Perry? More Like ‘Legend’

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Perry Zanki is teaching the Krebs cycle in biology class. Students listen intently as he paces back and forth in front of the whiteboard explaining the almost instantaneous chemical reactions that take place in each individual cell in the body. Somehow the conversation leads to bees and their role in nature, sparking another intriguing conversation about science. You may or may not have had a class with Perry Zanki during your time at Friends Select, but you’ve definitely heard of him. 

Perry grew up with his brother and parents in a small town in Canada around fifty miles from Detroit. He became fascinated with nature, but the industrial land around him prevented him from fully nurturing his passion and sharing it with others. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but there were no teaching jobs where I lived,” Perry explained. Instead, he took a job in New York and eventually moved on to Episcopal Academy, a private school on the Main Line, where he taught AP Environmental Science for five years and Chemistry for twelve years.

In 2019, Perry arrived at Friends Select full of energy and prepared to teach his junior biology class, astronomy elective, and second-semester anatomy and physiology course. From explaining the Golgi apparatus to the gaseous balls of energy in outer space, his excitement was evident in every class and he quickly acquired legendary status at Friends Select. Many students could sense his radiant excitement as well: “I think Perry brings an energy to the classroom that really makes people attentive and makes them feel like they’re a part of the conversation even if they aren’t the ones speaking,” says Maia Weintraub ‘21. 

Students also appreciate his kindness in and outside of the classroom. “I think Perry is a very outgoing person who is nice,” Steffi Widdicombe ‘22 says. One time, Perry brought his biology class cupcakes on Valentine’s Day, and he often shared his favorite rap music with his students.

All was going smoothly for Perry at Friends Select until March 13, when all students, faculty, and staff were ordered to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Virtual classes, known at FSS as iSelectLearning, were first conducted on the notorious BigBlueButton, a software conference platform. Many teachers and students recognized that the platform resulted in a wide variety of sound and connectivity issues, which prompted many classes to instead use Zoom, another virtual conference platform that worked much better. At first, Perry was reluctant to transfer to Zoom because he had figured out how to use BigBlueButton well, but “with help from students and faculty, [zoom] was great and I learned a lot.” He doesn’t regret the switchover. “Zoom is awesome because of the recording aspect, and I can go into the field and record things,” he says. 

Perry didn’t let the challenges of virtual school hinder him from effectively teaching his students as much science as possible. Most days, he would sit outside of his house in the Wissahickon and teach lessons. For the biology classes’ ecology unit, he would take students out to the forest on his phone and talk extensively about the creeks and trees. He once showed them live horseshoe crabs while he was at the beach in Cape May, NJ. 

After a long quarantine and summer, Friends Select started conducting school in a hybrid model, which prompted Perry to allocate more time to plan lessons in order to fully adapt to this new challenge. Because he is a science teacher, he wanted to make sure that students would be able to participate in as many labs as possible. In his astronomy class, he is conducting a complicated rocket lab that combines concepts from chemistry and physics. Luckily, “everybody will be able to experience it,” he says, but it will feel a bit different for students who are learning from home. Perry prefers the hybrid model over the fully virtual model that Friends Select students learned through in the spring: “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really the only way to accommodate as many people as we can,” he says.

At school this year, he enjoys interacting with students and often ponders about daily life during the pandemic. He told an anecdote that many people can relate to: “I wanted to get something from Dunkin Donuts but it wasn’t a drive-through and I was like man I forgot my mask!” He also believes that “collectively students and faculty are doing pretty good,” in terms of following the social distancing and mask guidelines in school. 

Although he misses seeing all of his students at once, Perry says he has had more free time to pursue his hobbies. Perry has taken on extensive home repairs on his property. Last year he built a patio in his backyard, but the changes in winter weather damaged it. This spring and summer, he has “been trying to fix [the patio] and get it set for the winter,” but according to him, it is not quite finished. He has also painted his house and built a boardwalk in his backyard. “I’m loving fixing this stuff up because I get a lot of satisfaction in doing stuff like this,” he says excitedly. 

Perry also often plays basketball with his friends as a substitute for his beloved sport: bike polo. The sport is exactly as the name suggests: polo but on bikes. Perry founded the bike polo team at EA and brought it to Friends Select, but only had the opportunity to play a few times because the pandemic halted in-person activities. “Bike polo shut down in Canada, the United States, and around the world. It’s very social and you just can’t do that now.” He is hoping to play again when it’s safe.