Restoring Joy in Mudville

Guest Post by Dr. Doug Stilwell, Drake University

In his famous 1888 baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat,” poet Ernest Thayer tells the story of a fictional baseball team known as the “Mudville Nine” and its last-ditch effort to win a ballgame, attempting to come back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning. The success of the team, in the mind of the fans, lay in the hands of Mudville’s star player Casey, who is scheduled to be the fifth batter that inning, but with little hope of getting a chance to bat based on the quality of the four teammates batting ahead of him. But, miracle upon miracle, with two outs in the ninth, two of his teammates make it to base and Casey, in all of his glory, comes to the plate as the potential winning run. As fate would have it, despite his heroic status and after letting two strikes pass by without swinging, Casey swings at the third, and the result is penned in the final poignant stanza of Thayer’s poem:

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

The aim of this paper is to examine and discuss joy in education and while offering “Casey at the Bat” feels like “rounding third” to do so, it offers at its conclusion a keen insight for consideration. In the final line of the poem, Thayer doesn’t close by telling us the Mudville Nine lost the game, although readers certainly infer this outcome. Rather, he highlights the lack of joy in Mudville as a result of Casey striking out and Mudville losing the game. In other words, joy was the outcome hoped for, while winning answered the question, “By what method?”

Before I go any further, let me be clear here about what I mean by “joy.” For the purpose of this writing, I will operationally define it as a sense of deep pleasure attained by the satisfaction of participating in meaningful and purposeful activity. Further, I offer for the readers’ consideration a question that I believe serves as a crucible for all of us in the field of education. It is one with which we should wrestle and reach a conclusion, for our responses to this question, individually and collectively, may reveal fundamental beliefs that drive how our education system has worked, currently works and, most importantly, will work in the future:

  • Do the students and adults in a school deserve to experience joy in their work, whether it is learning, teaching or leading?

I have asked this question of many educators, some of whom are students in our Educational Leadership program at Drake University, and the vast majority (approximately 99%) answer the question to the affirmative. If there is a level of agreement that learning/work should be a joyful experience, as defined here, then the next logical question specifically focused on students may be, “To what degree do students experience joy in their learning?”

In his book Optimize Your School (Corwin Press, 2016) Dr. Lee Jenkins, author, speaker and recognized authority in improving educational outcomes, included research from over 3,000 teachers who were asked the following two questions:

  • “What grade level do you teach?”
  • “What percent of your students love school?”

The sobering results from this survey are presented below in the “Jenkins Curve,” a title bestowed by John Hattie:

The first time I saw these results, I was taken aback, for as a former elementary teacher I assumed students would love their elementary experiences. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. Likely these results are not what we would hope to see as educators and I am afraid that if this survey was shared with the general public, fingers would immediately point in the direction of teachers in order to place blame, which is exactly the wrong conclusion to draw. Over the course of my 40 years in education, I do not know of any teacher who purposely stated that it was his or her intent to drive out children’s joy for learning. Rather, I believe this is a systems issue, not a people problem, for Dr. Deming tells us that approximately 95% of the results produced in a system are a result of the system itself, not the people working in the system. In his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Dr. Peter Senge, American systems scientist, also tells us that in a system, “there is no blame;” for the cause of results, both desirable and undesirable, come from the system in which people work. In short, the rapidly decreasing joy for learning year-by-year, as noted in the Jenkins Curve, is the result of our current system of education.

Unfortunately, simply saying, “The system did it,” not only sounds like an excuse for a lack of high performance to those “outside” the system, but also sounds as though “the system” is some ethereal entity that came into being on its own with the purpose of subjugating those who work within it. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth, for education, as we know it today, is a socio-cultural system developed during the industrial age to prepare students to work in factories. This “factory model” mindset drove and continues to drive schools, and to this day many educational environments still resemble factories; not so much physically, but in the way they function: students come to kindergarten and we “apply” certain parts called learning objectives. They then move to first grade, then second, then third and so on, with each grade level adding its own unique “parts” to prepare students for graduation. In addition to the way schools are structured, and despite new and exciting knowledge developed through research and experience over the years, education is still heavily influenced by the beliefs and mental models from the past. These archaic paradigms have created and continue to perpetuate the educational system that exists today. In short, well-intended people created the system based on the needs, knowledge, and attitudes of the time and to this date, contemporary education and its leaders cannot seem to reach the “escape velocity” necessary to transform our systems to better align with what we now know about learning and motivation and what is needed to prepare our students for a world that has yet to reveal itself.

