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Gainesville High Teacher Cultivates Student Creativity

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Tony Malo reviews "Beyond Thought," one of his students' films in his classroom on May 21. His class has just finished their end-of-the-year projects.
Tony Malo reviews “Beyond Thought,” one of his students’ films in his classroom on May 21. His class had just finished their end-of-the-year projects. Elizabeth Brown / WUFT News

Tony Malo’s advanced video production students shuffle around putting the finishing touches on their collaborative end-of-the-semester projects. Some wield cameras, others tweak video on Mac computers.

Two students sit at a news desk in front of a green screen in the back room of the lab with their eyes locked on a camera lens. They will record, edit and broadcast announcements to the entire student body.

It’s 9 a.m.

Malo’s classroom at Gainesville High School is a colorful workplace. Soft rock music echoes throughout the large lab-style room. Posters of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and John Belushi in “Animal House,” cover the walls along with Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival fliers. A little jar behind his desk — a high table in the back of the room — reads “ashes of obnoxious teenagers.”

Malo, with his long black hair, purple athletic shirt and bright sneakers, meanders around the room checking on his students.

If they need help or have a question, they just yell, “Malo!”

They don’t sit still. They huddle in small groups making decisions about their stories. Teamwork is the name of the game. Everyone has something to do. The atmosphere is relaxed but professional.

This is a typical school day for Malo. He focuses on crafting a different teaching style. He lets his students explore their creativity and hone marketable, job-worthy skills, rather than making them memorize vocabulary words from a textbook or trying to keep their attention glued to PowerPoint presentations.

“It’s a great gig,” Malo said.

But getting the gig was a rocky road.

Tough Beginnings

Malo, 39, originally set his sights on developing software for students with disabilities. His brother had a spinal problem that resulted in paralysis and had trouble making it to class every day, putting dents in his educational progress.

Malo said the software would have included different keyboards, microphones and screens that would make learning easier for people with physical disabilities.

But right before Malo applied to a Tampa software business, his path took a different turn.

Malo took a job teaching information technology at Job Corps.  He dropped off his resume at Gainesville High School’s front office, scored an interview that same day and landed his dream job.

He’s been making waves at the school since 2001.

Class In Session

Students from all walks of life gravitate to Malo’s class. There are no cliques in his room. The drama kids, math whizzes and football players all come together to get the job done.

Malo’s approach is out of the ordinary, but effective. And of course, he keeps it fun.

He looks at the left wall of his classroom proudly. It’s covered with student projects from his “Photo-chop” contest. The assignment required students use Photoshop to put Malo’s face onto famous pop culture figures, such as Willy Wonka and Miley Cyrus.

“The Pulp Fiction one is one of my favorites,” he said, smiling.

The art of cutting photos is just one part of Malo’s lesson plan. He teaches photography, animation, graphic design, filmmaking, broadcasting and basic HTML coding in his multimedia production classes.

Malo ensures his students are ready for jobs and learn qualities that are attractive to employers instead of focusing on test preparation.

Some students landed jobs and started careers right after graduating from high school. Others snatched up coveted spots in top film schools like Florida State University and the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

Chaz Chester, a 19-year-old sophomore at NYU’s Tisch, submitted a portfolio of work from Malo’s class that landed him an acceptance letter to its film and TV production program.

His mother, Suzanne Chester, agrees that Malo’s class not only strengthens students’ creativity, but teaches them responsibility and punctuality.

“Tony Malo’s class changed my son’s life,” she said. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart.”

Suzanne said she hopes more teachers will adopt a classroom style like Malo’s.

Malo fosters a democratic environment, and students execute projects collaboratively.

“It’s a student-driven class,” he said.

But once in a while, it becomes challenging.

Paying Attention

Like other teachers, Malo sometimes has an outspoken student who is a little harder to handle. His disciplinary style, just like his educational method, is different. Malo confessed to being a problem child in school, so he knows what to do.

He doesn’t lose his temper or write up referrals.

“What good will that do?” Malo said.

Instead, Malo meets one-on-one with the student. He said having a conversation usually solves the problem.

Malo said he teaches this way partly because of his own experience with Attention Deficit Disorder. It also contributes to his way of dealing with students who give him a hard time.

Malo had difficulty adapting to structured classroom spaces when he was young, so he saw a doctor who told him he had all the symptoms of ADD.

It wasn’t great news, but Malo eventually channeled it into a teaching method.

And while Malo loves his job, he said there are a few drawbacks.

“The money part is a big hindrance,” he said. He teaches an extra class period to make more.

He also said state-level lawmakers pressure teachers like him to focus more on test preparation.

But for now, Malo likes where he is. As for a long-term goal, he said he would like to someday be a college professor.

“I want to teach teachers,” he said.

His Impact

Thomas Moseley, a 19-year-old University of Florida telecommunication sophomore, is a former student of Malo. He said the multimedia production class sparked his passion for media. Moseley enrolled in the class at a friend’s suggestion and found his chosen career field.

“It’s really a hidden gem in the school system in Alachua County,” Moseley said.

Malo helped shape Moseley’s goals and gave him a head start on his college classes.

Gainesville High principal David Shelnutt agrees. He said some of Malo’s students earn industry certifications before college because they possess competitive skills learned in his class.

Shelnutt maintains that Malo shows students what life beyond high school is like and what they need to be successful. Malo’s class is very different from typical high school classes, but it works.

Malo is just as fond of his students as they are of him. He forms good working relationships with them, and keeps in touch after graduation.

Carrie Carusone, a 17-year-old Gainesville High School junior, said she plans on taking one of Malo’s classes next year. She took beginning video production her sophomore year and said she had nothing but a positive experience.

She said the class helped her discover her desire to be a filmmaker. She has even produced a documentary.

“This is what I’m going to do with my life,” she said. “I’ve never met a teacher who cared so much…It’s changed my life drastically.”

About Elizabeth Brown

Elizabeth is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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One comment

  1. Oh yea I had mister malo’s class for digital design he was the best teacher I have ever met in any of the schools I visited ( I’m a foreign student so I went to a lot of school to learn literature) but I also loved art and making logos and when I met him the first time in the middle of the school year I said I’ll get a class no matter what and at the beginning of the next school I got two classes.

    In short he’s awesome

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