Annette Wilson stands in front of her sixth-grade class wearing a Karate Kid–style bandana tied around her forehead. She explains to her students at Vista Innovation and Design Academy that they’re getting ready to start a new math program. After a brief description of Judo Math, she dims the lights and uses her computer and a projection screen to play a scene from the Karate Kid via YouTube. In it, Daniel-san (played by Ralph Macchio, who wears a bandana around his head, too) expresses his frustration with all the chores Mr. Miyagi has given him. He seems just about to give up when Mr. Miyagi reveals that “wax on, wax off,” “sand the floor,” and “paint the fence” were not the mere chores they appeared to be, but instead were exercises that laid the foundation for Daniel-san’s karate training.
Wilson’s students watch, rapt, but it’s hard to tell if they understand exactly what this movie clip has to do with the new math program. After Mr. Miyagi tells Daniel-san, “Look eye. Always look eye,” Wilson stops the clip and turns the lights back on.
“Sometimes in math, you’re learning skills so that you can get to higher-level skills,” she says. “So keep that in mind. Keep the Karate Kid in mind.”
To understand what’s happening in Wilson’s classroom, and in 400–500 other math classes in San Diego, South Carolina, Canada, England, and elsewhere, we need to go all the way back to the beginning when a sportscaster named Dan Thoene had the most lucrative year of his sportscasting career.
At the time, Thoene lived in New Haven, Connecticut and worked for ABC. His previous gigs had included CBS in Butte, Montana and NBC in Santa Barbara. In 2001, his 11th and final year as a sportscaster, his salary had gotten up to $85K (from $16,000 in 1994) and he had won an Emmy for Best Sports Reporter. He was firmly established in his career and could possibly have continued climbing the sportscasting ladder, except that he never got to see his wife Kira, a schoolteacher.
“She went to school during normal school hours, and I would do the 6:00 and 10:00 and 11:00 news. I’d go in about 2:00 p.m. and then I’d work until 1:00 in the morning. I get home, she’s asleep. I go to sleep, she wakes up at 6:00,” he tells me from across a lunch table outside High Tech Middle on Truxton Road. “Sports happens on the weekends, and I had Monday and Tuesdays off. For one year, we did not have one day off together. That’s when I was like, ‘I gotta get out of this.’”
So he quit.
At the same time, Thoene and his wife decided to move from Connecticut to San Diego where he had family. They sold their house, packed their things, and spent most of a summer driving in a series of zigzags across the country. They arrived in San Diego one week before the beginning of the 2001 school year. They plugged the address of all schools in the Poway School District (which hires per school rather than through a district office) into the GPS system of a car borrowed from his mother. Thoene drove, and his wife applied to all 27 schools in one day. She landed a job at Westwood Elementary that afternoon, and she still works there 13-plus years later.
As a sportscaster, Thoene had developed an internship program to help introduce young people to the world of sportscasting. Through the program, he found that he enjoyed teaching. That, combined with his math skills (he’d minored in math in college “for easy A’s,” he says), led him to pursue his teaching credentials through San Diego State University and thus embark on his second career — as a math teacher.
Thoene signed up for the teaching program full-time, and planned to finish in one year. Halfway through, a friend in the insurance business who wines and dines clients, invited him to fill a last-minute absence in a round of golf at Cottonwood. That day, Thoene met Larry Rosenstock, currently of High Tech High fame.
“In 18 holes we hit it off,” Thoene says of Rosenstock. “He told me about his school, and he was like, ‘You should come work for us,’ and I was like, ‘I’m not even done with my credentials,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t care, I got a job opening. What are you going to do?’ I loved everything he was saying about the school. So much so that I stopped the credential [full-time] program for two years.”
Thoene laughs. He has an easygoing vibe. Every now and again, while we talk, a student or a teacher passes by the table where we sit and shakes his hand or slaps him on the back. Each one seems both surprised and happy to see him. Thoene is on sabbatical. This is the first first week of school in the 11 years since High Tech High opened that he hasn’t been a part of all the hustle and bustle of a school year.
High Tech Middle opened its doors in 2003, with approximately 300 students and 15 teachers. Thoene had hired on as an eighth grade math and science teacher. Once he fell into a rhythm, he was able to finish the credential program at night while he worked at High Tech during the day. He received his credentials in 2005.
High Tech High teachers create their own curriculum. They follow state guidelines about what their students are supposed to know by the end of each year, but it’s up to each teacher to create the projects that will help the students learn. In one of his early years, Thoene’s students learned math through a project in fantasy baseball.
One day, in 2007, during a community meeting at the school about after-school programs, Thoene took particular note of an exchange that happened between a student and karate instructor.
