Claire King

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Posts Tagged ‘Literacy’

The Naming of Parts – Language for Language’s Sake

Posted on: May 2nd, 2016 by Claire - 6 Comments

My daughters recently moved from a French primary school to one in England. In the light of the current debates raging around SPaG* tests I wanted to share my first observations about one particular difference between the two systems as we’ve experienced them, and its noticeable effects on my children.

clippy

Much of the SPaG conversation recently mocks the fact that in her correspondance the Education Secretary herself has failed to meet the expected levels of primary school grammar, and perhaps if she were assessed on her use of subordinating conjunctions and fronted adverbials she would be found – embarrassingly – wanting. But I want to step back from that kind of sniping and look at the more fundamental issue – how literacy is affected by the ways we encourage children to engage with language.

Author Michael Rosen is a tenacious and articulate opponent of many of our current government’s education policies and his voice can, thankfully, be heard widely in the press, challenging their thinking. You can find his excellent blog here where he regularly shares his opinions on these issues. In this Guardian article he says:

“You must hope we parents are so mystified by this that we’ll think it represents “rigour”. In fact, it’s the grammar invented to describe how the Romans wrote. Our forebears neither knew nor cared how the Romans spoke, so they devised a self-serving system of descriptions that bear little relation to why we say or write things the way we do. So, back with the new gold standard of “subordinating conjunctions”: all this kind of description does is describe language as if humans invented it for the sole purpose of fitting it together. Amazingly, we invented speech and writing to enable us to do things. Language varies according to what we want it to do.”

For me, this hits the nail on the head, and illustrates is the big difference I see already in the way my girls are being taught here as opposed to in France. In their French primary school, French language, spellings, punctuation and grammar were learned by rote. There is an enormous emphasis in this area at least up to age 11, and the children are tested weekly. They certainly came out of it knowing vast amounts about verb conjugations in at least half a dozen tenses, being able to recite by heart the definition of a preposition, and explain the difference between a pronoun and a demonstrative adjective, amongst other things. They also learned about story structure. However they never seemed to DO anything with all of that. They wrote no poetry, no stories and no essays. They did no comprehensions and no projects. All the reading they did was sections specifically written for approved textbooks, which was then followed by questions to answer on the use of grammar and punctuation. It was dry, joyless and uninteresting. Language for language’s sake.

After a month in their new school, my children want to talk to me about the Tudors, about Egypt, about Coasts and Mountains. They want to discuss the life of Charles Dickens, the Plague and the Great Fire of London. They are excited by the different styles of language they are being exposed to and keen to use the new vocabulary they are developing to express their ideas and tell their own stories. Yes, they still have grammar and spellings to learn, and more so because they are shifting languages from French to English, but they are more engaged because they are applying it to interesting topics that give them a reason to use their words, and are exposed (by the school) to literature where the “rules” are not necessarily followed. It’s like a revelation.

I understand that this side of the channel our family’s experience is very limited – I’d be interested to know what your experiences are. For us, the difference is marked and in a very good way. The first thing my 10yo was asked to do when she joined her year 6 class in March was to write an essay about the differences between French school and English school. She had never in her life been asked to write more than a single sentence response to a question. She suddenly had a lot to say.

I’m a writer. I became a writer because I love language. I love the stretch and shift and richness of it. The malleability, the way you can play with it to make ordinary things sound surprising or beautiful. The way you can use words to give someone goosebumps or bring them to tears. The way you can use them to inspire other people, communicate ideas and create momentum. There is such joy to be had in all of this – surely this is why so many people want to be writers? Far fewer people want to become copy editors, (although thank goodness for the ones who do).

I honestly believe that if in my early exposure to English I had not been allowed to be creative, to play with words free of the constraints of the naming of parts, I would have felt suffocated by the rules and quickly lost interest. And even if I had not wanted to be a writer, but just be able to use written communication effectively, the end result would have been poorer. On the other hand, when you enjoy doing something there is a natural urge to improve your craft. In the case of language this means striving to find better ways of telling your stories and being receptive to learning from others, by lesson and by example.

