On Balance: Parenting and Education

Building Connection and Trust in Phys Ed with Val Duval

May 07, 2021 Blue School / Val Duval Season 3 Episode 3
On Balance: Parenting and Education
Building Connection and Trust in Phys Ed with Val Duval
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Dawn speaks with beloved and long time Blue School educator, Val Duval. Val runs all of Blue School’s K-8 physical arts programming, coaches our basketball, volleyball and soccer teams and many afterschool classes. Val shares stories of his work with children and how physical education can be an opportunity for creating connection and trust (and some very exciting family news!). 

Visit Blue School's website to learn more about our education philosophy and how to apply. BlueSchool.org

DAWN:  Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And as we move into this spring and summer with a hint of hope, we know that more than ever, building close connections and listening to and learning from each other is what will get us through. We see you and we’re here to partner with you.

Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way. 

Today is just the best. I’m here with Val Duval. Val runs all of Blue School’s K-8  physical arts programming. In addition, he coaches our basketball, volleyball and soccer teams and runs many afterschool classes. Val is a connector and an invaluable resource around teaching and learning for teachers, students and parents community-wide. 

As you’ll hear in today’s episode, Val is also an incredible example of what we mean when we talk about knowing every student. Throughout the episode, we will be bleeping out children’s names to maintain privacy-- while ensuring you still get to hear Val’s stories and take-aways.

Hello, Val. [LAUGH] 

VAL:  Hey Dawn, how you doing? 

DAWN:  I'm good. I just couldn't be more excited than to actually spend time talking to you and hearing from you this morning. I'm feeling really lucky about spending time this way. [LAUGH] So knowing that we are going to talk this morning, I have been thinking a lot about how I first met you. And it was 12 or 13 years ago, you were at the Chinatown Y and we brought a class of Blue School students over and they were four, I think they were four. And I was just a parent at that point and I remember seeing those children like run harder and laugh harder and play harder than I had ever seen them play before. And it was love at first sight for all of them. [LAUGH] And I feel like it has been for every class since, and the joy you spread in every class is palpable, and it's so clear you were just born to do this work that you do in the world. So I am wondering like, what brought you to this work? 

VAL:  That's fascinating, because the — that relationship that we established [LAUGH] it was almost by accident. So I went to school to be a history teacher, and a high school history teacher. So I after graduating I decided to work for the Y instead, so I started working for the YMCA, and part of my role was to bring in local schools into our gym and allow them to use our gym for their Phys Ed program, whatever, because they didn't have a gym space. So and typically what I would do is hire somebody to do that. Although I did enjoy working directly [LAUGH] and I did the things on the side, I coached basketball, I did things like that. But I typically would hire.

I could not find somebody to work that position for Blue School at that time, and I think the schedule then just didn't fit. It was I think in the middle of the day, so I just said, you know, I will do direct service, which, you know, I was doing direct service for some of my programs, I was doing a tumbling class for two or three year olds. So I was familiar doing programs for kids. You know, it's something I studied for and I worked on. And then I decided to just [LAUGH] do this and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it immensely. And part of what I try to do is put myself in a child's shoes. And think about — at that time they were about, I think, three years old or like, four. [LAUGH] 

DAWN:  Yeah, three or four. 

VAL:  You know, four years old. And I'm thinking to myself, like, if I was a shy four year old, what would I want from a teacher, especially someone I don't know? And that's always been my mindset, which is an important thing for me. I think about the shy four year old, the timid eight year old, the sporty 11 year old. What does he want? The antsy seven year old. And I try to literally give them — give each child something from that class. And fulfill all of their needs. And I know you may think it's impossible, but really for me that's my goal. That's what I try to do, so that they all get something out of it. I want that experience to be memorable, that they leave feeling like that was something they want to do again. 

DAWN:  It's so funny, I heard you saying you might think that's impossible, and I think I would think that's impossible if I hadn't watched you do this for so many years. [LAUGH] Of course, every class is made up of all of these very different individuals. And it feels like you get to know what they need, and then you give it to them. [LAUGH] But I do feel like, that said, you also have goals for each grade, or thoughts about like, what's necessary in physical education, and in sort of all of the emotional and relationship work you do at different age levels. And I wonder if you can share some of your thinking around goals for those different developmental ages and what you hope they take away from their time with you. 

