Mindfulness and mission. My task was simple, or so I thought: to put together a book of magazine articles from nature magazines and short stories from old textbooks. My hands were sticky with glue, and ever since the fifteenth article the joints of my fingers had ached from the constant use of the old pair of scissors which when I started were not broken. Most schools allowed teachers to use books from well-known publishers, but no, I had chosen to teach in China where university departments have no budget for purchasing textbooks (Lin-Liu & Bollag, 2004). In the face of ancient grammar books and 1970 conversational English texts, I chose to create my own textbook with stories relevant to not only the students I taught but also to the subject I was trying to teach: narrative research. I worked late into the night until my eyes could barely see and the noises of the night served me as alarm clocks to the resounding sound of logic. My pregnant wife was already in bed, dozing away but even so I could still hear her voice tell me to come to bed. Not so easy.
Later in the term, the night was yet drawing down on me, but this time my wife was standing next to me. She sighed, shrugged her shoulders, and headed to bed. The light burned on, acting as a poor heat source in the frigid and dry Beijing winter. I would never tell myself the life of a teacher was difficult, because how can passion be difficult? I charged through websites, researching topics I had never heard of before: urban economics, linear regression theory, ideological platforming — but not for me. I was designing topics for my students to write about in their papers, topics which would challenge them but also allow them the opportunity to practice what I was teaching them in class. I wanted my students to not only learn how to write, but learn how to write in their specific disciplines but do this under my guidance. Holism, practicality, patterns, and scalability have always been passions of mine, and I hoped to put them into reality while teaching concepts of creativity and collaboration to my students as methods of engineering positive change.
When I was in California the summer before, I struggled with what to teach. My university was handing me a new class: advanced writing. I remember clearly one afternoon on the hill behind our house. My parents built a shed in the back to hold all of the objects from me and my brother’s childhood: books, toys, balls, clothes, and very important to me, old National Geographic magazines I had collected over many years from the throwaway bins at our local Redwood City library. The sun was hot that day; sweat poured down my face as I lifted the dusty box of magazines onto the grass outside of the shed. Picking through the articles, I suddenly realized how excellent the writing was and wondered if I could use the magazines as a textbook for my class. However I soon forgot the insight, although a seed was planted. When I returned to Beijing that fall, walking along the tree-lined university avenues and piles of wrinkled leaves, I discovered a vendor selling English versions of National Geographic. I bought one and a week later I was feverishly snipping away, tearing pages out of the heavy binding, cutting my fingers on industrial staples, washing my hands of book glue, and breaking scissors in my excitement. Perhaps there was something to the idea.
The following autumn, I walked to a print shop with one of my students. She had graciously offered to help me print out the textbooks, gone to the printer, negotiated and bargained for a good price, and then accompanied me when I went to pick up the books. I had never done anything like this before, a project so monumental and important. When we walked into the print shop, my jaw dropped: my textbooks were stacked to the ceiling of the shop, sagging under the heavy weight of pages and ink. XM offered again graciously to help me transport the books to my office, and off we went, our bikes weighed down with the future and hopes for my students; outside I managed to control myself, keep a calm face, but inside I was surging with concern and worry. Were the articles going to be too hard? Were they going to be too easy? Would I be able to read through each article and prepare a lecture which explained the concepts I wanted to teach using this material? I was doubly doubtful because in my frenetic pace to finish the textbook, I had only glanced at a few of the articles in detail, while most I pulled out as I sped-read through the magazines and textbooks I had on-hand.
I was embarking on a quest for a new concept. In my mind swirled the possibilities of a hundred different ideas, classes, concepts, and principles. I was bored to death of college essays, the five-paragraph structure, and simplistic notions which had little relevance in the real world. Looking back on the essays I wrote for my college career, I envisioned them as being somewhat ennobled versions of proper essays but realized in retrospect how simple, unstructured, and dirty they were. My intentions, although severe and possibly insane, were to teach second-language learners of English to write better essays than native speakers of English – to teach second-language learners to write better essays than I could ever hope to write. I had a plan, I had a dream, but I had not the experience or knowledge that it would work. I felt as if I was preparing for a trip to a desert, and the only bottle I had with me was filled with my dreams.
