Mastering the Art of Practice

Kinesiology professor Julie Walton teaches students how to learn

by Phil de Haan ’84
Summer 2014

Calvin College kinesiology professor Julie Walton patrols her classrooms and labs at the college with a kinetic energy. In the classroom she is back and forth at the front of the room, hands and arms gesticulating, even moving at times down the middle aisle in room 280 of the Hoogenboom Center until she is positioned almost exactly in the middle of her 40 students.

That constant motion seems to rub off on her students, too. At one point in a discussion of exercises, Walton can’t remember the difference between a burpee and a mountain climber.

“Anybody know?” she inquires, and when a student offers an answer, she follows up by asking him if he can demonstrate. Which he does, quickly cranking out a couple of burpees (basically a squat to a pushup to a squat to a jump) followed by a series of mountain climbers (a little like running in place from a pushup position) while the class applauds its approval. When he’s done, Walton is all smiles and then continues with that day’s lesson on exercise-induced asthma.

Later on, when her students take a quiz she has them stand up when they’re done. All told between Walton and her students, the room is often in motion.

A few days later, in the college’s state-of-the-art human performance lab next door (which Walton played a major role in designing and equipping), it’s more of the same. Students learning to measure body fat with calipers get a hands-on lesson from Walton, who uses a student volunteer to show those in the lab what to measure, how to measure and where to measure, at one point even borrowing a fellow student’s pen to mark on her volunteer the exact place to measure the back of the triceps muscle.

At a certain point, after Walton has worked her way through pointing out where to test the scapular, the triceps, the biceps and a few other locations, she’s at the calf muscle.

“I want you to get on one knee and propose to me,” she said to her volunteer, so he drops to one knee wondering what might come next. “Oh you know I would, but I’m already married,” she said to him with a smile, “but that’s so sweet of you. No, just kidding. We need you on one knee because that’s how we measure the calf.” And then she drops to both knees to show the students the proper way to do the measurement.

“The calf measurement is normally for children,” she adds, “but make sure this is where you take your pinch. Also it has to be the right leg and it has to be medial. OK, that’s the nine spots. Get together with your partner and start practicing.”

As the students begin, Walton works the room.

“Yes, good, that looks great.”

“Hmmmm, I think you’re a little off there. You need the arm turned a little less and you’ll get a better reading.”

“Oh, no, I forgot to tell you, be careful when you pull the calipers back because otherwise it can really hurt.”

“That’s it, keep on practicing. That’s the only way to get better.”

Practice at the heart

Practice is a big thing for Walton. In fact it’s at the heart of her teaching philosophy, an approach to her work in and out of the classroom that this year landed her Calvin’s President Award for Exemplary Teaching, the college’s highest honor for its professors.

“For me I try to get my students every semester to think about how they practice their learning,” she said. “How they practice studying, how they practice reading, how they practice writing test questions, how they practice in the labs, practice, practice, practice.”

It’s a natural focus, said Walton, for someone with her background, a former college athlete who now works in the areas of exercise physiology and nutrition. “Practice comes naturally to me,” she said with a laugh.

But the emphasis on practice has also become more nuanced and more layered as Walton has made her own commitments to becoming a better teacher and as she has worked at better understanding the Christian practices, including the practices of prayer, worship and hospitality.

“The Christian practices,” she said, “for me have played a huge role in how I think about my teaching, and also they have surrounded and undergirded the learning practices that I have tried to model for my students. We’re educating here for a bigger purpose. It’s a big, hurting world, and we need—and God calls—our students to be at work in it.”

A big part of that preparation for Walton is helping students learn how to learn, both in the classroom and lab and in their faith journey.

“I have observed that students are often not studious and have a poor concept of what a studious life looks like,” she said. “Year in and year out, students share with me that they struggle with the discipline of discipline. They find carving out time for a sustained and faithful relationship with God very difficult. I don’t want them to just think Christianly, but to live Christianly. I believe that this attitude is crucial to a student’s ability to develop a lifelong love of learning, learning that is informed by faith.”

An educational journey

It took awhile, Walton said, for her own educational journey to embrace a love for learning and for that learning to be informed by faith.

That it ever came to be so is evidence, she said, of God’s irresistible grace and His cosmic sense of humor. Raised a Christian in Naperville, Ill., Walton’s faith in her early years was pretty hollow. Even as a high school student she went through the motions as a Christian, but faith hadn’t taken hold in any sort of life-changing fashion.

She wanted to get away after high school, so she decided to attend Colorado State with an eye toward being a veterinarian. But as a freshman she decided to try out for the CSU volleyball team, made the cut and soon found that the sport was a major impediment in terms of her studies.

“We’d often leave school in vans on a Wednesday for matches in New Mexico or Utah,” she recalled, “and get back to campus on Sunday, all of which made studying to be a vet pretty tough.” She decided to switch majors, and at one point she thought about dropping out of college to travel the country. A semesterlong program overseas in Wales (the country from which her ancestors hailed) got her back on track, interested in school again and passionate about exercise science.

After graduating from CSU she wanted to pursue a master’s in exercise science and applied to a number of schools, including Ball State University, which had one of the best programs in the country. She was accepted there and to several other places, but Ball State was closest to where her boyfriend (now husband), Mark, would be attending graduate school, so she picked Ball State (she would go on after Ball State to earn a doctoral degree in exercise physiology at Maryland).

When she arrived she discovered that the director of the program had been on sabbatical, and in his absence the person who was supposed to be coordinating grad school admissions had basically let everyone in. Walton said now that if not for that unexpected but, she believes, providential, turn of events, she would not likely have been accepted to Ball State.

