Robyn Hamasaki is the Managing Director of Leadership Development at the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). Leading a multidisciplinary team of Leading & Learning, Student Program Operations, Recognition & Engagement, and External Relations, she fosters the growth and engagement of school leaders, advisers, and students through impactful programs and services nationwide. Previously, she established the Principal Leadership Institute at Colorado’s Department of Education. Her career has included roles as a principal, assistant principal, educator, and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Show Highlights

The power of asking questions in education

The impact of understanding individual student needs.

Cultural shock and inclusion are keys to belonging in education.

Tips to build trust with students can lead to better educational outcomes.

How to maximize the experience at the United conference.

Importance of growing your network and taking an extra day to synthesize learnings.

Details about the conference strands and keynote speakers.
“The power and magic of feeling included, noticed, and a sense of belonging is paramount. And it’s paramount in education, where every day, as a principal, as a teacher, you know, we need to see our kids, and we need to help them feel seen and that we need to help them realize that they matter 100%.”
- Robyn Hamasaki

“Leadership matters. You matter. People look up to you. You are a role model. Everything you do, people are watching, kids are watching, babies are watching, and every student is someone’s baby. And so what we do with students matters. And whether you’re having a good day or a bad day, you matter. So keep up the good work, and we believe in you. You are doing an amazing, impossible job during turbulent, challenging times. And you are the unsung heroes of education and democracy.”
- Robyn Hamasaki

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Read the Transcript here.

The Power of Asking Questions – A Teacher’s Tale

Welcome to the front lines of the revolution in education. If you’re passionate about reshaping the landscape of learning and carving out a future where every student thrives, you found your tribe. I’m Danny Bauer, and you’re listening to the Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast, the premiere podcast for Ruckus Makers who do school differently. Thanks to Ruckus Makers just like you, this show leads the way in the global conversation on educational leadership, ranking in the top 0.5% of every podcast in any industry worldwide. In today’s show, I speak with Robyn Hamasaki, who is the managing director of leadership development at the National association of Secondary School Principals, aka and ASSP. Leading a multidisciplinary team comprising leading and learning student program operations, recognition and engagement, and external relations. She fosters the growth and engagement of school leaders, advisors, and students through impactful programs and services nationwide.

Previously, she established the principal leadership Institute at Colorado’s Department of Education. Her career has included roles as a principal, assistant principal educator, and a colonel in the US Army Reserve. In today’s conversation, we cover topics like why belonging matters, what happens when we make assumptions as educators, and the questions we forget to ask, how to build trust with your students. And you could probably apply that lesson to your staff as well. And then we dive deep into the United conference, which is happening July 15 through 17th in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ll be speaking at that one and hopefully meeting a lot of great school leaders. Thanks again for listening to the show. This show doesn’t work without wonderful listeners like you, and we’ll be right back after a quick message from our show sponsors. Hey Ruckus Maker, I’ll make this quick.

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And Robyn, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Danny.

I want you to bring me to a moment where you’re a science teacher. I think there was a 10th grade student sort of messing around. You know, many teachers, right? You have something going on, you bring a kid to the hall and that kind of thing. And normally the hallway moment is a moment for the student, but this was a hallway moment for Robyn. What happened?

