Reflecting on reflecting


[This post was also published on the British Council Teaching English blog. ]

I’m two weeks into a new course with a new class and one of the questions on the BC blog this month got me thinking about how I think about this class – and classes in general.  Reflection is a slippery beast.  It happens in the most inconvenient places and at the most inconvenient times. Washing up, walking the dog, waiting for a bus.  Times and places when I can let thoughts and ideas run through my mind, but there’s nothing to pin them down.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, quite the opposite, but it’s not great if you want to capture and act on your reflections.  And I started to think about how I do that, and how maybe I could do it more efficiently.

My first tool is my mini notebook that I carry around with me most of the time. This is where I jot down lesson plans, reminders for exercises and tasks, questions and doubts.  This isn’t where I reflect as such, but it helps me to reflect.  It helps me to look back at the lesson plan and compare the ideas on paper with what actually went on in class.  It helps me look at the differences between the plan and the reality and think about how and why things worked out differently and whether that was good or bad or just different.  Planning all the lessons for the same class in the same notebook helps when it comes to trying to capture an overview of what we’ve done so far, but also in strengthening links between lessons, planning consolidation and review, building on what has gone before.

My second tool is the lesson summary.  This is a system that I’ve been using for some years with most classes.  Basically we, me and the students, take it in turn to write summaries of the classes and share them with the group by email or on a blog. It takes a bit of time to set up, as do all systems and routines, but I think it’s worth it.  Initially my main aim was to get students to review their classes, to take stock of their learning, to keep personal records of the work they were doing inside and outside class, basically to stop and reflect.  But as a by-product I’ve found they also give me a space for reflecting that’s more structured than the washing up.  Seeing the classes from the students’ point of view is really useful.  Summarising an hour and a half, two hours, of work into a few hundred words is also incredibly useful when it’s  my turn.  It really helps me step back into the class, think about the language and the learning rather than the activities, try to highlight the “teachable/learnable” moments and put those into words.

We often kick off the next class by taking a quick look at the summary from the previous class and giving time for any questions that might have been left unanswered.  This allows for another moment for reflection and helps me see what the students need from me. Which brings me to my third reflection tool:  post-its.  For each class I have a folder, and in the folder I have a stack of post-its.  They usually serve for on-the-hoof micro writing tasks, but they’re also there for me to jot down ideas during the lesson for things to come back to at the end, or in the next lesson, or questions to think about as I plan my next lesson.   I never know at the time where or how that post-it is going to fit in, but it sits there in the folder to jog my memory when I come to reflecting on one class and preparing the next.

postits and notebook

I think I could definitely structure my reflections much more efficiently, and sometimes, when a class poses a particular challenge, then blogging becomes the best tool I know.  Having to think through my thoughts clearly enough to be able to put them into words that I’m willing to make public is the best reflection tool I’ve found.  Laying down action plans and areas for informal classroom research in a blog post helps me stick to them.  It’s a kind of external commitment.  And being able to “talk” through the lesson with an imaginary listener/reader is great.  But it does take time, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. In which case I always have the kitchen sink, my mini notebooks and my stack of post-its.

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Walking the walk?

oxford house palm trees

(the palm trees that framed our conversations in the gardens at Oxford House)

Last weekend I attended the first Innovate Conference at Oxford House in Barcelona.  It was a great experience and one that we all appreciated very much. A big thanks is in order for everybody who was involved in the organisation.  There were all kinds of things that made this conference special; the opening plenaries in the garden on Friday evening, the group breakout rooms which set the tone for sharing and conferring from the very beginning, the abundance of cold water and fresh fruit at all times (might seem superficial but really kept us refreshed during a long, hot, busy Saturday) and, in particular, the chance to take part in and observe classes being taught. And it is this last aspect that I’m going to explore in this post.  The demo classes gave us presenters a chance to put into practice what we usually only get to preach and it was an interesting experience and one I’d like to explore a little further.