But, back to the point, exactly how does “the system” destroy joy in learning for students? From his book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (bold added for emphasis), in Chapter 6 entitled, “Management of People,” Dr. Deming identifies what he describes as “forces of destruction” (Deming, 1994, p. 122), those that come from the present style of management and their effects. Take a look and see how many of these forces apply to our world of education:

Based on Dr. Deming’s work and the work of psychologists Drs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, intrinsic motivation and joy appear to be clearly connected, for Deci and Ryan define intrinsic motivation in their article “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions” (2000) as “the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards” (p. 56). Oudeyer and Kaplan, (2017) further reinforce the work of Deming, Deci, and Ryan when they write “People certainly can be motivated externally — by money, or grades in school, or a desire for social approval, for example—but Deci and Ryan say that type of controlled motivation can actually taint a person’s feelings about the basic worth of the project and undermine intrinsic motivation” (Bold added for emphasis). In other words, extrinsic motivation, found so often at work in schools, can actually undermine intrinsic motivation and joy in learning.

Based on the premise that joy in learning is a desirable condition and outcome for students, outside of the work of Dr. Jenkins and the Gallup Student Poll, I have begun to wonder where in our system joy is promoted, reinforced or measured. Using the old saying, “What gets measured gets done,” which connotes “measurement equals importance,” I took a moment to examine the Iowa School Performance Profiles to see what gets measured. The areas of performance in the summary view include:

  • Assessment Participation English/Language Arts
  • Assessment Participation Math
  • Average School Achievement English/Language Arts
  • Average School Achievement Math
  • Conditions for Learning
  • Graduation Rate 4-Years
  • Graduation Rate 5-Years
  • Growth in Reading
  • Growth in Math
  • Percent Proficient English/Language Arts
  • Percent Proficient Math
  • Post-Secondary Readiness Composite
  • Progress toward ELP Composite

Unfortunately, “joy” is nowhere to be found on this summary list or on the “Learning Measures” and “Additional Metrics” lists, although the category “conditions for learning” in the “Learning Measures” list includes adult-student relationships, emotional safety, expectations/boundaries, physical safety, and student-student relationships. Rather, what we find is a list of measures focused mainly on the academic performance of students.

This lack of attention to joy in learning in our public schools, a governmentally created and bureaucratically reinforced system of education, may have serious and long-lasting effects on the children we educate. Are joy and academic achievement at different ends of the educational spectrum? Must they be? What consequences are there, if any, when people, especially children, do not experience the joy that comes from authentic, meaningful, and engaging learning? In a recent discussion with one of my colleagues, Dr. Randy Peters, about this topic, he offered the following regarding the connection between joy and learning: “An area of study that may further link joy and learning is Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Theory, which exhibits the following characteristics: complete and utter immersion in a task, obliviousness to the outside world/focus only on one’s own progress and what’s going on right here and now, doing something you love and losing all track of time. It is one of life’s most enjoyable states of being, helping us be more creative, productive, and happy. How often do students (or teachers or administrators) have such experiences in school in spite of the fact that they appear to impact both joy and success in learning?” These are important concepts to consider.

