Category Archives: stewardship

Are Finnish schools a helpful model for Christian schools?

9780807752579_p0_v1_s260x420It would be worth looking at Finland, if only as an educational model, due to their consistently world leading test scores, but they also demonstrate other desirable qualities as a society that Christian schools seek to emulate. If Christian schools are about producing flourishing students (for starters, search flourishing on this blog!) then we might do well to study the country that sits atop the European Union in terms of producing flourishing adults. If we are interested in happiness and blessings then we should be looking at Finland, among the world leaders in overall happiness of life and prosperity. If we are concerned about developing fine character, then we should study “sisu.” Finnish “sisu” is “a cultural trademark that refers to strength of will, determination, and purposeful action in the face of adversity, coexist(ing) with calmness and tenderness.” (Salhberg, quoting research of Lewis, 2005 and Steinbock, 2010.) Finns also value collaboration over competition, think “small is beautiful,” and rely on straight talk and simple procedures. These are value sets that closely parallel the values of Christian schools. Intrigued? Let’s explore some more paradoxes and lessons as described in Pasi Sahlberg’s excellent book, Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? and discover what lessons might apply to Christian education.

Sahlberg unpacks several paradoxes as he compares Finnish education to North America and the world:

1. Teach less, learn more – Salhberg demonstrates that quantity of instructional time does not equal quality of instruction. While teachers in the US log about 1080 instructional hours and Canadian teachers teach about 900 hours, Finnish teachers teach about 600 hours. He states: “Lower teaching hours provide teacher more opportunities to engage in school improvement, curriculum planning, and personal professional development during their working hours.” Moreover, Finnish children start school at age 7 but lead the world in literacy. Finnish 15 year-olds spend less time on homework than their peers in any other country – rarely more than a half-hour a day. 7% of Finnish students experience anxiety and stress when working on math compared to 52% in Japan and 53% in France.

2. Test less, learn more – according to the PISA database, Sahlberg notes that educational scores in countries that emphasis competition, choice, and test-based accountability have gone down, while in Finland, where the emphasis has been on teacher professionalism, school based curriculum, trust-based educational leadership, and school collaboration through networking, scores have gone up. It is also interesting to note that in Finland students receive a comprehensive evaluation of progress after each semester – this includes not only academic performance, but grades in behavior and engagement as well.

3. More equity through growing diversity – in spite of growing diversity, Finland’s performance has continuously increased and the variance between student achievement performances has decreased.  Almost half of the 16 year olds have had some sort of special education, personalized help, or individual guidance. Salhberg notes that the main principle of Finland’s reform efforts has been to provide educational opportunities for all students. While only 3.4% of children in Finland live in poverty (as compared to 21.7% in the US and 13.6% in Canada) the poverty rate certainly parallels what would be normative in our Christian schools.

4. Teaching as a profession – teaching attracts the best and brightest (only 1 in 10 are accepted into primary school teacher training), even though the salary is only slightly above the national average. Teachers take their work seriously and there are no formal teacher or school evaluation processes in place. Teachers work collaboratively with each other and teacher training institutions, and the teacher education process is research oriented so that graduates have the tools to adapt to a changing world. Teachers are expected to take risks, be creative, and be innovative. These values are reflected in Finland’s spending 4% of GDP in research and development, second highest in the European Union.

5. Do they spend more on education? No and yes – Finland’s spending (5.6% of GDP) compares favorably to other European Union nations (5.7%), the US (7.6%) and Canada (6.1%). Finland’s welfare state model provides all families with an equitable start via early childhood care, voluntary free preschool, comprehensive health services, and preventative measures to identify learning difficulties. Finnish children all get a free and healthy lunch each day regardless of their parent’s socioeconomic status.

I find much to admire in the Finnish system of education. Wherever God’s image-bearers are flourishing to this degree, there is significant evidence of God’s goodness and common grace at work. Equality as a guiding principle excites me – it is a valuing of the inherent worth of each child. I believe that if as schools we pursue equity, we will achieve excellence as a by-product, as demonstrated by Finland’s performance. Emphasizing teacher professionalism, trust, and collaboration are how we can bring the best of each individual and out of our teams – maximizing talents God has given each for both individual and common good.

