Watch those faces

Jeanne M. Slattery

Play-in-a-Day advert.

Play-in-a-Day advert.

I keep coming back to thinking about what makes good teaching and learning.

I recently saw Play-in-a-Day: six short plays that were written, rehearsed, and performed in less than 24 hours. This is the 13th year that the Theatre faculty and students have done this, but the first year that I’ve gone. What can you say about a night that starts out with a “reading” from Canto I of the Divine Comedy “as influenced by Samuel Beckett”― where the actor, Jack O’Keefe, moved across the stage, pulling out his copy of the Divine Comedy and…reading? Silently. To himself. The audience hooted and guffawed. They were rapt and enthusiastic. The other five plays were always short (6-10 minutes), often light, sometimes dark (the last involving a pair of  women held hostage, one for more than a year), but all wonderful.

I commented to Bob Levy (Theatre) that this was the sort of experience that makes one’s college career memorable, that students would demand this year after year. He nodded and said that each year he vows never to do this again (as one of the playwrights, he hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours), yet does. Last year he hadn’t been able to work on Play-in-a-Day, however, and Alpha Psi Omega pulled it off without him or any other faculty. They owned Play-in-a-Day and said doing it was important. I’m a people watcher and could see this excitement in the faces of those acting, writing, and directing, but also in the audience.

One of my students from last year  an English major is working on his third novel. No one was making him do this; he chose to do this because it is something he is passionate about. He was talking about becoming a psychology major because he believes he’d be more employable (while writing). I hope he stays an English major ― or at least continues writing, if that’s what makes him passionate. He enjoys psychology, but his face lights up when he talks about his writing.

Hubert Toney (center) surrounded by students singing with clasped hands.

Hubert Toney (center) surrounded by students singing with clasped hands.

Steve Johnson (Music) and Music students, preparing for the Council of Trustees meeting

Steve Johnson (Music) and Music students, preparing for the Council of Trustees meeting

Hubert Toney (Music) recently led the Wind Orchestra in his final concert before moving to Millersville. That same passionate engagement was evident in the faces of the orchestra members as they performed, as they celebrated their good work together, and said their good-byes. You could also see that same passion and commitment in their faces as they protested at a recent Council of Trustees meeting.

Light (2001) interviewed students at Harvard and 90 other schools across the country. He identified many factors that help students make the most of college. The most important include: actively engaging (in classes, extracurricular activities on campus, and the community); expending considerable time and effort to master challenging and meaningful tasks; and working closely with faculty and peers. These are all central aspects of high-impact practices (Clayton-Pederson & Kinley, 2010; Kuh, 2008). Each of these students I’ve described ― from theatre, music, and English was engaged in such high-impact practice and loving what they were doing.

We need to find ways to help students find their passion; work with them on research, plays, musical performances, writing to help them meet larger goals; and value and encourage that passion and engagement.

Engagement is difficult to create, however, especially among students who don’t understand what they’re doing and why. If it’s simply to get a job, that may not provide a strong enough “why” to continue with the difficult tasks that are part and parcel of college. Further, faculty and administrators need to think about more than just whether our students are getting jobs. Effective high-impact practices need to be tied to a vision of learning outcomes, not just employment outcomes.

Finding meaning, purpose, and value makes engagement easier. I’m not entirely sure that it matters what majors students earn, as long as they develop skills in critical thinking, writing, ethical thinking, speaking and presenting, teamwork and networking, and global understanding. The take-home message from these theatre, music, and English students is that they can develop these skills more effectively when engaged in a valued task.

We need to keep watching those faces.


Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Finley, A. (2010). What’s next? Identifying when high-impact practices are done well. In J. E. Brownell & L. E. Swaner (Eds.). Five high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter (pp. 9-11). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

Light, R. J. (2001). Making the most of college: Students speak their minds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thanks to Melissa Downes for her insightful edits and to Randy Potter for his edits of the Toney photo.

Jeanne Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

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