Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 - The Year of #PencilChat

What started out as a small exchange on Twitter between middle school teacher and author John T Spencer (@edrethink) and technology consultant David Wees (@davidwees), using the hashtag #pencilchat in early December, turned into a viral banter with over 10,000 tweets that is still going strong. It all began with Spencer's book, Pencil Me In: A Journey in the Fight for Graphite, about using pencils as an allegory for educational technology. Some of the reasons the author believes #pencilchat went viral include: there was enough diversity of people spread across the web with friends to make it work; it moved geographically from the United States to Australia and around the globe, never stopping; it was a fun, quirky and creative mix about pencils from attitude to metaphor; and most of all, it was easy and approachable.

It was too much fun to resist and also oh-so-telling about the frustration of technology integration. GOOD magazine picked it up with a post called Why #Pencilchat May Be the Most Clever Education Allegory Ever, with some great tweets including, "Jesus was a good teacher and he didn't use a pencil, so I don't have to use one, either." Aside from some of our favorites listed below, we came across this animated video, Ode to #Pencilchat: Technology Integration in the Classroom, from the Think and Dream in English blog. It was put together to use at professional development workshops about technology integration in the classroom.

Some of our favorite #pencilchat tweets, including some of our own:
"A pencil is only as sharp as the person using it. On the other hand a good pencil makes a person sharper." @e_skymac

"I refuse to use pencils in my classroom until manufacturers figure out a way to limit what students can write with them." @erinneo

"We must remember our 'pencil immigrants' were not born 'pencil natives.'" @theASIDEblog

My district has upgraded my pencils but the new pencils won't work with the old sharpener and there is no money for a new one." @clcolbert  

"The problem with pencils is that kids are going to use them to copy stuff out of books." @ericnentrup|

"Effective pencil-integration isn't about the pencil, it's about what you do with the pencil." @clsmithdpu

"We're pretty slow with the hunt-and-peck writing method. Any spelling errors are just mis-writes: 'pencil-o's. Not our fault." @theASIDEblog

"If the global supply chain ever confronted a shortage of No. 2 pencils, the American education system might collapse." @itsmelaurabeth

"When I buy pencils for classroom student use, it becomes an equity issue in the building." @gilkatgil

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Graphicacy: 4 Steps To Understanding An Image

It’s easy to recommend that students learn how to decipher an image. It’s harder to explain the specific steps of instruction that can help children comprehend the pictures they encounter.

P.D. Wilmot (1999) cites Dale’s and Seel’s (1994) earlier works in outlining methods of graphic communication. They point toward understanding literal meaning, inferring between the lines, and applying ideas in one’s own voice.

In our classes, we've used similar practices. Our approaches toward elementary and middle school learners have tried to be clear and systematic. Here are two formats that we’ve used successfully for several years in analyzing political cartoons and in questioning media advertisements.

Typically, we move through four steps in guiding students to interpret charts, maps, cartoons, infographics, and logos. These four steps progress from base-level identification toward more analytical and sophisticated skills. The understandings proceed from: 1) Substance, 2) Scaffold, 3) Story, and 4) So What?

By “Substance,” we mean the literal things that appear in an image. Regardless of meaning or significance, what actual items do we see? Is that a bear and a honey pot, a continent and an ocean, or a curved line and an arrow? Are there words or numbers in the picture? By listing all of the details, we can be sure that we’ve noticed all the necessary pieces before beginning to determine what they might mean.

Scaffold” refers to how the image is constructed. What structures define the picture as a graph, or a map, or a painting? What are the relationships between the details? For example, is there a grid, or an x/y axis, or a table of rows and columns? Are there cartoon people of different sizes between a title and a caption? Are there percentages connected by flow-chart arrows? Are there lines of latitude and longitude? Are there keys or legends explaining the color-coding? Are there markings or symbols or abbreviations? By defining the type of image and its construction, we can identify how the details unite to create a meaning.

Story” is the message or the meaning of an image. In other words, what is a picture trying to tell us? What is the opinion of the cartoonist or the narrative of the illustration? What is the take-away from the pie graph or the point of the cause-and-effect comparison? The “story” is the purpose of the military map or the corporate logo. It is the overall meaning of the graphic.

