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Most teachers groan at the mention of “articulation.” It’s not that we don’t see the value in the articulation process but getting everyone on the same page is time-consuming and cumbersome.

In my role as a blended learning coach, I value clear goals.

When teachers know what they are trying to achieve, they design lessons with intention and a clear sense of purpose. Click To TweetIn my role as a coach, I had the opportunity to facilitate an articulation day with a group of middle school English language arts teachers.

As I researched articulation strategies, I found “5 Ins and 5 Outs” mentioned in a Teaching Channel video. The basic idea is that teachers identify 5 “outs” or skills students will master by the time they leave their class. These “outs” become the “ins” for the next grade level. So, if I say that students will leave my 9th grade English class able to “correctly cite strong textual evidence that supports analysis” then the 10th-grade teachers can feel confident that the incoming sophomores will be able to demonstrate that skill.

Obviously, we want students to leave our classes with more than 5 skills so articulation teams can identify categories of skills. English Language arts teachers might want to create 5 ins and outs for reading, writing, language, and soft skills/study skills.

The outs are grounded in the standards, but standards are daunting in their detail and verbosity. The ins and outs strategy is a manageable way for groups of teachers to identify the specific skills they want to emphasize and make sure students master.

This vertical alignment strategy helps teachers in the same subject area but across grade levels identify which skills are most important.

It was interesting to work with a room full of 6-8 grade English language arts teachers as they worked on their ins and outs. A few things became clear:

#1 Teachers used different language to describe similar strategies.

For example, one group of teachers was using the word “signposts” when teaching students what to look for in a fictional text, while another group of teachers used the phrase “note and notice.” Both groups were teaching the same strategies, but the lack of continuity in the language may confuse students as they move from one grade level to the next. The more consistent we are with the language we use, the easier it will be for students to move from one grade level to the next.

#2 Teachers interpret the standards differently.

There was a debate about whether the word “claim” was synonymous with “thesis statement.” It’s important that teachers dig into the language of the standards, clarify any areas of confusion, and reach a consensus, so students don’t hear conflicting information or definitions from different teachers.

#3 Transparency between grade levels helps teachers identify skill gaps.

We worked collaboratively on a shared Google Document so teachers could see the outs for the previous grade, ask questions, and make suggestions. The conversations about what teachers were seeing in terms of skills at the start of the school year helped to refine the outs for the previous year.

These are challenges that most departments and schools face, so finding a way to encourage an articulation process that feels valuable and manageable is crucial for schools.

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The discussion about learning and what constitutes “good learning” is almost always couched in the context of a classroom. Yet today’s students have more access to information and resources beyond the classroom than any prior generation. They can jump online and watch a video tutorial to learn how to do something that interests them. They can explore the globe with Google Earth, go on a virtual tour of the Louvre or the MoMA, or tinker, build, and create in the comfort of their homes. Is this learning less powerful than the learning that happens in a classroom? I would argue this self-directed learning is in many ways more powerful for kids because they decide how they will learn, what they will learn, and when they will learn.

I had an interesting experience with my daughter that hit home the importance of encouraging kids to pursue their own learning outside of school. I’m not talking about homework. I’m talking about spending time investigating and learning about things that matter to THEM. 

My 10-year-old does well in school. She enjoys learning. So, I was alarmed when she came home one day and announced, “I don’t like science.” Surprised, I asked, “What makes you think you do not like science?” She mumbled something about not being very good at it and thinking it was kind of boring. It was clear that she didn’t enjoy the work she was doing in school that was labeled “science.” As an educator who is hyper-aware that we need more females in STEM fields, I immediately sought out fun and engaging science stuff online. I did not want my child to write off science because she didn’t enjoy how it was being introduced at school.

I found Tinker Crate, which is essentially a science project in a box. It’s delivered each month and presents kids, ages 6 and up, with hands-on tinker challenges. I opted for a monthly subscription ($19.95/month) to try it out.

When the first box arrived with Cheyenne’s name on it, she was excited. She laid out the parts and the directions and got to work. She loved building the flying contraption and was fascinated to read about how it worked. The kit also came with a Tinker Zine booklet with additional science experiments and activities. 

