Episode 43 – Inclusive Language Experiences: A Conversation with Leslie Baldwin

Side-by-side pictures of host Norah L. Jones and guest Leslie Baldwin. Text provides names of people and information on the podcast.
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 43 - Inclusive Language Experiences: A Conversation with Leslie Baldwin

“This is the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere, because that family you showed looked like mine.”

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In this podcast with Leslie Baldwin (bio), we address how students find meaning for themselves, how they feel included. But the conversation is much bigger than that, with much larger impact, with so much at stake for the stability and survival of our societies across the planet.

“That family you showed looked like mine.” Before continuing to read, take a few moments to step back and think about the elements of just that section of the opening quote.

Mine. That simple word demonstrates that the speaker has an identity and a sense of belonging and possession that is important to them.

Showed. Implied here is effort on behalf of the speaker.

Looked like. Here we touch on the concept of which elements of life do any of us take as “like ourselves,” or not “like us”?

Family.  When you see that word, who is pictured in your mind? What kind of configuration of people? Recognize that for this speaker, what is shown as family may not be what you have experienced. That is, the speaker’s culture may not be like yours.

When we see the result, “this is the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere,” we are moved, but we should also be warned: in order for us human beings to thrive we need first to have an identity, and then belonging. Developmentally, only when we feel we belong can we focus on contributing to those communities within societies that can bring us peace and stability on this globe.

So this insightful and important podcast is about language acquisition and use, yes. It’s about making meaning, yes. It is about inclusivity and making all types of learners welcome, yes. At the center, though, it is a conversation about how we will be in the world, and how we will contribute to the possibility that, with billions of people with billions of perspectives, we will bridge and connect. It is a conversation about how we will become more aware and pro-active about the unique experiences and perspectives of all around us, and, in some simple but profound way, show them that they belong somewhere.

Enjoy the podcast.

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It’s About Language – Episode 43 – Inclusive Language Experiences: A Conversation with Leslie Baldwin

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Thank you for always focusing on the possibilities, opportunities and the power of language and what it can do for us individually - and collectively!

Elizabeth Mack

If you've never done #cliftonstrengths, yourself or with your team, don't wait any longer.  Norah Jones of FLUENCY CONSULTING is the one and only to do it! It's all about your super powers: finding & using them to affect positive change in the world. What's not to love?!

Elizabeth Mack
Founder and CEO / Freestyle Languages


Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others. 

Lisa Fore


Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!  

Paul Sandrock
Senior Advisor for Language Learning Initiatives / ACTFL


You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants. 

Richard Brecht


Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it.  New questions come from the hearing. 

Terri Marlow

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[Introductory material]

Norah Jones:                     Well folks, it’s my great pleasure to welcome my friend, colleague, and a wonderful leader and human being in general, Leslie Baldwin to the podcast today. Hi Leslie.

Leslie Baldwin:                 Hi Norah. I’m really happy to be here. I appreciate being asked.

Norah Jones:                     Well, I know everyone that listens to you is going to be very appreciative of what you’ve got to share, because indeed, I just think about all the leadership opportunities that you have shared, that you’ve taken advantage of in sharing your leadership with others. I’m making sure that people recognize that you’re not only the World Language Director for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools in Winston- Salem, North Carolina, but also the Executive Director of SCOLT, the Southern Conference on Language Teaching, and also an Adjunct Instructor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. That’s a lot of things to have on your plate, Leslie. And, what is it that drives you that way? What brings meaning to your life, when you are engaged so much with world languages in all those different levels?

Leslie Baldwin:                 That’s a good question. It is a lot on the plate; but also, all of those things just give me different experiences that all build on each other, and interact with each other in great ways. So my work with SCOLT really gives me a broad network across not just the Southeast, but the country, really, with all the… It’s all about, “How do we help make things better?”

Norah Jones:                     How do we help make things better? And the question I have for you is, what is the role of… Well, you had said to me at one point about being passionate about facilitating meaningful language experiences. What are meaningful language experience? What makes meaning in this area of teaching, learning, and application?

