Podcast: The Freedom in Reading for Quarantined Kids with Kitty Donohoe

Kitty Donohoe Hero Banner

Photo: Elementary teacher Kitty Donohoe has been teaching for over 30 years.

Today on Teachers in America, we meet Kitty Donohoe, an elementary teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, part of the Santa-Monica Malibu Unified School District in Santa Monica, California. Her debut children’s novel, How to Ride a Dragonfly, will be published by Anne Schwartz Books in the summer of 2023. Follow Kitty on Twitter and Instagram.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, hosted by our Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. I'm Lish Mitchell.

In this episode we meet Kitty Donohoe, elementary teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, part of the Santa-Monica Malibu Unified School District in Santa Monica, California.

Raised in Yosemite Valley, Kitty moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where she received her BA and Master’s in Education. She has looped with her classes for about 20 of the 34 years that she has taught. This means that she is able to teach the same group of students for more than one year. While Kitty believes that developing student relationships is the key to successful teaching, she also finds support by surrounding herself with educator friends and experts, both online and at her school.

Every year, Kitty attends summer institutes at Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She is also an alumni fellow of the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching. A passionate writer, Kitty’s debut children’s novel, How to Ride a Dragonfly, will be published in the summer of 2023.

Now, here are Kitty and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Good morning, Kitty, how are you? I'm so excited that we're getting this chance to meet.

Kitty Donohoe: Good morning Noelle, and I'm very excited to be here. It's my first podcast that I've ever done. Cannot say enough how excited I am.

Kitty Donohoe Read Aloud
Reading books, like Grace Lin's When the Sea Turned to Silver, helped distract Kitty and her students from the worries of Covid.

Noelle: First of all, you teach in Santa Monica, which is one of my favorite places in the country.

Kitty: Is it?

Noelle: I love L.A. and when I'm out in L.A., I love Santa Monica. Did you start your student teaching there and you're still in the same district?

Kitty: That is correct. My school is only a few blocks away from the beach. It is so beautiful there and you're right, it's an incredibly amazing place to teach and a beautiful area to live.

Noelle: In the 30 plus years that you've taught has anything changed within the district? Have you gotten to just see the community change? I mean, you've had that natural beauty of the beach, definitely, but I can imagine over the decades, just the iconic nature of where you live, tell us a little bit about teaching in that environment, the community and what you've seen change over 30 years.

Kitty: Well, one thing I've noticed about my school district is that it's always embraced creativity and innovation, and I'm really grateful for that. What I really like about our district is a lot of us do the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which is led by Lucy Calkins. We use that curriculum so they're really ready to try and embrace very progressive curriculum like that, which I love.

Something else I love about my school and it's become even more so, although it always was, is that it's very international. I have students who either their parents or even themselves were born in another country. Albeit I do have a lot of children who were born in California, but I would say at least half of my class, or more than half, have parents that were born in another country. And this is not unusual, what I have this school year.

It adds a really amazing and deep cultural appreciation in our classroom. We have been doing a lot of work, too and trying to bring books to the classroom that reflect all students so they see themselves in the books we read and they can see other cultures and appreciate that. So I really feel like our district is, I know for sure at my school, really trying hard to raise awareness of not just any one group so that they see themselves in the books and see other people. I'm really thrilled to see that going on in our district.

Kitty Donohoe Quote Cards 1

Noelle: Is there an author, is there a book that you've discovered that your students are just raving about?

Kitty: Well, I have to say last year I did Zoom teaching for a year. Unlike maybe some teachers, I did not feel alone. I was really lucky. And I have always loved Grace Lin so I read to my students on Zoom Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and I was so transported and so were my students by this beautiful book. We felt that we were no longer in a Zoom classroom, but we were on a journey with a little girl in China and her dragon friend.

Usually, I tried to read different authors, which I did in the picture books, but they were begging me to read more Grace Lin. So during the pandemic, I ended up reading all three of her books that are companion pieces to each other. And one of the lines, I'm going to paraphrase it in the book, When the Sea Turned to Silver, the grandmother is in prison. The grandmother in the book is a storyteller and she's thrown in prison and her granddaughter goes on a quest to rescue her.

