Jeff Zoul, is a lifelong teacher, learner, and leader. During Jeff’s distinguished career in education he has served in a variety of roles, including Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning in Illinois. Jeff also served as a teacher and coach in the State of Georgia for many years before moving into school administration. Jeff has been recognized as a local Teacher of the Year and as an outstanding principal in the State of Georgia. He is the author/co-author of more than a dozen books. Jeff has earned several degrees, including his undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts and his doctoral degree from the University of Alabama. In his spare time, Jeff enjoys running and has completed over a dozen marathons.
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Crafting The Culture
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, it’s pretty popular in leadership circles. That culture eats strategy for breakfast. It’s certainly not Ruckus Makers, Ruckus Makers don’t do this. Who does this? Play it safe principles. Play it Safe principles think they click their heels together and hope that culture works for them. Or because something worked in the past it’s always gonna work forever. And that’s why playing at Safe Principles overly relies on tradition. It worked in the past. It’s gonna work in the future. Not necessarily true. John Amechi, who wrote an awesome book called The Promises of Giants, said that people “make choices and choices make culture.” The Promises of Giants was a great book, by the way that we read in the Mastermind, but I digress now. If people make choices and choices, make culture, what are the choices that we are making on a consistent every day bit by bit.
Not a big grand. Of course, you make big grand choices, It’s like these little micro moments where culture or resilience and leadership is developed. My friend Jeff Zoul is here today to talk about all things culture. He has a new book out that discusses this topic and definitely recommends you pick it up. It’s super practical and super helpful, and it shows you some choices that you can make as a Ruckus Maker to build a better culture. Hey, it’s Danny and welcome to the Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcasts ranked in the top 0.5% of all shows worldwide. That’s nearly 3 million podcasts and built for you a Ruckus Maker, which means you invest in your continuous growth, you challenge the status quo. You design the future of school now, and you are awesome. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoy the show. We’ll be right back after a few messages from our show sponsors.
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Ruckus Maker, here we are with my friend Jeff Zoul. He’s been on the show two times already. I don’t know that you might be up there, you might have the most returned guests appearances, believe it or not. And so that’s pretty sweet. I’ll introduce you. I know you well, but maybe some of the Ruckus Makers who are listening and watching don’t. Jeff Zoul a lifelong teacher, learner and leader. During Jeff’s distinguished career in education. He has served in a variety of roles, including assistant superintendent for teaching and learning in Illinois. Jeff also served as a teacher and coach in the state of Georgia for many years before moving into school administration. Jeff has been recognized as a local teacher of the year and as an outstanding principal in the state of Georgia. He’s the author, co-author of more than a Dozen books. His latest book, by the way, you could pick up, it’s called Crafting the Culture. He has earned several degrees, including an undergraduate from University of Massachusetts and his doctoral degree from the University of Alabama. In his spare time, Jeff enjoys running and has completed over a dozen marathons. Welcome to the show, Jeff.
Danny, thank you, sir. I’m honored that I might be your most repeated guest. Thank you very much. It’s an honor and always a pleasure hanging with you, my friend.
Yes, absolutely. We’re gonna talk about Crafting The Culture in just a second, but I forgot that you went to University of Alabama, and I know you’ve had great experience in Georgia and you reside there now too. Bulldogs are Roll Tide, like that’s a big deal down there in the south. What do you do because you’ve got ties to both?
Believe it or not as a matter of fact, and I’m on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, and last weekend is probably the biggest weekend of the year on this island. It’s the Georgia, Florida game, and Wow. The kids all come down and stay on St. Simon’s Island, and then go to Jacksonville for the game about an hour north of that. Whenever the dogs are playing, I’m not a huge fan of the dogs, but I cheer ’em, I want ’em to win. If they’re playing Alabama, I root for the Roll Tide. I keep that kind of quiet because they’re serious about it here, man. They love dogs. Vince, Julie, the coach have been there forever. He just passed away and that was big news here and sad news for everybody. I root for Alabama, but when they’re not playing George, I always want Georgia to win.
