About 12 desks and chairs were spread out six feet apart around the classroom, but they were empty. Along one wall, 20 more desks and chairs were stacked up and out of the way.
There was a huge whiteboard at the front of the room, but it, too, was empty, bright, white and sanitized. A smaller mobile whiteboard was next to it with only the words “It’s a whiteboard” written on it. It looked like a classroom, but not one that was about to start class in 30 seconds.
All the action in this classroom at Indio High School on Thursday was confined to the southwest corner of the room. That’s where sophomore English teacher Alex Jackson was working his magic.
Jackson, like a lot of teachers this school year, has chosen to conduct his distance-learning from his actual classroom. Using some of his own equipment, but mostly the school’s, he created a mini-TV studio in the corner of his room, that’s room 5202 on the second floor of the 500 building.
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I shadowed Jackson for an entire school day just to see what it was like for a teacher to conduct a class from an empty room. I crammed myself into a small desk at the back of the classroom and stayed silent, much like I did when I was in high school. This is what it was like to watch him work:
He operated from a standing position and had a monitor perched on a small stool on his desk to match the eye level of his 6-foot-3 frame. All he brought from home was a tablet, a small ring-light he bought at Target, and a big microphone, like the kind you see on the desk of a late-night talk show host. Then, using the school’s computers and wifi, he was off and running.
The 33-year-old Jackson, who taught the last two years at La Quinta High School, started preparing for this type of classroom set-up in late July when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that schools in county’s on the watch list would not be allowed to hold in-person classes.
“When I first started teaching from home last year, it was like crisis mode. We were just trying to keep the ship afloat and make sure the students were getting some level of education and that we were able to keep connected with them. Whereas now that I have a classroom, I want to show them that the classroom still exists. I want to invite them into that space,” he said.
“It is very strange to be in an empty classroom. It’s a little bit heart-breaking to walk in and see it completely bare, but that is part of the benefit as well. I have a place that’s safe, that’s quiet and has the resources that I need to use and is a place where I can connect.”
Jackson wore his signature look which is a backwards burgundy cap, a 1980s-style jean jacket complete with pins for his “Office Space” style pieces of flare, all on top of a crisp white shirt with a fun tie.
Being a fly on the wall in his classroom while he worked was kind of comical, in that I could hear him talk, but couldn’t hear what the students were saying into his oversized white headphones.
Greeting the students
Jackson logged on and plugged in at about 8:30 a.m. for his first class which began at 8:40. As students logged on using their school-issued Chromebooks, the first thing they saw was their teacher playing a game called “Shell Shockers” where he is an egg that walks around and shoots stuff. As students filed in, Jackson’s end of the conversation sounded like this:
8:33 a.m.: “Hey Anthony! If you can see me and hear me, then you are all set.”
8:35 a.m.: “Everybody. Make sure you can get into Google classroom, and you can hear me and see me, and your cameras are ready to go.”
8:36 a.m.: “Hey, you have to go to Google Classroom for that.”
8:37 a.m.: “I want to see some faces, right now I only know that Anthony exists. Whoever is logged in as 1877227, that’s no good. I have to have a name or I’m going to have to knock you out of the room.”
8:38 a.m.: “Yes, Sarah you should do the assignment on Google Classroom real quick.”
8:40 a.m.: “OK, since it’s 8:40 a.m., come on in everybody. I’m going to set a 3-minute timer. I’m going to play a little music, this is Phoebe Bridgers, she’s not hip-hop or anything, but it’s something I’m into right now.”
8:43 a.m.: “OK, turn your mikes on, your screens on and cameras on and we’re going to get started.”
8:45 a.m.: “Yes! Look at everybody’s faces. This is so great. Whoa! Cristina what is that behind you, a plant? So cool. Rene, you look exactly like a ceiling fan. There you go, there’s your face. I like that poster behind you Juan, looking good.”
