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Want a different outcome? Start with communication basics

Communication skills matter. Yet when it comes to our loved ones, sometimes we forget how to do it. Our choice of words, tone, and body language are the difference between productive conversations and the explosive ones where everybody shuts down.   We sometimes forget that our kids, even the teenage variety, are still children. They are not small adults. It falls on us to teach them effective communications skills by modeling the correct behavior. Some kids can be more challenging than others but when our conversations are full of emotion, no one is listening or learning. So where do we start to ensure the communication basics are always top of mind?

Step one is dealing with feelings. Listen to and acknowledge your child’s feelings, don’t dismiss them, even if you don’t understand them. As Elaine Mazlish explains in her book How to Talk so Teens will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk, you have a better chance of being heard if you start by letting your kids know they have been heard. This is actually the case for adults too.  Acknowledging your kids’ feelings creates a safe place for them to talk by letting them know you are in their corner. This can be hard to do when they are irrational, acting out, or being disrespectful, but that’s when it’s most important keep ourselves from escalating and making things worse.  These behaviors are merely symptoms of an underlying problem or frustration they are dealing with but can’t figure out how to communicate.

Getting things done

Ok, so I have heard and acknowledged my child’s feelings, now what? As you know sometimes it’s just about getting things done like chores or participating in packing for a trip. It is vital that our kids learn the skills of taking care of themselves, their surroundings, and helping out their family.  Here are some more tips from How to Talk so Teens will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk  that both my husband and I utilize with our teens which have made a positive impact in our family dynamic:

  1. Describe the problem and leave the accusing comments at the door. Last summer we entrusted the boys with the job of painting the fence in the backyard.  Instead of using the utility sink in the basement, they decided to clean their brushes in the bathroom.  Needless to say, there was paint splattered on the walls, floor, counters, and sink. I wanted to say “What is wrong with you?  Look at the mess you made!  That wasn’t very smart.”  Instead I pointed out the mess, calmly explained that the bathroom is not where we clean paint brushes and asked how they would rectify the situation. They both agreed to clean up their mess and use the utility sink in the future.  No fuss, no muss and they happily finished the job with no further incidents.
  2. Say it with a word or a gesture. Less is more. In our house, it can consist of just saying: “Sam, dishes” after which Sam usually says “Oh, yeah” and then puts his dishes away. I have explained why putting the dishes away is important before but the teenage brain likes to forget.  There’s no point rehashing the why and getting into a lengthy exchange that just results in eye rolls and unnecessary animosity.    A quick reminder is all that’s necessary and its mission accomplished.  With all the repetition, he has learned breakfast isn’t over till you put your dishes away.
  3. Describe what you feel without attacking or mocking your student. We have a non-negotiable rule in our house that there are no phones in the bedroom at night, yet somehow my youngest “accidentally” brought his to bed a few times one week recently. This really pushes my buttons because I consider this sneaky and deceitful. So I told him that I was upset and felt that finding his phone again in the bedroom made me not trust him. He proceeded to explain that he had to show his brother something and then forgot to bring his phone back downstairs. My response was simply, “Ok, but that doesn’t change the rule of no phones in the bedroom when it’s time to go to sleep. My job is follow through and if I make exceptions, what’s the point of the rule.” He understood how I felt and handed over the phone and that was it. In this case, by explaining how his actions impacted me before simply taking his phone, we avoided certain conflict and hard feelings. Moving forward the phone stayed in the kitchen when he went to bed.

Communication is an art form that when perfected elicits positive relationships with those around us.  When spoken to with respect, kindness, and patience, we are fulfilled and open to one another. Some days I am better than others in modeling this behavior. When I misstep, I take a breath, apologize if I bungled it, and try again. By sticking to the basics we build a connection with our kids instead of alienating them. The goal is that they know they can come to us for anything when life hits them hard. What can you do to improve to the dialogue with your kids so you too can have better results?

