Instantly elevate your students’ writing: teach them to write cumulative sentences

Thanks to the National Writing Project’s Sherry Swain, I had a great lesson to use as a resource

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Above are two examples of cumulative sentences students wrote during this lesson. I provided three sentence starters from which students could choose. That part of the lesson is explained below.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a workshop I had attended at the Write to Learn Conference in late February at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. I had attended Sherry Swain‘s workshop on teaching kids to write the cumulative sentence. Since I wrote that post, I have worked with my students to help them learn how to write this literary-quality sentence structure.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I asked them to get out a sheet of paper and something to write with.
  2. I asked them to think of someone they knew well that they could write a good description of because we were going to write a cumulative sentence.
  3. At this point, someone usually asked, “What’s a cumulative sentence?” To this, I answered, “It’s a sentence that accumulates details about a person or whatever we’re writing about.” It seemed they could usually associate the word “accumulate” with “cumulative” and then we were good to go. There’s no need to get more technical than that.
  4. I wrote a sentence starter on the whiteboard, which would form the basis for my own cumulative sentence. I wrote “I thought of Aaron,” on the board. I pointed out that their sentence starter, “which is actually a complete sentence—and is otherwise known as an independent clause, right?”—needed to end with a comma since our sentence was just getting started.
  5. Then I told them we were going to watch a short video of my niece’s husband—the Aaron in my sentence starter—so we can describe him well.
  6. I showed a minute-and-a-half video on YouTube of Aaron doing his athletic-yoga-movement exercises. Here’s a link: Local athletic trainer develops naturaletics workout by Kansas City Star
  7. After watching the video (which really impressed the kids, by the way), I added a verb cluster that began with a participial verb (an -ing verb). I added this to my sentence: “extending his legs,”
  8. Then I asked the kids to write a similar phrase that began with an -ing verb. I reminded them to end the phrase with a comma.
  9. Next, I added this to my sentence: “sprawling across the wall-to-wall mat,”
  10. The kids added another descriptive phrase to their sentence. I again reminded them to start it with an -ing verb and end with a comma.
  11. Finally, we added one more. I added “shifting his weight gracefully throughout his routine.” Notice that I ended this final verb cluster with a period since the sentence was now completed. The kids did the same.
  12. We went around the room and everyone shared their sentence (if they wanted).
  13. I encouraged them to try this sentence structure in their writing that day. Seventh-graders were starting a final month of Writer’s Workshop and were able to work on any number of writing projects, including memoirs and narratives. I made sure to stress to them that cumulative sentences would instantly elevate the quality of their writing because it would help them vary the length of their sentences.
  14. In fact, I said, the average 7th-grader’s sentence contains ten words. (This statistic was included in Swain’s materials I received at the workshop.)
  15. Then I asked them, just for fun, to count the words in their sentences. Everyone had more than ten. Several had more than twenty words. One had 28!
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I showed this video so kids could see who I was describing as I wrote my own cumulative sentence. I wanted to encourage them to use strong, descriptive verbs such as “extending,” “sprawling” and “shifting.”

The next day I put three sentence starters on the whiteboard and asked them to choose one and write a cumulative sentence just like we did the day before. These were the sentence starters I wrote on the board:

  • I watched the baby sloth,
  • The firefighter worked courageously,
  • The photographer roamed the crowd,
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Here are more examples of cumulative sentences students wrote during my second mini-lesson. Students were given three sentence starters from which to choose.

Here are two questions that I received from various students throughout the day (I taught this same mini-lesson to 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders; all grades did well with it):

Question 1: Do we always have to start the verb clusters with -ing verbs?

My answer: No, you don’t, but for today, let’s do, since we’re learning something new.

Question 2: Can we use “and” in between the verb clusters?

My answer: Yes, you can, but try it without and see if you like the way it sounds. I like to make sure that kids realize writing is also about rhythm and sound and that writers make their own creative choices. A few kids added “and” to their sentences and then took them back out. Some kids explained that using “and” made the sentences sound more like a list, causing the sentences to sound less “in the moment” and more formal. I agreed and was impressed that kids picked up on the nuance of the cumulative sentence.

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Students could use the sentence starters I provided or not. The student who wrote the top example in this photo wanted to write about her sister.

Tomorrow, I’ve got a short mini-lesson planned for when kids enter the room. On the Smartboard, I’ll have a Powerpoint slide that has a cumulative sentence that uses absolute phrases in the description. Here’s a screenshot of the slide I’ll use:

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I know it’s a sad sentence, but I also know it will get their attention! I actually tried this part of the lesson today in class. It was definitely more difficult for them to grasp until I helped them write it one verb cluster at a time. I thought they would need less help, but I was wrong.

