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Listen to the students in Wendell Worley’s class and you hear 26 voices committed to learning as they respond in unison.

Worley, a slight man with touches of gray scattered through his beard, calls the students to order as he shuts the door, and on his command they begin reciting constitutional amendments with the precision of a drill team.

It’s a rhythm filled not just with facts but with passion and purpose—Worley’s passion for the subject and his students’ desire to gain college credit from the U.S. history AP exam.

AP stands for Advanced Placement, a program of rigorous classes offered across the nation to high school students. Administered by the national College Board—the same folks who offer the SAT exam—students can earn college credit if they score well on end-of-year exams. The exams for one class last for several hours, and a score of 3, 4, or 5—the highest score—can earn students college credit at schools across the country.

And Worley has gained a reputation for helping many of his students add the U.S. history credit to their transcript. According to the College Board AP report, about 10 percent of Kentucky’s high school students scored at least a 3 on an AP exam in 2008.

AP subjects range from art history and biology to English, French, and environmental science, but U.S. history is the most popular AP exam in Kentucky. In 2008, there were 3,756 Kentucky students who took the U.S. history test and 39% earned a 3 or higher.

For Worley’s students, mainly high school juniors, that percentage is much higher, usually around 95%, according to South Laurel Guidance Counselor Debbie Felts.

Worley taught the first AP class at South Laurel High (then called Laurel County High School) just over 20 years ago. It was U.S. history, one of his favorite subjects. Over the years, he has developed a regimen of teaching techniques that combine memorization and what he calls “discipline of the mind” to help students associate the people, places, and policies of our nation’s past so they can score well on the AP exams.

His class has many incarnations throughout the year. It’s date drills, sample tests, student coaching, and even before and after school sessions that go beyond the regular classroom work. It’s hard, it’s time-consuming, and students love it.

Felts calls Worley “a real motivator. He allows the students to see success in themselves, and they don’t want to disappoint him,” she says, adding that his teaching style also helps his students prepare for the ACT exam, which is used as an entrance test by most colleges in Kentucky. They not only do well on the AP test, but also tend to get high scores on the ACT.

In April, the class was reciting the presidents in order, including their party affiliation and the year they were elected, with no notes and their books closed. When one student called out, “Jimmy Carter, Republican,” Worley falls to his knees, grabs his head between his hands, and moans a drawn out “Ohhh” to punctuate the error.

“I love memory work,” Worley says of the lists and dates his students recite. “I think true memorization is learning, and one of the things that disappoints me about education is we memorize something and then throw it away.”

As the year progresses, the students begin to put the lists of facts, dates, policies, and presidents together in the form of outlines that eventually fill notebooks and become study guides.

“They have to know how to answer the question and every part of the question,” Worley says, as he goes over an example, “Evaluate how successful one of the following presidents was in regard to both domestic and foreign policies: A. William Henry Harrison, B. Gerald Ford, C. Woodrow Wilson.”

So where to begin when answering a question on domestic and foreign policy?

A patented Worley technique for such essay questions involves using a mnemonic (a memory or learning aid) such as P.I.E.W.R.I.T.E., which stands for presidents, immigration, elections, wars, religion, Indians, transportation, and education. He also teaches them how to outline historical periods, like the Korean War, to organize the facts and dates into a structured guide for the essay. Pack most of those points into your answer and it’s almost guaranteed to earn a respectable score from the College Board.

When Worley asks his students to repeat the mnemonic during an April class, Johnathan McClure hesitates. Worley stops the class from finishing the list, points to McClure, and says, “You’re hesitating. Why are you hesitating? You can’t do that on the exam. Now you’re gonna lead us through this, my man…Let’s go again.”

As McClure leads his classmates through the P.I.E.W.R.I.T.E. mnemonic one more time—without hesitation—Worley flashes a warm smile when they finish and points to McClure, “Good job, my man.”

Worley says the mnemonic devices aren’t just another memorization technique. They help the students pack the right information into the answers on the AP exam. “It helps them make the essay long,” he explains. “You want a full tank of gas and you want high quality.”

But Worley’s classes don’t always dwell on the past. A discussion topic this spring was the upcoming climate change legislation and a look at the proposed cap and trade system of carbon reduction included in the bill. Like all major legislation, in a few years it will be in the history books.

At 46, Worley has been teaching for 25 years. He earned degrees from Sue Bennett College in London, Cumberland College in Williamsburg, and Union College in Barbourville. He credits his own high school teachers with guiding him to the classroom for a career. “I liked high school a lot,” Worley says as his students write a practice essay. “I had some really good teachers in high school who changed my outlook on life, and a lot of it had to do with the impact of those teachers. I wanted to try and do the same.”

And he also has an impact on the students who leave high school and go on to college.

Michelle Combs, who graduated from South Laurel in 2006, says she still hears Worley’s advice, “Start broad and tree down,” every time she writes an essay for one of her classes at the University of Kentucky.

“His study techniques—saying things out loud and repeating them—still help me when I have to memorize a lot of information,” she adds.

And while the study skills may carry on through college and beyond, there is a more immediate result of completing a Wendell Worley class.

McClure, who took the U.S. history exam in May, is confident he will get a 3 when he gets his results this summer, and maybe even a 4.

“Worley was like, success or nothing,” McClure says as if talking about a drill sergeant who had guided him through boot camp. “He wouldn’t accept anything but 100%. He’s amazing.”


South Laurel High School is one of 27 schools across Kentucky participating in a program designed to increase the number of students who score a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

AdvanceKY is an initiative of Kentucky Science & Technology Corporation, and targets AP classes in math, science, and English.

AdvanceKY is patterned after a program by Advanced Placement Strategies Inc. (APS) of Texas. Schools who participated in the program saw the number of students earning 3 or higher on AP English exams triple, those scoring 3 or higher on AP math exams quadruple, and the number of students scoring 3 or higher on AP science exams increase five-fold.

AdvanceKY is designed to provide both teacher and student training and incentives to raise the exam scores.

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Students don’t necessarily have to take an Advanced Placement class at their local high school. To learn more about how to take AP classes online, go to Online Advanced Placement Courses.

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