Musings from the Classroom

  • Opposite Ends of the Spectrum, Commonalities Regardless—Tied Together by Transition

    Posted by VFES Communications at 9/8/2015 7:55:00 AM

    It’s compelling to consider the beginning of the school year and the end of the school year. On one hand, they truly are undeniably different in a number of regards.

    The beginning of the school year holds a wealth of possibilities.

    How can we grow? What can we learn? Where is our path going to lead us? How many hiccups will we navigate along the way?

    Are my teachers going to be nice?

    Am I going to make any new friends?

    On the other side, the end of the year is filled with reflection—opportunities to consider one’s successes and accomplishments as well as the curve balls thrown along the way.

    And in all the ways they are different, they are also the same in a number of respects.
    For in both, there is a eagerness, an energy that cannot be matched. One that makes your body tingle and keeps you alert to take it all in. Smiles undeniably abound just as much on the first day as the last day. And every day in the books is a win in and of itself; for there cannot possibly be a day that goes by where one learns nothing. On the cusp of starting something new, a requisite transition period is full of a lot of gains—no matter how bumpy it is along the way.

    Perhaps the greatest struggles lie in the fear of the unknown and discomfort in trying something new. How can we ease transition and use it to our advantage?

    • Practice a day with school or a day without school. Use a visual schedule to help your son or daughter know what to expect and at what time. Go through the motions of getting ready or filling a lot of perceived down time.
    • Break the transition down into smaller steps. Offer incentives for accomplishing each; e.g., tokens which can add up and be cashed in for a larger payoff, from a toy to an outing to the movies.
    • As difficult as it may be, stay as positive as possible and avoid saying no. Sometimes being negative feeds into an aggravated cycle. Praise your son or daughter for what he or she is doing/has done nicely.
    • Employ a favorite toy or electronic device. Keep it on hand and use it as an impetus for completing a difficult next step in the day.
    • Make time seem more tangible. If your son or daughter knows how long five minutes will be by experiencing it and tracking it on a clock, time-driven blocks of time become more relatable. “You know how quickly that clip from Frozen went? That’s just five minutes. You can do it.”
    • Create a Social Story to help your son or daughter make better use of his or her communication skills when moving from something comfortable to something unfamiliar. Here are some resources: and

    Exploring all the ways in which something novel can be fun and how to harness the energy solicited by the first day of school or the last day of school can be an excellent way to assuage concerns of the unknown and appreciate the day for what it is: the beginning of opportunities versus the ending of something new and unique.

    First Day and Last Day Blog full of Transition  

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  • Life Imitates Art: Creating Really Cool Things During ESY

    Posted by VFES Communications at 8/5/2015

    This summer’s art program run by Ms. Fell presented a robust slate of methods and mediums through which students could engage in artistic endeavors.

    From Australian nature sculptures and block prints to printmaking and sketching, students in the Middle and High Schools and the VTC had varied opportunities to try something new. Students learned about the nature sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy—a British photographer and sculptor who produces land art in natural environments. After studying his work, students ventured outside to make their own nature sculptures.

    To learn about the concept of positive and negative space, students discussed Goldsworthy’s use of these elements in his piece entitled Rain Shadow. Classes also explored Australian Aboriginal cave hand paintings and compared Goldsworthy’s use of positive and negative to what the Aboriginals produced. After much discussion, students made a stencil and paint in spray bottles to produce their own positive and negative space hand paintings.

    During week three of ESY, our older students furthered their understanding of positive and negative space as they were introduced to the process of printmaking using block prints. Students sketched and drew on foam printing blocks, creating the negative space of their print. During weeks four and five, the students rolled out ink to make multiple prints of their image and made frames for their prints.

    We’re delighted our students were able to explore new mediums, gain an understanding of novel concepts and expand their appreciation for the art of other cultures.

    Honorable mention: Students in our Elementary School explored textures, colors, shapes and dimension, making sea creature friends to comprise an ocean-themed mural. Construction-paper fish were adorned with ripped pieces of colored tissue paper, making these aquatic animals quite animated. Turtles fabricated out of paper and egg cartons leapt off the board. Fluffy clouds floating above the oceanic world, with cotton balls utilized to add dimension and create cumulus clouds.

