Hannukah “Play”, Montessori-style

I have always been in favour of what I call “child labour” (letting children do actual household tasks) and have often viewed most toys as superfluous, unnecessary, and even insulting to children’s abilities and intelligence. Recently, though, I’ve come to see how having one child in a Montessori school has affected my parenting decisions for the other children at home. Here’s the most recent example:

It’s Hannukah (as we all know by now), and while perusing our local Jewish newspaper I saw an ad for a sale on a wooden hannukah playset. It looks like this:

I considered buying one. I thought that N would definitely love putting the candles into the menorah over and over again, and he might actually like to spin the dreidel. I went so far as to put “buy wooden hannukah set” on my to-do list. Then I laughed at myself, because the Montessori parent in me knows that this is a ridiculously unnecessary toy.

N wants to put candles into a menorah? Good. Let him practice with real candles and a real (metal, unbreakable) menorah. Does he want to hold and look at a dreidel? Great. I happen to have a large wooden dreidel (too big to be a choking hazard to anyone) that he can hold and play with. And what use is wooden hannukah gelt? It’s not shiny like the real thing, and you can’t eat it. No, better to give him one or two pieces of real gelt to look at, and later show him how to unwrap it and let him taste the chocolate. As for the wooden latkes and frying pan, why would he need those when he’s allowed to help me wash potatoes, mix the batter, and eat actual latkes?

This is a very real, concrete example of the Montessori attitude towards pretend play. In Montessori, children don’t have to pretend to work in a kitchen, or to plant a garden, or put candles in the menorah. They don’t have to pretend, because they can really do it. They might want to repeat the task (put candles in, take them out, examine them, put them in, take them out…). They might not do it with great skill. But they will do the task over and over again until they have mastered it. No toys, just real objects and tools that are appropriately sized for children’s hands.

As for N, this morning he pointed at the menorah and put his hands over his face, imitating the way we cover our eyes when lighting shabbat candles (we don’t cover our eyes for hannukah candles, but I suppose candles are candles, at this age).

“Do you want to practice lighting hannukah candles?” I asked, and in response he put his hands over his face again and then peeked out, smiling.

I gave him a box of candles and set him up on the window seat so that he could reach the menorah on the windowsill. He picked up one piece of the menorah (it comes apart) and tried to walk away with it. “N,” I said, “the hannukiah stays here so that everyone can see it when we light the candles.” He put the piece back. Then he reached for the candles and began to place one in each holder. When all of the holders were full, he covered his face and giggled.

N repeated the task over and over again for about half an hour. Some candles got broken, but gradually he learned to be more gentle with them. The focus and pride on his face was an excellent reminder that, given the tools and the opportunity, our children will master the tasks that make up our lives, no toys required.

Family Breakfast

I’ve read, as I’m sure you all have, about how important it is for families to sit down to dinner together every day. In my house that almost never happens. The kids need to eat before 6, and getting home by then is pretty hard for Montessori Dad. What’s a mom to do?

Well, we all wake up at the same time, and we all need to eat before we leave the house. We all sit down and eat breakfast together every day. Here’s how it works:

We don’t do anything fancy. Generally we’ll alternate having oatmeal or cold cereal on the menu. I set out bowls, spoons and mugs the night before, and if it’s a cold cereal day then I’ll put that out too. I cut up some kind of fresh fruit and put it in the fridge. For oatmeal days, I start the steel-cut oats the night before, then leave them to soak overnight. I prepare a tray of toppings and a small jug of milk and put those in the fridge where K can reach them.

In the morning, I just have to turn on the oatmeal for 10 minutes (I do it right when I get up, and by the time we’re all dressed the oatmeal is done). K’s job is to take the tray of toppings out of the fridge and bring it to the table. When N sees this happening, he goes to the play kitchen (also where we keep the kids’ dishes and cutlery), gets himself a spoon, and then stands patiently by his chair until we help him in. Both K and N seem to take pride in doing their parts to get ready for breakfast. And of course, everybody loves their oatmeal.