There's somebody else in prison with the grandmother and he finds out that she's a storyteller. He says, when you are in prison with a storyteller, you are not in prison at all. It really made me think about the metaphor of how, even though so many teachers and children all over the world might have felt really stymied by the fact that we were on Zoom school and we couldn't go and do things that we normally did, the fact that we had stories to transport us made us feel that, just like in that beautiful metaphor in her book, we weren't in prison. Our stories let us travel everywhere. So I feel like Grace Lin got myself and my class through Zoom teaching last year, and I'm forever grateful for that.

Noelle: Oh, I'm going to take that memory to heart. And I'm definitely going to unpack that quote for myself and the work that I do. So thank you so much for sharing that. Kitty, do you come from a family of teachers?

Kitty: That is a really good question. I have a very interesting family background. My great grandparents immigrated from Ireland in the late 1800s and they homesteaded in Yosemite National Park before it was a national park. And there were seven children and even though they were in the wilderness, they made sure that every single one of them, both the men and the women in the family, got a college education. There was a real love of education in my family. Both of my sisters have done teaching and I'm just not surprised I became a teacher because education and language were always really valued in my family, Noelle.

Kitty Donohoe Classroom
Kitty's shares hobbies like writing and illustrating with her elementary students.

Noelle: I'm now trying to picture family photographs of homesteading in Yosemite park. Do you, on the side of education, too, do you have a love of nature and exploring and outdoors because of where your family started here?

Kitty: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, we spoke about how beautiful Santa Monica is, and of course, coming from Yosemite, I was given such an appreciation for nature. So we do have a beautiful patio that goes onto a grassy area. I have a front door and a back door into my classroom, and we have a classroom garden. Sadly with the pandemic, it's gotten a little bit frumpy looking, but I have good intentions to bring it back to its former grandeur.

But we are able, because of the beautiful weather, to go inside and outside a lot. Another author who I love is Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is the illustrator. There's a book called The Lost Words. Both of the creators are from England and this book took into account that so many words of nature were missing from the lexicon and they were being replaced by a lot of technological words. So they did this beautiful poetry book to celebrate nature and some of the profits would go to natural causes. I loop for two years, I have my students for second and third grade, so in the Spring I use that as a mentor task and have the children write nature poetry, and really celebrate the natural world. So that's a lot of work that I do in the Springtime with my students.

Noelle: I want to go back and pick up something that you said, because I think it's important for teachers to do this. You described your garden as frumpy, but you have good intentions of bringing it back. Kitty, that's so important to keep that front of mind because we have a lot going on as teachers. I think sometimes we're always inadvertently putting more pressure on ourselves versus putting it out there that I see it. I know that needs some work and I have intentions to do that and here's when versus allowing yourself to just keep looking at that garden as a reflection of something that you're not doing right. How do you keep such a fresh perspective on yourself and what's happening in the environment?

Kitty: That is a really good question, Noelle and something I've thought about a lot. There's another book I've read by Sara K. Ahmed and it's Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. She had given a talk at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project one time where she said, when life hands you a curriculum. Obviously when the pandemic hit, that was the curriculum. I've heard this from so many educators I admire, the children are the curriculum. Where they are and what their needs are, that is the curriculum.

It's true, teachers do have a lot hoisted upon them. I think what helps me is to always keep my eye on the students. I have to say, even in the height of the pandemic before I was vaccinated and when we were all on Zoom school, that time every day when I was with my second graders, now third graders, I forgot there was a pandemic because their little faces were right in front of me.

One thing that has never changed with all the ups and downs in education is that I love the children so much. If I put my focus on them and as I said, they are the curriculum, and what are their needs, then it all falls into place. Because you're right with my garden, I just love going out there with the students or even by myself to think a little bit when it's lunchtime or something. You could say it is a little reflective of our times. We're just trying so hard to get a balance after everything all of us have been through and I'm so grateful to be in person with the students again. That is just so edifying. I can't even begin to say it. I really think if we always, as teachers, I know for myself, think about the kids, they bring so much joy to my life and that has never, ever stopped. Any stressors in education, it's not the children, and I can honestly say that.