The sentence in the photo above generated some interesting conversations with my 8th-graders. We noticed that when -ing verb clusters are used instead of absolute phrases, the reader can actually see (as in a “mind movie”) the action in the descriptors. The sentence is much more visual.

In contrast, when absolute phrases are used, that may not always be the case. Students preferred using -ing verb clusters for the imagery they provided to the sentence. Our preferences also veered toward using a mix of absolutes and -ing verb clusters. While a string of absolutes may feature repetition, the writer may not provide the “mind movie” effect as strongly.

And mind you, these discussions were short and not as technical as it might sound. We are starting end-of-year testing tomorrow, and the kids were definitely NOT in the mood for this, but since I’ve never formally taught the cumulative sentence before, it ended up being a good day to experiment with words and phrases. Just talking about how words and sentences sound always leaves the impression that “This is what writers do,”… i.e. they experiment, try styles on for size, and otherwise get creative with their writing. As I always say, “It’s language arts, not language science.”

One last note about the day: I did some quick online research (as in “I googled it”) on the cumulative sentence to make sure I was understanding the various forms it can take. In doing so, I learned about periodic sentences. Periodic sentences have their independent clauses (the sentence portion or the independent chunk) at the end, similar to a period. I think I’ll introduce this to my students next. Stay tuned!


Thanks for reading! Grammar has always been my weakness when it comes to teaching ELA; however, I do like Sherry Swain’s way of teaching the cumulative sentence. It seems to be a practical thing for students to know. Follow my blog for more articles.

My students confuse the words “although” and “however” and I’m not sure why

So, as a teacher, how do I figure this one out?

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Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

Lately, I’ve noticed a pattern in my students’ writing. The pattern I’m noticing may reveal some confusion that my students have regarding  the words “although” and “however.” It seems that some students will use “although” correctly in a guided writing prompt, but then in other situations, often in the same essay, use it again incorrectly when they should instead use the word “however.”

Grammatically speaking, they’ll use “although” correctly as a subordinate conjunction, but then also use it incorrectly in place of the conjunctive adverb, “however.” They’ll use “although” when “however” actually would be the appropriate choice.

In effect, students are interchanging these words Perhaps they don’t realize these words have different meanings in sentences.

I’ve been aware of this issue for a while now, but only recently have I also observed that most of my students don’t naturally use the word “however.” In fact, it’s almost as if the word “however” doesn’t exist in their writing vocabularies. (It’s hard to see your students not do something or not use a word, y’know?!)

Here are some examples of how my students correctly and incorrectly recently used the word “although.” These are paragraphs written in response to the question, “What is the theme of The Song of the Trees by Mildred Taylor?”

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Jordan’s sentence that begins with “Although…” shows that he is mastering complex sentences.

As part of the assignment for this response, I asked my students to start one sentence of their eight sentences in the response with the word “Although.” I add requirements like this one to prompts to encourage students to write richer, fuller complex sentences.

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Stephanie’s sentence above should actually begin with “However, …” It seems she is using the words interchangeably. 

This is an example from “Stephanie” that shows some word usage confusion. “However,” would be the correct choice here instead of “Although,” since the independent clause as written (“he did not need to die that day.”) is not complex. Getting her to use “however” will be the trick, since it seems to be a word she rarely uses. It is interesting to note that Stephanie has inserted a comma after “Although,” which is exactly where the comma would be needed had she used “However.”

So what do I do with this “Although” vs. “However” observation? How do I solve this problem my students are having?

  • Should I collect a small group of student writing that includes both correct and incorrect usage? (This will take time and organization, but it seems kids respond better to class discussions when we are looking at their own or a classmate’s work.)
  • Should I have kids compare the two constructions and discuss how effective (or ineffective) it is to use Stephanie’s construction?
  • Should I discuss the logic of both constructions? It would be good to have students see for themselves how Stephanie’s construction is inaccurate, a little confusing, and therefore an unclear use of the word “although.”
  • Do I need to break down the sentences students write and swap out the two words to show students how they differ in meaning?
  • Do I need to discuss subordinate conjunctions (such as “although”) again?
  • Do I need to discuss conjunctive adverbs (such as “however”)? Surely, that’s not necessary in seventh grade!

There are just so many directions I could go with this, aren’t there?!