When I asked her if she would enjoy more science experiments from Tinker Crate, she informed me that what she had done “was not science.” A long conversation about what is and what is not science ensued. When she, at last, believed that the Tinker Crate experiment fell under the umbrella of “science,” she said, “Well, maybe I do like science.”

Between Tinker Crate boxes, she would go on YouTube to find fun science experiments she could do at home. One of the first videos she found was titled “10 Science Projects for Elementary  School Students,” which demonstrates a simple experiment and explains what is happening. She was excited to show me how raisins dance and how socks can be used to make snake bubbles! My kitchen has become her laboratory on the weekends!

10 Science Projects for Elementary School Students by HooplaKidz Lab - YouTube

I’m happy to report that my daughter is now a fan of science. Even though I ordered that first Tinker Crate, which clearly piqued her interest and curiosity, she made the decision to continue learning. She sought out YouTube videos. She decided to sprout beans and lentils. She documented the insects in our backyard and did Google searches to learn more about them. In almost all of these instances, she was her own teacher. Technology connected her with the information she needed to answer her own questions. 

As I watch my own children grow and develop, I am convinced we can learn a lot from our children and how they choose to learn outside of school. Educators wrestle with the most effective ways to engage and teach students, but how often do we ask them how they would prefer to learn? Are we taking cues from our students to better understand how they learn both online and offline beyond the classroom? Perhaps if we asked our students these questions, it would be easier to design learning experiences that were interesting, engaging, and relevant. 

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“How do you keep students engaged and on task?” I am frequently asked this question when I train teachers on blended learning models. The concern implied in this question is that if I am not working directly with students that they will immediately be off task or disruptive. In actuality, classroom management has never been a big issue for me. In part, I credit my lesson design for keeping them interested, engaged, and on task. I blend a mix of online and offline work that allows students opportunities to self-pace through activities, work collaboratively with their peers, and make key decisions about how they learn.

Nearpod is one tool I use to create interactive lessons that encourage students to pace their own learning and collaborate with classmates. Nearpod lessons are perfect for online stations in a Station Rotation Model or self-paced whole group lessons when I need to meet individually with students.

Nearpod allows the teacher to run “Live lessons,” which are teacher-paced, or “Student-paced.” When teachers select the “Live lesson,” they dictate what students see on their screens. As a teacher moves through a lesson, the slides automatically change on the student device so they are looking at the element of the presentation that the teacher is talking about or focused on. When the teacher selects “Student-paced,” students can navigate through the multimedia, multimodality lesson at their own pace.

Designing a Nearpod lesson is easy. Teachers can mix and match media, link to online websites, and engage students in polls, collaborative brainstorms, and written responses.

There are even “brain break” activities, like a matching game, and a drawing feature to keep kids interested and engaged.

Below is an example of a student-paced lesson I designed for our Of Mice and Men unit that combines video clips, an audio recording of the novel, a poll, open-ended questions, a matching game, and a collaborate board.

Nearpod Of Mice and Men Student-paced Lesson - YouTube

Nearpod lessons make engaging stations in a Station Rotation lesson and free me up to meet one-on-one with students to have assessment conversations or provide individualized coaching and support for students who need it.

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One of the most thought-provoking books I read last year was Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. In his book, Sinek talks about how successful individuals and organizations communicate. Instead of explaining what they do, they start with why they do it.

  • What is our purpose?
  • What drives us?
  • What are we passionate about?

Explaining what we do is a lot simpler than putting our why into words. It is also less effective. “There are only two ways to influence human behavior,” Sinek says, “you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” The way to inspire behavior is to clearly articulate what we believe. Those who believe what we believe will follow us, buy our product, or invest their time and energy into our cause.

School Leaders Must Articulate Their Why

Though much of the book focuses on businesses and industry, I was struck by how relevant Sinek’s words in the context of education. I’ve worked with so many school districts that are embracing technology and blended learning models, but they do not communicate why this shift is important to teachers. Without a clear sense of purpose, it is easy for educators to become disillusioned and frustrated by the time and energy required to shift their teaching practices.