What systemic structures exist that may thwart “joy in learning?” Two examples may be statewide assessments and the accompanying school and district rating systems intended to display how public schools perform in compliance with requirements of the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). In Iowa, particularly at the elementary level where I spent my time as a teacher and principal, there are multiple assessments in literacy required by the state. I believe these assessments, the results of which are reported to the state, are well-intended, for their purpose is to determine whether students are making adequate progress in reading, something critical to their success. However, I have also wondered, if and when we get all students up to grade level, whether we will have nurtured children’s joy for reading, or if the methods used to move students along will have the opposite effect. With the pressure to meet arbitrary standards in order to avoid the embarrassment and stigma of being ranked at the lower echelon of the state’s school rating system, might educators be influenced to employ methods that result in academic gain but produce a generation of children who may not enjoy reading and think of it merely as a mechanical process whose purpose is to show gains and proficiency on a state and federally required assessment? This is a plausible hypothesis, for based on the book, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon, a “market-based” environment, one that emphasizes competition, may have the potential to wreak havoc on both excellence and ethics.

I can attest to the influence of state testing, the undue stress that can come from arbitrary standards, and the role leadership must play in protecting children from an “achieve at all costs” mindset. The year was 1998 and I was the principal at Phenix Elementary in the West Des Moines Community School District. That year we received the devastating news that we were being designated by the state as a “school in need of assistance” based on our students’ performance on the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. This was demoralizing news for us a school, especially since just two years before Phenix had garnered accolades by earning Iowa’s F.I.N.E. (First in the Nation in Education) award. Worried about the performance of our students and the standing of our school (and my own job security), I remember sitting down with then-Superintendent Dr. Les Omotani to discuss the situation. In a fashion true to his character, I recall Dr. Omotani saying that, while he certainly understood and appreciated my concern, he wasn’t worried to the degree I was. He asked if I had ever experienced undue pressure from central office to produce higher levels of performance. No. He continued saying he believed in our approach, one based on the principles of educating the “whole child” using “learner-centered” methodologies. He then said that if forced, we could find ways to “make” our students “learn” in order to meet the arbitrary standards established by the state. But in so doing, we might make the experience miserable for our students and that was not something he would expect or support. In other words, Dr. Omotani believed, as did I, that that learning should be a joyful experience (“inspiring joy in learning” is still a part of the district’s shared vision) and that working toward high levels of learning does not exclude the need to ensure that joy is a part of the learning equation.

State testing and ranking systems are just two examples of systemic structures that may contribute to a loss of joy in learning for children. There are likely others, including grading, but that is a topic for a different paper. Uncovering and eliminating these structures might lead to the restoration of joy in learning. The challenge here may be that while some of the systemic barriers to joy in learning are self-imposed, others come from the government itself.

Dr. Deming believed that people are entitled to joy in work and that there should be, “a system of education in which pupils from toddlers on up through the university take joy in learning, free from fear of grades and gold stars, and in which teachers take joy in their work, free from fear in ranking” (Deming, p. 62-63). Without this sense of joy and wonder about their learning, students may simply go through the motions of so-called “learning,” doing what’s required/expected of them without a sense of meaning directly connected to their own lives or interests. Even worse, without nurturing joy in learning in the short term, we may be extinguishing the flame of learning in the long term. Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery.

So, let’s begin to think about how to restore joy in “educationville.” This is the work of leadership, whether it be at the classroom, building, or district level; for in his lectures Dr. Deming routinely stated that “Management’s overall aim should be to create a system in which everybody may take joy in their work.” I fear that if we do not heed Dr. Deming’s words, it will be our children who “come to the plate and strike out.” But rather than pointing fingers at individuals, let’s identify existing structures in our system that lessen joy in learning; eliminating and replacing them with new structures and practices that engender one of the most natural of human tendencies: the desire to learn.

For more information about a leader’s role in educational transformation and the Drake Continual Improvement Network, please contact Dr. Doug Stilwell at doug.stilwell@drake.edu.

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References

Deming, W. (1994. The new economics for industry, government, education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services.

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good work: When excellence and ethics meet. New York: Basic Books

Iowa Department of Education.  (n.d.). User Guide: Iowa Schools Performance Profiles. Retrieved from: https://www.iaschoolperformance.gov/ECP/Home/UserGuide.

Jenkins, L. (2016), Optimize your school: It’s all about the strategy. Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Publishing.

