here, encourage our members to purchase fair trade coffee and other agricultural products, issue press releases and lobby for progressive legislation , but we don’t routinely engage our members or the communities in which we work on issues that could unite working people.

Across this country, teacher unions are fighting and often losing battles to preserve their defined benefit pensions. How do we successfully continue to have pensions that allow us to retire in dignity if most of the citizens who fund these pensions don’t have them, and, even more importantly, don’t believe it is remotely possible for them to have a pension? We need to champion the right of all working people to a defined benefit pension. We even need to do this with our own members who often fail to understand that when other workers are treated unjustly, their conditions are threatened.

Why aren’t we advocating for the right of all citizens to affordable housing. Our brothers and sisters in San Francisco have been doing some amazing work in this regard that could serve as a model for others. Through all communication vehicles available to them, they are highlighting how the housing market in their community has made it almost impossible for San Francisco’s teachers to live in San Francisco.

The Republicans are mounting an assault on Social Security, their ultimate aim to privatize it thereby exposing the retirement security of millions of seniors to the vagaries of the marketplace. Our members need to be engaged with the seniors in their communities in fighting to defend both Social security and Medicare. I’ve met too many young members who don’t believe Social Security will be there for them when they wish to retire. They are amazed to hear that all it would take to guarantee it will be there for them is to lift the earnings cap.

We need not search far for issues of injustice that plague our communities and which we need to be leaders in addressing. What can we say to the men and women who have been displaced from the economy by technology? How do we deal with an economy that will require fewer and fewer people to make more and more stuff? As one wag put it, pretty soon all a factory will need is one man and a dog, with the dog necessary to keep the man from touching the machine. How do we make a place for redundant workers? How do we stop the social chaos that comes to economically marginalized families? We need to be in the vanguard of the search and fight for economic and social justice.

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Are We Catching On to The Tech Fraud?

My readers are aware of my view that digital technology industry has pulled one of the greatest rip-offs of all time on America’s public schools. Through the cleverest of propaganda campaigns they have convinced gullible public school decision makers of the impossibility of educating children satisfactorily without exposing them in any ways possible to technology mediated education. 21st century learners need 21st century tools. If like me you believe that a hideously stupid concept, you tend to get branded a Luddite, particularly if you are a certain age. Yet the evidence mounts that sending kids to school to spend a significant number of their hours there staring at screens is not only pedagogically questionable but downright damaging to the healthy growth and development of children. The good news is that people are beginning to catch on to this scam. When a mass publication like Time runs an article labeling the infusion of technology in our public schools a fraud, we may be coming out of the coma that has made us oblivious to the waste of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds that might have been put to much better use.

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Criminal Justice Reform and Our Children

Too many of America’s children live stunted lives for reasons ranging from poverty, to poor housing, to inadequate medical care to underfunded public schools. A new study adds to our understanding of how the failure of our criminal justice system deprive massive numbers of our nation’s children with the crucial support they need to develop and mature into productive, useful citizens – their parents – often their fathers. Here’s a statistic from Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein’s study to conjure with. By age 14, 25 percent of African American children have had the life disrupting experience of have a parent incarcerated. Think about that. Try to imagine being told that your father is going to prison, and then think about what it would be like to try to go to school the next day.

I have learned much from reading Richard Rothstein about how despite our protestations about loving children, American treats so many of them so badly. This study is a call to action on criminal justice reform as an approach to improving the lives of thousands of our children.

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Being Educated

Throughout my teaching career, I have too often been faced by students, supervisors, parents and colleagues who appeared to believe that the purpose of our public schools and the education they provide is to somehow prepare children for their life’s employment. How in hell we are supposed to know what employment will be open to them and what it is that they will choose to do in that economic environment is never made clear except to offer up some vague prognostication of what the economic future holds. When I have suggested that the best an education should offer children is to equip them to be able to read and teach themselves whatever it is that they wish to know throughout their lives and enablep them to be knowledgeable citizens of our democracy, I’ve been responded to with stares of disbelief or comments about my naiveté. Yet, the older I get, the more confirmed in my view I get.