Leslie Baldwin:                 I think that’s a good question. And I think the answers are as varied as our students are varied, like what is meaningful to them? And so, I can pretty much bet you that for the majority of our students, sitting around and filling in verb charts with conjugations all day, is not what is meaningful, which is the experience of many of our administrators, if they are of a certain generation, and as the experience as learners of many of us as educators too depending upon what our own language learning experience was.

But what’s meaningful is what’s relevant, and is what answers the “why.” “Why am I doing this?” Students ask that all the time. “Why are we learning this? Why are we doing this? Is it going to be on the test?” Right?

Norah Jones:                     Yep.

Leslie Baldwin:                 So what is it that’s meaningful for them? What makes it applicable? And so, yes, the verb conjugations are important, because we want to be able to speak well and be understood well. But we have to get to the “why.” “Why are we learning this? Why do we have to know how to do that?” Well, it’s so that we can communicate about preferences and likes and dislikes; or it’s so that we can communicate with this group of exchange students that’s coming in. Or it’s so that we can help a student who’s just arrived at school, and is having difficulty with English and navigating things; that’s the “why” behind it. And that’s what makes it meaningful.

I just talked to a parent yesterday, actually. Her children are in one of our Spanish immersion programs; they’re in sixth grade. And one day this year, one of her children, she saw him, because she works at the school, too. She saw him taking a kid down to guidance, and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Oh, well, he just got here. And this class isn’t working for him, and we need to get his schedule changed, but he doesn’t speak enough English, and I’m going to go to guidance and help him.” That was meaningful for that student, for both of them.

Norah Jones:                     That’s huge.

Leslie Baldwin:                 It’s absolutely huge. So, meaning is about relevance for the students. And if that camping unit from the textbook is not something students can relate to, because they don’t go camping, and they don’t know what that is, then that’s not meaningful. And so we need to think about a different context to present language in, so that they are talking about something that has meaning for them.

Norah Jones:                     Now Leslie, language studies happen in institutions; and institutions usually have expected outcomes, and maybe not only standards, but also objectives that they expect students to meet, and therefore, topics often. How do you negotiate, navigate, I really mean here, these waters of what you just said about the meaningfulness to students, and what is been traditionally anyway, meaningful to administrators, meaningful to school boards?

Leslie Baldwin:                 Sure. So there has to be a kind of a bridge there, right, to help everyone understand, “What are the goals? What are we trying to do? And how do we articulate that?” So we do have exit expectations; North Carolina has set exit expectations, proficiency expectations, for our courses. And our objectives are aligned with those proficiency expectations and modes of communication. So we’re well aligned with national standards; that helps our language teachers really kind of focus on, “Here what students need to be able to do by the time they leave my course. Here’s what they should be able to do in the language, whatever the language is, regardless of, which specific language it is.” And that helps us get around that idea of, “Oh, if they haven’t memorized this set of vocabulary, they can’t do the next thing.” It’s not about that. It’s about the language skills and the functions. And so our state standards actually really do help in that.

And then we have to kind of, no pun intended, translate that for administrators and for parents. “So what does this mean? What does this mean they’re going to learn?” “Well, they’re going to be able to do these kinds of things.” And that’s where the “can-do” statements really help us as well, to make that more user-friendly language, instead of in the kind of language educators speak.

Norah Jones:                     Talk to our listeners a little bit about the “can-do” statements, because not all are familiar with what is it that those statements state that students say they can do?

Leslie Baldwin:                 So, the “can-do” statements are really helpful, because they basically take the actual proficiency and performance guidelines, which are extremely helpful, and put them in student-friendly language; and do that by proficiency level, and by mode of communication.

Norah Jones:                     Okay.

Leslie Baldwin:                 So again, they align really well with our state standards, and with many others. But it also helps teachers take those, and look at their units, and look at their end-goals for the unit, and then provide the students with the “can-do’s” that say, “Okay, by the end of this unit, these are the things you’re going to be able to say you can do.” And as they go through that unit, they’re doing specific activities: formative assessments, all sorts of things, that are helping students to be able to do those specific skills. And usually they’re specific to the unit; so it might say that they can talk about things they like to do and don’t like to do after school, or something like that.