As a teacher trainer I teach demo classes and am used to being observed by five or more trainees.  As a teacher at a series of schools that have actively encouraged peer observations I’m used to being observed by all kinds of different teachers.  But this was different.  This was in a conference setting, and I guess I’ve got used to “talking the talk”in conferences, describing and possibly modelling activities and approaches, but not actually getting to “walk the walk”. When the call for proposals came out there were two options, a 30 min talk or a 60 min lesson with students. I’d never had a chance to do that before, conduct a class in front of an audience of peers at a conference and, admittedly with some trepidation, I jumped at the chance.  It’s good to push the boundaries of comfort every now and then!

So this was the set up.  We were in a fairly large classroom. The students’ seats were set out in a shallow horseshoe at the front, and the observers’s seats set out behind them in rows. The brief was to teach for 30 minutes or so and then to conduct some form of feedback, possibly with the observers interacting with the students.   In my case there were 5 students and about 30 observers.   30 mins felt very short to get to know a new group of students, assess their communicative strengths and where they needed support, and demo something that might be worth discussing.   There was a lot to do and this is how it worked out in practice:

1 As the students and observers settled in to the room I shared this link with the observers  in the form of a shortened URL.  It gives some background to the lesson and the rationale behind it. The rationale for sharing the link was to save time, and to get down to the class as quickly as possible.

2 I kicked off the lesson and we worked together for about 30-35 minutes. Christina Rebuffet Broadus was one of the observers and she very, very kindly shared her wonderful sketchnotes with me. Thank you so much Christina!  I think they tell the story of the lesson much better than I ever could. (Click on the photo to see the details).

Christina's notes innovate elt

3 Things went pretty smoothly, the students were fantastic, responsive, cooperative, very tech-savvy, which really helped a lot in making the tech “invisible”.  I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and it was great when the observers joined in too.  There’s one moment I’d like to share, also because I think it was a missed opportunity.  A tiny bit of background: we had been exploring an aerial image of a crowded beach, the students had placed themselves in the photo and were writing status updates from the beach.  We shared these on a padlet page. Here’s a screenshot (double click to enlarge) :

on the beach

We looked very quickly, and very superficially, at the language in the updates.  Looking back I wish I’d had the time to let the students read and react to each update with their partner/s. There’s one in particular I love as it’s actually a short story. Can you spot it?  And looking at the language there in the notes, I’d have loved to have time to explore some of the language features of updates in more detail.  For example I’d have liked to look at the use of ellipsis (present in almost all the updates) and discuss how this works in this particular genre of mini text and then gone on to find other status update contexts to recycle our reflections on the language and use what we’d seen.  But that would have taken at least the rest of the hour and there were other things to do!  If you were actually there in the room, observing that class, I’d love to know what you would have done next, how you would have extended the lesson.  And in fact, if you weren’t there too! It’d be great to get some feedback.

4 The next stage was little bit messier. This is what I had planned and shared with the observers in a second google doc using a second tiny URL on a post-it.  Very briefly, I had wanted to give the students and the observers a time to chat, but I’d been expecting a smaller observer to student ratio, so it ended up with a few volunteers interviewing the students, and all the other observers comparing notes.  This however, allowed me time to write a short summary of the lesson so far, which was really the main thing I’d wanted to share ( it’s something I’ve been blogging about a lot).

Here’s a screenshot of the main section of the summary, giving a brief description in narrative form of the work we’d one and the language we’d focused on (in bold).  If you follow this link  you can see the whole summary as it would appear if I were sharing it on a class blog.

innovate summary

I’ve written and spoken about using post lesson summaries quite a lot over the last few years in blog posts and workshops and I’ve often been asked how time-consuming it is, and if it adds to the teaching/planning load.  What I wanted to show here was how quick and easy it can be, and hopefully to counter the fear that using post lesson summaries just makes life harder, whereas in my experience it does the opposite, saving me time in the planning and reflection as we move on to the next lesson and build a record of the course.

5 In the last few minutes of the session I shared a screenshot of a real life class blog where we’d been storing the lesson summaries over the six months of the course in static pages. I talked about the process (Christina has written about this is her sketch notes) and the way the summary also becomes a vehicle for suggesting extra tasks outside the classroom as well as acting as a link to the next lesson which always kicks off with a quick look back and a short Q&A session on any doubts raised.

And that was that.  Would I do recommend it as an experience? Absolutely!  Would I do it again?  Yes, please!  And if you get a chance to participate in the next Innovate ELT conference, take it!

