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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!

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

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.

 

1

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

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