I had difficult decisions to make. In my hand were two articles, one detailing a mountain expedition up the edge of Everest, and in the other a conversation with a Mongolian herder and his family about life on the grassland. The primary goal for my writing course was to ask students to read an evaluate articles, and then glean methods and principles on writing from the actual writers of those articles. My methods were centered on story, imagery, detail, and other aspects of creative writing — while at the same time, teaching methods of collaborative and personal research through reading and absorbing knowledge in a particular field. While the article detailing with the expedition up Everest was exciting and filled with action, the Mongolian herder told stories within stories, even while the writer was telling a story about him and helping to educate the reader on traditional Mongolian culture. Gardner (2008), in his book 5 Minds for the Future, explains that one of the key aspects of synthesis is narrative, which often “require us to put together elements that were originally discrete or disparate” (pp. 47). Therefore, narrative as a function of creativity becomes a far greater tool than action, thrill, or even intense and intelligent argument. In the end, I took the scissors to the Mongolian herder, and he happily (I would imagine so) became a part of my quilt of learning.
The Mongolian, however, was the last part of a long chain of stories, beginning with the very simple story of a Chinese-American woman struggling to make sense of love when comparing the clashing worldviews between her very Chinese family and her French boyfriend, all the way to a travelogue of a worried sinologue trying to understand the impact which the Three Gorges Dam had on the surrounding communities through relating the personal experiences of villagers living on the bank of the mighty Yangtze. The lessons were designed holistically, bringing students from understanding basic concepts of using narrative to communicate deep concepts, to applying tone to vocabulary to rhetorically sway the emotions of the reader through the application of stylistic pathos. In designing educational systems which encouraged the environment for conditions of group flow, cumulative learning served as forward moving momentum (Sawyer, 2007), creating a situation where learners and participants were guided not only by the teacher but also by the system itself. The student was guided through ten lessons about the invisible world beneath the written word, while at the same time reminded and taught about external principles in collaborative research, format, and style.
When I was in college, I studied writing. Learning about the process of writing in college in the United States is a combination of workshops, peer review, and practical writing but has little theory or textbook learning besides emulation. In my classroom at North Park University, I sat in Dr. David Cho’s classes and heard the sound of other students telling me how they would write my short story, but never did I hear an opinion from Dr. Cho – much less teaching. The primarily responsibility of the writing teachers I had in college, from Dr. Cho, to Dr. Matson, to Dr. Acosta was to facilitate the art of writing, not to teach a particular methodology or instruct in the classical traditions of writing. However, one of the requirements for mindfulness “is the capacity to be fully aware of all that one experiences inside the self — body, mind, heart, spirit — and to pay full attention to what is happening around us — people, the natural world, our surroundings, and events” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005). Only focusing on the self, but ignoring experience, belief and spirit, inspiration, learning, and knowledge, is a grave mistake anyone can make through the inundation of cyclical systems. In my courses I make an effort to not only teach classical traditions, but also to lecture on subjects that are practically important for writing, such as structure, aesthetics, imagery, abstract detail, argumentation and the development of a thesis, trying to encourage mindfulness among my students. Surprisingly, during my four years at North Park, not once in any class was I educated in any particulars regarding writing – rather, it was purely trial and error and the experience of discovering where one found him or herself in relation to the written word.
However, in my mind writing serves a particular and very important purpose in this crazy world of ours: to communicate experiences and knowledge through the application of well-researched data, individual and group narrative, and personal style in an effort to address serious issues society faces which cannot be addressed without speaking to the soul of a people at the same time through the written word. “Students need to understand why they are learning what they are learning and how this knowledge can be put to constructive uses . . . if we are ethical human beings, it is equally our job to use that understanding to improve the quality of life and living and to bear witness when that understanding (or misunderstanding) is being used in destructive ways” (Gardner, 2008, pp. 142). Hence, ethics is a very important charge for writers, but along with ethics is the ability to actually communicate those concepts in words and phrases that can be understood on a universal level. Living in another country opens up new vistas of ethical understanding.
People do things differently, and they don’t think what they do is wrong but rather right. An action as simple as traveling on the train in China and watching the interaction between a mother and son, as she urges her son to walk up to a stranger and interrupt his sleep so that the boy can practice his English with a living, breathing vessel of hope for her child – or studying the architecture of the countryside as it flashes outside the window in a blue, the smokestacks sending curls of gray across the ceiling of a village as if the stars were made of dust – even the small discoveries can wield huge insights into the differences of culture and more importantly, the right and wrong nature of attitudes.
