Professional Conversations to Enhance Reading Research Understandings

Pam Govertsen-Kahn, Middletown Public Schools

Jill Pilon, East Farms School, Farmington, CT

Statement of Purpose

In the Spring of 2004, we took the graduate course, Design, Management and Supervision of Reading Programs at the University of Connecticut. The class was small and discussion was intimate and dynamic. Along with our classmates, we enjoyed the high-level professional conversation so much that we were sad to see the course come to an end. Wishing to continue our dialogue and our shared love of literacy, the idea of continuing to meet as a professional study group was born.

Review of the Literature

How did study groups as a form of professional development emerge? In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s Report, A Nation at Risk, reported that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” No Child Left Behind grew out of the many policy legislations since the 1983 report. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education’s No Child Left Behind: A Desktop Reference, this legislation claims to embody four key principles necessary to address the issues of inequity in public education. The title of the Act comes from President Bush’s statement that “too many of our neediest children are being left behind.”

One of these principles places an emphasis on improving instruction through the use of teaching methods that have been demonstrated to work. This directive has resulted in the mandate for today’s teachers to use scientifically proven, research-based practices, methodologies, and programs. The need for teachers to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to do this has led to reform in professional development practices.

Educators are encouraged to become life-long learners who continually examine their own knowledge and practice in an effort to educate their pupils to meet the demands of an ever more complex world. Wald and Castleberry (2000) wrote:

We need schools that prepare our learners to lead productive lives in this complex, high-tech, and fast-changing world – schools that are responsive, fluid, and adaptive to emerging needs and opportunities. The next generation of schools must have the capacity for continuous renewal. We must have an ethos that values lifelong learning for staff and families, as well as students.

Much has been written recently about the relative ineffectiveness of traditional professional development methods, which consisted largely of “one shot workshops or training opportunities without follow-up or immediate relevance to teacher needs” (CLASP Consulting 2002). Teachers would listen to the ideas and return to their classrooms relying only on their own interpretation of the information. “One of the most formidable obstacles a school will face in attempting to function as a professional learning community is the tradition of teacher isolation … ” (Dufour, 1999). On the other hand, Eastwood and Louis (1992) found that the most important factor in the success of school initiatives is the presence of a collaborative environment, one in which educators become involved in collective inquiry and reflective dialogue. In the last chapter of Living Between the Lines (2001), Lucy Calkins and Shelley Harwayne state, “If we as teachers are going to nurture our souls, we need each other.” (Robb, 2000, p. 82)

Lyons and Pinnell (2001) have developed a list of Characteristics of Systems for Extending Learning, a clear intent of NCLB. These include:

  • The responsibility for learning is shared.
  • There is a commitment to ongoing learning.
  • Learning is grounded in the work of students and teachers.
  • Learning takes place in an atmosphere of inquiry.
  • Learning is accomplished through conversation.
  • Data are used for practical purposes.
  • Communication takes place within and beyond the community

One research-based professional development model that meets the requirements of NCLB is the professional study group. This model was one of the “core propositions advanced by the National Board of Teaching Standards” in 1989 (CLASP Consulting, 2002). It is “more likely to lead to sustained change in classrooms than other staff development models” (Allen, 2006-07) and to create a common vision (Sweeney, 2003). According to Garet, Porter et al (2001 ), the format of a study group meets the criteria of an effective reform-based professional development model. It accomplishes this by its definition – a group that meets over an extended time to enhance the group’s understanding of a specific subject or subjects. According to this study:

… our results indicate that sustained and intensive professional development is more likely to have an impact, as reported by teachers, than in shorter professional development. Our results also indicate that professional development that focuses on academic subject matter (content), gives teachers opportunities for “hands-on” work (active learning), and is integrated into the daily life of the school (coherence), is more likely to produce enhanced knowledge and skills.

Further support for the power of cooperative, collegial learning was noted by Garry and Graham (2004, reporting on the work of Porter et al. 2000) with this list of common elements of effective professional development, all of which are characteristics of study groups:

  • A focus on higher-order teaching strategies
  • Use of a reform type (e.g., teacher study groups or networks) as opposed to isolated workshops
  • lnclusion of opportunities for active learning
  • Direct connections between teachers’ goals and the focus of the professional development
  • Grouping of teachers from the same subject area, grade level, or school

Robb (2000, p. 83) has suggested a few additional elements particular to study groups which render them valued tools for improvement in our profession. These include participant control of the curriculum and meeting times, focus on teacher needs (not administrator needs), and inquiry as the force driving the curriculum.

