Top Teacher: How a Saint Viator teacher connects literary classics with current events
In Megan O'Neill's English classes at Saint Viator High School, students are just as likely to study classics like "The Scarlet Letter" as they are Amanda Gorman's "The Hill We Climb."
It's where she weaves in the past with the present, and no daily lesson plan is ever the same.
"I think there's always lessons that can be learned from these classics, as long as you're keeping current events in mind," said O'Neill, who started a Literary Heroines course at the Arlington Heights Catholic high school in the fall. "If you just keep those books in the 1920s or 1600s, I don't think students are going to get as much out of it. But if you're bringing those events from those historical time periods and the values of those time periods, and comparing and contrasting them to present day and what students are actually going through today, that's what brings more merit."
"If they're just locked up in that time period from when they're written in, that's when they get dry and stale."
Nearly a year since the outbreak of COVID-19, O'Neill and her students have had a lot to talk about, from the global pandemic to social justice protests and civil unrest, and from the insurrection to inauguration at the Capitol.
During a recent class, students were reflecting on the latest poem by Gorman, the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate whose message of unity during the inauguration was followed by a tribute to essential workers during the Super Bowl broadcast.
"I know a lot of you moan and groan when your teacher says, 'Read poetry,'" O'Neill told the class of juniors and seniors. "But (Gorman's) not much older than you in making poetry mainstream."
O'Neill's classes are a constant juxtaposition of new and old. They started the semester reading about Hester Prynne's struggle in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 classic set in Puritan, colonial Massachusetts. They'll end with Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel "The Handmaid's Tale," which was made into the popular TV series.
Last semester, after the death of George Floyd, students read "The Hate U Give," Angie Thomas' 2017 novel centered on the police shooting of a childhood friend. They also read Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 coming-of-age tale "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
As a way to launch into daily class discussions, O'Neill has her students journal about something going on in the news or in their lives, to build connections with the literature they're reading. She'll also pass out newspaper articles and show TED Talks, or, as in the day after the Super Bowl, an interview with the youth poet Gorman on "The Daily Show."
"It's not like, 'Oh, this was what I was doing Feb. 8, 2019, so it needs to be what I'm doing Feb. 8, 2021. That's definitely not the way I look at things," O'Neill said. "I feel like if my lessons are too much like the one I did before, there's something I'm not trying hard enough at, or there's going to be something missing."
High school students in 2021 may find it difficult to connect the stories of the past to their lives today. But Saint Viator senior Stephanie Russo said she's been able to, after taking O'Neill's classes.
Russo said she finds "The Scarlet Letter" to be a great story for people who feel lonely -- a common occurrence amid the stay-at-home orders in 2020.
And after reading "The Hate U Give," Russo helped organize a racial justice demonstration outside the school.
"So much is going on around me today that there is always something to connect my life to the story," Russo said.
Students like Russo also say O'Neill is especially caring and supportive, getting to know students beyond the classroom.
O'Neill gives students biweekly surveys that gauge not only their views of class sessions, but how high school life is going in general. She's also known to show up during their extracurricular activities, including athletic competitions and choir performances.
And, as moderator of the LINK Crew, a program that connects freshmen with upper class mentors, it's another way she helps promote a sense of family and community at the school.
At 27, it wasn't that long ago that O'Neill was a Saint Viator student herself, and she said she knew when she was graduating that she wanted to return as a teacher.
The Viatorian spirit runs through her family. Her dad went there, her mom went to Sacred Heart of Mary (which merged with Viator), and so did a bevy of uncles, aunts, cousins and a sister.
"That's why I came back here specifically was because of the great interpersonal relationships I had with the teachers, staff, coaches and special activities directors," O'Neill said. "And that's something that I think even aside from the (classroom) content is my favorite part about teaching here."
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Residence: Arlington Heights
Occupation: English teacher at Saint Viator High School
Education: Bachelor of Arts in Secondary English Education from Elmhurst College
Activities: LINK Crew student mentorship group moderator
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Tips from a top teacher
• Always get to know your students. Not only understand their learning needs, but also their interests, goals, activities, likes, and dislikes. This will help you create lessons that engage and excite them, but also build vital interpersonal connections between you and your students.
• Never let a student leave your class saying, "I'm never going to use this in the real world." Plan lessons and incorporate content that relates to the "real world." This may be comparing and contrasting a canonical text to current events, a mathematical formula to a real world application, or a science concept to issues facing our health or environment.
• Invest your time and yourself in your students and they will invest their time and themselves into their learning. If you feel like a lesson is dull or boring, so will your students. If your energy level is low, so will the energy level of your students. Create an environment that makes students want to "buy in" to their learning. This may be through an escape room, a virtual field trip, or a collaborative activity. Engaged students will perform better academically, socially, and emotionally.
• Checking in with your students is so important, even when we're online! Take time to see how your students are feeling about your class, their other courses, extracurricular activities, family and friends, etc. Issues outside of school often impact your students' performance in the classroom. Knowledge is power!
• On both good days and bad days, reflect upon what inspires you to be a teacher.