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Denver the guilty dog

Last weekend I was at the TESOL Spain conference in Salamanca. A beautiful city and a great conference, thanks to all the organizers for a warm welcome.

This was one of the activities we looked at in my session on teaching teenagers.  It’s based on a favourite clip in our house, and I noticed that at least one other person in the audience had watched it as many times as me as she could recite the voiceover, word-by-word.  So, here’s introducing Denver, an internet sensation, also known as the number one guilty dog on youtube.


Just showing his photo on a projector brings a smile to the students’ faces.  Some may have seen him before.  They can all identify the emotion on his face.  The gist questions as we go into the first viewing of the clip are:  what has he done wrong?  What does his owner say to him to make him react like this?  You can elicit answers to both if you want, or just go straight into the famous clip which has garnered over 41 million views as I type this.

After watching the clip, we check answers to the two gist questions and then we turn to Denver himself.  What is he thinking?  What would he say if he good talk?  Students write down their ideas in pairs and groups and then watch again and spot where their phrases could fit in with what the owner is saying. Then a second brainstorming session in groups to shape the thoughts or words a little more.  Then there are a lot of possible directions the students can take.  Here are two options:

1 They can choose to speak for Denver, a kind of retro voiceover/commentary by the dog, recalling the experience from his point of view.

2 They can write a dialogue between Denver and his owner.  They can choose to interleave it with the owner’s words on the clip, or replace it with their own words.

Looking at practicalities, the classroom management of the group work will depend on a number of things; wifi connection or not, availability of students’ devices or not, time available, to name a few.

Viewing the clip during the writing stage

If your students can work with their own devices(phones, tablet, laptops, whatever) and you have a good wifi connection, they can watch the clip again in their groups, pausing and rewinding and timing their voiceover as many times as they want.  If not, then you can play the clip again a couple of times for the whole class at three or four minute intervals.

Presenting their work/the final product:

The students can then present their work in various ways.  They can choose to record it on their devices to play in synch with the clip; they can use a web tool like overstream  to add subtitles; they can add their own voiceover using a web tool like Weavly , an easy, accessible, free tool that lets students record their voiceover on sound cloud and add it to the clip.  In all these cases they can watch and listen to each other’s recordings and spot and comment on difference and similarities.  More simply, and just as effectively, they can stand up at the front of the class and read out their scripts as the clip plays with the volume on low. Again, they can comment on each other’s scripts, spotting differences and similarities.


Having worked with Denver and his dilemma, you can choose to explore the topic from a more personal point of view. Guilt, getting caught out, being told off, these are all situations and emotions that teens can relate to. You can brainstorm other relationships; parent/child, teacher/student, team member/coach and the kind of things that might have gone wrong. The students can then take one and write a new dialogue to fit the new context. They can choose to make it personal (the last time I got told off) if they want to, and feel comfortable doing that, or they can choose to play out different roles.

Exploring balance

In the session in Salamanca we discussed the following three balancing acts:

Fun vs challenge

Control vs choice

Structure vs creativity

It might be interesting to look back at the activities I’ve suggested here and see how it measures up in terms of each of these balancing acts.

For an alternative approach to the Denver clip, see Ian James lesson on ViralELT. 

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Into, through and beyond

 This weekend I’m going to be attending the Image Conference in Córdoba.  If you don’t know about The Image Conference, check it out here on the website.   It’s a great initiative and I really enjoyed the first event in Barcelona last year. It felt like a real luxury to be able to dedicate a whole day to exploring, discussing and reflecting on the role of images (still, moving, in class, on the move) in language teaching and learning in general.  Each session brings its own perspective, and each one builds on the other.
sam and bambina
This photo  is one of the many I’ll be sharing in my workshop on Saturday, but more as a totem than anything else!  Here’s a very brief taster of the session.  I’ll be coming back to add more detail (and more images) after the event.
into, through and beyond
In the session I’m going to be exploring the various roles of still images in the classroom by looking close-up at a series of activities and strategies. They will be roughly divided into the three categories of Into, Through and (you’ve guessed it!) Beyond.  We’ll be looking at how images can create contexts, scaffold production, aid retention and recall, support confidence building and a whole host of other things.  But we will also be looking beyond the activities and focusing on the language that emerges and at  how that language is captured, explored, shared and revisited.
If you’re going to be there, I hope we get a chance to meet and chat face-to-face.  If not, you can follow the conference on the facebook page or on twitter #imageconf.    Hoping to see you in one of those three places!
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Is this flippin’ worth it?