     Middle and High School and VTC Art
    Students Work from the Middle and High School and VTC
     Elementary School Art
    Student Work from the Elementary School 
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  • Supporting Innovative Educational Initiatives: Students Collect Caps for Kits

    Posted by VFES Communications at 9/19/2014 3:00:00 PM

    Sometimes the simplest of things lend themselves to the greatest ideas.

    High School students in Ms. Seel’s class spent time collecting, washing, sorting and labeling bottle caps that had been amassed from locations around campus over the course of a few months.

    Their efforts support the Caps Program, a project initiated by a West Chester University professor and student that utilizes recycled caps from water, milk, juice and other beverage bottles in sensory-learning, play-based activities to build literacy, numeracy and sequencing skills. The caps are affixed with a letter, number or symbol to comprise an alphabet kit and a number kit. The alphabet set contains three of each vowel, three of the more popular letters and two of the remaining letters. Number kits include three each of numbers one through zero and two each of various mathematical symbols. There are also 20 blank caps for folks to exercise their creativity and make their own additions. Included along with the caps in a zip-lock bag is a resource guide for parents and teachers that provides some sample, basic ideas and serves as inspiration for creating endless activities.

    Kits are collected from those who volunteer their time and energy to create them then distributed to schools, literacy programs, domestic violence shelters and even Costa Rica and other locations in South America. They’re great learning tools for places with minimal resources; and even for those with extensive resources, the vast possibilities for educational activities bolsters children’s creativity. From matching shapes and sorting consonants from vowels to engaging in imaginative play with pretend money and using caps as problem-solving tools when learning basic number sentences, the caps can be utilized in myriad subject areas.

    With something so easy make, it’s hard to resist the urge to make a kit for your own child or student.

    Here’s a picture from when representatives from West Chester University visited campus to meet our students and collect the kits.
    Students and WCU Representatives  
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  • Benefits That Extend Beyond Five Weeks: How Summer Voyagers Is More Than Summer School

    Posted by at 8/11/2014
    August 11, 2014
    As I sit to write this blog I am reminded we all need a little help with executive function skills. Staying focused certainly is challenging at any age. Phones ringing, e-mails coming in, coworkers popping over to ask a quick question – the deluge of distractions feels never ending.

    Good thing I was listening actively when I recently visited Summer Voyagers, Summer Matters’ academic summer camp for children ages 5-12. For the teachers and therapists imparted some key strategies for sticking to the task at hand.

       Listen carefully. Follow directions. They’ll only be given once.
          Eyes on teacher. Still bodies. Quiet mouths.
             Earn points. Earn reward. Color a picture that definitely will be fridge-worthy.

    Children who attend Summer Voyagers are those who may meet or exceed age-appropriate expectations for cognitive abilities and academic performance in most subject areas. They enjoy success in traditional private and public educational settings and benefit from our five-week summer program.

    They are bright. Motivated. Bundles of energy. Beacons of all things possible.

       They may struggle. In one or more academic areas. With social or communication skills.

          With executive function skills.

       Or have a diagnosed learning difference such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, language processing disorder, non-verbal learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder or sensory processing disorder.

    They have the potential to succeed. At school. In life. With whatever they choose to pursue.

       So Summer Voyagers is there to arm them with the critical tools to help them achieve.

    Summer Voyagers leverages each child’s particular strengths to his or her advantage through differentiated instruction in everything from reading and math to language arts and written expression. Classes are small, allowing elementary and special-education teachers to concentrate on each student’s abilities and needs. Children learn at different paces. Tailored is not a word lost on the staff of Summer Voyagers.

    Because it is unique to academic summer camps, it is worthwhile to highlight the integrated speech-language and occupational therapy.

    Speech-language pathologists push into classes to support listening comprehension, expression and using language for social interactions. One day, a speech-language pathologist from The Vanguard School taught a language-arts class. The topic at hand was emotions. Discerning how others felt. Being able to express how you feel. Understanding the types of actions associated with an emotion on a flashcard. Demonstrating emotions with body language. Taking turns modeling emotions in accordance with the speech-language pathologist’s instructions.

