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Masterful Teacher: How Calculus Became the Most Popular Class on Campus

Ken Ellis

Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
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Masterful Teacher: How Calculus Became the Most Popular Class on Campus (Transcript)

Jonathan Winn: You ready?

Student: Yes.

Everybody: Jets!

Jonathan Winn: Was that our best one?

Everybody: Yes!

Jonathan Winn: Really? Okay, I thought it was pretty good. Seven easy steps. Step by step goes the marching band. Dang it, I keep putting that down.

Student: Here.

Jonathan Winn: Here. Step one, you already know it.

Everybody: Write what you know.

Jonathan Winn: Write what you know. The student body definitely is low income. Ninety five percent of the students here qualify for free or reduced lunch. They represent what the world is really like, the diversity of the world. Not only the world, but the future of the world. The world is mixing together.

Carl Munn: What do we do with the variable?

Carl Munn: So is this gonna be x squared?

Everybody: No.

Carl Munn: No.

Jonathan Winn: I got involved in this school a few years ago because I noticed some really powerful instruction that was happening in the algebra class.

Carl Munn: This is where students, they either get this stuff right now and they get confident with it, or they don't really spend-- take the time to get really good at this, and then they don't like math. They get frustrated. They stop coming to school.

Jonathan Winn: Yeah, I basically copied everything Mr. Munn does from his curriculum planning to his instructional strategies and infuse some of my own things and took some things from a number of other great teachers that I had encountered and observed, and I'm just using them. They're just things that work.

Carl Munn: We're gonna spend a lotta time with this and make sure that everyone really gets this before you—

You know, what used to happen here was my kids would get a pretty experience in my class and then they'd move on to the next coupla classes and it just-- it was like they just went right back off the cliff.

Perfect, perfect, perfect.

And having John here now, it's like I know, once they're done in this room, you know, they're going to end up in his intermediate and pre cal class. And we have this now Capstone calculus course which is just generating so much excitement, and it's the most popular class.

Jonathan Winn: It's a big old fraction. Okay, so you're gonna start with a quotient--

What you see up here on the stage is just a mix of techniques, all proven techniques.

How's that one go?

Jonathan Winn: No, no, no, no.

I want them yelling things out loud and I wanna go outside and hear it, so that other people on campus can hear it, just get it shaken up a little bit.

How's that one go

Jonathan Winn: Thank you.

When it comes to specific techniques to meet the needs of let's say English learners, there's some specific things that, you know, color coordination, that type of thing.

First is F. Oh, wrong color. F doesn't change.

There's this girl, Sokna and she said to me 'Mr. Winn, I don't understand anything you're saying in class, but I watch what's going on on the board, and that's how I learn it.' And she's a top student.

So now we know what it is. Now let's make sure we can use it.

Sokna: Mr. Winn, he is easy for me to understand what he try to tell, but actually, I didn't really pay attention to him, but I just look at how he did on the problem and then I just copy it and then I try to do it and I get right.

Jonathan Winn: It's kind of like a little calculus jingle, low di high minus high di low, all over low low.

The stuff that we do in here, whether it's a skit, whether it’s a marching band problem, whether it's some kinda interactive thing or hands on thing, it may or may not help that much with understanding the topic, but I think it makes class fun.

Woman: Gottfried. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, where are you, son?

Jonathan Winn: All over H.

I saw this little thing about Leibniz in 1675 on vacation in Paris. I thought it was hilarious that he was doing calculus in Paris, on vacation, which is, strangely enough, I've done that plenty of times on vacation, doing calculus. And so I called Becky up, say, 'You got a wig? You got a puffy shirt? Let's do this.'

Woman: You, ever since your father died when you were six, you doing the things with the numbers all the time on the pieces of paper.

Jonathan Winn: Oh mother, be quiet.

Woman: Oh, please, please--

Jonathan Winn: For a student to come to a class and to always feel like something like that could happen. I feel like that's the type of thing that may encourage a student to sort of be on the edge of their seat. And that's how I want them. I want them, the second they walk in, ready to go. On the edge of their seat the whole time. Bell rings, that's when you stop working.

When a group of people, 100 people out there, you, are all doing something, it doesn't even matter what, but if we're doing it at the same time, like reading off low di high minus high di low over low, low, saying that together is a way to practice our strengths.

