Dr. Lori McEwen helps educators create classrooms and communities of deep and joyful learning. 

Lori has served educators, students and families as a leader in urban, suburban and charter environments and as a teacher, researcher, consultant, and professor.  Some of her proudest achievements include providing leadership, vision and strategic direction for meaningful change–including the creation of personalized, mastery-focused high schools. 

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Lori is skilled at helping partners explore what’s possible in classrooms and schools by asking tons of questions, providing lots of readings, supporting risk-taking and making sure there’s laughter along the way. 

Lori McEwen: Deep and Joyful Learning

Show Highlights

  • How to develop and lean on your gut instincts
  • The importance of a lengthy interview process when hiring 
  • Lori provides valuable resources to support the mastery movement
  • The first steps to building a framework so students can be masters of their learning. 
  • Why you can’t cheat on authentic assessments 
  • Rigorous and social, emotional learning are not mutually exclusive, but inclusive 
  • Lori’s favorite strategies to fill the 3 buckets that ensure deep and joyful learning

“The better that you and I can communicate with one another, the better we can collaborate. Once we have a great collaboration, we can get to this place of synergy. This idea that the room is smarter than any individual in the room. We can construct meaning to get to that higher level of creativity together because we’re riffing off each other.”

Lori McEwen

Full Transcript Available Here

Daniel (00:03):

What’s a big goal that you’re working toward? Not this year, not even in three years, which is how I like to work on vision, but let’s say in 10 years, where do you want to be? Now I want you to imagine that you’re in hand’s reach of accomplishing that goal. Somebody who has the power to get you to that next level says you should apply. That’s sort of what today’s guest Lori McEwen experienced. She was in hands reach of a goal. She’d been working her life to get to and was encouraged to apply for that exact position and she turned it down. It’s an interesting story. We’re going to start there with today’s conversation. Part of the reason she turned it down is she trusted her gut, which I think is a great skill that a lot of leaders can learn to lean on and develop and Lori will talk about that as well. Hey, it’s Daniel and welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. And we’ll be right back after these messages from our show sponsors.

Daniel (01:16):

All students have an opportunity to succeed with organized binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that’s in a distance hybrid or traditional educational setting, learn [email protected]. Today’s podcast is brought to you by teach fx. It’s basically like a Fitbit for teachers helping them be mindful of teacher talk versus student talk. Get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting teachfx.com/blbs. If you’re waiting for your district to develop you don’t hold your breath. What would you be able to accomplish? If you poured jet fuel on your leadership development? Rob, principal in North Carolina, had this to say about his Mastermind experience. I have found myself trying more things because I know that I have the support from other amazing school leaders to help guide me through. If I get stuck, turn your dreams into reality and level up your leadership. Apply to the Mastermind today at better leaders, better schools.com/mastermind. Today I am joined by a friend and colleague Dr. Lori McEwen, a change agent who helps educators create classrooms and communities of deep and joyful learning. Lori has been a teacher assistant principal, chief academic officer, and assistant superintendent in urban, suburban and charter districts. In addition, she’s been a researcher adjunct professor and serves as vice chair of the local school board, Lori, welcome to the show.

Lori (03:02):

Hey Danny, thanks so much for having me. I’m glad to be here,

Daniel (03:05):

Asked by an assistant superintendent or excuse me, you were asked to apply for an assistant superintendent position. Eventually you became one, but at that time you said like, no, and I want to start there because

Daniel (03:22):

Make the jump, whatever that next leadership position was. And there was something in your gut that said it wasn’t the right time or the right fit. So why was that?

Lori (03:33):

Yeah, so, I don’t know if you know this too, when I was 17 years old, I decided I wanted to be a superintendent. I don’t know that most kids are sitting in their high school English class saying that’s the job for me, but I was really it was sort of twofold. I’d always wanted to be an attorney and like to fight for social justice, but I loved learning and realized I could go into education, thought about, you know, being a teacher and then saw my superintendent and said that’s where the power lies. I’m a first generation college student, first person in my family to go to a four year college, first person in my family to get a master’s and a doctorate, so the goal was really to have this seat of power to make change.