 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

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Mindful Parent to Teacher Communications – Lessons Learned

Sometimes keeping up on school emails, newsletters, permissions slips, activity sign-ups, announcements, and checking data in the online student tracking system, the Parent Portal, can seem a little overwhelming for parents. As a working mom with two active children in two different schools, I often find myself skimming communications from both schools between running from one activity to the next. If I have questions about grades or activities or something that happened at school, I quickly send an email to a teacher.

In the past, a rushed email to a teacher may have come off as impatient or judgmental, when it was more likely just a quick message without much thought put into it at all and sent between a meeting at work, pick up from basketball practice and a grocery store run. I’ve learned over the years to take a few extra moments and slow down and to be more thoughtful in my communications with teachers. I’ve found a few changes in my communication attitude and approach have led to more positive outcomes for my children, their teachers, and me.

Easy ways I’ve found to improve my communications with teachers include: staying positive, checking tone in emails, making appointments, and being open to listening to different perspectives.  

Daniel Patterson is a former teacher and school administrator turned parenting coach. He includes many of the same ideas on how to improve parent-teacher communications in a recent blog post Strategies for Parent-School Communications. Some of Daniel’s key parent-teacher communications strategies include: staying optimistic, respecting hierarchy, making appointments, being direct, considering threats, holding children accountable for their actions.

I’ve tried a few of these strategies over the years and found that every teacher I’ve talked with has the same goals in mind for my children: challenge them to do their best and support them in reaching their full potential.  We can all agree that our great teachers are underpaid for the time and effort they put into their jobs as they meet with parents, plan class time, grade papers and analyze test scores, often outside of school hours. Raising teachers’ salaries and lightening their workload is not something I can do today. However, I’ve learned that just taking a few extra moments and being more mindful in my communications with teachers goes a long way in supporting and respecting their work. 

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Air traffic controllers & Your Kids Brains

I had the opportunity this past weekend to tour the air traffic control tower at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport located just outside Denver, Colorado, RMMA. RMMA is a general aviation airport servicing everything from student pilots in small propeller planes to sophisticated business jets. Even huge tanker planes that fight wildfires throughout the Rocky Mountains fly out of here. The view from the tower is incredible.  High in the air with a backdrop of snow capped peaks to the west and downtown Denver to the east, I thought to myself this had to be the best “office” in town. I quickly realized however that this was serious business where highly trained professionals worked tirelessly with no room for error.

I sat in awe as the controllers guided a variety of planes through their airspace to safe take offs and landings. It was like a finely choreographed ballet, with aircraft all over radar screens being given detailed instructions constantly, one right after another.  Their job is in the top five most stressful, responsible for remembering and recalling vast amounts of information, maintaining constant focus, and managing multiple tasks at once.  On a busy day, the work is so physically and mentally exhausting that the controllers switch off every hour to stay sharp and even nap on break to recharge

Why am I talking about Air traffic controllers?

It got me thinking about students with ADHD and Learning Disabilities.  The National Center for Learning Disabilities released a report that shows 1 out of every 5 students has Dyslexia or attention issues.  These students are like an air traffic controller without a radar to help make sense of all the chaos in the air.

Your brain is not your student’s brain

Your student’s brain does not see the world as you do. The frontal lobe where executive functioning (working memory, planning, organization, task initiation, attention, and self-regulation) occurs is not fully developed until the mid to late  20’s. It is the last part of the brain to develop.  If a child also has ADHD or other learning differences, their executive function skills can be three to five years behind their peers, which means it will take even more time, practice, and support to develop these skills.  As parents, we must understand how our students process information and navigate day to day tasks. Understood.org has a great simulation you can use to visualize and experience the world through your student’s eyes.  Once you understand how they learn and interpret the world around them, you can better tailor interventions, accommodations, and systems to gain skills and build self-confidence. Then your child can build their own radar to process and manage all the information that is coming their way while knowing they have a team behind them.

Recharging the Brain 

For students with attention and learning deficits, going to school and completing homework is like being an air traffic controller on a super busy day.  They will have worked hard to focus and complete tasks all day long and will be tired, frustrated and even cranky when they come home. Just keeping up will be exhausting as they are likely putting in two to three times the effort of their peers.  They too will need lots of breaks to recharge. Take the time to talk to your student and discover the best way for them to recharge.  Is it a physical activity like playing basketball, exploring their creative side by drawing, or simply kicking back and daydreaming?  Most kids today will say they “need” time with their screens, but this should be limited as the constant stimulation only drains the brain further.  Experiment with your student to find healthy options that work for them.

