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Often, my daughter Kristen, a third-grader, is taught math differently from the way I learned, so when she struggles, I show her my way. I never criticize her teacher’s methods. I want her to love math, so I try to make sure that she understands what she’s learning. Will I confuse her?

One of the beauties of math is that there’s more than one way to approach a problem, and it’s useful for kids to learn that early.

“Showing her another (way) will only enrich her learning,” says Marilyn Burns, an author and one of the nation’s top math educators.

You’re wise not to criticize her teacher, says Burns.

“If your daughter ever seems confused about your approach, step back and confer with the teacher,” she says. “Children do best when teachers and parents are partners. This doesn’t happen enough with math.”

How can you best support your daughter’s math learning? Focus on mental math, says Burns, the founder of Math Solutions.

This refers to giving children exercises and problems to solve in their heads. Ideally, says Burns, “they are designed to review and advance essential basic skills. They help build number sense, convey the importance and relevance of math in our daily lives, and ground her learning.”

Mental math is “a necessary skill,” she adds, “but one teachers don’t have enough class time to devote to.”

Every day we add, subtract, multiply or divide mentally, notes Burns: “We figure how much time it takes to get to school, estimate the price of a sale item or double recipes by calculating in our heads.”

With mental math, you put away the paper and pencil and present a problem. It might be an addition or multiplication problem presented as an estimation challenge.

“For example, give Kristen an addition problem with two two-digit numbers, say, 32 plus 54, and have her explain how she’ll find the sum,” says Burns. “To add challenge, have her figure out how much more is needed to make 100. This gives her practice manipulating numbers and develops her mathematical thinking to arrive at the answer in different ways.”

Money presents great mental math opportunities, says Burns: “How can Kristen spend exactly $100 by buying two things with different prices? Three things with different prices? How could she spend exactly $100 by buying three things with different prices if one item costs $37?”

Always ask Kristen to explain her thinking, even when she gives correct answers.

“Explaining is important,” says Burns. “Don’t correct an incorrect answer immediately. Take time to question and let her explain. Kids often self-correct if given the chance. Never leave Kristen with a misconception, but don’t rush to solve mental math problems for her.”

Math play presents great opportunities to boost mental math skills, too.

“For example, building sophisticated structures with blocks promotes problem-solving and spatial skills,” says Burns. “Math-related puzzles and riddles promote logic. KenKen puzzles get kids thinking about number relationships and using logic.”

Everyday mental activities are extremely valuable, says Burns: “They boost skills and make classroom learning stick. They show Kristen how much math is a part of our lives.”

My two preteen daughters spend weekends with my new wife and me. While my wife loves the girls, she’s quick to criticize them and corrects their mistakes immediately. My ex and I have our differences, but we think kids need room to make mistakes to become independent. My wife says that’s asking for trouble as the girls head into their teenage years. Who’s right?

Don’t think of this as an either/or situation. There are times to correct a child on the spot, and there are times to allow the situation to play out.

“Effective parents vary their responses depending on the situation. Some poor decisions require immediate feedback; others present genuine learning opportunities that may allow the child to make a better decision the next time,” says Dr. Jane Bluestein, a New Mexico-based educator and author who has advised thousands of parents, teachers and children over the past 40 years.

If one of your daughters makes a choice that puts her in danger, intervene right away.

“Discuss safer options and help her connect those choices to more positive outcomes,” says Bluestein.

But if her science project fails, it’s no biggie. Talk about how experimentation is part of the scientific process. Discuss how “mistakes” can lead to unexpected discoveries. Albert Einstein inspired students by telling them that “a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

Bluestein adds: “The most constructive way to help a child learn from mistakes is to shift your focus from what’s wrong or undesired to the behavior you want.”

For example, say your daughter uses a snarky or defiant tone with you. Telling her that she’s being disrespectful is less effective than saying, “I want to hear what you have to say when you’re willing to talk to me in a more respectful voice.”

If your child’s mistake is a result of a lack of understanding, explain what she needs to know. Don’t play the blame game. If you say, “Too many sodas can cause an upset stomach,” that’s more validating than, “You’re sick because you drank too many sodas, even though I said not to.”

