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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.

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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?

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Last week I had my first class with the very large Medieval Art course, with thirty students. I know some who might come across this blog would scoff at my calling this a "very large" class, but at my small, liberal arts college, a class of 30 is the exception and not the rule. In fact, it is hard to find rooms that hold this many students. In fact, that may be a future post: figuring out the configuration of furniture to support student engagement in this classroom, one of the only ones for a large class and large-screen image projection.

After our first class meeting, I wanted to touch base with one of the football players I am mentoring. I know him pretty well. He was in my class in fall of 2016 when I first met him. He's a starter on the team, and I've met his parents. I wanted to talk to him about his grades last semester, which were not stellar. He shared with me that he knows his grades aren't good, he does know he has got to buckle down, but he also lamented that nearly all of his classes require him to take tests. And then he bombs them. And then it's over - on to new material.

This morning I reached the final chapter in Cathy N. Davidson's The New Education, a book I *highly* recommend. This was the paragraph that made me think of the student above and his frustrations:

"High-stakes end-of-semester summative, standardized testing is broken, and so we must design challenges that help students to build on what they know and learn from what they don't, growing stronger from each test instead of feeling defeated by an exam score that cannot capture growth or change."

He said, "I wish classes had grading opportunities like you do. " I have started to eschew exams and tests. In their place I have critical analysis papers, visual analysis writing assignments, creative assignments where they must apply information to a new context, role-playing game speeches and reflections, blog posts. And in all of it, art is at the center of the inquiries, as well as contextual historical information that is at the heart of my discipline of art history.

I urge everyone who cares one whit about higher education, or are in it, to read Cathy N. Davidson's book. We need a new higher education system to help our students to prepare for lives in a  ever more complicated world.

And if you still give exams, what do you think of a student who is demoralized with poor performance and yet can't seem to master it? Should they just be "out"? Tough love? I can't quite embrace a philosophy that at the core is about gate keeping - keep the barbarians from storming the city. What "city" are we trying to protect? Why would we want to keep some students out?

I am truly puzzled by professors who want to show students the door. That is just not my way.

 

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Like perhaps many of us, I struggle to stay in the moment. I have been working on that for the past six months, trying to spend a few moments each day meditating. It helps to center me. At first I was concerned that it would not really help, that all these thoughts that I really do need to remember would come and then go and then I would forget them all again, raising my level of anxiety, which, I am pretty sure, is the opposite of meditation. That actually has not happened.

Today I am thinking about meditation and mindfulness in teaching. I am always careful about time in my classes but I worry that constantly checking the time to make sure we're moving along actually keeps me from being in the moment with my students. And I want to make sure that I really listen to them.

I try to do that, of course, but my classes are also about going on a journey. I want to take them where I want them to go and not just tell them the facts/opinions. I invite them along and eventually we all, collectively, come to an answer/interpretation. To do that well, I must be thinking ahead at all times: “What’s the next step?” Is this the opposite of mindfulness, of being in the present moment, if I am constantly thinking of what comes next?

Thus, as embark this week on a new semester, I am thinking of how to keep moving us collectively forward as a class, but how also to stay more mindful in the process and in the moment as the class session progresses.

I believe that this is likely to be very challenging, but I plan to come to class with the intention of being mindful of what is happening. I need to remind myself to keep looking at each student, really take in his or her attitude, body language, listen to his or her comments, all while keeping the conversation and class moving.

I also plan to chronicle for this semester the experiences of my Medieval art course. This is the first time I will have a class of 30 students, 20 of whom are on the football team. I will be writing weekly about the challenges and the exciting discoveries of teaching this large a number of students, who I am lovingly referring to as my Medieval Mongol Horde. I meet them for the first time tomorrow morning. Follow along!

And in the meantime, do any of you practice mindfulness in the classroom in order to really spend time focusing on your students, while at the same time moving the class forward in terms of learning? If you do, leave some tips in comments below.