When I met the controllers at RMMA, it was clear they were passionate about what they did and took great pride in keeping pilots, passengers, and their planes safe. They were given the training, community, and rest necessary to stay at the top of their game.  Are we as a community supporting students with different learning styles in the same way; offering compassion and support while they learn and discover at their own pace?   Meet them where they are in the developmental process and marvel as they keep the dots on their radar screen from colliding!

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Are Children Becoming Less Creative?

Sharing a recent article from the publication “ExchangeEveryDay” about creativity trends in US education. Interesting reading: why are the creativity scores of America’s youth falling?

“Kyung Hee Kim, Ph.D., an educational psychologist at the College of William & Mary, in Virginia, has spent the past decade poring over the creativity scores of more than 300,000 American K-12 students. The news is not good: ‘Creativity scores have significantly decreased since 1990,’ she says. Moreover, ‘creativity scores for kindergartners through third-graders decreased the most, and those from the fourth through sixth grades decreased by the next largest amount.'” So writes Carolina A. Miranda in a CNN blog post.

She explains, “The scores Kim is referring to are those generated by the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking — the standard-bearer in assessing creativity in children since the 1960s. In fact, the results of the Torrance Tests are also better indicators of lifetime creative accomplishment than childhood IQ. The tests consist of open-ended questions, such as ‘How many uses can you think of for a toothbrush?’ Scores are awarded based on the number and originality of the ideas produced. A creative child might respond by saying that he can brush his cat’s teeth, polish a rock, and clean his fingernails — all answers that show dexterity in generating a wide range of potentially useful ideas.”

Source: “Why we need to let kids be creative,” by Carolina A. Miranda, January 3, 2012, CNN.com

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Lessons from Bob Ross and The Importance of Positive Energy in Parenting

It’s funny where you can find parenting inspiration. My junior in high school came home one day last week and asked “who is Bob Ross?”  You know, the famous painter of happy little trees from the 80’s.  He had seen a trailer for the next Deadpool movie with Ryan Reynold’s that started with a spoof of his PBS show “The Joy of Painting”.  After watching the trailer ourselves (caution, may not be appropriate for all ages) and laughing a little harder than our son expected, we explained who the real Bob Ross was and had to show both of our boys a video of his actual show from the archives. We thought they’d last five, maybe ten minutes but to our surprise, they were mesmerized and watched the entire episode.

Positive Perspective

His soft spoken style and quirky humor had them smiling and amazed at how he could create a complete oil painting landscape from scratch in less than 30 minutes.  My husband and I had forgotten how full of positive energy and life lessons he was. After watching two more episodes as a family, we came away with some great quotes from Bob Ross to keep things in perspective:

  • “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy little accidents.”
  • “In painting, you have unlimited power. You have the ability to move mountains. You can bend rivers. But when I get home, the only thing I have power over is the garbage.”
  • “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.”
  • “It’s the imperfection that makes something beautiful, that’s what makes it different and unique from everything else.”

As parents, we can get caught up in the pressure of the daily grind and let our imaginations around our kids future get the better of us. Life is about the small things and the life lessons along the way.  These Ross’isms are a friendly reminder that it takes courage to step out of our comfort zone and just getting started.

What To Do With Feedback

A key theme from Ross is that we are not good at everything, and that’s ok.  He tells a story about how he studied under a master portrait painter for a year. Finally his portrait teacher pulled him aside and suggested he stick to landscapes.  Ross laughs about this and agreed with this feedback. Learning to take constructive feedback is a learned skill as it’s important we teach our kids what to do with that information. This feedback could have easily discouraged Ross or caused him to resent his teacher.  Instead he realized he needed to spend his time, energy, and focus on his passion which was landscapes.  He turned this focus into a fifteen million dollar business. In today’s world, it is more important than ever to teach your kids how to focus their attention, energy, and time on their talents and interests.