Sometimes we feel change is not possible in our situations due to federal, provincial or state mandates. While we cannot turn our countries into Finland, there is much we can learn from Finland and much that unintentionally reflects Biblical principles. Let’s emulate and advance the good, right, and true qualities we see in Finnish schools.

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Two faith enhancing resources worth noting

I would like to share two resources that merit attention and may be helpful in nurturing faith with students.

The story of Corrie Ten Boom is one that some of us may be familiar with – a Christian woman in the Netherlands who hid Jews from persecution during the Holocaust. I learned about a resource related to this story from former Rehoboth Executive Director, Ron Polinder, who happened to sit down on a flight next to Susan Sandager, an actor who presents a one-woman dramatization called Time with Corrie.  The informational brochure and contact information can be found here:  Corrie Ten Boom -SandagerBrochure-7 copy.  I believe with Ron that “Corrie’s story is one that we and our children and grandchildren and students should never forget–it is an important message . . .” There is much that our students can gain from the stories of heroes of faith such as Corrie that is instructive and inspirational for their own lives. The sharing of narratives and faith stories is one of the best ways that we can encourage faith in our students.

Kiva is a way to help connect people through lending to reduce poverty in the world. Individuals or organizations can lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world. The Kiva website indicates that there has been about $300 million dollars lent by 739,477 lenders since 2005 and that the repayment rate has been 98.94%! This seems amazing! Kiva does this work through 147 field partners and 450 volunteers in 61 countries around the world.

How Kiva Works from Kiva on Vimeo.

What is compelling to me about Kiva is that it is giving a hand up, as opposed to a hand out. If a class or classroom were to collect money, select a project, and connect with an individual, not only that individual could be helped, but the money could be reused next year with another class. Or ideally, if each class were to raise funds, there could be additional people helped each year due to the repaid money and the new funds. There are currently over 1,070 school teams lending money. The leading team is a school from Honolulu that has lent over $118,650! They have made it part of their senior capstone project. I’d love to see one of our Christian schools at the top of the leader board – what a great way to engage our kids globally!

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Tough Question #3: Collaboration – a Christian responsibility?

Source: troglodyteking via Flickr

Something that has troubled me in recent years is the degree to which Christian schools collaborate and work together for the greater good. I have become increasingly concerned as the recent North American recession has brought a few things to greater light. Declining enrollment and budget shortfalls (due in some part to the troubled economy) should be encouraging us to work together even more for a common vision of Christian education.  I am deeply saddened when I’ve learned that some schools would rather maintain identity and pride of place than do what is best for families and students, and ultimately, the kingdom. Sometimes this is a parent problem and sometimes a board/administration problem.

A friend was recently telling me about how, due to low numbers, he was unable to offer a particular athletic program. His solution was to check with two other local Christian schools so see if his students could join with their team. The other two schools were fine with students coming over and joining their teams. When my friend offered these options to the parents, some parents were angry and said that their children would never join the other Christian school teams. One can only speculate – did old athletic rivalry mean that much to the parents that they would rather deny their children an opportunity, as opposed to letting them play for that rival Christian school? Aren’t we supposed to be on the same team? The same parents would not have a problem with their children playing on city recreation teams or “traveling” teams, but wouldn’t join another Christian school team! I was incredulous, but my friend insisted he was not making this up.

Perhaps even more dramatic examples occur when schools lose enrollment over a number of years, yet refuse to have their students join with another larger Christian school nearby. They cut programs and opportunities for students, try to sell parents on the personal, small school aspect, but largely end up offering an inferior education and ask enormous sacrifices of their teachers and administrators – low pay, little or no professional development, and heavy workloads. This is not excellence – these schools are bleeding to death, yet refuse to collaborate or close doors.

We are dealing with issues of pride and a lack of stewardship in these situations. Don’t get me wrong; small schools can be vibrant and wonderful places. But if pride of place and identity gets in the way of what is best for kids and the nurturence of their faith,  I believe we are better stewards if we seek to share our resources for the common good rather than prop up something that is not excellent. If we can’t offer our best, it is time to look in the mirror, acknowledge it isn’t working, swallow our pride, and join forces with others to better advance the kingdom.