Usually, I conference one-on-one with the students to discuss issues like these. I also jot  notes on drafts to this effect where I cross out the incorrect use of  “Although,” and then try to explain somehow in the margins that “However” would be the best choice. However, now that I am starting to see this as a trend among my students, perhaps I should approach it with a whole-class mini-lesson.

And I think the whole-class approach will happen eventually. However, before it does, I’ll need to start collecting examples that show “although” and “however” being used correctly and incorrectly. Some of these examples will come from student writing, and articles and books from my own reading. Once I have those examples, I could create a handout or  Powerpoint or some other visual to teach the difference between these two words.


Thanks for reading about the thought process that goes into teaching. Another thing I think about: ways to be more hands-on or interactive when I teach. Could I go beyond creating a paper handout or a Powerpoint to teach the differences between “although” and “however?” Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog for more articles about teaching middle school ELA.

 

To the parent who told my student she’d never be a writer

Thanks but no thanks for the motherly advice.

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Photo: Luke Southern on Unsplash

Yes, a student informed me about a month ago that her mother told her she wouldn’t ever be a writer.

“Say that again?” I asked when I overheard Claire report to a friend what her mother had said the previous evening as she revised a narrative essay.

“Yeah, she told me I wasn’t gonna be a writer,” Claire told me.

“Do you know why she said that?” I asked, to which Claire replied, “No, not really.” She didn’t really seem bothered by it. She just thought it strange that her mother would make such a pronouncement.

I have two things to say to Claire’s mother: 1) what would possibly compel you to say something so negative to your daughter (who is one of my most pleasant, optimistic, and thoughtful students, by the way) and 2) you’re late in your unwelcome advice, because—sorry, Mom—your daughter is already a writer.

Gary Provost, the late author and writing coach, opens his classic writing tome, 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing with this jewel of a lead:

This book will teach you how to write better ransom notes. It will also teach you how to write better love letters, short stories, magazine articles, letters to the editor, business proposals, sermons, poems, novels, parole requests, church newsletters, songs, memos, essays, term papers, theses, graffiti, death threats, advertisements, and shopping lists.

If Provost knows his stuff (and he does), this list proves that writing is all around us. We don’t have to be sitting in a classroom. It’s not relegated to literary pursuits. It’s not reserved just for word nerds. Writing is something we all do to some degree all the time.

True, writing out a recipe is quite different from crafting a short story. And true, Claire isn’t one of my most prolific students. Her grade is usually a solid C at any given time due to a lack of organization skills that (at 13, mind you) she’s still honing.

But she’s exploring words and ideas. She’s trying on personal writing projects and seeing where they lead. In fact, she’s on her fourth draft of an especially touching essay about the home her ancestors were forced to abandon in their war-torn native land… and the pet cockatiel left inside that a relative promised to care for. She knows that’s a story that she needs to keep alive.

So, whether Claire’s mother realizes it or not, and whether she likes it or not, Claire is indeed already a writer. All this motherly advice, this practical shot-in-the-arm that Claire’s mother may have thought helpful, is actually moot.

The point is not that Claire won’t ever be a writer, or even want to be one, the point is that she already is one.


Thanks for reading! I just don’t understand why a parent would discourage their child from writing. It’s a skill that’s too important. Feel free to leave a comment about this post and follow my blog for more essays on teaching language arts.

When you finally visit a place you’ve taught your students about for years

I searched through lower Manhattan to find the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. building

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There’s nothing like visiting a place you’ve only read about in books. Last week during spring break, my daughter and I visited New York City primarily to visit the City College of New York, where my daughter will begin graduate school next fall.

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Last Tuesday, instead of taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, we took the NYC Ferry across the East River to Wall Street Pier 11 to see the sights of lower Manhattan, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building, where 146 workers, mostly young female immigrants, died in a fire that swept through the building in about thirty minutes on March 25, 1911.

Among other gross negligences, exit doors were blocked, water buckets were empty, and fire escapes were found unable to withstand the weight of those rushing down. It was a horrific sight for onlookers to watch scores of young women leap to their deaths onto the concrete sidewalks below.

The fire ultimately ushered in many improvements to working conditions that Americans of all industries now enjoy.  For example, fire drills, fire exits and escape routes, and outward-swinging exit doors are all safety stand-bys that we take for granted.

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All those most basic of precautions were a direct result of the horrible Triangle Fire tragedy, which was the worst workplace disaster by fire until the World Trade Center fires of 2001.

There are two plaques on the corner of the former Asch Building (as the building was known in 1911) that commemorate the disaster. The lower plaque, which designates the site on the National Historic Landmark, is shown above. The upper plaque, placed by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, reads as follows:

On this site, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in a March 25, 1911. Out of their martyrdom came new concepts of social responsibility and labor legislation that have helped make American working conditions the finest in the world.

