Virginia Crespo was named Anne Arundel County's Teacher of the Year for just this sort of thing:
It's a hot June day, and you'd expect a class of juniors to be weary of U.S. history class. Instead, a pack of Broadneck High School teen-agers are up in arms over the prospect of Ross Perot as the next president.
Julie DeMoyer has her feet on the rungs of her desk and her voice raised. Chris Loser is declaiming about how Perot might deal with Congress.
Everyone in the classroom talks at once, and Crespo sorts through the verbal melee to help the students connect current events to U.S. political history.
"Why are so many people supporting him?" asks a young woman.
Crespo: "Why do you think?"
She pauses, looks at the class. "Remember, it hasn't always been just Democrats and Republicans. We've had Whigs and others. There's an important role for third-party candidates in our system. Can you give me examples?"
One of 16 nominees for the county title of Teacher of the Year, Crespo was nominated by the Human Relations Committee of Broadneck High School, with endorsements from colleagues and students. She was then chosen by a countywide selection committee.
Says Broadneck High Principal Larry Knight, "She's always challenging her students in their assignments or classroom discussions to keep up with what's going on. She works successfully both with higher-level classes and with our co-teaching program," which involves teaching citizenship classes to special-education students.
Certainly, Crespo keeps the atmosphere lively, from a humorous critique of President Bush's environmental policy to a pep talk about the importance of voting.
"The most important task teachers face is to teach students how to think and how to care," she says later. "If we can raise thinking, compassionate individuals, they will be able to solve the problems we face and that they will face."
When school ends this year, Crespo will have taught social studies for 24 years, eight of them at Broadneck High. The county native has wanted to be a teacher ever since fifth grade, when she was inspired by teacher Evelyn Peters, she explains.
"She was so wonderful," says Crespo, 45, who graduated from Severna Park High and earned her college degree in political science and history from Towson State University.
"What makes it more special is that after all this time, I still enjoy what I do," she adds. "I'm fortunate."
Equally fortunate, say those who know her, are Crespo's students. She teaches an International Studies honors class, upper and lower levels of U.S. history, a Maryland history class and the citizenship remediation class.
Students are unanimous in their praise of Crespo, whom they characterize as "cool." Says Loser, "She explains things to me, stuff about politics. We pay as much attention to history happening now as ancient history."
Adds Andria Chaney, "She makes it real life, so you understand it."
For example, Crespo asks each of her Maryland history students to select and track a bill in the state legislature.
She recently organized Broadneck's Foreign Affairs Conference, which invites guest speakers, such as college professors and senators, to discuss a topic. Students from every high school in the county are invited to take part in the one-day event.
Last year, Crespo introduced a new element to the course called the ICONS project, a computer simulation program run through the University of Maryland. Each class represented a country, and using computers and telecommunications systems, the students joined teen-agers elsewhere to talk about issues such as world debt.
Crespo was honored this week as the representative of county teachers at a reception at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis. State semifinalists will be selected in July, and the Maryland Teacher of the Year will be announced Sept. 25. Maryland's choice will be a candidate for National Teacher of the Year.
The Maryland program is sponsored by the Maryland Department of Education and the Maryland Chamber Foundation Inc., in cooperation with Maryland Public Television and WJZ-TV Channel 13. The national program is sponsored by the National Council of Chief State School Officers and Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.
Crespo says she accepts the honor on behalf of every dedicated county teacher. Nowadays, many people decry the state of public education, she says, but it used to be worse.
"I began teaching in 1968, and the environment was much more difficult then than now," she says. "I was actually assaulted back in those days. The whole society was in turmoil. I think students today are better educated and know more than I did when I was in high school."
Public schools are doing a good job, she concludes. "There are major challenges facing us, but we're doing it. [A healthy educational process] is happening every day in lots of classrooms."