Lori (04:18):

I really thought like, Oh, it’s positional. If I get there, the entire world will change because I sat in that seat and I held onto that for a long, long time. The time that you’re talking about I had moved to a new state and I had been consulting for a while while I got my doctorate and I’ve been an assistant principal years before. So now I’m about 40. I have my doctorate. I loved being an assistant principal where I was when our superintendent left, I think we all thought our assistant superintendent would get the job. And if she had, I think I would have really loved working with her. She didn’t, politics at play and she ended up leaving. The new superintendent who had some really good ideas asked me if I would apply.

Lori (05:03):

As we met and talked and I saw the direction she wanted to go in, and the way I felt like maybe I would need to treat people or where we’re going. It wasn’t sitting right with me for whatever reason. At the same time I had bumped into this guy who was the executive director of a charter school network. The district I worked in was like most in my state, about 98% white middle class to affluent kind of community. Loved the work I was doing with teachers around teaching and learning. I don’t think we could say that I was working for equity. Just wondering where that was going to go and not feeling right about working with or for this person, not knowing if I could be authentic, I’ll be in a suburb and I ultimately decided just not to apply.

Lori (05:49):

I still don’t know if it was the right decision, to not apply and put my hat in the ring, but it just didn’t. I will tell you, I cried over that decision. It was the toughest one, the toughest I’ve ever made because I’m used just to going to the next step and everything fell in place and being lucky and getting the jobs I applied for not having that sort of crisis of confidence and crisis of that kind of thing. I did, so I didn’t apply. In the meantime, I was talking to this executive director of a charter school network that was intentionally diverse, serving Black and Brown kids and White kids and socioeconomic diversity from four different towns and cities in our very small state of Rhode Island. He invited me to come visit. It’s going to be a recruiting trip.

Lori (06:37):

We meet, I go in and I remember saying to him, I love this. Really, I’m thankful that I spent a day observing, but I don’t know if this place is right for me. He asked why. I said, well, you’ve got this approach, your middle school, like kids in rows. They came from this, no excuses, charter movement and I’ve really loved their mission. That all kids are going to college and they are working hard. They have longer school days, longer school years, four weeks of professional development for teachers. So much stuff that I love, but the ethos, especially in the middle school just didn’t feel right to me. I believe that kids should be talking more than teachers and they had silent hallways and you’re 13.

Lori (07:21):

You shouldn’t be silent in the hallway. They’re law and order rules kind of approach didn’t jive with me, with social justice, where they want kids to go. But that was where they thought things came together. Lots of folks there and so the director Jeremy just said, Hey, come and I can’t remember this must’ve been after I interviewed, he didn’t offer me anything. The interview was a long process. It was awesome. Everybody should do it that way. When I interviewed people, principals, et cetera,it’s a full day process. But anyway, he said, Come make it what you want and I got to. I don’t know if we want to stop there, but I can tell you the story of what led to one of the highlights of my career.

Daniel (08:05):

Yeah. I think that is definitely somewhere to continue following the thread. I remember you’ve told me this before, right. That he said, okay, fine. We’ll make it what you want if it’s not a hundred percent the model yet. I love that trust in the vision and what he saw in you, that you could bring the school to the next level. I’m curious if you have any sense of why you think he said that and tell us about what change you made.

Lori (08:34):

Yeah. I guess I should ask him, I wonder if he even remembers that conversation we’ve stayed in touch. I consider him a friend, a colleague, a mentor in some ways, but I never asked him that. But there was something that he believed that I knew what was right for kids based on years and years of experience. I’m older than him. I am way older than the majority of teachers in the buildings. It was a multi building network and I had done thinking and reading and work on all of this stuff for years and years and years and had rationale behind it. I think that was it. I came in as the director of academics and there was a lot of work on curriculum building, kudos to this place.

Lori (09:21):

At that time, they didn’t believe in a canned curriculum. Teachers created everything which became taxing after a while and there are now lots of great curriculum materials out there, but this forced people to really use data, ask questions, and be a very data driven place. What is working for kids? What isn’t, let’s change if we need to. And so teachers were building from the standards. I came in to do a lot of work with that and at the same time, one of my major roles was to lead the creation of a high school. This was a feeder school with three elementary schools going into what eventually became three middle schools at the time was one that would feed up to a high school. I really have long believed in a mastery approach to learning.