Beyond the ethical mind, however, lies a space of knowledge both hard and soft. Hard knowledge is gained simply enough through raw experimentation and experience, but soft knowledge is a core aspect of learning which can only be discovered through inquiry, conceptualization, and theory-crafting. A large focus on mine in teaching writing is not only to speculate on the ethical nature of basic assumptions, but also to relate the principal of theory in practical speech through writing and story. To accomplish the combination of the ethical and the theoretical, however, requires patience and will. Gardner (2008) describes “disciplinary juxtaposition as “a failure to realize the illumination that may accrue when different perspectives are synergistically joined” (pg. 55). As I design the topics for my student papers, I must model the behavior I want from them and learn about their subjects, sometimes spending an entire week of just learning how ethics can be applied to particular theories in each students’ chosen discipline of study at university, while also allowing for human experience to be utilized in the expression of ideas.
Hope and dissonance. Reading through YDH’s paper, I was reminded of the reason I decided to become a writing teacher. One of the joys of teaching for me is the freedom to learn anything you desire, and through learning become a different person. When I gave YDH the topic of “online gamers” little did I realize he would embrace the topic so willingly, writing an intricate account of ludological concepts both abroad and in China, focusing on a topic that few have the capacity to understand and fewer the ability to write. Resonance is the ability to read people, but not only through knowledge but also emotional intelligence, consisting of dreams, desires and feelings through the demonstration of empathy, concern, and commitment to help each person discover their passions (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005). I thrive on helping students find and expand their passions, and although the approach of using embracing subject matter in assignments have sometimes caused consternation and inconsistency, when resonance occurs from me to the student the results are magifnicent. DH is just one example of students who have been able to pursue subjects not normally covered within academic subjects, yet pursuing those subjects with academic rigor. As a teacher if I can focus my energy on teaching principles to fuel passion, then my service to my students is fulfilled.
Not all topics create resonance, however. The first student to receive the topic of “online gamers” was XTY, a young girl who had barely even played a game on her cell phone. Just as sparks (according to Sawyer) require collaboration to become insight, so TY required extra care, and I had to change her topic to something different that matched her interests, which she then embraced fully. A process of evolution was used for other student topics; in order to achieve resonance with a majority of students, papers were read for particular ideas and then a second topic was assigned asking the student to further research the inner topic, allowing them to use previous research and add to their knowledge by expanding the pool of information. Sawyer (2007) explains that innovation can only occur when insights (also known as sparks) combine over time and in a particular time and place emerge as something new. Insights occur “deeply embedded in the knowledge and social interaction” of collaborative work (pp. 81). For students to truly engage material with experience and narrative, the subject matter must be close to personal interests. Perhaps some might consider interest in writing common sense, but the teaching acting as coach rather than facilitator seems to work much better for me in my discipline.
Interest must be tempered with discipline. Gardner (2008) claims that one key aspect of the mind is the disciplined mind, acute awareness towards repeated self-education, restraint, and building of character. A year before I started teaching writing, I began to prepare by visiting book dealers around Beijing at night. My goal was to find articles from popular books, and use those books are the discipline for my course; weekly readings, and weekly writing assignments which dealt with topics of worldview and cultural integration with a globalized world. Night after night, I traveled to the markets lit only by a single light bulb, with books carried on the back of a wagon and bargained with book dealers. Later, I scanned the articles into my computer, and then when my class website finally opened used those same articles as weekly reading material. Gardner also claims, however, that “students must see information not as an ends in itself or as a stepping-stone, to more advanced types of information, but rather as a means to better-informed practices” (pp. 30). The best discipline is self-discipline, but a second best is classroom-discipline as assigned by a teacher who is aware of procedural and practical development.
Around the middle of the term, cracks began to emerge in my finely tuned plan. Students arrived to class late, with exasperated and long looks on their faces; students dropped the course, sending me a short e-mail politely explaining their other classes had precedence over my class; and at home, the time with family including my wife and baby son stretched thin, as I stayed up longer each night, going to bed commonly at 11:30 and waking up at 5:00 to finish not only the work I assigned the students, but also the work I had to prepare for lectures and worksheet before each segment. In one particular class, each following class one student would not show up, and after the midterm week several stopped coming at all. Sawyer (2007) talks about the “edge of chaos” as a place where ideas are refined and people discover who they really are; in this “edge of chaos” I had begun to find myself and my purpose in teaching, but it would not be until the challenges had passed that I would truly understand the lessons learned.