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As those of you have followed my blog are aware, I am the faculty mentor to the McDaniel College Green Terror football team (a NCAA Division 3 team). I started this role in October of 2016, so I have had just over a year of learning about this culture and my place in it. And I am still learning. In particular, there is a lot I have to understand about how to connect with young men of this age group.

I am now turning to my between-semester projects, and one of them is to begin to determine what it is like to be a young man in today's college environment, when you are also a member of a football team. From what I can tell, it's a lot to navigate. While there is no way I can personally relate to this, I am a scholar. And scholars research. We seek out information. Thus, today, in my first free moments after grades were submitted yesterday (!), I am already back at it, researching. And this is what I have found so far:

I will be reading The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre. It was recommended to me by a colleague to help me understand the developmental pathways that got boys to where they are as college men, as well as to help understand why we see them failing in some of their courses. I'm eager to get started on this work.

In addition, I spent some time surfing the web, and found Keith Edwards, a sociologist and professor at Stony Brook University, who has been researching men and masculinity and has been a consultant for the past fifteen years. His website includes a brief video, which is a Ted-style talk about the issue that you can see here.  One of the things he said that really spoke to me was this:

"What we need to do is give them permission to stop being the men they think they have to be and permission to start being who they really are, their authentic selves." (emphasis mine)

I really want to help them do this. I am so impressed with many of the young men I have met and worked with thus far in my role as mentor to the team.

But there is also a lot of personal struggle, hurt, and difficulties that they face. And it is hard for them to show, share, and/or discuss their emotions. But they have them. And honestly? Right now I do not feel very well-equipped to really know what to say or what to do.

But I again remind myself that have been there before. I have started from near zero before, and then learned. I know that I can begin to understand these issues if I employ the same tenacity I used to become an expert in art history, teaching online, and using active learning techniques.

Do you have any sources or suggestions of what I could read to help understand and support young men in their college lives? Please leave a comment below!

 

As many of you know, I use Reacting to the Past games in some form in most of my classes. In my First Year Seminar, I use three of these highly immersive role-playing games. In that 1000-level class for first year students, they write at least 21 pages of work, all of it researched with proper citations. They also must learn to speak effectively and persuasively - nearly every class period. And they have a lot of fun doing it.

And yet here it is, the end of the semester, and I sit with doubts: Did they learn? And did they even though they clearly also enjoyed the course?

I know that they are learning because there are many assessments that show that Reacting classes are exceptional ways to get students to have more empathy for others, to read and write critically, to learn oral communication skills, to research proficiently and to learn how to cite correctly. And there is a new volume of essays in the book Playing to Learn, edited by C. Edward Watson and Thomas Chase Hagood, that features essays from several instructors about how they have used this innovative pedagogy in their classes. I hope to read it over the upcoming break between semesters. And I have assessments for the other innovative activities I assign in my classes.

For instance, coming out in 2018 is my chapter entitled "Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art," which is chapter 8 in Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity. In this chapter I discuss the innovative strategies of active learning that I employed for the duration of the fall semester of 2015 in my Roman art course. And I've continued to chronicle my active learning exercises employed in classes here on my blog, at invited workshops on the topic, and been asked to deliver the keynote address on the topic of active learning at Texas Lutheran University's Engaging Pedagogy Conference this coming May (2018).

And yet, it is the end of each semester, and once again I have these troublesome thoughts: Did they learn? Was it rigorous? Did they work hard enough?

The learning took place. I have assessments that show that. So to me it's a bit sad that fun in the classroom is so circumspect and that some faculty (raises hand!) feel sheepish at the concept that fun and learning can coexist. I hope there can be a way that we can collectively move beyond this. Students deserve to enjoy their classes and learn at the same time.

Is that notion really so novel? A shame that it seems to be.

As I look over this past year, I have had a full-on education as the faculty mentor of the McDaniel College football team. I now have seen first-hand a full year of the playing of the season, the recruiting of the team, and summer camp. I have met some of the new recruits, and have gotten to know some of the coaches a bit better. It's been a long process, but one that has been very interesting. And because I am curious and love learning new things, it's been very exciting.