Okay, well, this was a very special moment and a huge learning moment for me as a schoolteacher. So I was teaching at Eagle Rock school in the professional development center in Essence Park, Colorado, environmental science High School. And these are kids who have not been successful in school, wherever they are from across the nation, so an amazing school experience for them, but they’re all very challenged in very unique ways. And this one boy, 10th grader, I remember very clearly he was messing around in class, and we had small classrooms, sizes of ten, in a circular formation. So we were all around a table that was a circle, so very conducive to learning. And he was not paying attention. And I felt myself getting a little, you know, annoyed. And so I got the students reading. We were learning about montane ecology, and after I got them reading, I said, ‘hey, Jay boy, come step outside.’ And the outside doesn’t mean outside. I could still see the kids, of course. And so I said, ‘what is going on with you?’ He’s like, ‘nothing’ I’m like, ‘no, Jay boy, tell me what’s up? What’s happening? Why aren’t you with me, with us in class?’ He’s like, ‘I don’t really care what’s going on.’ And I’m like,’ tell me more.’ He’s like,’ I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. And I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re reading, Robyn.’ And went by first names. I’m like, ‘what do you mean you don’t know what we’re reading’? He’s like,’ I can’t read the book.’ And I said, ‘what do you mean you can’t read the book?’ This is a high schooler. And he’s like, I don’t know how to read the book. The words, I have no idea what’s going on. And I said, ‘well, why didn’t you tell me?’ And he said, ‘you never asked.’ And at that point, I looked at him and my heart dropped. And I thought, ‘oh, man, that’s. I’m a no go, right?’ Like, I should have asked. I should have assessed, this is before sandwich based grading. I should have assessed his reading. I should have talked to him. I should have gotten to know him better. He was in San Francisco with the gangs and just the horrible school and home experience, and I never asked. And so, believe me, I asked a lot of questions after that. And I said to him, ‘hey, what if I go downtown and I buy some other books that have some pictures and maybe at your grade level or reading level, would you read it?’And I said, okay. He’s like. I said, do you want to come with me? He’s like, no, no. You go pick out the books and then bring them back. So I went down after school that day, got the books, like, three or four of them, brought them back. There’s lots of pictures, labels, and it was awesome because I finally asked. That’s the story of Jay boy.

Thank you for sharing that story. And I think for the Ruckus Maker listening, you know that moment when Jay boy says he’d ever asked, right? He didn’t ask. I just want the Ruckus Maker to think and reflect on, like, what are the questions that probably you’re not asking as a school leader, as an educator, and what do you take for granted and just assume about your students? You’re in high school, so you’re reading at some kind of level, and that’s not necessarily true. So you are offered books to come with. He didn’t want to come with you, and you got the books, and he didn’t think you would actually get them. So what did that tell you?

Students, kids are, sometimes they’re not very trusting at first when they don’t get to know us either. But when I did give him the books and his eyes just lit up, I thought, wow, all we need to do is find out more about the kid, their unique individual needs, and then meet them where they’re at and give them what they need, and they will flourish. Because his eyes lit up. Like, I have goosebumps right now. His eyes lit up thinking, you bought these books for me? I said, yeah, I bought books for you. And he’s like, wow, how much did they cost? I said, it doesn’t matter. You need books. You said you were excited and you would be willing to read them with me. Of course, we’re reading together now, and he’s like, oh, my gosh. Thank you. He was so grateful. And it was books.

Something that doesn’t seem like a major thing for you, but it meant the world to him. I have a saying. You can never go wrong treating people right.
And you were living that out. A lot of Ruckus Makers do. Beautiful story. What was it like? So you’re talking about teaching there in Colorado. You moved from Oahu, Hawaii, to Boulder, Colorado. What was that move like?

That move was probably the move that shaped my vision and mission in education. Probably. So that move. I’m an Asian American from Hawaii. And growing up, I was part of the majority group. And my school, most of my classmates were Asian. My teachers were mostly Asian. My neighbors were Asian, that was my livelihood. When I moved to Boulder for that freshman year and we didn’t make a college visit because we didn’t have the money to do that, my parents put me on a plane and they had made arrangements with a friend of theirs from church to meet me. And I have never met that person. They picked me up at the airport. This person was Asian. And I stayed over at their house. I didn’t really know who they were. And then they took me to CU Boulder the next day. And they said, hey, are you okay? I’m like, yep. Good. They dropped me off. They said goodbye. And then I walked up to the housing to get my residence hall. And it was a shock. I was in culture shock. I remember. Well, one of the first things I did when I got to Boulder was I started looking around at all the people who look like me. And I didn’t see very many who looked like me. I did realize, while there are a lot of people with blonde hair right on campus and that don’t look like me. So it was a shock and it was very scary. And that whole freshman year was kind of a blur. And I remember,, I made some friends from my residence hall and great, good people. I lucked out. I lucked out when I went to see you because at first, it was a very scary place. And I remember one day we were walking, it was snowing. It was in the wintertime, and it was snowing. And went to go get Dairy queen on the hill. And were walking back from Dairy Queen eating our ice cream in the snow.

It was a hot day.

