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I just got back from my eleventh Reacting to the Past conference. I had a great time as usual. I saw wonderful teachers learning a pedagogy that can transform their teaching, and even their life, as it has mine. I made new friends and met up with ones I have made over the years. And ran my now -published game Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, which was published by North Carolina University Press. After that, I played the artist Paolo Uccello in my friend Paula Lazrus' game about the building of the Duomo in Florence when a competition was announced on how the work would be completed in 1418. Here I am in the game, leading a procession with a palio that represents my guild of painters and sculptors: And later, Uccello gives a lesson on the newly discovered linear perspective, which I did in the game:

And yet even though I come back from this conference more convinced than ever that Reacting is a powerful teaching tool and I hope I encouraged many to use it, I had the odd feeling the entire weekend that this "run" had come to an end. I will always use Reacting and have posted here many times about how it has worked in my classroom. I served on the Reacting Consortium board for six years, I chaired the board for about a year. I co-authored a game. I use a game in nearly every class.

But I am called to put energies elsewhere now, and it seemed somehow important to note this as a sort of ending, so that I could take in, enjoy, and appreciate every minute of the conference experience. And I did.

Now I feel a real urge to do more with the student athletes, specifically those on the Green Terror Football team, for whom I act as a faculty mentor. The creativity embedded in Reacting I will take with me to this new endeavor. I am clearing the decks mentally, physically, and even emotionally to make room for this new work and this new "calling." I am excited to meet new student athletes and help them to become their best selves both as players on the field and students in the classroom. While sometimes I am not sure how it will all work out, I didn't know how to write a Reacting game, either, and I figured that out.

With the help of the Green Terror football team (and the great coaches!) I'm betting I figure out how to mentor a team to the best of my ability, too.

Among the issues I hear from both students and faculty across institutions, including my own, is a statement faculty often make to student athletes who take their classes: “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 the truth is, to say they are “not here to play [insert sport here]” is not fully true.

Coaches play an important role in recruiting every incoming class. I knew that intellectually, but I really did not understand how the coaches play an integral role in the recruitment of an incoming class. Until I began to mentor the football team and took a front row seat to the academic cycle of the team and a coach’s life, I did not realize how vital they are to the admissions enterprise. For a college like mine, which is dependent on tuition revenue, student recruitment is key. While we have lots of outreach and marketing, it is often through a coach that a student first learns about an institution and has his or her “first touch.” Coaches want talent for their teams, and they spend a lot of time in high schools recruiting top students. Thus, many times the student’s first interaction with a college institution is through the coach.

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 the question, “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” Yes, they were first recruited to play their sport by the coaching staff. But they understand what is at stake. They emphasized that they very much love their sport, and to play, but they also want an education.

"Playing football" was not among the answers. Not one single student answered the question “Why are you here/Why did you come to college?” with “to play football” as their first answer. While football may be the reason they looked at this particular college, and while the sport may offer them opportunities through alumni connections, each of these students had their eyes on a larger prize: a college education and a pathway to a job and career. A follow up question about where they might be in five years, students answered by saying “I want to be a spokesman for a company” or “have a steady income.” Other students answered, “having independence financially,” and “finding a career and maybe starting a family.”

Thus, by their own answers, football was not the primary reason that they were in school, and yet, as the book I am currently writing will hopefully demonstrate, playing football is an important identity marker for them, and it is often their ticket to college. Without the team in high school, a coach’s interest, they may not have found a path to college as easily as they did through their sport.

Faculty, perhaps we should be a bit more reflective and interested in our students' sports identity and be more willing to help them make the most out of their four years, in the classroom and on the field.

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Texas Lutheran Engaging Pedagogy Conference as their keynote speaker. Details of the conference can be viewed here. I am very thankful to their organizer, Dr. Chris Bollinger, and their Provost, Dr. Debbi Cottrell, for inviting me down and giving me this opportunity.

My talk centered around active learning in my art history classes.  There were a few tweets with images during my talk, including this one:

I have already written about this idea of creating classes where it is "OK to be wrong." You can read about it in this blog post from this past fall. This is an important concept that I am still thinking about with my teaching. If everything is about high stakes tests, and then we say we want our students to take risks, how can we achieve that when making a mistake on a test has such huge consequences today? Even something as basic as funding for schools is dependent on test scores. When such thinking is ingrained in students, it's hard for them to think creatively and problem-solve. Creating an environment where it is OK to be wrong becomes very important, otherwise, we do not teach students that failure is often what leads to the greatest discoveries and creative solutions.