VAL:  I mean, depending on their ages, obviously it's different milestones and expectations for each child in terms of what physically they are able to do. But if I could summarize it, physically, for me, for each grade, I want them to understand their body has untapped potential. You don't know the limits. So I think kids would say sometimes I can't, and you would get that. And you would get that in a different facet as a teacher. You hear I can't, or I can't do this. My thing is always trying to let them know — it's easy for them to say that they can, but put them in that position, having them try something that they could never do, and then almost convincing them that yes, you can. Or you could get close to that if you try. And I just recently had this conversation with [BLEEP], who's in sixth grade now, was afraid of balls and just afraid — and would not feel like she could react fast enough to catch a ball.

So we throw the ball off the wall, and she would cry. And I even had a conversation with her mom and we were trying to help her cope. She's playing baseball now. [LAUGH] I mean, I'm trying to — and I'm not going to get emotional. [LAUGH] But it's just hard not to, because I do remember those moments. Those moments are like, tough for her. Like, she couldn't deal with that. And then for me it was like just making her comfortable at making her feel like you’re in the right place to feel like this, this is okay. It goes also to the emotional part of the environment I try to create. This is a good place to cry. This is a good place to get angry. This is a place to lose it. You can lose it here. And what we do with that emotion, how we take that. So when students get upset and crying and show that raw emotion, it never — it doesn't do anything to me. I draw from it. Because now we're taking our emotion and now we’re going to find a way to apply it. I created a character for [BLEEP], Mr. Closer. Because he used to get frustrated when missing and not be able to make a shot and not be able to score a goal, so we created this fictional character. This was his personality, Mr. Closer. It's okay to get close and not get it. 


VAL:  Not get it at that moment. Because then you could be Mr. Make It. And it's okay, you can be both. And that was super important for me, that these children, these students, I mean, these people I literally felt like I owed them that, like I wanted them to feel so comfortable with being in the gym and realizing that they had untapped potential and they could express emotion, and then they could foster relationships, because that was also a key thing about growing as a group, giving them opportunities to lead, and creating this concept of big thinker, where each student got a chance to lead a group every single class, even if he didn't want to. Even — and at times, yeah, they would run away. I don't want to be big thinker today. I don't want. But it was your turn, and I would — I'm entrusting you with this, I think you can do it, and you have to lead in your own way, and you could be vocal and be very direct and tell people like hey, we should try this, we should do this, and all my activity some and games were all about creating those opportunities for them to lead, and then allowing them to do it in their own way. You could be a silent leader and not say anything [LAUGH] and allow people actually sometimes do it on their own but also find that moment to like, speak up and say hey, I think we should go in this direction. So there's always attributes from the Phys Ed corner perspective. There's, you know, locomotive and non-locomotive movements, hand eye coordination development, there's — and I try to make sure all of that — those boxes have to be checked physically, they have to get a chance to experience that and play these games to develop those physical attributes. But there's other physical attributes that they don't know about in terms of themselves. 

You could jump this high. You are really fast. [LAUGH] But you don't know that and don't tell yourself you can't — you're not that fast, you're not that strong. And don't compare yourself to the person to your left, because you're different. And you don't know how good you are. You really don't. There's another person — there's another so and so two years from now that's you that you haven't met. And that person is just physically different and it's such — it's something that you just have to experience.

DAWN: You know, I'm thinking sort of very personally right now, like gym was a nightmare for me through school. [LAUGHTER] And it was because it was all about comparing. Like, it was all about winning or losing and [LAUGH] I was so rarely the winner,  and — 

VAL:  It's grim. [LAUGHTER] 

DAWN:  it feels like there is such a different lens that you have on students and their experience, like I remember thinking my peers don't want me on their team, the teacher doesn't think I'm going to be good at this, whatever. There is such a different lens, and I watch the result of your approach, which is like, open faces, relaxed, happy kids, whether they're the like, sporty kid — and I know you don't differentiate in that way, I'm sort of thinking about my childhood and definitely I felt like the not sporty kid around sporty kids. But it feels like it has something to do with connection and trust, and the way that you make connection and build trust with children. You've said a little of this already, I'm wondering if you can say more about how you built that connection and build that trust, and I guess also how you help students build that connection and trust with each other.