 

*Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. Whenever I see this abbreviation I want to add ‘Bol.’…

Truths and Lies

Posted on: August 17th, 2015 by Claire - 3 Comments

Every now and then I hear so many wonderful things about a book outside my usual sphere ( I tend towards contemporary adult fiction) that I have to read it. Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is one of those books. It’s a children’s book, but really you can read and appreciate it at any age. Since finishing it a few days ago I have been trying to explain to people why it is such a good book without bursting into tears.

This is partly just my general temperament, but partly because it is such a beautifully truthful, beautifully human story. A story that happened to coincide with several other things I have read, watched or listened to in the last couple of weeks that have a consistency of theme – the kinds of stories we tell our children.

Stories wreak havoc

A Monster Calls tells the story of  how a young teenage boy deals with his mother’s terminal cancer. There’s also some bullying and a bit of broken family dynamics thrown into the mix. Not so much about having adventures in the fresh air and drinking ginger beer, then. Is this the kind of subject matter that our children really need to be dealing with at that age? The Danish think it is.  They actively teach empathy to children, and believe that we shouldn’t shy away from engaging children with stories that tackle tough topics. We all want to protect our children, but at the same time we want them to fly the nest ready to face the world, and by reading about different kinds of emotions – fear, sadness, anger – children develop their ability to connect with their own emotions and empathize with others.

This is nothing new. Most of the books we read our children contain dark elements (even Guess How Much I Love You if you look hard enough); the storytelling tradition is full of devils, wicked stepmothers, and wolves who eat children. Many of us grew up with the moral lessons of Aesop’s Fables, but also Hans Cristian Anderson’s Ugly Duckling and the Emperor with his new clothes, and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, so many of which have gone on to be sanitised by Disney (Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White…).

Fairy tales can teach us truths about foolishness, arrogance, selfishness and good versus evil, but what else are children taking out of these stories? For example, I listened to this broadcast from the excellent Radio 4 Misogyny Book Club series:  ‘Unhappily Ever After’  which discusses how such fairy tales portray male and female roles. If you think back to the kinds of stories you were read, and then later read yourself as a child, can you remember what they told us about how men and women behaved in the world? Which actions were rewarded and which warned against and how the world was described? There was almost certainly much less diversity than we try to insist on these days. And possibly the gender stereotyping was inconsistent with the way we would like our own children to think?

cinderella quote

In the broadcast, Rosie talks first about the fairytales she read, how they portrayed the ideal woman and her aspirations – for the “good” female character it usually culminated in marrying the prince. But interestingly she compounds this experience with her later reading as a teenager, notably Twilight, and talks about how she responded to that story and the relationship portrayed in it by entering into a string of abusive relationships.

I haven’t read Twilight, and I don’t believe that in itself it is a bad book that will turn teenagers towards abusive relationships, but as we grow up we do take our context from the stories we are told, and more and more these days there it seems harder to find a balance. As well as books, we are told stories by our teachers, our peers, our parents and other people we trust. We are also fed stories in the other media we consume, notably in commercial “storytelling”: The adverts that tell you how buying things will make you more popular. The TV shows that show kids how anybody can be a pop star if they want it 110%. The glossy magazines with their beauty essentials and airbrushed models. And the internet…which brings me onto the subject of pornography.

porn warning

Pornography is another kind of storytelling, I believe. Boy meets girl. Boy fixes girl’s washing machine. Fellatio results.

Something else I came across last week was this video on what our children are learning about sex from the internet. The children (16 year olds) talk about what they have ‘learned’ from watching internet porn and how it influences their thinking and behaviour with the opposite (in this case) sex.  It then shows the effect of bringing a Belgian sexologist in to a UK School to change the narrative. It might seem strange to include porn as ‘stories’ – on so many levels – but the children who are watching it seem to believe it is fantasy.

A Monster Calls has fantastic elements. Central to the plot is a walking, talking yew tree. Shaking off the boundaries of the real world allows complex ideas to be conveyed simply and poetically. In fantasy, magic and the supernatural can provide conduits for telling very human stories. It doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a wizard or a scarecrow, a sentient robot or a flying nanny, the characters are sympathetic and the story is one that the reader can relate to, and find truth in. Every story we write, fantastic or realistic takes the reader on a journey, asks them to consider a situation, empathise with the characters and wonder what they would do in a similar situation.