And while there is always more to learn, I have learned a lot. Here is a list of some of those things:

  • These students move around constantly at practice. Sitting still in a 90-minute lecture must be brutal. Enter active learning, for at least part of every one of my classes.
  • Higher ed systems are sometimes murky and unclear to students. Many students on the team are first-generation, a trend that will only continue. They are not sure what questions to ask, let alone who to ask. Sometimes our offices can act, perhaps unintentionally, that if students have to ask, maybe they should not be here.
  • Money can be a real issue and they are not thinking long-term of how the degree will help them after college. Goal-setting and motivation for post-college plans are really important.
  • Mentoring is not advising. I can help students navigate their course requirements as an advisor, but mentoring requires a different tack. To mentor a student is to see the whole student. I see them as football players as well as academic students. They share with me their struggles in their lives and their goals and dreams. Faculty need to know that there is a difference between these two roles, and both are very important to student success.

What I have witnessed makes me more committed than ever to supporting the student athletes in my classes. I will get the chance with twenty (count 'em up, I did!) players in my Art of the Medieval World class coming this spring. I will need to be on my game for them, and those of you who read this blog regularly know that I will be. It will be a challenge, but I am determined to meet it!

I hope to be sharing some of the techniques for supporting student athletes as a consultant in the coming months. I am going to be doing further study about what these players need in their lives as students to be successful on the field, in the classroom, and in life. I want to be as much of a part of that success as possible, and I want our institution to support them in as many ways as possible.

If you are student athlete, what additional help would you like to see from your institution?

Photo credit: Morgan Scott

Shown L to R: Drew Scott, 55; Bamasa Bailor, 1; Vince Gorgone, 54

I have wanted to write a piece for McDaniel College Green Terror Football team coaches for awhile. Now that the season is over, I think it’s a good time to do so.

I am amazed at how hard all of them work: the head coach, the position coaches, the assistant coaches. I don’t fully understand the hierarchy there, but I do know they all work super hard to get the best out of the students on the field, while they simultaneously emphasize the need to keep to the books and graduate.

Our record this year was 3-7, which was the record as last season. But don’t let that record fool you: they are not the same team.

They are much more poised and focused. They play very much more as a unit than I saw in any game in the 2016 season. Their Twitter hashtag, #AsOne, is felt and expressed by all. The refrain I heard at training camp: “Do Your Job!” was taken to heart by the players and they did that for the most part.

There were some key injuries. But there always are.

Yet, the Coaches kept getting them back into it, keeping student/players’ eyes both on the next game as well as reminding them about classes. It’s a really tough balancing act, and one I would have no idea how to achieve.

That is why when some of my colleagues and friends jokingly call me “Coach McKay,” I wince.

Because I am not a coach. I do not know the first thing about coaching. I am still smarting over the loss at Franklin and Marshall, and that was Week 3!! I am still learning the mentoring gig; coach I am not.

Now the Coaches go onto the next phase of their operation: recruiting. The amount of time and commitment this part of their job requires is immense, which hardly anyone understands, particularly faculty. Last year, I contacted the Coach after the last game of the season, naively thinking that he would have all the time in the world now that the season was over. How wrong I was! He and the other coaches will now be on the road until the winter break. In January, they host busloads of potential student/players on campus, many of whom they saw in high school games every Friday night of the regular season. They then have a bit of a lull before March and “spring ball” starts. Then prepare for camp to start in August! It took me awhile, but now I get the drill.

So, this post is for the Green Terror Coaches. Their support of me has been wonderful and I want to send the same to them.  Go get us some great players, and thank you for all you do! I will be holding down the fort, meeting with the guys to make sure they finish the semester strong.

From a grateful faculty mentor, thank you, coaches, for all that you do!