It was a hot day. And I was rushing. I was walking really fast. And my friend said, Robyn, slow down. Why are you rushing? I said, we have to rush. We have to hurry. Remember, I’m from Hawaii, right? Ice cream. I said, we have to hurry because our ice cream is going to melt. And she’s like, no, it’s not going to melt because it’s snowing. And we’re basically in a freezer. And I said, oh, you are right. I mean, this is sort of the beginning of the culture shock. And then I very clearly remember another day. I was walking from class to class, and it was very lonely. I felt lonely, isolated from my family, disconnected. And I was walking to class and I remembered thinking, you know, if I were to, like, drop dead on the sidewalk right now, what would happen? Who would know me? Nobody. Nobody would know me. Nobody would know this is Robyn. Nobody would know who to call. What would I do? I would be dead on the sidewalk. And that’s a terrible thing to think, but that’s what I thought. And I thought, this is not okay. Like, I felt so lonely and like an outcast. That feeling was so penetrating and shocking to me. That became the beginning of my belief and vision that people need to feel included. At that point in my life at CU Boulder, I did not feel included yet. And I was probably not reaching my full potential, even though I was working really hard and I was actually getting straight As because I was a pre med student back then. I had the pressure of wigs achieving high, you know, probably another reason why I was cooped up in my room studying, because I thought I had to have good grades. But the importance of inclusion, the feeling of belonging, the sense that you’re welcomed and people can see you and know you matters. And it wasn’t until, and this is a whole nother story that I’ll. Is it okay to tell?

We love stories here.

It was my freshman year. And this all ties together. One morning I woke up and I opened my door and the bathroom and showers were down the hall. I was going to go take a shower and my RA pops her head out. I don’t know how she was listening. And like, hey, did you notice your door? So I turned around, I looked at my door, there were snowflakes on my door. And I said, oh, that’s cool. Snowflakes on my door. She’s like, did you look outside? And I said, no, I didn’t look outside. And she said, well, go look outside. Look outside your window. So I opened the window and it was snowing, it was jumping, like, dumping, dumping. And I thought, oh, that’s so kind of her.

She put snowflakes on my door for snow. I’m from Hawaii. I haven’t seen snow before, except on tv. And she’s like, welcome to your first snow, Colorado. And I said, oh, thank you. That means a lot. She touched my heart right there. And then second, she’s like, We have an activity plan. And I’m like, you do. And she got all the girls. It was a CO. It was a girls residence hall. We are all on our floor. We all went outside. She’s like, we’re all going to go outside and play in the snow with you. Are you kidding me? She’s like, no, I’m. This is for real? This is your first snow. So we all went outside. We caught snowflakes on our tongue. All of us, even the people who live here, we made snowmen because it was fake wet snow. So they showed me how to roll the ball and to make a snowman. We made snow angels. It was so amazing. And the girls came up to me afterwards and said, oh, my gosh, we’re from Colorado. But the experience, no, with you and you experiencing it for the first time, it was like we’re experiencing it for the first time again. We had a blast. And I had my Hawaii bought snow jacket, which was not cutting it. I was freezing. We went back into the hall, and I thought at that moment, wow. She made me feel welcomed and included, like, that Ra single handedly changed my perspective on college life at CU. And at that point, I thought, I want to be an RA.

I want to be a resident advisor just like her, to help other people like me feel belonged, included and welcomed and just, like, embraced right by the group. And so I did. I applied to Vietnam my junior year. I was an RA because you can’t back then, you can be an RA when you’re a junior. And at that point, when I started feeling like, okay, I’m part of the team. I’m helping other people feel belonged. I have a purpose. And now I’m still going to school. I’m still doing my pre med work. But this range of job experience changed my life, actually, and it changed me. I ended up staying at CU because I thought I was going to go back to Hawaii and finish off at University of Hawaii. The power and magic of feeling included, noticed, and a sense of belonging is paramount. And it’s paramount in education, where every day, as a principal, as a teacher, you know, we need to see our kids, and we need to help them feel seen and that we need to help them realize that they matter 100%.