The topping tray is a very lightweight tray from the dollar store, with dollar store ramekins to hold each item. I also put the serving spoons and tongs on it in advance, and there’s a little cloth mat that absorbs the stray nuts and crumbs. Here’s what tomorrow’s tray looks like:

We have different toppings every day. The tray above is what I call “apple pie” – apples, raisins, walnuts, and cinnamon sugar. We also do “banana nut” – brown sugar, pecans, and bananas. “Cranberry almond” is pretty much what it sounds like – dried cranberries, slivered almonds, brown sugar.

And, in the spirit of montessori-ing my home, I put the tray of toppings and the jug of milk on the lowest shelf in our fridge so that K can reach:

To give you a sense of size, that’s a 500 mL (2 cup) jug. It’s maybe 5 inches tall.

Mmm… oatmeal and toppings. This post has made me want to go to sleep so that I can wake up and eat breakfast. Yum.

The Perils of Montessori Parenting

I love using montessori philosophies at home. K is completely able, for example, to chop produce with a sharp knife and she uses real glasses and china dishes without breaking them. I can trust her to use her art materials appropriately.

As a result, my house is not “childproof” in the traditional way. There are real glasses and dishes in the cupboard of her play kitchen. Art supplies, including paint, are kept within easy reach. My home isn’t childproof – my children are “homeproofed”.

But then I’ll occasionally have reminders that not all children have been raised the same way. One little boy – about K’s age – came over to play. He was rummaging around in the play kitchen, removed a glass from the cupboard, and proceeded to throw it on the floor. This was not an infant, folks. He was at least 3 years old at the time. Anyhow, he looked shocked and surprised when the glass shattered – he had never before handled a fragile object. He didn’t even seem to know that such breakage was possible. We didn’t make a big deal of it, we just made sure everyone was safe and we cleaned up the glass. But it did make me think.

A few days ago a dear friend left her daughter with us for the afternoon. The kids all went down for naps, and I put our little friend to bed on the couch in the playroom. When I went to wake the kids up I was greeted with the sight of a cloth diaper, scribbled on with blue fineliner. Now, it wasn’t a big deal – this was the absorbent insert of a cloth diaper, easily bleached and not generally seen anyway – but I told her mum about it. Her response was completely reasonable: “Why was a fineliner left unattended in a room with a two-and-a-half-year-old?” Good question. The long and short of it is that I didn’t think to check for that kind of thing before putting the kid to sleep. My Montessori kid knows that markers are for drawing on paper only, so I wouldn’t even worry about her using it for other purposes.

(As an aside, I would worry about N getting into something like that, which is why it was placed out of his reach.)

This isn’t to say that her level of responsibility negates the possibility of mess and disaster. In fact, that’s one of the major perils of having a young Montessori kid. Early on in the school year I learned that K may have the skill and coordination to perform a task, but not the judgment to know when to use those skills. Take pouring, for example: there was a period of time where K would climb up to the bathroom sink with a couple of containers, fill them up, bring them to her play kitchen, and pour. And pour. Everywhere. Needless to say, she got to use her newly acquired “wiping up” skills quite frequently.

And yes, she wants to stir things and doesn’t remember to do it gently, and she removes snacks from the fridge and spills them all over. But these are generally exceptions to the rule. On an average day I can trust K to go about her business, ask for help when she needs it, and use household objects responsibly.

But man, oh man, there are definitely days when I wish I’d kept her just a little more helpless. Thank goodness they’re few and far between!

K chopping strawberries for the family

K brushing (gasp!) raw chicken breasts with mustard glaze

What makes our Montessori school Jewish?

This post is in response to a reader question from long ago. I promise I’ll get to the other reader questions soon!

The answer to this is quite simple, although a bit hard to express. Basically it goes like this:

Our Montessori school is Jewish in the same way our home is Jewish.

The rhythms of the calendar are those of the Jewish calendar. Friday is Shabbat – everyone wears white shirts (to make it special, not because there’s anything significant about white shirts); they bless the candles, the challah, and the wine; lunchtime is a special treat – pizza.

As holidays approach, the entire school prepares. For Passover all of the students were involved in cleaning the classrooms, checking for chametz (leaven), and collecting kosher-for-passover foods for the Pesach food drive. On Purim the regular school day was disrupted for a giant party, everyone dressed in costume (our principal dressed as the Montessori movable alphabet), and they made mishloach manot bags to give to one another.