    In addition to the academic component, myriad opportunities exist to develop skills like thinking ahead, flexibility, resilience, minimizing clutter and impulse control. For 20 minutes each morning, there is a class on learning tricks. Children practice utilizing their learning styles to their benefit, sound study habits and organization skills. They learn to self-regulate their behavior. So they can finish homework independently. Or complete a project and meet a deadline.

          Keep track of time. Finish work on time.
          Chart a course.
          Make a checklist.
          Use visuals.
          Ask for help when needed.

    Occupational therapists work with teachers to support students’ attention, regulation, fine motor and organization and planning skills. The morning I visited, an occupational therapist from The Luma Center taught this session and focused on memory. Look at the friend sitting next to you. Now look away. What color was her shirt? What item of clothing did she have on yesterday that she is not wearing today? Was her hair in pigtails or a pony tail? What else did you notice about your friend?

    Strengthening memory is beneficial to improved executive function. Linking past actions with future results helps in planning and managing time spent working on a project. What worked last time? What impeded my progress? How could challenges have been avoided?

    But it’s not just summer school. Mornings focus on academics. Afternoons allow for socialization and recreation. Karate, yoga, pottery, drumming, community outings and swimming are all on the agenda. Activities promote and reinforce social and motor skills development. And it’s a nice option for busy families who may want to have the ability to send their child for a half- or full-day program.

    Not only is Summer Voyagers integral in guarding against summer learning loss, it imparts invaluable learning strategies and builds academic skill sets in a way that perhaps traditional school-year programs do not. And it builds everything into one day.

    In sum, I utilized some of the best practices for staying on task I learned at Summer Voyagers and completed my project despite interruptions. I made a checklist, built in movement breaks, de-cluttered my workspace, outlined what I wanted to discuss, broke a large project into chunks, set a timer and voila – the blog is complete.
    Summer Voyagers  
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  • Because I’m Happy at the Lower School Gym Show

    Posted by at 4/10/2014
    A day that was a mere dream has arrived. After a grueling winter replete with polar vortexes and nor’easters, I had but the slightest, smallest glimmer of hope that spring would actually rear its head this year. For I felt it would be “2014: The Year Without Spring.” Especially after having snow in the early days of March.
    So, after experiencing such intense weather for several months and hibernating indoors for so long, cabin fever indubitably peaked. It’s time to put away the sweaters and boots and get moving to squeeze into the long-forgotten and far-less-bulky spring-apparel collection.
    Since the spring of 1986, Vanguard’s Lower School has been piggy backing on this active, stir-crazy mindset, producing an Annual Gym Show for the students to have an opportunity to exhibit the physical skill sets they’ve honed over the course of the academic year. What began as a small display in one of the tiny annexes on campus has blossomed into a wondrous production and opportunity for parents to come in and see what their children have learned.
    This year’s Lower School Gym Show was held on Friday, March 28th. After the hubbub from Vanguard’s first-ever musical production, Aladdin Jr., had dissipated a bit, it was a unique chance for parents to witness something distinct from traditional theatrical productions and concerts. While there is cross-curricular collaboration employed in the Lower School Gym Show—e.g., the students made happy faces to use in their “Happy” dance a la Pharell’s song by the same moniker—the emphasis is on having a physical event that highlights the well-rounded education each child receives at The Vanguard School. For as is the case with students of all abilities, maintaining an active lifestyle is essential to sustaining a healthy lifestyle.
    Lower School Gym Show
    Lower School Gym Show 2014 
    For some of our students, it may be harder than others. For instance, intramurals are often not an ideal fit for children with autism, as we recently learned during a presentation about the link between autism and weight-related issues. From being teased for the use of coping mechanisms or persistent topics of conversation to motor-skills limitations and behavior issues, many aspects of team sports impede the full participation and enjoyment of children with autism.
    How nice it was for the students to have an opportunity to do everything from cooperative fitness challenges to group juggling in a warm, familiar setting. And to display their team-oriented skills and enjoyment engaging in them for their parents.
    The students were able to showcase a wide range of activities that day:
    • Maneuvering a tricky obstacle course
    • Skipping, leaping, hopping and sliding in sequence, exhibiting sound locomotor movement skills
    • Participating in cooperative fitness challenges including partner sit-up throw and catch and group jumping jacks
    • Displaying skills acquired in gymnastics club such as walking on the balance beam and performing partner forward rolls
    • Competing in Olympic-style bobsled races
    In the end, it seemed parents, staff and students on the side lines were Happiest to see the students exhibiting their skills Happily.
    A very extra special thank you to Mrs. Cary Hunter for organizing such an amazing presentation, and to all the staff whose work facilitated a superb experience for everyone involved.
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  • Flashback Friday: The Beginning of Our Post-Graduate Program