Kitty Donohoe Quote Cards 2

Noelle: I never got to loop, but I'm fascinated by the concept of looping.

Kitty: It's amazing.

Noelle: Talk to us about that. I know it's a concept that teachers understand, but walk us through your process of getting your second grade class and taking them through third grade.

Kitty: Certainly. I've been teaching them for over three decades and I would say more than two thirds of that time I've been looping between second and third grade. I did loop between first and second grade one time also. It's really remarkable because being a teacher and working with people, there's nothing more important than the relationships you build. It doesn't matter what you want to teach the students, if you do not build rapport and relationship with the students, and I teach very young children, and their families, you're not going to accomplish anything. So that, for me, is the most important thing is from the get-go to build relationships and to make them feel safe and loved and to let the parents know that I will take care of their children for the two years they have me.

At the beginning of second grade, they're so little and there's a lot to build. It's like building a community. I'm building a proverbial house or something to hold these children for two years, and there's a lot of organization and routines to be taught, but underneath all of that is the idea of building community and letting the kids know you're there for them. It's a fine line because at the same time you need to keep the discipline so I think the best way to do that is to stay calm and to be firm. It's funny because my best friend who I've grown up with my whole life said, I just can't imagine you being strict because I have a sweet demeanor. I said, oh yes, I can because I'll pay the price for two years if I'm not.

Noelle: Right. That's not a catch up you want to experience.

Kitty: You've got to lay down the law, but in a nice way.

Noelle: Yeah. So you had your second graders last year. You met them and it was during...

Kitty: I met them on Zoom.

Noelle: Zoom.

Kitty: I literally met them on Zoom.

Noelle: What was the experience like when you finally got to meet them and they got to meet you in person?

Kitty: It was really interesting because when you just see their head in a little square all day and then you see them in person, some of the kids, this is really funny, I thought they were these little tiny little things. Then they came in person and they were almost as tall as me. I have a couple of unusually tall kids. And then there were other kids who I thought were really tall and they were tiny. So one thing is physically it didn't always jive with what I had perceived or I had imagined. Especially this year, because last year it was so lovely to meet them in person, but we had, it was much stricter about distancing and I think all of us were nervous going back in person. I'm sure the parents were and the children because Covid is such an ever changing beast.

I feel like this year it's been wonderful because I know the kids and we're able to do things. It’s not lax because my school has amazing structures in place. We're tested every week. All the staff has to be vaccinated. My little ones are too little to be vaccinated, but I just feel like there's more ease with everything. We're more familiar with Covid. There's a lot of things in place for protection. So seeing them, it's just, it's wonderful. It is just absolutely wonderful. On the one hand, Zoom school wasn't my favorite, but because I had such great kids and I got to see them, it was great, but nothing beats being in person with them. Nothing.

Kitty Donohoe Books
Kitty's love of books means that her classroom library is spread all across her classroom.

Noelle: When we think about the importance of what conversations are happening about interrupted learning, learning gaps, the urgency of reading by third grade, what are you doing as a teacher? And what conversations have you been having at your school? And actually what are some of the things you've put in motion for this school year?

Kitty: We're very privileged at Roosevelt where I teach. We're a project school of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which is part of Columbia University. And we have, and staff developers come and work with all of us at this school. This has been going on, I want to say eight years at our school, but many of us, including myself have been doing coursework with the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College for years, even before we were a project school. They come and help us with the latest research and ideas for teaching, reading, and writing. I believe this to my core, the best thing to get kids to be reading is put books in their hands of what they want to read. I don't even have room in my classroom for all the books I have. They're just spread all over my room around the perimeter and they're smashed and stuffed into cupboards.

I'm just always trying to find books that I think the kids will like and go from there because if someone had handed me a book about, I don't know, lima beans, which I hated as a kid, I certainly would not have wanted to read that. I think you have to start with trying to find what their interests are and then of course you do all the other things in balanced literacy, the phonics, the shared reading, interactive read alouds, all of those things, but I really think you have to go where their interests are. Some kids just love, love, love nonfiction and they may not like fiction as much. Of course, it's important to expose children to all kinds of genres, but I think you really need to have a ready supply of books that they will like. I'm always getting grants or parents donate, or like many teachers, I just spend money on buying books out in my own pocket for kids. But I just, I think that's the key.