Jenkins, L. (2019). How to create a perfect school: Maintain students’ motivation and love of learning from kindergarten through 12th grade. USA. LtoJ Press.

Oudeyer, P. & Kaplan, F. (2009, November 2). What is intrinsic motivation? A typology of computational approaches. Frontiers on Neurorobotics. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/neuro.12.006.2007/full

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: classic definitions and new directions. Contemp. Educational Psychology. 25, 54–67.

Thayer, E. (1888). Casey at the bat. poets.og. https://poets.org/poem/casey-bat.

13 thoughts on “Restoring Joy in Mudville”

  1. There are many elements at school that take away from joy in the building. Beyond testing requirements; grades, class rank, rigor in course work, college applications and awards fill students’ heads with visions of carrots at the finish. At the high school level students and families strive for these things. It is difficult to divorce a system from the achievements that at least some in the community pursue. I wonder if we can refocus celebrations of such achievements to be centered around the joy learners feel in the process that leads to their achievements. Perhaps celebration should happen earlier in the process to maintain a focus on joy?

  2. Lindsay Swartzendruber

    I appreciate many of the ideas in this article. The quote “Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery,” resonated with me. I especially connect with this as a special educator who often feels like we are pulling students through the system instead of equipping them with the tools to be successful. My career has been spent trying to “close the achievement gap” between students with IEPs and those without. Many times, we try to accomplish this by pulling students away from activities they enjoy, so that they can practice skills that are most likely their least favorite part of school.

    I also connected with the idea that the whole system of education was developed in another time, with a totally different group of students in mind. Students now are coming to school with complex backgrounds and needs. Instead of meeting them where they are at and focusing on creating a safe space for them to thrive, we push them into this system of “how we have done things” without understanding the impact this has on our students, especially the most vulnerable ones.

    Thank you for your post!

  3. Keri Van Polen

    This article was enticing as fall and a new school year is approaching. As students flow through grades K-12 or onward from there, there are many factors that can play into the joy and excitement as they walk through the classroom doors. As I think about the end of August, a new group of students will come to me with curiosity to who I am as a teacher and what the school year may involve throughout this pandemic. Keeping the joy of students at the forefront, I agree, truly helps these students to be successful and start the school year on a positive note.

    In elementary school, students, for all practical purposes, are new in the world of school. They are figuring out the ropes and expectations, who their friends are, what they like to do at recess, and so on. Unfortunately, as Dr. Deming’s graphs indicated, as students get older there tends to be more stress that can be put onto the students, therefore, decreasing the joy and desire to learn.

    I look forward to keeping these insights in mind going forward. This was a great article and a wonderful read!

  4. Emily Barnett

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience with feeling the “pressure” from the state. Feeling this kind of pressure on yourself can’t be enjoyable for yourself. If your feeling under pressure imagine how this feeling or “vibe” transfers to your staff and students. Instead of being so concerned with how the state views you, I think this is a time when sticking to your school’s core values and vision is going to be essential. I think as long as growth is being made and you have evidence to prove it and you are sticking to your core values, than you should be proud of yourself as a leader. Unfortunately, teaching teaching to a test and making reading miserable for students due to new instructional practice or routines which don’t fit with your school’s vision could ultimately be detrimental to your students joy for learning as well as your staff’s joy for teaching.

