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It began with five students from the McDaniel College Green Terror Football Team in Roman Art and Architecture in the fall semester of 2015. I went to the home game on Saturday, September 12, 2015 - even invited as a guest to the suite (box) at Kenneth R. Gill stadium:

During the game, I grabbed a program and circled all the student players' names I had in that class. I watched their enthusiasm, passion, and dedication on the field. I made the decision that day that I would include active learning in every single class meeting period. To assess how well I had managed to achieve actual learning through that decision, I collaborated with my colleague in Communication, Dr. Robert Trader. He ran a focus group a year later and I was *amazed* at the amount of material they remembered. This led to a conference presentation and THEN a chapter published in Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity from Emerald Publishers, 2018. I titled my chapter "Engaging the Non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and Others) in Roman Art." Because they influenced my teaching so much, I asked them to take a picture with me after one of their games in the fall of 2016. So, here we are:

This led to many opportunities that I would never have imagined could happen from five football players taking an elective: becoming the faculty mentor to the football team (that story was written about in this NCAA Champion magazine feature), publishing in the book noted above, and developing a speaking series on supporting student athletes. I gave my first keynote presentation at Texas Lutheran University last week at their annual engaging pedagogy conference.

The image above comes directly from the focus group, when they talked about how my class allowed them to try out interpretations, to risk, to be creative, and, to be wrong. In this exercise they had time to work on their own in pairs, and then lead discussion about an abstract Roman image like the one I am showing in the slide in the image above.

This past Saturday (May 18, 2018), four of the Original Football Romans graduated. Here they are:

Just like I grabbed the football program that September day in 2015, I grabbed the Commencement program this past Saturday.

But this time I did not have to circle their names.

Because they have helped me become a better professor. Because they have made me a mentor to an entire team. Because they have made me a better person, and I have learned so much from their teammates, as well as from them.

Congratulations, Original Football Romans!

 

 

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.

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!

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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.

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?

5

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.

 

4

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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