The best way to approach any significant change is to start with why. Be crystal clear about the value of the change and make sure everyone within the organization understands the why driving the change.

  • How will it improve the students’ experience as learners?
  • How will it free teachers to spend more time on the aspects of their job that they enjoy?
  • How will this create more dynamic and relevant learning?

If leaders are clear about their why, teachers are more likely to buy in and take risks. Similarly, teachers will be more effective if they articulate their why for themselves and explain their why to students.

An Exercise: What’s Your Why?

As we begin a new year, I encourage every teacher to take a few minutes to think about why you teach and then complete your version of the golden circle pictured above.

  1. Start with why you teach.
    • What is it about your job that excites you?
    • What drives you to work with students?
    • Ultimately, what are you trying to achieve?
  2. How do you do what you do?
    • How are you attempting to achieve your why?
    • What strategies do you use to manifest your why?
    • What do you do each day to stay focused on your why?
  3. What do you do?
    1. When people ask you what you do, what do you say?
    2. What are your various roles?

This exercise is harder than it sounds. We all know on an unconscious level what excites, motivates, and drives us, but putting that into words is tough. Several months ago, I sketched out my own golden circle with my why in the middle, my hows in the center ring, and my whats in the outer circle. When I feel frustrated or disillusioned, I revisit my why. It reminds me why I am in education. It is grounding and inspiring.

I hope this exercise serves to ground other educators as we begin 2018! Happy New Year! Thank you for being part of my learning network.

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This year I have posted several blogs about grading and assessment. I encouraged teachers to stop taking grading home for two simple reasons:

  1. Grading in isolation robs us of the opportunity to have conversations with students as we assess their work and, ultimately, makes feedback one-sided and less effective.
  2. Grading at home robs us of precious time with our families, time to relax, and time to create dynamic learning experiences for students.

When I tell teachers I have not taken grading home since January of last year, they are immediately interested. They want to know exactly how I have managed that as a high school English teacher.

I explain that I use blended learning models, like Station Rotation and Whole Class Rotation, to create the time and space needed to move assessment into the classroom. If students are working 0n an essay, I dedicate one station each day to providing real-time feedback as they write.

Teachers want to know what the other students are doing while I am engaged in my real-time editing station. Below is an example of a station rotation lesson for my 9th and 10th English class. I work in a 90-minute block schedule so I can move my students through four 20 minute stations. I also coach teachers who teach traditional 50-minute classes and they have a four station two-day rotation. In that model, students hit four stations over the course of two days.

When a formal assignment is due, I use my teacher-led station to have individual grade conversations with my students. Instead of leading a station, I design a self-paced hyperdoc lesson or a station rotation that does not require that I lead a station. Then I meet with individual students to grade their work while they sit next to me. I explain what I am seeing in terms of their skills and talk them through the rubric and their scores. Before we end our conversation, I turn to them and ask, “Do you have any questions?”

These grading conversations take about 3 minutes because I do not try to grade every single aspect of their paper or assignment. Instead, I select 2 or 3 specific skills to assess for a score. In the rubric below, you’ll see I’ve select claims and analysis. There are other aspects of writing covered in the rubric, but I don’t try to assess them all for every single assignment.

Most teachers I work with struggle to limit the scope of their assessments. They use complex 5 or 10 point rubrics and assess every aspect of an assignment. This is overwhelming for students who are attempting to master specific skills. 

Assessments are most effective when the scope is limited to two or three skills that students can focus on improving.Click To Tweet

When I assess their first piece of argumentative writing, I may only provide assessment scores for 1) the quality of their claims and 2) their analysis of their evidence. Then on the second argumentative essay, I may focus on 1) quality of their evidence and 2) analysis. As they write, they receive real-time feedback on all of their writing, but when it comes time to give them an assessment score, I keep my focus narrow.

When I lead workshops on assessment and grading strategies, there are always a few teachers who protest, “I don’t have time to provide feedback in the classroom or have grade conversations. I’m barely getting through all of the curriculum.” When I hear this, I wonder how much students learn when we race through content but do not dedicate time to supporting the development of specific skills. Students need feedback to improve their skills. This should happen in the classroom where the teacher can act as a coach.