Yew Tree Monster

Yet the further our stories get from fantasy, from what we know cannot be true, and the closer they get to resembling the world around us, the harder it can be to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins.

Our children must learn to discern which stories are fantasy, which are fictionalised portrayals of events that could happen in real life and which hold no truth at all. And here is where the danger lies. We have a responsibility to tell the truths, as hard as they might be, because if we don’t then lies will take their place. At every age, from the first stories we read to them, to the books and magazines they read and the websites they visit during their teenage years, the stories we tell our children inform their view on the world.

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Links:

A report from the YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) talking about whether sex should be included in YA books.

list of Young Adult Titles that get first sex (awkwardly) right.

My blog post on Why I think 5 part story structure is less important to kids than storytelling

 

How Stories are Made

Posted on: September 25th, 2013 by Claire - 33 Comments

I was surprised to discover this week that my eight year-old daughter is learning ‘Five-part Story Structure’ as part of her school curriculum. It’s not something I ever learned at school, and in fact was only exposed to for the first time quite recently, long after I’d started writing seriously myself.

One thing that makes it particularly surprising is that my younger daughter, who is nearly six, has just started in the class where French children are taught to read, and some of the children in her class literally don’t know how a book ‘works’. (Not all of them. And you can make your own guess as to whether my own children love to read and engage with stories). Yet two years later they are already moving on to learning the constituent parts of a story.

If you don’t know the five parts, typically they are:

  • Exposition: Setting the scene. “Once upon a time…”
  • Rising Action: Building the tension. “But then…”
  • Climax: The really exciting bit. Sometimes known in our house as ‘the Bad Part’*
  • Falling Action. “And so”
  • Dénouement or resolution: Ending the story. “Happily ever after.”

*I’ve been telling my daughters about ‘the bad part’ of stories for a while, because if they stop reading (or listening, or watching) a story when it all seems too scary to bear, they never get to see the hero pull through, and you are left without a satisfying and cheerful resolution.

Little Red Riding Hood

So in the exercise they are completing, they are comparing Charles Perrault’s original version of Little Red Riding Hood with the later Brothers Grimm version of the story and seeing how they differ at each of the steps. For example, unlike the milder Grimm telling (where Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are rescued by the woodcutter, who slices open the Wolf’s stomach and sets them free, relatively undigested), in the dénoument of the original story, Little Red Riding Hood is lured into bed, and then promptly eaten by the wolf. The End.

Anyway, having thought on the matter, firstly I’m not sure that this is the right time to give children such a functional view of story telling. Isn’t this a time when stories should be something that they delight in, or in which they see echoes of their own struggles and realise they are not alone? As GK Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Secondly, the five part story structure seems to me a very oversimplified explanation of how stories are built. Unless the writer is being very formulaic, the journey between the opening and closing of a story can differ wildly from one story to another. Could this be a case of teaching a basic ‘rule’ first, and then going on to cover the exceptions? But are the exceptions not in the majority?

Here is a link to an illuminating and funny Kurt Vonnegut talk where he plots out the structure of some well known stories.

My final exception to the teaching of story structure to children is that if we are going to teach anything about storytelling we should start with the magic. We should explain to them why we tell stories, the profound effects that stories can have on human beings in terms of emotional responses, learning and social skills. We should explain that telling stories makes us human, and that we can all do it, and in fact we do all do it every day. That when my daughter walks in from school and says “Guess what happened to me today!” the magic is already starting.

My true love gave to me…creativity, self esteem and joy – First Story Interview

Posted on: December 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 10 Comments

This week the National Literacy Trust published a survey that said almost one in three UK children do not own a book. This makes me sad. Especially since,  for book-hungry children, we can no longer count on the libraries that I relied on while growing up.

But there are people trying to do something to make a difference. People, including many well respected writers, giving up their time to help children write…and enjoy it.

I recently heard about First Story, a charity which aims to improve literacy and foster creativity in young people through creative writing.

First Story focuses on “challenging” state schools and deprived areas. After reading their excellent and informative website I asked if they would be willing to talk to me about their work.

I’m now delighted to welcome Monica Parle, National Director of First Story and writers Kate Clanchy and Ben Faccini, two of First Story’s contributing authors, to talk about their work.

