Teaching to the Testers 

Local teacher has education down to a science.

Angel Perkins has been teaching chemistry and biology to high school students for 18 years. But in the past two years, she's found herself working with a different group of students: other teachers.

"It all started with a colleague of mine. I thought he was an excellent teacher, but he was having problems passing the teacher's exam," she says.

After watching him struggle, she asked him if he wanted a tutor.

"He was very resistant to it at first," she says. "People think they should know the material and be able to pass the test." He relented and passed the exam shortly after they started working together. After that, she says, word just got around.

Since then, she's credited with helping 50 teachers pass the Praxis exam, an assessment used by many states in their teaching certification and licensing, and she's been hired by the University of Memphis' Transition to Teaching program, a course that prepares people who have worked in other fields to teach.

The White Station AP biology teacher has also been named to the U.S. Department of Education's Teacher Training Corps, spending last summer traveling to places all over the country -- Boston, Seattle, and Santa Clara, California -- to work with other educators. She also is the only teacher on the Department of Education's national No Child Left Behind panel.

Perkins credits most of her successes to her technique of framing lessons around a story, learned from older relatives in rural Mississippi.

"A lot of them couldn't read or write. You had to be very verbal with them and very expressive," she says. "It's a lot easier to learn and retain information if you can connect it to something."

For instance, with her students in Memphis, she compares cellular functions to those of FedEx. Each FedEx department -- the organelles, if you will -- have a role to play within the organization, or the cell.

Of course, not all her audiences are as familiar with FedEx as Memphians, so she employs a variety of anecdotes, mnemonic devices, and analogical reasoning, as well.

When Perkins talks about photosynthesis, she compares it to a person converting their gold to cash.

"It tends to make more sense, because it's so abstract. The kids are like, Why, why, why?" she says. "If they're in possession of gold, they know it's something of value, but they need to convert it to paper money to be able to spend it."

One of the teachers who learned Perkins' technique over the summer has already employed it with success -- his students are averaging almost 30 percent higher on his tests -- and Perkins is working on a biology supplement that other teachers could use to accompany their lessons.

As for teaching students versus teaching educators, Perkins says it's a little different, but not in the way you might think. With her adolescent students, she knows what they should know. With other teachers, she has no idea.

"I have to be sensitive to the fact that I have a mixed bag of people," she says. "Some just need a refresher. Others are missing the foundation. I kind of assess it as we go along."

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