Finally, “So What?” emphasizes an image’s importance. Who cares? Why is the graphic valuable? What deeper significance can we construe? How can we put the image in its proper historical, financial, or media context? How can we glean ideas to apply in our own lives or in other situations? Why would we waste time examining this particular image? What are the larger, interesting conclusions to infer from this unique picture?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Matchbox Kids, Not Toys - End Slavery

Source: BBC
In response to reading a blog post from Cool Cat Teacher Blog to raise awareness about modern day slavery during this holiday season, one thing came to mind, candles. It is not just the significance of candles for the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Chanakah, or the African celebration of Kwanza, but also matches. Candles are lit for each of these festivals to mark a special occasion. When we light candles, we often use matches, but how often do we think about where matches come from other than the store? Do most people know that India is one of the largest producers of matches, or that a vast majority of its match making industry is supported by child labor? Well, it is.

Here are just a few simple facts from the website Products of Slavery:
  • In one of India's matchbox factories, ten-year-old Kavitha was made to grind a highly combustible mixture, leaving her with permanently blackened hands. Source : UNICEF, 2005, "India: Project Helps Child
  • A study carried out in India found that children working in matchbox factories earned the equivalent of just two euros a week for 12 straight hours of work. Source : International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 2006, "India: Economic Boom Masks
  • In 2002, as many as 66,000 children, aged between six and 14, were found working in matchbox factories in the Indian city of Silvasi alone. Source : International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, "India: Economic Boom Masks Widespread Child Labour," October 2006, Pg. 2
Source: Child Labor in India
India has a huge child labor problem, and many children as young as six years old work long hours each day for miniscule pay. Many are employed in match factories, as well as in the fireworks industry. Injuries abound, and they are too poor to get treatment for their ailments. Many, too, keep working because they are so poor. According to Legal India, of the 200,000 workers in the labor force in the matchbox industry, experts claim that 35% are children below the age of 14. They are made to work over twelve hours a day, beginning work at around 4:00 a.m., everyday. For an incredible documentary on the subject, watch the video Child Labor in India. It is not for the faint of heart.

So this holiday season as you light candles in celebration, perhaps think about ways to help educate our students to make the world a better place for exploited children and to put an end to slave labor.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is 2012 the Year for an Educational R/Evolution?

Source: Time
The announcement of Time magazine’s 2011 “Person of the Year” as “The Protester” reminds us of the 2006 issue that declared “You” as its selection for the individual contributions made by user-generated information. Since 2006 a lot has changed in the world of technology and information sharing. The floodgates have opened and anyone, anytime, anywhere can share their ideas. There is no turning back. The amount of content generated for the World Wide Web by individuals now far exceeds the amount produced by experts.

Source: Time
The advances in technology allow for form to be separated from content. In other words, content no longer depends on finite structures within the restrictions of code to create material on the Internet. Instead, individuals create, share, and publish content with incredible ease, allowing us to be the designers and distributors of our own content. In Michael Wesch’s video produced in 2007, Web 2.0…The Machine is Us/ing Us, a line types across the screen that reads, “The Web is linking people…Web 2.0 is linking people…people sharing, trading and collaborating.” For Wesch, media changed the way people interact with each other, and as a result, human relationships changed, too.

This year, the frustration felt by millions nationally and internationally reached breaking points. The Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire had no idea that this would be the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” toppling dictators in major countries in Africa. The protestors who set out to show their frustration and anger in the Occupy Wall Street movement hit a raw nerve in the American public, stemming protests around the country that grew in size and number. So how does this relate to education? Well, for one thing, we are heading into 2012, six years past the recognition of “You” by Time magazine, yet schools still try to block and restrict not only technologies, but teachers as well.

