It's Friday. It's beautiful outside. And it's two weeks shy of the last day of school at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. By almost any measure, the elements form the recipe for classroom cacophony.

But the 11 students in Susan E. Vogel's fourth-period civics class seem oblivious to all outside distractions as they discuss opinions about Friedrich Nietzsche's theory on the relevance of one's past.

The students, all of whom were placed in the class because of poor achievement, jostle in their seats, wave pencils in the air and twist their faces trying to capture a nod from Vogel that would allow them to weigh in on the intense discussion.

"Ooh-ooh-ooh, come on Miss Vogel, let me tell you about what I think," said Warren Murphy, as he wiggled in his seat. Warren was one of several students who later groaned in disappointment when Vogel informed them that the discussion would have to come to a close. "I've never had a teacher who made me want to learn like {Vogel} does," Warren said after class. "She believes that everyone is smart in their own way. She makes you feel comfortable with yourself."

Vogel's ability to motivate students who arrive at her door with histories of poor performance and sagging self-confidence have earned her accolades in Prince George's County and throughout Maryland.

A steady stream of instructors, student teachers and parents visit Vogel's class regularly to observe her technique -- a highly personal teaching style that often includes lively classroom debate and peer tutoring.

Vogel, a social studies teacher at Northwestern for 16 years, was recently named one of 15 outstanding teachers in the Washington area to receive The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award.

Although Vogel said she always wanted to be a teacher, her path to the profession was a circuitous one.

Vogel, a native of Prince George's County, received a geography degree from Frostburg State College in 1972 and went to work as a legal secretary shortly after graduation.

"I decided to try something different when I realized that I was not going to be promoted to a lawyer's position," she said. Vogel then worked as a speaker for the Better Business Bureau for two years before a friend called to tell her about a teaching position at Northwestern.

"I interviewed on a Monday, got the job on a Tuesday and my life has been like a dream ever since," she recalled.

"I love to teach kids," Vogel said. "There is nothing like being able to see that spark, that light in a student's eyes when they figure something out or learn something new. It's got to be one of the most rewarding things in life."

Vogel worked with the school's talented and gifted students for a time but decided to switch departments and work with Northwestern's Project Success, a specialized curriculum for children with academic or social problems that place them a few steps behind their peers.

The program includes smaller classes and counseling programs, and provides teachers with greater latitude in developing lessons tailored to their students' needs.

In Vogel's class, that often means taking time out to talk about social and emotional issues and focusing on strategies to bolster student esteem.

Vogel's students often begin class by reciting her so-called bible for behavior, a list of classroom commandments to "speak clearly, give others respect and don't interrupt," among other things.

When Vogel's class discussed Nietzsche's theory on the relevance of one's past, a student added one of his own commandments to the list: "Make sure you never forget us 'cause I know we will never forget you."