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The exterior of the Triangle Fire building appears exactly as it did in 1911. Today, it is known as the Brown Building and houses the biology and chemistry classes at New York University. It stands at the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, about a block east of Washington Square Park and its famous arch.

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It’s so valuable to me to visit a place that I teach about. It adds relevancy to the book I read with my eighth-graders each fall, Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin.  If you’re ever able to see a location in person that you’ve read about, take advantage of the opportunity.


Thanks for reading! Have you ever visited a location you’ve taught or read about? Leave a comment to let me know. Here are some links to other posts in this blog regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire.

  • Click here, here and here for three posts regarding our Triangle Fire unit. I also discuss how I incorporate Triangle Fire into my eighth-graders human rights dissertations in this post. 

 

Write To Learn Conference Highlight: Sherry Swain’s Cumulative Sentence Workshop

I learned a ton from this session and walked away with a ready-to-use lesson plan and handouts.

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Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

I attended Write to Learn 2019, a writing and teaching conference, held at Osage Beach, Mo. at Tan-Tar-A Resort and Conference Center. Write to Learn is sponsored by the Missouri State Council of ILA, the Missouri Reading Initiative, The Missouri Writing Projects Network, and the Missouri Council of Teachers of English.

This conference is chock full of sessions all day Thursday, Friday and through early afternoon on Saturday. Due to icy road conditions, I wasn’t able to arrive until Friday morning. That afternoon, I attended an especially beneficial and practice session called Teaching the Cumulative Sentence as a Positive Feature for Improving Writing. I thought it sounded very technical, but it also sounded practical, so I signed up.

Swain is a National Writing Project teacher and researcher who studied the effects of the cumulative sentence in tested written responses. She discovered that student writing that used the cumulative sentence earned higher scores than writing that did not. The cumulative sentence adds a richness to writing, and most readers are familiar with its use in their favorite books and articles. According to the session’s description, “…young people can experience growth in sentence variety, voice, coordination and subordination, diction, and rhythm while writing with evidence and passion.”

According to ThoughtCo., “A cumulative sentence is an independent clause followed by a series of subordinate constructions (phrases or clauses) that gather details about a person, place, event, or idea.” Swain explained these sentences as containing a base clause, followed by verb clusters that begin with  -ing verbs. Cumulative sentences can also contain verb clusters that begin with absolute phrases (-ed verbs).

In her session, Swain first passed out a handout that contained several excerpts of student writing. She asked us to underline the most effective sentence in each paragraph. Nearly without exception, our group selected the cumulative sentences as most effective. Cumulative sentences have a certain cadence, overwhelmingly contain sensory language, and add rich detail and tone. Here’s the first handout she passed out:

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You could pass this out and have students underline the sentences that strike them as the most effective or most interesting. More often than not, they will choose the cumulative sentences.

Swain also passed out a lesson plan that prompts students to list details about a person they remember. These details are accumulated and placed into sentences using -ing verbs. First, the teacher asks students to think of a person whom you know well. Then the teacher asks the students to tell something that the students remember seeing the person doing.

Eventually, the students are asked to write a base clause, such as “This morning, I remember my grandmother (or whomever the student wants to write about).” Then they add the verb clusters. As the students put this information together, the teacher models her own on the board and also helps the students add commas where needed, and then ending with a period. Here’s the lesson plan sheet:

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This is an incredible lesson plan. I plan to try it after spring break.

This was a really beneficial and helpful session and I plan to try this with my students after spring break. I’ll let you know how that goes in a later post! By the way, here’s an excerpt that Swain gave us to read with students, which illustrates an especially effective use of cumulative sentences. Here’s that excerpt:

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This text excerpt is probably best to be used with older students.

Thanks for reading again this week! Let me know your thoughts about this lesson plan. Do you already try something similar to this with your students?

 

 

The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards: Six tips for entering your students’ work

Your students need to enter this contest!

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Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

 

Last December, ten of my students’ entered their writing in the 2019 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Two of those students won Silver Keys and three won honorable mention awards in the Missouri Writing Region awards, a qualifying round before the national level. (Students who win Gold Keys at regionals then have their work advance to nationals.)  In 2018, one of my students won a Gold Key in poetry at regionals, and then a Silver Key at nationals. So far, I’d say we’ve had a great run!

However, it did take me a year or two to become accustomed to the submission process.  The Scholastic awards do involve more than other contests I’m familiar with; it takes some extra planning to figure out.