If your daughter makes a mistake while trying to achieve an unclear goal, help her focus on what she’s trying to accomplish. Ask, “How did you want this to turn out? What was supposed to happen?”

Avoid expressing disapproval or disappointment. Instead, try, “That’s interesting!” or, “That wasn’t what you had in mind, was it?”

Get your daughters to reflect on their mistakes. Once the dust settles, ask them what they might do differently next time. Can they guess possible outcomes of a different approach?

Never shame kids or call them stupid.

“I disagree with ‘tiger’ parenting advice that condones humiliating children or calling them names in order to motivate desirable behaviors or academic achievement,” says Bluestein. “There’s a big difference between making a mistake and being one.”

Encourage your wife to fight the temptation to fix the girls’ every misstep. “It’s always better to guide kids to a solution by helping them rethink their approach, strategy or goal,” says Bluestein.

(For more advice, go to janebluestein.com.)

Our second-grade son’s teacher sent home a note saying he was receiving “Response to Intervention” support for math. She asked for a meeting to discuss it. I’ve looked it up but am still confused about it. Does it mean he needs special education?

Not at all. Response to Intervention (RTI) is a process intended to help a child catch up in a skill area before he could end up in special education. RTI has been used in reading for more than a decade. While used less frequently in math, the fact that your son’s school employs it is a good sign.

“We know a lot more today about tackling early reading and math struggles than we did 30 years ago, and many classroom teachers have the tools to help kids. The whole point of RTI is to identify and remedy problems in early elementary school, when they are easiest to correct,” says Dr. Michael Milone, a New Mexico-based educator and researcher who consults with school districts. “RTI is a comprehensive, multi-step assessment process intended to help children before they might be placed in a formal special education program.”

RTI emerged from well-intentioned policies that, over the years, have frustrated many parents and educators and left many children without services when they needed them most. “A diagnosis that would qualify a child for special education could take years, allowing that student to fail while awaiting a change in instruction. Or worse, students might ‘fail enough’ to get into special education, but not get the appropriate instructional interventions that could help them move forward,” says Milone.

Federal legislation passed in 2004 to align IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) with No Child Left Behind allows for intervention immediately after a disability or skill weakness is suspected.

There are reasons a second-grader might struggle with math that have nothing to do with a learning disability. “Math learning builds. You have to nail one concept before moving on to another,” says Milone. “If a child lacks key mathematical and numeracy concepts early on, it can adversely impact later learning.”

Here’s how RTI can help your son catch up, says Milone: “The RTI process identifies at-risk students using a range of screening assessments and provides their classroom teachers with plans for intense instruction and ways to monitor progress. If the students respond to the intervention, they are returned to regular instruction. If they don’t, they get additional, more intense instruction. If they still don’t respond favorably, they are referred for formal special education assessment. We hope that RTI will reduce the number of kids going into special ed as the result of inappropriate instruction.”

Milone suggests asking these questions at your meeting: What screening procedures, interventions and instructional programs will be used? How long does an intervention continue before determining whether he is making progress? How will his progress be monitored and communicated to us? How can we help at home? Will you put his intervention plan in writing? At what point are students who are suspected of having a learning disability referred for formal evaluation?

For more information, see “Questions to Ask Your School about RTI” at understood.org.

With a daughter entering kindergarten, and a son not far behind, we recently bought a house near a school loved by parents and hyped by the real estate agent. When we started house hunting, the school had a rating of 9 on GreatSchools.org. The website now rates it a 7. Parents still like the school, and our daughter seems happy, but should we worry?

Do some digging and ask questions before you put this on your worry list. In most states, GreatSchools compiles a rating using publically available data that reflects how well students do on standardized tests compared to other students in the state. The rating is on a 1-to-10 scale, where 10 is the highest, 1 the lowest.

“While test results give you a good sense of how well students are performing at a given school, they only offer a limited snapshot of school quality,” says Mike Gallaher, a senior analyst at GreatSchools.org.

That’s why a growing number of states are making more data available to parents, such as attendance, information on how much students learn in a given year, how prepared they are for college work or an assessment of the school’s learning climate.

GreatSchools is currently focused on three aspects of academic quality, says Gallaher: “One is student achievement — how well students at a school do in academics, measured as the percent of students meeting state standards based on state standardized tests.”