The classrooms themselves are full of Jewish objects and symbols. Among the practical life exercises you’ll find materials for putting candles into candlesticks (or into a menorah at Hannukah) – great for developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. The metal-polishing activity, a staple of any Montessori classroom, often involves polishing a kiddush cup or candlesticks that the class uses to celebrate Shabbat. Around the holidays there is a display of relevant objects (for Rosh Hashana there was a shofar, a pomegranate, a jar of honey, and a machzor) for the children to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Hebrew books mingle with the English, and the usual Montessori language arts materials have their direct counterparts in Hebrew materials.

Both English and Hebrew are spoken in the classroom all day – English by the Montessori teacher and Hebrew by the Jewish studies teacher. Children move easily between general studies and Jewish studies, guided by their mood that day. There is no artificial division where half the day is Jewish and the other half is secular. The whole day is Jewish, the whole day is Montessori.

Judaism works its way into every discipline. The upper elementary students were studying Renaissance art, and they were very interested in the Sistine chapel and how it was painted. They researched the logistics of painting a ceiling and then set out to try it by painting the undersides of the tables in their classroom. Each child had to choose a scene from the Torah, sketch it, explain to the teacher why it was significant and what details would be emphasized in the drawing. Then they all lay down on the floor under their tables and painted their favourite Torah scenes.

Sometimes I wish there was a bit more rote learning (I can explain in another post if you like, about how I think rote learning contributes to religious experience), or a bit more emphasis on religious – rather than just cultural – Judaism. But all in all, I’m happy that our school reflects our life. Judaism is a part of it, infusing everything, and not something that is separate from our everyday life.

Demystifying Montessori – part 3

The preamble:

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Mr. December always says, “trust but verify”.

So, how does the actual teaching and learning take place in a Montessori classroom?

When you walk into a Montessori classroom, you’ll see something like this:

There are child-sized tables and chairs which seat various numbers of children, the classroom is broken up into several smaller areas by low shelving, and the shelving is home to numerous trays and boxes filled with objects and tools. These trays and boxes contain the basis of the curriculum, the Montessori materials.

(Quick sidenote: the materials are grouped into different areas that correspond to curriculum areas, but this is just to provide a sense of order and facilitate locating the materials. The kids are free to take the materials to any place in the classroom while they are using them.)

There are a few different curriculum areas, and the materials are grouped accordingly. The curriculum areas are:

  • Sensorial – in which the children learn to differentiate shape, size, weight, length, pitch, tone, colour, etc.
  • Math – in the youngest classroom this begins with number recognition, proceeds through the introduction of zero, and ends somewhere around the division of four-digit numbers (with no remainders).
  • Language – letters, phonics, writing, grammar
  • Sciences – a lot of zoology, biology, nomenclature, nature study
  • Social Studies – map puzzles, types of water and land formations, international flags, etc.
  • Practical life – skills such as pouring, spooning, washing (clothes, dishes, hands), cleaning, polishing, etc.

There is also a curriculum area called “grace and courtesy”, but I’m not going there right now.

Anyhow, each tray or box contains all of the materials needed to complete one activity from the Montessori curriculum. If it’s something that involves liquid, it will not only contain all of the requisite pitchers/bowls/cups but also a small sponge for cleaning up spills. When a child chooses a material, she also takes either a placemat or a floor mat. All of the work is contained in the area of the mat, which helps the kids to delineate their workspace. Everyone knows not to walk across a mat.

When it is time for a child to learn a new lesson, the teacher will invite the child to work with her. The teacher then demonstrates the proper use of the materials, step by step, from taking the work off the shelf all the way through the task to cleaning up and putting it away. Then the child tries the activity.

The teacher watches, but doesn’t correct – she doesn’t need to, because the materials are self-correcting (a very basic example – in one pouring activity, the child must fill a small jug to a black line, then pour from that jug into two glasses up to the red line on each. If the water isn’t at the line, or if some water has spilled, then the child knows that he has to try again). If the child asks for help, the teacher will model some strategies or demonstrate the task again, but otherwise she is a silent observer for the child’s first use of the material.

