Category Archives: Teaching writing

Gleanings from my summer nonfiction reading list

After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.

I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.

Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.

I’ll skip over  Hochman and Wexler’s August release The Writing Revolution; I wrote about it  here and here.

FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source Alibris.com.

Happiness for All

foreclosed home in poor condition

Residents lost house, hope.

by Carol Graham (2017, Princeton University Press)

The pursuit of happiness in an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.

Graham’s book isn’t easy reading— I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.

Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills”  and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.

This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

Lancaster, Ohio, seen through shattered glass

A company’s demise is killing its town.

by Brian Alexander (2017, St. Martins Press)

This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds even more formidable than Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.

Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio,  a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.

He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail  of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)

Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.

I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.

This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.

Highly recommended reading.

The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade

Soldier among crosses on WWI battlefield

Red, white and black: the colors of the war.

by Philip Jenkins (2014, Harper One)

In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.

The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.

That doesn’t mean the text is dry.

Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers.  He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis.  For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.

This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.

Great War Britain: The First World War at Home

canteen waitress serves soldiers

Happy side of home front war

by Lucinda Gosling (2014, The History Press)

This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.

When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.

Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.

Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names  would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.

Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.

I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

title printed over duct tape

Duct tape is sticky stuff

by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, (2008, Random House)

Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.

The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.

The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”

Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.

Most of us ought to read it every year.

The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life

two ball shapes and metallic bar

Lots of detail in simple design.

by John Maeda (MIT Press, 2006)

John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT.  His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.

Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.

If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.

If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented.  It would be an instructive exercise.

Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web.

Groups of eight figures loosely linked by small thread

Eight-member groups are loosely linked.

by Paul Adams (New Riders, 2012)

Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.

He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.

Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.

The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.

Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.

Highly recommended.

Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers

angry emojii within heart symbol

PR aid for schools?

by Jay Baer (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016)

Jay Baer is a marketing guy,  but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.

Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for  business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business  treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation.  Baer shows how to deal with both groups.

Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.

There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school.  If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.

Highly recommended.

Logotype

logotype in white on magenta background

It’s easy to spot the logotype book.

by Machael Evamy (Lawrence King Publishing, 2016)

A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol.  For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.

This is an entire 336-page book  of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.

This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.

 

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What’s your goal in teaching writing?

Since I missed Tuesday’s #TeachWriting chat on Twitter, I founnd the transcript, which I thought might interest you, too.

Below, compiled and edited for brevity, is the chat’s first question and responses to it.

The chat’s first question

Responses to the first question

If someone had more than one response to Q1, I’ve included only one, usually the first.

As you read, please bear in mind that respondents are a diverse group that, depending on the chat, may include K-12 teachers, college faculty, school administrators, and a variety of support staff. In some respects, their perspectives vary with their positions.

Quantity a top-of-mind goal

Perhaps it was the way the question was worded that prompted so many teachers to respond by framing their goals in terms of quantity.  Researchers certainly have criticized teachers for not having students write enough; however, one might almost conclude from these responses that the teachers believe students learn to write well by doing a lot of writing without the benefit of teaching or coached practice.

I noticed no one mentioned a specific genre of writing. The closest anyone came was a reference to writing across the curriculum, which would suggest expository writing.

A couple of people phrased their goal in terms of how they wanted their students to feel about writing. Affective goals are important, but they respond indifferently to teaching and are nearly impossible to measure. If, like Ben Kuhlman, a teacher wants a student to feel successful at writing, the best way to achieve that goal is to teach the student to write.

A1: My goal never changes

Here’s what I would have given as my response to Q1:

 

Goal: every student writes competently.

For over 40 years, my goal in teaching writing has been to turn out competent writers. I aim for every student who enters my classroom (a physical one or a digital one) to leave being able to write expository nonfiction competently in the situations in which that student has to write.  Depending on the student, that can mean writing in their college classes or at work.

In either case, students expect a quick payout.

To accomplish my goal—all-class competence—I have every student write every day in response to prompts I give them.  Most days we do informal writing about course content other than writing or about some aspects of the expository writing process.  One day a week is used for drafting that week’s formal document.

My students don’t leave my classes on an emotional high: They’re too exhausted for that.

But a significant number leave writing competently, even when the course is as little as five weeks.

