The Voice of San Diego reports on “a calculus class so crazy, it just might work.” It’s the class of Crawford High School teacher Jonathan Winn:
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.
…He veers back into mathematics, writing some functions on the board. Textbooks call this the chain rule, but Winn avoids the phrase. He is gradually showing them how to separate the inner and outer parts of a complex function — in mathspeak, finding the inner part is finding the “u.” He came up with “the inner you” this summer while hiking alongside an Oregon river as a way to relate the abstract concepts of calculus back to things teens care about — their sense of self — and to teach them larger lessons about life. After they copy the functions down, Winn rings a small bell to refocus them.
“A lot of people will look at you and they will classify you based on the outside,” Winn says. “They will say you’re Asian. They will say you’re African-American. They will say you’re an English learner…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?”
“Calculus?” someone guesses.
“You,” another says.
“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.”
The results, not surprisingly, are phenomenal. Calculus classes and the math honor society are outrageously popular at Crawford High, and student achievement is soaring in the classes that are taught following Winn’s philosophy (which includes teaching fewer standards more deeply and relating math to real life). And of course, the kids love it. One student is quoted in the article as saying “It’s hard not to get excited if he’s that excited.”
Not everyone is amused. Robert at The Core Knowledge Blog says:
“…another one of those wild, wacky yet oh-so-effective teacher stories, this one out of San Diego. I’m sure the guy is great, but I have to confess I’m getting as tired of attention-seeking behavior in teachers as I was of it in students.”
I’m a bit tired of these tales myself. Jonathan Winn’s over-the-top edge is exhausting just to read about. There’s a crotchety old woman inside of me who’s shaking her fist: Is this what it takes to engage kids these days? What happened to self-discipline and working hard because you value education? Must everything be entertaining for students to really tune in?
But underneath my cynicism, I envy Winn’s enthusiasm for his subject matter and the time he devotes to preparing engaging, relevant lessons for his students. I wish I could grab a bass drum and bang out the steps to a math problem, but I value my own need for a quiet and orderly classroom over the needs of my students for dynamic and emotionally-resonating instruction. I’m often more concerned with covering material than letting children experience it themselves. And I’m usually too preoccupied in the evenings to let my mind dream of new ways to inspire students and help them explore their own curiosities.
I respect a teacher who values passion above all else, even if it’s ultimately passion for passion’s sake. Students need to be woken up inside, challenged, drawn out of their numbed states of mind, and engaged in something bigger than themselves.
Teachers do, too.
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