Claire King: Could you tell us about First Story came about, and the aims of the programme?

Monica Parle: First Story was founded by former teacher Katie Waldegrave and the writer William Fiennes. They met at a party in 2007, and started chatting about the very privileged school where William was writer-in-residence, and Katie, who was working at a ‘challenging’ school in West London near Heathrow airport, said that a writer would never come out to a school like hers. William volunteered to come the following week, and after a terrifying twenty minutes in which they thought no one would show, suddenly the Sixth Formers arrived, and they wrote, and Katie and William saw incredible changes across that year. They thought they’d struck on something, so First Story started its first official year in the autumn of 2008 with eight schools in London.

CK: What are your main activities now, three years later?

MP: We place acclaimed writers in schools for the autumn and spring terms. The writers run weekly, after-school creative writing workshops with somewhere between twelve and twenty-one students aged fourteen to eighteen years. At the end of the project, we publish the students’ work in anthologies, and arrange book launch parties and public readings, so students can share their work. Since 2007, First Story has arranged for 150 writers-in-residence to work with 56 teachers in 27 challenging secondary schools across the country. Some 1,150 students have participated in the scheme, writing an estimated 18,400 stories and poems and producing 50 anthologies.

CK: That sounds like an awful lot of intense activity. How is it funded? Also, how do you see your charitable work sitting alongside state-provided education in schools?

MP: We fundraise extensively, and honestly, it’s been a change each year in terms of the sources of income. But the major sources are grants from trusts and foundations, individual donations, fundraising events, and we do have some income from the schools themselves (they pay about 10-15% of the cost). We steadfastly believe that creativity has a place in education, of course, but when Katie and William first set up the charity, it was really important to them that the project not be positioned just to serve the national curriculum or exams/assessments. They made a point of setting the project up after school. In part, this is because we hope the students will see that education is something bigger than the school day, that we can learn things in so many different settings. But Katie also noticed that with her school, the students didn’t have a tradition of extracurricular activities at all, and she felt that was a major difference from other schools. This is always a challenge for us because a lot of our students associate staying after school as being in trouble, so we have to tackle that each time we start in a new school.

CK: Your list of advisors reads like a Who’s Who of writing and publishing – Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith, Mark Haddon and Jonathan Dimbleby; Jamie Byng of Canongate; Literary Agents Deborah Rogers of Rogers, Coleridge & White and Andrew Kidd of Aitken Alexander; plus leading figures like Chris Patten (Chancellor of the University of Oxford) and Lord Adonis. That’s a massive amount of support. How do you benefit from that wealth of knowledge?

MP: We try not to bother them too much, as we feel so lucky for their support. But they’re very generous and helped us conceive of how to set up the project and gave us so much useful advice.

CK: Could you please outline the main achievements of First Story to date? How do you measure the impact of your efforts?

MP: We try to be in the schools as much as we can and keep an open dialogue with both the writer and the teacher in the school. We also have done internal surveys in the past few years, but this year, we’ve been really lucky to receive some great external evaluations, one from an independent consultant and one from an academic in Nottingham who did a case study of one of our schools. We’ve also got a lot of teachers who are doing masters and PhDs, so this year we were lucky to get two insightful reports from teachers who had worked on the project about how it works in their schools.

CK: How would you like to see First Story develop in the future?

MP: This is a key question for us. We’re a tiny organization, and yet, since I started working at First Story, we’ve already grown so much. I think all of us would like to get to the point where every young person in the UK has access to some kind of creative education, but we are a small charity, and we think the key to successful projects is the really intensive relationships we build. We like to know all our teachers and writers personally, and we have these great termly meetings where everyone gets together and shares, and we all learn so much from that. So I’m not sure that we feel that we need to be the organization doing the projects everywhere – more to the point, we hope that we can meet people who want to start up their own ventures, and that they’ll take different forms from what we’re doing. It’s exciting to see how many fantastic projects are already out there, and how they’re all different, and I think there’s so much for all of us to share and to learn from.

Meet two of the authors working with First Story: 

Ben Faccini is the author of The Water Breather and The Incomplete Husband. Ben works alongside Lauren Child on the UNESCO initiative My Life is a Story and has been working with First Story since 2009. As well as fiction, Ben writes for UN agencies on educational issues.