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The Writing Revolution gets a lot right

Earlier this summer, I read and blogged about a pre-publication  Q&A with Judith M. Hockman  about The Writing Revolution, a book she coauthored with Natalie Wexler.  The article piqued my curiosity enough to order the book sight unseen.

book: The Writing Revolution

My copy of The Writing Revolution bristles with sticky notes.

I started reading it the evening it arrived.

Hockman comes with the perspective of a K-12 educator who enjoys the hope, if not the actuality, that all teachers in the school help teach writing to every student every year. Wexler is an educational journalist with a law background and experience tutoring reading and writing  in high-poverty Washington, DC schools.

By contrast, I come with the perspective of  a college instructor expected to take students with no training in writing, remediate their deficiencies, as have doing writing college-level writing within five, eight or 15 weeks, depending on the college.  Despite those different perspectives, we are in substantial agreement on how to teach writing.

Writing Revolution‘s Six Principles

The method taught in the The Writing Revolution rests on six principles.

Principle 1: Students need explicit instruction in writing, beginning in the early elementary grades.

It might be well to add, “and continuing throughout high school.”

Principle 2: Sentences are building blocks of all writing.

Very true. When students reach me without having explicit instruction at the sentence level, I have about as much chance of teaching them to do college level writing as James Mattis has of getting Donald Trump to stop tweeting.

Principle 3: When embedded in the content of the curriculum, writing instruction is a powerful teaching tool.

Embedded writing instruction doubles the value of the instruction by helping students master the non-writing content in which it is embedded. When students have to write about their course content, they may not like the tasks, but they don’t regard them as bogus.

Principle 4: The content of the curriculum drives the rigor of the writing.

Writers must have something to write about:  Having students write about their course content gives them something that’s worthwhile to write about.

The authors believe, as I do, that having students do expository writing on topics that draw only on their personal opinions and experiences is a wasted opportunity to boost students’ learning of both writing and the subjects they are studying.

Principle 5: Grammar is best taught in the context of student writing.

Grammar exercises and worksheets pulled from the Internet don’t cut it. If we want students to write grammatically, they have to be taught grammar as they write their own sentences.

Principle 6: The two most important phases of the writing process are planning and revising.

Planning is the part of the writing process the poorest writers tend to skip, but it’s the part of the writing process that pays the greatest dividends. The better the planning, the less need there is for students to revise at the macro level. Revising at the sentence level is far less strenuous.

The devil’s in the implementation

On the whole, I found The Writing Revolution‘s procedures workable; a couple of the sentence-level activities made such good sense, I wished I’d thought of them.  (Since I didn’t, I’ll borrow the ideas.)

Based on my interaction with teachers looking for a way to enable students to write better, I think getting people to read the book and follow the program is going to be a tough slog. The authors’ comments in final chapter “Putting the Revolution into Practice” suggest that they’re aware of this.

The problem with a method of teaching writing that doesn’t follow a script is that it puts the onus on teachers to make the thing work.

There’s the rub.

There is always a risk that the teacher will not be able to pull it off.

Teaching writing without a script isn’t a safe activity—at least it doesn’t feel safe the first time  a teacher tries.

Teachers not only have to know how to fit their content to the pattern, but they also need to feel confident they can do so.  Without experience of successfully attempting similar challenges, many teachers will be reluctant to commit to a program that requires serious effort without a guarantee of success.

It’s easier to teach students to write than it is to convince teachers that they can  teach students to write.

If Hockman and Wexler can convince teachers to put in the effort to use their program, that would be a revolution.

 

 

 

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Best practices in teaching writing, #7

Quote: hold students responsible for correcting their own work.

Teach students how to edit and what to edit. Make them edit.

Don’t correct students’ writing

As a teacher, you cannot possibly do everything you think you ought to do.

One area you can skip without any qualms is correcting students’ responses to your formal writing prompts.

You know the kinds of things I mean:

  • Correcting spelling.
  • Fixing verb tenses.
  • Putting the missing comma after an introductory element.

Making those corrections may make you feel you’re accomplishing something, but they won’t make a tad of difference in students’ writing.

As long as someone else —like you—will identify their errors for them, most students will not take responsibility for correcting even their most serious, habitual errors.

So take the easy way out.

Set up Individual Mastery Plans. Establish caps on the number of errors you’ll accept without limiting the top grade students can achieve. Then IMP flag errors until you reach the cap.