When I wrote my book Mastermind Unlocking Talent Within Every School Leader, I talked about the ABCs of powerful professional development. But that b stands for Balaam, and it creates people’s magic. It creates transformative, exponential outcomes when a Ruckus Maker intentionally designs a campus experience. With that in mind, the other AHA for me is when you do this in an intentional way, you become a role model and you multiply yourself, too. It’s not guaranteed, but very likely. So, thinking about how important education matters, I like to tell leaders I support, hey, if we don’t stick around, who will? Because I think in our industry, there’s tons of people running for the exits thinking the grass is greener classrooms or administrator positions. If we truly created campus experiences with that inclusion belonging at the root.We probably have an abundance of teacher candidates who become principals and all this kind of stuff. It has profound implications. Thank you so much for sharing that. I think this is a good spot to pause just for a second to share some messages from our sponsors when we get back. You are hosting a big conference that I’m excited to attend myself and speak at principals United and so I have some questions about that event on the other side of the show. What makes an assessment effective? I would argue giving teachers access to quick, reliable and useful results that inform the next best steps for teaching and that’s where I excel really stands out. Teachers get powerful insights into student performance on a daily basis so they can address issues the moment they arise.

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I am so excited about United. Thanks for just asking me about it. So, united, our national school leader conference is happening in Nashville, Tennessee. I actually went out and bought my cowboy boots or cowboy cowgirl boots recently. I’m ready to go. We’re jointly sponsoring this, hosting this with NAESP, the elementary school principal organization. And we have five strands that we’re focusing on for a conference. Building leadership capacity, instructional leadership, leveraging student voice and agency, school climate, culture and inclusivity. That’s a big one for me, you know, and whole school wellness. And as a former PKA principal myself, when I think about these strands are probably, in, from my perspective, the meat and potatoes of what we’re facing on a daily basis as a principal. And these five strands are what our ambassador group is. We also invite secondary school and principals to be ambassadors. And we ask them like, hey, what are the topics? What are hot topics, perspectives you want to learn about? These five themes kept coming up, so we thought, you know what, we’re going to focus on these five strands. But our speakers, one of them is you, Danny, are going to focus on all of these five strands. If you want to bring your team, either your administrative team, your assistant principals, or you want to come with a feeder system. So your elementary principals, middle school, high school principals come and you want to focus on a strand that would be a really neat way to experience the conference. We are inviting some, we have invited some spectacular keynotes to, for you to learn from, for me to learn from as well. John Gordon, you know, our famous author, Rahima Ellis, chief education correspondent for MBC News, and then Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy.

With our AI trend that’s out there, we thought that these three people, these three instrumental experts in our field, would really help us find joy in our job when it feels very challenging these days. Rahimah capitalized on all the educational issues that were challenged with, and then Celkan, with his gift of letting us know more about artificial intelligence and how we can help students learn better and maybe in ways that meet their needs again. So those are our three keynotes. And then our luncheon speakers are going to be Todd Whitaker, another famous author, and then Rahima Ellis. We’re happy to have a woman in leadership luncheon that she’s going to be facilitating and it’s going to be a blast.

Fantastic. That all sounds really exciting. I’m especially excited for the con keynote just because, you know, as a chief Ruckus Maker, I want to be on the edge of where the future education is going. Right. And I think school districts that are burying their head in the sand or trying to ban AI, this is like a very wrong approach. This is my point of view. Okay. But I think it’s a really poor approach and we have to think about how to partner with technology and use it in ethical, responsible ways. But it’s going to dramatically transform, it has the potential to dramatically transform things for the better. Right. But only if you educate yourself and get, and it’s important to learn from leaders in these spaces. So that was a personal point of view and a personal excitement for me and I think just for the Ruckus Maker listening, since obviously you care about the content that I put out there, I want to say I’m pretty sure my sessions on flipping talent treadmills to talent incubators. And that’s because Ruckus Makers do go different. We help make shifts from old, broken, traditional ways of educating to new, different and creative. And that is a hot topic too. Campuses are really hurting and bleeding for embodies on campus educators. But there are specific things you can do to stand out and craft what I call your campus charm. And I’m sharing all this to entice the listener to come to United and then come to my session as well because I know, I promise and I guarantee if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and execute on the ideas I will share, it will dramatically change your relationship to attracting, interviewing, hiring, onboarding and retaining talent. That is work for leaders I support. And I will say this, if you want to be like Mike Tyson, you got to train Mike. Mike Tyson. Right? So the guarantee is only if you are going to train and eat like Mike Tyson and do the things that make him great. So anyways, what an opportunity, Robyn, and thank you for inviting me, you know, to speak as well. I heard one thing as a tip, bring your team. I’m all for that. Empower everybody. I’ve seen some ads on social media, so I don’t want to be wrong here, but I think like, you’re running a special bring four, get a fifth for free. Is that correct?