Finally, most people don’t realize that before pursuing his passion for painting, Ross was a sergeant in the Air Force whose job it was to yell and scream and order people around.  After leaving the Air Force, he decided he would never yell at anyone again.  Ross provided value and made a big impact with his show and business, all while speaking softly and having a sense of humor.  If there is a lot of yelling in your family, ask yourself how effective that has been.  Can we reduce the volume and develop a greater connection with our kids while achieving better results?

As Ross reminds us, the only things we have control over are ourselves and the garbage. If you are experiencing the normal frustrations of parenting, I highly recommend watching an episode or two of his show to gain a little perspective.  At the very least, his soft spoken style and words of wisdom will provide some momentary relief and a chuckle. Think of it as an alternative to meditation.

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Changing Traditions and The Death of the Chocolate Santa Clause

The chocolate Santa Clause first poked his head out of my stocking in 1965. All you could see was that shiny, silvery red head just above those glinty Santa eyes. He’s appeared in my stocking every year since then. That’s 48 years of Santa heads peering out at me. There won’t be one there this year. My family informed me that it is a waste of time, we already have too many sweets around the house during the holidays that are a lot better. (I am willing to concede the second half of this argument but, REALLY, I did not know there was such a thing as too many sweets).

I’ve reluctantly conceded. Santa will be missed.

Tradition is a hard thing to break. Have you ever noticed how “traditions” are romanticized when you talk about personal traditions but professional traditions can be seen as pejorative; as in “mired in old traditions”? I don’t think it is that simple. As a boss when do you give up on doing things the way they’ve always been done? The question is not easy to answer.

Tradition reinforces culture, creates a foundation. I don’t know if the story attributed to Pablo Picasso is true, but it is rumored that he said you must first learn to paint like the masters before you can extend the boundaries of your own art.

As a school communications entrepreneur I continuously challenge myself and my customers to extend the boundaries of their art. So maybe I shouldn’t really complain that the “art” of great Christmas Chocolate has moved beyond stale milk chocolate Santas.

I am going to begin a tradition of dark chocolate peppermint bark.

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Parent portal got you down?

 

 

Ah, the parent portal!   In theory, it offers you insight into what’s going on in your student’s academic life. The portal tells you whether your student is turning in their homework, doing okay on their tests and quizzes, going to class, etc.  You have all of the information to course correct if things have gone off track. Such a useful tool and it seems so logical and pragmatic. Oh, if it was only that simple!

Instead, going through the portal often turns into an anxious, panic ridden experience. Missing assignments, a few failed tests and your mind starts racing with negative thoughts and questions. Then the chronic checking begins. It’s like somehow if you check the portal multiple times a day, things will automagically change.  Then your student comes home and boom, the inquisition begins and she slumps in her chair or goes on the defensive.  Sound familiar?

The picture I’m painting is somewhat exaggerated but my goal is to point out that the trap we often fall into as parents of being reactive and going on the attack is not effective and damaging to your relationship. With the portal, we have more information than ever before, almost in real time, regarding the progress our students are making in school.  This sets up more opportunities than ever before for misunderstandings and conflict. As a result, we need to take what we find on the portal with a grain of salt and use it as a tool.

Have I held my breath when I checked my own kid’s portal? Absolutely! With my youngest son, school has never come easy, but hard work and reading tutors helped through middle school and he was doing well.  With the transition to ninth grade and high school however, we were very aware of the challenges this might bring. We wanted to provide him with the opportunity to succeed on his own but the portal revealed quickly that things were getting out of control, especially in science. Lots of missing assignments and low quiz and test scores.  So, my husband and I started to investigate by talking to him and asking, “What’s up?”  He had given up. He didn’t understand what was going on in class as the lectures were too fast. He wasn’t taking notes and he didn’t have a book to reference. Once he fell behind, he felt he couldn’t catch up and just couldn’t see that trying at this point would make a difference. Fortunately, we caught this early and got him support; a text book and a tutor. We also had him do his homework in the kitchen to avoid procrastination. There was always someone around to check in. He slowly dug himself out of the hole.  We still weren’t sure he was going to pass by the end of the semester so we had summer school lined up and ready to go just in case. Failing and retaking a class offers a valuable life lesson and opportunity to teach your student that it’s what they do with failure that matters.

