Recent Posts by Guest Author

Nuclear Power Plants have been retrofitted to cope with hurricanes and other natural disasters

Guest Author: John Cooper

Cooper is a cooling-tower thermal and hydraulic design engineer, with experience designing nuclear plant Ultimate Heat Sink cooling towers, used to cool reactors during shutdown.

[Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. Readers are invited to respond, both here and on social media. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.]

 Coping with Disasters such as Hurricanes is a Standard Design Feature for Nuclear Power Plants

Ultimate Heat Sink (UHS) tower designs–the kind I often work with–include heavy duty-steel missile grating that protects the cooling system from damage that could be caused by projectiles from tornadoes.

That hardening is a standard feature, one that has been upgraded significantly in recent years.

Since Fukushima, all nuclear plants in the US have been retrofitted with equipment and water storage reservoirs that ensure adequate cooling water and power in the event of a natural disaster.

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Texas Reactor Worked Well during Hurricane Harvey

The nuclear power plant in southern Texas (South Texas Project) continued to operate when Harvey went over the site.

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US Nuclear Regulation Commission is Prepared for Florida

 The NRC made clear it is prepared for the Hurricane Irma

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has dispatched additional inspectors to the Turkey Point nuclear plant south of Miami and the St. Lucie nuclear plant on the east coast of Florida in advance of Hurricane Irma. The NRC expects to activate its regional incident response center in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday as the agency prepares for the effects of the hurricane on those nuclear plants and other NRC-licensed facilities near the path of the storm. –official statement (link here)

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Lessons from Earlier Hurricanes

 In 1992, a category 5 hurricane passed directly over a Florida nuclear plant without a disaster.

Ars Technica reports that the Turkey Point plant near Miami

didn’t become a major environmental disaster [during Hurricane Andrew in 1992] due to redundancy built in the reactor system that continuously provided electricity to cool the reactors in the aftermath of the storm.

That redundancy was hardened in 2001 after the September 11 attacks and then again in 2011 after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

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The opinions in this post are those of the guest author. He and ZipDialog welcome your response.

John Cooper is an expert on cooling tower systems for nuclear power plants and a Florida resident.

How Dogs Strengthen Their Owners’ Immune Systems

Guest Author: Lola Lipson writes on Canine-American topics.

She has published two articles in her own name in the Chicago Tribune, her favorite paper.

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“Are Pets the New Probiotic?,” asks the New York Times.

Yes, they answer.

Their basic point:

Dogs expose their owners to all kinds of germs and yucky stuff, and, in the process, force our immune systems to bulk up to deal with them.

That can be very good for kids.

Scientists are paying increasing attention to the “indoor microbiome,” the billions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that we share our homes and offices with. But not all those micro-organisms are bad for us, experts note. And exposure to a rich array of indoor germs may actually be salutary, helping stave off a variety of illnesses.

So there is growing concern that, in our anxiety to banish bacteria from our indoor world, we have become too clean for our own good. We run the risk of scrubbing, disinfecting, vacuuming and filtering out the fortifying mix of microscopic creatures that our immune system needs to develop properly. –New York Times

Enter the dog.

There are suggestive results from “natural experiments,” comparing different groups of children–some exposed to animals, others not.

Pets, and dogs especially, add a lot to the diversity of the indoor microbiome. Research has shown that dog ownership raised the levels of 56 different classes of bacterial species in the indoor environment, while naturally more fastidious cats boosted only 24 categories. –New York Times

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Comment: This finding should not be surprising.

One of the basic insights of recent macro-histories is that Europeans and Asians developed resistance to diseases because of their exposure to horses, cattle, oxen and other large, domesticated animals. Latin Americans, whose only large animals were llamas, lacked such resistance.

Presumably, Europeans and Asians not only developed some disease resistance during an individual’s lifetime, their populations evolved over generations to favor those with better resistance, who could live to reproduce (Darwinian selection effects).

The suggestion of these studies–and it is still not proven–is that we can also degrade these resistance systems by living in “clean bubbles,” especially when young.

These health effects are just a bonus, though. The main thing, as all us dogs know, is that every kid deserves one.