Around the middle of the term, I had a discussion with HK, a student who expressed concern over loneliness. I had intentionally designed the writing class with teams in-mind, as in previous classes I caught cohesive and collaborative group design worked well, solidifying students together towards a common purpose. However, with the modifications I made to the course this term, my collaboration methods seemed to have failed. HK explained to me that she was Chinese, but because she had been accepted by Hong Kong University as a student next year, Peking University did not allow her to live with the other Chinese students but rather forced her to take residence in the foreign dormitory. While she openly admitted the more comfortable accommodations, she also expressed discontent with the removal of persons she could identify with. I was concerned, because for the first time I realized my methodology may have been flawed; why were her team members not talking to her? Were any other groups collaborating together? Upon checking the internet BBS, I noticed that although some groups spoke with each other, when reviewing the papers submitted by students I discovered much of the online collaboration I had intended to foster connection had only been done as a requirement for participation.
Dissonance erupted after the midterm week concluded. My class on Wednesday, which had begun with more than 27 students (my largest class) suddenly dropped down to 17 students, with ten students deciding to en mass leave the course for safer waters before they had to turn in the midterm paper, safely ducking away from the storm. During the second half of the semester, my best student decided to stop showing up on Wednesday and started appearing on Thursday’s class; she seemed much happier, and continued to be reluctant to attend Wednesday’s class until the end of the term. What happened with Wednesday’s class? Dissonance.
“The ultimate result of enduring a prolonged period of sacrifice, emotional turmoil, and unrest is that it becomes increasingly unlikely that leaders will sustain resonance in their teams and organizations, or among family and friends. When we are in emotional turmoil and under stress for protracted periods and are sowing the seeds of dissonance in those around us, it becomes difficult to maintain top form personally or with the people around us” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, pp. 51).
Trust disappeared. Work teams did not click, some teams not saying a word to each other the entire class, even when they were required to speak to each other. Students came to class with a frown on their faces, and left with a sigh. My classes on Tuesday and Thursday, however, remained upbeat, jovial, and often ending in applause.
To recreate hope after a disaster is difficult but necessary. In my past research, a team can be broken if trust is lost and personality fails to ignite interest. For much of my Wednesday class, the students who survived the traumatic events of team members jumping ship were strengthened by the departures and continued to turn in some of the strongest essays I received during the term. One of my initial goals was to engineer groups with a diverse collection of students from different majors; in most classes, this plan worked beautifully, but in the Wednesday class differences did not bring students together but rather divided them. Johansson (2006) claims that “the Medici Effect” can be engineered if organizational members are forced away from assumptions, but he also mentions that often the effects can be disastrous on a organization if the Intersection is not found within the chaos.
At the end of the term, I met with a business professional in a local cafe. When I sat down for our meeting the second time we met, he leaned over in his chair and proudly showed me his cell phone. He was an older man with slightly graying hair, a wide smile, dressed in a tie and suit; a professional under any circumstances. However, on his phone was a picture of the doorway in the cafe, a unique blend of french architecture and Chinese faux imitation – the picture was pasted onto a microblog webpage, to which he proclaimed proudly that much of his business came from being online and posting to Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. For an older man living in China, he had adapted brilliantly, breaking past associative barriers formed by his generation regarding social functions and rules of conduct in business. Considering my friend Mr. Zhou’s acceptance of the new world and realizing that through encouragement and education people could move past associative barriers in China greatly helped me revision how I perceived my students’ struggles. The Intersection, as exemplified by Johansson (2006), is a place where anyone can arrive, no matter their age, profession, or background, which meant that even my students who had traveled through their own valley of shadows could come out refreshed and renewed.