And they were off and running. It was clear that Jackson had no trouble handling all the information that was coming at him: The students were talking to him, asking him questions in chat boxes, he had his music on his phone, was looking at his Google Classroom, all the while continuing to engage with the students.
He said he actually likes being in that position.
“I do feel sort of like Neo plugging into the Matrix, but I kind of like trying to handle situations where tons of things are happening all around me,” he said.
That makes one of us. If I tried to pull off Jackson’s class, there’d be a lot of “Ok, hold on. Let me find my cursor. Just a second Sharice, I’ll get to your chat once I close out the Google Classroom tab. Crap! My chat window is gone now. How do I get that back? Hold on a sec, let me just … you know what. Let’s take a five-minute break.”
The first class
This was only the second day of the new school year so a lot of the 90-minute session was about how the class would function. Jackson did position three posters on the wall behind him so the students could see his three educational pillars and what he expects from his students: Be There. Be Open. Be Better.
He took those posters off the wall and held them in front of his camera to discuss what each of them meant. The Cliff’s Notes version: Be your authentic self, don’t try to act like a student; You are going to hear people say things you don’t agree with, maybe even make dumb mistakes, be prepared for that and be cool with it, everyone will be treated with respect; and lastly, just try to be better than you were the day before.
He then asked them about their interests. Who are they watching on YouTube? Who are good people to follow on TikTok? In almost every case, Jackson had already heard of the person or content-creators that his kids were mentioning. He then asked the kids what was the last book they read? “Diary of a Wimpy Kid! Yes, a classic. ‘Of Mice and Men’ good. Yes! Manga counts. Does Manga count? Of course, look at my pin.”
So, after I did a Google search for Manga — a genre of Japanese anime style graphic novels and comics — I figured out what he was talking about. One of the pins on Jackson’s jean jacket is of Professor Aizawa from a Manga series called “My Hero Academia.” This is all to say, that the 33-year-old Jackson is not just paying lip service about being well-versed in what the kids are into these days. He actually loves the stuff.
About 20 minutes into the 90-minute period, he broke the 40-person class into smaller Zoom groups of five or six and then challenged them to share with each other their highest point and lowest point of the day before. Jackson’s high point, for example, was some chili cheese fries and a shake he got at Farmer Brothers.
Then he would periodically jump into the smaller groups: “Boo! This is your teacher. Who’s talking. OK, Maria sorry to interrupt, go ahead. Why are none of you on camera? Aren’t you excited to interact with someone? That’s better. Ha, nice hat Philip. OK, Maria you were saying? Totally. I like that too. OK, pick someone else to talk. Jose, that’s you. Tell everyone your high and low point of yesterday. I’m going to jump into another group.”
After bouncing around to all the groups, he finished the class by having the kids watch a 40-minute video that he had created the night before. It was a video lesson of some sort, but using editing software he dropped himself into the video to ask the kids questions periodically throughout. When the student had completed the 40-minute video, they answered a few questions and they were done.
The smaller groups, the 40-minute video to close, these are all tricks that Jackson learned — and has been teaching to other teachers — from the limited amount of distance-teaching he went through in the spring.
“No one wants to sit there on a 90-minute long Zoom meeting, you don’t want that for them, you don’t want that for yourself,” Jackson said. “There are better ways to do it. We brought all these teachers together and said what were the best things that worked and how can we share that out to everybody and train people to do that as best they can.”
He breaks the class down into synchronous and asynchronous activities, meaning stuff where he’s involved and stuff where he’s not involved.
“Like the 40-minute video. I could just teach all that stuff by continuing to talk to them like normal, but what we learned from last year is that mixing it up connects with them more than a 90-minute lecture,” he said.
The rest of the day
Jackson repeated the process for his second-period class which went from 10:05 to 11:20 a.m. This was a group of seniors and they were a little more confident in their interaction with Jackson.
More faces and fewer ceiling fans from the get-go.