No. 2 is student growth — how much students are actually learning in a year, rather than how much they already know.

“A school with high growth could be a school with students that started behind grade level and have now caught up,” notes Gallaher.

No. 3 is college readiness. “With high schools,” says Gallaher, “we look at school graduation rates and performance and participation on college entrance exams (such as the SAT and ACT) as indicators of how well students are prepared for life after high school in college or careers.”

Schools in states that have rolled out the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and are testing children on those standards may see a drop in their GreatSchools rating if the tests and instruction aren’t yet closely aligned.

“This is worth asking,” says Gallaher. Other things to ask: What measures does the school use to track academic progress if not state tests? Has there been a change in leadership? Is there high faculty turnover? Is there any change in the student population, with new students needing extra support to catch up? What is the school’s rating history?

Look at other factors, too, such as parent and community comments, what programs the school offers that are important to you, such as arts, music, after-school enrichment and so on.

“Take this opportunity to walk through all the data with the principal,” suggests Gallaher. “At GreatSchools, we’re willing to answer questions about how a school’s rating is derived.”

There may be very good reasons for the drop in score, or the school’s leadership may not be aware of it and will welcome your advocacy on behalf of academic excellence.

For more, go to greatschools.org/about/ratings.page.

One of our sons graduated college with an architecture degree in 2013 and can’t find a job. It’s also true for some of his friends. My younger son, a high school junior, says this is proof that he should not waste money on college. His counselor thinks he should apply, and he’s considering the military. We don’t want him to rack up college debt, but don’t want him to be a live-at-home barista, either. Is college worth it?

With daily headlines about the college loan crisis and a lack of jobs that lead to careers for graduates, this is a conversation many families are having.

“You’re not alone in your concerns. College is expensive and a rising number of grads aren’t able to find jobs. Some have moved back home while they hunt for work,” says Rob Franek, senior vice president of The Princeton Review and author of “The Best 379 Colleges, 2015 Edition” (Princeton Review, 2014).

Keep in mind, though, that statistically speaking, the time and money one spends to get a college diploma is well worth it, says Franek: “Studies show that college grads have a richer life, both literally and culturally.”

Consider these facts:

– Lifetime earnings of a person with a college degree are much higher than those of a person with only a high school diploma. Some estimates show the earnings difference can be up to $1 million more.

– Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the unemployment rate is far lower among college grads (currently 2.9 percent) than among job seekers with only high school diplomas (currently 5.3 percent).

– One Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that college grads have longer lives by an average of nine years.

“The good news is that the majority of college grads are finding jobs,” notes Franek, “but the employment rate varies based on one’s major. Grads in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are highly employable and earn the highest starting salaries. But grads in non-technical fields, such as arts and sociology, face a tougher job market with considerably lower starting salaries.”

Unfortunately for your older son, the unemployment rate for architecture majors was 12.8 percent in 2013 — a result of the recession’s construction downturn.

“But encourage him to keep searching,” says Franek. “The flip side is that 87 percent of grads with architecture majors have found jobs.”

Entering military service in lieu of attending college is a noble decision, says Franek, “and we heartily salute all of our military personal for their service to our country. The training one gets in various branches of the service can position one very well to find employment in some occupations upon discharge. Students who attend college via ROTC programs can get the degree and the experience in exchange for years of service after they graduate.

“But, sadly, the 2013 unemployment rate for veterans in general is high (9 percent overall) and, among the youngest veterans (18-24), it was higher still (21.4 percent).”

Bottom line: A college degree, generally speaking, is more than well worth it. But choose your major — and borrow money — wisely.

“If you take out loans to foot the bills, don’t borrow more in total over the years it takes to earn the diploma than you can expect to earn as a beginning salary when you graduate,” Franek advises.

Our school sends mixed messages about digital media. They warn about online safety and too much time on screens, but then send home an iPad with my third-grader to play “homework” games. I’m confused about my role as a parent in all this.

With today’s 8- to 18-year-olds spending up to 4,000 hours a year on technology, parents have one more tough task — rearing smart and responsible digital citizens.