Specific issues had to be handled first, however. At the beginning of the semester, many students failed to understand the purpose of assignments due to my lack of ability or care in explaining why I was asking them to complete particular assignments. For proper collaboration to occur, all objects within a plan must meet strategic fit (Austin, 2000). Students suffered assignment anxiety, and as I held their essays in my hands and read through their words, I could tell that while some of the principles were clearly delineated (formatting and research, primarily) the more important lessons of the class were untouched (narrative and imagery). “Finding the right fit is a process that entails an investment of time and commitment to dialogue. The alignment task involves meshing missions, matching needs and capabilities, and overlapping values” (pp. 59). I was asking students to ally themselves with my theory and myself as a teacher, but I was failing to accurately communicate those concepts. I needed to spend more time with my students, not only in person but also on paper, but the stress began to affect me in terrible ways, restricting my ability to even process the issues clearly.
By the second half of the term, the dissonance which affected Wednesday’s class finally began to affect me. Sickness invaded my body, tiredness grew on me like barnacles, assignments were given back to students later and later, and eventually I walked into class one day without the ability to even speak. I had finally been infected by the Sacrifice Syndrome. “We have the distinctive ability to create our own stress, with its full bodily response, merely by thinking about or anticipating future episodes or encounters that might be stressful” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005). The authors continue to explain that stress causes bodily shut-down, destroys immune system protections, and strikes the brain of the ability to process information and learn (pp. 43). However, at the time I was fully aware that the Sacrifice Syndrome had taken over my body, so in order to make the best of a bad situation, I sat down at my computer, pulled out the cord for the projector, and began to type my lecture on the screen. While the students were amused, I was not; yet the class had to continue.
Compassion and forgiveness. Staring at my computer screen, I open each e-mail carefully, read the contents with a discerning eye, and try my best to answer every student with a request for help as soon as they write me. I have made myself open to my students, because I have realized that in a course, feedback is a primarily felt need in learning which is often not stated but always wished for (Santos, Lopez-Serrano, & Manchon, 2010). Sometimes my answers take thirty minutes to type out, requiring research, careful wording, and evaluation of student grades; other times a simple response is needed. One of my challenges this term has been to try and develop feedback mechanisms which were appropriate to student need as well as my needs for them in learning. Among ESL educators, knowing when to use personal feedback, when to use error correction, and when and how to deliver a quantifiable score on a subjective piece of writing is heavily debated, but the one concept that scholars agree on is ethically, a educator should respond to student need (Shabani & Meraji, 2010).
Sometimes meeting students on their level took more than a simple e-mail response. I often found myself sipping a cup of coffee across the table from a student, walk him through his paper step-by-step, trying to be approachable and reachable across the heavy barrier that divides the teacher and student relationship in China. Last semester, to my surprise, I surveyed my students to find out at the end of term if they believed I was approachable and a stunning majority of them said I was not, even though I made a concerted effort to be so. “So people aroused by a need for affiliation look for evidence that their loved ones or close friends really care about them. They value proof such as frequent declarations of affection, frequent calls, visits, chances to spend time together, and even some degree of excluvisity” (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, pp. 180). Opening my home and my time to students has always been a prerogative for me in teaching, schedules allowing. However, the teacher student relationship in China utilizes a very high power-distance (Zhang, 2011); therefore, meeting the full needs of compassion (according to Boyatzis & McKee) could never be allowed, but empathy could be possible. “Empathy helps us connect with people . . . we must begin with curiosity about other people and their experiences” (pp. 178-179). Therefore, I made an effort to meet students outside of class, and while not in my home, I gave them full attentions as if I were their personal tutor.
Twice a semester, students arrived to class with essay in hand, which they then handed to me and I then handed back to other students to read and review. Thee process of peer review was an activity which required heavy altercation as I gained more experience. The first year I used peer review, students claimed the activity did not help them at all, because the review partners did not tell them what they needed to hear, only what they wanted to hear. “It is evident that organizations and communities work more effectively when individuals within them seek to understand one another (despite their differences), to help one another, and to work together for common goals” (Gardner, 2008, pp. 116-117). However, in China culture often prevents students from being totally honest with one another, preferring to speak words which in no way assign blame to another person for any action (Hu & Lam, 2010; Zheng, 2012). Using blind peer reviews this term, I intended to make sure students had as much freedom as possible in commenting; time will tell if the blind methodology will pay off.