Lori (10:11):

It sort of started by talking about standards based grading. I think that’s where the mastery movement, that was the language that we use, but it’s all sort of the same thing. And that’s evolved to student centered and personalized and we’ll talk later about deep and joyful, but this idea that all kids can master their learning. If we give them the time, the tools and certain mindset approaches, which are things like retakes and redos, having kids reflect on their learning, no zeros. Eliminating this idea that there’s no such thing as a cheatable test. No good test is cheatable think about getting your driver’s license. Right? Think about, authentic assessments that people do think about a hairstylist cutting hair.

Lori (11:01):

You’re either doing it well or you’re not, and you can’t cheat. There’s no multiple choice. Those were the mindsets I brought. When we were doing this work around building the high school, I really got into standards based grading and mastery grading because of the way we could be really flexible and nimble with change. I remember saying, and this was like spring of the student’s eighth grade year. So the students who would be our freshman year class were going into eighth grade. They were current seventh graders. I said to the principal and the team there, I said, Oh, you know what if we want to build a mastery high school, guess I should’ve thought about this earlier, but we got to go to mastery here at the middle school to get these kids ready. We got to go to standards based grading.

Lori (11:43):

I’m like next year let’s do it for everybody five through eight, middle school. I had some skeptics, some folks who really felt like there is a chance that we were decreasing rigor if we went to mastery. So we did lots of reading, Guskey, Warmly, et cetera, the traditional public high school district and district next to us, one of the towns that, which we served, even though we’re competitors, we work together. That superintendent came in and met with our teacher leader cohort. He met with them. He brought in Tom Guskey and we all went to see him. We did a lot of work ripping the bandaid off, went to standards based grading, made a ton of mistakes, but figured it out. And I hired a principal who got to spend a year, zero very fortunate, right as the high school designer who would then transition into the principalship. Not everybody gets to do that, obviously, which we were so lucky to build something from scratch and he was aligned with this as well and even more so with a sort of project based learning and stuff. And that’s how the high school opened. Unfortunately, around the time I think the year opened, I got recruited to be the chief academic officer in our largest district, in the state in Providence. Jeremy, the director said, Oh yeah, you don’t turn that down. You get the chance to influence the lives of 24,000 students. In Providence, we built up two small mastery-based high schools and I brought those designers into Blackstone Valley Prep into the BVP high school to hear from kids who said, this has been amazing.

Lori (13:25):

I get the chance to redo things. I know what I’m learning, why I’m learning it. And if I haven’t learned it, I know what to do to correct and relearn. It’s more than the grading process you use or the tools that you use it is that mastery philosophy that like that. Okay. Not yet. You didn’t get an F or a zero. You gotta not yet. And here’s why, and make corrections go relearn, relearn with me, the teacher we learn online, we learn with your peers, try it again. After you retried all the pieces, let’s put it together. So we can be clear that you’ve mastered, really rigorous skills and content. So anyway, sorry, long story, but that’s, that’s one of the highlights to have that experience, I think, is something that most educators don’t get to have to build something from scratch that they’re passionate about.

Daniel (14:17):

Yeah. What opportunity we did that type of work at Brooks College Prep when I was there. So I’m a big believer in mastery learning. There were a lot of challenges, same pushback in terms of rigor and what are we going to do? Like kids don’t turn things in. The good thing is it’s like when people are frustrated and questioning, like where to go that just to me, should signal to the leader, like where more professional development needs to be shared and developed. Those questions, if you can correctly answer them and get those seemingly critics and detractors on your side, then it’s gonna work because the other people are ready to run. So, so cool. You did it at charter, you did at a district level. I would like to ask, since you are an expert in this mastery based system, if a Ruckus Maker listening, wanted to embark on that journey, what would be some of the first steps that she should take?

