Skip to content

I am still thinking a lot about the article this past summer (July 10, 2017) Inside Higher Ed article about how faculty do not want to seem “stupid” in front of their students and that this, in part, might keep them from engaging in innovative teaching methods. Of course, there are many reasons why there might be reticence to change or shift teaching styles, as many commented on the original article, and postulated on Twitter and Facebook as people shared the story.

But I was thinking back to my Roman Art class, last year, in the spring semester of 2017. Near to the end of the semester, after we had established a good connection as a class due to all the collaborative and engaging work I had the students do in class day to day, the students starting asking me a bunch of questions to which I did not know answers. And they were coming at me several at a time. At first I felt that feeling of fear: “I don’t know the answers to these questions!” But then, in a moment of mindfulness, I paused.

Then, I said to them, "Hey - I don't know these answers, but you all have your phones - start looking this stuff up!" They all eagerly brought out their phones and started to look stuff up. This led to a great extemporaneous conversation about their questions/interests. Some of the topics they were asking about were way beyond the goals/topics I had set for that class, or even the course itself. And yeah, I had to admit a lot of stuff I didn't know but **so what**.

I will take some looking dopey (and I don't think they thought that anyway) for student interest/engagement any day.

I realize I am tenured. I realize I am a full professor. But I was doing these things before my full promotion anyway. I do realize the privileged position I have now with this role.

But I still say that it’s worth taking risks. And I will say that this is not just on faculty. Administrators, I’m also talking to you: support the faculty. If you want your students taught well, you must find ways to build scaffolding and support for innovation on your campuses. Here is an idea: let every untenured on on the tenure-track faculty member have a class they can “take out” of the evaluation pile every semester IF they propose to teach in a new way. Take the pressure off. We are in this together for the education of students.

What do you do when students ask you a question and you don’t know the answer? Students, what do you think when a professor admits that he or she doesn’t know the answer?

My role with the Green Terror Football Team at McDaniel College is one of the highlights of my career. I have learned so much from the entire team: all the players, the coaching staff,  parents, and other fans. The entire enterprise has been thrilling to learn about and to witness first-hand. I love working with every single player on the team.

Today I want to highlight the students of color on the team. This is in no way means that I have not learned from other players; I have a chapter published on the class with the "Football Romans" (fall 2015) and they totally changed my life! But one day head Coach of the McDaniel College Green Terror Football team, Mike Daileytold me that we are the most diverse team in the NCAA Division 3 Centennial Conference. After that conversation, I did some research, looking at the rosters of the opponents. He is, of course, right. When I consider the students that I have had the privilege to mentor, there are many minority students who have come to my office.

I don't know what it must be like to be a person of color at a predominately white institution. From what they have confided in me, it is sometimes difficult. I can appreciate from their descriptions the difficulties they encounter. I value each and every one of them for their bravery and for their tenacity and for their strength.

I have learned so much from these students, and I am very, very grateful. I hope that I have become a better professor. I think that by listening to them and their perspective, I have. For instance, I realized that not offering a course in African-American Art, since I am an art historian, is biased and shows my own ignorance. So, I asked one of the players to do some background reading with and for me so that I can offer that class in the coming years. He jumped at the chance, and I've learned a lot from his work and his enthusiasm on the project.

I have also learned that while our backgrounds are different, and our cultural interests may differ, we are, ultimately, very similar. We have families, who are sometimes sources of strength and also sources of conflict. We struggle, sometimes with studies, sometimes with finances, and sometimes with others. It is true that football is a unifying force. Our entire culture could learn lessons from this team that works together #AsOne (one of their Twitter hashtags). I am very much amazed at their sense of brotherliness and family. They truly do work #AsOne.

This weekend I watched episode 3/season 6 of Call the Midwife recently (and I totally get the irony of a post for football players and the reference to a show about midwives). The ending of that episode spoke to me and the ways in which we can bridge differences to make a better world. I think it says things better than I can, so I will quote it here:

"We are all traveling through one another's countries. But it is no matter if we meet as strangers, for we can join forces, and learn to love. And where there is friendship and affection, there is the place we can all call home."

I am very grateful for the students that have passed through McDaniel, starting as strangers, and then, in some cases, becoming friends, as we join forces to make it through the various hurdles - educational, financial, emotional - on the journey through college. Thanks to each of you - minority and majority student - for teaching me so much and for trusting me to help you through.