Ben Jones is a mastermind member, and Ben I know you’re gonna listen. So go dogs. I know you’re excited about their state championship, or excuse me, National championship last year. Enough about football in the South. Let’s talk about your new book, Crafting the Culture. It’s a new project that you’ve worked on and put out into the world. It’s available, so we highly recommend all Ruckus Makers. Check out Jeff’s new book called Crafting a Culture.Tell us about that project, you have a co-author and why’d you guys write this book?
Thanks Danny for throwing that out there. It was probably the most enjoyable book I’ve ever written. It’s not a heavy lift for any reader, but I hope it’s a meaningful lift. The co-author is Joe San Lippo, probably well known to a lot of the Ruckus Makers out there. Joe is a great guy. I consider him a good friend and one of the better superintendents in the country. He’s probably, I hope he doesn’t listen to this Danny, but he is probably my favorite person to listen to speak. I really enjoy him. He’s funny and energetic. He also has great messages. When I decided, and honestly, I think this is the last book I’ll ever write, I’m kind of out of ideas, but I wanted to write one more book about culture.
Writing should get easier, but it kind of gets harder as you do it, I think. I wanted somebody to do it with me, partner with me, and I thought of him because he talks about culture all the time. One thing he said in all of his presentations is “culture is made in snippets of 30 seconds at a time,” And that was part of the idea for this book. Not 30 seconds, but they’re really daily reflections on culture. I think the subtitles 45 reflections on what Matters most. I kind of almost called it devotional, but not a religious devotional. A “culture devotional.” We kinda hope each reader just reads one day at a time. And that might take 10 minutes. It starts off with a quote about culture and then a culture word of the day, maybe it’s engagement or empowerment or equity.
One of us has written a 1000 word, little blog post sort of on that word with our thoughts on it. We end with some reflective questions or action steps to take. The feedback’s been good. I’ve got friends who’ve been and they’ve been reading it one day at a time. It’s been a good little buzz out there about it. Again, it was the most fun book I ever wrote because we sort of day by day I tried to write the book the way I want people to read the book. I’ve never read a book this way before, but I wrote one. Joe, we kind of divided up the words, we first brought words, but then for the words that were mine, I did one a day just like I kind of wanted readers to read one a day. And, and that was sort of a manageable way for me to write the book and kind of hopefully the way folks will read it. But we’d love for feedback from any of the Ruckus Makers out there to take a crack at it. I’d love to hear what you think.
Definitely pick up Crafting The Culture. I endorse the book formally and then now on the podcast I could say that I’ve read it and one of the things that I appreciate about it is that it’s really no fluff. It’s very practical and you can read through it quickly, but I agree you should think of it as a culture devotional and read a section, a date, really think about the reflection, act question and activity and make that a part of your practice. For the rest of our conversation, Jeff, I’d love to ask you about some of the content in the book that you have there. See what you have to riff on. I’m curious about relationships, I don’t know why I said expectations. I would love to know in your life, you talked about Joe being a great engaging speaker, but who are some of the best in your network that you’ve seen building relationships and what makes them stand out in their ability to do that?
Yeah. Joe is one, I’ve done so much work with Jimmy Cost. I hate to brag on him too cuz I try to make fun of him more than brag about him. He is somebody I admire in that regard. He’s a genuine person. We all have seen at times the motivational speaker who’s good, but maybe it’s just come in and leave and that’s it. Jimmy really cares about the places he’s visiting and working every day and people gravitate towards him because they notice he’s an authentic guy. When I think of relationship building, it’s gotta be authentic, credible, genuine, those words kind of have similar connotations. I think that’s a big part of it. It’s doing the little things. Being a Ruckus Maker doesn’t have to be a big thing. Being a Ruckus Maker I’m gonna change the world. Sometimes I think it’s doing this by starting to take that small step.
Relationship building is like that too. It’s the small things that can mean a lot. I will try my very best. It’s hard though but my personal mission is to improve the life, in some small way, of every person with whom I have a meaningful interaction. That’s my mission and I hope that I can do that. Whether it’s a small way or a big way. I’m not gonna make him a millionaire. But I hope that something that I’ve done with them over time has made a difference in their life for the better. Of the people who’ve done that for me, I, Michael Feld, who knows another one for me. These are some of my closest friends that I’m picking on here.