“A kid raised his hand in the back and said, ‘How long does it take to become a black belt?’ And the sensei said, ‘It’s different for everybody. Everyone learns at their own pace,” Thoene says. “And I was thinking, well why don’t we teach math that way?”
That evening, Thoene went home and began to research martial arts. He became particularly interested in the story of judo, which was created by a man named Jigoro Kano, who meant for it to be not just an art form, but also a way of life. One of the core principles of judo is cooperation — working for mutual welfare and benefit.
“I’m like, ‘That’s what I want in my class,’” Thoene laughs recalling his excitement as the idea for Judo Math began to develop.
Thoene tells me that in the typical math curriculum in the United States, students are expected to learn between 180 and 185 topics per year, which he calls “ridiculous,” given that there are about the same number of days in a school year. In addition, standardized tests are usually given in April, even though school is in session until June, driving many teachers to rush through all 180 topics in 150 days.
“That never made sense to me,” Thoene says.
In his research, he discovered that the country of Singapore is “at the top of the world as far as math goes.” In the ’80s, however, they were at the bottom. Their revamped program was adopted in the United States, and called “Singapore Math.”
“They teach 12 topics per year,” Thoene explains. “And they teach it in depth.”
So that’s what Thoene did. He broke up a year’s worth of eighth grade math into 12 topics. He was taking a risk in leaving out the topics that he found “just ridiculous, topics that adults don’t ever use,” such as graphing absolute value inequalities and quadratics. At the time, 40 percent of the eighth grade standardized test was on quadratics, which comes at the end of algebra. But because quadratics accounted for such a large percentage of the test, teachers rushed to it before students had a chance to master all the material that precedes it.
“About 30 percent of California kids in eighth grade are proficient in math. Only 30 percent. It’s just those fast kids,” Thoene says. “I said I’m going to throw out quadratics. Only my fast kids are ready for it anyway. So, if they want to get to it, they can, but the rest of my class, I’m going to do what Singapore Math does.”
As a High Tech High teacher, Thoene had, for the most part, the freedom to do as he wished, at least as far as teaching math was concerned. So, he went back to his students with a loose plan.
“I said, ‘Let’s create this together. We’ll call it ‘Judo Math,’ because it’s judo and math, and these are the core principles. They do belts in karate and stuff. We can wear belts,’” he says. “They were like, ‘No, no. That’s totally lame.’”
The kids shot down the idea of headbands, too.
Eventually, they settled on the LiveStrong bracelets (“That was back when [Lance Armstrong] was not a cheater”), one of which Thoene wears on his wrist today. It’s black printed with white Japanese characters, the translation of which reads, “Judo Math.”
The first year of the program, 88 percent of Thoene’s eighth graders tested proficient in math.
“They did better on the test than anyone else, even though they never even saw quadratics,” he says, “because they knew everything else really well.”
Annette Wilson explains the components of the Judo Math program to her students via a PowerPoint presentation, which includes slides with catchy phrasing such as, “More Training, Grasshopper.” The vocabulary is new, too: work packets are called “scrolls of knowledge,” tests are now “advancements,” and “mastery” is recognized through receipt of belts called “obi,” which are actually silicon bracelets).
The curriculum is divided into 12 parts, three units covering four topics each. At the beginning of the year, students are given a white armband, or “obi,” and a “scroll of knowledge” for the first topic, which they use to study and practice before the first “advancement.” Some teachers give advancements on Friday of that same week. Others give them on Monday the following week.
If students pass with an 80 percent or higher, they receive their yellow obi to recognize their “mastery” of the topic. The belts are presented with great ceremony. Each student comes to the front of the class. In Thoene’s class, he bows and recites in Japanese, “Omedeto gozaimasu watashi no gakusei” (“Congratulations, my student.”) And the rest of the class cheers. In other classes, the students create a tunnel with their bodies, arms up, hands linked overhead, and each time a person receives an obi, he runs through the tunnel.
After receiving an obi, the students also receive their next scroll of knowledge.
Those who do not pass the first time continue to study the topic further, practicing in groups or working with partners, and when advancements are given the following week, they take another. When they do pass, they, too, have their moment of celebration by the class.
As the weeks go by, things become rather complicated, as students all move through the material at their own pace. A dry erase chart on the wall keeps track of each student’s progress.
“All for one and one for all” is a major component of the program. Every student will receive a black belt in each of the three units, and it’s up to the class to help make sure everyone gets there. Green belts are available for those who complete their black belts early and continue on through an extended curriculum. Quadratics (which has since been eliminated from the Common Core for eighth grade) figure in heavily here. The green belt is also “sensei” belt, and those who receive it often act as mentors for those who are still working toward their black belts.