Teachers who are tired of taking stacks of grading (real or virtual) home and want their feedback to be more meaningful should use the new year as an opportunity to explore different approaches to teaching. Using video content, multimedia lessons, and technology tools combined with blended learning models can create more time and space for teachers to work directly with students.

If you are interested in learning more about blended learning models, check out my newest book Blended Learning in Action.

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Who doesn’t love a colorful word cloud? But what I don’t love is the time it takes to input all of the words to create one. My motto is that students should do the work in our classroom, not me. Well, I work a little, but I don’t want to do the lion’s share of the work. The person doing the work is doing the learning, so my students do the heavy lifting in our classroom. That’s why I was so excited when I discovered Mentimeter!

Mentimeter–a cloud-based interactive presentation software–is super easy to use and has a robust free version. It provides the user with several different ways to engage a class, but my absolute favorite type of question is the word cloud.

Think about a question you want to ask students and select the type of question you want to use.

Click the “word cloud” image and type your question. For example, at the start of our unit on social media, I asked my students “What words come to mind when you think of social media?” I was curious to see what words they would associate with social media.

Once you’ve created your slide, you can project it for students. It will have your question, the link to Menti.com, and a six-digit code at the top. When students go to Menti.com, they’ll see a window like the one below.

As they submit their words, the word cloud updates in real time on your projected slide. Words that are repeated by multiple students appear larger in the cloud to reveal areas of commonality and agreement. My students associate social media with their friends above all else. Other words that were repeated by multiple students included, socializing, memes, communication, interaction, and public.

These word clouds are a powerful strategy to generate ideas, engage the class in conversation, and facilitate an analysis of word choice and meaning. I love that I did NOT have to create it. The words are entered directly by the students without being filtered through me.

It’s worth checking out some of the other question types too. There is a limit to the number of slides you can have with the free version, but it has worked wonderfully for me!

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Different students have different needs, yet many classrooms are set up to provide all students with the exact same instruction and practice. If students are asked to do practice they do not need, they can become frustrated, bored, and disillusioned. Students who need additional instruction, scaffolding, and practice may not get it in a whole group lesson.

My classroom is composed of a handful of honors level students, English language learners, and several students with IEPs and 504 plans. It’s challenging to support so many students at different levels. So, I periodically offer optional “skills stations.”

Skills stations are focused on developing specific skills. Right now my students are writing their first argumentative essay in response to a Lord of the Flies prompt. I’m using the Station Rotation Model, so I have time to work directly with small groups of students in my teacher-led station. It allows me to focus on targeted instruction, modeling, real-time feedback, and skills development.

If I notice that students are struggling with passive vs. active voice or a chunk of the class needs support writing strong topic sentences, introducing their quotes, or properly citing their quotes, I will offer an optional skill station. Students who need help can get it and students who don’t need additional explanation or practice can continue writing. The optional skills stations are a simple strategy for personalizing instruction and support.

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Different students have different needs, yet many classrooms are set up to provide all students with the exact same instruction and practice. If students are asked to do practice they do not need, they can become frustrated, bored, and disillusioned. Students who need additional instruction, scaffolding, and practice may not get it in a whole group lesson.

My classroom is composed of a handful of honors level students, English language learners, and several students with IEPs and 504 plans. It’s challenging to support so many students at different levels. So, I periodically offer optional “skills stations.”

Skills stations are focused on developing specific skills. Right now my students are writing their first argumentative essay in response to a Lord of the Flies prompt. I’m using the Station Rotation Model, so I have time to work directly with small groups of students in my teacher-led station. It allows me to focus on targeted instruction, modeling, real-time feedback, and skills development.

If a group of students is struggling with passive vs. active voice or a chunk of the class needs support writing strong topic sentences, introducing their quotes, or properly citing their quotes, I will offer an optional skill station. Students who need help can get it and students who don’t need additional explanation or practice can continue writing. The optional skills stations are a simple strategy for personalizing instruction and support.