It won’t take long for students to see the relationship between the number of flags and their grades.

Spend time you might have wasted changing it’s to its in teaching students how to edit their work for their own most serious, habitual errors.

There’s more to editing than correcting typos and grammar errors, but if you get students to do the simple corrections without prompting,  you qualify for a Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #6

Quote: teach students to use written aids to monitor their own behavior.

The best written aids are the ones writers make for themselves.

 

Having students develop checklists and similar easy to prepare, easy to follow aids for monitoring and improving their own writing behavior works far better than giving them rubrics, charts, matrices, and posters that I, or some other teacher made.

For a student who hasn’t gotten past D-level writing, a rubric that distinguishes between A-level and B-level writing might as well be in Greek for all the meaning it conveys to that student.

The student whose writing is D-level needs something that will help him or her write C-level work.  For a student used to getting Ds, a C is a stretch, but it’s not so far from a D that it feels totally out of reach.

Writers’ own lists of action statements

The best way to get students to systematically work toward the higher grade, is for each student to make his or her own short checklist of items:

  • the student understands how to do
  • can do without assistance
  • will help raise the student’s writing up to the next higher grade level.

The checklist becomes useful only if each student phrases the checklist items in his/her own words as action statements telling what the student does, not what the student hopes the outcome will be.

If you’re teaching writing strategically, some items can be derived from strategies. For example, if you teach students to prepare a writing skeleton™, the D-writing student’s checklist might say:

  • I wrote a working thesis statement.
  • I made a writing skeleton from my working thesis statement.

Other items on the checklist might be pulled from the student’s own Individual Mastery Plan. For example, a student whose work is usually riddled with comma splices, might want to get rid of those comma splices. To accomplish that, the student might set out his action statement:

  • I checked every comma to make sure it wasn’t being used to splice together two separate sentences.

Teachers have to monitor students’ preparation of written aids to make sure students target actions that will prove useful and to make sure their plans aren’t overly ambitious. Beyond that, however, it’s useful to let students manage their own improvement. That’s what they’ll have to do once they leave school.

Individualized learning isn’t the next best thing.

It has always been the best thing.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #5

Quote: When you grade papers focus on a small number of serious problems.

Restricting your grading focuses students’ attention.

Grading is a necessary evil. As with other evil things, if you can’t avoid grading entirely, it’s best not to do it much.

I’ve written here about various approaches to putting a grade on work: See, for example, Better late than early; Lick the grading problem, Lollipop; and Grade incentives for learning that don’t suck.

The other potentially evil aspect of grading—and one to which we writing teachers are prone—is saying too much.

We tend to want to say something about every error we see, and all too often we see nothing but errors.

Control your negativity.

A far better approach is to strictly limit our comments.

I recommend you limit error identification to:

  • a short list of serious errors (I use the Connors and Lunsford list of 20 items), and
  • further restrict error-spotting on an individual’s paper to that person’s Individual Mastery Plan items, and
  • stop flagging errors when you’ve found enough to cap that person’s grade.

If I say four instances of any errors from a person’s IMP are too many for a student to get a grade higher than a C on that particular paper, there’s no value in continuing to flag after the first four. Marking 37 errors  rather than four will only discourage a student, and it won’t add a penny to my paycheck.

Stress positive behaviors.

I also recommend you confine yourself to writing no more than two comments on other aspects of writing:

  • one comment on something the student did well or did right;
  • one comment about something other than IMP issues that would boost the student’s grade.

If need be, you can praise students for such things as turning in work on time or  persevering when it doesn’t look like hard work is paying off. Such acts are really important: We notice if students don’t do them, so why not notice that they do?

When possible, suggest something a student can do to boost a grade within a relatively short period of time. Following directions, for example, will probably pay off on the next assignment. Using linking devices will probably not produce improvement until the student has done it deliberately a few times.

Don’t scare students.

Please, don’t write, “See me.”

That’s frightening.

If something in a student’s paper totally bewilders you, I suggest you talk to the student about it rather than writing a comment.

 

You might try asking the student if she/he has a couple of minutes after class to explain something you weren’t sure you understood. Students are normally happy to explain things that their teachers don’t understand.

When you ask a question face-to-face, you position yourself as a reader rather than as a grader. A two-minute conversation can do wonders for students’ mental image of themselves as writers whose ideas matter.

And that’s something grades don’t do well.

