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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.

2

My grades are in (though they are not due until tomorrow). We will graduate a new crop of McDaniel College students on Saturday. I always look forward to that day, but it is always bittersweet for me. This time of year is always bittersweet for me.

I work hard to create community with my classes. Connecting with each of my students is also a goal of mine, and one I most often reach. The most challenging class for me in that regard with the thirty-person Medieval Art course. But I managed to find a way to build a bridge to each student, and to make each of them feel important. If I had not, I’m not at all sure that they would have been so eager to have this picture of the class as a whole (thanks to Dr. Lyndsey Smith, who acted as a T.A. for this semester, for taking the picture):

The departure of students from The Hill, our nickname for our college campus, depresses me slightly every year. I don’t know how many other faculty feel this. It seems counter-intuitive to the trends I see on Twitter and elsewhere about “grades are in!” and “Let the summer begin!” Of course, I have projects and writing that I wish to do, but I seem to make progress on those as I am teaching my students, not in spite of them. I had a book published this spring semester by the University of North Carolina Press: Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89, a Reacting to the Past game that was co-authored by Michael Marlais and Nicolas Proctor. That book was not written in the summer(s).  I also had a chapter published in the following book on active learning: Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation and Creativity, Anastasia Misseyanni, Militiades D. Lytras, Paraskevi Papadopoulou, eds. Emerald Publishing Limited, 2018. My chapter was on my experience with the football players in the Fall of 2015: “Engaging the non-Art History Student: A Tale of Five Football Players (and others) in Roman Art” (187-209). Both of these projects were peer reviewed (the Reacting game extensively), and most of the final work was done in the fall semester. Thus, summers are not always the time that we have laid at our feet to do our work as scholars. Somehow, I always manage, even when I am in the midst of classes to teach, papers to grade, and students to mentor.

I am not advocating for not having a free summer. I am not saying that at all. I know I need some mental time to reestablish other routines, and just to have a rest from the relentless (self-imposed) pressure to create an engaging classroom experience every class period. But right now I feel sad.

So, really what I am seeking is advice. For those who find the departure of students to be alarming, distressing, or even depressing: what do you do? How do you transition to summer?

 

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.

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?

This post is a follow up to the one I published last week about planning an in-class assessment of what students had learned so far this semester. We are about at the half-way mark, so it seemed to be a good time to do it.

I had six total topics, and six groups of four students. They had to come up with a question based on one of the topics the course has covered so far.

Hiccup #1. Some of their questions were really mundane or way too specific. So, I had to help them develop more nuanced questions about the material to allow answers to dig more deeply into examples.

Then I gave two of the six questions, randomly, to each group. Of course some of them said, "Can we answer our own question?" Um. No. They had to come up with a presentation for their question, and two groups answered/presented per question.

Hiccup #2. Some made Powerpoint presentations and we had email and a Blackboard meltdown last week so I was scrambling a bit to project the PPTs in the class. But we managed. But it was a lot to manage.

Each group that had developed the question had to assess which group answered better and why. I think this was the best part, and one that I came up with on the fly. If they are going to be responsible for their own learning, then they have to be responsible for assessing who answers better. I'd like to try something else on this in the future. Those who answered the best will get an extra point (or something) in the Reacting to the Past game we play later in the semester. By and large, I agreed with their assessment of which groups answered better. I was keeping notes.

Then, each student had to answer individually the remaining three questions and turn them in the next class. I just reviewed them and there were some great answers, and some not great answers. Some confusion, and some real understanding.

I had hoped that they would all answer everything correctly and it would show me that my commitment to active learning was giving even better results than traditional lecture-only based instruction. I can't go that far. However, I do think they are learning at least as much when I used to teach this course more traditionally. And I gave this assessment as a surprise. In the future I may try to find ways to circle back to what they are learning more often - not just with the last five minutes "What did you learn today?" reflections, but something to connect concepts more holistically. Because some of them were not doing that.