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  • The opinions in this post are those of the guest author. She and ZipDialog welcome your response.
  • She wishes to thank her owner, Charles Lipson, for assistance with typing. Also with food, water, and treats.

 

NATO Summit Underscores Durable Alliance. The US Should Do Nothing to Undermine It

Guest Author: Arthur Cyr

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War.” (Palgrave Macmillan and NYU Press).

[Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. Readers are invited to respond, both here and on social media. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.]

 The NATO summit in Brussels on May 25 has received relatively little attention, thanks to the crowded schedule of President Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East and Europe.

 The diplomatic whirlwind commenced with the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. Leaders from 55 nations addressed the threat of terrorism. The NATO summit is followed immediately by a meeting of the G7, comprised of the world’s principal industrial nations, in Taormina Italy. Since World War II, economic collaboration has been consciously employed as a counter to militarism.

 The brief Brussels meeting contained heavy symbolism. Remnants of the Berlin Wall, and World Trade Center destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, were dedicated. Traditional United States complaints that European allies should spend more on defense are rightly overshadowed by the momentous events these symbols represent. European military aircraft under NATO were patrolling the skies over North American quickly after 9/11.

 The terrorist attack in Manchester in the United Kingdom underscores the continued importance of military cooperation, and doubtless muted the sorts of disagreements which can become public when allied nations gather.

 Indirectly, the attacks draw attention to Britain’s important historic and current roles in transatlantic alliance. Winston Churchill’s World War II government worked assiduously to court American public and leadership opinion.

Britain steadily fostered cross-Atlantic military cooperation as the Cold War developed. Britain’s Foreign Secretary after World War II, Ernest Bevin, kept the far left of his Labour Party at bay. He was effective in dealing with European leaders in forging the European Coal and Steel Community and forming NATO, key building blocs of modern Europe and the trans-Atlantic relationship with America.

◆ In a time of uncertainty, NATO continues to provide promising transatlantic cooperation. The U.S. should do nothing to undermine this.

The opinions in this post are those of the guest author, Arthur I. Cyr . He and ZipDialog welcome your response here or on social media. Prof. Cyr can also be reached at [email protected]

Celebration in Solidarity: Harvard Black Student Graduation Is Fine. A Guest Author differs with an earlier post criticizing the event

This guest post is particularly welcome because candid, respectful, informed debates on racial issues are so rare. And so very much needed.  Thank you, Allen. (Charles Lipson)

Guest Author: Allen Linton II

Allen is an advanced student in the University of Chicago’s PhD Program in political science. He also holds a BA from Chicago, and attended public schools in the city. His current research deals with youth politics, new/social media, and local elections.  Beyond the classroom, he is a member of the Chicago Global Shapers sponsored by the World Economic Forum and is interested in education, technology, sports, and media.

Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. Readers are invited to respond. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.

Linton’s piece is a response and rebuttal of the ZipDialog post: Harvard’s Black Students Will Hold a Separate Graduation Ceremony.

The back-and-forth on Harvard’s Black Student Graduation has been insightful, but I think there are some larger experiential differences that can be raised here without driving a deliberate wedge between different groups.

I’ve never attended Harvard (though I have friends who go there and others who have graduated), but I do attend a peer institution that has similar issues with Black students (staff and faculty) not having the best time. (Those are not only my personal views; they are confirmed in a recent diversity-and-inclusion survey conducted here at the University of Chicago. The report is available here.)

My perspective is that Harvard’s Black Graduation Celebration isn’t a sign that students want segregation, that they are anti-diversity, that this is a hard-edged stance.

This is much more a culmination of celebrating what they view has been a unique experience of getting through Harvard – unique in that the experiences on campus as Black students have been dismissed but are real and have affected them in important ways.

On the discussion thread, someone asked why they attended Harvard if they felt it would be so bad for them. The answer is the same for many people who attend these places: There is a wealth of opportunity to gain in these institutions, that institutions and people in them are not bound to the errors of their past, and one hopes to NOT experience these issues during their time at the institution.

It’s really awful to experience these things while there. Not everyone has the means to just leave. So they endure.

Having navigated the University of Chicago as an undergraduate and now as an advanced graduate student, I’m not saying every waking moment is misery here as a Black student. I’ve had an enjoyable time, but I cannot say that my peers have had the same experience.