Lori (15:17):

Yep. So I think, first there’s I say it’s a mix of the two. Like I think there’s, there’s the opportunity to do a lot of reading and thinking. And again, like Warmly and Guskey are two of my go tos, but you don’t have to wait to buy in from everybody. You can also start building things along the way. And some of those building blocks are the pieces of a mastery framework. So retakes and redos is one, right? And I think on my website, I have one of my blog posts, I can link it like just a simple retake ticket and it eliminates all of these well, what if they do? What if they don’t and you can get parents signatures, you can get a kid signature, you can do all those things, but try that because I think everyone fears, if I allow retakes it’s going to be so much more work for me.

Lori (16:03):

And those are good questions. Right. But try those kinds of things. So you can pilot some of those things with folks. Another really great thing that I came across later. I’m envious of this group for, for actually putting this all together, I would love to think that they, I wish I’d been on the ground floor with them, had a guy named Chad Ostrowski – Teach Better. He started with something called the Grid Method. If you’ve ever heard of it, it is so cool as a way to approach mastery. It’s this idea that you take a unit or a sub unit and you break it into a grid. So the bottom grid is like the one level kinds of things. The simple building blocks to build up this skill, you know, the, the essential outcomes of a unit.

Lori (16:51):

And it may be that kids have to progress through all four assignments on the bottom grid. They might have to progress through all four, or it might be enough that they do two or three that’s evidence that they can move up. And then they move up to two and then to three, and then the four or five would be beyond mastery. I’ve seen teachers do this. It takes a lot of organization, obviously, but I’ve seen it where I’ve gone into, this was when I was an assistant principal in North Attleboro. We brought Chad and his group in, I had seen them at Highlander Institute; they do a conference every year and I had met there. I said, this is amazing. I watched this wonderful teacher. Her name is Lorena Mot, do this in fourth grade where you can’t find the teacher.

Lori (17:33):

Right. Which is great because she’s conferencing with a few kids. And there’s a group of kids who are still on grid level one, and they’re working together. And then there’s a group of kids, you know, maybe separate or apart working on two. And there’s a board that says, and I don’t think they actually had their names with it. They had some sort of avatar or something like they could move through the grid to show people where they were. So that also allowed kids who were at two to ask the people who were five how’d you get past this. So the kids were going to each other to learn. I’m probably doing a horrible job explaining this. And Chad might be rolling his eyes like Lori, just tell people to come to me, but you can do it with one unit.

Lori (18:12):

You can do it with a sub unit. And it gives you, it gives teachers a taste of mastery without reframing the whole thing. It shows we can differentiate. It shows how you don’t have to be on stage all the time, controlling everything. And you recently have Robin Jackson whose book never worked harder than your students. I have given to so many teachers and referenced so many times and the grid method forces you to take yourself out and work hard with those small groups and work hard with the pre-planning, but to allow kids to see what they need to do to move forward and allow them to move at their own pace. So I would say taking things slow and using the grid method, using some of those pieces, like retake tickets, reflective exit tickets, and just even starting with things like let’s just eliminate zeros, right? No grade lower than a 50. And mandating the kids do better to get to mastery or some first approaches. That’s what I share.

Daniel (19:10):

What I like about what you say, whether it’s the retakes or the grid method, you’re emphasizing take small steps, not do everything all at once,

Lori (19:21):

Which is the opposite of what I did at Blackstone Valley Prep. When I just ripped off the bandaid

Daniel (19:27):

I didn’t want to point that out. But when you said the whole building five through eight, like we’re doing it next year. That’s typically not my approach, but good for you to tackle that. But then think about the value of it, right? So for the teacher, like you said, never work harder than your students, which is Robin’s idea, but it’s you as a facilitator as guides because the kid should be doing the most work in uncovering the beauty and the learning from each unit, and then even better than the value for the teacher. But the fact that kids can point they can articulate their learning and show you like that is an expression that they’ve figured it out.