Source: Certification Map
To top it off, we have a growing number of disgruntled youth in America who drop out of an education system that sees them as a number but fails to see the ensuing impact on society as a whole. In hindsight, our growing dropout rate as a nation should have been predictable. Conformity and measurement are used to define students, yet we constantly talk about differentiation, multiple learning styles, and the whole child. The words "motivate" and "engage" appear in countless educational books, articles and conference sessions. At the same time, the daily press reports on holding teachers responsible for poor standardized test results. It seems ironic: on routine assessments in academic classes throughout the year, the student is accountable for his or her success or failure, but not on standardized testing, where a student’s poor performance is blamed on the teacher without regard to class work. This leads us to ask the question, how many teachers will “dropout” from conformity and measurement?
Source: Network movie clip on YouTube
Just think how much more we could engage students if we were not so close to the edge of a cliff. Teachers want change. Just follow the streams of passionate teachers on social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook. Their frustration can be felt, including the pressure from virtual, for-profit, and charter schools as the panaceas for educational ills. Is there a bright spot at the end of the tunnel?

Well, there are breaks in the ranks. States seek waivers to opt out of NCLB requirements, Long Island principals protest new New York State teacher evaluation based on test scores, and students nullify a standardized test in defiance by writing essays about squirrels. Perhaps it's time for educational leaders, teachers and students to be like the memorable character Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network and start shouting, "I'M MAD AS HELL AND AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE."

Technology has altered the learning landscape, and the educational system is reluctant to change with it. The youth of today do not live in a static world. For them, at least outside the classroom, the world is dynamic, interactive, animated, and collaborative. In fact, they know how to collaborate better than the hierarchical systems imposed upon them. Information in their world is fluid. In other words, content is free from the constraints of structural limitations. Students recognize this. Outside the classroom they are free from the restrictions of blocked websites, filters, wired access, and standardized tests. They know there are multiple points of view and access them with ease.
Source: Michael Wesch, Information R/evolution
To them there is “no shelf system” for categorizing or telling them what they need. They generate content at lightning speed, they publish continually on the web, and they design how, when, and what they want to learn, follow or ignore. As educators, we can learn a lot from our students and would do best to stand up for designing content that is pertinent, rich, and connected.

Source: United Opt Out National
Something needed to give, and now it is.  United Opt Out National is a group of parents, educators, students and social activists who are determined to bring about change to end standardized testing that they see as destructive to ALL parties. In addition to protests by New York State principals, the organization Save Our Schools wants to put the public back in public schools and supports the Call for Action that United Opt Out National has declared on January 7, 2012. Let's also not forget the guest post that went viral from the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet about the school board member who took a standardized test and did not fare so well. Perhaps with the new year upon us, the groundswells of revolution will bring about education evolution after all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rick Santorum - Designing A Candidacy

During logo deliberations, a fledgling campaign must weigh its desired message against its candidate’s name recognition. “Newt,” for example, can get away with a single first name, like “Hillary” or “Ike,” because of strong voter identification with the individual’s brand. Herman Cain, Tim Pawlenty, and Thaddeus McCotter, however, were forced to lay a “get-to-know-me” groundwork in order to introduce themselves as presidential aspirants. In their cases, the messaging proved unsuccessful.

Source: Rick Santorum for President

Rick Santorum falls into this unfamiliar camp. Even with his two terms as an outspokenly conservative senator, he is little known to non-Pennsylvanians who weren’t watching Meet The Press in 2005. Santorum did build a name within the Republican caucus thanks to his fervent family focus. He rose to the position of conference chairman as the party’s megaphone for traditional values. In 2006, however, Santorum lost reelection to Bob Casey, Jr., by 18 points, the largest margin of victory ever by a Democratic nominee in Pennsylvania history. Santorum then worked as a low-key lawyer, columnist, think-tanker, and Fox News personality before announcing his run for president on June 6, 2011.

Given Santorum’s consistent policy positions but soft name recognition, we would expect his campaign logo to proclaim loudly his family principles. Instead, Santorum’s banner is a jumble of hits and misses. The all-caps lettering is clear but unremarkable in its insubstantial, barely modified Garamond font. The dueling red and blue colors of the first and last names fight against each other, pulling focus rather than offering a unified theme. The red hue, in addition, is a curious epicene tone between crimson and rose, officially known as “folly” (we’re not making that up).

The best part of Santorum’s insignia is the circle of stars and soaring eagle in the "O" of his last name. The bird is ascendant, evoking patriotic notes. Still, Santorum’s name is not common enough to be divided by a symbol. It almost appears as though his name is “Rick Sant Rum.”

