It starts as a distant ringing, faint over the hubbub of students flipping through binders in the small theater. It grows from the bronze bowl that Jonathan Winn cups in one hand as he swirls a mallet inside to set off the unearthly sound.

It fills the room. The chatting stops. More than 70 teenagers turn to the man who stands before them onstage, his eyes closed. The ringing hangs in the air like the end of a poem.

“GOOD MORNING CALCULUS!” Winn suddenly screams, like a sportscaster calling a goal.

This isn’t your typical calculus class. Advanced Placement classes are prized by kids at elite schools, who nab them for college credit. This is Crawford High, where students struggle with English and test scores are among the lowest in San Diego Unified. Classes are supposed to be small; Crawford intentionally made this one big, like a college lecture. Kids are supposed to be prepared for tough classes; Crawford threw calculus open to anyone. It has a few whiteboards on a bare stage. Yet it seems to be working.

“They’re in there and they’re getting As,” says Bill Laine, principal of one of Crawford’s schools-within-a-school. “We raise the bar and the kids excel.”

Calculus was rarely offered here before and usually drew fewer than a dozen students. Skeptics said it wouldn’t work. But scores of teens file into the theatre at 7:15 a.m. to hear Winn explain derivatives.

“We all want to take it,” senior Muna Afpali says.

♦♦♦

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.

“If there’s one thing I want to impart to you this year, it is that there’s an infinite amount of power inside you,” Winn declares. “This has been proven. What happens when you split an atom?”

“Nuclear bombs,” one girl answers.

“So are you saying we’re explosive?” someone jokes.

“Yes!” Winn is thrilled. “You can use this explosiveness for good or evil, for positive or negative.”

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.”

“They don’t say you’re Asian. They say you’re Chinese,” someone remarks.

“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.”

Liban Dini is one of the students who speaks up a lot, a Somali refugee with a confident manner who came here without his parents as a child. He wants to pursue a career in business, and says Winn sold him on calculus because he’d save money on college by earning credits now. Yet something more than dollars swayed him.

“It’s hard not to get excited if he’s that excited,” Dini said. “Other people, they don’t think you can handle it. He says, ‘I know you can pass the test.’” He paused. “I feel like he’s just talking to me sometimes. Sometimes you feel like he’s just looking at you. The inner you.”

♦♦♦

The calculus class is the climax of something bigger at Crawford. It is a different way of teaching math, deeply personal and tailored to English learners who struggle with problems loaded with words. Winn calls it a pathway to adulthood through mathematics.

Many of the methods Winn uses were the brainchild of Carl Munn, a Crawford math teacher who saw that teens were baffled and demoralized by their math tests as early as algebra. So instead of barreling through the state standards, Munn slowed down and focused on fewer topics. He gave teens a chance to fix their mistakes on pre-tests and emphasized how math related to real life. Winn expanded on what Munn designed, spending his Saturdays crafting lessons for calculus at a coffee shop.

Now their school-within-a-school outperforms others at Crawford in math. Munn said the biggest club on campus now is Mu Alpha Theta, a mathematics honors society that teens started up themselves. And as the teens that Munn and Winn taught advanced from grade to grade, Crawford suddenly needed an advanced calculus class, something that few students there had taken before.

Across the city, San Diego Unified is trying to expand Advanced Placement classes to more schools like Crawford so that all students have a chance to get tough classes and college credit. Dini and his classmates showed up at the school board in September to prod them to spend $230,000 on the effort, piggybacking on an earlier grant that helped 48 percent more black students and 42 percent more Latinos across San Diego Unified take the tests in the hopes of earning college credit last year.

But taking the classes is just one step. White students were still far more likely to pass than black students. There’s a thin line between setting the bar high and setting kids up for failure — and Crawford is trying to walk it, easing them into higher mathematics with clear formulas and a sense of fun. Volunteer and retired teacher Becky Breedlove said some mathematicians might worry that they’re just teaching steps, not understanding. But Winn found teens liked steps. They wanted consistency and stability, things they might otherwise lack in their lives.

And the tangents about identity — those come to Winn on his surfboard or when he lies in bed. He can’t sleep unless he’s worked well. He has the fervor of an evangelist, yet he describes teaching as something that just happened when he left his tiny Connecticut hometown for college.

“I was just good at math,” Winn said simply. “And then it hit me that I was also good at explaining things.”

In San Diego, he bounced from school to school as a substitute, but only Crawford resonated with him. He wanted a job there so badly that he took the only one available — boosting attendance — before finally snapping up a teaching job.

♦♦♦

Winn pledges to make calculus as easy as possible and welcomes infinite questions, spending up to six hours with students after school. He and his students jointly pledge to bring “INTENSITY and DESIRE” to class, starting the year with a calculus banquet and a “circle of blessings” from parents. Yet Winn is strict. Every student signs a contract for the class, promising to review for the exam at school on a few Saturdays. He insists that homework has to be turned in before the bell rings.

Dini remembers being nudged to take precalculus. “I said, ‘Is it going to be hard?’” Dini recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes, of course it’s hard.’ But he encouraged me to do that. And I took that step.”

Nobody knows whether the massive class will ace the spring test. Winn hesitates to share the results of a rough test that estimates how teens score on the official exam, but so far it looks like they could best the school district average. Even if students stumble, teachers believe it will be worthwhile for them. One is Emma Carrillo, who didn’t pass the exam last year because of “a lot of things going on at home.”

She doesn’t regret it. She’s retaking calculus on her own this year and sometimes stops into the class to see Winn teach. “Now kids have a goal,” she said. “To be able to take calculus.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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