Students also discussed their topics within collaborative topic groups. Last semester I used the same process and discovered that most students did not choose to participate in their topic groups besides sharing a few online links. Currently the collaborative topic groups have been a far bigger success as in the beginning of the semester I told the students how much they personally invested in their group discussion would end up being 10% of their final score, with some teams talking about discussing in over 100 topics alone. “Collaborative conversation accelerates the innovation process because the sparks happen in real time” (Sawyer, 2007, pp. 128). What I have discovered so far is that my best papers inevitably came out of those groups where discussion and sharing carried the most weight.
When I went to my wife’s home in Tianjin for the winter vacation, I brought a collection of my essays from the first semester with me. My mother came to visit us in Tianjin to spend time with her new grandson and be with my wife and me in the process of becoming parents. I proudly handed my mother some of the papers of my last term, as I was stunned students could write papers like this, many far-surpassing the papers I had written in college or even some of the best writing I had read published in the United States by university students. My goals this term have been to increase the level of consistency, pinpoint the functions of creativity and collaboration and try to engineer vehicles for closer cooperation of team activity, coordination of lecture principles to the written word, and an enlargement of the pool of trust between student and teacher. I have tried to infuse hope into my work, as “a combination of clearly articulating goals, believing that one can attain those goals, charting a course of action or a path, and arriving at the goal while experiencing a sense of well-being as a result of the process” (Rand, & Cheavons, 2009). I have used principles I have learned from Austin, Boyatzis & McKee, Sawyer, Gardner, Johansson, as well as Covey & Merrill, Morgan, Shaw, Greenleaf, Price, and more, in addition to an innumerable number of researchers who write on the subjects of EFL learners, Chinese culture, Sino-American and Sino-Western connections, creativity, trust, and general leadership topics dealing specifically with contextual issues I have encountered in my time as a teacher. More importantly, though, my goals have been to teach students a new form of writing called narrative research, in which students come story, imagery, and detail, with the constants of a well written essay with lucid style and an engaging thesis while backing up their logic with research referenced through official academic formats.
From the long hours I spent at the cafe reading through papers and talking with students, to the piles of paper that littered my desk and my office with the smell of fresh ink and A4 dust, to trying to balance all of this with a new baby, the semester has been challenging for me but not without merit. In the past, I would have given up and waited for a future time; dropping courses from my Master’s program when I was unable to finish all my papers due to wedding preparations, or choosing not to respond to student queries and disappearing from the scene, only to appear as a shadow in the classroom and then disappear as a visage or remnant of a teacher with far too many things to do to be bothered with students. Perhaps I am too hard on myself.
The last three years have been a journey of discovery and growth for me; teaching at what most Chinese consider to be the best school in the country has grafted a new kind of skin on me. Whereas once I was content to show quality in my work, now I must achieve the highest in the field, and whether I make that or not is not a question of effort but of skill. For the first time, I have all of my grades ready to turn in; completed all of my assignments (generally; at least by the last day of the course) on-time for my Master’s program, met with students thorough the term, created a system where students could freely engage each other outside of lengthy time commitments outside of other courses, and given students a textbook and material which has planted seeds in them so that even if during the course of the class the stress of time and due-dates overwhelmed their abilities to properly use the principles I taught, later in life those ideas will surface when needed and help them. I have read through and graded 1,200 pages of student essays, scored 600-800 pages of classroom assignments, read through 2,100 pages of research material regarding creativity, collaboration, and trust (in books alone), and written over 120 pages of research. My students have had an effect on me, just as I hope I have had an effect on them. They have made me for conscientious, hard-working, and instilled a belief in me that regardless of situation, the best can be achieved.
Next fall, I change to a new school in the city of Tianjin. I change to a new program, filled with a different kind of student. My hope is that I can take the learning and inspiration I have gleaned from my time at Peking University and affect the students at my new school, while also learning valuable lessons from my new students which could never have been discovered in Beijing. Mindfulness and resonance require two-way learning, although only a one-way commitment. I look around at the piles of papers and baby clothes inhabiting the corners of my apartment, listen to the coos and cries from the bedroom as my son struggles to put together words in his infantile mouth, and smell the crackling of oil and egg as my wife cooks breakfast from the kitchen; I know that this moment is transitory, but that the collection of moments, from today, to tomorrow and then to the next day, combine into something wonderful. I bind that emotion up in a gift, display it proudly on my shoulder, and await for the next challenge.
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