When reviewing your student’s portal, here are some ways to look for the story behind the grade.  Remember, kids do well if they can and if they are not, there are lacking or lagging skills (Dr. Ross Green).

  • When you see the grade, avoid jumping to conclusions, the grade is the symptom not the root of the problem.
  • Sometimes the portal isn’t always updated; some teachers grade faster than others.
  • Look at effort, your student may be doing the work and just struggling on tests and quizzes.
  • Look at the classes that are going well. This is a great time to receive some student perspective on the positive

As parents, we have the challenge of not letting our emotions take over.  When your student is struggling, find a way to step back and look at the situation rationally.   If you are fraught with emotion, go for a run or workout to blow off some steam before talking about it. You need to be calm and level headed so you can have a productive dialogue and problem solve. You will be doing a lot of listening and asking questions. If you’re driving everything and your student isn’t brainstorming solutions, she isn’t learning anything and it won’t stick.

If your student isn’t sure why the portal shows she’s doing so poorly, this is also a great opportunity to teach self-advocacy skills. Have him reach out to his teacher to figure out what’s going on and work together to improve the process. Depending on her confidence level, you might have her start with an e-mail. If she is comfortable talking to the teacher after class, even better.  You can always follow up with an e-mail of your own to make sure he followed through.

The parent portal is a great tool that allows you to monitor progress and catch issues early.  The key is how you engage your student with that information to make the conversation constructive and productive.  The big tip is it’s about listening, asking questions, and collaborative problem solving.  It’s ok if you don’t have all the answers. When you are just as clueless about what to do as they are, laugh about it and let them know it’s not just them. Just breath and embrace the opportunity to figure things out together.

 

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Five Ways To Engage Students In Current Events

I’ll never forget one particular project that I gave my kids during a rainy afternoon. On this particular day indoor lunch and recess took up my lunch break so I gave them a quick independent project to give me a spare moment to eat.

The project turned out to be an insightful one. I gave them a hypothetical million dollars to spend wisely on anything that would prove to be the betterment of our society. I love giving open ended assignments of this variety to encourage creativity and developing a student’s inner voice. And this project did not disappoint.  Students came up with some tremendous ideas, with everything from humanitarian efforts, ways to improve technology, and ideas on how to improve the environment.

Then there was this: One student wanted to use his million dollars to build a wall around Colorado. This was during the height of the 2016 presidential election, and a border wall around Mexico was a trending news topic. I asked the student why he wanted to build a wall around Colorado. As a history teacher, I knew it wasn’t a far fetched thought. He mentioned he wanted to do this for security reasons, to help control the hugely growing population here in Colorado, and to create jobs. Ok, I said, that’s fine. But there’s just one problem. I didn’t think one million dollars would be enough to build a wall. He looked around, in thought. It’s ok, he said. Utah will pay for it. Wow, was that a timely comment!

Let’s face it, the news isn’t always good, yet it’s ubiquitous in our lives. And let’s also face up to the fact that students of all ages know what’s being reported. From storms and earthquakes to a divisive political climate, your kids definitely are impacted by current events in ways that can affect them socially and emotionally.

So, how can we do our part to ensure our students are engaged positively in our sometimes scary and divisive news cycles?

Step 1 Make the conversation age appropriate. Kids know what’s going on, but their perceptions are entirely different compared to parents, teachers, and adult mentors. How a high school student interprets an event will be far different than a middle school student, which will be a world apart from an elementary student. Therefore, a great way to present current events is to follow a rating system. Would you let your elementary school watch an R-rated film? As kids get older you can have a PG-13 conversation, but keep it more PG the younger they are.

Step 2 Encourage independent thought with a strong moral compass. Think back to the 2016 presidential election. It was pretty nasty at times, with a lot of controversial statements. Students have a wonderful innocence about the way they see the world. Instead of criticism, ask them what they would’ve said differently, or ask them what they would do if they had been similarly insulted. The news cycle can be negative, but that doesn’t mean students can’t come up with positive alternatives.