Just the other day, as I finished Siddhartha’s Mukherjee’s tome The Gene, a history of the science of genetics, I was reminded of how thankful I am to have been educated and possess the ability to follow my interests wherever they take me. When I began college, I had no idea of how I would spend my economic life. Fortunately, I went to school in a day when the first two years of my studies were in required courses in the arts and sciences. Although I soon began to lean toward majoring in English, I continued to take subjects like comparative vertebrate anatomy, embryology and genetics. Now, some fifty years since my college days, I could read and thoroughly appreciate Mukherjee’s book because of Professor Norman Rothwell’s brilliant lectures. More importantly, I have an appreciation of the ethical issues genomic engineering causes us to confront.

Coincidentally, a day or two ago, as I was thinking about this subject, I got a message from a former member of my district’s board of education, pointing me to this article about Sir Ken Robinson and his thoughts about our unfortunate tendency to see the goal of education as employment and economic success. She sent me the link to the article because Robinson’s words reminded her of things that she had heard me say. Better late than never, I suppose, but the fact is that our public schools have gotten much more over-focused on job training since the time our board member remembered hearing me warn against confusing education with job training. Test scores and grades are what school is increasingly about. So much so that before our board of education has a proposed policy before it to only count student Regents exam scores in their final averages if those scores boost those averages. Do we seriously think that people who advance such a policy are concerned about education and its capacity to enrich the intellectual, cultural and spiritual life of human beings?

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Money for Schools Does Matter

Much of the rhetoric of the education reform movement has either stated directly or implied that more money is not the solution for the under-performance of poor children in our nation’s schools. Two new studies with two different methodologies now refute that counter-intuitive claim.

Where courts have interceded to challenge the underfunding of public schools in some communities, ordering those districts to spend more money, student scores on the NAEP test have significantly improved according to one study. The other research looked at time of school attendance in school and earnings after leaving school. Where greater financial resources were made available, students stayed in school longer and increased their earnings significantly.

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Economic Integration and Quality Schools

It has been clear for some time that one of the best ways to achieve racial integration is to create housing opportunities that promote economic integration. If people of different economic classes are visible to one another and must engage each other in everyday life, all lives are improved. It’s no secret that schools in middle and upper class neighborhoods tend to be better as are all social services in communities in which people have the wherewithal to demand quality. Take a minority child out of a segregated school, put him in a racially diverse classroom with middle and upper class children, and over time he will tend to share the aspirations and motivations of the group. I’ve seen it firsthand a number of times, when through some circumstance an inner-city minority child found his way to my upper middle class school district.

Federal housing policy under President Obama had begun to recognize this, regulations having been developed to use federal housing dollars to try to spur economic integration (See New York Times Article). That sadly will probably change now that Donald Trump has been elected and Dr. Ben Carson is slated to be the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development. To Carson, policies like this smack of social engineering which he categorically rejects. He apparently believes that the segregated poor have only themselves to blame for their plight. If he could escape the slums of Detroit and become a neurosurgeon, why can’t others develop triumphal will? Just when we were beginning to move in the right direction.

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From Wisconsin to the Nation

Wisconsin’s Act 10 was wormy Governor Scott Walker’s nuclear attack on the public sector unions in his state. It effectively ended public sector collective bargaining and, with its end to mandatory agency fees, crippled union memberships thereby severely limiting the political power of unions to lobby their elected representatives. A recent article in The Atlantic by Alana Semuels details the impact of Walker’s union cleansing on teachers in Wisconsin. This piece ought to be shared with every union member who supported Donald Trump. We will soon experience the fallout of Act 10 as it becomes a national model.

