24: An Unexpected Lesson

24: An Unexpected Lesson

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

An Unexpected Lesson

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.

~Mark Van Doren

Jack had the grip of a muscle man. When he shook your hand it felt like every bone inside would break. The kids knew it too, and feared for their lives when the mood struck him to give out giant bear hugs. He spent his spare time in physics class ripping apart telephone books with his bare hands. Everything about him was strong and assured. Challenging him in physics was a constant play in kinesthetic learning.

When it came to Newton’s second law, one push from Jack was all it took to get the hovercraft going at relativistic speeds, or when we karate-chopped boards, Jack led the class by breaking eight boards stacked high. Demonstrating momentum conservation was a favorite for Jack because he could crush a cinder block on my chest with a sledgehammer as I lay between beds of sharpened nails. Jack was a joy to teach because he could pretty much do anything, so I was surprised with his reaction one day when I challenged him with a lesson on pulleys.

Our topic for the week was how pulleys and ropes can be used to increase your mechanical advantage. Jack was excited because he knew it meant he would get to push and pull things. To get the point across we went outside to do a “pulley” tug of war; it was to be Jack against the entire class, with only a few pulleys to help him. The class was sure this time there was no way Jack could outgun them, but Jack rigged up his side perfectly and to their dismay he confidently won the match.

But now it was time to get to the formality of learning and to apply what we learned through written work. Each year I end the unit with a lesson that I call “Thematic Pulleys.” It is my chance to use the right and left sides of the brain together. I ask the kids to integrate art and physics into a theme using pulleys. They solve a problem of their own design, drawing it artistically on paper, yet with absolute physical accuracy. The kids come up with the most amazing drawings, some suspend spaghetti dinners with meatball pulleys on noodle ropes, or “Monopulley” game pieces with the prices of real estate representing weights, or others go for a “Beatles” theme, with records being the pulleys hanging the instruments and players of the band. The beauty of the designs are endless, entertaining and simply brilliant.

Jack sat and pondered the assignment. “Mr. Lampert,” he said, “I can’t draw.” I was somewhat taken aback; this was the kid who I thought could do anything. This was Big Jack, self assured Jack, rip-a-telephone-book-in-half Jack. But a delicate drawing was just not his cup of tea. I assured him he could do the assignment and mused to myself, “I wonder what he will do now?” I had hit a weakness inside him, and as a teacher, I was excited to see how he would respond.

The day the assignment was due there was no Jack. Everyone turned in their work except Jack. I was curious what had happened but went home that afternoon rather tired from the week and I ended up crashing solidly on the couch, fast asleep. I awoke at dusk to a “clippity-cloppity” sound approaching down the driveway. There was a loud knock at the front door. I cracked it open slightly, quite curious about the ruckus. Suddenly a horse shoved its head right into the house! I heard a “Whoa there!” from behind the horse, and there was Jack. “Hey Lampert!” he sheepishly said, “I have something to show you. I brought you a horse to ride; mine is tied up over by the basketball hoop. Come on, saddle up!”

“Okay, this is pretty cool,” I thought. I had not ridden a horse in over twenty years, so this could be fun. I got my courage up, and after Jack apologized for the mess the horse made on the driveway, we went riding a short way up the hill to his barn. As we entered, I saw hanging on the wall a whiteboard with Jack’s rudimentary drawings of pulleys, ropes and various mathematical calculations. This was a good sign. He had obviously been busy doing physics today.

We dismounted and walked to the middle of the arena. There I was impressed to see what Jack had been working on. Suspended from a high girder was a strong rope winding through several pulleys; at the end was a pallet loaded with at least four hundred pounds of hay and old tractor parts. Jack said to me “Okay, Lampert, hop on!” He explained to me how he had figured out the exact lifting force needed and then, with just one arm, Jack grinned as he pulled the entire weight and me up and down with ease. “What do you say Lampert? Is that an A?” he asked in seriousness. “Jack, that’s an A-plus!” I said proudly as he let me down.

I was quite taken aback by Jack’s work, and as I rode home I reflected on the lesson, realizing that I had learned a lot that evening. Around me was the beauty of the horses, the open fields, the red sky and the peace of the Oregon countryside. While earlier I had mused to myself about how Jack might solve his shortcomings integrating art and physics, here Jack had clearly stepped up to the challenge. He created a masterpiece that went above and beyond the requirements for the assignment. He demonstrated that students can and will solve pretty much anything you present them. Jack was strong physically, but more importantly he was strong-willed.

~Michael Lampert
2009 Oregon State Teacher of the Year
Physics teacher, grades 9-12

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