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Life is short, but it was more than people that passed away in 2016: James Miller

When historians look back upon 2016, they’ll designate it the year of death. No year in recent memory gave us so many gravestones.

Countless celebrities, musicians, artists, and athletes left us in 2016. The list is long, but here’s a smattering: former heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), actor Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Prince, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, actor Alan Rickman, country music artist Merle Haggard, Abe Vigoda, TV psychic Miss Cleo, BMX legend Dave Mirra, novelist Harper Lee, legendary music producer George Martin, R2-D2 actor Kenny Baker, Princess Leia actress Carrie Fisher, conservative talk show host John McLaughlin, golfer Arnold Palmer, PBS Newshour anchor Gwen Ifill, Hollywood socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a big personal loss for me, A Tribe Called Quest rapper Phife Dawg.

(Seriously: Listen to “Buggin’ Out” from Tribe’s highly influential album “The Low End Theory” to witness the great talent lost.)

Stars and starlets weren’t the only folks to burn out. Many figures of great political significance also passed on. 

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly in February, injecting more rancor into an already contentious presidential race over his vacated seat. To the dismay of militant leftists and delight of conservatives, former Cuban president and communist strongman Fidel Castro died. After a career of astounding accomplishment, astronaut, war hero, and former U.S. Sen. John Glenn passed away in December. Former first lady Nancy Reagan also joined the departed in March, a woman of elegance whose warnings about recreational drug use were laughed off too early, especially in light of the opioid endemic devastating Midwest America.

For me, the biggest loss of 2016 wasn’t the author of an iconic work of fiction, a showy sportsman, or a braggadocious rapper. It was the death of my mother. Not a day passes that I don’t consider her absence and how much I miss her.

When it comes to death, our memories home in on people. But individuals aren’t the only things that kick the bucket. Ideas, those nebulous creations that govern our perception of reality, have a life all their own. And in 2016, an idea many Americans take for granted was dealt a near-fatal blow. Specifically, the uniquely Western view of liberalism is now on life support after the walloping it received over the course of last year. 

Czech author and dissident Milan Kundera described the Western ethos as “founded on the individual and his reason, on pluralism of thought and on tolerance.” In the Western mind, faith, nationalism and duty should never impede on individual want.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that philosophy, which served as the basis for America’s founding documents, is no longer as sacrosanct as it once was. The people of Great Britain voting to leave the European Union was the first shot in the side of liberalism. The election of political outsider Donald Trump was the second. Right-wing nationalist parties are on the rise in Europe, and the Bernie Sanders Left now openly mocks neo-liberalism, the view of human beings as commoditized, pleasure-pursuing creatures.

All represented a rejection of reigning political orthodoxy. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was assumed we had reached, in the famous words of Francis Fukuyama, the “end of history,” and that the world was moving toward a more open, more accepting, and more connected place than ever before. 

Former President Bill Clinton gave a speech in Australia in 2001 expressing his desire to see all national borders eliminated so that all could experience the benefits of trade. His wife, in a speech to a Brazilian bank in 2013, described her “dream” as “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.”

Hillary never expected that comment to see the light of day (Wikileaks brought it, along with many, to the fore). And she certainly never expected it to elicit the backlash it did. 

For all his flaws, Trump’s unapologetic defense of country-first won him just enough support to claim the presidency. Even in his inchoate rambling, Trump never broke away from two main traits: a respect for borders and a respect for national character. His refusal to accept doctrinaire liberalism brought the accepted ideological consensus crashing down. 

Few saw it coming. Liberalism as an idea joined the body of loss in 2016. The heart beat the mind, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where our current trajectory will lead.

It’s customary to make pledges to betterment in the new year. And after the last 12-month roller-coaster ride, I think great personal reform is in order. 

Loss makes you reconsider what’s important in life. One 2016 death I failed to mention was that of pop superstar George Michael. After a life of excess, Michael passed away on Christmas Day. Rumors of suicidal thoughts and rampant drug use surround the as-of-yet determined cause of death. 

His partner in stardom, Andrew Ridgeley, lives on. Unlike Michael, Ridgeley lived a quiet life after the Wham! years, settling in Cornwall with his partner, spending his days surfing, tippling at the pub, and advocating for a clean environment. 

Michael embraced the spotlight; Ridgeley eschewed it for a small, secure life without the frivolities of fame.

May we all remember his example. Celebrity is fleeting. The people we love never live long enough. Ideas we think will last can vanish faster than Donald Trump when creditors come calling.

