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We are entering "exam week," which means the day to day teaching of the semester is over. It's always a bittersweet time of the year for me. Sure, I am happy to have some time to myself again, but I will miss the give and take and interaction with my students. Today I find myself reflecting on the semester.

My Medieval art course, which I called lovingly my "Medieval Mongol Horde" (MMH), stretched me in new ways as a professor. I had never had a class of 30 students before, and even the arrangement of the room was a challenge. I know many professors teach classes much larger than this, but for me, this was new. Even just five more people from our course cap of 25 seemed like a lot of people. Even figuring out the furniture for the different class activities  was a challenge!

Some of the students from the MMH have also sent me reflections on their experience in the course, as I am readying for a keynote presentation at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference at Texas Lutheran University next week. I was asking them for an experience in the course that stood out to them.

Two of the key responses have something in common: sharing ideas and being heard. When I asked them what they remembered, or what stood out from the semester, one mentioned their weekly blog posts. This was surprising, as I figured that weekly writing on a prompt from me would be boring. But I responded to every single prompt (which was difficult, but important), and it got them writing every week in addition to papers and other more high-stakes writing that was for a grade. When I asked this student what he liked about the blog, he noted "You got to see what everyone else thinks and kind of compare."

Another of the MMH noted his favorite activity was a really hard chapter that I had them read and then a three-page critical analysis paper that they had write at the start of the semester. I was truly surprised by this answer. But the key here was what he said about the way the assignment was handled: "we discussed it as a class and what each of us thought." This was their first foray into art historical scholarship and the chapter I assigned is difficult. But we spent time in class talking about it, and students were able, after writing their papers, to argue about the thesis of the chapter.
The commonality in these two comments highlight to me the importance of listening as a professor. As professors we do so much of the talking. We need to do that because we are masters of the information of our disciplines and we have to impart that. It's our job. But our students are longing to be heard and to say what it is they are thinking. We need to build platforms for that, though. Just asking questions, as any professor knows, doesn't always lead to an amazing discussion where all the students engage.
Thank you for a great Semester to the Medieval Mongol Horde, pictured here:

Last year, I came up with what I thought was a fun and eventful “finale” for my nineteenth-century art history course. But when I was talking to a student in the class right prior to the start of the final exam/finale period, she uttered words that made me pause: “Presentations are the worst!”

I gulped. I asked her, plaintively, as we were about to go into the finale class period, I had no time to make a course correction, and they were, in fact, going to be presenting. I asked her, probably rather plaintively, “Why?! Why are they the worst?” She noted that everyone is bored, people read off the page, and no one really cares about what is being presented.

I realized at that moment that I hadn’t asked my students about what would be a good finale experience for the class. My plan had been that each student would engage the rest of the class in a visual analysis of a work of art, and that each student explained his or her Reacting Game character’s future, which is what often happens in the debriefing part of a Reacting to the Past game. The students had a good experience in the Art in Paris game in this, the 2017 run. But this “finale” was anything but.

For those who have moved away from final exams, how often do we ask students for their input on final experiences? I have moved away from final exams because I think that they play to only a small sub-set of students who do well on memorization and leave behind many students who do not do well with such recall of information. Plus, it’s a shallow area of learning – memorization and recall. I am working for deeper understanding than knowing the dates and titles and artists of paintings and being able to spit back at me and the stress of composing an essay under time pressure to demonstrate understanding.

I have moved to "finale experiences," which count less than overall grades related to class participation (which always include active learning), written critical analysis papers, visual analysis papers, speeches from Reacting games, museum papers and other interpretive work. In thinking about "finales" for my classes I am considering this:

  1. Let them choose a group or pairing and work with students with whom they feel comfortable. I will tell them that they will need a group on the last day of class so there is time for them to get paired/grouped up and I can facilitate if anyone can’t find a group or a partner.
  2. Give them a painting when they come to the finale to lead a class discussion about – we do this in class during the semester, but I am thinking I will give them a painting that is from the future – past 1889 when the class ends.
  3. They will get the painting when they arrive in class, but they will have time in the period to research it and plan what they will ask the class.
  4. I will circulate around the class and help them. And I will have to choose images carefully for such a finale project.

But this will do two things. First, it will have them use the skills that they were developing in the class and will build confidence in their abilities to talk about works of art to a setting of students and work in teams. And second, it hopefully won’t be “the worst” because they will be talking with and to each other.

What do you all do for finale experiences in a class rather than a final exam?

I am currently using a game set in 1148 at the War Council of Acre, at which knights, kings, and the church hierarchy gathered to decide if there should be a Second Crusade and if so, where it should be aimed. I have thirty students in this class, and twenty of them are on the football team at McDaniel College. Their engagement has been profound and at times frankly astounding. One such moment of their utter engagement is captured here in this photograph I took during the class debate about where the Crusade should be targeted:

In this picture, the student is an offensive lineman for the Green Terror. In the game, however, he is playing Patriarch Fulcher, the individual who found the True Cross in the first crusade, and is credited with having won back Jerusalem for the Latin Crusaders. In this image he is standing in front of a projected image of the different cities in the region. For two days, as he says here, they talked about how their war was just because the city of Edessa being taken by Zengi in 1144. But moments before I took this picture, King Louis suggested they attack Damascus instead. The Patriarch was confused, baffled and even outraged.

This was a moment when the class ceased to be at McDaniel in 2018 and was clearly in the city of Acre in 1148. They had left the building. They were experiencing flow. They were so in the moment that, as I talked to some of them afterwards, they forgot about practice. They forgot about their other classes. I am attempting to get a certain general education tag for my Reacting courses and asked them for some help answering questions. Some of their quotations can say better than I can how much they experience in a Reacting game:

"It's immersive. Because you have to put your all into your role. You have to dive in and see how you are going to argue these points of view for this person, how to back it up with research. You have to research in a way you may not typically do so, focus on your role vs personal feelings on the role."

"You can't just BS your way through it. You have to find enough material for your role in the game and be able to rebut anything anyone else throws at you. You need to understand their roles too and how they might come at you."

"When you get stuck into this game, you are here and you are your character. You call each other by your character role names, you are that person and their beliefs (not you and your own personal beliefs)."

"When you are arguing it is super easy to get caught up, and you forget 'oh i have to go to practice today'. Taking on the persona makes you argue better and focus on the game."

"When you go up to the podium, you have to convince yourself/faction and rest of room of what you are arguing. You have to embody the role and its unlike any other class activity. It gives you more skills as a student rather than just looking at a PowerPoint and taking notes. It helps you experience the class differently and take on roles you normally wouldn't."

Reacting is great for every student, but I would argue that for student athletes, these immersive role-playing games make them enjoy the class more than at other times in their education. They see research as a means to a win. They see a role as a chance to argue and help their team (or faction). But they also note that it is work. It takes time. They all laughed when I asked them if a Reacting game would count for the 15 hours required for this tag. They said that they had all put that much time in already and the game was not over.

Faculty: try Reacting to the Past. It is often said that athletes care more about their sport than their classes. But if they have a chance to win in a classroom as well as the playing field, you will see a different student performance entirely. The Annual Institute for Reacting to the Past games will be held this year at Barnard College from June 14-17 and I urge faculty to check it out.

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.

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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?

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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.

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