“Families use technology in every aspect of life, and it’s opened up a world of educational opportunities that didn’t exist a decade ago,” says Bill Laraway, a fifth-grade teacher at Silver Oak Elementary in San Jose, California — in the heart of Silicon Valley. “Technology has risks and benefits, and a parent’s job is to intentionally and thoughtfully teach kids the difference.”

Laraway encourages parents to work with kids in four areas: focus, safety, responsibility and oversight.

“First is focus. These tools offer wonderful ways to deepen learning and expand our creative potential,” says Laraway, “but they can also be distracting to students. Kids say they are ‘multitasking,’ but it’s a myth.

“Researcher Daniel Goleman calls multitasking ‘continuous partial attention,’ with the brain switching quickly between tasks. It’s no way for developing brains to study. Parents have to help students learn to filter out distractions, technological or otherwise, or they will have a hard time in almost every subject.”

Laraway recommends Goleman’s book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” to parents who aren’t convinced.

The second is safety. Have a family policy about what to post, how passwords are stored, parental controls and so on.

“Don’t scare kids, but do alert them to dangers and reinforce behaviors you want kids to adopt,” says Laraway. (There are great resources at commonsensemedia.org and connectsafely.org.)

Three is responsibility. “Don’t preach; lead by example,” Laraway urges. “Don’t be a goof online. Don’t post things that will come back to haunt the family. Be kind and selective with your social media presence. Follow the Golden Rule.”

Last, don’t be afraid to monitor and enforce your family’s policies. San Francisco parent Sean Ryan, an executive at Facebook, says, “I own every game device and tablet ever created, so we don’t live in a cave, but we’re pretty strict about our boys’ usage and we enforce it, even if I have to look at the wireless router to confirm it.

“We limit screen time — exempting old-school Kindles. We have borrowed more than 300 books from the library using the Kindle OverDrive system. It’s just awesome.”

The Ryans insist that the boys use their PCs in common areas of the home, not their rooms. “We prefer that they do homework on our desktop, since it’s in the open,” he says.

Their 15-year-old has what Ryan calls an “ancient” iPhone and the two younger boys’ phones are used just for calling.

“We love the advantages of tech,” says Ryan, “but we see how it can be abused. We’re in no hurry to give them unlimited access to all forms of it — that’s why they call it ‘parenting’ and not ‘friending.’”

My daughter got into a fight with some girls at school. We thought she’d be suspended, but the principal asked the girls involved to “make things right with those wronged.” I wanted to ground her, but the principal advised against it, saying discussing it with her was better. Why?

The current “zero tolerance” discipline policies aren’t working, so many schools instead use discipline techniques called “restorative practices.” The theory is that students learn little from consequences, but should be required to think about their actions, consider how to be held accountable, and decide what they can do to repair and create healthier relationships.

In January, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines encouraging schools try restorative practices because districts using them have seen positive results.

The technique uses three questions to get kids thinking about the causes and effects of their behavior.

“When parents ask these questions, the trick is to keep emotions in check,” says Marissa Gehley, a California student safety specialist and founder of Kids Need Our Wisdom (KNOW) Consulting. “Stay calm. Get the facts. Don’t ask, ‘Why?’ which triggers emotions.”

The first question is: What happened?

Perhaps your daughter says, “It was Reba’s fault. She took my notebook, showed it to Melinda, so I shoved her to grab it back.”

Remind her that you’re talking about what she did, not her friends, says Gehley. Ask what she did before Reba took her notebook. Suppose your daughter tells you they were going to study hall.

At this point, you should clarify: “So you were headed to study hall. Reba took your notebook and passed it to Melinda. You shoved her and took it back.”

Then, the next question is: Who else was affected?

Most kids say, “Nobody!” so ask your daughter to see the fight from another perspective. How many saw it? Who broke it up? Did anyone get hurt?

Ask her to imagine how other students felt. Assume a teacher broke it up. Ask how the actions might have affected the teacher.

“Students start to see their actions from others’ perspectives,” says Gehley.

The last restorative question is: How can you make this right?

“This often comes as a surprise, so listen carefully,” advises Gehley. Your daughter may say she is embarrassed; she is sorry to disappoint you; she regrets hitting her friend; or she wishes it never happened.