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How do we best develop empathy in our kids?

Empathy in a carton by Geoff Jones - used via Creative Commons license, http://www.flickr.com/photos/geoffjones/526861820

Following NPR’s Andy Carvin on Twitter the past month has meant an almost continuous stream of “retweets” of those in the action in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and other hotspots. The tweets have been raw, unedited, emotionally wrenching, and urgent. They impacted my thinking and my prayer life. Yet was that an appropriate response? Should I somehow do more?

I recently read an article that commented on the fact that donations for the crisis in Japan were running behind those of the earlier crisis in Haiti and with Katrina. The experts suggested that we perceived a greater need in Haiti based on a lesser self-sufficiency. They also mentioned that the needs were more clearly articulated in the Haiti and Katrina crises. Is it then perceived neediness, need articulation, or does the location of the crisis make a difference?

In our digitally connected world, on what basis do we decide which crisis to pay attention to and use for teaching purposes? Has our technology outstripped our ability to respond empathetically? How do we avoid a generalized dulling of our ability to feel our neighbor’s pain? Who is our neighbor and how can I possibly respond to all of my neighbors? Which neighbors do I pay attention to? These are questions that I believe are important to discuss with our colleagues and fellow staff members.

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Down with busyness, up with purposeful engagement!

I have been contemplating the difference between the word “busy” and what an appropriate substitute for that word might be. I am getting increasingly annoyed when I hear myself and others complain about how busy we are and wonder if this sentiment isn’t sinful at its core. Busyness is a major modern plague of our time, but I am guessing that it has always been around. The idea of busyness relates to our sense of worth and may be a pride issue for many of us. The busier we are, the more important we must be. Not being busy could cause some of us to lose our job or demonstrate a lack of success. Or if we are not busy as a retiree we think that others may believe that we are irrelevant – we are not contributing anything to life, or that life is passing us by – we have nothing to offer and no one is interested in us.

There are many reasons for busyness and we may well be busier than ever before.

  1. Our consumption has increased and our increased consumption increases our busyness. We have more things we want – which requires purchasing at the best possible price (more research and shopping time), finding a place to store it (no wonder that storage, as an industry, is bigger than Hollywood), managing its maintenance (do you have a monthly schedule of all your items to maintain, oil, clean?), and disposing of it eventually (do you take out an item for every item you take into your house?).
  2. We have more choices, more options for everything, forcing us to take more time with research and decision-making. We don’t just grab a box of laundry detergent – we get the organic, scent-free, 3x concentrated kind that has special cleaning powers through the time-released elements in the cleaning cycle! Every choice we make now contains several mini-choices – so that even a run to the store for a few items can be taxing. We simply have more options in almost every area – health care, finance, education, church, leisure, etc. Additionally when we make choices, we may be concerned that we are missing out what we have not chosen – economists call this opportunity cost.
  3. We have more opportunities to communicate with a wider circle of friends than ever before – we are global now! Yet I notice in the Christmas cards we are getting this year that we are getting more pictures than family letters – are people too busy to write, or have too many cards to send out?
  4. We have more programs, ministries, small groups, mission trips, service opportunities and ways to get involved – a great thing, but one that sets us up for busyness … and guilt if we don’t get involved (maybe because we are trying to be less busy!)
  5. We are more aware of research on good parenting, being a good friend, being a good spouse, etc. and so work harder at these things – a good thing, but one that may also make us busier.
  6. Our personal and professional lives are constantly intermixed – with improved communication we are frequently jumping back and forth between our personal and professional worlds. We are more acutely aware every minute of what is going on in the lives of all those around us, whereas we used to know about things on a monthly or yearly basis. Our expectations for instant knowledge have increased in all spheres.
  7. Our culture winks at workaholism even while the faith formation research states that our children feel ever more abandoned during their growing up years. A deadly cousin I call “sportsaholism” afflicts families who add busyness on their weekends through club sports – in the process not only destroying Sabbath, but impacting family finances and time for worship.