It is disappointing to have police follow me or my Black peers around campus in ways they don’t with other students. It is irritating for people to assume that my area of study is on race or that my contributions in class will necessarily be about race. It’s confusing to see a place support serious inquiry but get dismissed when suggesting we cannot discuss [insert American political topic here] without recognizing the perceived differences for minority groups.

Students do have those experiences and they change the experience at the institution. Some students may have more resolve or grounding to deal with it but the point is that no student should have to experience this at an institution of higher education. (This may sound naive but it’s an ideal, and the pursuit of ideals is how we make tons of decisions. So work with me here.)

◆ Ultimately, this graduation appears to be a celebration of succeeding in this particular space among students who have a unique experience. I’m sure not all Black students will be there. It is also not an either/or proposition with the entire graduation. Ideally there wouldn’t be a need for it but there is something going on with how Black students are experiencing their time at these places and that seems worthy of serious discussion.

Stanford, Columbia, and Temple have these ceremonies. I think the conversation on this thread may be making this celebration into something far more nefarious or radial than it actually is. This quote is pretty notable to me: “Too often at Harvard, there is not cross-discipline contact between black students. So it can feel like you are the only person of color. At this graduation, we can show each other and the administration that we are here, we are strong and we are not going away.”

So I think the celebration is self-congratulatory, but I firmly disagree with my friend Charles that it is self-congratulation “masquerading as victimization.”

To put it simply: Harvard’s Black Student Graduation celebrates a unique experience that wasn’t always the best for reasons outside of their control. Enjoy the celebration!

The opinions in this post are those of the guest author, Allen Linton II.

He and ZipDialog welcome your response.

The Coming Fight over Rex Tillerson at State

Guest Author Mike Bauer is an active Democrat

He is involved with political communication, lobbying, and fundraising in Chicago, in Illinois state politics, and nationally, as well as in a variety of civic and philanthropic causes.

He is responding here to my question about which Trump nominees were likely to face the toughest opposition from Democrats, given that Senate Democrats cannot wage a battle on all fronts.

I sent that request to several knowledgeable Democratic friends, thinking they would have a better sense of what their party will do.  This is my friend Mike Bauer’s answer.

[Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. Readers are invited to respond. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.]

Mike Bauer writes:

◆ I believe that Rex Tillerson’s nomination to be Secretary of State and John Bolton’s rumored appointment to be Deputy Secy of State SHOULD Be the Dems top two fights for confirmation because of the threat each provides to our national security – Tillerson because he it too compromised by his Exxon-Mobil stock options (worth in the nine figures) to objectively confront Putin and Bolton because he makes neo-cons look like peace-niks and has never seen a Muslim country that he doesn’t want to bomb.

◆ I expect that the Dems top three targets WILL BE Sessions as Atty Gen, DeVos at Education and Pruitt at EPA –
⇒Sessions because as AG he would threaten many organizations in the Dem coalition fearful that he would weaken prosecution of voting rights laws, discrimination cases against racial, LGBT and women’s communities‎ and police brutality cases;
⇒DeVos because she would threaten teachers’ unions, one of the Dem coalition’s most powerful components; and
⇒Pruitt because of pressure from environmental groups and major donors like Tom Steyer and a near universal acceptance by Dems of the premise that we are running out of time very quickly to reverse the harm from climate change.
◆ That’s not to imply that Price at HHS, Puzder at Labor, Carson at HUD and Perry at Energy also aren’t disasters. But at most, I expect the Dems will pick three appointments to fight the good fight so as not to appear either too partisan or too obstructionist.

The opinions in this post are those of the guest author. He and ZipDialog welcome your response.

Distinguish real racism from political smears

Guest Author: Josh Kantrow

[Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. Readers are invited to respond. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.]