Ask her what two or three things would help correct the situation. She might apologize to the teacher, reach out to her friends, or say that she should have simply asked Reba to return the notebook rather than react with force.

Don’t be discouraged if the three questions don’t go according to script with every situation, advises Gehley. The more you practice dispassionate questioning, the more effective it is.

“We can’t ’suspend’ our way to safer classrooms,” says Gehley. “We need to teach kids relationship-building skills to build a more respectful culture in schools and at home. When they begin to use their brains rather than their brawn to solve problems, life gets better for everybody.”

(To learn more about restorative practices, go to safersanerschools.org.)

One thing I don’t like about the Common Core is that it removed fiction from the curriculum. I’m a liberal arts graduate who loves reading fiction books each night to my children. What’s wrong with that?

There’s nothing wrong with that — keep it up. But one evening after the kids are in bed, read up on the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) at corestandards.org. You’ll learn that you’re wrong. The Common Core provides for plenty of fiction reading. But it also encourages a shift in emphasis to nonfiction — educators like to refer to it as “informational texts” — especially in the higher grades.

“There is extensive research establishing the need for students to leave high school with much more proficiency in reading complex informational text — nonfiction — about real people, places and events,” says educator Matt Gross, co-founder of Newsela, a daily news website for kids that offers high-interest nonfiction articles at five levels of complexity.

“One CCSS goal is to get students ready for college and careers,” Gross explains. “Unless you’re a literature major, a high percentage of college reading is nonfiction in every subject area. And as adults, most of what we read in our careers requires being able to comprehend informational text.

“Being a strong nonfiction reader requires different comprehension skills than fiction. Nonfiction texts such as autobiographies, biographies, essays, almanacs, research papers, maps, graphs and charts require readers to think critically, analyze, interpret and evaluate data and opinions.”

Many elementary teachers pair fiction and nonfiction to teach content and concepts. This is especially true in elementary life sciences, where “hands-on” lessons aren’t always feasible, safe or effective, says Melissa Stewart, co-author with Nancy Chesley of “Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2″ (Stenhouse Publishers, 2014).

In a first-grade lesson on how animals protect themselves, they pair Leo Lionni’s book “Swimmy” (Dragonfly Books, 1973), a fictional tale about a small fish who hatches a plan to stay safe in the ocean, with “What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books, 2001), a captivating explanation of how animals protect themselves by noted science author and illustrator Steve Jenkins.

Teachers love it when parents add nonfiction into their reading choices at home. Choose books by authors with a true passion for their subjects, who can write authoritatively and imaginatively.

For example, award-winning science writer Sandra Markle, author of more than 200 children’s books, went to the ends of the Earth — Antarctica — to research her book on penguins! Michael Patrick O’Neill travels the planet to take his eye-popping deep-sea photography. His goal? To get kids to read, write and discuss ocean science and conservation.

As students move up the grades, they’ll find more nonfiction in all subjects. Passages in the 2009 fourth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress test were split evenly between fiction and nonfiction. The eighth-grade test contained 45 percent fiction and 55 percent nonfiction; by 12th grade, the ratio was 30/70.

The Common Core doesn’t sell fiction short, says Newsela’s Gross. “Instead, it expands students’ abilities to read nonfiction genres that are so important to succeed in life.”

My third-grade granddaughter lives with me. At parents’ night, her teacher asked everyone to send her a text in order to go on a reminder list to receive class information. I felt uncomfortable signing up, due to privacy issues. Is this the new way educators communicate with families?

It’s not the only way, but many teachers are using technology to reach parents. The service your granddaughter’s teacher mentioned sounds like a free app called Remind. It allows teachers to send one-way messages via SMS, thereby delivering notifications to everyone involved with the class.

Ask your granddaughter’s teacher about the app she plans to use. If it is Remind, that app’s terms of service say that personal contact information is never seen by teachers or the school. If it’s a different tool or app, make sure it has a similar privacy policy before signing up.

Dionne Hansen, a Seattle mom of two elementary-age kids, appreciates the Remind service.

“It’s convenient to get a text from the teacher reminding me of something, rather than wade through my son’s backpack for a paper he might have tossed,” she says.