I am not going to suggest that we disengage from life because that is not realistic or helpful. I am going to suggest that we consider the differences between the words busy and engaged. I believe that God has wired us to be creatures who are engaged and that we find satisfaction when we engage with His world and the creatures he has created. We are happiest when we are engaged. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, has suggested that when we balance anxiety and boredom we achieve a state of “flow” – that wonderful feeling when we are so engaged in our work that time ceases to be a factor. We may even ignore emails and phone calls during this time! When we are in “flow” we experience the joy of creativity, discovery, contemplation, and a sense of rightness – I believe this is a foretaste of heaven and a gift in that there is a temporal suspension that lifts us above our busyness. We find joy in being fruitful, not just busy.

Was Jesus busy or engaged? He was always about his Father’s work, but demonstrated the kind of balance we need. When we think we have a hard time with priorities, we need to consider how Jesus, who certainly was aware of the needs of the crowds and the press of the people, was able to engage deeply and be about what was really important. As one anonymous author suggests, perhaps BUSY is really an acronym for Being Under Satan’s Yoke. Jesus continually resisted the urging to do it all – consider the temptation of Satan at the beginning of his ministry, the passages about the multitudes and their needs for healing, the amounts of time he spent in prayer and solitude, his words to Mary and Martha, and then the questions we might raise of “why only three years of ministry?” and “why did he come when he did and not in today’s era of global communications?”

This busyness issue is really a large struggle in many of our lives and one that we must battle. Maybe some of these things will help a bit:

  1. Please for starters make Sunday a day of media rest – turn off your computer and leave it off for the day. Please don’t write me on Sunday re: any work thoughts!
  2. Read this classic poem by Wendell Berry “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” – do things that don’t compute, can’t be measured, and have no immediate value.
  3. Watch this compelling Youtube by Scott Stratton given at the TEDxOakville entitled Keep Going Until We Stop.
  4. Rent the movie “Young at Heart” – the documentary movie of a senior singing group that sings an unusual and unexpected repertoire such as Coldplay and Hendrix, but as bodies fail, demonstrate a focus and joy in using their gifts to uplift others.
  5. Draw distinctions in your life between what is busyness and what is worthy engagement. Use the questions “Will this matter in five years?” and “In a hundred years who will know the difference?” to help you do the sorting.

May the peace of Christ which passes all understanding rule your hearts and minds this wonderful season of celebration – let’s rebel against busyness and embrace being engaged in the right stuff!

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Filed under Biblical worldview, change, devotional, resources, stewardship, use of time

The real SAT test

(Thanks to my friend Mark Eckel, Director of the Mahseh Center for allowing me to re-post this blog post which originally appeared as “Genesis: ‘The Real World’ (Part 7)” on his Warp and Woof blogspot.)

Bright, shiny copper pots: I have never seen anyone so excited about cooking utensils!  Jon was explaining his historical finds that coincide with his love of preparing gourmet foods.  One of the cooking pots had actually been “resurrected” from an underwater shipwreck.  Jon’s love of cooking is displayed as decoration in his home.

One expedition for book boxes prior to a move found me in a bar. While there, the manager showed me his latest technique for dispensing drinks: a gravity system that worked from the room above.  Exact specifications created the beverage ordered by patrons below.  I’ll never forget the excitement of the owner.  He was so pleased to offer exceptional service.  Loving his vocation meant enjoyment of his life within the world.

I received a text from a former student the other day while he was in a tree stand hunting deer.  Back and forth electrons flew as I expressed amazement that he could hunt and text at the same time!  Guy told me that when you spend 200 days a year in the wild you learn to do many things at the same time.  Visiting his website I saw the pure joy in Guy’s eyes as he taught people lessons about life through hunting.

When God created “the heavens and the earth” He had such human enthusiasms in mind.  God’s assessment of His work speaks for itself: “And He saw that it was good.” The word means “beautiful” setting the standard for human excitement in creativity and aesthetics.  The material world is good.  We are not Gnostics, legalistically binding ourselves to human-centered regulations. To enjoy God’s good gifts of life is a sign of gratitude; thankfulness to One outside of ourselves.  The Psalmist is blessed by astronomy, agriculture, biology, law codes, wildlife and human life.