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Rediscovering Vocational Education

There appears to be growing agreement that our public schools need to offer more in the area of vocational education. While I completely agree, I admit to a rush of anger when I think about the subject, having been an educator that fought tenaciously to save the vocational programs my school district had from the ax of successive boards of education that like many turned up their noses at the thought of some of our community’s children earning a living with their hands.

My generation of educators was enthused about what were called comprehensive high schools, schools that attempted to offer both the academically inclined and those who are drawn to more physical work programs to meet their interests. The high school where I began my public school teaching career offered culinary arts, auto body repair, woodworking, ceramics, and metal working. Across town, our other high school offered cosmetology, auto repair, technical electricity, computer programming and I believe printing. The community’s students were free to take vocational courses in either school. Additionally, our students were completely free to register for vocational programs are regional high schools run by our state’s Bureau of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). I recall numbers of my English students who took a BOCES program that focused on the repair and maintenance of airplanes. At the time aviation was a big industry on Long Island.

Our local facilities to teach these subjects are almost all gone, victims of shortsightedness and a bias for college education for all. For us to reintroduce vocational education will require significant capital expenditures. We will also have great difficulty recruiting teachers for these programs, particularly as a result to the staggering teacher certification hurdles that have been erected in recent times. How painfully ironic it is that now that vocational education has almost disappeared from America’s high schools, people are awakening to what we have lost. “Don’t it always seem to go…”

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The Retreat to Tribalism

The world appears to be receding into tribalism. Heightened nationalism in Europe presaged the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Post World War II, people, spurred by the historic horrors of that cataclysm, sought to rebuild the world, attempting to create social and economic bonds between the peoples of the world in the hope of a peaceful international order. Today, globalism has become an epithet on the tongues of many of the world’s leaders, as nations across the globe retreat to the cultivation of national identity. We wish to make America great again, conjuring up the days when we were a white, male dominated, largely economically self-sufficient, Christian country that talked tough and carried a big stick. We know from history that national vainglory leads to the vulgarization of patriotism and leads inevitably to conflict.

By rejecting what all humanity shares and focusing instead on our differences, we retreat into small-mindedness. Witness the recent upsurge in white initiated hate crimes in our country. The president-elect tweets the other day that Americans who burn the American flag in protest should lose their citizenship, he being seemingly unaware of the constitutional protection of free speech. The attack on public education is intensifying, the incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, being given a mandate to undermine public schools through channeling public funds to parochial and private schools through government vouchers. The strides we have made in the extension women’s, LGBT and workers’ rights are all now threatened in the name of America regaining its greatness. In the name of challenging intellectual elites, I suspect we can look forward to increased pressure on our education institutions to teach a curriculum more aligned the mythical longed for America of years passed.

Educators during this period of retreat from the world will have a special obligation – to nurture the hope of a world that can transcend the tribal impulse, a world that continues the inevitable march to the unity of mankind and the tearing down of the political, economic and religious walls that have inflamed our belligerent impulses. Tribalism is a retreat to darker, more dangerous times.

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DeVos Was Second Choice

Valerie Strauss reports that what many of us think of as the worst possible pick to be Secretary of Education, billionaire Besty DeVos was really Donald Trump’s second choice. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell Sr., was apparently Trump’s first choice. This news deepens the conviction that the President-Elect plans a vigorous assault on the protections against tax dollars flowing to private and religious schools.

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Betsy Billionaire

Just what we needed, Mr. President- Elect, a billionaire champion of vouchers and charter schools. So, when I said the other day that advocates for public education were in for a rough ride, it begins with the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a thoroughly unqualified person, be the next Secretary of Education. In his comments about his pick to lead the Ed Department, Mr. Trump repeated the shot he consistently took at our teacher unions during his campaign. “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms,” Trump said. To Trump, and all those who seek to privatize our public schools, teacher union contracts that limit things like class size, the number of students a teacher may be responsible for and the number of hours a teacher may be worked are all impediments. In their great America, there are no teacher unions sticking up for their students and themselves. Tax dollars flow to private schools, even religious ones. Non-union teachers in these schools do what they’re told and work for a fraction of what union teachers make. The fact that there is not one country in the world with high performing schools that has such a privatized system means nothing to Trump and the privatizers of his class. Put their propaganda aside and what we have is yet another attempt driven by greed of corporate America to exploit us all. I suspect it won’t be long before some begin to long for the good old days of Arne Duncan and John King.