Life’s painfully short, and should be lived wisely. And humility should always be exercised in healthy amounts, because what you think is true now will not always be the case. Just take a look at the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Heeding those lessons should be everyone’s resolution for 2017.

 

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, works as a digital marketer in Northern Virginia.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 January 2017 14:01

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Here’s a solution for colleges failing to prepare students: Francine Glazer column

Job prospects for today’s college seniors are looking up. The hiring of bachelors-degree holders is expected to jump by 19 percent this year.

But few are actually prepared for employment. Even though nine in 10 recent college grads believe they’re ready for the workforce, only half the nation’s employers agree.

Colleges and universities need to address this. Specifically, they should aggressively incorporate into their courses high-impact educational practices (HIP), which connect academic lessons to real-world problems and foster the creativity and critical thinking employers value. These practices can turn academically engaged students into profession-ready graduates.

Today, academic skills alone aren’t sufficient for career success. Employers also want workers who communicate effectively, know how to manage their time, and can get a task done with minimal supervision. Indeed, more than 90 percent of businesses value such “soft” aptitudes more highly than any specific college major.

High-impact practices provide this pre-professional base, often through extended research, collaborative projects, or community-based service jobs. In every case, a central feature is frequent, rigorous feedback. Students improve through input from peers and professors. Instead of toiling away at solo homework assignments and term papers, students operate in an environment that approximates the working world.

It’s no surprise, then, that students feel more confident with their professional prospects after participating in HIP, with 75 percent reporting that this work prepared them for life after college.

Employers also highly value HIP experience. Ninety-four percent of employers are more likely to hire a recent college grad who has completed a long-term project that included intensive research and problem-solving skills. 

And student participants don’t have to wait until they get to the workplace before reaping the benefits, since HIP programs immediately enhance their academic performance. 

Consider a study of nearly 400 colleges and universities. Researchers tracked students in “learning communities” — where folks took classes together and lived in close proximity — and found that that these students put more effort into their school work, took harder courses, and developed closer relationships with faculty than those who did not.

Likewise, research from Kent State University shows that students with more HIP engagement have higher GPAs.

Some higher-education institutions have already recognized the power of HIP.

At the University of Iowa, for example, students interested in business live together in the “BizHawks” community. This program sponsors a contest in which student groups work collaboratively on a business pitch. “BizHawks” even practice business manners at meals with faculty and receive extensive feedback on their resumes.

And at my own university, New York Institute of Technology, faculty members provide students with real-world experiences, typically through team-based capstone projects or internships at companies and nonprofits. These internships are meaningful experiences and sanctioned by the school, as students sign an agreement with our office of career services detailing the skills they hope to develop.

In our school of architecture and design, one professor implements HIP in his course by having students transfer their designs into virtual reality apps so they can walk through their work and “see” ways to improve it. Industry leaders also inspect these virtual reality projects and provide honest feedback, giving our budding architects a taste of real-world project management. 

Today’s college students will enter a promising job market. Universities must evolve to better empower students to succeed once they’re in the workforce. High-impact educational practices should be a central part of that equation.

 

Francine Glazer is associate provost for educational innovation and director of New York Institute of Technology’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 15:33

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Penn State Harrisburg is part of the fabric of Middletown area: Susannah Gal column

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What’s a college town? Well, the pure definition of course is some place that has a college in it. 

While Middletown has a college in it, Penn State Harrisburg, this is a relatively new relationship compared to some, so it doesn’t yet feel like what you might expect for a college town. This is the campus’ 50th anniversary year and Middletown was established 261 years ago. 

I’ve lived in several “college towns” that had different feels as they relate to the college and the people in town. When my husband and I lived in East Lansing Michigan, the home of Michigan State University, basically the town doubled in size when the university was in session. I remember we’d all say “They’re back” when we started to see the increase in car traffic and many more people in the grocery stores in late August. Other places like Baltimore where I lived to attend Johns Hopkins University for my PhD, it didn’t really feel like a college town since the number of people in the city of Baltimore is so much larger than the numbers of students attending Johns Hopkins. 

Binghamton, where we lived prior to coming to Middletown in 2015, has a relatively large university of about 15,000 students and grew during our time there. The campus is situated a bit outside of town and it wasn’t until some of the university departments moved into town and a significant amount of student housing was built in town, that it started to feel more like a college town. 