It’s a good example. There is a man who builds relationships with every person with whom he comes in contact with. I don’t know how he does it, but part of it is his energy and enthusiasm and just positivity and smiling and that’s one, you know Nathan Lang Raad. He’s another one who I don’t even know as well, but I always put up one of his tweets and whenever I’m presenting, it’s probably five years old now, the tweet that I still use, it’s his teaching manifesto. The first point is be fun and funny, smile and laugh. I think that’s something we can all do, If we were all fun and funny people when we’re with our colleagues and with kids, and if we all smile and laugh a lot, that’s a culture builder right there in a relationship builder right there.
The way I talk about that, I call it rule number six, and the punchline is, don’t take yourself too seriously. Which I think adds a little levity to the situation. You could have fun and laugh and smile at this kind of stuff. I really appreciate you sharing that and I love that as a coaching question I use with people. What’s the next time you stop that you could take. Whether it’s making changes in education and making a ruckus or building relationships, it’s these small deposits over time that actually have exponential value. Let’s move to consensus and you have an interesting take, which is to start before you’re ready and as Ruckus Makers we have a bias for action, I would say. But at times our staff, they might be perfectly happy to maintain the status quo. What have you learned about consensus and starting before you’re ready?
Thanks for asking that. I like that idea. I say it a lot to start before you’re ready. You’re never gonna be if you wait until you’re ready. I’ll say two things. If you wait until you’re ready or if you wait until you gain unanimity, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life. I think too often, leaders, we’re team builders, We wanna get commitment. People use the word buy in, I use commitment, but they say they wanna get buying from everyone. You’re not gonna get buy-in from everyone if you’re making a ruckus because you’re changing the status quo. I’ve got a zillion examples of my life. It could be something as mundane as changing grading practices. If you wait until you get a hundred percent commitment from everybody, you’re never gonna change your grading practices.
But you do have to get consensus. I always start by differentiating those two terms. Some people don’t think through it, they think consensus means unanimity, or unanimity means consensus. They’re two very different things. Unanimity means I got 100% of the staff to agree to change their grading practices. Consensus means to me, I’ve got a good majority. It can’t be 51% though either. It’s probably gotta be 70%, 65%, preferably 80%. But then I can start and I’m not ready in two ways. I’m not ready because I don’t have unanimity. I’ve got some people who push back and I want to hear their pushback. I wanna hear it respectfully for you in the right way, right time, right place. I always say, but I need to hear that. But once we get 80% for sure, we’re going, we’re not fully ready, but we’re moving on.
Those 20%, I always use Rick Defor’s definition of consensus, Danny, which is that everybody involved has had the opportunity for their voice to be heard. The will of the majority is evident even to those in the minority. If you are on the other side, Danny, I gave you a chance for your voice to be heard. If you want it, you’re around the table, you recognize that you were in the minority and you now are expected to move forward with us and be honest, but be appropriate, respectful, and know we’re moving on with this initiative, whether it’s grading practices or schedule changes or whatever.
Exactly. I’m glad you brought up the Defour’s definition too, cuz that one stuck with me and I think I heard it at least a decade ago, maybe more. It’s a really, really great way. I make sure you include all the voices, but it’s clear the will of the group. Let’s talk about risk taking, One of my pet peeves, Jeff, is that districts love to say, “Hey, we love to innovate here. We want you to learn from failure,” and then you go out and experiment, try something new and maybe even fail, And then you get the two by four and you’re disciplined. Like people are formally disciplined for doing what the district says they support. So that’s obviously problematic. Have you seen systems that do this? What is it about them that makes it work?