Liberal activists have made Santorum a punching bag over his controversial statements. But his articulation of neo-conservative principles has won him praise during recent debate performances. Santorum's dedicated stops in each of Iowa’s 99 counties have also earned kudos for retail politicking. His slogan, therefore, should be a point of pride for the Santorum brand. Something akin to “Faith, Family, and Freedom,” which is the title of his current tour, would have established a resonant motto to reinforce his moral policies. Instead, the Santorum campaign chose “The Courage to Fight for America.” Bland and unexceptional, this formula could apply to any leader in any contest. It fails to connect to Santorum’s competitive advantage among faith-based, right-leaning voters. Even with his strong debate skills, we fear Santorum may never ride the polling surge his fellow second-tier candidates have fleetingly enjoyed.

Check out our other posts about design and education in the 2012 election.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Designing Information: A Lesson Using Poetry

Source: ASIDE
Our third-grade students do a large unit on the Native Americans. It begins with the study of the Iroquois Indians in New York and finishes with an independent research project on a specific tribe in North America. As part of this interdisciplinary unit, they work on a series of projects to support their understanding of our native people. This includes a variety of art projects, as well as a multimedia presentation using information and technology to demonstrate their knowledge of the hardships the Native Americans endured at the hands of European explorers and the United States government.

Source: ASIDE, 2011
As a further extension of this unit, the students analyze the poetry from the book The Circle of Thanks: Native American Poems and Songs of Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac. The book contains fourteen poems with themes of thanksgiving and the appreciation of nature based in part on traditional songs and prayers. The students learn that these works from the different American Indian cultures celebrate the aspects of creation and the natural resources that were so crucial for their survival and sustainability.

Source: ASIDE
For us, it is important that our students make the connection that Native Americans lived off the land and had a great respect for its gifts. Giving thanks for nature was ingrained in the culture of the American Indians. Their deference for the earth’s resources was unending, much like the continuous line of a circle or ever-winding line of a spiral.

For each of the poems in the book, the students deciphered the meaning to understand the importance of nature to the different tribes. They created the spiraled art you see here to design their own way of expressing why things such as the sun, wind and rain were so significant. The students learned that American Indians were continually grateful, especially for the plants and animals that gave them food and medicine. Each of these designs represents a way of envisioning the information from the poems, as well as embodying their way of personalizing the content.

Source: ASIDE
The spiral itself denotes a line that continues in the same way that the Native Americans think of nature as an unbroken need for life. By using the spiral to design the information, the students visually thought about the connection between it and the continued thanks for the environment that the American Indians tried to instill in their cultures.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Fun Holiday Games and Visualizations

December is typically a joyful but chaotic month. Teachers push their final lessons before the holidays, and students are pulled in countless festive directions. We always seem to have 20 minutes of time to fill after Nutcracker assemblies and before bus dismissals. Luckily, the holiday season features all sorts of lively animations to engage students during lulls in class parties. Few of the resources are overtly "educational," but they are fun and harmless -- and with a little invention, they can be connected to overall learning.

Source: Elf Yourself, Wikimedia Commons
Our favorite is Elf Yourself. Back this year and better than ever, the popular novelty is sponsored by OfficeMax and designed by the clever comics from JibJab. You upload a photograph, choose your music, and your face quickly appears on a bouncing elf. The impressive graphics and catchy beats are hilarious. Even though it was intended for e-cards of goofy family members, it can be stretched to fit the classroom. Pick a famous figure from history, such as Rutherford B. Hayes or Napoleon, and turn him into a hip-hop elf. Or reunite rivals Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to dance the Charleston. As of this writing, 180,782,840 elves had been created so far.

Source: PNC Christmas Price Index
On a more educational plane, PNC bank has updated its presentation of the real price of The Twelve Days of Christmas. How much would it actually cost for three French hens or ten lords-a-leaping? In its Christmas Price Index, PNC did the math, and your students can, too. With sophisticated claymation and games, the visualization is a perfect tool for highlighting financial literacy and percent change over time. Five gold rings are slightly down in value this year, apparently.