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When I spoke at Californa’s Better Together Teachers Summit, I talked about the power of connecting students to an authentic audience online. I emphasized the role technology can play in helping teachers to get more eyes on student work and, as a result, motivate students to do their best work.

In addition to connecting students to an online audience, I also invite community members, parents, and other students into our classroom regularly. I want to provide my students with meaningful feedback, a live audience, and a fresh perspective.

I realize presenting for an actual audience is a daunting task, but it is also a crucial life skill. I want my students to practice articulating their ideas, sharing their work, and responding to questions so they are better prepared for life beyond high school.

When I send home the parent survey (via Google Form) at the start of the school year, I always ask parents if they are interested in lending their expertise and time to be on a panel or assess student work. I also ask about their availability.

I find it interesting that most teachers at the secondary level do not ask parents to come into the classroom to help out. I regularly volunteer in my children’s elementary classrooms, but I rarely have parents volunteer to come into my high school class. So, instead of waiting for an offer, I ask! Our parents and community members have a wealth of expertise.

Secondary teachers are juggling so many students that it’s challenging to provide meaningful and timely feedback all by ourselves. This is where a panel of parents, community members, and other students can be extremely useful.

At the end of our design thinking project this semester, students had to present both their process and prototype to a live audience. It was interesting to see them prepare for this presentation. They were nervous. Rightly so. It is a scary experience to stand in front of adults and students they do not know and present. However, the fear of presenting was an incredible motivator.

Groups rehearsed their presentations several times for peers and one group called me over to help them improve their delivery. I asked if it was okay for me to pause their rehearsal and give them real-time feedback. Three girls simultaneously exclaimed, “Yes! That’s exactly what we need!” As they practiced, I reminded them to keep their feet planted, limit distracting movements, and track the speaker. I offered suggestions for making their presentation more specific, which they immediately incorporated. It was exciting to see them so intent on nailing their presentation.

On presentation day, my three-person teaching team provided each group with specific feedback on three separate skills. The panel also used a rubric to assess different aspects of the presentation.

Feedback from each teacher and the panel will be incorporated into their grades. I love that their final grade was a collaborative effort. It makes my life more manageable and makes the feedback more meaningful for students.

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On Sunday, October 8th I went to bed early. I had been waking up between 4-5 AM all week to do work for my doctoral program. We had also hosted my husband’s family for the weekend, and I was exhausted.

Normally, we go to be at 11 PM, but that evening I crawled under the covers at 9:30 PM. It was a warm and windy night. I could hear the wind whistling through the trees outside my window. It reminded me of growing up in Southern California and the hot, dry Santa Ana winds.

I woke at 11:45 PM feeling too warm. The windows were closed. The ceiling fan had stopped spinning and producing its soft hum. My husband was up. I asked why he had turned off the fan. “I didn’t. The power is out,” he responded. “These winds are crazy. I just put the battery-powered twinkle lights in the kids’ rooms in case they wake up.”

“It’s hot in here,” I complained. Despite the heat, I was soon asleep again.

At 2:15 I jolted up. I could hear a megaphone. A cop car was driving slowly up our private road making an announcement. “What’s he saying? What’s going on?” I asked my husband. He got up to crack the window so we could hear better. The smell of smoke was strong.

A voice on the megaphone announced, “There’s a large fire coming your way. You need to evacuate now.”

I lept out of bed. There’s a fire. We have to leave now. 

Most people wonder what they would grab if they had 10 minutes to leave their homes forever. The things I grabbed and the things I left will forever tug at my mind.

Without power, I was left to pack up my belongings with a dimming flashlight low on batteries. I went into my office and threw all of my books for my doctoral classes into my computer bag along with my computer and cord. I grabbed three random dresses from my closet and two pairs of shoes in case I had to teach the next day and could not get back into the house.

I travel a few times a month for speaking events and professional development jobs and rarely unpack my suitcase all of the way. I tossed my clothes, toiletries, and shoes into the bag, zipped it up, and dragged my work bag and suitcase downstairs.

My husband woke the kids as gently as possible given our urgency and fear. He instructed them to bring their blankies and their blah blah dolls.

They slipped on their shoes and with their blankets, and dolls in hands, we loaded them into the car with our German Shepard.