ducks flipping

shared by carterse on flickr under a creative commons licence

In this post I want to look back at a series of activities I used with my beginners class last year with a couple of questions in mind.  First some back story:  this post has been languishing half-written in my drafts (and in the back of my mind) for months, never getting written, mainly I think because I’m not actually convinced it’s worth it.  But last week I joined in with the weekly twitter #eltchat discussion and the topic was flipping the classroom, or more specifically, the best use of classroom time in a flipped classroom, and these thoughts floated back to the surface (a little like the ducks in the photo will inevitably do sooner or later).

So, as I go through these activities, I’m going to be holding these two questions in mind:

Is this flipping?

Is it worth it?

Back to my class.  As a routine, after each lesson, I would send an email to the class, sharing a summary of the lesson, links to any videos we might have shared in class so they could watch them again and suggesting some possible follow-up tasks. These could be consolidation tasks, maybe writing a short text or dialogue putting the key language into context, or sometimes a link to a new video clip to watch for the next class.  I guess this is where the flipping comes in.

Let’s take a slight sidestep to reframe the first question: what is flipping?

Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

“Flipped classroom or flip teaching is a form of blended learning  in which students teach and switch roles with teachers. They also learn content online by watching video lectures, usually at home, and what used to be homework (assigned problems) is now done in class with teachers and students discussing and solving questions more personalized guidance and interaction with students, instead of lecturing. “

And here is a link to an infographic from Knewton.  These were the two first sites that came up when I did a google search. The first is, as expected, quite wide open, the second (equally predictably) is pretty prescriptive.  Both focus on the content classroom, a classroom that is seen as being very traditional, mainly based on teachers lecturing or presenting information in class, and students applying this information at home in homework tasks or in tests.  It’s an interesting movement, with its pros and cons, its evangelists and its detractors, but I’d argue it isn’t actually directly applicable to a communicative language class. So, what does flipping look like in an ELT classroom?

Back to my class. Here are a couple of very simple “flipped” activities I tried with my students, I don’t know if they might answer the question in part.

1 Telling the time

The time came up in passing in one of our conversations. We were talking about coffee and coffee drinking habits, these were some of the key phrases I recorded in our notes:

I don’t like coffee in the evening.  I don’t have coffee after 11 o’clock. I can’t sleep if I drink coffee in the evening.  

We looked briefly at the phrase “11 o’clock” but we didn’t have time to go into time (sorry!) in detail so, as a homework task, I asked them all to look at this very simple video presentation.  (I’m sorry, embedding is disabled for this video) In the next class I showed the video on mute and asked the class to explain what they’d learned using the images to prompt them.  We paused and replayed where necessary, the students discussed and prompted and took it in turns.  They’d all watched the video at home and they could all tell the time using the clocks in the slideshow. It took about five minutes of classroom time.  We went on to weave times into the rest of the lesson adding on useful questions (What’s the time? What time is it? Do you have the time?) into situational conversations built up by the students.

So, was this flipping? I guess so, but only a very small section of the class.

Was it worth it?  I think it saved time. I think it boosted the students’ confidence in their ability to understand the video (listening comprehension was a huge hurdle for them), it boosted their confidence as independent learners and in their ability to display their learning. Each student had had time to process the information and the language in their own time, watching as many times as they wanted/needed to, pausing, replaying, generally taking control, and I think this brought added value. And the lesson got off to quite a hardworking, focused start.

2 Likes and dislikes

Prior to the coffee lesson above, we hadn’t really talked about likes or dislikes and we hadn’t looked at the use of the verb to like.  I knew that most of the students would probably be OK with it, but I also guessed that there was one student in particular who might “problematise” it if we looked too closely at the structure in class.  The verb like works differently from its Spanish counterpart, gustar.  In English the liker is the subject and the liked is the object :  I like you, but in Spanish the liker is the object and the subject is the liked :  me gustas .  This is the same in Italian with the verb piacere. In my first few months in Italy I found this verb really difficult to unpack.  Tu me piace made sense to me as You like me when actually it meant I like you. Or the opposite, Yo te piacio?   which means Do you like me?  I processed as I like you.  This lead to embarrasing silences and awkward pauses in the first encounters with my Italian boyfriend at the time!