Delight in this God-given life is one of the reasons why I disdain certain gospel songs.  Growing up, one of the little ditties we sang in church was “This World Is Not My Home, I’m Just A Passin’ Through.”  I have been teaching a seminar for some time with the title “This World IS My Home!  I’m NOT Just Passin’ Through!”  I love the smell of crisp fall air.  I love the smell of the air just before it rains.  I love the smell of wood fires in the night air.  I love the smell of a bakery, sautéed onion-pepper mixture on the stove, and Kentucky Fried Chicken®!  And that’s just a few smells!  The list is endless of what I enjoy in this life!

So it is with great admiration that I mention a hymn which perfectly explains my joy:

For the beauty of the earth, For the glory of the skies,

For the love which from our birth, Over and around us lies.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour, Of the day and of the night,

Hill and vale, and tree and flower, Sun and moon, and stars of light.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight,

For the mystic harmony, Linking sense to sound and sight.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise, This our hymn of grateful praise.

Satisfaction, Appreciation, and Thankfulness is the most important SAT test we will ever take. To be ungrateful for the gifts given to us is to reject The One Who has given those gifts to us. We ought to give thanks for the reality of this life since He has given everything for us to enjoy.

E. M. Forster would cringe when people would tell him to “face reality.”  Turning round in a circle he would ask, “Which way should I face since reality is all around me?” In a similar vein, Cornelius Plantinga rightly takes to task those who think paying bills, going to a 9-5 job, and balancing work with leisure is “the real world.”  He says, “Someone who lives in the ‘real world’ lives with an awareness of the whole world, because the whole world is part of the kingdom of God.”

“The whole” compels me to contend “the real world” includes the seen and the unseen.  The five senses do not make sense apart from the sixth sense.  There is another world to which I must give an account.  The supernatural creates the natural.  The invisible God made the visible creation.  To neglect our responsibility to live under Heaven’s authority creates a disjointed view of life.  We succumb to naturalism, materialism, and pragmatism.  We begin to think that success is based on production.  “The bottom line” becomes our “finish line.”

God draws “a line in the sand.”  Unless we are careful, Deuteronomy 4:15-19 declares we are prone to worship, honor, and subscribe to the standards of this world.  I would encourage us all to ask ourselves this question: Is our Christian distinctiveness informed by “the real world’s” accountability to Another World?  As much as I enjoy this God-given life, I am constantly reminded that the creation has a Creator.  I will continue to revel in sights, smells, tastes, and human ingenuity as I remember that earth depends on Heaven.

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Filed under Biblical worldview, creation & environment, encouraging the heart, stewardship, worship

Timeless truth, different delivery #4 – How?

timeless and new(This post is part of a series – let me encourage you to read the previous posts that precede this post for helpful context – scroll down to view #1 & #2, then #3 above.)

One of the ways that we can help students experience the connectedness and meaning and beauty of the cosmos is through connecting learning, loving, and doing.  A full-fledged Christian education is an experience that connects head, heart, and hands, weaving together love, discernment, and virtue. What follows is an article by Jane Hilbrands describing service learning and a resources project that was described in the Nurturing Faith blog post of May 18, 2009 and what promises to be a great support for Christian teachers. Thanks, Jane, for your leadership and hard work to make this project a reality! Attention principals: Hopefully you always pass Nurturing Faith posts on to your teachers, but be sure to pass on this post and the link within it to your staff!

You may have heard some buzz in the education world about service-learning.  Perhaps you feel that your school has that angle covered; after all, there is the Thanksgiving food drive, the Angel Tree at Christmas and a few other projects.  Perhaps you feel that service projects really should be the domain of church youth groups and families, not sucking precious minutes away from the curricular crunch of the classroom.  Perhaps you think service-learning is the “Hands” part of CSI’s learning paradigm “Heads, Hearts, Hands.”  Perhaps, when finished with this article, you will have a whole new view of service-learning’s place in your school curriculum.