Source: Sprint Sweets
For artistic elementary students, Sprint has created The Gingerbread Man With Everything. Beginning with a blank cookie canvas, you decorate your treat in any way you want. With a surprisingly large number of "frostings," colors, sprinkles, and add-ons, the choices are creative and vast. A few pre-designed, whimsical choices are available in the gallery, such as the samurai warrior or cookie viking. This simple, fun activity works great on an interactive whiteboard.

If you have an interactive SMARTboard, there are plenty of other winsome winter resources for the Notebook software. Build Your Own Snowman, Snowflake Designer, and others are prime for younger students. Also, since 1996, has offered a range of games and activities in its Santa Animation Station. Students have a choice of playing with cartoons, puzzles, and North Pole music. Mildly silly and endlessly distracting, these holiday resources can help make the season bright.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dimensions of Diversity - NCSS 2011

Source: NCSS
We just finished three days at the annual conference for the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) in Washington, D.C., with a dedicated group of professionals who shared their hearts and souls about the subject. As educators and learners ourselves, we wanted to thank everyone who so willing provided us with resources and ideas to bring back to our classrooms to make us better teachers.

One of the many highlights at the conference was the keynote address given by Diane Ravitch, who filled the grand ballroom with a packed audience. Her message was clear; we must “preserve the heart, mind, and character of education for our democracy.” The conference was deep and rich in the sheer number of workshops available to attendees, making it at times difficult to choose.

The passion of the presenters came through in their believing that first graders could be entrepreneurs to discussing the role of journalism in a world flooded by technology. The Twitter workshop to promote global sharing of information was also interesting. Many in the group who participate as part of the Social Studies Chat ning had only met each other for the first time at the conference, but had been in constant communication online during the Monday night tweets using the hashtag #sschat.

Source: theASIDEblog
A special thanks to those who attended our presentation, “Where Financial Literacy Meets Media Literacy: Integrate, Don’t Isolate,” that demonstrated how to blend literacies about money and media into curricular learning through connected skills and content. For links to our projects that integrate branding, advertising, markets, trade, entrepreneurship, and new media, please visit our resource page and our posts on the topic.

If you’re in the DC area and looking for a good place to eat, check out the Cuba Libre restaurant for some excellent food to delight your taste buds. Lastly, thank you to all those at NCSS who made this a fantastic conference to attend.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Can Schools Raise Entrepreneurs?

Source: ASIDE
"Entrepreneurial thinking" is the mind's measure of risk and reward, of creativity and motivation. Young children thrive in this mindset, developing into entrepreneurs through an encouraging school climate. Amid an environment of earned success, they can attain life-long learning through invention, originality, and occasional failure. By fostering an entrepreneurial spirit, educators can inculcate financial literacy and media savvy in students. Specific, teachable skills can fuel initiative and innovation. In our own Kid Entrepreneurs project, we try to build these skills through hands-on, self-directed activities.

Source: Sprinkle Lab
One good, beginning resource in entrepreneurship is Sprinkle Lab's "Now I Know" series. These three-minute videos from business leaders offer crisp, candid insights about successes, failures, and lessons-learned. Some of the voices are famous, but many are lesser known. With their brevity, they are easy narratives to layer into daily learning.

Even more helpful for classroom teachers is Cameron Herold's mesmerizing March 2010 talk at TedxEdmonton. Titled "Let's raise kids to be entrepreneurs," Herold paints a compelling portrait of adult actions that would nourish future leaders. A self-described attention-deficit, "low achieving" student, with natural gifts directed in unnatural ways, Herold founded the mentoring firm BackPocket COO after serving as COO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and VP of Corporate Development at

In feisty terms, Herold argues that most parents and teachers do little to nurture self-reliance. For example, he claims that "allowances teach kids the wrong habits," by making them expect a spoon-fed job and a regular paycheck. Instead, parents should teach their children to look around the house for jobs that need doing. Then, they can negotiate the appropriate payment. Looking for opportunities becomes the essence of entrepreneurship.

Herold gives teachers and parents strategies toward raising independent thinkers. He suggests that parents force a habit of saving on young children who don't yet feel the pain of money. He recommends reading stories to children on some nights and having them tell their own stories on other nights. He urges kids to stand up in front of family friends and stage skits.

