One of the three terrific teachers being recognized as San Diego Unified Teachers of the Year is none other than Jonathan Winn, whose calculus class became the basis for one of my favorite articles I’ve ever written about good things going on in schools.

Here is a snippet about his out-of-the-ordinary math class at Crawford CHAMPS:

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.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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