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Uncategorized   |   Dec 4, 2009

Where’s the passion?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Where’s the passion?

By Angela Watson


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.

“Beyond calculus!”

“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.

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Hi Angela,

    Winn's teaching style sounds exciting and I bet he's a wonderful teacher, but it's about authenticity and autonomy. Of course we need to be passionate about the students and what we teach them. The danger is that "the powers that be" will decide that we should all dress up like drum majors and "act" just like him. At that point we are poor copies of a dynamic teacher. Children need real, stable adults in their lives, not fakes.
    Exhibit A

  2. Exhibit A: I think Crawford IS being authentic. Personally, I don't doubt that. I agree with you that there is danger in being forced to teach like him, or like anyone, for that matter. If other teachers are expected to replicate his style, it WILL create phonies. I wonder if the other teachers in his school are trying to replicate him or just using his curriculum (which sounds like it's much more aligned with how students learn than the traditional approach to calculus). If his curriculum is empowering other educators to teach authentically and enabling them to discover their OWN way to inspire passion in students, I'm all for it.

  3. Hi Angela,
    Yes, I don't doubt he's authentic or effective either. It just reminded me of something that's happening in our county. A teacher came up with a cute idea for teaching vocabulary. She made a poster of the weekly vocabulary words using photos or clip-art. Then she invented pantomimes to go with each word. So for example, if you're teaching the word "lasso," all the children pretend to swing a lasso. Now the teachers are being "coached" on how to do this technique. Teachers are encouraged to come up with their own weekly posters and lead their own classes in charades. It will probably work, but how exhausting! It feels like we're marionettes!

    Exhibit A

  4. I feel these ideas are fresh and empowering. I appreciate the encouragement and new outlook on getting material to students. This teacher, Mr. Winn, inspires to return to my classroom in a couple of weeks with a new passion and reminder that kids love a “different” approach from teachers that make us unforgettable. More power to him!

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