Being a Physics Teacher and Father: The Story of Jeffrey Wright

The following article and YouTube selection comes from a story written by Tara Pope published in the New York Times, December 24, 2012. It is an uncommon story of a gifted teacher whose life story becomes part of the physics lessons that he teaches. I saw this story on Joanne Jacob’s blog, “Linking and Thinking on Education” (http://www.joannejacobs.com/)

Jeffrey Wright is well known around his high school in Louisville, Ky., for his antics as a physics teacher, which include exploding pumpkins, hovercraft and a scary experiment that involves a bed of nails, a cinder block and a sledgehammer.

But it is a simple lecture — one without props or fireballs — that leaves the greatest impression on his students each year. The talk is about Mr. Wright’s son and the meaning of life, love and family.

It has become an annual event at Louisville Male Traditional High School (now coed, despite its name), and it has been captured in a short documentary, “Wright’s Law,” which recently won a gold medal in multimedia in the national College Photographer of the Year competition, run by the University of Missouri.

The filmmaker, Zack Conkle, 22, a photojournalism graduate of Western Kentucky University and a former student of Mr. Wright’s, said he made the film because he would get frustrated trying to describe Mr. Wright’s teaching style. “I wanted to show people this guy is crazy and really amazing,” Mr. Conkle said in an interview.

The beginning of the film shows Mr. Wright, now 45, at his wackiest. A veteran of 23 years teaching, he does odd experiments involving air pressure and fiery chemicals — and one in which he lies on a bed of nails with a cinder block on his chest. A student takes a sledgehammer and swings, shattering the block and teaching a physics lesson about force and energy.

But each year, Mr. Wright gives a lecture on his experiences as a parent of a child with special needs. His son, Adam, now 12, has a rare disorder called Joubert syndrome, in which the part of the brain related to balance and movement fails to develop properly. Visually impaired and unable to control his movements, Adam breathes rapidly and doesn’t speak.

Mr. Wright said he decided to share his son’s story when his physics lessons led students to start asking him “the big questions.”

“When you start talking about physics, you start to wonder, ‘What is the purpose of it all?’ ” he said in an interview. “Kids started coming to me and asking me those ultimate questions. I wanted them to look at their life in a little different way — as opposed to just through the laws of physics — and give themselves more purpose in life.”

Mr. Wright starts his lecture by talking about the hopes and dreams he had for Adam and his daughter, Abbie, now 15. He recalls the day Adam was born, and the sadness he felt when he learned of his condition.

“All those dreams about ever watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away,” he tells the class. “The whole thing about where the universe came from? I didn’t care. … I started asking myself, what was the point of it?”

All that changed one day when Mr. Wright saw Abbie, about 4 at the time, playing with dolls on the floor next to Adam. At that moment he realized that his son could see and play — that the little boy had an inner life. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”

In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “There is nothing more incredible than the day you see this,” he says, and continues: “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”

As the students file out of class, some wipe away tears and hug their teacher.

Mr. Wright says it can be emotionally draining to share his story with his class. But that is part of his role as a physics teacher.

“When you look at physics, it’s all about laws and how the world works,” he told me. “But if you don’t tie those laws into a much bigger purpose, the purpose in your heart, then they are going to sit there and ask the question ‘Who cares?’

“Kids are very spiritual — they want a bigger purpose. I think that’s where this story gives them something to think about.”

Mr. Wright says the lecture has one other purpose: to inspire students to pursue careers in science and genetic research.

“That’s where I find hope in my students,” he said. “Maybe if I can instill a little inspiration to my students to go into these fields, who knows? We might be able to come up with something we can use to help Adam out one day.”

If you wish to see the YouTube 12 minute excerpt from the documentary on Jeffrey Wright, it is at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbMH3XtAMqg&feature=player_embedded

About these ads

20 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

20 responses to “Being a Physics Teacher and Father: The Story of Jeffrey Wright

  1. Pingback: Being a Physics Teacher and Father: The Story of Jeffrey Wright by @larrycuban | Web 2.0 for juandoming | Scoop.it

  2. Pingback: Being a Physics Teacher and Father: The Story of Jeffrey Wright by @larrycuban | Language Learning and associated trend | Scoop.it

  3. Thanks for posting this,Larry. There are some truly amazing people in this world and it’s nice to be reminded of this.

  4. Reblogged this on David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Texas Education and commented:
    This a a must read and watch the video.

  5. Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    Every teacher should take a few minutes this post and the underlying posts the Larry Cuban refers to and, then, take a few minutes to watch the video. It is what we should take stock of each day. What do I do this for?

  6. Thank you for telling this very touching story. Made me shed a tear, too. :)

  7. I’m not a teacher, but to know that such goodness exists is utterly inspiring

  8. Thank-you! You are cool.

    Also – Kids want to know if Love is going to ACT.

  9. Thanks Larry, solid gold. As a parent and sibling of individuals with special needs, as a new teacher, I’m humbled, challenged and inspired by folks like Jeffrey Wright. Happy New Year! Shared on my Facebook http://www.facebook.com/johnweis

  10. Wonderful! Thank you for sharing this remarkable story and post.
    Russ

  11. Pingback: Wright’s Law

  12. Tammy Sierman

    This is awesome. I would love to share the video to my students. However we are not allow to use you tube. How else can I show it?

    • larrycuban

      I do not have a useful suggestions for you, Tammy, other than showing it after school for those teachers and students who want to see it.

  13. Lance

    We really should strive to find more people like Mr Wright to be in charge of teaching our young people. What an amazing story. I wonder what kind of music his son likes, I’d love to send him some crappy grunge music if he’d like to hear some :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s