What are other ways that you can assess the learning in an active classroom without relying on traditional memorization exams? How can you "get at" the overall learning that is taking place over the course of the semester, and not just class-by-class assessment? And how can we see if and how they are managing to make sense of the course as a whole?

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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.

Today’s post is about curiosity. It’s a word I’ve been thinking about a lot as it keeps coming up in books and podcasts.

First, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about curiosity in her book Big Magic. I read that book awhile ago, but I keep coming back to her explanation that curiosity is more important to follow than “passion.” Curiosity is questioning. It can be a niggling to know more about something, or a real search for a Big Answer to a Big Question. I am curious about so many things, something I think I inherited from my Also-An-Aquarius Dad (thanks, Dad!).

Right now, I am curious about two interrelated things: how student athletes learn best, and more specifically what it is about the combination of Reacting to the Past role-playing games and D3 football players that gets so much engagement in the classroom. I use Reacting games, as I’ve posted here many times, but I’ve noticed increasing engagement over the past two years from the football players that take my classes (many of them enroll because I am the academic mentor to the D3 McDaniel College football team – go Green Terror!). And because so many of them enroll (fourteen players were in my 24-person Roman art and architecture class), I get a front-row seat to observe what inspires them, moves them to do more and better work academically, and gets them excited in the classroom. And it has led me to want to research more deeply to find out what is going on, rather than simply watching it and taking anecdotal notes. So, that is where curiosity is leading me right now.

I am also thinking about curiosity from the student side.

When students sign up for an elective course, there must be some element of interest there, some amount of curiosity about the topic to make them choose that course over another that fulfills the same general education requirement. Even if the course is a required course for the major, and the students “must” take it, their choice of that major was likely sparked by some element of curiosity about that discipline or the career to which they hope it will lead.

This leads me to the question for faculty: how can you keep that curiosity going?

I really believe that keeping students actively engaged in the classroom can keep that initial curiosity alive, or rekindle it in the case of a required class in a major. I firmly believe that we must allow students to actively engage in the material of the major, or the course, or the topic, for them to really feel an affinity with the subject and learn it deeply and well. Of course, they might not be able to do everything an accomplished art historian, biologist, sociologist, or poet does when taking such a class. Some of them may never have the zeal to stay with that discipline, let alone profession. Truly: how many of our college students are really going to major and go on for an advanced degree in our disciplines? How many should?

Continuing on for an advanced degree should not be the main or only metric of success for all students. When they signed up for a class, there was something, some amount of curiosity, that led them to that course or that major. How can we keep it going?

I would argue that it’s engagement that will keep the curiosity going, that kindle of interest burning. This reminds me of my blog post from November of 2015  in which I pondered, “What is a faculty member’s role in student engagement?” That post garnered a lot of comments, some of them from students themselves who were in my Roman Art and Architecture class in the fall of 2015.

I am still committed to reaching every student, because I believe that finding a way to keep that curiosity kindled is the way to keep students engaged and ultimately learn skills and content to be successful in the world, regardless of major. That is what general education requirements are all about at a liberal arts college.

In my teaching, blog and workshops, I am committed to helping others to find ways to engage students to continue to keep the curiosity alive and help them succeed in their chosen classes and majors.

How do you keep students' curiosity kindled as a faculty member in the classroom?

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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:

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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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In 2006 I attended my first Reacting to the Past annual Institute at Barnard College in New York City. I went with the worst attitude imaginable. And it was August and sweltering in New York. And I had to stay in a residence hall. Games for teaching sounded juvenile (oh, can you hear the whining?). I was as skeptical as they come.

But I was transfixed by the students who were there to help faculty members, who, like me, had not prepared an iota of material for the games we were to play in condensed form over the four-day conference. Those students made me realize that Reacting was a powerful pedagogy that could change my own students' learning in profound ways.

I took a leap of faith and first used Reacting to the Past in my First Year Seminar in the fall of 2007. I will admit it: it was hard. Reacting requires you to trust the students, and to put the material and the topics in their hands and see what they do with it.  But it was also the most transformative experience as a teacher I have ever had. I saw my students explore, engage, research, write and speak in ways I had not before.