As we consider the charges or racism being made against various individuals President-elect Trump is appointing or considering, let’s keep in mind that this tactic is nothing new for the left.

george-w-bush-as-pres-purple-background-200px-no-marginsLeading Democratic figures and their mainstream media supporters charged George W. Bush with:

  1. Not caring “about black people,”
  2. Being our modern-day “Bull Connor” (the racist Birmingham Democratic police commissioner who in 1963 turned fire hoses and attack dogs on civil rights protesters),
  3. Using “Nazi tactics and propaganda,”
  4. Working with “digital brown shirts,”
  5. Being a “fascist” and the closest thing in a long time to dictator of the world,” and
  6. Targeting Holocaust victims.

geo-bush-equals-hitlerAntiwar demonstrations routinely featured “Bush as Hitler” imagery. Journalists spoke about trying the administration Nuremberg-style for waging the Iraq War. Especially rich is the frequency with which Dem. Sen. Robert Byrd, ironically a former Klansman, launched such attacks. A book featured a jacket with Dick Cheney sporting a Hitler-esque mustache made of oil.

The loathsome and smug New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called Mitt Romney a “charlatan,” pathologically dishonest, and untrustworthy. He said Romney doesn’t even pretend to care about poor people and wants people to die so that the rich could get richer. Romney is “completely amoral,” “a dangerous fool,” “ignorant as well as uncaring,” said Krugman.

krugman-hitler-cheney-book-jacketAnother commentator deemed Romney “dangerous” and “scary,” and a celebrity said “If you’re a woman, you should be very, very scared.” President Obama ran an ad against him portraying Romney as uniquely dangerous for women. “I’ve never felt this way before, but it’s a scary time to be a woman,” said a woman in the ad. Romney was frequently called a “bully,” “anti-immigrant,” “racist,” “stupid,” and “unfit” to be president.

mccain-200px-no-marginsJohn McCain’s rallies were alleged to be similar to those held by George Wallace. A McCain campaign video was compared to “an over-the-top parody of fascist campaign propaganda from a movie, and sounds like Triumph of the Will.” The Obama campaign claimed that McCain was playing racial politics for daring to suggest that Obama was preemptively accusing him and the GOP generally of racism.

Conclusion

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. Racism, of course, should never be tolerated. I do not want any racists in government, including the Trump Administration. I would encourage the President-elect to choose advisors and a cabinet that reflects our country’s great diversity. I’d like to even see him pick a few Democrats. So far I am seeing too many white men. But perhaps our liberal friends have been crying wolf for a bit too long for us to take their overblown charges of racism seriously.

The opinions in this post are those of the guest author. He and ZipDialog welcome your response.

Josh M. Kantrow is an attorney, a vice-chair of his firm’s national Professional Liability Practice, an AV® Preeminent™ peer review rated lawyer by Martindale-Hubbell, a Chicago “Top Rated Lawyer,” and a frequent speaker at legal, insurance and cyber security conferences in the United States, Britain, and Israel. Josh is active in Chicago’s Jewish community, where he has taken leadership positions. He lives in Chicago with his wife and three children.

Deep Troubles in America’s Deep Coal Mines

Guest Author: Terry Jackson

[Editor’s note: Terry Jackson has worked in the coal industry for years and knows it well. ZipDialog is delighted to include his personal views. Readers are invited to respond. We take the “Dialog” in ZipDialog seriously.]

All of the damage done to the Coal Industry in the Obama Administration cannot be undone, and I am not a Climate Change Denier.

As a matter of fact, through intelligent dialogue on Charles Lipson’s ZipDialog blog and its related postings on Facebook, I am now FB friends with two Climate Scientists as a result.

Deregulating Utilities and Regulating Coal

coal-labeled-300px-no-marginThe problem began with the deregulation of electric utilities and the lack of a moral compass in the executives of those publicly-owned and traded utilities. It was made worse by Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, eliminating the “Chinese Wall” between banking and investment banking.

Instead of replacing coal-fired units all over the East Coast with new and clean coal plants, the utilities sold their coal plants, which had already been full depreciated, to Independent Power Producers (IPPs), who brushed them off to merely comply with minimal EPA regulations in force and then ran them into the ground, fully depreciating them again.

The utility executives got bonuses, their shareholders got dividends, the banking and investment banking pigs got fat. I should add that the trend started earlier than 1999 with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall legislation, and IPP’s have been around since Jimmy Carter. They just got bolder and less moral over the years.

The coup de grace was Obama’s EPA director coming up with even more and more “pollutants” to lay on the remaining coal-fired generating stations and his willingness to empower the oil and gas companies with expanded fracking.