What is the Purpose of a Study Group?

Why should educators spend professional time together in study groups? There are three major reasons. Study groups help us implement curricular and instructional objectives, collaboratively plan school improvement, and study research on teaching and learning (Fisher using the work of Murphy, 1992).

Study groups typically form when a small group of teachers want to focus on a common issue or concern. Bean ( 2004) stated “When teachers are involved in an activity that is especially meaningful to them, they become more engaged in the process and are generally more willing to apply what they are learning to their classroom practices. Participation in a study group puts teachers in charge of their own learning … ” They meet together in order to collaboratively build meaning and problem solve about a common issue. Usually they do so with the goal of improving the quality of instruction in their classrooms through inquiry methods of learning. These groups provide opportunities for teachers to share their expertise, diverse perspectives, and support. Often they turn to sources other than themselves to study collaboratively – the diversity of their perceptions and experiences directly expands the knowledge of their subject for all the study group members, by adding depth and dimensions of understanding that they may not have thought of independently -thus helping to build and expand upon new learning.

In this era of reform initiatives legislated by policy makers, but not necessarily supported by funding, the study group model may seem particularly appealing to schools as a form of professional development because it is relatively inexpensive. Facilitation depends upon the expertise of staff within the school’s culture, thus avoiding the costs of hiring outside consultants. Study groups lend themselves to enduring, well-attended professional development because of the convenience of meeting in the work place. These sessions are easily accessible to the teachers, administrators, parents, and specialists working within the school, affording an avenue of communication among these subgroups. Teachers accumulate knowledge about best practices and integrate them immediately into daily work with children. Magnification of improved student learning is achieved as teachers model and discuss new insight with colleagues and parents. The ongoing inquiry, integration into practice, reflection, and modification operate in the cyclical manner which results in continuous improvement in schools.

Thus, if study groups are to be valued as a substantial response to the drive for educational enhancement, they need be developed and executed following a somewhat precise, research-based structure that has been proven to be effective.

How Should Study Groups Be Structured?

The structure for study groups referred to in this paper comes from the work of Adam Garry and Parry Graham (2004). Although their work centered on professional development for dissemination of technology best practices, their structural foundations for study groups hold true for the study of any other topic.

Garry and Graham state that for any professional development activity to be effective the activity must center on the study of an area of need directly related to curriculum and student learning. Therefore, the first order of business for a study group is to establish its focus. In fact, a study group usually grows out of a problem that needs to be addressed by a group of people related in some cohesive way (i.e. grade level teachers; classroom teachers, special education providers and reading specialists; or district administrators, principals, and head teachers).

When the participants have agreed to form a group they next need to establish the basic ground rules, which Garry and Graham label, “The Initial Framework for Understanding.” This stage is where the group takes care of the group norms. Some conventions to consider might be who will be included in the group (Fountas and Pinnell suggest that groups of 5 to 7 people work best, 2001, p. 17 4); where and when meetings will take place, and how long they will last; who will facilitate the group; what material/topics will be studied; what the expectations for participation will involve. These expectations should include clear commitment to attend regularly, read chapters, and/or try strategies in the classroom. “As with any group, study groups create their own culture, and when ground rules are established and agreedon early in the process, it is more likely that the study group will reach its goal.” (Vogt and Shearer, 2003).

