A conversation with David MacNeill, who teaches sixth grade English language arts at Merrimack Valley Middle School

  • David MacNeill teaches sixth grade English language arts at Merrimack Valley Middle School. David MacNeill

Monitor Staff
Published: 9/28/2020 5:15:51 PM

David MacNeill encourages students to make messes while learning, especially in writing.

MacNeill, 25, teaches sixth-grade English language arts at Merrimack Valley Middle School, where he has been for the last three years, since graduating from Plymouth State University in 2017. He also directs plays in the theater program at Merrimack Valley High School.

MacNeill has a background in musical theater – he studied it in college, before switching to education – and he likes incorporating theatrics into the classroom, whether it’s encouraging a courtroom-style classroom debate or acting out scenes from his own life to inspire writing ideas.

“Teaching isn’t just educating students on the material,” MacNeill said. “It’s allowing them to process it in their own ways and see that learning can be taught, not just through pencil and paper and book and whiteboard, but it can be taught through discussion and loud, crazy outbursts in the classroom and that kind of experiential play-based theatrical stuff.”

MacNeill, who lives with his wife in Penacook, is teaching a mix of online and small, in-person classes this year, as part of Merrimack Valley’s hybrid learning model.

MacNeill sat down with the Concord Monitor recently to discuss teaching during COVID and what inspires him as an educator. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What has been the biggest challenge of teaching during COVID?

Aside from just the constant hustle and bustle of what class I am seeing when, and what day it is and where do I post all of these assignments, my personal biggest challenge has been just making sure that the kids feel comfortable and that they know that although I see them two days a week, teachers are there to help them no matter what. What I think has been the biggest struggle is just making sure that you are available at all times but you’re also giving every kid the same level of individualized instruction or differentiated work that they need to succeed or feel comfortable here. So that has definitely proven busy and fretful, and I have probably lost sleep over that alone, but we will get through it and it is going to be great.

What’s something that inspires you as an educator?

So many people nowadays don’t get to have the ability to make an impact on someone so immediately and so quickly as simply saying “hello, good morning, you are cared for, you are safe here.” I think for me, that is the biggest thing. To know you are taking this ball of nerves and energy and this unmolded clay and watching it mold itself into something beautiful and something amazing. It really inspires me to know that day after day, after month after year, when I am old and decrepit and gray I can still smile, knowing that hopefully even just one of those kiddos remembers my name and hopefully they see that I tried to make a difference in who they are as a student, who they are as a learner and a person.

I highly suggest that anyone who is even remotely interested in education, or in getting in touch with teaching, to just reach out to old teachers that they’ve had or teacher friends that they know, just to talk about it. Because there is a lot going on, there is a lot of shifting sands that are flowing beneath every school’s feet right now and I think teachers would like to speak about it more than they get to.

How does your theater background influence your teaching?

Last year, we were doing informational writing, writing like a news journalist. I’m walking into the classroom and faking my own death after flipping over a desk and falling on newspaper and screaming out in pain that I broke my leg. It was so amazing to see that after the “method to the madness” happened, not a single sound was being made other than people scribbling down what they saw. Investigative journalism might be about what you see, but there is so much to go through and sift through, and how to choose what you want to write about. I definitely think I am a little more theatrical, a little more out there than most. I do constant accents.

Education back in the day of sitting at a desk and just meditating on the material and cramming it into your brain, it’s dead – at least to me. It’s not fun for the kids and it’s not fun for the teacher. For me at least, I like to have fun just as much as I like to learn, and as messy and gross and crazy as education and the status of learning nowadays is, I think there is that method to the madness and when you find a method that works for you – or a madness that works for you – I think that’s when true learning and the classroom culture can kind of begin.

What’s your favorite thing to teach?

I love teaching any kind of divisive kind of writing, where there is one side or another or there is some gray middle area and the students have to choose a side. It is awesome to see the discussions and the higher critical thinking that come from talking about, should phones be allowed in schools or not, and to see some of the amazing skills that come out of that. And some of the heated discussions, where you have kids yelling across one side of the room like a courtroom. I love that. Informational or opinion or bias-based writing is really fun to teach because at the end of the day, you still have to teach them that it’s an opinion, you have to back your opinion with facts.

What’s your teaching philosophy?

My philosophy is to make messes first and clean up as you go, specifically with writing. Once you make the mess, the “can” of writing or reading or literature kind of explodes out and you see what the kids grab onto, whether it’s how to write dialogue or how to create meaningful discussion questions after reading a short story. I think it’s starting big, looking at the big picture, what do we need to learn to survive? Because once you learn how to survive your writing and reading experiences, you can learn how to thrive there.

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