Most oil and gas companies owned coal companies, as did chemical companies like DuPont, and they divested. They got out knowing that they could dump their coal assets with the help of the same banks and investment bankers who helped them buy coal assets for their huge cash flows in the first place.

Even the Sierra Club, which was all for more gas instead of coal, came to find out that the 6% losses of gas at the well head and through the pipelines was more damaging to the environment than the coal it replaced.  Friends at DOI [Department of the Interior] have known that for years, for what it is worth.

climate-change-labeled-300pxReducing Pollution is a Global Problem

The globe is now producing and consuming 200 million tons per year more than they were in 2000, and American production, and hence revenue and taxes from exporting coal as well as domestic markets is down 100 million tons. During Obama’s administration 95,000 American coal miners have been put out of work.

I didn’t make any of that up. Those are facts, and while America has been punished, we seem to be fighting the war against Global Warming and Climate Change without the cooperation or the rest of the planet. Germany, Japan and Scandinavia are installing new clean coal capacity mostly because they don’t trust the Russians or nuclear power.

The Politics of Betrayal

Meanwhile, we’ve been misled and lied to including by the President and the Left Wing and Progressives who do not understand and have never really wanted to understand because coal miners are just trash with few teeth to most Americans on both coasts. Meanwhile, China and India are going to bury the West coast in their pollution.

♦ Do I believe in Climate Change? Absolutely.

♦ Do I believe in Clean Coal Technology and Technology in general? Absolutely.

♦ Do I believe most Americans are the useful idiots that Saul Alinsky talks about? Absolutely, because it is Lenin and Saul who really looked and looks down on the intellectual short comings of most people.

People aren’t stupid–stupid cannot be fixed–but most are ignorant when it comes to peeling the onion and getting behind the political motives of each party.

So I pray. I hope you can read that without feeling I am condescending in any way but trying to use my experience, education etc. to make you more aware of how deep our problems run, including having a terrible person as our new POTUS.

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The opinions in this post are those of Terry Jackson. He and ZipDialog welcome your response

Continuing our Guest Author Forum on Teaching Reading in High School: What Should Students Read? Are the Readings Getting Easier? Does It Matter?

Guest Author: Robyn G.

ZipDialog is pleased to continue its forum on how reading is taught in high school, featuring Guest Authors with diverse experiences and perspectives. It gives us a window not only on reading but on the world of today’s high school students.

Today’s forum features Robyn G., an experienced Middle School teacher. She often works individually with students in a prosperous Chicago suburb with strong public schools. She keeps in touch with her students as they continue through high school so she has a good sense of how their middle school experiences affect those in high school.

After Robyn’s comments, I include links to the two previous posts and brief quotes from them. Again, many thanks for making this such an interesting back-and-forth.

Challenging Middle School Students in a Prosperous Chicago Suburb . . by Robyn G.

Since Robyn refers to her school and suburb several times, we’ll call them “Evergreen Middle School” in “Lakewood.”
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I could go on and on about the topic of reading lists, especially as I have grappled with these issues with my colleagues for 18 years at Evergreen Middle School. Here are just a few thoughts on the comparative reading lists 1922/today.

house-on-mango-streetOur students read The House on Mango Street in 7th grade. It is quite easy, straightforward reading, with the added element for our students that it takes place in Chicago. Even factoring in that students in Lakewood are most likely at higher reading levels overall than the average San Antonian, I was surprised to see it on a high school list. To Kill a Mockingbird, on the other hand is (filching from The Wizard of Oz) a horse of a different color. Although I see that it is listed at a 5.6 reading level, it is far richer in syntax than The House…., and many times more sophisticated. In fact, my concern in teaching it to 8th graders is that they may never go back to it when they are at an age to truly appreciate Harper Lee’s wicked sense of humor. Thus, I think it is more appropriate on a high school reading list.