The person who is selected as facilitator should be someone who is willing to take risks, has experience and expertise in a specific topic, and has the self-disciplin e to observe and guide participants (Robb, 2000, p. 87). Farr {2004, p. 88) has found that the sharing of power is key to the success of collaborative relationships. A facilitator should view himself as an equal in the learning process, and not as an authority. Further, Farr states that for study groups to maintain continuity, it is essential for a facilitator to provide a skeletal framework for the group, and the group must trust that this role will continue. A facilitator should consider the following suggestions offered by Laura Robb (2000, p. 88):

  1. Begin the meeting on time and follow the agenda or plan negotiated with participants at the previous meeting.
  2. Read the notes you took from the last meeting to refresh participants’ minds.
  3. Invite participants to share a mini-lesson, how a reading or writing strategy worked in their classroom, and so on.
  4. Keep the discussion going with these questions: Does anyone have something to add? Does anyone have a different perspective? Can you offer research that supports this idea? Can you show us and interpret students’ work? Can you elaborate on that idea? Can you clarify that point with an example from your classroom or from professional reading?
  5. Encourage members to link and adapt theory, demonstrations, and discussions to their classrooms.
  6. Help resolve heated disagreements by repeating the salient points each side raised and pointing out that diverse ideas can coexist.
  7. Negotiate assignments for participants and the agenda for the next study group.
  8. Write up the high points after the meeting on notebook paper or on forms your school has developed. Distribute these to appropriate persons.

Jennifer Allen (2006) also suggests that resources should be organized ahead of time and that meetings should be held in a relaxed environment with healthful snacks available.

The next stage “Analysis/Application,”s also from Garry and Graham (2004), is when “participants are evaluating new resources or ideas with a critical eye and beginning to make connections to their own classroom objectives and curricula.” This phase of the study group process entails positive group discussion that encourages new learning from considered resources, while allowing for group reflection about ways to use this insight as a catalyst to stimulate improved student achievement. It can also include examination of student work, resulting in suggestions for new instruction methodologies to address particular learning needs.

The final phase of a study group’s journey has to do with coherence to the entire learning community in the form of Reflection. This may be the most important aspect of the study group because it can have profound impact on the professional culture of a school, according to Garry and Graham (2004).

Probably the most important aspect of the study group model is its ability to develop and strengthen professional culture, which increases a school’s capacity for long-term improvement. At the heart of this process is teacher reflection and collegial feedback.

Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman ( 1999) view reflective dialogue as a key agent in “melding the private and the public and of autonomy and interdependence” that exist in the professional communities of our schools. Shared understandings bind educators together, reducing some of the isolation in classroom instruction.


The Initial Framework for Understanding. We met in the summer of 2004 and had a lively discussion about possible study group topics and potential members. After choosing a date and location for our first meeting, we decided to invite our UCONN classmates and encouraged them to invite two or three colleagues with an interest in literacy research, instruction, and leadership. One aspect of our project that appeared to differ from study groups that had been discussed in the literature was that group members were not all employed by a single school district; rather we represented five districts and a university in the Greater Hartford area (Farmington, Middletown, Waterford, West Hartford, Wethersfield, and University of Connecticut). Core participants included a graduate student, two classroom teachers, one Reading Recovery teacher, one teacher/literacy coach, one reading specialist, two reading consultants, one curriculum specialist for professional learning, two principals, and one university professor. On occasion other professionals joined us when our topic was of personal interest. We were hopeful that this inter-district project could lead to learning that might influence practice beyond the scope of our individual systems.

We prepared a Needs Survey. We included topics and materials that had piqued our own interest during our coursework at UCONN or that we had simply heard about from other language arts professionals. Wanting to serve as effective facilitators who keep a group on task, we also created a simple agenda and a study guide. Full establishment of further ground rules had to wait until the first study group meeting in order to negotiate dates, times, and assignments/readings so that all participants would share ownership of this learning experience.

We met about once per month (seven times) throughout the 2004- 2005 school year. All meetings were held at a centrally located Barnes and Noble Book Store from 6:30 until about 8:00 PM. The following chart summarizes each study group meeting, including summary information about the “big ideas” that the group learned as well as examples of how these ideas were applied in the work setting (see tables on pages 8-11 ).