After the initial lesson, the child is free to choose the same material as often as he wants, as repetition cements the learning.

What are the other kids doing while the teacher is working with one child? Why, they’re working on their own tasks. The group-friendly tasks (division, for example, or some of the language and geography materials) might be presented to a few kids at once. Also, older children sometimes work together with the younger students to help them cement a recently presented skill.

So… yes, the children learn from experiencing a task, and from touching, seeing, lifting, carrying, hearing, and sometimes smelling the materials. But it’s not a “trial and error” kind of experiential learning. Rather, the youngest kids (ages 2.5 – 5) are using what Montessori termed their “absorbent mind” to learn a structured sequence of actions that gives them the skills and knowledge they need.

Demystifying Montessori – part 2

If you haven’t already read my first post in this series, you may want to.

In order to address the issue of choice in the Montessori classroom, you first have to understand the structure of the day.

Dr. Montessori believed that, given long stretches of time in which to work, children will gradually lengthen their attention spans. In her opinion, shepherding the children along to a different activity or a different subject every 30 minutes made it impossible for the kids to become engrossed in any one task. It makes sense to me – if I’m in the middle of a really good book, or sewing a project, I loathe being disturbed.

This observation resulted in the establishment of the three-hour work period in Montessori schools. That means that for three (sometimes two and a half) hours, the children work with the materials of their choice. Snacks or short breaks are taken on an individual basis, when each child is ready.

So here we are, at the question of choice. Many (uninformed) critics of Montessori complain that the children have too much choice and too much freedom. I see how it can appear that way, what with the children entering the classroom and gravitating to the work they want. On closer inspection, though, it’s pretty obvious that what we have here is choice within a rigid structure.

When the child has their choice of materials, they are not really free to choose any material. Each child is restricted to the materials appropriate to his or her level – that is, the activities that have already been presented by the teacher. Sometimes the child will choose materials that she has not yet learned. If those materials are the next in a progression of skills, the teacher may present it to the child. If not, the child is redirected to other materials.

And out of the materials on his or her level, the child must choose from among the ones on the shelf. If another child is already using a material, it is (obviously) unavailable. Some materials are for work in small groups, but most are not. Children can (and do) watch each other work and offer encouragement, but they can’t step in and do the work for a classmate.

So imagine that a kid is doing his work, and then he wants to do something else. While that’s certainly his choice to make, he doesn’t get to abandon the task at hand – if he does, he’ll find the teacher gently guiding him back to the materials and encouraging him to put everything back the way he found it before moving on.

When they get hungry, the kids can go to the kitchen area (every classroom has one) and sit down at the snack table… if there’s a seat available. Otherwise they must wait until someone else has finished before they can sit down. When they do sit to eat, they have to first spread out a napkin on the table, and then they can take as much as they want – up to the amount written and drawn on the small board. And of course, when they’re finished eating the kids must clean up after themselves and leave the snack table usable for the next child.

There is a “peace corner” in every classroom. It’s usually a small space with comfy chairs and a small selection of books. The children are free to sit in the peace corner, read, or even doze off.

The argument goes that by being given an opportunity to govern their own time (within a structure), the children learn self-regulation (apparently this has been proven by studies, but I haven’t read them yet). They are also able to delve deeply into their work when they are so inclined, and able to rest and refresh themselves when they need to.

Maybe the strangest effect of this approach is the one we discovered when we took our first tour of the school. As we watched the children quietly working, replacing materials and choosing others, negotiating with other students, and taking breaks without disturbing the other kids, the principal whispered, “You probably haven’t noticed it – I just realized it myself – but both teachers are out of the room and the kids are still doing their own work.” And they were.


Do you have any thoughts or questions about this? Need clarification? Leave a comment and I’ll respond to it in a future post!