  5. Natalie Peyton

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I connected with the story you told at the beginning about Joy in Mudville. Obviously the whole town and team wanted to win the game, but they relied only on Casey to win it for them. When he did not succeed, their joy was lost. This connects back to schools in so many ways. I like how you stated that when information gets shared about schools and it states anything in a negative light, the first to be blamed are the teachers. However, there are so many factors in the success in a school. You posed the question on whether teachers and students can find joy in learning and teaching. I agree that students and teachers should be able to enjoy school. However, before graduating college I was warned time and time again about teacher burn out. I did not understand what they meant until I started my first year of teaching. I enjoyed teaching and being in the classroom, but it also was exhausting. I feel that this is the same for students sometimes. Schools have so many responsibilities and tasks they want to accomplish, that sometimes it becomes overwhelming. Teachers start to cram as much as they can in a single school day and if anything gets cut, joy and fun activities are the first to go. Testing is important in schools today, but should not replace the joy of learning. I looked at the Jenkin’s Curve and I went straight to 7th grade (since that is what I teach) and I was not surprised by the number. I wish that so many more students enjoyed school, but I know from my experiences with students that is not always the case. I try my best to find joy in teaching and making sure my students are also finding joy in the classroom. Some days get the best of me and I rush to get everything accomplished and loose track of what really matters. We test students often to make sure they understand the content, but do not always check in with how they are doing mentally and emotionally. You stated in your article how we teach students to read, but do they find joy in reading? I grew up hating science, but now I teach 7th grade science. My main purpose to show my students that they can find joy in science and to give them a better experience than what I had growing up. I’ve had several students state they never used to like science, but I enjoyed my class. I hope to continue this trend and continue to remember to look for joy in teaching.

  6. Mitchell Schank

    Seeing the “By what method” really helps understand the situation. Students losing their love of school has become an issue and it is not a teacher issue. We need to look at the educational system and what is bringing the Jenkins curve down. It seems as students are losing their love as school as students are put into more “tell them what to do” content. The students are not getting to explore as much and the content is being given to them. As we look at the system, we need to see where this fault is occurring. It is possibly it is an external versus internal motivation in schools.

  7. The curve of joy of learning is reflected in the mindsets of all in the learning community. If the whole child is educated in the joy of learning all participants in the learning community will be successful. If the education is to be effective, efficient, and purposeful participants must not dread going to school but be excited to learning. The system will always win unless all participants in the system agree to change and an alternate system in place.

  8. This is a critical conversation in education. Historically, our public schools do many things well, but stoking the internal motivation of our students is rarely one of them. I have found this to be the single most challenging aspect of teaching, personally.

    I appreciate the focus here on the “joy” of learning. That’s a wonderful way to describe internal motivation. We seek hard after joy in our human experience, and young people in our K-12 schools are no different. The Jenkins Curve is alarming.

    I’d be a millionaire if I had the silver-bullet answer. There are so many moving parts to this crisis, and that’s why it’s so difficult to problem solve. But when I look at my own classroom and my time as a high school history teacher, I know I made an impact with reluctant learners–for the Jenkins Curve quantifies what every high school teacher already knows…the majority of my students are already “over” school–through relationships. There is joy to be found in relationship, and the teaching-learning process is founded on relationship. It’s a big step in the right direction.

  9. Charissa Stanley

    This post is both eye opening as a teacher, and put into perspective my thoughts around my teaching career as a math and language arts teacher. As I was working towards my degree to become a teacher I had told family and friends I wanted to work with younger students because they still had a joy for learning. This post seems to prove my claim correct. I didn’t end up following through with what I told my family I wanted. After I received my degree I became a middle school teacher, which according to Jenkins Curve is part of the lowest point on the graph. I felt that I could make a difference in my students thoughts of school. As a language arts/math teacher I was however quickly halted in the plan of changing the students thoughts about school with the testing expected for the students. They were required to take three assessments, plus the state assessments each year. Additionally the students needed to show growth on the assessments or they would be “placed” in remedial classes. I was in a rut to find a way to keep the promise to myself as changing the students hearts of learning, but still teaching the kids so they could achieve for the tests.