Absolutely, yes, that’s correct.

So super generous and a great way to get everybody sort of speaking the same language. And I love Robyn how you said, like, there’s five strands. If you focus one strand as a team, you could really go deep. Anything you want to add to that and. Or I would love to hear any other tips you might have about just maximizing the United experience.

This team approach piece, I’ll just tag onto what you said and follow along with your Ruckus Making team. We are Ruckus Makers. Hey, why Ruckus Make by yourself? Bring your team, bring your feeder system, so that as a system, we can Ruckus Make together, we can be ruckus make together and leverage the power of our vision and our innovative ideas and the way we think about education together and synergize. Get fabulous ideas from the conference and then leave the conference with takeaways that will inspire you to launch your new school year with freshness and a sense of recalibration, as my friend Jimmy Kasas says. I also want to invite you all to consider attending some of our Precon sessions. Our Precon sessions happen on Sunday before the Monday that the conference begins. And the Precon sessions, we have a morning session and afternoon sessions. We have some fabulous speakers here. Robyn Jackson, the builder.

The builder, yeah. I love her so much.

Ronald Jackson, she was, he knows last year, a big draw. And we had a ignite plus a post event professional learning series with Robyn afterwards. And our listeners and attendees learned so much from.

She keynote last year.

Yes, yes. Building a builder instead of a leader, like a builder. It’s good. And then we have Baruti. Baruti Capelli is also going to be on speakers, which is amazing. He can talk about bringing value to the supervision piece instructionally. And then we have Kim Campbell, she’s a middle level administrator. She’s a middle level guru, actually. And she’s going to talk about building a nice middle level culture in schools. And then we have someone from the Khan Academy as a precursor to cell Khan’s presentation.
Doctor Fay, he’s going to talk about unleashing AI and how to transform education, like you said, how to proactively be ahead of the game. It’s here. AI is here. How can we really get ahead of it and utilize it to support students proactively in the right ways?

There’s been many milestones in my career, like this podcast that has changed my life, opened many doors. It has over two and a half million downloads and ranks in the top 0.5% of all shows worldwide, any industry and category. But I love that I have Robyn’s cell phone number and she returns my calls and texts. I am such a fan of hers.. When I saw she was keynoting because of the material that you give out right in the bags, like pick up, I said, oh, you’re going to crush it. Like, what are you talking about? And good luck, and blah, blah. But I just, I’m a big fan and there’s a lot of Ruckus Makers who are builders, too. I know many people that I’ve supported that have done her programs and vice versa. And so I think the important thing there is, I have a saying, when you get better, everybody wins, right? And, you know, just, you can’t be a leader of learning if you’re not learning. And this is just, again, another point of view, but something that irritates me if you’re not, like reading is just at the basic fundamental level of learning. But go to events like United, get yourself a coach or mentor. Actually, one of my tips, I have two tips on how to maximize your united experience, but one of those is to grow your network. Be intentional with developing relationships. Where are you coming from, what your role is, think about what your superpower is. So you could tell people that because you can help, and then tell people that you meet there for the first time, what are you looking for?

Because maybe they’ll point you towards a session, maybe you’ll make a friend, you know, that’s a genius in that area or whatever, but don’t miss out on the opportunity to grow your network. And then the other thing I was going to say is there’s pre-con events, which are great. Utilize those if you can, and also build an extra day on the 18th. Right. If you can take a day, then to slow things down, because this is the tragedy, don’t go and just get entertained and excited and take a bunch of notes. You have to block off time for deep work to then synthesize, go over the notes, what matters most to you, and then create a plan on how you’re going to take action, which is even easier if you have your team. And all you need is an extra day. So those are my two tips. Grow your network and have an extra day to maximize the experience.