Step 3 Have students come up with solutions. I always tell my students that they are going to inherit the problems that their teachers and parents couldn’t solve. It’s very important to present them with ideas to turn these challenges into opportunities. Be it through the jobs they will create, or the courses they will study, teaching students that every problem has a solution will help create a forward thinking society.

Step 4 Promote their voice on a wider scale. Students have an incredibly powerful voice. Their fresh take on the world is more than refreshing. As a teacher or parent, use this to your advantage. Have students create civic-minded videos in the class, have them write their congressperson, have them write the president, and continually engage them in civil action. Remember, students around the country want to be positive. And what’s more, students default to the positive when given the tools.

Step 5 Encourage diverse opinions. No matter where you live, be it rural America or in a big city such as Denver, diversity matters. The more students work in unison with one another, the more armed they will become to be kinder, more empathetic, and less cynical. When students learn to react to dispiriting events with kindness and empathy, the greater impact they can have on the society that are soon destined to inherit.

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What Information Do Parents Want From Schools

A Survey conducted by the National School Public Relations Association(NSPRA) looked at how parents want schools to communicate with them. One section of this survey focused on what information they want the schools to share.

What News They Want

When you are talking about what information parents want from their schools, most communications priorities are the same regardless of grade level:

  • Updates on their child’s progress or insight on how they improve
  • Timely notice when performance is slipping
  • Information on what their child is expected to learn during this year
  • Homework and grading policies

Parents also want much the same information from both elementary and secondary schools:

  • Curriculum descriptions and information on instructional programs
  • A calendar of events and meetings
  • Information on student safety (and quality of teaching, at the elementary level)
  • Educational program changes and updates (elementary level)/curriculum updates and changes in instructional programs (secondary level).

Rounding out the top five for elementary schools was information comparing their school’s performance to others; for secondary, information on graduation and course requirements.

*This information comes from an Article posted in Edutopia by Anne O’Brien, Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance

 

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Praise a Student, Change a Life

Praise produces engaged students

Praise is an essential component to success

We Love To Get a Little Love

There’s nothing like some well-deserved praise. It gets us moving. It helps us stay motivated. And it keeps our eye on the prize.

There is a growing body of research that shows kids are no different. How so? It could be as simple (or complex) as brain development. Growing brains require more positive interactions. Positive interactions are healthy, and giving praise is a healthy way to communicate.

Even unwarranted recognition can be healthy. At times, even more than the warranted kind. There’s a well-intentioned theory behind the idea that rewarding kids positively is beneficial. Students are in the learning mode of their life. And, as we know, praise has far more benefits than than criticism.

How unhealthy is criticism?  Think back to your learning life. If you remember the negative moments more than the positive ones, you are not alone. They stand out because the associated emotions are stronger. But, what if the positive moments were front and center? That would be ideal, and its achievable through positive recognition. Schools that promote the positive even in the face of inevitable negatives are building life long believers.

Unwarranted Praise In the Most Difficult of Times

Unwarranted praise has the ability to lift students out of difficult situations. The traditional method of discipline focuses on punishment. Simply, history has not kept pace with society in how we work in correcting wrongs. Punishment reinforces the negative activity, whereas praise lifts self worth. NPR has a fascinating story on a school that uses praise in the most difficult situations.

The lesson is simple. Students who arrived late, were in trouble with police, or were suffering from homelessness were told how great they were. That’s right – even if you are in trouble with the law, there’s still greatness in you. Unconditional love and praise has the power to produce positive citizens. Aligned in every school mission statement should be just that: you are great because you are good.

Meaningful praise inspires, motivates, and unites

Meaningful praise inspires, motivates, and unites. As a communication tool, praise is essential. The more often a student is told they are good at something, the more likely they are to become even better.

And when students believe, they succeed, and when students succeed, our society succeeds for the long run.

Do a small part and tell a young one how great they are. Even if you think they could be better. Chances are, they’ll do better just by hearing it.

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