Analysis/ Application

We met about once per month (seven times) throughout the 2004-2005 school year. All meetings were held at a centrally located Barnes and Noble Book Store from 6:30 until about 8:00 PM. The following chart summarizes each study group meeting, including summary information about the “big ideas” that the group learned as well as examples of how these ideas were applied in the work setting:

Learning That Took Place
Ideas Incorporated into Teaching as a Result of Discussion/Readings
Introduction, Needs Survey, Ground Rules, Book Discussion of Still Learning to Read by Frank Sibberstein and Karen Szymusiak
  • There are 6 cueing systems.
  • Teachers need to model their own reading behaviors and share their own reading lives.
  • Teachers must know who their readers are to help establish goals.
  • Teachers need to have basic knowledge of the reading process before they can transform their instruction.
  • Professional collaboration is a powerful way to improve literacy instruction.
  • Read just use of Reader’s Notebook
  • Improve Reader’s Workshop by incorporating mini-lessons, structured independent reading, guided groups, and debriefing at the end.
  • Organize the classroom library to answer the task and purpose of young readers.
  • Build more knowledge of the literacy process with colleagues.
  • Encourage and participate in collaborative conversation among grade level teammates.
  • Use Still Learning to Read with upper-elementary grade teachers in a study group.
Book Discussion: Still Learning to Read
  • We need to make reading “real” for all readers.
  • Management issues are vital as teachers try new practices.
  • Elements of reader’s workshop can be built upon at every level, not just primary
  • Centers can be used as flexible choices for students during independent reading
  • We need to model “teacher as reader” to help students think about their own processing strategies.
  • We need to teach students how to read at a “just right” speed.
  • Reading response journal can be used to write about the read aloud or guided reading text as well as personal selections.
  • Fix-it strategies need to be taught explicitly.
  • Asking students to use response notebooks to write about read aloud.
  • Plan for focused study of author’s craft during read aloud.
  • Include shared reading as part of the daily reader’s workshop.
  • Helping colleagues understand the 3 types of mini-lessons: management, literary, and strategy.
  • Teaching fix-up strategies explicitly.
  • Choosing “touchstone” texts and organizing them for specific strategy lessons – many were taken from Still Learning to Read.
Book Discussion: Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms by Camille Blachowicz and Peter J. Fisher
  • Discussion is a powerful tool to expand and make ideas memorable.
  • We need to hold children accountable for vocabulary growth by having them use new words in responses and conversation.
  • Vocabulary is integral to literacy development.
  • Purposeful instruction of vocabulary is necessary. Don’t use recipes. Instead analyze what good readers do to learn vocabulary, then teach these strategies.
  • Consider choice, control, collaboration, connections, challenge when deciding what to teach.
  • Motivation is important factor in vocabulary growth – this happens when we are eager to understand hard text.
  • Have a “word of the day”.
  • Thoughtfully anticipate and incorporate vocabulary in planning of book introductions and lessons.
  • Have more discussions that include purposeful use of vocabulary.
  • Teach word study/analysis explicitly.
  • Create a “word rich” school hallway, etc.
  • Continue to incorporate discussion ideas into teacher preparation courses.
  • Have students keep record of interesting words that arise in text that they are reading. Choice of words is up to students.
  • Reading more about vocabulary research.
  • Reading with greater awareness of strategies we use to understand words.
Book Discussion: Writing Essentials by Regie Routman. Discussion topic: “What is Essential in the Teaching of Writing?”
  • Writer’s Workshop approach as advocated by Teacher’s College can be an effective teaching model.
  • Mini-lessons are powerful for teaching writer’s craft if they are brief (10 minutes or less) and allow for active student engagement.
  • Teachers need to model their own writing. They need to consider themselves to be writers and make their work public. They should keep their own writer’s notebook.
  • Teachers could gain confidence in their own writing if they have opportunities to write with their colleagues.
  • Kids need to feel passion about writing.
  • Public conferences are a technique that can be used to teach a skill that is useful for the whole class.
  • Students need to understand and develop their own voice as writers.
  • Content should be the focus in writer’s workshop.
  • Kids need lots of opportunities to “write short”.
  • Conversation is an important pre-writing strategy.
  • Teachers need to require students to use conventions correctly as they write.
  • Topics that we ask students to write about should be authentic and personally significant.
  • Students need to learn strategies for finding a topic.
  • Connections between reading and writing strategies should be made evident.
  • Including a daily mini-lesson during writing instruction.
  • Including a “public conference” often by showcasing a student’s work that shows evidence of application of taught strategies or by helping a student who is having difficulty applying a strategy.
  • Writing in front of the class using the overhead to model and think aloud about the struggle of the writing process.
  • Providing more opportunities for students to “write short” pieces to practice new strategies.
  • Including opportunity to storytell prior to writing.
  • Using rubrics to make convention expectations clear.
  • Having brief writing workshop “interruptions” to remind students to spend a few minutes editing their work before proceeding.
  • Providing direct instruction about how to find topics.
  • Using Read Aloud from Reader’s Workshop to highlight author’s craft that class has been learning in writing workshop.
Book Discussion: What Works in Schools by Robert Marzano
  • Schools have a significant effect on student achievement.
  • An effective teacher is the most important factor in student achievement.
  • Professional development is critical if we want to have highly qualified and informed teachers.
  • Professional development comes in many shapes and forms – study groups such as our is one form.
  • Study groups have been established in our schools to discuss this book as well as Still Learning to Read.
“Field Trip” to hear Robert Marzano speak about his book, What Works in Schools, University of Hartford, CREC Teaching and Learning Book Club
  • Schools account for 20% of the difference in achievement, other 80% is a result of home, background, motivation, etc.
  • School factors that influence achievement include (in rank order): a guaranteed and viable curriculum, challenging goals and effective curriculum, parent communication and involvement, safe and orderly environment, collegial and professional staff.
  • Teacher factors (in no specific order) include instruction strategies, classroom management, classroom curriculum design.
  • It is impossible to implement all of the mandated curriculum in the amount of time we have.
  • Reading comprehension is the only essential curriculum item.
  • Curriculum should be lean and mean.
  • Never use a single test to make high stakes decisions.
  • Students and teachers need feedback every 9 weeks.
  • Expecting “excellence” is not fair, expecting “competence” is fair.
  • Students find satisfaction in being engaged in something that is complex and dynamic, that allows for relationship with other people, and provides for some autonomy in learning.
  • It is important to choose teaching/learning strategies that work for your individual school.
  • Students should be aware of the learning goal of every lesson – “As a result of today’s lesson, you will understand…”
  • Rethinking “excellence” and “competence” when evaluating children’s performance.
  • Considering more effective ways to provide frequent feedback.
  • Planning and including a clear statement of the anticipated learning goal at the beginning of lessons.
  • Being more vigilant about planning effective and appropriate reading comprehension instruction and making it clear to students that this is the most important thing that they can learn in school.
Discussion about Marzano’s presentation and Book Discussion: Classroom Instruction that Works by Robert Marzano
  • It is important to know which instruction strategies have the greatest impact on student learning – don’t waste time.
  • Summarizing is one of the most important skills that students need to learn.
  • Explicitly engaging students in the creation of non-linguistic representations leads to improved learning because they stimulate increased activity in the brain. Examples include graphic organizers, physical models, creating mental pictures, drawing pictures, kinesthetic activities.
  • Preparing a jigsaw reading activity to help staff efficiently read several chapters and to discuss this book