I also think that it's so important to look at this from a positive spin. What have the kids learned during the pandemic? This is something they talked a lot about at Teachers College. They've learned things that they would've never learned if they hadn't gone through a pandemic. Come on, they had to learn how to get along with everyone in a small space. That's a huge skill and all sorts of life skills. My school is unique and wonderful so I can't speak for all schools across America, but I feel that the of teachers at my school really, really did a remarkable job educating the children during the pandemic. So anyway, maybe I gave you too much there, but there you go.

Noelle: No, because earlier in our conversation you talked about children are the curriculum.

Kitty: Yes.

Noelle: I do want to ask one follow up question. What have you noticed that they learned during the pandemic that surprised you?

Kitty: I am always surprised, but I think I always knew this, but how resilient they are. They have been through so much this past year. If they're coming to school so eager to learn and the parents are so kind and have been so supportive. I think I never cease to be surprised by how resilient children are.

Kitty Donohoe Quote Cards 3

Noelle: You're a writer. You're not just fascinated by writing and reading, but you are contributing to that. So my understanding is you have a new book that's going to be coming out, or your first book.

Kitty: Yes. And this is a dream come true because when I was a little girl, my mom said that I always wanted to be a teacher, but I also wanted to be a writer and an illustrator. I used to spend hours every day, just entertaining myself, drawing pictures and telling stories about the characters I was making up. I've been teaching over three decades. At the same time I've been taking so many classes at UCLA extension. Taking writing courses about writing for children. I've attended many institutes at Teachers College. Reading and Writing Project, funded by the Cotsen Foundation for the Art of Teaching, which has also really helped me a lot. I kept submitting manuscripts and getting rejections and trying to balance being a writer at the same time as being a full-time teacher. I can't do anything halfway because I just, I felt I could never give short shrift to my classroom. I would try to write either after work, early morning or on weekends and a lot more in the summer.

I have the most amazing agent. His name is Steve Frazier with a Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency and he has been representing me for about 12 years and he kept submitting and they would always say things like we really like Kitty's writing, but we have another book on our list on the same topic. So about two and a half years ago, I wrote this story called How to Ride a Dragonfly. I think a lot of it was based on growing up in nature in Yosemite. I've always loved magical experiences. It's about a little girl. I didn't even say actually if it was a boy or girl, but the illustrator made it a girl and I didn't illustrate it.

And she shrinks and has an adventure on a dragonfly. I sent it to Steve and I said, "I don't know. I wrote this. And what do you think?" And he got right back to me said, "I'm sending it to the three best editors I know." And this is crazy because I've been submitting either with an agent or without an agent for years.

Two days later, Anne Schwartz, who has her own imprint, Anne Schwartz Books at Random House, gets back to him and says, "Could she make a couple of changes? I really like it. I think she's really talented." I said, "Of course I could. What do you think?" So I banished my husband out of the room where I write and I said, "don't interrupt me at all." And he's so nice, my husband, and so I just all night worked like a maniac on it.

My husband would say, "don't you think you should take your time?" I said, "No, I have to do it tonight." I don't know, I was possessed. I sent it back and she bought it. Not only was it my first book, but to think that Random House bought my first book.

Then I remember being in New York, because I was there studying at Teachers College for the summer. I had an appointment to meet my editor at Random House. I was standing in front of Random House in Midtown Manhattan. I was just shaking. I was so nervous. I could not believe. It's like the mothership of publishing houses.

And to think, I'm going to start crying. I tell people this, just don't give up on your dreams. I feel very blessed. I love being a teacher and then my other dream of being a writer, I always thought about Frank McCourt and Angela's Ashes. He was older when he first got published. I remember hearing them saying the school teacher had his first novel and got the Pulitzer prize and I thought he was a teacher, too. It's very emotional for me because, also for my students, that I like that I can be a role model for them for whatever they want to be. Whether it be a writer, a doctor, an engineer, whatever they want, they can do it and they should never give up.