Jill Warner, a Nokesville, Virginia, middle-school science teacher, sends texts to parents and students about assignments, when reports are due and to alert them about upcoming tests.

“Eighth-graders don’t want to talk with their parents about school, so this little app gets the information home,” she explains.

Tech-savvy teachers use other tools, too. Edmodo is a learning network app that allows teachers to send assignments to students and to accept completed assignments digitally. It also allows teachers to create interactive quizzes and share content such as videos. Students can talk to their whole classroom as part of a group, or one-on-one with teachers, but not directly to each other. Parents can follow what their children are working on and receive broadcast messages from the teacher.

While many schools still block Facebook, which was “once considered inappropriate for classroom use, Facebook and Twitter are becoming commonplace in schools,” says Michael Sharnoff, associate online editor at eSchool News. “Teachers use Twitter to engage students on lessons and assignments, and parents follow teacher accounts to stay connected.”

Sharnoff says that more and more teachers are creating classroom Facebook pages to discuss and keep up with assignments and projects and to post content, including images and video, without length restrictions.

With the decrease in funding for school field trips, teachers turn to Skype for virtual field trips and “meetings” with interesting people around the globe.

Buzzmob, a mobile app launched in California schools in 2013, connects administrators, teachers and parents with the ability to chat, share tips and photos, and send out vital information in real time. Sharnoff says that the app’s “GPS-aware function syncs with your current location and connects you with people around you.”

So, say you’re picking up your son, and his class is doing a project outside. The GPS function lets you know the minute you set foot on campus. This is particularly useful in case of an emergency.

While these apps facilitate communication with parents, they aren’t a substitute for getting to know your child’s teacher. Establish a personal relationship so that when it’s time for a one-on-one conversation about your child, you’ll have a strong foundation to work from.

My son’s guidance counselor got on his case for bailing on his Advanced Placement course commitment. He didn’t do the summer reading. My son is a junior. He’s smart but not too organized, so I wasn’t unhappy when he dropped out. He gets so stressed, and a low AP test score might hurt his college application. Why was she so upset?

Could she see potential in your son that he isn’t working to realize? Or does she think that an AP course would help him develop the skills he needs for college work?

Since 1955, the College Board has offered high school students college-level courses that are more rigorous than high school courses. Today, students can take AP courses in more than 30 subjects. (Go to collegeboard.org.)

“We encourage a range of students to challenge themselves with an AP course,” says Matt Frahm, the superintendent of the Naples, New York, school district. “Traditionally, schools offered AP to students in honors programs, but today high schools are opening up AP to more students who typically don’t enroll.”

Frahm says AP courses can benefit students several ways.

“The courses can provide an academic challenge that reflects the rigor of college work, motivate students to improve study habits, offer a rich curriculum in a chosen interest area, show colleges that the student is motivated to do college work, and — depending on the AP test score — obtain college credit for that work,” he explains.

Westbury High School in Houston encourages all freshmen to take two pre-AP courses, sophomores to take pre-AP classes and an AP course, and juniors and seniors to take two AP courses.

AP tests are scored on a 1-to-5 scale. Scores of 3 or higher are eligible for college credit. Administrators say more challenging classes better prepare students for higher education, even if they score poorly.

“Kids who take AP courses benefit (even) if they don’t score a 3, 4 or 5,” said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Terry Grier. “If they just score a 1 or 2, their likelihood of being successful in college or even going to college is increased significantly.”

Parents shouldn’t worry about a low AP score affecting a student’s chances to get into college, says Frahm of the Naples district.

“Studies show that the rigor of a student’s high school courses is the single best predictor of success in college,” he explains.

Admission officers would prefer that a student take a challenging AP class and get a low score rather than skate through easy courses. Many colleges recalculate applicants’ GPAs, giving extra points for AP courses.

A 2008 study found that AP students had better four-year graduation rates than those who did not take AP courses. However, Stanford University senior education lecturer Denise Pope cautions that AP courses benefit students only if the quality of the teachers is high and students are prepared for the work.

Sit down with your son and his counselor. If he’s college-bound, put together a plan, possibly including a study coach, that includes an AP course. He needs to hone those organizational and study skills soon, or he risks wasting time and money in college.

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