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On Friday I had a chance to speak at my college to some administrators and spouses of our trustees about my role with the football team and my teaching with active learning. I brought along one of the "Original Football Romans," senior Sociology major Drew Scott, and a senior business major Andre Henry, Jr., who I only met last year, but who took my class last spring (2017).

The three of us were discussing my classes, my teaching, and my role with the team. In so doing, I recounted a post I wrote here for the team after their loss at Franklin & Marshall College. In my recollection of the loss, I remembered that after the game, standing with the players as they tried to absorb their loss, I had said something like, "good game, though" or something equally lame. One of the coaches said to me, "No good game when you lose like that," or something to that effect.

I was mortified for saying something so stupid.

For professors, it is very hard to admit when we are wrong. At least it is for me. I don't mind saying "I don't know," but I really hate it when I say something stupid. No one would have expected me to know what to say after a loss like that. But I still felt badly that I said something so lame.

At our presentation, when I recounted that story in front of Drew and Andre, they both looked at me and said, "But, Dr. McKay: it's OK to be wrong." [This was something that came out of the focus group of my first group of football players in Roman art in the fall of 2015. I wrote about that exercise and my saying that awhile ago here on this blog and you can read it again here.]

They reminded me of my own words, thus schooling me and helping remind me that I am continuing to grow with them as a person, professor, and mentor.

My presentation with these two star athletes and good, solid, liberal arts students reminded me that if it's OK for them to be wrong, then it is OK for me to be wrong, too. As this post hopefully conveys to all, I continue to learn from the players and coaches in my role with the McDaniel College Green Terror football team.

And I am ever grateful for the opportunity.

A few weeks ago, before the start of the fall semester, the head coach of the Green Terror Football team asked me to speak to the entire group. As the faculty mentor, I was happy to do it. I love my role, and after I spoke to the team, hopefully giving them some tips about how to focus on classes and developing a goal for after college, I stayed for their team meeting.

It was very eye-opening.

From attending that meeting, it is clear that they have to memorize a ton of stuff. I went to the defense meeting after the team split up. They were going over a bunch of packages and formations for the defense, with letters that represented the positions. They all had a notebook (though I did notice a box of pens, just in case, in the room) to write things down, and were doing so. They were in rapt attention, too.

This told me a lot. First, they can do a lot more than they think they can. They have to memorize a ton of stuff for all of these schemes and plays. This means that they can do more in their classes than they think they can.

Second, their coaches believe in them, so I think they think, “Yes, I can do football.” But it is clearly not easy. I wanted to ask a ton of questions about stuff I did not understand, but of course I did not. The defense coach was saying, “Do not go out there and just be a bull in a china shop: do your job!” They have to do that, to work as a team. But his belief in them as players – as students – was clear to me and I’m sure to them. How often do we show that we believe in all of our students, as students? I have a future post planned about caring - not coddling - students and how that helps them to learn.

Third, while some students were asking questions to ensure they understood everything, it was clear that some didn’t ask anything – even when they needed the answers for the upcoming game. I think they fear looking dumb. But who among us doesn't also feel that way?

This made me glad that I said what I said in the team meeting: Be curious about your classes. Find a way to stay engaged. They have a responsibility to themselves to try harder and to give their attention to all of their classes.

We, as faculty, can do things to help these players, too. Just like their coaches, we can show we genuinely care about their learning. We can change things up, get them involved, and not have them sit for an hour to 90 minutes mostly listening. They only had about 30 minutes of lecture/listening before the coaches changed things up.

And I am also learning other things. That meeting was nearly six weeks ago (the term is flying by!) and the team has had two hard losses since then. I wrote about one of them a few weeks ago, which you can read here. This week, it was another hard loss, this time by one point! In overtime! That was hard.

But they got back up. They are - right now - focused on the next opponent. I realized while talking to a few of them over this past weekend that I have held on to mistakes and tend to beat myself up about them for a long time. They don't do that. They can't do that.

They characterize resilience and grit.

I hope I am teaching them as much as they are teaching me.

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