First of all, let me say that when we wrote this book too, we were kind of hoping that the reader, cuz really, I mean, I read Joe’s, he read mine, we gave each other feedback, but for the most part, my passage was my passage. His passage was his passage. In our introduction, we explained that we used our interchangeably, but we didn’t want the reader to know who wrote which one. I kind of hope that’s still the case. I do remember now that the first two you brought up were mine, and this one was Joe’s, and I think he’s a good example, but I’ll use somebody else who’s influenced me in this area, and that would be George Coros. He wrote the book Innovator’s Mindset, and this is a little bit of a repeat of something we’ve said, but I liked when I read that book. He said, We shouldn’t be talking about outside the box thinking all the time. We should be talking about inside the box. Literally we all have our own box in which we work literally and figuratively. I taught for 19 years, I had a box, it was my classroom. If I waited to innovate outside the box, like outside my four walls, I once again may be waiting a long time, but I could innovate inside my four walls any, honestly, every single day. It was my room. It’s both a blessing and a curse of being a classroom teacher. In some schools, you’re left alone to do it on your own.
And that’s got all the negative things that go with it. But the positive aspect of it was I did have the power to innovate and take risks whenever I wanted to. I think a key thought is for the leaders of the school. Yeah, I could do it on my own, but that only goes so far because maybe I’m a risk taker and you’re not, or vice versa. A real key is for the leaders to create a culture of yes. When we ask if we can do this, the leaders say yes, and then we watch the results, There’s only two outcomes. It can be a good result or a bad result. And if it’s a bad result, no one got killed. Probably this isn’t where people are at harm, we’re not endangering people.
The outcome of that is if it’s really poor results, we don’t do it anymore. But the flip side of that, if the outcome of it is positive in any way, shape, or form, we tweak it, we iterate it, and we spread the bright spots. The heath brothers always talked about bright spots. I think that’s where the risk taking takes root and spreads like wildfire. When I do it, you do it and I share what worked with me and you share what worked with you. Now we’ve got a culture where everybody is not only empowered, but almost expected to take risks and share the results and we replicate the wins and we eliminate the losses and we move on to the next one.
Since you revealed Joe wrote that chapter, he asked an interesting question at the end and I want to ask it to you. I’m personally curious. He asked, When was the last time you did something for the first time? We talked about how I did a seven day mindfulness and meditation, silent retreat. Never done that before. So that was something that I’ve, excuse me for the first time, but how about you?
Oh, wow. Let’s see. I have one coming up next week nice. I just moved back here. I lived here seven 20 years ago for seven years, and I just moved back to this island, Danny. And upon moving back here, I joined a newcomers club, and it’s kinda cool. They got all kinds of things going on. Mostly it’s like dining out or dining in or golfing or this or that, or bridge or whatever. But one that I signed up for, I’ve never been a hunter or anything like that. I’ve never had a firearm of any kind. But one of the club offerings was going to a shooting range and shooting clay pigeons. So this may not be the answer you’re looking for, but that’s what came to mind next week. For the first time in my life I’m picking up a shotgun and shooting clay pigeons.
I’ve never done that. I’m looking forward to it. I think you’re right. We have to keep trying new things. I know it’s a question you ask of people a lot in many different ways, but I think, think learning, I sometimes go to classrooms and see lessons. I don’t think anybody’s learning anything, because learning means I’ve changed. In some way, small or big learning equals change. I couldn’t do this, now I can, I didn’t know this. Now I do. I think life is all about, I think we stop living when we stop learning. My mom is 90 years old. I know she won’t listen to this, so I can say this, but it’s sort of sad. She’s 90 and she’s starting to get to that point, Danny, and I love my mom. But, part of the reason she’s getting to the point is she doesn’t really have the ability to learn anymore. And when you lose the ability to learn, you kind of lose the ability to live at least fully. I see that sadly happening in my mom, who’s 90 now. But, but anyway, for me, the next one is I’m shooting at a gun range next week. I’ve never done that.
Have fun, be safe. I’ve done that about three times. The only time I’ve ever shot a gun was shooting clay pigeons. I’m actually not too bad. I’m pretty good so that was always a lot of fun for me. I have one more question regarding craft and culture. I’m gonna ask about it right after we get some messages from our show sponsors. I wanna ask you about what’s best for kids when we return. Today’s show is sponsored by the program Teach FX, And did you know that school leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, and the average teacher believes this or not, talks 75% of the class time. You could give your students more opportunities to learn in class by monitoring their talk time and check out TFX for yourself, other special partnership options for Ruckus [email protected] slash bs.