VAL:  Yeah. I guess calling a student sporty, like there's that term of being a sporty kid, and when you reference your own experience [LAUGH] I think a lot of us — and I've actually done a lot of work outside to understand what Phys Ed looks like. I've done trainings, I've actually become a trainer for us as a consultant for — they're not around anymore, they used to be called Fit for Life and they used to work with a lot of charter schools to understand. And some things I'm in agreement, but I'm not in agreement with the fitness grams that a lot of public school Phys Ed programs do. You just have to do a certain number of push ups and it's [LAUGH] — 

DAWN:  No, I remember it. I totally — that was my public school, and it was [LAUGH] we were in a row doing sit-ups next to each other. 

VAL:  Oh my God, I know and — 

DAWN:  Seeing how high you could climb the rope in front of [OVERTALK] — 

VAL:  I know. To me I cringe putting students in that position. And the reason why, because your level of sportiness, your level of athleticism is just different. And don't measure it. I don't like that aspect of when kids don't think of themselves as sporty, I'm like, well, you could be sporty in your own way. You could think of it differently and that's kind of sporty and it doesn't have to be measured physically. And when you ask like, what I try to do to create that feeling, I think about all the possible outcomes, every game and activity I create, I was thinking about all the possible scenarios, like all the outcomes for that. I would — and it will take me a while. And my girlfriend knows, because I'm up late sometimes, I'm trying to figure out what students will learn from this activity. What can they possibly learn? How will they feel? Like what raw emotion will they get out of doing this game?

Like I have my Notes app in my iPad is cluttered, because I have my own lesson plans, but I have things that — something happens in a class, I've got to write it down. I can't — I've got to write it down. I'm going to forget. So I have like all this information, because for me, it's important to know what possible outcome out of these games, and what kids would feel, and what kind of social emotional intelligence they would get out of it. And that's something I truly believe in, social intelligence guides me, self awareness, social awareness, relationships, like that guides me because I want that to be something they get out of my class, not just throwing a ball. Anybody could give a child a ball and say throw it. [LAUGH] But can I create games that will allow them to see not how well they're doing but how well they work together, how well they could respond to each other, and put them in these scenarios. Like you remember from the very beginning something I would have them do is — when you talk about relationships, they would come in and I would ask them to pair up and work with somebody. And a lot of times, you would get them they would pair up with their friends which is perfectly fine, but then sometimes as a twist I would have them go on opposite teams. And a lot of times, you know, you'll get pushback. But I would allow them to get a chance to play with other students and just that group work. I couldn't do it this year, but I usually start the year with a ice breaker where I would do some group games with them, and these group games would allow them to — the challenge would be move in a line, and allow the person in the front line to take the direction, but they had to move in rhythm. Sometimes I'm wondering will this work? This is going to be too cheesy for eighth graders. 

DAWN:  No. 

VAL:  And they always responded so well. They're like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything had a purpose. Everything had — every — from the way I walk in, the way my first words, there is a plan to it — it's not by accident. My mannerism, everything I do is based on trying to connect and create comfort. It's not an accident. The way I vary my voice and — because even when I did trainings, I was told these were dancers and karate teachers, and I would tell them, you need to be tired after your class. [LAUGH] You need to be — if you're not tired, did you put enough energy? Because kids feed off that energy. It gets transferred. And there are times after Zoom, I say bye and I lay on the ground because [LAUGHTER] I do. And like, but I had to, because if I didn't, how am I going to transfer that energy, especially through a screen? How am I going to ask you to do something if I can’t do it myself? If I can't show you that I'm enjoying this experience? So that's why. I mean, I am the way I am, everything has a plan to it. It's all about creating that space, and having them feel like once they cross that line to the gym, it's a release, get ready. 

DAWN:  Wow. 

