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Joe Underwood


Twenty-one years ago, Joe Underwood was by his own admission a "pretty wild guy," living the "Buffett lifestyle" and hitting the Florida Keys every weekend with a pal. An actor and production manager, his life took a new turn when he met and married Nancy, a teacher. While it was nice to see him in commercials and television programs like "Miami Vice," Underwood's new wife noted that there was no money coming in and suggested that he might consider a new line of work -- teaching. At her urging and with the help of her father, a former assistant principal, Underwood filled an opening for a teacher/athletic trainer at Miami High School and found the role of a lifetime.

"I was an athlete in high school and thought the job would be fun," recalled Underwood. "My first day, a Thursday, began at 7:00 a.m. with three classes to teach, followed by going to the training room and preparing for that night's football game. Everything went great until I arrived home at about midnight and wondered what I gotten myself into -- I had to be back at school the next morning at 7:00!"

In 1987, the school was equipped with a new television studio. Underwood was teaching drama at the time and eventually made the transition to television production, where he has remained. Today Underwood leads the ARTEC (Arts Related Technology for Entertainment Careers) program at Miami High. His goal is to give the students "real experience through real careers" so that they will be ready to enter the workforce. Involvement with television production and moviemaking provides them with opportunities to advance in a thriving industry, despite the challenges some face with the English language.

Joe Underwood and his students produce a live, daily newscast.

"Many of my students are not only immigrants, but they lack language skills, even if English is their first language," Underwood explained. "I remind my students all the time that the cameras and editors do not speak any language. My ESOL students can succeed in a production capacity as a camera operator, audio technician, editor, and in other areas without having to worry about whether or not their English is correct or is spoken with an apparent accent."

All the students in ARTEC raise their self-esteem in front of or behind the camera by working together to complete a project, which prepares them for similar shared tasks in the real world. Underwood praises the creativity of his students. As a requirement of his class, in place of traditional "homework," students put in time after school to videotape school-related extracurricular events. More than 400 events -- many of which are sports events -- are recorded annually. Highlights from the coverage appear in a daily, live newscast called "Stingtown News," and coaches use the videos for player instruction and to help secure scholarships for athletes.

"What impresses me about this work is that some of my students have put so much time and effort into videotaping certain teams that they have actually become a part of the team," Underwood told Education World. "That involvement has led to invitations from our basketball teams to have my students accompany them on road trips to Kentucky, Tennessee, Orlando, and state tournaments. That shows how important the coaches think my students' contributions are to their programs."

At the beginning of this school year, one student with special needs rolled into Underwood's classroom in her wheelchair. "Gabriela" wanted to take television production, and in her very first week, she not only appeared on-camera, she produced a video spot as well. When the students later did a report on the 5 mph speed limit on campus, it featured a mini-movie spoof that starred Gabriela as a "speeder" racing through the parking lot until she was apprehended by the head of security and given detention.

"At the end, Gabriela shows her remorse by looking into the camera and reminding students, 'Don't speed,'" says Underwood. "This project was very rewarding for the entire class. They learned what it takes to do a full production on a project, how many people and how many takes are needed, the importance of collaborating with people outside class (like security guards), and how to set up shots. Of course, Gabriela's appearance on television, and her vocalized lines, managed to bring tears to the eyes of her counselor, which was the big payoff for me and for Gabriela and her mother."

With classroom success like this behind him and such honors as being selected a 2005 USA TODAY All-Star Teacher, the turn of events that led Underwood to join the teaching field might be considered serendipity. His selection as a DisneyHand Teacher of the Year Honoree in 2004 literally changed his life as he faced Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma with the support of 38 of the finest teachers in the nation. The experience led him to pursue his doctoral degree, a current project.

"Being a teacher is not something I ever dreamed of doing," Underwood shared candidly. "In college, I avoided taking education courses, even when my friends said I should. But in the last 21 years, I could not dream that I would ever want to do anything else. For some reason, I have become an effective leader of my students."

Photo courtesy of Joe Underwood.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected]

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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