What’s good about being in a college town? Lots. You have access to a host of interesting people, students, faculty and staff from the campus. There are also concerts and interesting talks. For instance, in spring 2016, the Penn State Harrisburg campus hosted a panel to talk about lead in water and whether an instance like Flint, Michigan, could happen in our area. The panel included faculty from the School of Science, Engineering and Technology and from the School of Public Affairs as well as staff from the Pennsylvania Departments of Environmental Protection and Health. 

This past fall, the campus hosted two election panels with faculty from the School of Business Administration and another from the School of Public Affairs. There’s also been a panel on the relationship between communities and the policing practices with faculty from the School of Public Affairs. In the spring, we will host a discussion on President Donald Trump’s interpretation of the Bill of Rights (Jan. 25) and another on some of the 2016 Nobel Prizes (Feb. 22). 

Why should you take advantage of the campus? Well, I believe learning and staying curious is a great way to keep life interesting. For this column, I talked with staff at Penn State Harrisburg to find out more about the services on campus available to people in town. Did you know that you can use the pool and the library on our campus? My friends Marti and David S. Black use the college pool nearly every day (David is a member of their 600 mile club!). There is a nominal charge of about $70/semester, though that is much less than what it would cost to build and maintain an indoor swimming facility. 

My friends also remarked about using the Penn State Harrisburg library and have been impressed by the incredible resources there, including a fabulous children’s collection, and the patient and helpful library staff. 

Through the Go-60 program, you can take classes, provided that there are spaces not needed by the students. Marti and David have participated in some classes in American Studies, Homeland Security and Criminal Justice when the instructor allows it (and there’s room). They have enjoyed the concerts and talks on campus (like Richard Florida in October). You can also come on campus to watch our sports teams like soccer and basketball (though they can’t out do the Middletown Raiders this year! ;-). 

Some community members also help at the English speaking club, a place for international students to practice their English and learn about American culture. To find out what’s happening, check out this website: harrisburg.psu.edu/calendar

How does the campus reach into the community? Many ways. At the Halloween parade, I remember seeing Penn State Harrisburg cheerleaders on one of the firetrucks. I learned that the students from our campus go to the Middletown Home for events like a Valentine’s Day dance. I also understand that the clubs on campus and the honors students are involved in some community service. These students helped after the 2011 flood and the fire last spring that devastated many in our community. I think the student clubs are often looking for more ways to be involved. In the past, the chorus and bands performed at the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in town, though this year the group was too big to fit in the sanctuary space so they had the concert in the new theater on campus. The public was warmly welcomed to this event.

As you know, I live in town, as do several faculty and staff (and some students, of course). Recently, a group at Penn State Harrisburg conducted a survey of faculty and staff that live in town to understand the campus’ relationship with the regional community, especially Middletown. They asked us things like “How do Middletown residents perceive Penn State Harrisburg?” “What is the impact of [the campus] in the Middletown area?” I think the group is very interested in hearing your perspectives and reinvigorating a dialog between the town of Middletown and the faculty, staff and students at Penn State Harrisburg. How would you like to see the relationship improve between the town and the gown (college)? Do you have any concerns/problems about the college? How has the information in this column affected your view of Penn State Harrisburg?

I’d love to hear your ideas and insights.

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Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in July 2015. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 15:43

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Elimination of school property taxes is in line with our history: Mike Folmer column

As Sen. David Argall and I continue to push for elimination of school property taxes with passage of Senate Bill 76, I often think about the impact property has had throughout history.

A shortage of land, dismal living conditions, and lack of both religious freedom and economic opportunity led some Europeans to seek better opportunities. In 1585, a group of English investors sponsored settlers to colonize America. However, the British were unable to keep the Roanoke Colony supplied and those colonists disappeared waiting for provisions.

In 1607, the English made another attempt to establish an American colony, this time in the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown nearly failed like Roanoke. However, the Virginia Company made an important change to help that colony survive and prosper: It permitted the colonists to own and work the land as their private property.

Property ownership became a strong allure for both those able to afford their way and those without the means. The latter became “indentured servants,” agreeing to work off the costs of their passage over a period of years to ultimately secure the goal of 50 acres of land apiece and another 50 acres for every servant or relative brought at their own expense.

In 1620, another group of English, “Puritans” — English separatists seeking religious freedoms — first traveled to the Netherlands and then to Plymouth Bay to establish a model society or “Commonwealth.”