Following each of the first few sessions, we asked group members to complete a formal reflection form. Afterwards we, as facilitators, prepared and distributed minutes by email that summarized our new learning and how these understandings would be implemented in our teaching, coaching, or professional development practices. At the conclusion of each meeting, we saved a few minutes to agree on a focus for the next meeting. As the group became more intimate, structures relaxed as we discovered that outcomes wouldn’t always be immediately apparent. Over time our group processes became more fluid, and we found less need for official documentation.

During the 2006-2007 school year, we reconvened and quickly noticed that the interests of our group had taken a new direction. Once again we all completed a needs survey which indicated a desire to concentrate on leadership issues. These texts were springboards for our monthly inquiry/research and reflective discussions:

Literacy Coaching, The Essentials by Katherine Casey
Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen
Sustainable Leadership by Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink
Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell
Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston

Highlights from this second year of working together included these deepened understandings:

  • Teaching students to label their comprehension strategies is not an important teaching focus. Instead, ability to apply these strategies independently is essential.
  • Teachers should understand the power of reciprocal conversation when conferring with students.
  • Reading and discussing professional literature together allows learners to make meaningful connections across texts and theories.
  • Having commonly understood terminology for literacy ideas helps develop shared conceptualizations.
  • Participation in literacy study groups enables administrators to deepen their knowledge of theory and to identify resources that will help teachers improve the learning of students in their schools.
  • Coaching is a collaborative learning model. It is not supervisory. Shared planning and instruction expands everyone’s repertoire of instructional approaches and improves student learning. Coaches need to apply the gradual release of responsibility model for learning in their work with other professionals.
  • Literacy leaders need to create systems and practice that are sustainable beyond their tenure.
  • Commitment as a member of a study group encourages participants to read texts and discuss topics that might not have been explored independently.
  • A multidisciplinary study group provides the opportunity to consider ideas from differing points of view and promotes respectful non-judgmental listening.
  • Mature study groups are able to encourage professional growth with decreasingly less rigid structures. Groups become less guarded and more willing to take risks in discourse.