While at the conference, I also had the audience participate in some active learning themselves, which you can see in this "tweet" from Dr. Steven Vrooman who helped me with tech and took the video.

It was great to be in a room with so much energy and enthusiastic professors. If you'd like me to speak at your event contact me at gkreahlingmckay@yahoo.com or leave a message!

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have been listening to a lot of podcasts about creativity, expression, success, and entrepreneurship. It seems that nearly all of them have talked about some aspect of "authenticity" as an ingredient to success. I have been thinking a lot about that, and think that it's true. I think to be successful - truly successful - at any endeavor you have be authentic in how you go about it, engage with others, and express yourself.

I want to come across as authentic in the classroom. I want students to know that I care about them as individuals and as distinct learners. I want them to see this is not an “act,” though I have read studies that suggest that teachers can learn these traits. But for me, coming across to students as authentic is critically important.

I think that I am fairly authentic with my students. I listen to them when we are in class (part of a mindfulness practice in teaching I have been trying to cultivate and will post on in the future). For now, here are some of the things I do inside and outside of the classroom to help demonstrate my authentic self:

  1. I talk to students before class to find out how they are doing in other classes and what their interests are.
  2. I show my true feelings about what I am teaching. I tend to love all the subjects that I teach (though I will admit "Roman Concrete Day" is a bit of a challenge), and so coming across with enthusiasm and interest - sometimes even wonderment - gets across the ideas I'm proposing. Perhaps that is also showing vulnerability in showing that I really care about my material.
  3. I follow their sports teams through emails we are sent and if they are mentioned I send a congratulatory email or Tweet or FB post. This has never been more real to me than when I took on academic mentorship of the football team. There are a lot of them to keep track of!
  4. I follow theater/performances and comment if they are in a production or presenting somewhere.

A recent study has demonstrated more on this topic and that being authentic in the classroom is perceived by students and can facilitate their learning. You can read the abstract to that that study here. Here is an excerpt of that study:

"This study sought to generate a more robust understanding of teacher     (in)authenticity. In other contexts, authenticity is regarded as a display of true self and has been positively linked to beneficial psychological (e.g., increased self-esteem) and social outcomes (e.g., higher relational satisfaction)...Results indicated that authentic teaching is perceived when teachers are viewed as approachable, passionate, attentive, capable, and knowledgeable. Alternatively inauthentic teaching is observed when teachers are perceived as unapproachable, lacking passion, inattentive, incapable, and disrespectful. Notably, these behaviors are often demonstrated through distinct actions taken by teachers that are often examined within the larger instructional communication literature (e.g., self-disclosure). Practically, these results allude to the notion that (in)authentic teaching can have a meaningful impact on students."

This study is very interesting to me. If you are a professor, how do you foster “being authentic” in the classroom? Students: do you have authentic teachers? Do they help you learn?

Today I found out my grandmother passed away.

It has made me think about the recent spate of articles about the “deaths of grandmothers” that are perhaps meant to be satirical, but to my reading are full of spite. http://www.chronicle.com/article/To-My-Student-on-the-Death-/240353

When I found out my grandmother died, one of the first things I did after talking to my father, for it was his mother, and my sister, was  to contact one of my students by text.

That might seem odd. As a matter of fact, I wondered why I was even thinking of doing it. But I did.

Because his grandmother has brain cancer.

And this was found after she beat breast cancer.

He had to miss classes with me because she has had many surgeries and treatments. When I gave him my news, I also asked about her. He tells me she is still holding on and doing well. In addition to telling me about how his "grandmom" is doing, he responded immediately with a heartfelt text saying he would be there if I needed to talk.

My grandmother was 97 years old. She has been in a nursing home for several years, and her dementia has meant that we had been losing parts of her already.

Still, the ultimate final, ultimate loss is hard. I have found it to be so today.

Unlike some faculty, like the one that wrote the piece above, who seem to think that they are gate-keepers (to what?) and will make sure that only the righteous are afforded sympathy or empathy, I am thankful to this student for just saying a few short words to me in a text. I’m grateful and when I see him this fall, I will tell him so.