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We’re back with Jeff. Who might be the guest who’s been on the show the most? I’d have to, I’ve stopped counting these things, I used to do this. Remember Jeff, like the top 10, you’d get the email because you’ve been a part of that because you’re always adding so much value to people’s lives. I’d have to check that. But anyways, I said I have a question about what’s best for kids, and that comes up in crafting the culture. We recommend that all Ruckus Makers pick up Jeff’s new book, Crafting the Culture. In my view, it’s a loaded statement. If you ask 10 educators what’s best for kids, you might get 10 different opinions. And I don’t know if it should be like, completely banned or if you use the phrase what’s best for kids, you should say, as a caveat, this is my take. I know we have different opinions, but here’s how I define what’s best for kids anyways. What’s your take on this phrase and what do you recommend Ruckus Makers do with this idea of what’s best for kids?
I think that’s a really interesting phrase. It became a popular thing to say. About 10 years ago, at least in my world, I was an assistant principal. I was hired along with a team of people to be our assistant principal. I was the principal. And when she met the staff for the first time, she said something you need to know about me. I’d like to make decisions on what’s best for kids. I don’t know if that was the first time I heard it, but it seemed like I heard it all the time after that. I think it’s both a good measuring stick, but a dangerous measuring stick in some ways. And, and I guess here’s my thinking on that. Sure. Absolutely. We should base our decisions on a, in a strong positive culture, All adults in the building make decisions based on what’s best for kids.
The thing is, it’s not easy to determine so much of what we do is gray, as opposed to black and white. Our jobs would be much easier if things were black and white, but they’d be less rewarding. And Robert Marza wrote that book way back when, The Art and Science of Teaching, there is some science to it, but it’s so much more art. And that’s, again, both a good thing and a challenging thing because it’s, we’re working in the gray, we’re painting in the gray, not the black and white. Of course, we wanna do what’s best for kids, Every teacher, every principal. But the funny thing is, you’ll hear me say this a lot too, assuming the best intentions of the person who, because let’s, I use my grading example, It’s perfectly acceptable that you disagree with me on grading practices.
I have to assume the best intentions of you. And you have to assume the best intentions of me. And maybe there’s a few outlier people who don’t have their heart in the right place, Danny, at any given school. But 95 plus percent of us have our hearts in the right place and we simply disagree. I can go back to something like assigning zeros to kids. I would make a strong, strong argument that I think that’s not a good practice. There are educators who I admire, who I respect, who would argue differently. I can’t tell you how much I disagree with that, but I don’t disagree with the heart or where they’re coming from. They have an honest to goodness case they wanna make for why they think they should do that. I just think it’s a good measuring bar, but we have to understand there’s not one right answer. You set the question up while yourself, we could have 14 different perspectives on it, but it’s not, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep that in the back of our minds as an overarching guiding principle. But we can’t just say, I’ve decided what’s best for kids. Here it is. No, this is our overarching thing. But we have conversations ongoing all the time. You know, what is truly best for kids? And then maybe we experiment and we see it was esp and we have evidence and data and, and, and, and feedback.
So part of being a Ruckus Maker is developing your mindset and skills. So what are you doing these days to develop your mindset and skills?
When I was teaching and coaching Danny, I had the opportunity to hear famous coaches all my life and they were kind of fun to listen to sometimes and have good tips for whether I was coaching basketball or football. But Lou Holtz was a guy who had good tips for life and he said, “The only thing that’s gonna change the person you are to the person you are 10 years from now, is the books you read, the people you meet and the places you go.” And I always remember that. And I don’t know, he may be wrong there again, that’s his take on it but it resonated with me. The only thing that’s gonna change you as a person now and 10 years from now are the books you’ve read in that time. The places you go and the people you meet. I am constantly trying to read good books. I am constantly trying to travel to new places. Oftentimes I’m doing that for work with schools and I’m constantly trying to meet new people. Whenever I do those three things, I’m trying to learn from the books. I’m trying to learn from the people I’m trying to learn from.
Great quote and great way to illustrate it too. How about challenging the status quo? That’s something Ruckus Makers do. What do you do these days that challenge the status quo?
