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

Ken Ellis

Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia

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."

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ken Ellis's picture
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia

I had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with Jonathan and observing his classrooms for 2 days while shooting this video. What struck me, in addition to the 100% engagement of his students, was his dedication to improving his craft. He shared these tips:

1. Learn from the masters. Winn says he was "way overwhelmed" by his first teaching assignment and quit after two years of frustration. He taught English in Thailand for a few months, then returned to San Diego and began to seek out master teachers. He met Carl Munn at Crawford High School, and observed his class for months. Munn lead Winn to Jaime Escalante and other mater teachers who were happy to share their secrets. When you are struggling, take a break and observe a master teacher. And don't be afraid to borrow techniques from them if they are doing things that will work for your students.

2. Consistency- Be on time to class every day. To help set the tone that instructional time is extremely valuable, have regular activities for students to do before and after the bell rings. "I want them to know that the second they walk in the door, it is time to get to work".

3. Tailor lessons to the needs of students. Textbooks and lesson plans are not "one size fits all" solutions. Look at the curriculum standards and the skills and needs of your students. If you have to re-write the book to meet their needs, do it.

4. A bell or chime is a simple, effective way to transition between segments of a class, e.g. from direct instruction to individual think time. It cues a psychological shift.

5. Math is an opportunity for students to feel successful, for teachers to give positive feedback. Understand that the eraser is the most important part of pencil. Making and correcting mistakes leads to greater self-confidence.

kidsfirst's picture
middle school math teacher

No doubt Mr. Winn deserves to be paid more and I was with you until the jealous, pro-union undermining part. I have been on the inside of a union for 13 years and there is a big public misconception about what it can and cannot do. I applaud Mr. Winn, especially for reaching out and sharing, but I doubt he feels the union is holding him back. Ironically, the merit pay you mentioned definitely has hurt teachers and education. It limits sharing of ideas (loss of merit pay if everyone does it) and it attracts the wrong type of teaching (incentive based as opposed to intrinsic value to help). I am sure you mean well but as a hard working educator I think the stereotypes can replace the willingness to really see what is going on. I think we both agree, Mr. Winn and Mr.Munn are to be applauded.

LPalmer's picture
Effective Instruction Consultant

How about details of his approach such as curriculum sequence (basics needed prior to calculus, introductory context/content, sequence of calculation skills, amount of paperwork (only alluded to in article)?
How about some specifics? This article generates more questions than information (not intended for a professional education readership, apparently). Such vacuous text occurs too often in education stories, indicating a lack of seriousness by editors and reporters. This "Gee whiz" piece is what we expect from People magazine or other pop copy, but it does nothing to enlighten educators. Please do a follow-up on the specifics.

Allen Berg's picture
Allen Berg
curriculum and projects learning centers

Dear L Palmer,

I agree with your comment, and before your wrote it I already last week
sent the following email to Mr. Jonathan Winn, collegially requesting further information... However, please understand that The Dude is very busy teaching and surviving 100 HS Calculus Students everyday at 7am...plus his other daily course loads... so don't expect a reply so quickly... maybe during Summer Vacation, if we're lucky...

He is soulful and he is "In The Trenches" Doing Battle, just like Jaime Escalante did 25 years ago...

If I receive further information from Mr. Winn, I will post it here at Edutopia.org asap...

Fiat Lux,

Light Saber, Allen Berg


Dear Jonathan Winn, Teacher Extraordinaire:

I know that you are very busy being a Phenomenal HS Calculus Teacher at THE Crawford HS in San Diego, California...Home of CHAMPS, IDEA, etc.... so I will fully understand if this email inquiry about "What textbook(s) you use?" (and other curriculum resources online) goes unanwered...

I am familiar with Jaime Escalante's story and now yours...This gives me hope, in my own learning and teaching... mostly now c/o www.edutopia.org teachers groups online...

Mr. Escalante's textbooks I found out (from my own research) include the following:

Textbooks used by Jaime Escalante (in his own words)...

"The demand for quality texts has been a cornerstone of the Escalante Math Program. In the seventies I realized that my students would be held back forever unless they had superior textbooks, so I searched for the best and tested many different texts...

I believe that math teaching should be peppered with lively examples, ingenious demonstrations of math at work and linkages between math principles and their real-world applications. Texts which amplify on these kinds of demonstrations are the best for use in my program...

I try to reduce the foreboding image of higher math by using texts which define all the technical terms as they are first presented. The student's confidence is bolstered as his or her knowledge of the subject increases.

Currently, my calculus students each have four textbooks: Calculus by Leithold (which is an especially valuable text for its discussion of limits), Analytic Geometry and Calculus by Thomas (especially good for word problems, differential equations and rate of change problems), Calculus with Analytic Geometry by Anton (especially for vectors) and How to Prepare for Advanced Placement Examination - Mathematics by Barron. The ideal textbook also has a tremendous number of practice problems because practice, practice and more practice is demanded from each student. Finding enough practice problems has always been difficult, thus I am currently developing my own texts and practice workbooks for class and homework use that are consistent with the lesson plans of the program."


So if you find some "leisure time" during Easter Vacation or this summer, I would be very happy to hear from you about what Calculus Textbook(s) you might recommend ...

Meanwhile, enjoy Leibniz in Paris and the Surf at Swami's...

Kepler's Apprentice-in-Training,

Allen Berg

Cosmasmary Njoku's picture
Cosmasmary Njoku
Seventh grade math teacher

I am curious about your techniques. I agree with you on the self belief that propels your motivation to succeed. I also believe that you try every day to share the same belief with your students so that they will hold up their courage and faith that they can make it by working hard. Do you have specific techniques like procedures, materials, policies, and management skills that worked for you? Can you share these helpful skills with us your fellow teachers?.Any technology application? On the other hand, I like the fact that you took time to observe a master teacher. Now that you are successful, you are serving as a master teacher to others as well.Your willingness to learn from others is commendable.

Cosmasmary Njoku's picture
Cosmasmary Njoku
Seventh grade math teacher

Specific techniques

I am curious about your techniques. I agree with you on the self belief that propels your motivation to succeed. I also believe that you try every day to share the same belief with your students so that they will hold up their courage and faith that they can make it by working hard. Do you have specific techniques like procedures, materials, policies, and management skills that worked for you? Can you share these helpful skills with us your fellow teachers?.Any technology application? On the other hand, I like the fact that you took time to observe a master teacher. Now that you are successful, you are serving as a master teacher to others as well.Your willingness to learn from others is commendable.

Luria Learning's picture
Luria Learning
3rd Grade Teacher and Founder of Luria Learning

Thank you so much for sharing. It is amazing the difference that one teacher, or a group of like minded teachers can make. Over and over again, we see that all students can succeed, no matter their background, given the right opportunity.


Barry Kort's picture
Barry Kort
Retired Volunteer Science Educator at the Boston Museum of Science

Everyone has heard of a Learning Curve.

But have you ever studied the hills and valleys of a Learning Curve using the Calculus?

What, do you suppose, is the Second Derivative (the curvature) of a Learning Curve?

Cognition, Affect, and Learning

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