By the same token, I am saddened that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has disappeared from so many reading lists around the country (for obvious….so disheartening….reasons).huck-finn-book-cover

A curious omission on either of the required reading lists is Shakespeare. We alternate between Macbeth and A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream towards the end of 8th grade each year. The students initially are invariably intimidated by the seemingly convoluted language. So (with the help of Folger’s modern ‘translations’ in the margins), we approach it scene by scene. As we begin to read aloud and assign roles, the students become more and more engaged. They work on their assigned scenes for a couple of weeks and then perform them in class, by this time with glee and a much greater sense of comprehension. Of course, again this being Lakewood, the unit culminates with a field trip to Chicago Shakespeare and their performances with culled dialogue geared to students. Even without these field trips, I am a big believer in offering this kind of challenging reading early on. The kids end up feeling a sense of accomplishment. They are introduced to universal themes and the poetic magic of the bard. When they return to visit from Lakewood High School or whatever high school they are attending, they tell us how ‘easy’ it was reading Romeo & Juliet or Julius Caesar. In my one-dog study (me), I believe that challenging students early on improves both their verbal and writing abilities, launching them more successfully into the high school and college years ahead.midsummer_nights_dream

One final thought. Comparing a reading list from 1922 to one almost 100 years later is a bit like mixing apples with oranges. The English language is fluid and constantly evolving (as Vernon Shelton pointed out); thus, the writing style of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic The Last of the Mohicans may have been a tad more accessible to early twentieth century readers than it is to millennials. That said, the issues of race are as relevant today as when Cooper wrote in the early 19th century, so the book remains a classic. One of our social studies teachers effectively has his 7th grade students read excerpts from the novel, along with clips from the 1992 Daniel Day-Lewis movie remake, to illustrate the time of the French & Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century. The key is to always provide context and relevancy, allowing the students to relate and engage.

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Previous Posts

⇒ Post #1 featured an article by Annie Holmqueist comparing reading lists in the 1920s and today    .texas-reading-levels

Discussing that article, ZipDialog stressed four points:

  1. Today’s reading lists are more culturally- and ethnically-diverse.
  2. The 1922 readings were substantially more difficult.
  3. Reading and writing comprehension in later grades are lower today than previously
  4. It is unclear what causal relation, if any, connects these easier readings and poorer results in writing and comprehension.

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⇒ Post #2 featured three guest authors, a high school English teacher (Vernon Shelton), a speechwriter (Bob Lehrman), and an education researcher who works closely with schools in poor neighborhoods (Dorene Ross). Here’s a flavor of their perspectives.

Vernon Shelton, high school English teacher:

Putting classic literature in terms that contemporary students understand may add to the burden that a teacher must carry, but I think that the benefits are worth the trouble.  –Vernon Shelton

Bob Lehrman, speechwriter:

Michele Obama’s Democratic convention speech. . . . clocks in at a 7.3 grade level. Do I think her speechwriter, Sarah Horowitz, deprives listeners by not writing denser prose? No. What she did was allow millions of Americans — who average a 7th grade reading level — to understand what the First Lady said.  –Bob Lehrman

Dorene Ross, teaching educator and researcher:

In 1922 the national high school graduation rate was around 17%; in 2014 the national graduation rate was 81%…. Of all the factors that correlate with achievement, poverty (not culture or race or language) is the strongest correlate…. We have a lot of knowledge about what would impact achievement in schools (e.g. Smaller classes, high quality teachers in every classroom, psychological services for children and families, quality summer programs for poverty youth, high quality early childhood education, treatment for vision and asthma problems) and very little national will to do it.  –Dorene Ross

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zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-150px-w-margin♥ Hat’s Off to Robyn G., Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross for their contributions and to Annie Holmquist for the article that prompted this forum.

Your comments are welcome here or on Facebook, where this Forum will also be posted.

Guest Author Forum: Are High School Reading Lists Getting Easier? Does It Matter?

Guest Authors: Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, Dorene Ross

ZipDialog recently featured an article by Annie Holmquist, “9th Grade Reading Lists: 1922 versus Today”.

Now, after many comments on that piece, we’re bringing together three experts with very different experiences to add their comments in a Guest Author Forum. Our guest authors are Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross. More on them in a minute, but first the background to this forum.

THE BACKGROUND

The earlier ZipDialog post made four points:texas-reading-levels

  1. Today’s reading lists are more culturally- and ethnically-diverse.
  2. The 1922 readings were substantially more difficult.
  3. Reading and writing comprehension in later grades are lower today than previously
  4. It is unclear what causal relation, if any, connects these easier readings and poorer results in writing and comprehension.