    Posted by at 3/26/2014

    Blast from the past 28 years ago, Jacque Murray, now Program Supervisor in the Vanguard Transition Center, remarked that the program received support “beyond our wildest dreams.” Certainly, that statement still applies to the program in its current form. What started as a small, post-graduate program with 13 students  enrolled in the pilot year, 1986, has blossomed into The Vanguard Transition Center: a program for young adults, ages 18-21, that serves 55 students and affords myriad work-study and other learning opportunities. Classes in current events, healthy lifestyles and human social development are offered to all students, along with community-based activities and recreational opportunities.

    And Mrs. Murray is still at the helm of The VTC nearly three decades later, acting as its Program Supervisor. She is committed to ensuring young adults in need of additional education and critical life and job skills development receive the best services and opportunities possible.

    Also pictured below is Jim Kane, who acted as the Adjustment Counselor in the beginning stages of the post-graduate program, and Ty Morgan, a beloved, long-time teacher at The Vanguard School consistently lauded for his contributions to the academic community and commitment to upholding ethical standards. Plaques commemorating Mr. Morgan’s efforts continue to hang in the Jarmon and Activities Centers here on campus.

    Read on for a trip down memory lane.

    Vanguard Inaugurates Post Graduate Program  
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  • Eating Pretzels. Employing Students. Enjoying Happier Fridays.

    Posted by at 2/25/2014
    Fridays are glorious for manifold reasons. For many, it is the most beloved day of the week.
    Fridays have always been special for me for the most-cited reasons. For one, the antithesis of Monday, Fridays hail the end of the work/school week and usher in two much-needed days of rest. Furthermore—perhaps in gleeful anticipation of the weekend—Fridays seem to inject a bit of energy and oomph that was lacking Monday through Thursday. In addition, I am fortunate enough to work for an organization that supports Casual Fridays. A most-glorious respite from professional garb, I get to sport denim on Fridays!
    And now, my new favorite reason of all: soft pretzels! Salty, carb-laden hugs for my stomach delivered by the smiling students of The Vanguard School. Yellow mustard permanently resides in my desk drawer just for my special delivery one day a week. I always say I get ample to share, but never spread the love. They’re irresistible. When they’re all gone, a tear drops from my eye. Okay, that was an exaggeration. But it isn’t the happiest moment of the day.
    Second happiest moment of the day: waking up and realizing “Oh, it’s Friday, I get to wear jeans,” then transitioning to the even more glorious cognizance that “Hurray, it’s Friday, it’s soft pretzel day.” Supremely ecstatic moment: when the door to my annex opens and I physically receive a brown paper bag with my name on it containing my bounty by a *student*.
    After all, the program is designed to bolster vocational skills and provide invaluable opportunities to demonstrate initiative, organization, congeniality and responsibility.
    The program is really, truly very encompassing and beneficial for the development of our students’ job and daily living skills. Teresa McNulty Hight, a Classroom Teacher in the High School who oversees the program, recently said, “There’s a lot involved in it, much that I even take for granted at this point.” Well put.
    But let’s take a stab at cataloging the program’s assets, shall we? The students in The Pretzel Program are responsible for…
    • Following directions and making sound, prudent decisions.
    • Distributing order forms to staff mailboxes and filing completed forms.
    • Demonstrating effective communication skills by taking orders on campus via phone and calling the Pretzel Factory to place orders.
    • Reading and fulfilling pretzel orders based on order forms and writing the names of recipients clearly on the paper bags.
    • Taking on the duty of delivering pretzels, especially to the Lower School (FYI, if you didn’t know, our campus is situated on 28 acres).
    • Logically planning delivery routes and grouping orders in accordance to ensure maximum efficiency.
    • Determining how much to sell the pretzels for in order to make a worthwhile profit.
    • Demonstrating money management skills by accurately making change and totaling sales.
    • Completing forms for and depositing money with VFES’ Business Office.
    • (My favorite) Employing sound customer-service and people skills, e.g., maintaining eye contact, being polite and ultimately ensuring the customer is happy.
    Thus, by consuming mass amounts of pretzels every Friday, I’m really helping the students develop an amazing set of skills they can take with them and apply outside academia. Yeah, that sounds like a good justification.
    So, if you haven’t ever put in an order for soft pretzels, contact Teresa. You don’t know what you’re missing. And when you obtain and consume your first order, you’ll wonder how you ever survived sans Pretzel Fridays. They also deliver on Tuesdays if you really think you’re worth it! (I am not worth it, so I’m relegated to a standing order on Fridays only.)
    If you’re not a member of our VFES community, then my heart goes out to you. Let shades of jealous rage commence. Perhaps you should join our team. Or institute your own Pretzel Friday. But it won’t be the same, because the students are the fundamental component of the greatness that is Pretzel Friday.
    When I think about what this wonderful winter has been bestowed upon us, I think the worst thing about all the snow this year… I missed many a Pretzel Friday.
    Fun fact according to “While the rest of the country crunches on petrified hard pretzels at the rate of 1-1/2 to 2 pounds a year, the happy-toothed Philadelphian will generally consume about 12 times that amount annually.”