  10. Kendall Van Woerkom

    As I read this piece, the thoughts at the forefront of my mind were, “How does my joy, or lack of joy, in my classroom as the teacher impact my students’ joy in learning?” and “What am I doing to ignite the joy of learning in my students, despite everything in the system working to take their joy in learning?”
    In my own classroom, in terms of joy, I see the direct correlation between my joy and excitement about what we’re doing in class, be it the lesson, the objective, the unit, etc. and my students’ joy in learning. When I go above and beyond to engage students in an activity, and am filled with joy about their learning, I see my students’ joy and excitement about learning grow. However, when I feel that what we’re doing in class is monotonous, students realize that, which takes the joy out of it for them, because if I’m not excited, why should they be?
    As stated in the article, though, it takes more than joyful teachers to restore students’ joy in education; it takes a system wide shift. And since I can’t control the whole system of education, in my classroom, I work to find ways to spark joy in learning for my students. I think that students find joy in learning when it is tailored to students as individuals. Which, to me, makes sense, because everything we know that steals the joy of learning from students (standardized testing, achievement rates, graduation rates) looks at students as a whole entity, or as a part of a grade level, part of a specific race, part of a specific gender, not as individuals. When I give my students the change to be seen as individuals, I see them thrive. For example, I utilized project based learning (loosely) twice in my classroom, dedicating weeks at a time for students to solve problems and come up with solutions, in order to reach a learning target, and both times I was floored at the invested, creative, vibrant learners I had in my classroom–ones that in some cases, I hadn’t experienced before. In the PBL setting, as opposed to a quiz, or an assigned reading, students were able to navigate learning in a way that made sense to THEM as an individual, not to me as their teacher trying to create a one size fits all version of learning for a class-full of unique students.
    All that to be said, after reading this article, I am inspired to find more ways to foster joy of learning in my students. I am inspired to fight back against the system that says there’s only room for standards and learning targets and standardized testing, and joy has to find a place fit within the cracks of that in the system of education. I want joy in learning to be the forefront of everything, because if my students find joy in learning, chances are the rest will follow!

  11. Lindsay Swartzendruber

    I appreciate many of the ideas in this article. The quote “Learning, something we are designed to do by nature, is far too important to be perceived as drudgery,” resonated with me. I especially connect with this as a special educator who often feels like we are pulling students through the system instead of equipping them with the tools to be successful. My career has been spent trying to “close the achievement gap” between students with IEPs and those without. Many times, we try to accomplish this by pulling students away from activities they enjoy, so that they can practice skills that are most likely their least favorite part of school.

    I also connected with the idea that the whole system of education was developed in another time, with a totally different group of students in mind. Students now are coming to school with complex backgrounds and needs. Instead of meeting them where they are at and focusing on creating a safe space for them to thrive, we push them into this system of “how we have done things” without understanding the impact this has on our students, especially the most vulnerable ones.

    Thank you for the article!

  12. The way joy is defined in the third paragraph, all teachers should be experiencing joy. We all participate in “meaningful and purposeful activity.” As many people know, teachers are not always experiencing joy. I also really think that this joy decreases as we go on in schooling. I feel like it is much higher for a kindergarten student that a high school student, confirmed with the Jenkins research. What is happening in our schooling to take away this joy? I teach 9th grade, and it is absolutely no surprise to me that Jenkin’s found only 37% of students love school. With the variety of schools and teachers surveyed, it is almost impossible to blame teachers. Are students losing motivation as they go along in school? Suddenly the extrinsic motivation is not enough for them. State testing gives students no joy in my opinion. They see no purpose in it, so if we are defining joy as participating in purposeful activity then we must show students how to find purpose in learning. Finding purpose will help increase intrinsic motivation. I also think there is less ranking of teachers. I always feel the teachers receiving praise are ones that are phenomenal at building relationships with their students; it no longer has to do with teachers who receive high test scores.

  13. Reading this article and looking at the survey results was very eye opening. As a 2nd grade teacher, the first greater decrease in “joy in the classroom” happens at my grade level. If we want students to become lifelong learners, there needs to be a greater enjoyment of learning. This “joy” (or lack thereof) roots from all levels of the education system, and trickles down to be seen in the classroom. From being a student myself, and now teaching students of my own, I believe students need to constantly feel motivated and responsible for the learning they’re doing, and supported along the way. The motivation piece comes from the voice in choice in learning, and they feel responsible for their learning when they’re taught to feel proud of the work they’re engaging in. Half way through the school year, our school asks students to fill out a survey asking them a variety of questions regarding their feelings about school, their teacher, and their building leadership. I would like to see our school take the next step with this data and look for ways to improve the different areas, or further investigate what it is that specifically starts to give students negative feelings about school.

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