OUR THREE GUEST AUTHORS:

♦ Vernon Shelton taught English at Delta Academy in Marks, Mississippi, for six years and, before that, worked for twenty-years at a state correctional facility, where he taught Adult Basic Education.

♦ Bob Lehrman is one of the country’s most respected speechwriters. He has written for the White House and Congressional leaders and authored the standard text used by political speechwriters. He teaches speechwriting and is also an author of Young Adult novels.

♦ Dorene Ross is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Florida where she was a teacher educator and researcher. In the last 15 years her research and teaching focused primarily on schools serving populations with high concentrations of poverty. She now works part-time helping K-12 educators improve their instructional impact on children’s learning.

These are wonderful commentators, who approach the issue of reading comprehension with very different experiences and expertise.

The Challenge of Teaching English in high school today
Vernon Shelton (high-school English teacher)

huck-finnThe largest challenge I found in teaching literature to high school students was their aversion to the sometimes impenetrable (to modern ears) language used by authors of what I considered to be classic works of fiction. Because I was teaching at a private school, I was free to use any material I chose in class.

conrad-heart-of-darknessBooks like Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness  are banned in many schools because they contain what today are deemed to be offensive stereotypes and language. The characterizations used by Twain and Conrad are integral to the point of those stories, which is that humanity transcends race.

The Scarlet Letter presented another problem. To a generation accustomed to watching TV shows where car chases and fiery explosions are the norm, a book in which most of the action takes place in the minds of the characters doesn’t seem very exciting. One student told me that his father had actually quit school when he was pinned to the mat by Hawthorne’s syntax.

hawthorn-scarlett-letterBefore we started to read Hawthorne’s classic, I asked for a show of hands of those who watched “Grey’s Anatomy”. A large number of hands were raised. I then told them we were going to read a story about a single mom who had to raise a child in a community that was hostile to her, a “baby daddy” who was too cowardly to come forward and provide any child support, and a jealous old man who was possessed by the Devil. I said if that isn’t a perfect story line for a prime time soap opera like “Grey’s Anatomy”, I didn’t  know what was.

Putting classic literature in terms that contemporary students understand may add to the burden that a teacher must carry, but I think that the benefits are worth the trouble. I do think that any reading is good, but to exclude the traditional classics because they seem outdated is, to me, a terrible mistake.

Dumbing Down? Don’t Buy It
Bob Lehrman (speech writer and author)

I’m someone who has written both Young Adult novels and political speeches — including speeches for the Senate, House and White House. I use the Flesch-Kincaid readability stats all the time. Now that I teach speechwriting, I ask my students to use them, too.

That’s easy to do. If you use Word they are on your computer. They tell us a lot.

michelle_obama_at_the_dnc_july_2016_croppedThis morning, for example, I downloaded Michele Obama’s Democratic convention speech.  Obama’s speech clocks in at a 7.3 grade level. Do I think her speechwriter, Sarah Horowitz deprives listeners by not writing denser prose? No. What she did was allow millions of Americans — who average a 7th grade reading level — to understand what the First Lady said.

English is a rich language. When one examines early speeches — I’ll get to novels in a little bit — no one should be disturbed. You don’t have to say “currently,” or “additionally.” You can say “now” or “also.” You don’t want to write 30-word sentences, which are hard to say and hard to understand. You can write two or three sentences, convey the same ideas, and for reasons too hard to to cover here, reach more people.

What about novels?  I wrote four for young adults. They were serious, controversial, and difficult for many teenagers.  The Flesch-Kincaid levels were under a fourth grade level.

How could that be? First, once film became popular, they influence novels in two ways. Writers used to write pages of description to set the scene. They couldn’t compete with film which could accomplish that in  a moment.  Compare Silas Marner or The Deerslayer with the best modern novels and you will see the difference right away.deerslayer

Second, dialogue became more natural. Take this typical  bit of dialogue from The Deerslayer. “I know the spot and am not sorry to see so useful a friend as the sun.My name is not Hurry Harry if this is not the very spot where landholders camped the summer past.”

These days, YA novelists might say it this way.

” I know this place. Last summer the landholders camped here. Hey. I’m glad the sun’s shining.”