1

For those of you who haven't read this blog before, I am the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team. I am a tenured Professor of Art History, and have been in my role with the team for about a year and a half. During the season I attend practices and games, and when I am not able to get to an away game I watch on live-stream and to the likely amusement of the players, tweet during all four quarters of the game. But most of my work is helping students become more successfully academically. This can include helping them with time management, study skills, securing a tutor, or even sometimes helping them connect with various resources at the institution.

I have learned a lot through this academic mentor role. By being willing to listen to them before attempting to "fix everything," I have learned a lot about what higher education does well for students, and where it falls short. Thus, I have decided to write a book about what these football players are teaching me and can teach other institutions. I have a vague outline of the book in mind, but the working title is: Understanding and Supporting the Student Athlete: A Guide for Institutions of Higher Education from a Faculty Mentor of a Division Three Football Team. I realize that is quite the mouthful, and it may change as the book takes shape. However, I'm very passionate about this topic and was just on the campus of the Maine Maritime Academy, holding conversations with coaches, staff, and faculty about supporting student athletes.

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make: "You are not here to play football" (or fill in whatever sport). Faculty say it when players have to miss their class for sports games. Students say they hear it from faculty often. But really: to say they are "not here to play X sport" is not fully true.

Unbeknownst to most faculty (or at least this one) is the role coaches play in recruiting every incoming class. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue to pay the bills and make an annual budget, student recruitment is key. Oftentimes a student is only made aware of the institution because of a coach's approach. Thus, if that student then enrolls in the institution, and they play the sport, to say that the student is not there to play the sport is disingenuous. They are there to play their sport, but also to get an education.

In a focus group a few months ago, football players at my institution from a range of years and ethnicity, were asked about why they are at college. They all emphasized that they wanted to get an education. That was the first answer to "why are you here" that the whole cohort gave. Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. In a future post I will write about the the importance of sports as an identity marker, an issue that is particularly true for minority and/or first-generation students. I am still researching that particular idea.

But faculty reading this post: if you have student athletes in your classes, know this: they want to play their sport. They were most likely recruited for your institution by a coach to play their sport. But they are very much interested in their education and want to do well and succeed. They just need a little understanding and support.

Today I want to tell you about a few of my students and their successes. These are the moments that bring me a ton of joy and make me feel that I am fulfilling my purpose. I have titled this post “Student Triumphs” because I do feel like in these cases, these students really did overcome a lot of different types of hurt and difficulty. I am not using their real names, because I do not have their permission to use them. So, I’ll describe the situations and my role in each. Also, I am writing this post because we are entering the time of year when professors start writing posts about dying grandparents and other "excuses" that they feel students offer for not doing their work. There is a general tendency for writings about how students seem to get on professors' collective nerves, and I want to counter that narrative with a few stories.

One student had severe dyslexia. The members of our Student Academic Support Services Office told me that he really had trouble reading. He was in my First Year Seminar, and in that class I use all Reacting to the Past games, which I have written about before. I quickly got PDFs of all the readings he would have to do because that accommodation was due to him. We played three games that semester and the first was the Athens game. It was rough for this student. Reading Plato’s Republic was a struggle and speaking at the podium was also difficult for him. But when he got up to give his speech during the third game, he did a really good job. No, he was not brilliant in the sense that I could have recorded it for all future students to see. But for him? It was marvelous. He included humor. He responded when people asked a question. A few times he even wryly answered them with a smirk and quick retort. I nearly cried that day in class. That was his triumph. And I am glad I had a hand in it.

Another student wasn’t in my class, but I do feel like he has had a triumph. He’s one of the football players I am mentoring. He was generally irritated at our campus and faculty, not feeling that anyone other than the coaches had any true interest in him as a student on the campus. As a minority student, he felt that most professors didn’t care about him much, or believed that he had much to offer. I remember letting him sit in my office – and just talk. I think he was there for about an hour and a half. A few other students came in (also football players, as it turned out, who had questions about the next day’s class). I watched him watch that exchange, while he was also looking at his phone. But I could see him taking in the interaction with these two other football student-athletes, another minority and one not. That interaction was characterized by some humor, but also a kick in the pants that the two of them get on the assignment because we had a short Reacting-style game the next day. I have been working with him for over a year. And this semester? At the mid-term e had all Bs in his classes. I am not saying I had a direct hand in that outcome, but that is a triumph for him, and I cheer him for that just as much as I do when he's on the field and playing his sport.