VAL:  Yeah, you could exhale. Just — this is yours. Take over. I'm literally yours. Like do what you want, this is like — I'm your tool to like, you know, just — this is yours. And let's see what happens in the next 45 minutes. 

DAWN:  So true, wow. I've heard you talk about doing this over Zoom and I know you've been doing both this year.

VAL:  Yeah. 

DAWN:  So I'm wondering how that's been. I mean, I think there are so many different ways to think about that, and some of it is like you've literally had a window into children's lives. 

VAL:  Yeah. 

DAWN:  You've been working with children. You have very different spaces on that other side of the screen, you have different access or different Wi-Fi or different — being on video, all of those things. And then add in the Phys Ed elements. 

VAL:  Yeah. 

DAWN:  You really wanting to get them in their body during this year that is like so much looking at screens. So I wonder how your goals have shifted, and then if there are takeaways you have from this year from your work with students? 

VAL:  What I wanted to do with COVID, and I guess you could say no one was prepared for what we went through, and I did a lot of research. I tried to see what other Phys Ed teachers were doing and try and understand what worked. I watched tons of video, YouTube videos, and tried to read as many articles, and for me, what it came down to is trying to get students to feel like COVID is an afterthought. Like this is something that's not even something — we're not talking about that. We're going to take your room and we're going to make it our gym space. And I wanted the kids to feel like that was an escape. All of them, all ages. And felt like, well, we need to escape COVID and turn — literally turn your room into a boxing ring [LAUGH] turn your room into a basketball court, turn your room into a juggling station. So we've done juggling, we've done basketball, we've done soccer, we've done workouts like for the kindergarten first — I've had them grab their blankets and crawl under their blankets, while I'm crawling under my blanket.

Just to get them to use their core and everything has a purpose. Like for them, I've always been a firm believer in disguising your — almost like, yes, I have a goal of working your upper body, so I can have you there doing 20 pushups. That's not — to me, I can't do that. [LAUGH] That's not me. But what about if I had you crawl under your blanket four or five times and you could only use your arms? 

DAWN:  [LAUGH] Yeah. 

VAL:  That sounds like more fun to me, and I loved it, and I hope they enjoyed it, I've gotten really positive feedback from the parents, which is important. Super. I'm my biggest critic. So when they tell me yes, my child is looking forward to Zoom, that makes me feel like yes, this is a box I could check. This is working. 

DAWN:  Yeah. 

VAL:  But that's what I had to be. I had to be creative. I had to have something to create weights out of water bottles, and create trivia for my sixth, seventh, eighth graders, who are very reluctant [LAUGH] to work out in screen, and you just like — eighth graders is just one screen, which is me, and seven blank ones. [LAUGHTER] Which — and I did want to come hard and be like, oh, you guys have to turn on your screen, you guys have to face me, because like, who wouldn't want to do something on screen in front of other classmates. I don't think that's comfortable. So I had to be flexible, and so I create trivia, and they had me laughing. I had students just cracking me up with their answers and a lot of the fitness — so a lot of the trivia was based on units we've covered in the past, so focus on muscle groups, like what muscles did we work on if we were doing this particular exercise.

And they were just funny. And they were comfortable, and they were like [LAUGH] and that's why — ultimately that's what I wanted, so I went with it. You know? I went with it. 

DAWN:  Oh my gosh, and they were engaged and still there. I mean, I know. I know I have a high schooler who's had gym and those kids' cameras are off but they're not answering the trivia questions. [LAUGH] I really — you know, like there's something about staying engaged that's really — yeah. That's — 

VAL:  Engagement was the key thing. And if you could keep engagement, keep them with all the — like you said, Wi-Fi issues and all that, so yes, it was — and I feel like hopefully so far, I mean, I'm going to — I'm only speaking for myself, but I hope they are getting a lot out of it, because I try my best to put a lot into it. 

DAWN:  Sure. And then how has it felt to be back in real — 

VAL:  Oh, I miss it so much. [LAUGH] Ashley asked me, well, if — well, yes. [LAUGHTER] Well, can you — yes. Like, I don't know what — I don't even know what grade she was talking about. Would you like [OVERTALK] — yeah. Yeah. 