Flash ahead to me a semester or two later, walking across campus one day. I realized that there was a game I could use in every art history class that I teach at my liberal arts college, with the exception of my nineteenth-century art class. And, as the saying goes about necessity being the mother of invention, my next thought was, "Well, I guess I will just have to write a game."

And so I did.

With the help of game designer extraordinaire, Nicolas W. Proctor, Professor of History at Simpson College and Editorial Board chair for the Reacting Consortium, and Michael A. Marlais, now-retired Endowed Professor of Art History from Colby College and a specialist in late nineteenth-century French art criticism, we went about crafting a game that I would use in my nineteenth-century art class. The result was Modernism versus Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89. I chose the dates of 1888-89 for a specific reason: I am bothered by the scholarly narrative that indicates that Van Gogh and Gauguin somehow had actual authoritative power in the art world at that time. Reality was starkly different.

The game includes artists from the Academy who follow a more traditional approach to what art should be about. Think Bouguereau, Meissonier.  The Impressionists are included, among them Monet, Renoir, and Degas as well as a few American artists including Cassatt and Whistler. The Avant-garde is there, too, with Van Gogh and Gauguin making their calls for the modern in art.  Several critics are in the game, and they function to help the artists who adhere to certain aesthetic considerations. To help students understand the beginnings of the commodification of art, I added two dealers who compete with each other for sales of art.

The game begins in the 1888 Salon, when the characters defend or decry the selection of Detaille's painting The Dream as the recipient of the Medal of Honor in the Salon. That day, and the subsequent days, students in character debate the current state of art (as indicated by the art in the 1888 Salon) and the future of art that they all have a hand in shaping. The last day of the game is a recreation of the 1889 World Exposition in Paris, for which the Eiffel Tower was built. All of the artists are required to "show art" that they hope will sell. However, only "secret buyers," who are recruited by me in a large crowd that I invite to the Exposition, can actually buy anything with a special "certificate of sale." The buyers must remain secret to try to achieve some sense of how art buying works: no one knows who in a large crowd might actually buy a painting. Students playing artists, critics, and dealers must try to steer all of the visitors to the art for which they advocate, in hopes of making a sale.

I first ran the game in 2009. In addition to Admissions staff and other administrators and faculty colleagues, I invited several individuals from our Communications and Marketing division to come to the 1889 World Exposition. That led to this story about the first run of the Art in Paris game. I still keep in touch with the "first Bouguereau," (seen in pictures that accompany this story with the bow tie and pink shirt). He was the most bohemian student I have ever had the privilege to teach and he still remembers the game after graduating . He was happy to play an artist against his "type;" he told me he felt he learned more by doing so.

Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89 has been used at well over thirty different institutions, including different countries. Others have written about their experiences with it on the Art History Teaching Resources site, such as this post by Keri Watson. The creation of this game has been one of the most satisfying scholarly projects of my career. The publication process for writing a Reacting game is extensive and includes two levels: play-tests at conferences and peer-review by those in the field and by those with game design experience. Art in Paris debuted at Reacting's annual Institute in 2010, and will be played again at this year's annual Institute as well (June 9-12, 2016).

A number of other art history games are being created in the wake of Art in Paris, by my colleagues Mary Beth Looney (The American Artists' Congress: 1935-1939), Marie Gasper-Helvat (1863 Salon des refusés and Guerrilla Girls in our Midst: 1984-1987), Paula Lazrus (Il Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiori: Florence, 1418), Carol Brash (Photography: Art, Science, Document?), as well as Rebecca Livingstone, Kelly McFall, and Abby Perkiss, who have together created Memory and Monument Building: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1980-1982.

For those who have not heard of Reacting to the Past, I urge you to go to a conference or the annual Institute. It will change the way you think about engaging students in the material.

And you might even have a lot of fun doing it.

 

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