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Preparing For Vanishing Work

If we really saw schools as preparing students for the world they will live in, we would be discussing with them the growing technological capacity of human beings to replace people with machines. Clearly we will be able to produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers. The question then becomes who will buy the things the machines are able to produce. Perhaps the biggest lie of our recent presidential campaign was Trump’s assertion that he would see to it that manufacturing jobs come back to America. The fact is we produce more things today than ever before with a fraction of the workers it once took. Not only are these jobs not coming back to America, as labor costs rise in the rest of the world, these jobs will disappear internationally.

What does an economy driven by consumer spending do when it is able to produce more and more but there are fewer and fewer consumers with the money to buy the products? This is the central political question today’s young people will have to face. Yet, we do almost nothing to educate them and prepare them to deal with a world that will require work from fewer of them. How do we shape our economic and political institutions to meet this brave new world? Will we be able to build structures that equitable share our enormous productivity? Or will we continue to concentrate wealth and income to the point where ever greater numbers of citizens perceive themselves disconnected from their society to the point where they become open to ever more extreme political exploitation? Will we continue to tell our children that if they just get a college education their economic future will be assured?

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Public Schools and Gender Barriers

The teacher union I joined in 1969 was active in the social movements of the day. We were fiercely opposed to the Viet Nam war, aggressively supportive of the civil and women’s rights movements. We had a Title IX committee that diligently worked to address the disparate and often inferior treatment of girls in our schools. In the parlance of the day, we participated in a nation-wide movement to raise the consciousness of our members and students to the unequal opportunities and outcomes for American women. We developed courses for both members and students, brought in speakers, developed lessons, all aimed at tearing down the barriers to the full participation of our sisters in our society.

I’ve been thinking about this as I keep reading that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. Despite a document life of treating women as objects, despite a campaign that oozed with the slimiest sexist rhetoric, white women in significant numbers voted to defeat the first woman with a serious chance of being elected president, thereby meaningfully proscribing their lives and the lives of their daughters. In a very real way, the extent to which we continue to have to talk about a gender gap points to our failure.

Better public schools would have opened the minds of our children to the need of our country for the full participation of women in every aspect of our society. Back in the 60s and 70s, many of us expected that when the students were teaching then came into their majority, our goals for the political and economic liberation of women would be fulfilled. I fear that we and the teachers who entered the profession after us failed to see that we never finished the job, that there remains very difficult work to be done seeing to it that in the part teachers play in the acculturation of girls affirmatively strives to give them the tools to be agents of their own liberation.

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Trump and Agency Fee

Teacher unions first response to the election of Donald Trump had better be insulating themselves from the effects of a Trump Supreme Court reconsidering the Friedrichs case challenging the right of public sector unions to collect so-called agency fees from those in a union workplace who choose not to belong to the union. Justice Scalia’s death last year enabled us to escape from what was pretty sure to be a striking down of agency fee laws. It’s a sure bet that any Trump appointment will be hostile to public sector unions, especially teacher unions. Trump said very little during the campaign about education, but what little he did say was all about vouchers, charter schools and a deep hostility to our two great teacher unions, blaming them for what he sees as the failure of America’s schools.

When it seemed that we going to lose the Friedrichs case, I convinced my local union to have members sign union authorization cards for the following year. We successfully did so, and in so doing educated our members to the threat of Friedrichs. It also allowed us to identify those few in our midst who might be potential freeloaders and to plan for how to deal with them. By the time of Scalia’s death, we collected 99 percent of the cards and were effectively insulated from the most extreme Supreme Court decision.

