From a South Memphis classroom to Oxford

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From a South Memphis classroom to Oxford

Jack Replinger is a current 2020-2021 Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA. He was a Teach For America alum and taught in inner-city Memphis, Tennessee, USA for 13 years. He is the founder of Positive Physics, an online learning platform designed to make physics accessible to students of all backgrounds.

In December 2008, I stood in front of a class of students struggling through the semester exam I had placed in front of them. After graduating from college, I had been accepted as a corps member with Teach for America, a program designed to “confront educational inequity by recruiting teachers to commit to teaching for two years in a low-income community, where they’re employed by local schools and confront both the challenges and joys of expanding opportunities for kids.”

I had chosen to teach physics at an inner-city high school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee. I was so excited to teach my students to love science and open the doors to STEM careers, but the grades on the exams and the looks on my students faces showed me that I had failed. The majority of students were grade-levels behind in math, reading, and problem-solving, and even worse, they lacked academic confidence. The problems we had worked through together in class seemed overwhelming to them when presented on the test. It was one of the lowest moments of my teaching career.

However, what I did not see at that moment, was that this was really an opportunity. In reality, it was a chance to create a different way to teach physics, to change my classroom, and even to change classrooms all over the world where similar problems existed and even the start of my journey to Oxford.

After winter break, I started over. I began breaking the material into “building blocks,” ensuring that students mastered each step before putting them together to understand the process of solving traditionally presented problems. The change in my classroom was remarkable: my students’ confidence and grades increased dramatically.

After seeing the success of my students, I decided I needed to take the next step and transform my materials into an online platform to enable students to get instant feedback and make curriculum available to other teachers and their students. At first, everyone I spoke to said that I could not make this happen without a large team and significant financial resources. However, after a pick-up basketball game, I happened to share my story with a friend, a talented software developer, and he said he believed we could make this happen ourselves. Less than three months later, my students were using the first version of Positive Physics to help them become confident learners who are excited to show their mastery of the new skills they are learning.

During the 2018-2019 school year, we launched a free pilot with other schools and were thrilled to have 2,000 students using the site each week. Last year, knowing we needed to generate revenue to sustain the site, we nervously started charging modest subscription fees, but actually saw our daily active users double to 4,000 students per week. And this year, due to the increase in remote learning, usage exploded over 16,000 students per week.

However, I am not satisfied. I know that there are so many more students that I can reach with Positive Physics. And perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that to reach our most vulnerable students, we need to scale what the work of the some of the amazing educators. We have ambitious plans to transform our platform into an online marketplace where teachers of any subject, especially those who work with under-served students, can create and share their own interactive content.

To make this possible, I know that I need to sharpen my business skills and I am so thankful to have the opportunity to do so at Oxford. Although I am starting remotely, I am already learning so much in my classes (despite the fact that they often take place at 2am local time!), getting to know the other amazing Skoll Scholars and my MBA classmates and making valuable connections through members of the Skoll network, who are always so eager to help.

I can’t wait to come to Oxford in January.

The Skoll Scholarship is a fully funded competitive scholarship for incoming MBA students to Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, who pursue entrepreneurial solutions for urgent social and environmental challenges. Find out more and apply for the next Oxford MBA cohort today.