I think it might go back to that again, it’s conflicting, but I think it goes back to diving really deep into the let’s do what’s best for kids mantra, let’s not have that be a phrase or a mantra. It’s an easy throwaway line, but it makes you think I’ve got the answers. I think it’s challenging that a little bit, going a little deeper with that. What does that really mean? And what does it mean when we find out that two really goodhearted educators have distinctly different approaches to that. I think that’s sort of challenging the status quo. You thought this was because we have to dig deeper. We can’t just use it as a throwaway line,
Absolutely. So this question I ask all my guests, What message would you put on all school Marquis, around the world if you could do so for just a day?
Danny, you probably know this about me, but every single day when I wake up, I do a couple of things. The second thing I do every day is tweet out the words, Work hard, have fun, be nice today. I do that so often. That was my last phrase and the announcements every day as a principal and somebody even stenciled my office wall at my last job on my marquee, Danny. I know people who know me well, kind of make fun of me that I do that every day. Work hard, have fun, be nice today. If we have a school in which every kid is working hard, having fun, being nice to each other and every adult is working hard, having fun and being nice to kids and each other. We got a pretty darn good school.
Pretty good darn school. That’s right. Actually, that’s how we got connected for the first interview. I saw that you posted that on a consistent basis. And I said, “Hey, you wanna join me on the show and let’s unpack why do you do that?” And the conversation and friendship went from there. I know you’ve answered this before, but it’s been a while since you’ve been on the show. Building your dream school, How would Jeff build his dream school? You’re not limited by any resources. Your only limitations, your imagination in building this dream school, what would be your three guiding principles?
I knew you were gonna ask that, and I decided to answer this a little differently because I was thinking of all the grandiose things, but I’m gonna throw out three almost operational things that frustrate me because these are status quo things that haven’t changed since the day I was born long before and today. But they’re kind of fundamental, just kind of boring things. But I think we talk about challenging things, the status quo, and we haven’t done it in these ways. Number one, public schools to me would once and for all not be a 180 day year proposition. That would be a 365 day year, 24 or seven proposition. It’s a structural change I would make if I could wave the magic run. But it would be 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We’d have to think differently about budgeting and staffing.
In the year 2022, Danny, it is just beyond time to that, we still have this 180 day eight to four kind of thing. I think a second thing that has been in place forever that I’d wanna change is the fact that pretty much every single one of us goes from the age of five to the age of 18 or 19 or four, the 18 or 19. And I would change that. I think that there are plenty of children out there who could move through that progression of standards. I believe in standards and learning standards.But I think there’s kids who can progress through them both emotionally and intellectually, and be done with that process at 14. I think there’s others who might need to be at it till 22, but it doesn’t make sense to me that we box folks in like that. A third thing, would be more and more and more and more, and I hate using the phrase real world, but relevant outside the school building experiences where we’re getting kids out into the community, out earning credits and learning standards by doing. So they’re earning and learning by, by working in the community, by traveling by doing independent projects. Those are three things I would throw out today. The schedule is the year long thing and maybe more relevant, authentic hands-on experiences.
Cool. Well that was fun. Dismantling some status quo stuff. That’s a great take on the question that I ask a lot of people. So thank you for the fresh perspective. Well, Jeff, it’s been a pleasure to have you back on the show. We covered a lot of ground today. Super excited about your book. Again, highly encourage people to check it out, crafting a culture and of everything we talked about today, what’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember
As you’re making a ruckus? Assume the best of other people and you want them to assume the best of you. When we make a ruckus, Danny, we’re challenging the status quo and we’re probably infuriated with the status quo, but we’ve gotta assume the best. I’ve got to assume that your heart’s in the right place and, and, but we’re gonna make this change cuz we are gonna change the status quo if the status quo is not meeting the needs of the adults who serve there or the kids who learn there. But as I’m doing that, I wanna assume the best of other people who are resistant to go along with me and not question their heart or their motivation.
Thanks for listening to The Better Leaders, Better Schools Podcasts, Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders 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 @alienearbud, and using the hashtag #blbs. Level Up your leadership at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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