Kitty Donohoe Quote Cards 4

Noelle: Who are you anticipating your reader to be? What drove this particular story of the magical adventure?

Kitty: Well, when I was a child growing up in Yosemite, I have to first say I could not have asked for more amazing parents or my grandfather and great aunt who were a big part of my childhood. My mother used to walk myself and my older siblings every day in the summer to the river, the Merced River in Yosemite valley, which was just a hop skip, and a jump from our house that I grew up in that my great grandfather built. We would spend all afternoon on the riverbank, and we'd swim and play and we would jump in the water and dig in the sand. Also, just watch nature and the dragonflies would fly by. There was a beautiful breeze and the cotton woods would flow silvery green leaves and it was absolutely magical. I can't tell you enough. It is so ingrained in my siblings and myself.

You’re surrounded, at the river, by all sorts of little tiny creatures and when you're a child, you're not... You're littler. I mean, obviously you're bigger than the creatures, but you're little. And I've always loved fantasy so I think it just was in my unconscious that it just sort of came out. I love riding horses and the idea of riding a dragonfly and shrinking and there's fairies involved and jousting with a bee and all kinds of things. These are all the sorts of things I loved to read about as a child.

I think somehow fantasy milled it together with nature and my experiences as a child. And of course, I go to visit Yosemite all the time. I really believe the book came out of that love of fun. Because I think one thing that's important for children is when they read is to have fun and have a sense of adventure and magic because I know that's what I love when I read. And so, I wanted them to have fun and a sense of magic and an appreciation for the natural world. I think unconsciously, because afterwards I thought about it and I thought that's really what I was trying to accomplish.

Noelle: I'm now anticipating reading the book because I want to see jousting with a bee. Are you planning to read this with your class?

Kitty: I am.

Noelle: Does your faculty know? Does the faculty know when the book's coming out? I'm just curious. What's planned.

Kitty: Yes. I have told my friends and I have an amazing group of colleagues by the way. I want to shout out to them. I'm all over social media. So I'm not a shy person. And so, definitely people know about it. The Good Year blimp will fly over [on the publication date.]

Noelle: Kitty, I ask every teacher to think about what is their walk up song. And the reason I ask this is because I believe just like athletes and movie stars and major public speakers, when you walk on stage, when you walk into the court, there's walk up music, right, to amp you up. And I believe every teacher should have walk up songs playing, even if it's in our head, as we walk down the hall and we turn into our classroom to start the day.

Kitty: My father had an Irish pub for a long time and he used to make me sing ballads in it, much to my horror. And I guess I would have to say, I'm having trouble thinking of any particular one song, but I love traditional Irish folk music, whether it be a really sad song or a very lively one. So I would say some sort of lilting Irish folk music.

Noelle: I have been watching and observing you on Twitter, because I too, love Twitter. I love that. I can just put my voice out there. I can retweet. What to took you to Twitter and that social platform?

Kitty: What happened was when I was at Teachers College, I met this very nice woman who told me, I had been on Twitter, but I hadn't really used it, that I should join this Twitter chat on Thursday nights. It's 8:30 east coast, time, 5:30 west coast time. It's called Good to Great. And so I did. And it has also changed my life as a teacher. It's this amazing group of educators that talk about issues in education or they'll feature an author of an educational book and they will help to co-host this event. And it's completely free. So on most Thursday nights, I join and they'll have a topic with questions. And it's very exciting because I find out about the latest books in education that are out there. And I made this amazing group of friends on Twitter, and I have helped to facilitate once or twice.

And we have a private chat. There's a group of about five or six friends that I met through this chat. We have a private Twitter chat where we talk almost every day about issues in education. So there's that public chat, the Good to Great (#G2Great) chat and then this group of friends, we call ourselves the curiosity crew, and we talk every day about things in education. It has really provided an amazing community of educators from all over North America. I highly recommend this for other teachers, this chat, because it keeps you current on what's going on in education, but no one mean, or antagonistic has ever popped up on that chat. Everyone is so nice. I come away very enthused and excited to try new things in my classroom and with other teachers. That is what got me to be more active on Twitter.