Love that. Love that. And I will add to your network. NASSP has leadership networks. So we actually cause part of our goal is to create space, safe space for our school leaders to gather virtually online, facilitated by other school leaders, by different types of groups. Because we want to grow your network, and we want you to feel like you belong. We want you to feel included and welcomed in a group that you choose to be a part of. So we have groups such as an urban school leader group. We have a rural school leader group. We have school leaders of color groups. We have a middle level school leaders group. We have an LGBTQ. We have a women in leadership network. At United and ASSP. We’ve embedded our networks into sessions. Our networks are actually going to be presenting workshops, and if you are someone who is thinking, wow, I really. I want to hear what the rural school leaders are talking about. Go to the rural school leader network session. It’s a presentation, so you’ll hear about rural school leaders stuff, but then you also get to network with other rural school leaders, and we have ten different networks running around for you to engage with during the session. So they’re embedded in a session. You pull up your mobile app, and you look at what sessions are going on, and you may see a network right in there. Slide right in, and we invite you to attend a network and grow your network, just as Danny says, and continue your ruckus making with your new network.

Yes. Robyn, I want to ask you the last three questions I asked all my guests. If you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for a single day, what would Robyn’s message be?

That was a tough one for me, Danny, because I actually have three, and I would probably rotate them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then I would keep rotating them. Number one, we see you. Number two, you belong. Number three, you matter. Those would be my three.

Beautiful. I see the theme, too. It’s through the whole podcast. But I love that it matters. And what about a dream school? If you could build your dream school, you weren’t limited by any resources. Your only constraint was your ability to imagine what would be the three guiding principles of this.
Okay, so that’s great. Who doesn’t want to dream? Three guiding principles of my dream school would be. You could probably guess it. Number one, it’s going to be built on the foundation of inclusion and a sense of belonging, period. Parents and families and students will all feel welcomed from day one and a part of an integral part of that community. So total inclusion. Two, safety. Safety is huge for me, probably because my dad was a police officer in Hawaii. But safety emotionally, intellectually, and physically and mentally. So not only physically safe but you need to feel mentally safe to make mistakes and learn from your mistakes. And then emotionally safe. You need to feel very comfortable in your skin to be your authentic self. And whoever you are is your neek self. And it matters. You matter. And then three, of course, kind and respectful, collaborative and conversational staff and students where, you know, it’s okay to have your opinions, it’s okay to have different beliefs. It’s okay to agree to disagree. But we’re gonna do it as we build this school in a kind, respectful manner. We’re going to listen to perspectives. We’re going to listen to all sides, and then we’re going to share our perspective on what we feel might be right. But we’re going to listen to others, because together, we’re going to build and synergize the best right school based on the foundation of respect.I thought about, well, what could I have? Millions of money didn’t count. Really, for me, Danny, it’s not about the money. It’s about these three foundations. And then the school would be built around those three key principles where students, staff, and parents are feeling included, safe and respected at all times.

Amazing. Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground in today’s conversation about everything we discussed. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?

Leadership matters. You matter. People look up to you. You are a role model. Everything you do, people are watching, kids are watching, babies are watching, and every student is someone’s baby. And so what we do with students matters. And whether you’re having a good day or a bad day, you matter. So keep up the good work, and we believe in you. You are doing an amazing, impossible job during turbulent, challenging times. And you are the unsung heroes of education and democracy.

Thanks for listening to the Better leaders Better Schools podcast, Ruckus Maker. How would you like to lead with confidence? Swap exhaustion for energy, turn your critics into cheerleaders and so much more? The Ruckus Maker Mastermind is a world class leadership program designed for growth minded school leaders just like you. Go to betterleadersbetterschools.com mastermind, learn more about our program, and fill out the application. We’ll be in touch within 48 hours to talk how we can help you be even more effective. And by the way, we have cohorts that are diverse and mixed up. We also have cohorts just for women in leadership and a BIPOC only cohort as well. When you’re ready to level up, go to betterleadersbetterschools.com mastermind and fill out the application. Thanks again for listening to the show. Bye for now and go make a ruckus.



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