He was called out by one student who asked if he was just pretending to drink from his coffee cup. And he was busted. At that point, he was fake drinking from a coffee cup to add dramatic effect. He made sure to have a full cup before his next class.
Jackson did not have a third-period class. It’s a period for teachers to spend catching up on things or getting ahead on future projects. And that led right into lunch.
With such a big empty space in the day, I went home for lunch, but Jackson stayed. He answered a bunch of e-mails, did some organizational work for the following week, and ate … well, nothing. He likes to fast (with the exception of his box of Starbucks coffee) until after school and then he pigs out.
I returned 10 minutes before his fourth and final class of the day which began at 1:30 p.m. He ushered me through an empty but still beautifully new Indio campus. There were a few people working in the front office. We walked past one lawn maintenance person blowing some grass off the sidewalk as we made the trek to his classroom. It was on the second floor and had a nice view overlooking the football field, which was empty Thursday afternoon and will stay empty until January. If there were other teachers working from their classrooms, we didn’t see any.
Jackson estimated probably 75 percent of the teachers there planned to work from their classrooms as opposed to working from home.
Period four was exactly the same as periods one and two, although he did switch the three-minute musical interlude from Phoebe Bridgers to rapper Super Duper Kyle. This was a big group of sophomores again. Jackson probably felt a little sheepish with me being there as he used some of the same “naturally-occurring” jokes in all three periods.
This group was the most active. Tons of questions for Jackson about what sports he liked, what video games he liked. Even a bit of video game trash-talking. I’m not sure in what way the student challenged Jackson, but he said “Bring it on. That’s the good thing about video games and being old. It’s not like sports where you get worse as you get older. With video games that just means you’ve had more hours to practice.”
This last period of the day was the same smooth execution from Jackson. Music. Chat. Ceiling fan. Three pillars. Small groups. Coffee cup. 40-minute video. And his time with the students was done at 2:45 p.m.
His usual daily routine would then include answering more e-mail messages (as one of the designated experts on the tech side of things, he gets a lot of teachers asking him for help) and then working on the video portion of the next day’s class. He shoots that in his little classroom studio.
Teachers and technology
As I left the school that day, I couldn’t get over how impressive it was to watch Jackson work, deftly bouncing from computer to tablet to phone to monitor to microphone to camera without hesitation.
Now to be fair to other teachers, Jackson is definitely in his element with this style of interaction, and he made it look easy. He regularly shoots YouTube videos, including instructional ones for other teachers (feel free to subscribe by searching Alex Jackson on YouTube).
Jackson understands that not every teacher can do what he does, but he also wouldn’t want every teacher to be the same. It’s about finding the best way for every teacher to do what they already do well, and do it in this new world of education via distance learning.
“We have all these amazing and brilliant teachers and we have to find a way not to turn them into something else, but to translate what they’re doing to an online platform,” he said. “I don’t know if I can expect a 60-year-old teacher that’s been doing the same program for the last 20 years to completely shift and become Ninja playing Fortnite with the kids. That’s not a reasonable expectation.
“So to get the same amount of buy-in and interaction from the students, it requires rethinking,” Jackson said. “Not a rethinking where I would want these teachers who have an amazing teaching philosophy to change the way that they teach. I want to give them a translator basically.”
And that’s an interesting way to think about this. What’s happening for teachers right now is that they are trying to teach the way they always have, but using a new language. It will take time, but it doesn’t hurt to have a translator who can make that communication go more smoothly.
So my day spent in the classroom with Jackson was … well, educational.
It’s a different world out there for students, but they adapt quickly, especially when it comes to technology. Teachers are the ones put in the most difficult position during distance-learning.
For Jackson, it’s a challenge he’s eager to accept. And he already seems to feel at home. Even if his new home is a makeshift TV studio in a tiny corner of an empty classroom.
Shad Powers is a columnist for The Desert Sun. Follow him at firstname.lastname@example.org.