It is not too early for local unions to plan for the loss of agency fee. To me, the above approach is relatively easy, especially in locals that currently have a high percentage of membership. It has the potential for other long term benefits too, as building level leaders must actively engage members to explain the threatening issues posed by the new administration and the harmful effects they could have on members if their solidarity is weakened by court decisions that encourage people to not pay union dues. Done enthusiastically and skillfully, we could free ourselves of the need for agency fee, a concept we fought for but which has made too many of us lazy and disconnected from the concerns of our members. The time to act is now!

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The Morning After

Where to begin to describe the feelings that disturb me this morning, deeply disturbing feelings, feelings of great loss. I find myself thinking of 1968, when in April of that year I was serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana. Thousands of miles from home, connected only by shortwave radio, air-letters, and weekly copies of Time and Newsweek, I tried to make sense of the assignation of Martin Luther King and the eruption of violence in America’s cities in response to his death. What was happening to my country? What kind of future would I shortly be going home to? Our cities burning, the Viet Nam War becoming more and more untenable, there comes an evening when I see from my balcony a group of some twenty people walking towards my house from the village up the road. It isn’t long before I realize they are coming to see me, the American living in their midst.

Their spokesperson gets right to the point. “Why did you kill Martin Luther King?” Speechless, I stand there for what seems endless minutes, when the question is repeated, shocking me out of my silence. They listen intently, with a young man translating for those with limited English, as I try to explain our ongoing struggle to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and how many in the U.S. are threatened by the demand of Negroes (That’s the term we used then.) for the full rights of citizenship. About the best I am able to do was to make clear that I didn’t personally have anything to do with King’s death, that I am as appalled as they. How could I make sense of what had happened for my Asante hosts when I had only the vaguest idea myself?

Once again I’m confused and unnerved by what is happening in my country. Of all the pundits I’ve read and watched these past months, Michael Moore, a Michigan native, was honed in better than most on the raging anger of white people in America’s rust belt and elsewhere who feel themselves losing the world they have known for one with no place for them in it. In an interview I saw with him, Moore analogized their inclination to vote for Trump to a Molotov cocktail, a powerfully destructive tool used by those without power.

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Anti-American Voter Suppression

Nothing has aroused my political passions more than the concerted effort of the Republican Party to suppress the vote of minorities. Whether it has been through voter ID laws predicated on a illusory problem of voter fraud, the reduction of polling places in minority communities, the abridgment of early voting in states that have it, the deliberate purging of voter lists from minority areas, pressuring the FBI to politicize the investigation of a candidate, or the outright attempt to encourage gun-toting civilians to intimidate voters in Democratic areas, the fact is the Republican Party has come associate its fate with making it as hard as possible for some people to exercise their franchise. It is a party that has been taken over by angry white nationalists who long to turn back the clock the progress we have made in becoming a more perfect union, one in which women and minorities are freer to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Nothing is more important for the future of our nation than repudiating them unequivocally. Does anyone seriously believe that those who would prevent millions from voting are going to become the champions of those they seek to disenfranchise?

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Reformers’ Nightmare

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a conservative think-tank that has been in the forefront of the so-called education reform movement. While public education has been an issues casualty of this presidential campaign, it is interesting to see what Fordham’s leader sees as the education outcome of a Clinton victory and a democratic takeover of the Senate. The short version is less support for charter schools and national standards, test driven accountability and more power to teacher unions. So, while there hasn’t been much about education in the campaign of either candidate, the ed-deformers are nervous. It’s up to us to deliver their worst education nightmare.

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Weapons of Math Destruction?

Following up on yesterday’s post about the misuse of data in education, a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a Public Radio interview with mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that deals with the destructive ramifications of the misapplication of so-called big data. I haven’t read the book, but the interview prompts me to put it on my reading list. Listen, and see if you don’t agree.

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