DAWN:  So you're getting to work in the gym a little bit but mostly outside in the street, or is it both? 

VAL:  Both. I mean, both. I managed to finagle and get third grade, because I have them on Zoom so now I'm going to have them for recess. And I use the gym for kindergarten-first, who have been just like — I mean, they've been off the wall, but who wouldn't be? And they've been amazing. They've been just great to just run around. 

DAWN:  Totally. 

VAL:  I just — I'm enjoying it. So — 

DAWN:  That's so great. And you see like all of the other parts of the day have all of these constraints on them, right? Like there are all these ways that we're like — and I see the kindergarten and first graders they're so amazing in their classroom, like with their keeping space and with their — and I'm sure that the energy that they get to let off as they're like, trying to make [OVERTALK] — 

VAL:  Yeah, with some parameters, I obviously am trying to always maintain that six feet, and you know, because I want them to feel safe. I want the parents also. And that's the thing, one of the parents [LAUGH] reached out to me and I told — I said this to her, and I think — I said one of the things I do is I do it with almost thinking you're right there watching me. And that's my philosophy. I — everything I do with students is almost — I would do it exactly the same thing if a parent was there. So I do it knowing that I am leaving a lasting impression. So with that, I want the parents to feel that safety is super important, and we're keeping everything strict in terms of guidelines, and they are enjoying themselves, but we are still maintaining — 

DAWN:  Of course. 

VAL:  COVID protocols which is the times we live in, so yeah. We've been able to do that, I think, pretty well. Thanks to also you guys as operations, and everybody else that has to deal with this stuff. [LAUGH] 

DAWN:  Yeah, for sure. This idea of parents and kids and sort of parents' relationship to your work, and then I think like as a parent, I'm remembering like field days, where you know, you set up a field day for — and all of the activities of field day, and then I watched, like, you running the dance station. [LAUGH] 

And all of the parents — like, it's all of the kids, but like every parent is up and dancing, too. You have a way of sort of looping in the family and connecting the family around this work within our bodies. So you know, in that most of the people that listen to this podcast are parents, I'm wondering if you have — some of your thinking about how to get our kids and ourselves up and active, and just like as we think about the summer, what are things you think about doing with your family? Sort of up and out in the world over the summer? 

VAL:  Yeah, I mean, to me, parent engagement is part of what I do even through Zoom. I've had kids take soccer balls and find their parent and try to put the ball in between their — I've had kids dance with their parents. It's not — and none of it is an accident. It's all planned. Kids feed off the energy of their parents. They imitate them. They are the best imitators in the world. They will copy everything. They will copy a parent to a tee, and I use that, and I think that's amazing, and parents could help with that by just letting them kind of like explore it, and it brings me an example of a student that was trying to figure out if swimming was a good activity for her. And I said — and I was trying to talk to her about it and I said yeah, you should think about it. And like, give her a nickname. I created a nickname for her. And her nickname is Torpedo. And the reason I did that, because I feel like kids love the aspect of being in different — like this persona, like you are — 

DAWN:  Yeah. 

VAL:  You could be this, I mean, a torpedo is fast. It's in the water. You're my torpedo. Well, from now on, if you're in the water, I don't care if you come in last, you're still my torpedo. And I think that is a great way to get kids to move, just find that way to be creative, and create these like, [LAUGH] I guess I don't call them gimmicks, but they are — the kids feed off that. They feed off their — these concepts that you could just make up, because they — you know, if it's being a torpedo in the water, yeah, or you know, you're my rabbit. You know, that's — kids love references, they know these things, and that's one thing I recommend. And walking is probably one of the most important things, I've gotten that question from parents a bunch. How to be active? I say walk. Walk everywhere. Walk home, walk to the house, walk to the store. [LAUGH] Walk around the house. Walk with your child and especially during COVID where everything is just more like stationary, everybody's sitting in front of a screen. Take time to just take a break and leave the house, leave every device, and walk or just explore, take that moment, take that time to just be one on one, right? 

