Posted by Stacy Jeziorowski on Apr 26, 2021
High school students in a lab, working on projects
“In 2003, my teaching career began in a rural, mostly African American, under-resourced, high poverty, and “academically deficient” 8-12 school,” shared Dr. John Underwood.

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Old photo of Dr. John Underwood teaching with the phrase, "failing to try is trying to fail" behind him“In 2003, my teaching career began in a rural, mostly African American, under-resourced, high poverty, and ‘academically deficient’ 8-12 school,” shared Dr. John Underwood. “The district was still not considered to be in compliance with Brown vs. Board of Education. I experienced the inequity and inequality that can exist first hand. I also became impassioned to correct these injustices through teaching to this day.”
Underwood was an Instructional Specialist of STEM Programs in East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools. He starts each school year by helping to create an academic culture of support, acceptance, and understanding with his students. He accomplishes this by increasing the peer-to-peer interactions between his students, often switching up the pairs. 
“As students interact with new material and discuss ideas they start to see value in the different approaches we each have, learn about them personally as we all work together each day,” said Underwood.  “I make efforts to design lessons that provide students with chances to demonstrate their creativity, personal cultures, and personality. I uphold rigorous, attainable academic goals for all my students.” 
Throughout his career, Underwood has sought out professional development opportunities and completed two graduate degrees to help him better meet the needs of his students. 
“In my teaching, I focus on equitable practices by recognizing and seeking out mechanisms of addressing the physical, social, emotional, and financial barriers that hinder learning for students,” continued Underwood. “I believe that every student wants to be a success. I have worked to collaboratively construct enrichment and differentiated assignments that help scaffold learning. I do not subscribe to a “one size fits all” approach to education. I want my students to practice critical thinking daily, feel empowered by the knowledge they have, and recognize that setbacks are only opportunities to try a new way. CS allows students to see that they can achieve great things in a variety of ways regardless of their gender or ethnicity.” 
Underwood is looking to change the computer science landscape in the state of Louisiana, where there is a heavy emphasis on non-college-bound students learning trades. However, there has not been a focus on teaching students the CS skills they need to work within the changing landscape. 
As he researched further, Underwood learned that only three of 12 high schools and two of 10 middle schools offered computer science courses in his district. His district is the second-largest in the state of Louisiana and serves a population that is 81% African American. Recognizing the inequity, Underwood worked with the district to acknowledge these disparities and on what resources were needed to help seek out partnerships. 
“Fate it seemed was on my side as LSU had just begun a computing pathway project and one of my masters’ professors was on the team,” said Underwood. “I volunteered to be a pedagogy helper and liaison to aid the team as they navigated the unfamiliar bureaucracy of the K-12. Through a lot of hard work, we not only created a research partnership, but we got state approval for a computing pathway 7-12. Starting with the 2020-2021 school year all high schools and middle schools in my district will offer at least 1 CS class per year.” 
To ensure the success of the expanded computer science program, Underwood worked with school guidance teams, his student CS club ambassadors, and local leaders to promote and recruit more African American students and females to enroll in these classes. Underwood then transitioned from the classroom and became the Instructional Specialist of STEM Programs in East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools.
“The efforts I have made have not only granted all students access to CS classes, but they have increased minority enrollment on a massive scale,” shared Underwood. “In designing the pedagogy I have helped to create needs assessments, a series of culturally responsive lessons that help students embrace and celebrate their identities, emphasized the need for teachers to utilize Socratic questioning, and project-based learning. At the district level, we now are 1:1 with every student having Chromebooks to take home each day. From offering six sections of CS we now offer about 46. We went from 75 students enrolled in 2015 to potentially 1,150 in 2020.” 
“Due to COVID-19 we have partnered with our community to get hotspots and internet access to all households that were in need,” continued Underwood. “Through monthly training, I am developing our district’s first peer learning community to help teachers share ideas and grow. I have been working this summer to also train our district’s teachers in what are best practices for online teaching and project-based assessments.” 
Earlier this year, Underwood joined the Louisiana Department of Education as a STEM Specialist for K-12 programs. He is in charge of STEM electives, curriculums, professional development, and is a PI on a $4 million EIR grant to offer micro-credentialing to engineering, computer science, and digital design and emergent media teachers. 
To further continue his impact on computer science, Underwood applied to become a CSTA Equity Fellow. “I believe that the moment we think we have addressed inequity we are simply shifting the focus of our vision and creating new inequities,” said Underwood. “I would like to use this fellowship to learn new ideas, gain new insights/perspectives, see/hear what others are doing to address inequity, and reflect on aspects that may not have occurred to me.” 
“I also want to learn how to empower teachers to be leaders, have confidence in themselves, and become their own CS advocates,” shared Underwood. “I want to seek out new creative challenges in using CS as an interdisciplinary tool to engage students and promote teacher collaborations. I want to listen and gain experience from other passionate CS fellows too.” 
With members of his cohort, Underwood is creating a series of vertically aligned lessons for computer science teachers to use as modules in their classrooms. Each lesson is aligned to help students explore their identities, cultural heritages, and society. The lessons are filled with cross-curricular connections. 
“The format of the team’s work is built upon the idea of CSTA having an “equity tool kit” for teachers,” shared Underwood. “These lessons would be accompanied by all of the resources needed to teach them and an online PD lesson. Hopefully, future generations of teachers will keep building and adding tools to the virtual kit.” 
You can learn more about Underwood, this year’s cohort, and the CSTA Equity Fellowship program here.