Erica: My definition of a teacher is just, teaching the lesson and making sure that your students understand the materials that are taught. But sometime he stayed here with us until seven or eight o'clock at night, doing math, and I think that's an amazing thing.

Everybody: Crawford!

Jonathan Winn: Nice.

In a lotta ways, I use the ocean as kinda like a way to like just wash off the day, you know, like wash off the costume. I take off my tie. You know, I'm taking off the hat. Mr. Winn hat is being hung up for the day. Put that costume in the closet and, you know, it's back to John. And so for me, it's really important to have some little ritual that gets performed at the end of every professional day. Being out in the water tends to be a really important experience for me on a regular basis. Being on the edge of that wave, being on the edge of, you know, potentially falling off and getting crunched-- and I've been out there where I've taken a bad fall and being in a really tough situation, underwater and having to basically figure it out in that moment, and almost like a-- kind of like a life or death situation. And I don't think calculus is life or death for the students, but I do think that when you're faced with a really tough problem, you either have the skills and the capacity to rise up, or you don't. And I believe that the key is self belief.

What do we know?

Jonathan Winn: Okay, we know a whole bunch of stuff. We'd better do them one at a time. Just put up a hand. Right there, what's something you know?

For me, it's really important to have consistency, and really setting the tone that instructional minutes are valuable, and we're not going to waste a single one. This is serious business. And they're getting that homework done and they're working hard in class and they're asking questions. Why? Because this is serious business, and it makes the teaching day wonderful.

Finish solving this system with substitution and take a look up here at what I have and make sure you have the same thing. Go.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Producer:

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew:

  • Jeff Freeman
  • Rebecca Usnik

Additional Camera:

  • Doug Keely
  • Ken Ellis

Video Programming Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

It's a few minutes after 7 a.m. on a drizzly Friday morning and math teacher Jonathan Winn is standing just outside his first period classroom yelling at the top of his lungs, his voice reverberating across campus. "How does that go?!" He's not so much yelling at his students as yelling for them, exhorting them to shout out the answer to a complex calculus problem, in unison. A few minutes later, Winn is dressed in a wig and a white ruffled shirt, playing 18th-century mathematician Gottfried Leibniz doing calculus in Paris. Later in the 90-minute class, he puts on a drum major's hat and exchanges drum beats and claps with his students, to get them to feel the power of their unity.

This is how they roll in Winn's AP calculus class on the campus of Crawford High Educational Complex in San Diego, California. Teaching the most popular class on campus, Winn fills every one of the 100 seats in the school's theater -- and there's a waiting list to get into his class. One in ten of the students are native English speakers and 95 percent of them receive free or reduced lunch. While Winn's extracurricular antics are entertaining, he says they are part of a collection of proven techniques to get the most from his students. And according to Winn, they are beginning to see results: About 80% of seniors who have gone through the Crawford's math program curriculum have received at least one acceptance letter to a four-year university.

Winn has also just been voted San Diego Unified School District's High School Teacher of the Year. Winn has developed a high voltage classroom atmosphere that has done what some would say is impossible: he's inspired high school students to get excited about math.

Winn says his success in the classroom didn't come easily. "In my first teaching assignment, I was way overwhelmed. I quit after two years, cleaned out my retirement account and I went to Thailand for like three or four months and taught English over there and thought I was never coming back." But he did return to San Diego, and that's when he started observing several master teachers. He was especially impressed by the work of Crawford's 9th grade algebra teacher Carl Munn, who insists that every student can succeed at math in high school. Winn joined the school in 2007. And after observing one of Winn's lectures, veteran teacher Becky Breedlove came out of retirement to volunteer in his classroom. She thought, "how does a guy plan, prepare, and deliver these amazing lessons for more than 100 students and keep up with the paperwork? I said I'd help with the paperwork part and I ended up staying and coming every single day."

Winn has helped raise money to bus students to testing centers for their AP and SAT exams, and helped jump start a popular math club. While he occasionally works with students into the night and on weekends at school, he also makes time for his personal passion, surfing. "Being out in the water is a really important experience for me. Being on the edge of a wave, being out there and potentially falling and getting crunched... In that moment, you have to figure it out -- it's kind of like a life or death situation. I don't think calculus is life or death for the students, but I do think that when you're faced with a really tough problem, you either have the skills and the capacity to rise up, or you don't -- and I believe that the key is self-belief."

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