There is a student who is very, very shy. She told me that she lives to read books and her goal is to be a copywriter after graduation (and PS she got a job doing exactly that!). She’s was a wonderful student, but often was quiet in class. She wrote on one of her reflections that her favorite parts of my classes were the Reacting game. She said that the games made her get out of her shell. This reflection of hers made me look back on the class and her role in our Reacting game. I recalled how she was not loud (it’s not in her nature), but she was forceful in focusing attention to the issues about which her character cared in the game. To win, she had to bring those issues up. She did. And for her, that is a major triumph, too.

I am so grateful to my students that they come along on the journey with me and have these successes. They make me feel triumphant, too.

As a student, do you have a triumph? Faculty, do you have a story to share in which a student made progress or had a victory of sorts?

I did not write last week because I was leading my first consulting workshop on supporting student athletes at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine (and right before the nor'easter hit, which kept me in Maine until Friday!). I met with very interesting people who are committed to the student athlete during my time in Maine. McDaniel (and football) alumnus Steve Peed invited me up to campus.

From talking to them, it seems that some faculty members are less than enthusiastic about the sports teams on their campus. The focus should be academics, and for some, only academics.

I don't think that anyone will be surprised to hear that I don't really understand that type of thinking. It strikes me as a little bit like the false dichotomy that often springs up around the concepts of lecturing versus active learning. One doesn't supplant the other. It's not either/or.

And neither is it for students. It is not a situation in which they only want to play their sport. They are at the institution for an education even though they are also playing a sport. Yes, it can be irritating to faculty members when a player has to miss class. Like when one of my students this spring semester had to leave early from class to catch a flight to Florida with her softball team. She was playing a very important character in my Reacting to the Past game, so I'll admit to a moment's irritation when she said she had to leave.

But this week two students will miss class all week because of Model UN. I wonder if many faculty would be as upset about that as students leaving class for a game? When I learned about the UN absences, it caused me the same moment's irritation as the student on the softball team, but I know this is a good learning opportunity for those two students and so will work around it. Just like I did for my softball player.

Sports offer students learning opportunities, too, just like the Model UN. And it's not just the usual items that fall on the list of "team work" and "discipline." That is important. And I have already posted before about how sports helps instill grit and resilience, two characteristics so important for success in the world. But there is also a sense of identity that students connect with their sport. If that identity is somehow maligned, even in small ways, how does that make a student feel? Some of these young men and women have been playing their sport(s) since they were around six years old. If we act like it doesn't matter, what does that communicate to them about how we think of them?

Furthermore, we know that first-generation students often don't feel like they belong in college at all. Some students from minority populations often talk about the same thing. So how much worse can we as faculty make their experiences if they also play a sport (and they often do), and we disparage it? Doesn't that reinforce the idea that they don't really belong?

I argue in my workshops that faculty can make their classes more appealing to the student athlete by using more active learning techniques, not as a replacement for a lecture, but in addition to it. Making a classroom engaging and inviting will help all students connect to the material, but in my experience, most especially student athletes. I always say that the football players who I am currently teaching in Medieval art may never come to love that topic more than the sport of football, but I can make the class more engaging, encouraging them to come to class by cultivating their interest.

If you would like to have me speak on your campus about supporting student athletes, contact me at gkreahlingmckay@yahoo.com.

Right now, I have to get an engaging class ready for tomorrow. Spring Break is over and the Medieval Mongol Horde is returning!

This post is a follow up to the one I published last week about planning an in-class assessment of what students had learned so far this semester. We are about at the half-way mark, so it seemed to be a good time to do it.

I had six total topics, and six groups of four students. They had to come up with a question based on one of the topics the course has covered so far.

Hiccup #1. Some of their questions were really mundane or way too specific. So, I had to help them develop more nuanced questions about the material to allow answers to dig more deeply into examples.

Then I gave two of the six questions, randomly, to each group. Of course some of them said, "Can we answer our own question?" Um. No. They had to come up with a presentation for their question, and two groups answered/presented per question.

Hiccup #2. Some made Powerpoint presentations and we had email and a Blackboard meltdown last week so I was scrambling a bit to project the PPTs in the class. But we managed. But it was a lot to manage.

