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?”