Crazy for calculus

In a low-performing, high-aspiring San Diego high school with Mexican, Somali and Asian immigrants, advanced calculus is the hot class everyone wants to take and the biggest club is an honors math fraternity. Jonathan Winn teaches at Crawford Champs High, a Gates-funded school within a school. From Voice of San Diego:

Picture Jim Carrey with a mathematics degree. Winn dons a furry hat and beats a drum to remind students of the steps in a problem. He shouts theatrically and chants questions, then shuts off the audience lights to talk about “finding the inner you.” They talk openly about masculinity and otherness in the dim theater.

“If there’s one thing I want to impart to you this year, it is that there’s an infinite amount of power inside you,” Winn declares. “This has been proven. What happens when you split an atom?”

“Nuclear bombs,” one girl answers.

“So are you saying we’re explosive?” someone jokes.

“Yes!” Winn is thrilled. “You can use this explosiveness for good or evil, for positive or negative.”

The 70-student class is structured like a college lecture class. It is open to all students who want to try.

Showing students how to separate the inner and outer parts of a complex function, Winn tells them not to let people classify them based on what’s outside.

“So in mathematics there’s also outside and inside.” He walks them through a complicated function that has two layers, one acting on the other. The internal part is called the u. “What we’re going to do today is take them apart and decide — who’s on the inside? What’s on the inside?”

. . . “It’s you! It’s u! We found u! You found u!” Winn shouts. The teens giggle. “You can’t solve a problem until you find yourself.”

“It’s hard not to get excited if he’s that excited,” Liban Dini, a Somali immigrant told reporter Emily Alpert. “Other people, they don’t think you can handle it. He says, ‘I know you can pass the test.'” He paused. “I feel like he’s just talking to me sometimes. Sometimes you feel like he’s just looking at you. The inner you.”

A colleague, Carl Munn, started the math trend at Crawford Champs by teaching fewer math topics more intensely and relating math to students’ lives. That created students who had a shot at passing AP calculus.

Winn spends up to six hours with students after school.

He and his students jointly pledge to bring “INTENSITY and DESIRE” to class, starting the year with a calculus banquet and a “circle of blessings” from parents. . . . Every student signs a contract for the class, promising to review for the exam at school on a few Saturdays.

Dini remembers being nudged to take precalculus. “I said, ‘Is it going to be hard?'” Dini recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes, of course it’s hard.’ But he encouraged me to do that. And I took that step.”

This is the first year Crawford has offered AP Calculus. It will be interesting to see how many students pass the exam to earn college credit.

Via Stemology.

About Joanne


  1. A mathematics teacher who doesn’t know the meaing of the word infiinite. This is not good.

    Note, the formula for energy contained within a mass is E=mc^2, where m is the mass, and c is the speed of light. While c is very large, and c^2 is even larger, E is only infinite if mass is infinite. My high school mathematics teacher was a good showman who most definitely did know what the meaning of the word infinite was and insisted on the rest of us learning it too.

  2. He sounds like a wonderful teacher, but I have mixed feeling about the teacher as entertainer. While I’m impressed and grateful that he’s capable of inspirering his students, it sets up a worrying dynamic. Not all teacher can or should be superhuman; being good and knowing your content should be good enough.

  3. While I agree with being a stickler for definitions, I won’t worry at all about this guy’s being a superteacher. No, we all don’t have to be–but if he legitimately gets good results, as measured by student achievement, why would we question what he does?

  4. This is an inspiring story. I’m less concerned by the fact that HE’s a wonderful entertainer than the expectation that EVERY teacher be a wonderful entertainer.

  5. And that expectation is there. And growing. And sometimes style threatens to overtake substance (not in this case, I presume, but sometimes it does)

    I have found on college campuses a lot of the highly-rated profs are the “entertainers,” even if their level of rigor is abysmally low.

    I am a decent teacher but I am NOT an entertainer and it irks me that there is an expectation on the part of some of the students that I be so.

  6. While I think teachers have a good point about being expected to entertain (as one teacher used to say- “I don’t care if you like me, I care if you learn from me.” And boy did she mean it.) But I think there’s a place to mention that you have to be interested to learn.