Each group that had developed the question had to assess which group answered better and why. I think this was the best part, and one that I came up with on the fly. If they are going to be responsible for their own learning, then they have to be responsible for assessing who answers better. I'd like to try something else on this in the future. Those who answered the best will get an extra point (or something) in the Reacting to the Past game we play later in the semester. By and large, I agreed with their assessment of which groups answered better. I was keeping notes.

Then, each student had to answer individually the remaining three questions and turn them in the next class. I just reviewed them and there were some great answers, and some not great answers. Some confusion, and some real understanding.

I had hoped that they would all answer everything correctly and it would show me that my commitment to active learning was giving even better results than traditional lecture-only based instruction. I can't go that far. However, I do think they are learning at least as much when I used to teach this course more traditionally. And I gave this assessment as a surprise. In the future I may try to find ways to circle back to what they are learning more often - not just with the last five minutes "What did you learn today?" reflections, but something to connect concepts more holistically. Because some of them were not doing that.

What are other ways that you can assess the learning in an active classroom without relying on traditional memorization exams? How can you "get at" the overall learning that is taking place over the course of the semester, and not just class-by-class assessment? And how can we see if and how they are managing to make sense of the course as a whole?

2

I have been vexed all weekend by a class that I don't think is remembering enough of what I have been teaching them. I was frustrated in class on Thursday when many of them could not recall basic concepts that we had covered previously. And when we had in-class exercises to explore the concepts, it appeared that they had learned it, at least at that immediate point in time. But later, recall was not happening. I do not have high-stakes exams, because I don't believe that the students will remember very much after an exercise that is about memorization for a one-time event. If they just memorize and forget, what is the point?

Tonight I started Ira Zepp's book, Pedagogy of the Heart: A Teacher's Credo. I read about 10 pages of it, but it already zapped me like lightening. He said something in the book about not wanting to teach in a way that "lords it over the students," like he possesses all the knowledge that they lack and that students should feel lucky to get. I don't want that kind of classroom. I want students to feel empowered, even as they learn new things, because right now, no: they do not know much about medieval art. They are there to learn.

I pondered this all weekend: how to come up with a way to assess my students' learning in the 30-person Medieval Art course without a high-stakes test all while keeping to my principles and commitment to active learning. I finally came up with the answer (for now):

They will decide what they should know.

I will have students sitting at tables of four in this class. There are seven tables (plus two chairs). Each table will be assigned a topic that we have covered so far in the course. They will develop a question for the other tables, possibly including an image or images to accompany their question. They will share the questions and the tables will all have to answer the different questions. I want them to do the grading/assessment, too, so I am trying to figure out if I can have every table answer each question, and have the question creators also assess the answers, all in the 90 minute time-frame. We'll see.

Ira Zepp left us in 2009. He is a legend on The Hill, at McDaniel College where he taught for many years. In 2015 I was awarded our college's highest honor: the Ira Zepp Distinguished Teaching Award. The more I learn about the man in whose name the award is bestowed, the more I want to do him proud, and be the kind of teacher he would want me to be.

I want to give my students the power: the power of being in charge of their own learning and their own education. It's a pedagogy of the heart, after all.

7

For all the work I have done with football players for the past year and a half, you would think that I would know better than to underestimate them. My post this past September, when they suffered their first loss of the season, emphasized their grit and resilience. Over the years, and as I have often posted on this blog, I've had a number of players in my classes and I have seen what they can do there, too.

But on Thursday, in my medieval art class, in which twenty players on the McDaniel College Green Terror football team are enrolled, my faith wavered. We were starting a short, two-day Reacting game, in which the students must decide about the role of images in the Byzantine church. It is my Byzantine Iconoclasm game that I have successfully used in the past. But on Thursday, I was not sure. Part of the reason was that I received two emails from different players on Wednesday night asking, "Are we starting that game/debate tomorrow?" Not reassuring.

When we got to class, I gave everyone about 15 minutes to get ready in their groups (Reacting games are made up of factions, or teams, and indeterminates who are not sure what they think about the issues and ask a lot of questions. You can read more about Reacting to the Past here). After that 15 minutes, I called everyone back to the classroom (some use the hallway for meetings). I took my place at the back of the room, because the students run the show in a Reacting class. The football player I cast as the Patriarch Nikephoros rose, walked to the podium, and welcomed everyone to the council and opened debate.