The walk to the car was surreal. The air was thick with smoke, and the ash falling looked like snow. Unlike the cold crisp air during a snowfall, the hot air stung my eyes and burned my lungs.

My mind was racing. My husband and I made a couple of trips back into the house to grab random items–the kids’ backpacks for school, a bunch of bananas in case they were hungry, a big silver Nalgene full of water. There’s a fire. We have to leave now. 

At one point, my husband and I were both in the living room. I grabbed a photo album. He asked, “What are you doing? We have to leave. We don’t have time to take all of that.” There’s a fire. We have to get out of our house now. 

I called for our cat. I ran through the house with my flashlight calling, “Bandylion. Here Bandy Bandy.” No cat. I ran into the garage. I scanned the big space with the meager light from the flashlight. “Bandylion. Here kitty, kitty,” I called coaxing my cat to materialize. No cat. I ran out of the house into the front yard. “Bandylion. Here Bandy Bandy.” No cat. There’s a fire. We have to get out of our house now. 

Later, my husband and I would replay those 10 minutes out loud several times. He confessed that he never thought our home would burn down. He was thinking “What will we need for a day or two until we can return to our home?”

Luckily, I didn’t put the photo album I had grabbed back down. Instead, I carried it with me back out to the car. It was an album that his mother had made him. She passed away before we met and those photos are not online like most of the photos of our children. It is the only sentimental thing that left the house with us that night.

As we drove away from our home through the haze of smoke in my Kia Sorrento, I realized we had no place to go. My family lives in Los Angeles, and my husband’s family lives in Arcata.

I began calling hotels, while we drove south on the 101. Off to our left, the ridge of the mountains glowed red in the dark. Each hotel I called looped me into a frustrating maze of digital options. “For reservations, press 1.” “For an existing reservation, press 1. To make a new reservation, press 2. For reservations of six or more, press 3.” Every hotel was booked.

My phone dinged. A text. “Hey Catlin, this is Marika on V’s phone. We had to evacuate our house very quickly. The fire was over the ridge, and we had to gather quickly. I don’t even have my phone.”

I responded, “We evacuated too. Where did you guys go?”

“My dad’s in Petaluma. Come here.”

Grateful to have a place to go with our children and dog, we drove to Petaluma. Over the next 12 hours, we watched scenes of the city where we’ve lived for 17 years burn. Glen Ellen, Napa, Santa Rosa…fires everywhere.

At 2 PM on Monday, our friend, Zack, called us on FaceTime. He was on his motorcycle driving through our neighborhood with his camera propped on his handlebar to show us what he was seeing. The devastation was so complete, I could not figure out exactly where he was. He showed us the street signs and my husband directed him up the hill to our home. We watched on Facetime as he drove up our long driveway.

At the top of our driveway, instead of our beautiful home was a pile of debris and brick. Our home was gone.

My first thought, “How are we going to tell the kids?” My heart broke for them. How can I tell my 8 and 10-year-old children that their home and everything they loved inside it are gone? Being a parent in life’s most challenging moments is tough. I had to be strong for my kids even though all I wanted to do was breakdown.

In the two weeks since we lost our home, I’ve been moved to tears by the love, support, and generosity we’ve received from our friends, family, and community.

The sadness and loss come in waves. Every few minutes I remember something that I’ll never see again…our photo albums, my yearbooks, baby clothes meticulously wrapped and labeled, the wedding garter I saved for my daughter, pieces of furniture handed down from my husband’s family, artwork, blankets knit by my grandmother who is gone, my wedding dress, family jewelry, the children’s books signed with notes, favorite pieces of clothing, our wedding album, passports, trinkets picked up from our travels around the globe, and bottles of wine saved for special occasions. These are just the items I think about. I cannot imagine all of the lost little treasures my children think of each day.

The process of rebuilding our home and our lives will take time. I want to thank all of the educators who have donated to the GoFundMe campaign that was created for us or have bought items off of our Amazon Wishlist. Your outpouring of love and generosity fill me with gratitude. You are helping to make this tough situation manageable and demonstrating the power of a strong community. Thank you.

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