I hope I never get so jaded or callous as to think that my students lie at the loss of anyone close to them. Nor would I ever go to the lengths the article – whether tongue-in-cheek or no – seems to espouse.

We all have loss. And helping each other through it, professor for student, or sometimes, student for professor, is the kind of teaching in which I want to be involved.

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[huge_it_share]I'm always trying to change up the ending of a class, taking a cue from my friend and colleague to Tony Crider who wrote in The Chronicle in 2015 about "Epic Finales" rather than "Final Exams." This semester in my nineteenth-century art class I had a "Finale:" after using my Reacting Game, Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, which I co-wrote with Nicolas W. Proctor and Michael A. Marlais, I decided that each student should give a presentation about the future of their game character and discuss a painting from the future (post 1889) .

One of the students was late to class. He did not send the painting he was going to present for inclusion in the PowerPoint. He hadn't prepared enough and had his own presentation, which I said he could load on the classroom computer. And one of his slides was full of text. But that was not the worst of it.

The worst was the fact that the entire class did not take him seriously. There was laughter the entire time he spoke. No one was paying attention. It seemed a big joke.

I was angry, despondent, and wondered what to do. Later that night, I received a message from this student, asking if his presentation was "bad." I told him I would be in my office the next day in the afternoon if he wanted to speak about it.

He came to my office. It was nearly 24 hours later. I was still unsure what to do. Did he just blow off the presentation? Did he not care?

I asked outright if he had blown off the assignment. He admitted that he had not prepared enough.  I also asked if he meant to make it a stand-up comedy routine, getting laughs from his classmates in order to deflect from the fact that he wasn't prepared.

And that is where it got interesting.

As we talked, it was clear that this student, a transfer student from a majority minority student environment, was finding it a bit difficult to navigate our mostly white campus. Humor had become one of his coping mechanisms. But he assured me that while he does include humor at times, he did not intend for the entire class to continue to laugh for the entirety of his presentation.

Then and there I decided to ask him to give the presentation again. To me alone. To make him learn what he did wrong and to be sure he learned from his mistake.

He was surprised, but he agreed. We went into an open classroom and he started. I pointed out that his back was to me. He wasn't engaging me. He was fidgeting. He needed to project his voice. He has a very deep voice, and often tries to mute it to fit in. But I told him for a presentation, he should let it fly and command the room. He did.

He then told me he was grateful for these tips because he had to give a presentation the next day in a class that is in his major as the final (finale?) for that course. I told him to think about what I said: don't fidget; face the audience; no text loading on a slide!

I checked in with him the next day, after I knew the final for his course had ended.

"How did it go today?", I asked.

He said the professor commended him on his presentation and wants him to return to her classroom next semester, to give the presentation again and to help other students think through the assignment, which was the creation of a video.

I could have stayed mad. I could have vented on social media. I'd like to think that instead, I taught this student a bit about how to present in a formal situation. Could it be that a transfer sophomore in college really had never been taught formal presentation skills?

I don't know.

But I kept thinking: isn't that what we're here for? Am I only supposed to teach art history? Isn't a small, liberal arts school, like the one where I currently teach, a place where we lift up students even when they fall down and, some could even say, screw up?

He did screw up. And he didn't get a great grade for the presentation.

But he learned how to do one. Better than he did for my class. And somehow I think - isn't that the point?

"Finale" to Spring semester 2017, indeed.

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In September I will be delivering a plenary address at the American College of Greece in Athens about active learning and gamification in higher education. I'm immersing myself in as much on this topic as possible and would love to hear others' thoughts on the issue.

I have been "gaming" since 2007, when I first started using the pedagogy Reacting to the Past. Just about anyone who knows me also knows that I am committed to the Reacting pedagogy. Reacting consists of highly immersive role-playing games, set in a historical period. Each student has his or her own role that comes with a  character sheet with victory objectives, strategy, and key ideas. Students must read primary texts from the time period (for instance Plato's Republic for Athens game set in 403 BCE and Rosseau's Social Contract for the French Revolution game) and use references from those works in speeches to persuade people to their side of the issues in order to WIN. And students really do want to win; their competitive natures come out. Because reading and writing can help you to win, students realize that doing "work" can lead to something worthwhile - and even fun.