Judo Math in action
Judo Math as it happens in the classroom, between teacher and students and among students themselves.
“We’re going to start out with integers, positive and negative,” Wilson explains to her class. “We take advancements every Monday. So you’ll get your yellow belt advancement next Monday. Everyone will take it. If you pass it, you go on to your next belt topic. If you don’t pass it, you just go back and get some more training and you take it again the following week.”
A student in a light blue shirt and madras shorts raises her hand to ask if she can take the advancement, say, right now, if she wants to.
Wilson answers that, no, not before she’s had a chance to look at the scroll of knowledge.
“But if you look at it tonight and decide you want to come in at lunch tomorrow to take the yellow belt advancement, then, yes, you can do that,” she says.
The student seems satisfied.
After a brief pause in which Wilson offers the students a moment to jump up and down in place, she leads the class through the recitation of the Judo Math Oath.
“I accept the challenge of fulfilling my destiny to become a Judo Math master. I will never waiver in my drive, conviction, determination, so that I can prove to myself and to all that with time and hard work, learning the art of math can be attained. I will honor the principals of cooperation, teamwork, concentration, and sen [initiative] in the pursuit of my goals. Domo arigato.”
Afterward, she takes out a bag of white silicon bracelets and a stack of collated work packets.
“Alright,” she says. “Let’s get your first obi and your first scroll of knowledge.”
In the beginning, Judo Math was little more than a strategy Thoene used to help himself and his students. He didn’t intend it as a program that would go any further than his own classroom. But other students and teachers began to inquire about what was going on that had Thoene’s kids running around with these bracelets and cheering so loud for each other that everyone else could hear. After hearing his class was 88 percent proficient, the directors became curious, and soon, teachers visiting from out of town (as many do to visit High Tech schools), began to peek in and ask questions about how to make it happen in their own classrooms.
Judo Math Belt Ceremony
The belt ceremony is part of the Judo Math process.
“A lot of teachers thought, ‘Okay, I just want the curriculum, the packets and those bracelets, and hey, boom, it’ll just work magically,’” he says. “Nope, that’s not it at all.”
In 2009, when Marc Shulman began teaching eighth-grade math and science at High Tech Middle, then-director Janie Griswold told him about the successes of Thoene’s program and suggested he, too, give it a go. She told him she wasn’t going to make him do it but asked that he consider giving it a try. The director’s suggestion had enough push behind it that, he says, he “hesitantly took it on.”
“Being the cocky 20-something-year-old I was, I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do,” the now 36-year-old Shulman tells me over the phone. “Going in with that mindset, I pushed back on that idea. Even after talking briefly to Dan, I said, ‘I like the idea, it’s cool, but I’d like to put my own twist on it.’”
The way Thoene tells it, “It bombed. It was horrible.”
Shulman’s rendition is a little less…harsh.
“It wasn’t working well with me,” he says. “It was just fizzling out. It got to a point where kids didn’t care anymore. They were losing belts. I couldn’t keep track of what was happening. I was just really struggling. I’d say within three or four months, I was like, ‘Screw it.’”
At the end of the year, however, Shulman sat down to “shoot the breeze” with Thoene, and came to understand that the content of Judo Math comes second to the culture of the classroom. Shulman knew that it was important to keep students engaged and to make learning fun, but says, “I had a lot of rethinking to do in the day to day way I ran my classroom.”
This year marks Shulman’s fifth as a Judo Math teacher. He now also works with Thoene as social media director and has helped to develop the curriculum, the teacher training, and the presentations for educators. Over the years they’ve both realized the importance of failure as something to reiterate often so that students can begin to see “failure” as a step toward success rather than the absence of success.
The celebrations, too, are a huge part of culture building in the classroom. Every student comes to the front of the room at least 12 times in the year, and while that sounds like a lot of pomp and circumstance, Thoene has found it to be a key aspect of Judo Math that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“You know you hear about the kids that take a test and they put their test up on the refrigerator?” he says. “There’s a lot of kids that have never done that ever. Well, in this, every single kid has that experience. We celebrate the heck out of them.”
Managing a classroom of kids all at different places in the curriculum and all at different paces was, in Shulman’s words, “another part of my failure.” Thoene, too, struggled with that in the beginning. But when they developed the program’s mentoring component, it made it more manageable.
“That might mean, ‘Jeff, you passed your blue belt, and you really know this stuff, and really could use your help in mentoring these five people. So just for today or today and tomorrow, can you make sure that these five people understand these small topics here?’ Or ‘Your job is to make sure that these five people pass by the end of this week.’”