DAWN:  That's beautiful. And I have to end with a question about like, what you — are there books that you're reading or [LAUGH] [OVERTALK] — 

VAL:  So — yeah. [LAUGHTER] So here are the books that I'm currently. Like some of them I've read in the past and they have helped guide me. So one book right now, I'm trying to get back into — physically I think I am — what's that — that men do in terms of pregnancy, that where we gain weight? 

DAWN:  Your like empathetic pregnancy? Yeah, 

VAL: So I am reading books on — so recently I'm reading books on fasting, so this is one of the books I'm trying to use as a guide to help me regain my summer figure. [LAUGHTER]

This book, this is one of my favorite books, it's my mindset, I've been more of a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. And it helps me. But I feel like it's part of my philosophy when it comes to working with children. 

DAWN:  Is that the Carol Dweck book? 

VAL:  Yeah, Carol Dweck, yeah. 

DAWN:  Right. I'm reading that. 

VAL:  I got this book from Blue School. [LAUGH] 

DAWN:  Man. 

VAL:  I might have gotten this book from you. 

DAWN:  Oh, who is the author? 

VAL:  Rick Akerley. 

DAWN:  The Genius of Children? 

VAL:  Yeah. Just allowing children to be almost themselves and allowed them to explore, but to feel what they want to feel but also being — not being so critical, and understanding the simplest movement, the simplest thing is — could be genius, and there's genius in what they do, and trying not to over analyze it. [LAUGH] 

DAWN:  Yeah. 

VAL:  Could be trying to redirect them. And that helps me also. 

DAWN:  Awesome. 

VAL:  And the last thing, this is my go to. [LAUGH] So — 

DAWN:  Can you tell people what book you're holding up right now? 

VAL:  It's — well, the title is [LAUGH] — it's We're Pregnant: A First Time Dad's Pregnancy Book. Adrian Kulp. So he writes just basically his [LAUGH] experience being a first time dad, and finding out that his wife was pregnant and just going through that transformation and being supportive, being a supportive dad and helping her. I'm happy to say I'm not patting myself on the back, there's a lot of things I was doing already. I was like, yeah, yeah, I'm doing that. 'Cause I — you know, I was like, yeah, I do that already, yes, I do that? So — 

DAWN:  I'm a good partner. 

VAL:  Yeah. [LAUGH] But he does also give more of the biological kind of information about how big the child is and what's happening physically. And that's a great to know. 

DAWN:  Wow. 

VAL:  Knowing when the child could actually hear things, and respond to voices, and so I'm finding those things out, it's just been really, really just incredible — I'm trying to find the words. That's why I'm getting caught up, because you get just that warm feeling knowing that a child is listening to you in the womb, and it's incredible. So I talk to her [LAUGH] 

DAWN:  Well, of course you do. I mean, it just — I — congratulations, first of all. 

VAL:  [LAUGH] Yes, thank you. 

DAWN:  I can't wait until your baby is in the world. But this — of course, you're connecting even now. Like, it's what you do, you connect. And to connect to — 

VAL:  Yeah. I mean, I find that lately, when it kicks and it gets hard it's around 10:00. 

DAWN:  Oh. 

VAL:  So I would talk to it. I mean, I'm calling it — we call it — we have a nickname. We just call it baby D. I've already been writing to him or her, because we are waiting. We don't — we actually are not going to find out the gender because for me, it really — I'll be honest, it doesn't matter. [LAUGH] It doesn't matter one bit. I know some people want a boy and nothing against that, I just — I have no preference to be honest with you. I have — 

DAWN:  You work with a lot of kids, you know a lot of them. 

VAL:  I do. I'm just excited and I've already been writing to it. I created a Google e-mail, I've been writing just telling — 

DAWN:  That's so beautiful. 

VAL:  — this baby how happy I am about [INAUD] some days that mom gets mad and [LAUGHTER] things that happen. So it's a unique spirit, it's definitely transforming. 

DAWN:  That's beautiful. Such a gift. Well, I can't thank you enough for spending this time with us. 

VAL:  Oh, thank you. This was an honor. 

DAWN:  Yeah, it's such a pleasure to talk to you always. Thank you, Val. 

VAL:  Thank you, Dawn.

DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.

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