If you’ve never entered your students’ work before in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, you should try it. It’s rigorous, prestigious, and one that your winning students should list on their high school honors records.

In case you’re unfamiliar with these awards, here’s some info from their website (link below):

“The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards are presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. The Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify students with exceptional artistic and literary talent and present their remarkable work to the world through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Through the Awards, students receive opportunities for recognition, exhibition, publication, and scholarships. Students across America submitted nearly 350,000 original works this year in 29 different categories of art and writing.” 

Notable alumni award winners include Ken Burns, Lena Dunham, Robert Redford, John Lithgow, Richard Linklater, Sylvia Plath, and Joyce Carol Oates.

Scholastic Art and Writing Awards

Here are six tips to keep in  mind:

1. Start early. Students can open their online accounts and start submitting works for the 2020 awards on September 12, 2019.  There are forms that parents must sign, so have your students enter early to allow time for those forms to go home for a signature.

2. Get parents’ best email addresses, ones they check often, prior to submitting. One of my students didn’t know her parent’s email, and that cost us some time. Also, make sure parents know that they will receive an email message about their child’s submission(s), as well as an invitation and RSVP to the regional awards ceremony.

3. Don’t have kids enter during normal class time because they’ll no doubt have questions and need some hands-on help. Or at least plan an independent activity for the students not entering the contest so you can assist those who are submitting entries.

4. Decide how entries will be paid for. Do this ahead of time. Entries cost $5 each in all categories (check out the categories here); five poems can be submitted for a single $5 fee. If a student qualifies for free and/or reduced lunch, they can print out a form to waive the fee. This form needs to be signed by a parent. This year, my school paid for all the entries; the check was mailed in separately with the ten submission forms to the address on the receipt. If your school also pays your entry fees, don’t forget to allow time for your school’s requisition process.

5. If your student enters poetry, plan a little extra time to prepare their entry. Because they can enter five poems in one entry, they can also order and arrange the poems in the single entry “file” as they see fit (such as putting their strongest one first, for example).

6. Visit the website, find your affiliate partner (the regional contest) and deadlines, and open your online educator account before your students start submitting so you can see how the system works. There is some getting used to the submission process for this contest for both students and their teachers.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some details and it’s quite possible I don’t have all the facts exactly straight. To be honest, I’m still learning. However, this contest is important and it deserves your attention and time. If you notice a detail that needs correction in this post, please leave a comment below and I’ll respond ASAP.


Thanks for reading!  I hope these tips will help you and your students enter the 2020 competition! Follow my blog to get updates on more contests for students.

Don’t “dis” formulaic writing prompts

Use structure to develop ideas and writer’s voice

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I’m pretty proud of the student’s written response in the photo above. It’s written by a seventh-grader who, while being a strong writer, struggles with turning in work, whether assigned as homework or completed during class.

He is not doing well in my class “grade-wise”; however, this paragraph shows the higher level of thinking he is able to record in writing.  (Yes, there are problems with this response, such as misspelled words and run-ons, but this student’s idea development is strong and that’s more important to me. We can always fix the editing later.)

Some of the paragraph may be hard to discern, so I’ve transcribed it below without corrections:

“In the book, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, we learn/learned more than most people would normally know. Most people just know Lincoln was shot watching a play but there is more. I learned for the first time their was a twelve-day manhunt. Acorrding to the novel James Swanson authorther of Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, “There was a plan.” In other words, Booth had it all figured out. Close to the end after Booth was shot, and paralized he asked someone to hold up his hands whe they did he spoke useless, useless. I think when Booth says this he is saying that all his efforts, his plans, and evan his completed task was useless cause he felled to live on, he felled to tell his story, he felled to fight on for the south.”

This paragraph was written in response to the prompt below. Here’s what I love about this response:

  • it builds up to and introduces the evidence in a satisfying way
  • it interprets the evidence with two sentences, including that final golden one
  • it uses repetition effectively (and I made sure to tell him that when I spoke with him about it)
  • the writer put his own “spin” on the material… it feels original and fresh

Here’s that prompt:

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I realize that there are quite a few “requirements” in this prompt. Sometimes I feel that I’m overly prescriptive with my prompts.

And then I receive a response back like this that reminds me that many kids thrive with the guidelines. They’re able to combine the guidelines with their own ideas and voice to create accurate, effective communication that also possesses a distinct style.


Thanks for reading! I use similar prompts like this throughout the year. Sometimes I’ll add other items for kids to use such as sentences that begin “For example, …”. What do your writing prompts look like? Feel free to leave a comment!