Source: Grasshopper
At the end of the clip, Herold links to a Grasshopper video that we've shown several times in our classes to excite young entrepreneurs. The conversations on the TED site beneath Herold's video are also worth plumbing. For example, one thread features interesting comments around the question: "Are Entrepreneurs Born or Made?" In our classes, we want our students to picture themselves as entrepreneurs, and we use infographics to help them visualize these traits. (Hat tip, by the way, to Jason Henrichs for promoting Herold's video.)

A recent guest post at the Creative Education blog offers thoughtful answers to this overall question: "Should schools encourage pupils to be more entrepreneurial?" The write-up includes ways to teach creativity, finance, organization, and communication skills that all yield successful do-it-your-selfers.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cereal: Lessons in Media Literacy

Source: Wikipedia
The vast amount of visual stimuli that our students are faced with on a daily basis should remind us of why it is crucial to address the skills needed to be media savvy. It goes without saying that today’s kids see more advertisements from an early age than any other generation in history. As teachers, we continually seek ways to encourage students to look at more to help them notice things that they might take for granted. It is not enough to assume that they have all the skills to deconstruct media messages, or for that matter understand why they were constructed in the first place. By beginning the process of teaching media literacy in the elementary grades, we can give kids a leg up on learning about branding techniques, advertising tricks, and the art of persuasion used to target them as potential consumers. Our method is simple: cereal.

Cereal provides a sound place to start on a strong foundation of prior knowledge. Most children know plenty about it besides just eating one brand or another, and many can recite television commercials, sing jingles, or identify mascots. One of the first things we discuss is what it means to be a consumer. We relate it to eating and how they consume food. Then we take it a step further to talk about consuming information, and lastly how a consumer buys goods and services. It’s easy then to transition into what to look for as a consumer when buying something such as cereal. In our school library, we have a bookshelf full of cereal boxes to use as examples, but three of our favorites to start with are the original, Honey Nut, and Fruity Cheerios brands, a mere three of the eleven brands made by General Mills. This exercise can also be done with other products, using multiple types of a single brand.
Source: General Mills
The students carefully study each box and look at all the different elements that go into their designs, such as a heart-shaped bowl with a ribbon about cholesterol, a cartoonized honey bee dropping a little bit of sweetness at the same time it uses a stethoscope to check your heart, or rainbow colored rings packed onto an extra large, milk-filled spoon. They learn what a target audience is and whom the advertiser intends to get to buy a particular brand. Is it for adults or kids? Conversations usually lead to many of them making connections to television commercials that talk about heart health or cute little kids wanting breakfast. With lots of other examples for them to see, the conversation quickly turns into a diagnosis of cereal boxes in search for clues on how advertisers manipulate the visual imagery using bright colors, extra large type, prizes, and more.

Source: PBS Don't Buy It
We keep them engaged by adding a little “Snap, Crackle and Pop” to reinforce what they’ve learned. The students design their own cereal boxes using the Don’t Buy It website by PBS. It's a nice interactive activity to learn the basic aspects of how color selection, celebrities, and name help sell cereal. Another good site for branding cereal is the interactive game called Co-Co’s AdverSmarts. In this game, students have to come up with a new website for Co-Co Crunch cereal by coming up with five gimmicks to promote and market it. For a little more cereal identification, they play Can you name the Cereal Mascots? This timed game to name the sixteen mascots is a sure win, with a little spelling lesson built in to boot.

Source: Media Literacy Project
Talking to kids about cereal is eye opening for them, especially when we show them the typical cereal aisle in any grocery store. By having them analyze the picture to the left, we start the discussion about product placement. Kids are surprised that companies pay for the best spot on the shelf for their brands to be noticed. Where are the brands for them?

Kids get it once they learn what to look for and come away with a whole new level of understanding. They also willingly report back to us on what they have in their own pantries or what they noticed shopping with parents. By paying more attention, they become visually astute at picking up the nuances in branding. We emphasize how important it is to be a “smart consumer” and not to be fooled by advertizing tricks. In other words, kids feel proud and a little more empowered, thinking that they have one up on the marketers.
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