George Lucas Educational Foundation

Masterful Teacher: Jonathan Winn Makes Calculus Cool

Jonathan Winn, San Diego's 2011 High School Teacher of the Year, has developed a high voltage classroom atmosphere that inspires students to get excited about math and excel at AP calculus. 
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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

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Thiago Fernandes's picture

I applaud the efforts of this teacher, but it must be observed that his students will still forget most of what they learned in his class. As interesting as a teacher can make a subject, that subject is still irrelevant to the student's immediate life. And quite possibly their future life too. Maybe students shouldn't be forcefully taught what adults think is important?

Hank's picture
I'm in it for the long run; we can do so much better.

[quote]I applaud the efforts of this teacher, but it must be observed that his students will still forget most of what they learned in his class. As interesting as a teacher can make a subject, that subject is still irrelevant to the student's immediate life. And quite possibly their future life too. Maybe students shouldn't be forcefully taught what adults think is important?[/quote]

Having learned calculus to the nth degree in college as a physics major, I will agree that eventually most of his students will probably forget most of what they learn in Calculus unless they are scientists, engineers, mathematicians, economists. . . is there anything else?

But it's far from irrelevant for tons of reasons. 1. Calculus gives you a feel for how the physical world works, it deepens the number sense in ways regular math won't, it derives directly from the laws of nature/motion, etc. 2. Learning something difficult, abstract, challenging, and "getting it" is, in and of itself, one of life's simple pleasures. It strengthens that abstract learning capability so that, whatever relevant follow-on learning challenges the former calculus student encounters, they will be better prepared. Using Calculus as the medium for this mental gymnastics and exercise is somewhat arbitrary, but is does an excellent job of bringing together problem solving, abstract conceptualization, visualization, calculation, process step memorization, analytical thinking, and recall. Maybe better than anything else. 3. Calculus is the first critical step in being a scientist and engineer. Although most of these students won't need it, it opens up those fields to students who may not have known they have the capacity or even a unique talent (or even a genius) in that area. Because they have challenged themselves with calculus, more of them will consider further education in the sciences and engineering, and if it's not obvious to the most casual observer, people who can understand science and technology and use them are in great need.

Some things are interesting and good to know, even if it's not necessary or even relevant to one's immediate life. AP Calc is always optional and no high school is going to forcibly teach it to students who have no interest. A good college might. But even if it's not forcibly taught, I like that it's forcefully taught.

Finally, bringing passion to whatever is worth doing, particularly one's work (and education) is in great need, and there is a whole lot more than calculus being learned in this classroom. I would go so far to say that the most important lessons are NOT the content, but the rising to the challenge, the self belief and confidence that come from struggling and succeeding, the courage to bring your heart to school and work and to lay it on the line for a worthwhile cause, the freedom to be yourself and have fun while learning, as exemplified by these exemplary teachers. THOSE lessons are not only critical to these students immediate lives, but probably the most relevant things they will ever learn.

Thiago Fernandes's picture

Do you believe all that is possible without student's direct, active interest in a subject? Do you believe that because they picked this course from a short list or because the teacher is enthusiastic and interesting they develop true interest? Personal experience has taught me that teaching things because they might be useful in a child's future is frivolous. Especially considering your mind is less inclined to keep around information that is not presently useful.

Now, I agree that the most important things for students to develop are tangent to the actual curriculum and include the pleasure of learning, challenging oneself, discovery and passion. I simply don't agree that schools are providing any of that. In fact, most kids, instead of finding their talents, are being dislocated from them to pursue subjects that will lead to in-demand careers, because the economy "needs" more workers in STEM fields.

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

Dear Hank,

I found your profoundly lightning commentary today while searching in the Video Section of Edutopia, looking for "Masterful Teacher of Calculus Jonathan Winn", which was located on the homepage a few days I don't even know what group this commentary is in, but I'm glad you wrote it.

You have a lot to contribute to our discussions here at
please continue to do so... no matter that your Profile is "undefined" so I don't know where you teach or work or do...

Perhaps "Hank the Teacher" should have a blog of your own here or do you already blog somewhere else...?

Thank you for your (educational) wisdom...

Fiat Lux,

Allen Berg

Yelba Zoe Osorio's picture
Yelba Zoe Osorio
Drama/Language Arts Tutor/ Yoga Teacher (all ages)

Hank -- You made me realize that my calculus class probably gave me a lot more than I have given it credit for (I eventually earned my MFA in Theatre -- so on the surface not much calculus goes on, but as for the abstract conceptualization, process step memorization, analytical thinking, recall, and of course confidence to rise to a challenge: it's all necessary in the arts!

Yelba Zoe

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