So in order to side step this confusion and any possible contagion, I set the students a clip from the Hungry for English series on youtube on the verb like. 

There’s no overt teaching of the form, just a simple paradigm table at the end. The delivery may be stilted, but it’s very clear, as are the concepts.  In the lesson we didn’t watch the video, we mentioned it in passing (they liked this particular series of youtube lessons) but mainly we just talked about meals and food and restaurants etc we do and don’t like.  The one student I’d been worried about had very few problems. I needed to prompt her on the structures with like a couple of times, but on the whole she was just fine. Once she said, oh, yes, like the video!

So,was it flipping?  Well possibly as the presentation didn’t take up classroom time

Was it worth it?  I think so, at least for that one student. She was able to take part in the discussion tasks confidently whereas otherwise I think she’d have struggled.  They all enjoyed the video clip as it was so easy to understand (though I really worry that I problematised the whole listening issue with this class by dumbing down too much!)

So, that’s it. There are more examples of the same thing, but I won’t bore you with them!  As to the two questions, I don’t really know if it’s flipping, but I guess I’ll keep experimenting with it, ‘cos on the whole, yes, it does seem to be worth it.



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An autumn lesson

autumn herbst TausP

Look at the photo above (shared on flickr by TausP under a creative commons licence) and in your mind’s eye, add a person sitting on the bench.  Pay attention to what they’re doing and what they’re wearing, the expression on their face and what this tells you about them.  Now click on this link that a friend just shared with me on facebook (thanks for the reminder Nick!) and you may just find that you’ve created exactly the same character.  Or not.

The article is a few years old but it’s definitely worth dusting off and if you’ve got a B2 (+) class with a sense of humour I think it can work well in class.  Here’s a suggested lesson plan.

1 Kick off with the photo. You could start with my creative commons photo or go straight to Mr Autumn Man himself. I think I’d do the latter.  If you can, project it on a board, or if you don’t have access to a board, maybe your students can access it on their mobile phones/devices or if your class is small enough you can show it on your tablet or laptop?  If you’re photocopying in black and white you could ask the students to tell you what  colours they think are in the photo (this could be a good kick off whatever your tech context in fact).

Ask the students to work in pairs or small groups and point out and describe as much detail as possible. This can be done orally or you can ask them to write a list.

2 Field the information making sure it includes clothes as well as autumn/fall stuff.  Make a note of the details to refer to after the first reading task.

3 Students read the article (on the projector, on their phones, on paper) and see how much of their information is included in the text. 

4 At the end of the first reading ask ss to identify the purpose of the text (serious or tongue in cheek?) and ask them to identify phrases and extracts to justify their answer.  

5 On a second reading ask them to comb the text for lexical sets; clothes / freetime activities / words to describe or associated with autumn / autumn food – you could get groups/pairs working on different sets, they could use dictionaries for new words as they read, and then share the information with the rest of the class.  

6 Ask them if Mr and Mrs Autumn would be wearing the same clothes and doing the same thing in their home town(s). Use this as an opportunity to feed in any new vocabulary they might need.  

7 Optional follow-up: they write a similar text about a) autumn in their hometown b) another season (if you’re in the southern hemisphere you might want to brainstorm ideas and vocabulary for spring)  and if they can find a stock photo to go with their text, all the better!  And if you can, share the texts with other classes and other students. 

Let me know how it goes if you use it in class. I don’t have a class at the moment so I can’t try it out myself!

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Three things for a first class

three things flickr steve wall

by Steve Wall on flickr

I’d like to share a post I wrote recently for the British Council Teaching English blog site. It may be a bit late for some of you, or maybe not really relevant at this time of year, but hopefully some of you are gearing up to meeting new students over the next couple of weeks.