So it gets a little bit more specific to the context of the things they’re going to be talking about, writing about, and those sorts of things. And so we have district thematic units for the teachers that are aligned to the “can-do’s”, our state standards, and help teachers and students kind of look at, “What are these end goals? What are we going to be able to do by the end of this unit?” But they also allow for some freedom within that, so that the teacher can respond to students’ specific interests, and what might be more relevant for this group of students versus the one they had last year.

Norah Jones:                     Thank you so much. Now, in what ways, especially as a leader of various organizations… You even mentioned the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Language, the NADSFL, earlier; how is it that these might have changed? What have you seen? What growth are you seeing? And where is it headed, in order that language continues to grow in its relevance for this global community we’ve got going here?

Leslie Baldwin:                 I’ve definitely seen more of a change, certainly more of a change to that whole, what we’ve been talking about, that whole communicative, proficiency approach. So as opposed to, “By the end of Level One, I have to get through chapter seven.” Or whatever it might be, to really talking about, “By the end of Level One, here’s what my kids are going to be able to do with language. And they’re going to be at a novice high level. They’re going to be starting to put sentences together on their own. But here’s how I’m pushing them to that next level, by giving them the scaffolds and the supports to create sentences, to create paragraphs, with some assistance.” So, I’ve really seen that shift from kind of that focus on, “What is the textbook telling me to do?” Which can be a helpful resource, but it’s not our curriculum, it’s not our standards.

So, kind of moving from that, “Oh, I’m not at Chapter Four yet, to, “Oh, we’re in this unit, and these are the skills we’re working on. And my students are having a hard time with this particular skill, but here’s how we’re working through that.” So really just kind of a different focus; and again, getting at that, “why,” not just the “what,” but, “Why are we learning this? Why does it help me to learn this particular structure, this particular grammar, this particular vocab? Well, it helps me, because I want to be able to talk about X, Y, or Z.” And that’s more of our focus than the limited piece.

Norah Jones:                     That’s very helpful. Now let’s for just a moment, again, here you are embedded in the educational system; you’re connecting in language, and it’s like, “What are we going to talk about?” In what ways, either currently, or growing, are educational experiences for language students, which is about the world, connecting to impulses from society, current things? In what way is language education responsive or not, to what’s happening with how people, and what people talk about, in societies, as they keep developing and connecting or clashing, even?

Leslie Baldwin:                 Sure. Sure. And I think that is something that is very individual-based; because it’s up to the teacher to help to bring those things into the classroom, and help students respond to them. Right?

Norah Jones:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Leslie Baldwin:                 And some teachers might be more comfortable than others with doing that. And at some levels of language, teachers might be more comfortable than others, because they want to keep things in the language; and so, sometimes they might feel like it’s hard to address certain topics, depending upon the level of the students. But I do think there’s a lot that teachers, across the board, can do in language classrooms, to ensure that their environment is inclusive, is inviting, is friendly to any student. And that’s something that’s important for any content area, not just languages, but schools and educators in general, of course; that our students feel that that classroom is a safe place to be, not just physically, but psychologically.

And that’s a really important thing; and I think that’s where some of the current events come into play. That it can be a place to discuss those, and to share feelings and reactions and thoughts, and maybe learn facts that they need to learn, to be able to process things. But also to ensure that in what we’re presenting to students, just within kind of our regular units, that we, as educators, are thinking much more inclusively.

So something that a group of teachers I was working with last summer talked about, and this is kind of low-hanging fruit, is when you’re doing kind of the typical family unit, and getting kids to talk about their families and all that sort of stuff, make sure that your examples aren’t just the mom, the dad, the two kids; because that’s almost not a normal family anymore, in many respects.

Norah Jones:                     You’re right.

Leslie Baldwin:                 Or there’s such a variety of family makeups; make sure that your examples have two parents of the same gender, make sure that some families are kind of mixed, and there’s steps and step-siblings, and that sort of thing. Show some families of single parents; and make sure that the images are widely representative of ethnicities and races from a broad spectrum of the target culture, but maybe their own as well. And I’ve had teachers talk about that when they did that, when they intentionally did that with their visuals, with the things they were using in class, that they’ve had students come to them afterwards and say, “This is the first time I felt like I belonged somewhere, because that family you showed looked like mine.”