    I also think it might be worth pointing out that this teacher is not entirely unattractive and that may be part of his success at holding student attention.

  7. It’s simply idiocy to predicate a reform program for a nation’s schools on the idea that every classroom will have a Mr. Winn. Yet this ideal has sex appeal and many adherents. Teachers are expected to motivate the unmotivated, eliminate behavior problems single-handedly, boost rigor, and save souls –in other words, be Mr. Winns. Principals, parents, kids and teachers themselves internalize this ideal, with baleful results. To this extent, the Mr. Winns are a threat to practical education reform. On the other hand, the Mr. Winns remind us that teaching CAN be electrifying. Even average teachers can approach these heights given the right circumstances: strong administrative support with respect to discipline, and much more ample prep time during the school day to craft better lessons (sorry, but I’m not going to sacrifice six hours after school for the kids; I have laundry, exercise, a social life, etc. to attend to).

  8. The attention he receives will be resented by his coworkers.

    They will say he’s not on the same page and he will be guilty as charged,

    His time is limited.

    He sill be run off campus just as Jaime Escalante was.

    Schools punish excellence.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    It would be interesting to know if this guy has a life. Or a family.
    And, if not, how many potential teachers there are who now and in the future will lack lives and families.
    The Thernstroms, writing about this phenomenon, said you cannot build public education around the expectation that every teacher will be a charismatic, self-sacrificing martyr and genius.

  10. It’ll be even more interesting to see if, in a year or two, he’s still teaching at Crawford. Or whether his disruptive competence has no place in San Diego Unified any more then more then a couple of other, iconic, uber-teachers had the welcome mat jerked out from under them.

  11. There are different ways to engage students- we all have to find our own strengths and utilize them. Students don’t expect all teachers to ‘entertain’- but I do think they expect to be ‘stimulated and/or engaged’- and there’s MANY, MANY different ways to do that.
    It’s obvious that this man has a great understanding of what he does. He’s able to use ALL of Bloom’s Taxonomy in what he does.
    I’ve learned A LOT from watching comedians- what I would give to be able to have a discussion with Gallagher or Carlin- some of their ideas were ‘lightbulb ideas’ for me. Helped me learn to think in different ways.
    It’s all about PERSPECTIVE…. shameful to see ‘green-eyed monster’ already! (isn’t that coveting) It’s a pity to be criticized for such a wonderful talent.
    Years ago- when one-roomed schoolhouses were making way to ‘compartmentalized’ schools- I’m sure that the 1st time a ‘seasoned’ teacher heard about a teacher using a game in class- I’ll bet some of the same sentiments were spewed, “I’m not here to entertain students- if they don’t memorize their facts in my class- I’ll give them a good thrashing and then have them sit in a corner with a DUNCE hat on!”

  12. Well, if you’re a teacher, you can’t ever be good enough. That’s just a given.

    More power to the guy. It will indeed be interesting to see if he still has 70 kids in May and how many score a 3 or better. Kids who are attracted to “the show” and the popularity of it will fade out, but if it attracts kids who might not have otherwise given it a shot, then it is probably worth it.

  13. Sharnon007 It’s obvious that this man has a great understanding of what he does.

    He may have a great understanding of how to stimulate and engage students, but it’s far from obvious that he has a great understanding of maths.

    Although my first response may have been too hasty, journalists often misquote and misunderstand things.

    Darren: While I agree with being a stickler for definitions, I won’t worry at all about this guy’s being a superteacher. No, we all don’t have to be–but if he legitimately gets good results, as measured by student achievement, why would we question what he does?

    Judging by the article, he hasn’t produced any results yet.

    As to your more general point of why would we question what he does – the answer is the same as why we would question anything else, in order to improve our own knowledge. If he’s producing legitimiately great results on the end of year exam, but sets his students up to struggle later on at college then we should move on to questioning the placement exam. If he is getting great results and his students are well set up for college, then questioning can help figure out what he does that connects with other students. And questioning has also in the past uncovered cases of fraud or simply bad mistakes.

  14. Phillip Gonring says:

    More power to the guy. He sounds like the right kind of fellow to launch an AP calculus program in a school without one.


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