This is what the gamification movement seems to promise, but it appears to be mostly tied to the realm of video games. Reacting seems to be on the fringe or the edge of this movement, because it's not a video game. Although Reacting games can be played online, and have been used that way successfully by some of my colleagues, the pedagogy essentially is a face-to-face active learning technique and is one of my favorite options when I incorporate the flipped classroom paradigm.

I need to learn more about gamification in other arenas beyond Reacting. From what I have learned so far, it seems to me that students will see right through the idea of "levels" and "badges." I am concerned that adding those particular elements as part of a course won't really make it any more "fun." I was watching a video of Gabe Zichermann talking about gamification (October 26, 2010), and the speaker had this image up:

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 3.09.07 PM

He was suggesting that the bottom words are not associated very much with fun - but the words above in color are associated more often with fun. It seems that the move towards gamification in higher education is an effort to make school more fun.

This gets to the heart of what I think about day in and day out: I teach because I want my students to learn. But I also want my classes to be engaging places where students are active. I wish I had more evidence to back this up (does anyone out there have such studies?), but I do think that students who are engaged in classes also learn more. I think the flipped classroom has allowed my students to be more engaged, and yes, have more fun. I know that I have a lot of fun right alongside them when they are involved in the class. And I am learning from them, too.

I know I need to do more research, reading and study to better understand this arena of gamification in higher education. I am hoping that some wise sages out there can point me in some directions about what to read, and tell me whether or not the levels and badges really lead to deeper learning. Maybe I am just cynical, but if I were to call "learning about the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial" a "Quest" I would get some eye-rolls. And this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by (October 29, 2015) seems to suggest that we should not give in to where students are. But I wonder, is the alternative to leave them behind if they don't ever learn like they are "supposed" to?

I am planning to incorporate some "leveled" quizzes and will incorporate the idea of adaptive release in my hybrid class History of Western Art this coming fall semester. Students will have a randomly selected set of images that are fairly easy to identify for art history survey in each module. After that, a second quiz will include more difficult images. Is that gamification? Somehow I think the Reacting games, case studies and peer review sessions that I am planning for the face-to-face portions of that class are going to make more of an impact, but I am set to give it a try.

Readers: what else should I read and learn about as I work through this new area of teaching?

 

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It seems that I only ever have time to post to this blog, that is supposed to be all about teaching, when I am finished with a semester. Once again, I am finished with a semester, and I find myself thinking over my immediate past experiences with my students.

What I am thinking about the most now, two days after graduating the Class of 2016 at McDaniel College, are all the students that I was most excited about seeing graduate. I won't post their names, but some of them (if they see this post) will know who they are. They are the students who did not get awards. They didn't write the best papers. They didn't have high GPAs; as a matter of fact in a few instances, I'm betting that they just squeaked by with a high enough GPA to graduate.

But these are the students that speak to me. They move me and inspire me. These are the students that I love to teach.

Right now I am pondering, why? Why is this the group that makes me want to be a better professor? Why is it not the top students? We have some stellar students who are very high-achieving. I had the privilege of teaching one of the students who won the top writing award at graduation and one of the students who won the award for the highest GPA is in my major, and we're very proud of her.

And yet. I kept thinking of my middle of the road students: my baseball players from my FYS.  The student in my class this semester whose friend died and who stepped up with her friends to make sure requirements were met so her departed friend would be awarded her degree, albeit posthumously.

I wonder if my focus on the middle is because the way we set up graduation and even education is so hierarchical. Of course I want to commend the very best students. But sometimes I worry that doing so gives the middle students a feeling of futility. I wonder if they feel that since they likely are never going to reach those lofty heights of a 4.0 GPA, they just disengage. Do our expectations of precision in citations (something that is probably anathema to admit but  drives me crazy as a scholar in the field), drive students to just give up? The top students master it, sure. But what about the vast majority of the others? Where are they?

All of this has led me to embrace active learning pedagogies in my classes. They debate, read, discuss, analyze, write, meet, present, and lead. I would love to hear from them through this post. Because I want to know:

Did this make you want to learn? Do you think you learned? More? The same? Did it "stick"?

What about my colleagues? What say you? Are the middle of the pack students worthy of some love? If so, in what form?

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