Norah Jones:                     See? Exactly.

Leslie Baldwin:                 And that’s huge. And that’s something that as educators, we can make a conscious decision to do.

Norah Jones:                     Absolutely. And of course, you’ve hit on a key word there for me, as you well know, from our interactions previously, and that is belonging. That we use our language in our lives first to survive, and then to belong; and only do we really want to dive into being competent. And that is a powerful anecdote that you just shared there, Leslie; when the student in a language class, in particular, sees a person that they can identify with, then they can begin, I presume, and here’s where I’m going to turn it into a question for you. How do teachers see students opening, with regard to how they wish to grow in their language, and in their communication skills, because of this greater sense of belonging?

Leslie Baldwin:                 That’s a good question. I think, any time… And in any class, again, whether it’s language or science or social studies, or whatever it might be. I think any time a student feels like they have a place there, and they belong there, that’s when they’re willing to take risks in that classroom. And that’s when they’re willing to do what is asked. That’s when they are motivated to complete the assignments, to participate in class, and not just sit back there and be as quiet, and try to hide in the corner as much as they can. If they feel like that’s a place where they are accepted and respected by the teacher and by peers, then that’s when you get the authentic engagement, not just, “Oh, I’m doing this because I know I need the grade, and I’m a good kid, and I’m going to do what people tell me to do.” Which is not always the case, also. “But I know that I belong in this place, and that teacher values me, and therefore I am motivated to learn and to participate in this work.”

The other thing that I’ve seen from teachers, really most recently in this past year, is that students are asking, in language classes, “How do we deal with language that is non-binary?”

Norah Jones:                     Yeah.

Leslie Baldwin:                 That is definitely a new thing that has come up just in, and is again, related to that outside world you were asking about, but has really just come up in recent years, where students are asking, especially in our Romance languages, where gender with language is such an important part of the grammar, right? Is it feminine? Is it masculine? Are we agreeing? Everything, all those sorts of pieces, for all of us has, for me as a language learner, I’m a native English speaker, obviously, that’s a thing that was drilled into me, right, as I was learning Spanish, that this is very important.

Well, students are asking, “Okay, but what about my friend? Or what about me, who doesn’t identify as male or female, and in English chooses they and them? What does that mean for Spanish or French or German, for those personal pronouns, adjectives, that sort of thing? And so, that’s a new thing, that as educators, we need to address; again, making sure that our students feel welcome and psychologically safe in our environments. And we don’t have official guidance on language, and how we’re supposed to work with that. And so there’s just kind of these trends developing across the languages. But that’s just a new piece that our teachers are dealing with.

Norah Jones:                     Do you think that there needs to be a, not a position, I don’t mean that. A suggestion, a place to go, to discover how to, or get suggestions for how to deal with these things, from a language learning point of view? Or is this inevitable, the teacher-at-a-time kind of experience, that is much of what you’ve described?

Leslie Baldwin:                 I think it would be helpful to have some sort of “official” suggestions of how the languages deal with this, so that at least there’s some consistency, I suppose. And so that it’s not just, “Well, this teacher read this article, and so they’re going to do what that says. And this teacher read something else, and they’re going to do what that says.” There does seem to be some consistency, just kind of in general, in how the language is involving; in English, now, instead of Latino or Latina, usually Latinx is what’s used now. And there’s certainly a trend to turn all those -a and -o endings into -e endings that are gender-neutral. So it seems like the language is evolving itself without official guidance, which is how language works. But I think for educators, it would be helpful to have something to say, “Here’s what seems to be happening as a larger trend across the world. And that’s what this means for your classroom.” Because that’s what they’re asking.

Norah Jones:                     That is what they’re asking. I thank you very much for sharing that. And here’s another aspect; there’s a lot of time constraints. Goodness knows, after this particular year, we sense time constraints more than ever. But always in education, there are time constraints with achieving goals. Connecting students to the world, a lot of, I would imagine what people are imagining at this moment, is an instructor standing in front of a classroom, with a fairly large group of students. And that this instructor is the conduit for understanding language. How is it, that language instruction has been connecting with the outside world on site, allowing students, while the teacher, coach, mentor, is right in front of them, to experience the voices of speakers of those target languages that they’re studying, to be heard, to potentially ask them these questions?