Daniel (20:09):

Absolutely wonderful. I think that kind of is a great segue to deep and joyful learning, but we’re going to take a quick pause here for a message from our sponsors. And when we’re, we’re back with Lori, we’re going to dig into deep and joyful learning. Today’s show is brought to you by organized binder, organized binder develops the skills and habits. All students need success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines. So that all have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom learn more at organizedbinder.com. One of the top concerns of educators during COVID is how to boost student engagement remotely in in-person classrooms. Teach FX is combining virtual professional learning with it’s job, embedded voice technology to give teachers instructional strategies and actionable feedback that increase student engagement online and in person to learn more and get a special offer visit TeachFX.com/BLBS . That’s teachfx.Com/BLBS. All right. We’re back with my friend, Lori McEwen, and we talked about not accepting necessarily the first assistant superintendent position, trusting your gut, being able to make a school exactly what you wanted it. We really did a deep dive into mastery learning, which was a lot of fun. When ASQ about deep and joyful learning for all kids every day and what that means to you.

Lori (21:57):

So thanks, Danny. This sort of started, I think I’ve been using the phrase joyful for a while, really got into this when I was assistant superintendent in Massachusetts. In Massachusetts we had a big push around social, emotional learning as they should, but it was so difficult for the high school teachers to wrap their brains around. I think because of the way we’ve sort of thought of SEL as a morning meeting, or it gets reduced to being nice to kids or teaching kids to be nice to each other. I’ll do important things, but that’s not what social emotional learning is. And we used Castle and their competencies that are self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. We did some professional development with our high school teachers and really to show them that social, emotional learning and rigorous learning are not mutually exclusive.

Lori (23:00):

And there are ways. And as a matter of fact, they’re inclusive, mutually inclusive that you need to, you know, we talked about the whole child, but that you need to bring the child into the learning. You need to create safe spaces. You need to teach kids how to work with one another in order for them to really master and transfer this knowledge. And that is not aside from deep learning. And so at the same time we were using the Hewlett foundation’s deeper learning competencies. And whether you look at Hewlett, Fullan, partnership for the 21st century, Wagner’s seven essential skills right there, all of these ideas about what is necessary for success in the 21st century, personal success, and success at work. And so I just sort of thought about these and looked at all of these different authors and everybody’s got their own terminology, but they’re really similar.

Lori (23:56):

The way I look at it is that there are these three buckets, there’s the academic, the interpersonal and the interpersonal, right? So building up your academic skills are really around mastering core academic content, things like that, that’s that, you know, critical thinking, complex problem solving that kind of stuff, interpersonal communication, collaboration, that social awareness, right. But we know that learning is social. So the better that you and I can communicate with one another, the better we can collaborate. And once we have a great collaboration, we can get to this place of synergy, right? And this idea that the room is smarter than any individual in the room. And we can construct meaning to get to that higher level of creativity together because we’re riffing off each other. And the intra personal is that I know myself, I can manage myself and I know how to apply strategies on my own to get to these levels of, of deeper learning.

Lori (24:56):

And we do that with things like reflective exit tickets that aren’t just exit tickets, where we get the data, did the kids solve the problems correctly? So I can differentiate the next day, which is great and important. But for students to keep track of, I communicated well today. I asked questions when I needed to today, I’m leaving confused or I’m not, and I know what to do about it. So those kinds of things. And I just posit that if you put these three areas together, you develop these three areas, you get to deep and joyful learning. And the joyful part is who isn’t having fun talking with their peers, creating something, making something, doing something I love debate and argument, not everybody does, but you know that you you’ve been in classrooms where you just can’t stop the kids from talking, sharing ideas in a Socratic seminar or something like that.

Lori (25:47):

So what I’ve done is, and I’m building a course for teachers with an add on component for leaders about how to lead cultures of deep and joyful learning that shows some of the strategies sort of micro strategies for each bucket, and then the super strategies, right? For example is accountable talk. In the last few places I’ve worked, we’ve brought in and talked about accountable talk. And this came from a work with English language learners, and we use wires, accountable talk stems. But this idea that even kindergarten kids can say, I respectfully disagree with you because, and then they go and they pull out the evidence, which is that academic skill, right? The close reading, et cetera. And then they’re building on one another’s ideas, pushing back on one another respectfully and coming up to a greater idea than they would have had on their own.