“My first class there were 40 of us in a room meant for maybe eight people,” she recalled. “The director, who was back, was so angry that by the end of the night he basically told us he would see to it that two-thirds of us would be gone by Christmas. Now anyone who knows me will tell you I’m pretty competitive, so I took that as a challenge. And he was right, two-thirds of us were gone by Christmas, but I wasn’t one of them. But I have never spent so much time as I did that semester reading, writing, in discussion groups, developing relationships with my professors. Practice. I was learning how to learn, and it was a huge thing.”

At Ball State, Walton met two people who would be a huge influence on her life. The first was Leroy “Bud” Getchell, who co-founded the university’s nationally recognized human performance lab and is considered, with Kenneth Cooper, to be one of the fathers of physical fitness in the U.S.

Of Getchell, who now lives in Holland, Michigan, Walton said simply: “Everything I learned about teaching I learned from him. I thrived under his mentorship. I think when I went home the first time during a break at Ball State my parents hardly knew who I was anymore I was so happy and enthused.”

‘Real’ Christianity

The other person she “met” was C.S. Lewis. “Someone recommended I read Lewis,” she said. “I don’t even know who anymore. They probably meant I should read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or something like that, but all the Ball State bookstore had was Mere Christianity. So that’s what I bought.”

That semester in the Ball State nature preserve, under a big oak tree she named Clive, Walton read Lewis. And Christianity became real to her in a way it never had before.

“I haven’t been the same since,” she said.

Those who have worked with her and who have been her students see Walton’s faith in action in her work as a Calvin kinesiology professor.

Brian Bolt, her department chair, calls her a gem, “a tremendous asset to her students, our department, Calvin College and her professional field.”

Of his colleague of 15 years he said: “Julie can flat out teach. Her courses are developed with care and precision to prepare our students in the best way possible. She thinks about teaching, talks about teaching, attends workshops to explore teaching and analyzes her own teaching performance on a regular basis.”

Her students concur.

Zach Strong is a Calvin nursing major who also is doing a kinesiology minor with a concentration in nutrition and has had Walton for numerous classes, including exercise physiology, sports nutrition, and a class on exercise and nutrition for cancer patients.

He describes Walton’s teaching style as both unique and applicable.

“She engages the class in discussion,” he said, “asks us to bring in relevant articles on what we are learning about and encourages us to explore the philosophy of what we are learning. She encouraged all her students to explore what it means to work hard and what exactly that is going to look like in our profession.

“Professor Walton has taught me that work carries over into every facet of your life. How you clean, how you study, how you workout, how you treat yourself, how you treat others, how you prepare for that core class that you may never use in your profession.

“One of the most humbling things I will take away from Professor Walton is her idea of faith in the classroom. She taught us how to pray differently and with a new perspective. She genuinely cares about her students, and it has been a pleasure being part of her classes for the past three years.”

Enthusiastic endorsement

In supporting Walton’s nomination for the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching, Anna Hadley Faber, a former Walton advisee and an exercise science and pre-physical therapy student, wrote: “She is excellent at creating opportunities to practice what we have been learning in class. I not only acquired a knowledge of nutrition, but I also was taught how to apply what I had learned to my life. She teaches in a way that is clear. She expects the best out of her students. She is very willing to help any student who makes the effort to seek this help. Dr. Walton has been an outstanding mentor, Christian role model and teacher to me at Calvin.”

Elise Metzger Snapper graduated from Calvin in 2009 and then went on to Walton’s alma mater, Ball State, for a master’s in clinical exercise physiology. She wrote: “Dr. Walton provided me with the tools that enabled me to take a poster presentation to an American College of Sports Medicine conference. She also guided me to an internship in Chicago for exercise and rehabilitation for individuals with disabilities. This opportunity opened many doors for advanced education and a future career. I am very thankful for all the time and energy Dr. Walton put into helping me find my calling and be the person I am today.”

For her part Walton demurs. When she learned she was the 2014 recipient of Calvin’s highest teaching honor thanks to a personal visit from college president Michael Le Roy, she was first relieved, and then a different emotion replaced relief.

“You always wonder a little bit when the president calls and says he would like to stop by your office and talk,” she said with a wry smile. “I guess maybe as humans we always assume the worst. So when he told me why (he was there), I was a bit relieved. And then I was mortified. There’s so many people at Calvin deserving of this award. I kind of thought ‘Why me?’

“I never planned to be a teacher, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes as a teacher, but I guess I’ve learned a lot, too. I’m passionate about what I teach and students get that. I mean I just totally, totally believe that if you eat well and get your daily exercise we would not need half the health care we have in this country. When you eat well and exercise there are no bad side effects. So that passion drives me as a teacher. It’s a big part of why I do what I do.”

Walton also believes that Reformed faith and thinking frame the topics of exercise and health and nutrition in ways the secular world has long ignored or misunderstood.

“The fallen nature of our world, our thinking and our bodies creates a unique and important vantage point from which to begin to look at the whole world of food, embodiment, play, sport and aging as elements of creation God meant for good which we see perverted on a daily basis,” she said.

Discussing these topics at a Christian college, she adds, makes perfect sense.

“I don’t recall ever wanting to be a teacher or professor, but a writer and researcher,” she said. “I was quite happily pursuing that desire when God called me to Calvin College. It is here that we learn in community, here where we make the concerted effort to explore the meaning of grace. Most importantly, we encourage one another to view our lives as worthy of God’s calling.

“This is our greatest empowerment: that a Calvin College education is just the beginning of learning, that our gifts are God-given for His higher purposes, and that to engage in God’s wider world, we, too, must be transformed and continue in lifelong transformation by a renewal of mind, body and spirit.”

Phil de Haan is Calvin’s senior public relations specialist.