Three things for a first class 

For a few years now I’ve been experimenting with sharing lesson summaries with my classes and here I’d like to share a summary from a typical first class. This was an intermediate class of adult students at a private language school in Cádiz.  I’ve changed the names, but nothing else!

Going into a first class, from a selfish, teacher-centred point of view, I have three main objectives (apart from gauging the level and confidence of the students).

  1.  to learn and feel comfortable with the students’ names, and make sure that all the students know each other’s names too – I think this is really important if the group is going to gel and work well together, being able to call someone by their name really helps break the ice (I always feel so much shyer when I’m not sure of someone’s name)
  2.  to find out about the students’ language learning background, personal aims and expectations
  3.  to find out about the students’ day-to-day use of technology, what apps and tools they use and feel comfortable with, in order to be able to create some kind of online hub for each class where we can share information and to be able to direct students to resources that can help them continue to study and learn beyond the classroom


Here’s an extract from the summary I shared with my students after out first class (in three stages):

Lesson 1 14/09


We learnt each other’s names and talked about them a bit. We talked about names that run in the family (= are used a lot in the same family) and patron saints and great grandparents (both paternal and maternal). We talked about the origin of surnames and parents and families, and noticed quite a strong link between Cádiz and the North of Spain (and France in Julianne’s case), and of fathers moving south, falling in love and staying ;)

At the end of the discussion we looked at the pronunciation of the vowels in uncle, cousin and aunt (can you remember them?)

This stage took about twenty minutes. I started talking about my own name, the problems I have with people mispronouncing my first name, how it can be both a boy and a girl’s name, how my surname is really common in Wales and how there were three Ceri Joneses in my class in secondary school. I asked one of the students to talk about their name, if they liked it or not, whether it was  a family name (traditionally names run in families in Spain with daughters, mothers and grandmothers – and sons, father and grandfathers – sharing the same name across generations).  I asked them where their surname came from, if it was common locally and then the conversation took off with all the students volunteering their personal information, asking similar questions, telling tales about their parents and grandparents – as you can see from the summary above.  By the end of the activity, we were all very comfortable with each other’s names and the students were communicating and initiating conversation comfortably and confidently.

In the summary I highlighted in bold the key language that emerged from the conversation and prompted some revision of the pronunciation we’d focused on.


You interviewed each other about your past (and present) English learning experiences. I learnt that Julianne is interested in taking the First Certificate exam (Julianne, I’ll send you some links to useful websites later this week), that Javi is moving to Philadelphia at the end of September, that both María and Carlos are enrolled at EOI schools, that María uses youtube and podcasts to practise English, that Nacho has just finished his university studies and has been on holiday all summer, well, not totally on holiday – he was also a student at the summer courses in the morning with Javi and María.

We talked about the difference between primary and secondary schools (and looked at how to pronounce those two words – remember?). We also looked at the difference between job-hunting and head-hunting, and how sometimes being unemployed is good because it gives you a chance to study or travel.

In this stage we moved away from whole class discussion to pairwork which was very fluid after the initial ice-breaking stage talking about names. The students worked well and happily in pairs and reported back on their partners’ answers quickly and efficiently. The feedback session evolved into another whole group discussion where we dealt with the language points highlighted in the summary.


You found out about each other’s day-to-day use of technology like mobile phones, tablets, email, the internet, ipods/mp3 players and digital cameras. I learnt about some new apps, and Juan explained how he uses Skype with his son in Córdoba. We all use email on a regular basis and we shared email addresses. We also looked at the pronunciation of the alphabet (can you remember how to say H, J, G, I?) and how to spell out email addresses. (can you remember how to say _, @ and . ?)

In this third and final stage, we first brainstormed devices the students used on a daily basis and then the students worked in groups to find out what, how, where and when.  Juan, the oldest student in the class, was the least tech-comfy, but it was great when he got to talk about how he used Skype with his son – some of the younger students had never used Skype. They all went away feeling they’d learnt something new (how to spell out email addresses) and I had the tools I needed for the first step in creating our online learning community. (Here’s a link to our class blog where we shared the lesson summaries and interesting links from inside and outside the class)

This lesson summary comes from a class I taught four years ago, but I find these three focuses are still very useful in shaping almost all my first classes.

You can see the original post here. 

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