CK: Ben, why (and how) did you get involved with First Story?

BF: William Fiennes asked me to get involved. I had followed the beginnings of the scheme quite closely and taught one workshop session with William in his first school, Cranford College. I could see the exciting effect the work had on the pupils and how the world seemed to open up to them when they wrote or spoke about writing. Creative writing, or just writing, was a new platform to free students from the strictures of school and it liberated their voices. They felt enlivened by the chance to explore language and by finding the words and context to express something about themselves. I wanted to get involved as a result. I wanted to be part of this move towards greater self-confidence and expression. Part of me, too, had always been drawn towards teaching – though I would say this is more about facilitating rather than teaching in the true sense of the word.

CK: Are there parallels between the work you do in other countries with UNESCO and the work with children in the UK through First Story?

BF: The work I’ve done for UNESCO and UNICEF is more about getting excluded children and adults into education. The people I have worked with are generally the most deprived and those least likely to have access to formal education. With First Story it’s a different set of issues. It is about making sure that those who are in education have a stimulating education and that the learning they receive is as enriching and relevant as possible. It’s about providing a new layer to the school experience. Initiatives like First Story are about introducing innovations into the school, and it would be fantastic to imagine spreading the idea of First Story to other countries (with local writers) where the education systems are sometimes rather rigid.

CK: Do the children you work with through these two programmes relate to you, and to writing, in different ways?

BF: Children are children and there are remarkable similarities between young people’s aspirations whether they are a rural child in Burkina Faso or a London teenager. That said, the children I work with in First Story are different from the children I work with abroad.

My first book, The Water-Breather, started in Cairo. I had spent the morning interviewing street children and there was this young girl of seven who was weaving in and out of the traffic and knocking on car windows. She would tell drivers a joke and if they laughed she would ask for money. It couldn’t believe how a child so young and so destitute could have the resources to think up new jokes and keep going. I began to think of how it would be for a child closer to the world I grew up in (in rural France and Italy) to try and live with a parallel world in his head. That was the genesis of the book – though I had been writing for some time before that. This was a clear case of my work inspiring my writing. My Life is a Story was then a response to the voicelessness of out-of-school and excluded children in the developing world. It is about getting them to tell their own hidden life stories, and get empowered as a result.

CK: Do the two initiatives link up in any way?

BF: We have often discussed the possibility of tying the two together in some way, but we haven’t taken concrete steps towards it yet. We need more funds and more time to work out the administrative side of things, but it’s something we would love to do.

CK: So specifically in First Story, how have you found your experience of working with children in UK schools?

BF: I have really enjoyed it. I’ve learnt a lot. I love it when the students get excited by words or manage to write incredible snippets of stories in a short amount of time. I am often overwhelmed by the stuff I hear, particularly when we read each other our stories. Then there is the discussion time about themes, characters, plot lines – each workshop is a kind of forum for ideas. One great joy is to see how motivated the students are. I am often surprised and this provides me, as a writer, with the necessary enthusiasm to keep writing. We did some workshops last year on ancestry as many of the children come from many different cultures. The result was staggering. We had real-life stories from Ghana alongside fictional accounts of ancestors from Germany, Scandinavia and the Caribbean.

CK: As a writer, you are in the position of storyteller. When encouraging children to write, how does your role change? Is it hard to adapt?

BF: You become the facilitator of stories with First Story. You are encouraging children to examine their own knowledge, dig deep into their memories and their senses. I’m always encouraging them to boost their observational skills, asking them what they’ve seen on the bus on the way to the school, or what they have noticed in the street. If I could do one thing it would be to encourage the students to realise how unique and interesting they are.

CK: Would you like to add anything?

BF: I would encourage people to donate to First Story if they can. There is a donations page on the First Story website, as well as information on the whole scheme.

Kate Clanchy is a prize winning poet, a journalist, playwright, and creative writing teacher. In 2009 she won the BBC National Short Story Award.

CK: Kate, could you tell us about the school you work with?

