Patrick Whelan is a “front-row sitter.”
The 50-year-old social studies department head and Advanced Placement world history teacher at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School always wants to be in the midst of the action to be sure he doesn’t miss anything, says Head of School Jan Pullen.
A few years ago, Whelan was on a trip in Japan for a conference, Pullen remembers, and because of his proclivity to always sit in the front row, he began chatting with another “front-row sitter.” For the past two years, the other front-row sitter has brought students from Japan to visit Saint Stephen’s. Saint Stephen’s is planning a trip to Japan this year to complete the exchange loop.
“He just immediately will connect with people,” Pullen said.
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Whelan’s ability to connect, combined with a strong love and grasp of history, earned him the honor of being one of only three teachers across the United States featured in videos aimed at helping AP world history teachers engage their students with the material. Whelan was chosen by officials who run the curriculum and instruction departments for the Advanced Placement programs, administered to high school students hoping to earn college credit by the College Board.
Later this fall, three “modules” filmed with Whelan and 12 selected students from Saint Stephen’s will be available to help AP world history teachers across the country. Whelan has taught AP for 21 years and has worked with AP before, attending workshops and summer institutes to better both himself and fellow teachers.
“I think that teachers are by their very nature mentors, and we’re accustomed to mentoring teenagers,” Whelan said. “This is an extension, if you will, working as a mentor for other teachers.”
‘A masterful storyteller’
A Sarasota native, Whelan returned to Manatee County after completing a degree at Yale University. He landed his first job as a history teacher at Saint Stephen’s in 1988 — the same year Pullen came on board — and hasn’t left the school.
“He has found challenge and community at Saint Stephen’s for him professionally, as well as for him personally,” Pullen said. “That’s been enough to keep him here.”
A few years ago, Pullen sat in on one of Whelan’s classes, and she recalls the students were leading the conversation. Whelan started the discussion by posing a question. The first student’s answer led to another question, which was in turn answered by a different student. After the class was dismissed, Whelan showed Pullen a diagram he had made, mapping out how the class discussion moved from one student to another.
“At the end, he said, ‘I accomplished exactly what I wanted with this class because look here, there’s a line going to every child back and forth,’” Pullen said.
Whelan is good at “letting the kids behind the curtain,” to explore the “why” of history, as opposed to the “how” of history, said Bernard Yanelli, a 57-year-old in his 12th year teaching history, economics and politics at Saint Stephen’s.
“He teaches history as a series of vignettes and stories that have thematic elements that connect one civilization to another,” Yanelli said. “A particular skill he has is he’s a masterful storyteller.”
Students are always interesting in storytelling, Yanelli said, recalling instances where Whelan teaches thematic elements that jump from sub-Saharan Africa to Asia all the way over to Latin America.
“Patrick is very good at taking complicated things and making them simple,” Yanelli said.
After a few years as a teacher, Whelan began teaching the Advanced Placement courses and eventually became the department head. Pullen describes him as the “thread” that keeps all the teachers and programs connected.
‘Dynamic and well known’
The other two world history teachers are from an inner-city school in California and a large suburban high school in Texas. AP officials were looking to represent the diversity of classrooms and AP experiences from across the country when choosing locations to film, said Lawrence Charap, an AP director for curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Whelan’s original filming was supposed to take place at the end of August, but Tropical Storm Hermine had other plans. On Thursday, the camera crews returned to capture Whelan in action.
“He has an incredible reputation among AP world history teachers. He’s dynamic and well-known,” Charap said.
AP exams are scored 1 through 5, with 5 being the highest score. From 2012 to present, more than 90 percent of Saint Stephen’s students have scored a 3 or higher on all AP exams offered. Most colleges will offer students credit hours if they score a 3 or higher on an exam.
In the same time period, only about 50 percent of students taking AP courses statewide earned a 3 or higher, according to Saint Stephen’s data. The nationwide percentage of students taking AP exams and earning a 3 or higher hovers around the 60 percent mark.
AP exams include foreign languages, math, sciences and social sciences.
“It doesn’t define us,” Pullen said of the high scores, “but it helps clarify the rigor that our kids can handle.”