The first one is 13th grade. The second is 3d grade.  Would we prefer the original? I don’t think so.

Yes, there’s been a hundred-year trend to more colloquial language in imaginative writing (which includes oratory.). I’m a lot happier to see kids reading  Harper Lee (5.6) than Cooper (11.2). Or listening to Barack Obama (7.3) than Herbert Hoover (whose readability stats I would have to look up.)

Happy to reply to anyone who wants.  Incidentally — what I wrote here? 5.9 grade level

Can We Compare Student Reading Assignments in the 1920s and Today?
Dorene Ross (education researcher, consultant to high-poverty schools)

The study is interesting but so many factors go into the reasons for today’s 12th grade scores that it is challenging to interpret what it really means.  Here are a few of the many questions the study raises for me:

girl-readingIn 1922 the national high school graduation rate was around 17%; in 2014 the national graduation rate was 81%. So one would assume that the students doing the reading in 1920 were the cream of the crop—the kids who are taking AP courses today.  A better comparison therefore would be to compare reading levels of books read in AP courses versus those in 1920.  I’m guessing the reading levels would be more comparable.  In general in international comparisons, when US overall is compared to other nations we are more toward the middle of the pack but if you use SES as a control our students come out near the top. I say near not at the top but we have NEVER been at the top because US schools traditionally put more emphasis on creativity and problem solving and less on test taking and so our scores have tended to be lower than nations that put more emphasis on tests. That certainly has changed and I’d argue that’s not a good thing but that is a separate issue. So my question related to this study is what the reading level of books read in 1920 versus today really tells us.  If they examine the books read in AP courses the issue would be much more compelling (but I can attest to the fact that the books assigned in AP courses while more culturally diverse have many of the same kinds of readings I had in school and many that are quite challenging).

A simple fire drill can mean the difference between life and death for children in schools. Knowing what to do, where to go and having complete accountability is vital to ensuring no student is left behind in a potentially burning building. Camp Lejeune Fire Protection Division conducted their 7th Annual Dependent Schools, School District-wide fire drill, Oct. 6 aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River. Simultaneously the Camp Lejeune school district conducted the drill at 1:00 p.m. The drill not only served as the required fire drill for the month, but helped to keep students and faculty mindful of the importance of fire drills and exiting the building quickly and safely in case a heated situation were to ever arise.Of all the factors that correlate with achievement, poverty (not culture or race or language) is the strongest correlate. And the poverty level of the school is a much stronger correlate than the poverty level of the family because poverty schools have teachers who are less likely to be fully credentialed, less money for technology and libraries, etc. etc.  So I have to question whether raising the reading level of the books read is likely to have much impact on overall achievement.

Our national emphasis on testing has had the most “positive” impact on 4th grade scores because those scores are the most impacted by the push to master the basics of reading.  Tests in 8th and 12th grade put much more emphasis on reasoning, background knowledge, and inferential thinking (that requires background knowledge). As we have narrowed our school curriculum to what is tested we have absolutely lowered the conceptual level of what is learned in schools. This impacts lower achievers more than higher achievers. So I question whether tinkering with reading levels is what we need to do. Instead I’d argue we need to really examine the impact of high stakes testing, and specifically the amount of time that is spent taking and preparing for these tests (i.e. doing practice tests, and practice exercises) and the amount of money that is going to testing companies (who also, coincidentally, make all the practice materials and make TONS more money on the practice materials than the actual tests).

So I guess what I’m saying is that it is interesting to look at and compare reading levels but as you note correlation is not causation and we have a lot of knowledge about what would impact achievement in schools (e.g. Smaller classes, high quality teachers in every classroom, psychological services for children and families, quality summer programs for poverty youth, high quality early childhood education, treatment for vision and asthma problems) and very little national will to do it. Instead we focus on “market based” solutions like charter schools and vouchers where some folks can make a lot of money but there is minimal evidence of overall positive impact. There are isolated incidences of positive impact but when you control for SES and disability and second language status the evidence is that public schools overall perform as well as charters overall.

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zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-150px-w-margin♥ Hat’s Off to Vernon Shelton, Bob Lehrman, and Dorene Ross for their contributions and to Annie Holmquist for the article that prompted this forum.

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