Leslie Baldwin:                 That’s a great question. And again, I think it’s one of those things that happens differently, teacher-by-teacher, school-by-school, right? Because some of it might have to do with is there a local population of speakers of another language near you that you can tap into, as the teacher? Some people have more access to that than others, depending upon your language, depending upon where you are, just geographically. But there’s so much available now with technology, especially in this last year, in all that we have learned, that wasn’t available even when I was in the classroom. That wasn’t something you could do. And now, we have so many classrooms that partner with teachers in other countries, and have their classes, either they do some kind of Zooming or Skyping, or something back and forth, or they do online chats back and forth. I have a teacher that actually has them. They actually write good old-fashioned letters.

Norah Jones:                     Letters? What are these things?

Leslie Baldwin:                 Which is great, which is a wonderful learning experience for the kids. And then I have some teachers that have had a hard time with maybe connecting exactly with a target population; and so they use other classes, and they exchange with other learners of the same language, which still gets at… You’re getting at a different community, not just those few kids you happen to be in class with. So there’s just various ways that that can happen these days.

Norah Jones:                     That’s great, Leslie. Thank you for explaining that. Okay. Now, got a bit of a challenge here for you. Ready?

Leslie Baldwin:                 Sure.

Norah Jones:                     All right. Here we go. Talking with business people on other podcasts; and of course, just in general in life, talking with people that are out and about in the work world in various careers, and a lot of them are looking for, and asking for begging for, in some cases, students that can communicate, students that can present. Adults, I should say, really here, employees to be, that can present, that can write, that can communicate, that can persuade, that can think critically, that can ask good questions. Grownups that have a sensitivity to those around them that are more willing to be open to collaborating with, and working with, folks that come from different mindsets, cultures, languages, accents, et cetera. You are the author of the book, Keys to the Classroom, the second edition of Keys to the Classroom. Relate, please, what’s in that book, which then is sold to, given to, teachers around this country in the world language classroom; relate to those keys, to those requests, to those hungers out there, in the world of employment of adult careers, please.

Leslie Baldwin:                 That is a challenge. Okay. So, I’ll say a couple of different things to answer that, I think.

Norah Jones:                     Okay.

Leslie Baldwin:                 So, the Keys book, and as you said, is a second edition; you’re kind to mention that. But that was a fun project to work on, because the first edition I had used a great deal with my new teachers, with whom I work; but as time went on, and things were changing so rapidly with what was available for teachers technology-wise, and our standards changed, all sorts of things, we needed an update, to kind of get with all of those changes that had been occurring in the profession. So that was an exciting project to work on. And the Keys book really is intended to be kind of a handbook for a new language educator, who needs the Cliff Notes.

Norah Jones:                     Okay.

Leslie Baldwin:                 There are wonderful methods texts out there; this is kind of the Cliff Notes of, “Here’s the absolute basics.” And some of it is very specific to language education, because it talks about the proficiency levels, the modes of communication, and the “can-do’s,” and keeping things in the target language, and that sort of thing. But then other pieces of the text are really just generic for educators in general; the idea of planning with a backwards design model, starting with the end in mind. There are pieces in the text about dealing with difficult situations, whether that be the parent conference that that might not be the easiest parent conference, the unmotivated student, the unexpected change in schedule, or the, “Oh, all of a sudden my internet is down. Now what do I do?” Just all those sorts of things that just happen.

So there’s a lot in there that is kind of generic to any new educator, and then some things that are specific to language educators. As far as that whole piece of what the business community is expecting of our graduates, and needs of our high school and our college graduates; again, I think those are those things that are universal to any educator, that that’s what we have to be preparing our students to be able to do. That they have to be able to work on a team, work with others. They have to be able to communicate effectively, whether it’s in English, or a language other than English, right?

Norah Jones:                     Right.