Without hesitation, students came to the podium to make speeches. There were lots of questions. And two football players, shown here, went at it, debating each other very seriously. It was a fantastic moment as a professor. I took the picture below to send to their Coach to show them his players in action.

I do not forget that I have 10 other students not on the team, a few of whom are in this picture, too. And they were ready and spoke that day, too. The mix of students is great and I have been very mindful of being sure to mix the class up at all times.

I will admit that it is really easy to think that the football players will not read, prepare, or get ready for class. I am working with a few students who are struggling in some of their classes. Yet they do care very much about their education and their studies. A colleague of mine ran a focus group with eight players and the findings will form the beginning of a new study of mine to find ways to support these students more effectively.

Reacting works with football players. Reacting to the Past works with many students. But with football players, it's something else. The competition, the debating - somehow it fires them up. At the end of the class on Thursday, several players said to me, "I am going to have a speech on Tuesday! Just wait!" They don't usually say things like that about a class that is five days away.

We play another Reacting game about the Crusades later this semester. I will try not to underestimate them again.

3

I ran across this story about teaching that was in the January edition of The Atlantic (written by Jessica Lahey, January 21, 2108) and is about the teaching life of one half of the Penn & Teller magic act. The full piece is here. In it, Teller talks about his experiences teaching Latin in his past, and explains how, in his estimation, teaching is performance art.

I could not agree more. I have not read anything recently that lit me up like this story about teaching. It is so much what I try to do in my classes. I rev myself up each day, work hard to connect with each individual student. I learn my students names as quickly as possible, and am always in the classroom early in order to greet them one by one as they file in, somewhat tired or a little grumpy.

The article quotes Teller as saying this, too: "What I have, however, is delight. I get excited about things. That is at the root of what you want out of a teacher; a delight in what the subject is, in the operation. That’s what affects students.”

This is my goal in every class. I always try to show them my delight. My delight is in the material, surely, but it is also delightful to get to share that material with them. I want them to find some delight as well. I want something to spark them, make them think about things in new ways. This is often a challenge in a class that is fundamentally about 'old stuff' - Roman art, medieval art. It's not that accessible or easily connectable to my audience, which is usually 18-22 year olds, and, increasingly, student athletes, especially football players. On my teaching evaluations I always get a comment, "She obviously loves art." I do; but what I love more is teaching art. I would not be loving it if I were not teaching.

There is no greater delight for me than when a student follows along the journey that I take us on for 90 minutes, two times a week. When a student gasps when he or she understands the concepts, or nods in a knowing way, or smiles after a few minutes of puzzlement, that is sheer delight. Connecting with my students - and delighting in their learning - is what makes everything worthwhile.

If you are a student reading this, what brings you delight? If you are a professor and reading this, how do you demonstrate or show your delight in the classroom?

3

This week I tried a couple of different things with the Medieval class of 30 students, 20 of whom are on the football team. I was told that "conditioning" practices started on Tuesday morning (my class meets Tuesday and Thursday mornings). So they were tired. I was told this in a spirit of, "it's not you, Dr. McKay; we had conditioning."

I appreciated this word of caution/warning/explanation. But how much should it matter to me if they were slouching/yawning/sleepy?

I will be honest. Right now, that type of behavior bothers me a lot. As those of you who have been reading my blog know, I take my teaching very seriously. Each moment I have with these young people I view as a gift and privilege. One of the icons of our campus, Professor of Religion Ira Zepp, now deceased but always remembered (you can read about his amazing life here), called his classroom with students a "sacred space." I have come to view it that way, too. I always try to have a full hour prior to meeting my students to think through what we will be covering, to be present and focused on their learning. I wrote a post a few weeks ago about wanting to be more mindful before entering the classroom, this sacred space.

So, what to make of sleepy students, who do not seem very engaged in the material? Is it me? Do I need to up my game? Do I need to do more than I thought I did to keep them energized? Or do I realize that despite all my best efforts, despite all my innovations and creativity, despite all my energy and enthusiasm (and I bring a lot of that), sometimes students will be drowsy. And that it is not all about me.

I will be honest: I find it really hard to accept that. I continue to think: What more could I have done? And I will continue to think about the fact that there could be a million things going on with them that I don't know, won't know, shouldn't know, and can't know that could affect their behavior in class. But I will still try to do my best to engage them all!

How do you deal with a class that drowses despite your energy and planning? Students, can you tell me why you drift off, even when there is something to do and plan and execute?

css.php