 

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Best practices in teaching writing #4

Quote: develop good writing prompts that you can reuse year after year.

Develop enough formal writing prompts to give you a choice.

Preparing formal writing prompts may not require more effort from you than preparing informal ones, but responding to them requires a greater investment of time by students. For that reason, you ought to make sure your formal prompts are on some of the most significant topics in your curriculum.

If Susie is going to need to spend five hours on an essay, it ought to concern a topic that’s worth five hours of study.

What’s worth five hours of study? Probably it is a topic to which you devote at least a week of class time.

In all likelihood, a topic that’s worth a week of study in your English class in 2017 will also be worth a week of study in your English class in 2018.

It makes sense, then, to prepare formal writing prompts that you could, at least in theory, use year after year.

You won’t want to use all the same prompts year after year.  Besides the risk that students will recycle work by those in previous years, there’s the more serious danger of boring yourself.

Bored students are bad enough.

Bored teachers are stultifying.

The solution is to prepare writing prompts that have a high degree of likelihood of fitting into your course next year as well as this year.

After you have a full year’s worth of formal prompts, begin creating replacements for a certain number of those prompts every year.

Tip: Don’t discard a prompt unless it was a total disaster:  Tweak prompts that produced disappointing results their first time out, preferably right after you read students’ responses to the prompt.

If you have 25 formal prompts for a year and create replacements for five of those a year, by your sixth year of teaching you would have 50 formal prompts on major topics in your curriculum.  Having all those choices will help keep boredom at bay.

Even more importantly, you’ll have developed skill at writing formal prompts and at spotting current events hooks to use with them.

Those skills will help prevent burnout and boredom in later years.

© 2017 Linda Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing #3

Quote: Give explicit directions so you don't have to keep re-explaining.

Explicit directions are good, but they’re even better written down.

No matter how clearly you phrase information, no matter how carefully you choose your illustrations,  no matter how well you prepare, you are not going to get through to every student on your first attempt.

Instead of getting yourself tied in knots over your failure—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with you—prepare in advance for failures.

When you prepare writing prompts,  include in writing stripped-down directions about how to do the main task(s) the writing entails. You can also put the directions in some other formats (audio clips or video), but always put it in writing.

If you include in each writing prompt written information that teaches students how to do one writing task, by the time students have had a dozen writing prompts, they should have a miniature handbook on writing embedded in the prompts.

Encourage students to treat your writing prompts as instructional materials by referring students to directions you included in prior prompts.

Of course, not all students will read the prompts carefully or keep them after turning in the assignment, but if your prompts include genuinely helpful tips, many will hang on to the prompts to use again.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Best practices in teaching writing, #2

Quote: Make every writing assignment do double or triple duty.

Time is too valuable to squander on writing with just one purpose.

To make wise use of your time — and your students’ time — craft writing prompts that do more than make students write.

Prepare writing prompts that teach students something about how to write rather than just directing them to write.

Have students write about course content or about topics related to course content.

(Please, if you teach English, don’t limit yourself to literary topics. Many students find language topics more relevant.)

If you’re really a creative teacher, you can not only make your prompts

  • teach something about writing, and
  • teach or apply some non-writing course content,

but also politely force students to seek connections between the writing topic and something that matters to them.

I strongly recommend developing writing prompts that are, in effect, self-contained writing lessons complete with help getting started on the assignment and resources to consult if students get stuck.

It’s much more efficient for students to use their own material as they learn how to do a writing task than to do exercises isolated from their own writing.

To learn more about crafting formal writing prompts, visit the formal writing prompts section of my new website, PenPrompts.com.  If you sign up for the PenPrompts newsletter, you get a copy of my formal writing prompts template free.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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Best practices for teaching writing: #1

Quote: Teach one lesson multiple times in mutliple ways.

Best practices work for students and their teachers.

 

The best practices for teaching writing focus on teaching essentials thoroughly.

If your lesson content isn’t essential, why are you wasting time on it?

Teaching the essentials thoroughly usually  means teaching a few lessons multiple times in multiple ways over a period of months.

When your goal is developing writing skill, you must teach the essential concepts, patterns, and skills until students write competently.

Competence takes time.

Students need time to try out what they understood you to say to see how it works in their writing—which is vastly different from seeing how a concept works on publisher-created materials.

If students don’t learn to write competently, you may have presented but you didn’t teach.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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