Leslie Baldwin:                 They have to present themselves well, and have all these different skills. And so I think that’s up to all of us to work on together. One thing I know my good friend and your good friend, Carmen Scoggins, told me from this year, that they had to work on at her school with everything being virtual, and the kids are at home, they’re at home, they’re teaching virtually. And there’s just all this email interaction with the students, that in the past, hasn’t really been a part of how they worked with students. Right?

Well, she said we had to teach them how to compose an email, and not put everything in the subject line, and not just blurt out the demand, so to speak, right away without saying, “Miss Scoggins, or Señorita Scoggins, comma, how are you today?” And then, here’s my request or something like that.

Norah Jones:                     Yes. Yes.

Leslie Baldwin:                 So, she specifically talked about, that was a skill they had to teach kids. Well, that’s one of those skills, right? That’s part of communication in today’s world, is you need to learn not to type in all caps, because somebody is going to think you’re yelling. You need to learn not to put everything in the subject line, and to compose your message appropriately, and use periods and capital letters, because you’re not texting your friend. Those are just important pieces for our students to learn, so that they can present themselves well when they go on to whatever their next step is. And there are some pieces about things like that in the text, in part in as the teacher, you are the model for that. And so, make sure that your own communication models what we expect of our students as well.

Norah Jones:                     Indeed, that modeling has probably one of the biggest teachers of all, I would imagine. That’s great. Thank you, Leslie so much, for sharing all that. Okay. Now. I’ve got one last question for you, if you would. Okay?

Leslie Baldwin:                 All right.

Norah Jones:                     Here I’d like you, if you please. When you turn to those that have been listening to this wonderful exploration of what language is, how it’s used, how they learn it; when you turn one last time to the listening audience, and you say, “I want to make sure that before we stop today, everyone has heard me say, or knows they’re invited to, or knows they need to…” Whatever that is for you. What’s your last message for those listening today?

Leslie Baldwin:                 That might be the hardest question you’ve asked.

Norah Jones:                     I’m so happy for that.

Leslie Baldwin:                 Let’s see. I think just that as language educators, we have to remember that first, we are educators. And that that means we are educating the whole child. Our focus is on the language that we are passionate about, the culture that we are passionate about; and that’s what makes our classes fun and interesting, is because we have that target language, that culture, all of those rich things to bring to the classroom. But first, we are educators; and it’s our responsibility to make that environment a pleasant place for students. And that means a lot of different things: that’s visual, it’s physical, it’s also psychological. And that’s just a really important piece. And our decisions as adults impact our learners; and we have to remember that, and be intentional about that, and cognizant of that. Because sometimes we don’t recognize what our actions are, and how they’re impacting students. And it’s so important that we are introspective about that, and think about that critically, so that we are impacting students in all the positive ways we possibly can.

Norah Jones:                     That was a powerful exhortation for a person that was taken aback by the question. Leslie, typical of you, how articulate, and especially compassionate that was, because indeed, the whole human person is sitting in front of us in any classroom; certainly language classrooms, we feel it, in particular, because we’re connecting people around the globe. Leslie, this has been a great pleasure speaking with you today about language and meaning and connection and compassion and growth. I’m hoping that you feel that you’ve been able to express what you wanted to express to folks about what makes your work meaningful to you and to others.

Leslie Baldwin:                 Well, I just am honored to be here today, and humbled by the request to join you, and I appreciate it very much. And I would be remiss in my role as Executive Director of SCOLT, if I did not invite all of the listeners to Norfolk in March for an in-person; yes, you heard it, an in-person SCOLT conference. You can find out more on our website, scolt.org.

Norah Jones:                     Wonderful. And the scolt.org and other resource connections and links and suggestions from Leslie are in fact on my website, fluency.consulting. So I look forward to everybody checking out that website always. And yes, Norfolk, Virginia, and come one, come all, in an on-site live, with real people, Leslie, that’s exciting indeed.

Leslie Baldwin:                 It is. Yes, we are excited and looking forward to it.

Norah Jones:                     Leslie, thank you again. And may you continue to enjoy a summer, which I know is very busy for you as a leader, filled with classes, courses, workshops, for both students and teachers.

Leslie Baldwin:                 Thank you, Norah. It’s been great to be here today.

[Closing material]

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