Demystifying Montessori

A few weeks ago Montessori Dad and I attended a parents’ information breakfast at K’s school. The topic: “Your tuition and the economics of eduction”, or as we termed it, “why our school costs so damn much”. It gradually turned into a discussion of how to attract more students, which in turn became a discussion of what makes us different from the other Jewish day schools in the city. It dawned on me that even some of the parents with kids in our school really didn’t seem to understand that it’s not just another private school – it represents a significant shift away from the average educational model. If parents of Montessori students don’t understand that, why would we expect anyone else to?

I came home on a mission – to figure out what the average person knows or assumes about Montessori. I turned to Facebook and posted the question in my status. Four friends were kind enough to answer. I want to use their comments and questions as a jumping-off point for a bit of an explanation about Montessori – what it is, what it isn’t, and why I’ve chosen it.

Disclaimer – I am writing about Montessori from my point of view. I am by no means an expert, although I have borrowed some books from the library and I do intend to read them :p Please take everything I say with a grain of salt. As Montessori Dad always says, “trust but verify”.

Here are two of my friends’ comments in response to the question, “what do you know about Montessori?”:

“Something about making choices and centers for play. I do remember I didn’t totally agree with the philosphy behind it when I originally learned it in college. But other than that, I have no idea.”

“No idea… something about “accidental/experiential” learning vs being taught? I just know(/think) that it’s expensive. ;-)”

The first thing that struck me when I read these responses was the use of the words “play” and “learning”. When K arrives at school, her teachers ask “what work would you like to do today?” or “what materials will you work with first?”. At Montessori, what the children do is called “work”. “Learning” is not a word that is avoided, but it’s more common to ask, “what work did you do today, tell me about it?” than “what did you learn today?”

The repeated use of the word “work” when it comes to toddlers and preschoolers puts many people off. Work has an unpleasant connotation in our society: it’s the thing we have to finish doing before we can play. But Maria Montessori saw work very differently, as the productive activity undertaken by people in their day-to-day life. Cooking, playing music, gardening, woodworking – these are all forms of creative work. Reading and researching new ideas is academic work. Setting the table, tidying up, fixing things – these are the work of maintaining and beautifying our environment.

Kids love work. Why else would there be so many replicas of adult tools? Toy lawnmowers and vacuums, play kitchens, tiny watering cans and even toy laptops are ubiquitous. Children have an innate desire to imitate the adults in their life and contribute to the productive work of their family. In our society, we shelter them from real work for a variety of reasons: it would be too messy, they can’t handle the tools, it will take so much longer if I let them do it. Maria Montessori, however, believed that given the right-sized tools and taught at the appropriate times, children can learn to do productive work and will participate enthusiastically.

Here is a rundown of some of the work that K has done at school that transfers to her life at home:

  • wiping up spills
  • pouring liquids without spilling (accidents happen, but they’re rare)
  • spooning food from a serving dish into individual plates
  • setting the table
  • putting her plate next to the sink at the end of a meal
  • spraying and then wiping down the furniture
  • stirring and whisking
  • washing and cutting fruits and vegetables (with close supervision, but little interference)

She is, I’ll remind you, three years old. This is the age where “I can do it myself” and “I want to help” and “let me do it” are the commonly heard refrains (sometimes spoken, often whined). Nothing pleases K more than being “allowed” to pin diapers to the clothesline or crack eggs for challah. She even seems to prefer these activities to “play” most of the time. Of course she has a dress-up box and crayons and dolls and stuff, and she does like to play as well, but she’s eager to work. Thanks to Montessori, she knows how.

Working in their classroom also gives the students a sense of ownership and responsibility. Snack is not just put out for them – they are responsible for preparing it, planning and making signs to explain how much everyone can take, and cleaning up after themselves when they’re done. If something in the classroom gets dirtied, the kids clean it up. In the older classes they plan their own field trips (more on that later), including recruiting parent chaperones. The teachers do nothing for the kids that they are capable of doing for themselves.

Have I mentioned that I believe strongly in child labour teaching independence? Some effort on the adults’ part now will reap huge rewards later… I hope!

Next time on “Demystifying Montessori”: choice and experiential learning

If you have any comments or questions about this, I’d love to hear them… and answer them in another post.