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  • The Inherent Value of Laughing and Learning at Summer Camp

    Posted by at 1/28/2014
    “Learning” at summer camp is invaluable, intrinsically and incomparably.
    Summer L.I.F.E. is not confined to a classroom. Or a class. And while the days may be scheduled, time feels less inhibited. The best-of-the-best summer camps provide an environment that innately affords more opportunities to push boundaries, step outside one’s comfort zone and try things one never thought possible before.
    More vivacity. More fun.
    The “why” of it is multifaceted, as are the experiences of the campers.
    First and foremost, shall we list the activities? Rock climbing, river rafting and ziplining are all thrilling expenditures that inspire an explorative mindset. The rush that comes from trying something new is invigorating. The feeling snowballs, and all of a sudden previously apprehensive campers are trying new things at an increasing rate.

    Experiential learning is extremely impactful.
    But you still have to find the right fit for each individual camper. That is really the key to ensuring that an amazing summer experience is had by a camper. How apt to say, “if the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t wear it.”
    So, naturally, we’re going to do it right. At Summer Matters, we have a continuum of programming designed to serve campers with special needs. And we’re not afraid to shuffle things around a bit to match the right activities, the right staff members, the right opportunities to each camper to foster growth of emotional, social, life and leisure skills.
    And it certainly doesn’t hurt to be amongst campers who share similar triumphs and roadblocks; it is very comforting and inspiring. Campers and parents consistently cite newfound friends as a top reason for returning year after year.
    Plus, fundamentally and importantly, summer camp is essential in guarding against summer learning loss and skills regression. Thus, it serves as the perfect jump start for the upcoming academic year. Especially crucial for children and young adults with learning challenges. Recent research consistently reveals that summer programs are particularly beneficial for those with special needs.
    From development of social and life skills to simply experiencing opportunities to have fun and make new friends, there are not enough good things you could say about camp. When you really get down to it, it’s not the “whys” that are important; it’s the “why nots.”
    The parents of one of our campers reported just that: “The daily rigors of school can be tough for a kid with Asperger’s. Looking for the right summer camp where our son could be himself and just enjoy being a kid was very important to our family… His first day, he immediately started making connections with the other boys in the cabin. The Director of Summer Matters sent us a picture when he accomplished making it all the way to the top of the rock climbing wall! He tried something different every day, which opened his mind to new experiences and unfamiliar situations… Summer Matters helped to build his self-confidence and independence in a fun, engaging way. These kids built friendships and learned new skills just how every kid does or should. Not by books, lessons or class work, but by getting outside and working together with the ultimate goal of having fun.”
    The Inherent Value of Laughing and Learning at Summer Camp
    From canoeing and crafting to building self confidence and making friends, summer camp has it all. 
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  • Knowledge is Power and Oh, So Much More: The Wondrous WORC Program

    Posted by at 1/7/2014

    Students Using the Esteemed Ellison in All Its Glory

    One learns something new every day. Or at least that’s the theory.