As devout Calvinists, these colonists did not believe good works would lead people to heaven. Rather, the Puritans hoped a moral society would demonstrate to themselves that they were part of God’s election. They built houses, farms, and villages with “commons” to live by their principles.

However, like Jamestown, the common sharing of land and wealth kept the Pilgrims from supporting themselves and by 1628 they divided the land and the livestock for private ownership. By the middle of the 17th century almost all the common areas of New England were gone — transferred to private citizens.

Late in that century, Englishman John Locke argued in his “Two Treatises of Government” that political society existed for the sake of protecting “property,” which he defined as a person’s “life, liberty and estate.” 

Thomas Jefferson would use similar words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” [i.e., property].

George Mason would use similar language in drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights: “THAT all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

Mason’s words are similar to Article I, Section 1 of our Pennsylvania Constitution, “Inherent Rights of Mankind”: “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent and indefeasible rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, of acquiring, possessing and protecting property and reputation, and of pursuing their own happiness.”

While opponents of Senate Bill 76 argue it’s a huge shift from school property taxes to sales and personal income taxes, I submit the total elimination of school property taxes is much more in line with our history.

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Mike Folmer is a Republican member of the Pennsylvania Senate whose 48th District includes Middletown. His Capitol office telephone number is 717-787-5708. Reach his regional office in Lebanon at 717-274-6735.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 January 2017 15:40

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America’s schools need to think small to get better

About 27 kids sit in the average public school classroom. For a new crop of education entrepreneurs, that number is nearly perfect — for an entire school. fiske siriSiri Fiske


These entrepreneurs are rebelling against the educational status quo by bringing the centuries-old one-room schoolhouse into the 21st century. They maintain new “micro schools” leverage technology to give students a personalized learning experience in radically small classes — at a fraction of private school tuition rates.


There’s mounting evidence that they’re right.


Small classes have well-known benefits. They improve student performance and pay off in future social and educational capital — especially for minority and low-income students.


Studies associate small classes with lower juvenile crime and teenage pregnancy rates — and higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates. Small classes even correlate with longer lives.


They’re so effective partially because they enable teachers to tailor instruction to each student’s needs. Modern technology makes such learning a lot more feasible — and scalable.


A recent study examined “personalized learning” at public and charter schools.

Researchers discovered an array of innovative teaching methods across schools. One student channeled his musical talent to compose an imaginary country’s national anthem.

Story time took a variety of forms — some students read the story aloud, while others followed the book while listening to headphones.


In two years, these schools caught up with — and began to surpass — national math and reading averages. Elementary school students gained 13 percentile points on average in standardized math tests and eight on reading.


Micro schools take these promising research recommendations — and turn them up a notch. Instead of sticking to fixed curriculums, they’re customizing lessons to each child’s strengths, learning style and existing knowledge.


Some micro school students only receive two-and-a-half hours of direct instruction a day, mostly online. They may spend their remaining time in Socratic-style discussions, building drones, or doing yoga.


At my Maryland-based micro school, Mysa School, a sports-obsessed student might receive a math lesson built around baseball statistics. A student who loves horses may spend her English time reading “Black Beauty” and her science time with an equine veterinarian. This creative approach fuels students’ curiosity and desire to learn.


Micro schools draw on cutting-edge technology to personalize the classroom experience. My school is about to turn the student “menu” — a customized list of weekly projects children complete at their own pace — into an app. AltSchool, a Silicon Valley-based micro school network, gives students “playlists” — digital flashcards detailing tailored tasks, like drawing a jellyfish or completing keyboard exercises.


The app lets teachers update parents on their kids’ progress instantaneously. Teachers can snap a creative art project or insightful written response to parents right away.


Many micro schools group students of different ages, enabling them to learn from one another. It’s helpful for younger and older children to interact because studies show “they may be operating in overlapping cognitive domains.”


But can micro schools measurably improve student performance? Undoubtedly.


Consider Texas’s Acton Academy. Founded in 2009, this micro school draws on a variety of techniques: personalized online learning, Socratic seminars, game play. The school’s first class completed an astounding 2.5 grades in less than a year.


Unlike private schools, micro schools don’t have college price tags. AltSchool’s tuition is 15 percent cheaper than comparable San Francisco private schools.


The American educational status quo isn’t one-size-fits-all. Micro schools are an alternative — and prove education leaders can deliver big gains in student performance by thinking small.

Siri Fiske is the founder and head of Mysa School in the Washington, D.C. area.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 28 December 2016 13:13

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