Montessori-ing my home (the particulars and the pictures, part I)

… but first, a confession:

When I show you pictures of my creations or home improvement projects, I do clean up a bit before taking the pics. Not that I’d have you believe that my house is always pristine, but I don’t want you distracted from the main point by bits of, oh, let’s say dessicated play-doh studded with forgotten cheerios. From now on, if a photo I post represents how things actually look, I’ll say so. Otherwise please assume that some cleanup happened.

I think we’ll begin our tour of my montessori-ed home (and yes, as I’ve explained previously, that is a verb) in the kids’ room. There are a few minor improvements, a big build, and a couple of things that are simply organizational changes.

The bed

Hardcore Montessori parents eschew cribs in favour of a mattress on the floor, in keeping with the principle that children should be free to explore their environment. That’s all fine and good, and if I had thought of it before we had K, I might not have bothered buying a crib. But I did, and so the baby is in a crib while K sleeps in the snazzy toddler bed I built her. In my interpretation of montessori principles, it was important that K have a bed that is scaled for her, that she can enter and leave easily by herself (not that she’s allowed to, but that’s another post!), and has bedcovers of a manageable size. K was delighted with it from the moment she laid eyes on the raw lumber, and it’s been the site of many bedtime group hugs (yes, it supports two full-grown adults and a kid). Here it is again, the 5-hour upholstered toddler bed:

Grooming station

In montessori, children learn to care for their home, their classroom, their earth, and themselves. K hated having her hair brushed, and it occurred to me that she should have an opportunity to brush her own hair. Using a thrifted mirror and a section of picture-ledge shelving I created a vanity station. K keeps her brush and comb here (we used to keep hair elastics in a container on the shelf, but she just couldn’t resist pushing the elastics into the heating vent, and so when the elastics had disappeared we chose not to replace them on her shelf) as well as some decorative items of her choosing. She seems to enjoy seeing herself in the mirror and now stands much more patiently for her morning ponytail.

Dressing area

Okay, I actually didn’t change anything except how I use this area. The change table has been with us since K was about 2 weeks old, and we store the baby’s clothes here in bins with graphic labels. Diapers are in the drawers, wipes on top, and two diaper pails – one for ‘sposies and one for cloth.

After reading the blog of a montessori teacher who is now also a parent, I finally realized there was a solution to my recent dilemma – how to let K choose her clothes without letting her walk out of the house looking like a walking goodwill store? I do believe kids need to learn to choose their clothes and dress themselves, but I’m just not able to go all the way and give her free rein when it comes to her clothes. Anyhow, the solution was to offer her a selection of pre-matched outfits. When the kids’ laundry is done, I choose five outfits, put them together on hangers, and hang three of them on the drawer knobs. When she wakes up in the morning she can choose her outfit. It saves time over having to match, and then argue about, clothes in the morning before school.

This is what her selection looks like now, ready for the beginning of a new school week:

I think that’s pretty much it for the kids’ bedroom. Next time on “Montessori-ing my home” I’ll take you into the kitchen.

Montessori-ing my home (the preamble)

Much to our parents’ chagrin, we live in a smaller house than either of us called home as children. It’s a bungalow, the third bedroom of which is quite narrow and mostly serves as a way to get to the back door. This house was built in 1946, and that date alone should give you some idea of the amount of closet space we have. We are fortunate to have a full-height basement, although the lack of insulation and the way the ductwork was designed have made it a warm-weather-only destination. The front entryway is small and its closet door is placed most inconveniently. We have upgraded the kitchen and the bathroom, both of which involved a good deal of sledgehammer action, but otherwise the dimensions and features of the house are largely unchanged.

All this by way of explaining that we don’t have a dedicated playroom or even a “family room” that is separate from the living room. The living room has to function as a playroom, entertaining space, laundry-folding station, and a spot to read. The dining room is equal parts computer space, crafting spot, and eating area.

Now, call me crazy, but I’d like to live in a home we can all enjoy. A home that doesn’t look like the big-box toy store just threw up in the living room. A home where kid stuff and grownup stuff mingles without the space looking either juvenile or unfriendly to kids.

I think that, inspired by K’s school – a Jewish Montessori program – I’ve figured out how to achieve that. I’ve decided to Montessori my home. Yes, that’s a verb now. I just decided.

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