Some teachers swear that the best way to establish their authority is to avoid smiling for the first two weeks of class.

David Hall takes a very different approach with his students at North Penn High School by cracking self-deprecating jokes and pretending to be the dude who thinks he is hip but so is not.

In the classroom, Hall brings social studies alive, bypassing textbooks in favor of original sources and creating his own lesson materials. Inside and outside the classroom, he spends time getting to know students, hoping to connect with them and inspire them.

Now in his 13th year of teaching, Hall, 37, recently received a "Teacher as Hero" award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, the latest in a long string of teaching laurels. The Liberty Museum cited Hall's field trips to courtrooms and prisons in Philadelphia and his work as an adviser for the school Gay-Straight Alliance. During summer vacations, Hall does corporate training on workplace diversity issues.

Lauren Ewaniuk, 28, who graduated from North Penn in 2001, called Hall her "all-time favorite teacher by far."

"The best thing about his class was we didn't use the textbook very often," said Ewaniuk, now a teacher in Cheltenham. "He taught us in different ways. The classroom was set up as a circle - it was all class discussion. We read court cases, we did interactive things, watched videos - it was very engaging."

"He kind of raises the bar for you," Ewaniuk said. "He requires a lot of you, but you want to do good in his class. He teaches the high school level the way a college professor would teach."

At North Penn, Hall teaches Topics in American Life, a semester-long social studies class for seniors and some juniors. Its focus is law, political advocacy, criminal justice, and civil rights. Hall tailors the class each year to reflect topics in the news.

In one recent class, Hall had students argue both sides of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court ruled that members of a Kansas church were within their rights to carry antigay and antimilitary signs at soldiers' funerals.

Darren Wible, a senior, said the protesters, who carried signs with inflammatory comments including "Thank God for 9/11," were out of line.

"I just think they shouldn't be able to do that," Wible said. The funeral is "not for the public. If you don't like the way our nation is, honestly, then why are you here?

"We know we have a right to free speech," Hall gently interjected. "Do you have a right to bury a loved one in peace? One of the things that's always exciting about these cases is that in a way we're always talking about how we balance really important things."

Hall led the class through a mock trial in this case, and although all of the students believed the demonstrators were wrong, a handful volunteered to argue the other side.

Throughout the discussion, Hall nudged students to think more critically, pushing them to explain the logic behind their opinions.

While Hall aims to engage all of his students, he says he feels a special responsibility to try to reach those who are less engaged in school, oftentimes bright students who haven't been pushed very hard to excel.

Two years ago, Hall said, one of his students, a girl who had terrible grades (but an A in Hall's class) and frequently got into trouble, started staying after class to talk. They chatted about the class material, about the political messages in Dr. Seuss books, and more.

One day, Hall told the girl she should apply to college.

"I fully expected her to argue, 'I can't afford it,' " Hall recalled. "She said, 'OK, Dr. Hall.' "

"I was stunned that that was all it took for a yes," Hall recalled, adding that since then, he has suggested to several other borderline students to apply to college. "Maybe they go, maybe they don't, but they start to think about long-term goals."

The product of a working-class family himself, Hall said that growing up, "No one ever said you should go to college." His parents said he was smart enough, but didn't insist upon it, he said.

But a few teachers - one in fourth grade and several at Council Rock High School, from which he graduated - really engaged Hall intellectually and then, "it just made sense to go to college," he said. "It just seemed like something that would be fun."

Hall went from high school to community college and eventually earned his Ph.D. from Widener University.

Today, he looks for the potential in students who may just need an extra push.

"I think there's a different need that some kids have to be reached," Hall said. "Maybe I do that, maybe I don't, but I try to."