Unlike many service experiences, service-learning should always incorporate three distinct stages: preparation, action, and reflection.  Many students give money, accumulate service hours, earn project points or volunteer without preparation. Students zip in and out of a service experience without intellectually grappling with the underlying issues involved.  Without preparation students’ personal understanding and ownership of social justice issues may be minimized.  Students then may misinterpret their experiences and actually increase their prejudices or stereotypes.  Preparation is crucial in a service-learning experience, giving students a historical, cultural, and Biblical context for the situations they encounter.

This is the “Head” of CSI’s “Heads, Hearts, Hands” at its best, introducing students to the complex and interrelated issues within immigration, poverty, war, disease prevention, hunger, economic justice, racism and others both in the U.S. and globally.  These social justice issues can dove-tail with the traditional subjects of science, math, language arts, Bible, and social studies.  Although this may sound like a lot of research for teachers, wonderful resources are just a few clicks away online.  A conglomerate of resources has been compiled through a CRC Office of Social Justice/Kuyers Institute of Faith and Learning grant, organizing CRC-based background readings, statistics, videos, activities, resource pages, projects and more according to school level (elementary, middle, high) and by subject and issue. These resource summaries and curricular suggestions can be found at www.crcna.org/pages/osj_kuyers.cfm

Justice Resources page

Justice Resources page screen shot

The second stage, action, is the one usually envisioned when folks think of service-learning.  Students step beyond “Head” knowledge and move to “Hands” participation: helping younger students or the elderly, collecting food items, raising money, cleaning up areas, visiting hospitals, scooping soup, planting, etc.  Some educators resist hands-on actions because they feel there simply aren’t enough minutes in the semester to cover the curriculum they already face, let alone add-on more things.  Research supplies a different perspective however.

Students who participated in service-learning activities in high school were 22 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than those who did not participate, and students who participated in service-learning scored 6.7 percent higher in reading achievement and 5.9 percent higher in science achievement than those who did not participate in service-learning (National Educational Longitudinal Study, reviewed by Dávila & Mora, 2007).   Ritchie and Walters (2003) showed that both middle and high school students involved in service-learning had statistically significant increases in their motivation to learn.  Furco (2007) writes that a review of research indicates that high quality service-learning, because of its utilization of effective, experiential learning strategies, can enhance academic outcomes in such content areas as reading, writing, mathematics, and science.  Given our God-created multi-sensory bodies, hands-on actions are an effective and essential tool in deeply assimilating “head” knowledge. Simply, the more we involve ourselves, the more we comprehend and retain information.

The important concept to remember in the action stage is connectivity. Service actions should not be disconnected from curriculum learning, but instead should be a natural progression from classroom lessons to active responses.  For example, PE or science students studying nutrition should participate in a hunger service project; science students studying the properties of water could act to clean-up a local creek or improve a third world community’s access to safe drinking water; language art students can read literature of minority cultural or economic groups and participate in advocacy writing or campaigns for improving literacy. These are only a few ideas – many of the online links given in the CRC/Kuyers grant also head towards opportunities for taking action. The local and global possibilities are varied and many.  Once students’ eyes are opened during preparation, actions follow naturally and Christian responsibility and stewardship begin to grow.

The final stage, reflection, is where the wonder happens.  As details from preparation and action are individually and corporately revisited and reviewed, horizons are broadened, questions are posed, worldviews are adjusted, empathy becomes possible, and God’s Spirit has space to cultivate current and future fruitfulness in an informed and engaged Christian student. It’s a time for reflection, for internal reckoning of responsibility and calling.  This is the “Heart” where life-long growth and learning happen.  Although it is often listed in the middle, it is most prosperous as a final step, with both Heads and Hands before.

Each step in service-learning’s “preparation, action, reflection” or CSI’s “Heads, Hands, Hearts” is essential.  Without the head preparation of historical, cultural and Biblical context, the action of hands can lead to misguided conclusions. Without service actions, head knowledge becomes impotent, lacking participatory ownership of God’s restorative work.  Without heart reflection, personal positions and identity may not be solidly forged. Together these three stages form a solid educational paradigm, enabling students to be informed, engaged and deeply convicted of their role in God’s world.

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