Then it also is a way to connect in areas you like. I follow different people because of nature or education or people of the children's book community. So you can find your people on Twitter.

Kitty Donohoe Classroom Readi
Kitty looks forward to one day reading aloud to her class How to Ride a Dragonfly—her debut children's book.

Noelle: That's the whole purpose of community is the depth and breadth of thought, connections, inspiration, just community in general. If we didn't know how important it was, the pandemic has reminded us that community can be physical space. It can be virtual space. It can be both. But it's just so important. Good to Great, Kitty, what does that mean to you now 34 years into teaching? What are you still always aspiring to the great with your own practice?

Kitty: I've always loved the Arthurian legend. I want to say it is T.H. White that wrote The Once and Future King and something that Merlin tells the young King Arthur when he's a little boy, and I'm going to paraphrase this, and he says, you're never too old to learn something new and how that sustains you no matter what age you are in life. So for me, to always want to learn something new and to be curious really makes life exciting.

I wish I had that quote in front of me, but I get chills whenever I read it because it's true. I think I'm hoping the other teachers who may listen to this agree. We're teachers. We always want to learn just like our students because if we don't then what are we doing with students? So I think just that, you just don't ever want to stop. I think that's what keeps me going from my beginning, right after are finishing at UCLA to now to keep wanting to learn something new.

Noelle: I'm trying not to tear up myself because you reach that age where you're like, okay, 50 is fabulous, but things that 50 plus start making you really think what mark, am I leaving? Have I done enough? What can I still do? Look at me. I'm still here. I still have a lot to give. And this conversation, I don't know why it's hitting me.

Kitty: Oh.

Noelle: But it is so important for teachers. And I think it's because last night, Kitty, I was on a session with quite a few kindergarten teachers and I'm listening to them and I'm watching them and I'm picking up how their urgency of what they're trying to do and meeting their four year-olds, five year-olds for the first time. These are children who've been anticipating coming to school and they were basically born into a global pandemic.

Kitty: Yeah.

Noelle: I think it's just everything. I'm so inspired by just your voice and your conversation. Then I'm looking down at my notes and I'll be completely transparent. I'm reading this quote that my producer Ali put down. And she was just like, this is a quote from Kitty. "Because I've taught for so long, many of my students are grown, changing the world all over the world. I recall the late Krista McCullough quote on why she taught. And this was her response. 'I touch the future. I teach.'" And I'm drawn to you. And to that quote and everything, that's flooding through me as a podcast host, teacher to teacher, I hope that you have an amazing day today.

Kitty: Oh my gosh. You're making me cry. That's so lovely, Noelle. So lovely.

Kitty Donohoe Headshot
Now that teachers are back in the classroom, Kitty plans to work on refreshing her class garden.

Noelle: I hope that my goal and your goal continues to be achieved, but to everyone listening today, if you are thinking about leaving the profession, I hope that this episode gives you a chance to pause. Remember your joy. Listen to Kitty and know your intentions are seen. And that's what should continue to drive you. Kitty, thank you so much.

Kitty: Oh my gosh. Thank you, Noelle. Thank you for the team. I'm profoundly humbled, just profoundly humbled by your kindness. I'm going to start to cry now. Just really profoundly humbled. Thank you.

Noelle: Hey listeners! Whether we're elementary teachers, middle school or high school teachers, if we're listening to this episode with Kitty, one thing I would encourage us all to take away is to think about our own gardens. Whether it's a physical garden outside of our window, whether it's something that we're cultivating as a community at the school, whether metaphorically the garden is our students.

When you think about where you are today, and you think about your gardens, we may still be in this time of thinking about all the things that we weren't able to do last year, because just things were not normal.

But let's take a look at it from a new lens. And let's remember that with best practices, with the right intent and always with the helpful, hopeful heart of a teacher, we're going to be able to have our students blossoming by the end of the school year.

Until the next time we're together, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes.Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

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