KC: I started working with Oxford Spires school in East Oxford about two years ago. My involvement was slightly unusual in that I was working in the inclusion unit (for children that would otherwise be excluded), within their regular timetable. I also contribute to extra-curricular activities for the Gifted & Talented children, as well as lunchtime activities for younger ones and some work within the curriculum, for example writing a play with GCSE drama students and the newsletter for humanities.

It’s an excellent school in a deprived area. East Oxford is a European designated area of deprivation. The school ensures that quality literature is available, but many of the students come from a background with no books, and not much conversation around the home. The children there are quite naïve and there is a pretty high level of transitory students.

CK: As a former teacher, how do you see the work done by First Story authors in schools complementing the work done by the schools themselves?

KC:  47% of the children in East Oxford do not have English as a first language. The teachers at Oxford Spires are great, but the English curriculum has a lot of focus on skills and assessment of objectives. The work I do helps to get away from those rules and objectives and remind them of creativity. 

Creativity in writing is extra-curricular. Here’s an example. I judged the FOYLE ‘Young Poets of the Year Award’ in 2006.  I read 10,000 poems from school children and awarded fifteen prizes. 14 out of those 15 turned out to be children from private schools. I felt it was an indication of the fact that those schools have more resources to devote to developing creativity. They own creativity. 

CK: What is your role when you are engaging with the school children? Is it a ‘teaching’ role?

KC: It’s a writer’s role. I am being a writer. The exercises are creative writing exercises and they are very powerful at unlocking memories, and creative ways of describing them.

CK: What specific benefits do you see for the children you work with?

KC: There is a definite benefit in the way this work raises the students’ aspirations. They are encouraged and validated. Many of the children have very low self esteem. Writing can help to lift that. Seeing your own experiences reflected back to you in the stories you have written being read aloud, that can absolutely raise your self esteem. 

CK: How do the teachers respond to you?

KC: The teachers are great. When you’re a teacher it can be very irritating if a writer comes in and sets out their position as ‘the creative one’.  You have to work carefully and respectfully with them and not assume you are more creative than they are. It’s often not the case. The teachers also need encouragement. 

I feel very optimistic about schools these days, they are doing better than when I was a teacher 20 years ago. And First Story is a very optimistic organisation. If you can support First Story, please do.

Useful links:

Authors wanting to donate books, or get involved with First Story, and anyone wanting to donate to First Story please click here

Hear William Fiennes speak about First Story

Ben’s publisher, Portobello Books.

Ben’s books on Amazon

Kate’s books on Amazon

Kate Clanchy/Vicki Bertram Interview on Salt Publishing Site

Thanks to Monica, Ben and Kate for their time, and thank you everyone who has got to this point for taking the time to read this interview. I wish you all a very merry Christmas and all good things in 2012. Claire xxx

 

Is this how The Fairytale goes?

Posted on: December 16th, 2011 by Claire - 2 Comments

This week I had the privilege and the pleasure of interviewing Stephen Kelman for The View From Here.

I loved Pigeon English, Stephen’s debut novel. It’s the story of Harrison, a Ghanan immigrant, as he acclimatises to life in his new home on a London housing estate. It opens with the knifing to death of a local schoolboy, possibly the victim of local gang culture although the police are unable to prove anything. The novel is unusual, bold and challenging and for me, it’s the ending that really makes it. The final sentence still sticks with me. Stephen Kelman proposes a simple truth of humanity that fits perfectly into the story’s end…and you will just have to read the book to see if you agree!

If you hadn’t heard, Pigeon English was shortlisted for more than a handful of literary awards in 2011, including the Man Booker. I’ve read various interviews with Stephen, talking about his ‘humble’ origins, and the ‘fairytale’ of the 12-publisher bidding war for his debut novel. But there’s always more to these fairytale stories, you know. The endings may be all ‘happily ever after’ but for the most part, children are abandoned, eaten by wolves and stolen by witches. Spells are put upon innocents and the path through the forest is dark and set about with danger.

You can read the full interview here. Only there will you find answers to questions like:

  • “How much tenacity did Stephen really have to show before his destiny finally showed up for dinner?”
  •  “Does Stephen type out text messages using proper, full words?” and
  • “What is the relationship between Stephen and a man whose best friends kicked him 47 times in the testicles in 90 seconds?”

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