Lori (26:40):

Right. And so that, that’s one strategy that I’ll be teaching folks in this course. And it ends with things like these super strategies, right? Like the jigsaw is my all time favorite strategy. I’ve written about this on my blog post. I think I’ve shared directions for it. If not, I have those directions that I can share. Like, and everybody will talk about knowing how to do the jigsaw, but you’ve got to do it right. And you’ve got to do it with all of these components and you do it with accountable talk, building up norms, first reflective exit tickets. Having kids have to bring their best selves into this jigsaw. Nobody gets to sit back. They have to know their own strengths and they have to know where they have to grow so that the jigsaw becomes this buzz in a classroom of kids creating, and you can do jigsaws in math.

Lori (27:29):

You can do them in science, you can do in ELA, et cetera, doing any grade level. So like, it’s my favorite strategy. I use it all the time. I use it with adults all the time. But if we build in from these three areas of academic, interpersonal, interpersonal, put them all together, that’s where you see, you know, people talk about engagement and I just go to joyful, deep and joyful. Cause we can engage kids in tasks that aren’t really rigorous. I, we could get everybody sort of, but it wouldn’t be true cognitive engagement. So it’s that point where cognitive engagement is leading to really great outcomes. And kids say, I had a great day at school today. And here’s what I created. Here’s what I did. Here’s what I learned.

Daniel (28:08):

Well, it’s back to the ownership, the joyful learning, being able to talk about what they did and the excitement, the buzz. I mean, the picture that you paint for the Ruckus Maker listening I can’t imagine any school leader saying I don’t want that. Right. So that seems like a lot of fun. So we’ll link up your website, we’ll link up a lot of the resources that you talked about on today’s show and if the course is available, we’ll have that linked up in the show notes as well. So yeah, of course, before you go, I had to ask the questions. I ask all my guests. And so Lori, what message would you put on all school marquees across the globe if you could do so for just today,

Lori (28:51):

We learn deeply and joyfully here every single day,

Daniel (28:54):

And you’re building a school from the ground up. You’re not limited by any resources. Your only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?

Lori (29:05):

I already got to talk about building up a school, but if I were to build a school, now it would be a professional development school that would be where teachers are learning the profession and the trade alongside veterans. And I would have enough staff therefore to have a robust peer observation mentoring approach. I would expect scholarship from our teachers where we’re, we’re writing or we’re posting or sharing videos so that we are a learning laboratory and we’re sharing what we learn all the time.  I’d have to have enough staff for time to do that. But teacher peer observation, mentoring, and really honest feedback is so important. So that’s what I would have the second of course, we’d have the student centered mastery approach to learning that, that goes to that saying, right. And with that comes the third piece, which would be a school where we rethink everything, right?

Lori (30:02):

So to truly get to mastery, we might not have age based cohorts. So, you know, we might have kids who are at different levels in different subject areas and they can be fluid. We’d rethink five days a week. Is that always necessary, bring in community partners for at least a day a week so that teachers could do rich professional development or older kids could go out into the community and have internships. We’d rethink things like teacher certification and what certs mean that people teach what area. I think that if you can teach fifth grade, you can probably teach seventh grade. I’m not sure that a certification that goes one through six is different from a cert that is seven through nine. I’ve got lots of issues with teacher certification,but along those lines the people I hire I’d want people who don’t see special education as a silo and so-called regular education as a silo that,these are really folks who know all sides and facets of all kinds of learners and that third piece about rethinking. Everything just means that it would be critically constructed and really thoughtful.

Daniel (31:01):

Well, Lori, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we talked about today, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember.

Lori (31:12):

I want a Ruckus Maker to remember that deep and joyful are not mutually exclusive. And if you’re a Ruckus Maker, who’s a leader, there are ways to go in and help and support your teachers, model things for them. Simple strategies. I’ve had teachers say to me now that I know what to do, I’ll do it all the time. It’s the responsibility of the leaders to make sure people have access, to learn these new things. So deep and joyful can go together, should go together every single day for every single kid and every single team and leader.

Daniel (31:45):

Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel @better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter @alien earbud. If the better leaders and better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud and using the hashtag #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class.




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