    However, when it comes to VFES, it is more of a practice than theory. And no one is exempt from getting schooled on a daily basis. Whether staff or students, knowledge is forever burgeoning here.
    During a recent visit to the Work Orientation Readiness Center (WORC) on campus, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a talented Occupational Therapist, two ambitious students and the glorious Ellison machine, a curriculum-based, shape-cutting device. It allows the students to cut perfect letters, numbers and myriad shapes quickly (and safely) by simply pulling a lever. Then craft to their heart’s content to fulfill orders submitted to WORC.
    Everybody loves the Ellison. Voted “one of the top WORC activities” by the two students I visited that. Data entry? Did not seem to resonate with these two students. But they do engage in that, too. From typing weekly lunch menus and daily announcements to collating packets of information for mailings and on-campus events, the students gain valuable vocational and soft skills they can take with them well beyond their academic experience here.
    Work readiness programs are a fundamental component of the VFES educational experience, and align closely with our mission to guide children and young adults to independence and realize their potential as contributing members of the community. And WORC does a lot of work. They design posters for school activities; copy, count and deliver flyers; bind books and laminate paper products; assemble table favors; and the list goes on. By equipping students with experience in these high-demand areas, they are better prepared to handle and succeed at a wide range of jobs when they enter the workforce after (or before, really) graduation.
    And the range and breadth of the WORC jobs allow each student to discover and hone skill sets that best align with their individual needs, strengths and interests. Of course, few working professionals enjoy every aspect of their job, so students are required to perform duties they like and aren’t particularly fond of, regardless. What an invaluable, unavoidable lesson in life!
    Above all, though, the most brilliant benefit of the VFES experience that WORC highlights is just how comprehensive our programs and services are. Each incorporates many elements and lessons into a one-stop-shop of sorts. No need to venture elsewhere for occupational or speech-language therapies. Vocational and academic skills are strengthened through the same series of activities. Reading order forms for and cutting out shapes using the Ellison machine with a team member fosters productive teamwork, effective communication and sound decision-making while building professional etiquette.
    (Almost) No job is too big for WORC. Just like so very many other programs on campus, it’s extensive, all-inclusive and, of course, educational.
    Creating the Weekly Lunch Menu is a Team Effort  
    Creating the Weekly Lunch Menu is a Team Effort: One Reads. One Types.
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  • Meet Edmundo Morales: Vanguard Classroom Aide in 1st year

    Posted by at 12/23/2013

    Edmundo Morales Birthday: October 16

    Vanguard Classroom Aide in 1st year
    My role at VFES: “I’m an aide in the High School program. At times, I work directly with students. Other times, I make myself useful in keeping things organized (from scheduling field trips to researching future assignments). Either way, I try to immerse myself in whatever task I’m doing.”

    Teaching Philosophy in a Nutshell… Inclusive, Reflective, Constructive, Functional, Freethinking
    Turning Lemons into Lemonade: “I tend to be hard on myself when I make mistakes. However, I’ve learned if rational thinking is genuinely attempted, nearly every error is forgivable. Applying that lesson to others helps create a safe and accepting environment.”
    My job is awesome because… “The people I’ve met here are amazing. The kids are endearing, bright and hilarious. I also get to work with an amazing staff that’s always supportive.”
    Favorite word = Resilience
    Least favorite word = Literally (when used incorrectly)
    Kasper Field Trip to QVC
    Ms. Kasper and Mr. Morales' class at QVC where they learned about the professions of business, broadcasting and graphic design. The class also witnessed a live taping. 
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