The kids, he says, love the mentoring and take pride in it. Their parents, on the other hand aren’t always sold on it right away. They say things like, “My kid’s not going to school to teach.”
Shulman says he tries to help them understand teaching as another way of learning and getting a deeper understanding of the material. “And we’re celebrating that. Not only celebrating the kids that pass but celebrating the kids that step up as mentors,” Shulman says.
In his class, the students nominate each other to sit in the Chair of the Week, or COW, as they affectionately refer to the big, comfy office chair on wheels designated as a special recognition for mentors or significant improvements made.
During Back to School Nights, Shulman says, he gets to hear a lot of parent “pushback” about the Judo Math program. And they’re not just complaints about the mentoring. The parents of kids who are accustomed to being at the head of the class in math question whether their kids are challenged enough. And those whose kids have often struggled in math express concern that the posters on the wall make every kids’ progress visible.
To the former, Shulman says, “This program raises the floor and opens the ceiling. Kids who struggle typically don’t get through an entire grade level curriculum, but in Judo Math, the lowest kid is going to do is get through grade level curriculum. Every kid becomes a black belt. The kids that get to the end sooner, they’re doing so much more than the grade level curriculum. Last year, I had kids go through an entire tenth grade trigonometry course and successfully passed it.”
And to the latter, he says, “It makes mentors obvious. If you’re stuck on yellow belt, there’s a whole list of people that you can go to for help who have passed it.”
By exposing his own weaknesses (he occasionally writes things backwards or out of order but hasn’t formally been diagnosed with dyslexia) and asking for help himself, Shulman attempts to emphasize that there’s no shame in kids learning at their own pace and having both strengths and weaknesses. Acceptance of where you are is a part of creating a safe environment where it’s ok to make mistakes.
“I tell my students all the time, I struggled in math all the time. I have to write everything down. I work at a slower pace than most other people, ” he says as an example. “I have to write everything down or it gets jumbled up in my head. Mental math has always been difficult for me. I feel like if I had been given an option to work at my own pace, I would have been more successful and more confident in myself.”
What is Judo Math?
In 2011, Dan Thoene made Judo Math a corporation. He estimates that he has put over $50,000 into it, including the cost of traveling to conferences, curriculum development, and the design and purchase of materials. Some conferences, he says, charge as much as $2000 to $3000 for a booth, and then charge additional fees for the rental of carpet (required) and a chair.
Thoene estimates that he has grossed $17,000 from Judo Math in 2014, the first year he turned a profit. It was mostly through teacher trainings, of which he has done over 100 in San Diego, Vista, Hesperia, South Carolina, Iowa, Maryland, Canada, and London.
He charges $695 for the two-day training, which includes posters, one year’s worth of bracelets for up to 50 students, access to the membership site, and access to a kids site that he likens to “Judo Math Facebook.”
He emphasizes that the success of Judo Math is due in part to the High Tech culture that allowed him to dream it, create it, and troubleshoot it along the way.
“I talked to the CEO [Rosenstock] and the CFO about four years ago, and I said, ‘Look, I’m going to start maybe doing this, but if I make money in this, is this okay?’ And they were like, ‘Absolutely, [but] what about with teachers here?’ I said, “I’ll always train them and give them stuff for free. So, every teacher that I’ve trained here, it’s always free.”
This past summer, Thoene and two other teachers he’s brought on (one of them is Shulman) created the curriculum, making sure it’s in alignment with the Common Core (that only required a bit of tweaking, he says,) and enhancing the presentation they do at conferences by making it more interactive. The next step will be to train more trainers. Right now, Thoene, Shulman, and Jamie Holmes (an eighth-grade teacher at High Tech Middle Chula Vista) are the only three qualified to do so. The way the program is growing, he’s going to need help.
On the kids site Thoene has created a program that breaks down all the Common Core topics and allows kids to video record themselves solving math equations on a white board, and create a voice over explanation of the process to share with other students. Other students can rate each video on how helpful it is on a five-star system.
“Some kids in South Carolina can be showing my kids over here how to do the same exact type of math problem,” he says.
Part of the plan for his year of sabbatical is to attend more conferences as a presenter, continue teacher training, and get a Kickstarter campaign going to help finance all that travel. Sabbatical doesn’t pay. He laughs at the idea that he’s in it for the money. “If I make $40K, I’ll be happy,” he says.
So, what about after sabbatical? I ask. Does he plan to go back to the classroom or what?
“Well,” he laughs. “The hope is that I’m Judo Math Dude all over the world.”