In our role as facilitators we learned how to gather participants, schedule meetings, develop study guides, manage time, and collect resources. We also learned how important it is to develop strategies for maintaining group processes that focus discussions. Advantages of our partnership included encouragement to keep on track, shared anticipation of issues, constant clarification· of thinking, and a renewed professional and personal friendship.

We participated in “Instructional Conversations” (Tompkins, 2003), or conversations for the purpose of enhancing our conceptual knowledge of shared interests, as we read and discussed texts related to literacy and instructional practices.

  1. These discussions provided multiple encounters with the vocabulary of our craft, embedding the language into our thinking. This has led to an improved ability to conceptualize the knowledge of our profession as we teach and communicate with other education professionals. These conversations also helped to expand our own understanding of topics, while considering various interpretations by colleagues with varying perspectives. Personal connections, experiences, and questions were frequent cause for shifts in thinking. Such sharing of insight deepened the comprehension of each of the study group members in ways that an individual reading of the same text would not have accomplished.
  2. Multiple encounters with ideas based on readings in a relaxed social setting helped conceptualizations become more memorable. The supportive tone of the group encouraged experimentation and application in classrooms.

Our study group was highly successful as a shared learning opportunity. Each of Farr’s (2004, p. 73-98) descriptors of the collaborative process was apparent in our action research. We all placed high value on our meetings and created time in busy schedules to meet. Our learning was focused, but willingness to change direction to address unexpected questions kept us flexible. Because participants genuinely trusted and cared for each other while respecting individual competency, dialogue was open and non-judgmental. Power was shared equally as decisions were made and while conversing. With members representing a variety of literacy perspectives and several school districts, we constantly discussed issues that would impact learning beyond our individual schools, sharing ideas that could improve instruction in our region or state. Perhaps most important -we laughed often together and regarded our study group as an enjoyable method of renewing professional energy.

It is difficult for study group members to maintain commitment when topics are not of personal interest. Perhaps a group of five to seven members as suggested by Fountas and Pinnell would have helped with consistent attendance. It wasn’t possible for us to please all of the original members with chosen topics because of differing priorities for professional growth. A core group who attended the meetings regularly expressed that the experience was better than anticipated, and that it served as an inspiration to keep current with literacy issues.

It was often hard to read an entire text for each meeting. Rexibility to allow continued conversation at a subsequent session proved to be helpful. Rather than planning to read entire books, focusing on only a chapter or two made the task feasible for busy professionals. A jigsaw or similar strategy could also have been used to share the reading preparation ahead of time or at the actual meeting.

The inter-district study group structure created a learning ripple effect. Not only did members learn content, but they also became familiar with this professional development model. They recreated this experience in their local districts, schools, and classrooms – sharing and continuing their own learning while growing the learning of others in their community.

Through our work as an inter-district group, a discourse began about the widely varying resources, curriculum, support programs, staff roles, and student performance among a small urban and several suburban districts.


  • There is ethical potential for the strong collegial bonds that are developed in this inter-district collaborative professional development model to influence improved education at a larger scale. In such a setting, professionals from both high and low performing districts may be able to work together to find ways of equalizing student performance among all districts in an entire region.
  • It might useful to explore ways to use technology to enable study group members from varying districts to converse and enhance understandings of text between scheduled meetings.
  • Extensions of shared study group learning might include focused observations and walk-throughs, peer coaching, and joint lesson study.
  • Continued research about study groups with interdisciplinary membership (professors, administrators, literacy specialists, teachers, graduate students, etc.) is needed to determine their value in the development of collaborative learning communities in educational settings.
  • Further studies that measure the relationship between study groups and improved student performance would be helpful to quantify the utility of this professional development model.


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