2 Days @ Google: Geo Teachers Institute

Google is an interesting and unique technology company. Not only has it created an industry based on web search (which it basically has a monopoly on), but it has expanded into other unique fields. From cell phones to online word processing, selling advertisements to self-driving cars, Google’s scope and reach has grown exponentially over the last ten years.

It should be of no surprise that Google has expanded into education.  It does this by offering technology tools and services such as Google Apps for Education and Chromebooks, but it also offers professional development and opportunities to network with other educators across the globe.  My first experience with Google in this regard was when I became a Google Certified teacher in 2009.  Since then I have led a multitude of conferences and training a based on Google’s tools, but with the intent to show other educators how to think differently about teaching, learning, and curriculum.


I recently had an opportunity to head to Mountain View, California – home of the Google campuses – to attend the Geography Teachers Institute.  This two day event was focused on exposing teachers to different geographic tools created by Google.  More than that, it was a chance to think about our educational place in the world and how we as educators can connect our kids learning to a global community.

Day 1

A short night’s sleep caused by a late night flight  led to an early morning.  This did not dampen my excitement for the first day of the Geo Institute however.  Google’s campuses inspire the type of creativity and enthusiasm for dedication to work every employer should use.  Granted, it’s a little harder to do when you’re a public school district and not a billion dollar company, but I think the culture can still be adapted in a lot of ways.  When the opening session started, we were reminded of a quote from Larry Page that you should “always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.”  This resonated with me.  How often in education do we truly get excited for what we do?  Regardless of your position in the district, we ought to be excited about the work we’re doing for kids, otherwise, why are we doing it?  The goals of the Geo Institute are to discover, learn, and create.  I tried to keep this in mind throughout the two days I was there, and, as a learner I realized that if I couldn’t do one of the three, then that was on me as a learner, and not the presenters.  The rest of the day (aside from amazing food and bike rides on the multi-colored bikes strewn all over the campuses) was broken down into different sessions.  Here’s my quick snapshot of the sessions I attended.



Session 1 – Google Earth Engine

This session was led by a “Googler” about the possibilities and the power of the Google Earth Engine.  In a nutshell, the Google Earth Engine is a catalog of data with access to over 40 years of satellite imagery.  Google uses scientific data to analyze this data and make sense of the satellite imagery.  This has been used from a wide range of things from analyzing deforestation patterns around the world, tracking diseases, and monitoring urban sprawl.  Honestly, a lot of it was over my head and I’m not sure that I understood it well enough to help a teacher use it effectively.  I’m not sure that it’s ready for prime time for the average educator to use in class because it’s not that efficient or user friendly at the moment, but when/if it becomes more accessible, it can be used as a powerful tool for synthesis and analysis of data that carries real world consequences.

Session 2 – Storytelling with Tour Builder

Tour Builder was the best thing I learned at the institute.  About five years ago when I was in the classroom teaching social studies, I had my students build maps in Google Maps, insert pictures, draw lines for travel, and more.  This is like that, but it’s cleaner, well built, and works really, really well.  I had all sorts of visions on how I could have teachers use this tool across all curriculum areas, elementary and secondary.


Day 2

Session 1 – Google Maps Engine Lite

There are more parts to Google Maps than you think.  99% of the population uses Google Maps to find their route to work, check traffic, or look up a new coffee shop.    Google Maps Engine Lite  allows you to do this, but it also allows you to build maps of your own.  One of the handiest features of this is the ability to import data from a spreadsheet that can be automatically mapped in a Google Map.  It’s a really cool and useful tool.  I have a little experience using GME Lite, so I was looking for something a little more powerful.  I got that and more during the next session.

Session 2 – Fusion Tables

Fusion Tables allow you to import a lot of data and manipulate it so it will affect a map the way you want to (that explanation probably covers about 5% of what Fusion Tables is actually capable of, but it was so in depth and awesome, my brain couldn’t keep up with the learning as I was thinking of ways I could use it).  If Storybuilder was the most satisfying to learn during the Institute, Fusion Tables was the thing that inspired me the most and made me want to dig deeper.  I can see a lot of applications to how this could be used in all types of classes and even at the district level.


I always enjoy and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about topics I’m interested in.  Google does a tremendous job of presenting their tools and explaining it’s application in classrooms, usually leveraging current classroom teachers and educators in the process.  Since all of these tools are free to use for educators (let me repeat: they’re free tools), it never feels like a sales pitch.  The thing that nurtures me the most, however, is the opportunity to spend time with like minded colleagues in the field of education and hear their thoughts about the possibilities education has to change children’s lives.  That’s something I got in spades.  The Geo Institute was an amazing time that nurtured me as a learner and raised enough provoking ideas to fuel my desire to keep learning and sharing more.



Google Apps: What is Mission Critical to You?

As a Google Certified Teacher (and soon to be Trainer), using Google Apps is the norm in my classroom.  From Google Docs, to Maps, Forms, and Sites, there are a plethora of apps I use.

Some apps, to me, are more important than others.  As a social studies teacher, I relish any opportunity to use Google Maps.  Sites offers an opportunity to have students create meaningful learning to them by collecting information in a way they can connect with and share that learning with others.

There Can Be Only One Google App!

But above all, I’d be hard pressed to continue running my classroom the way I do without the use of Docs.  I use docs is so many different ways to engage students, evaluate and assess students, and to collect information from students.  Additionally, it’s incredible to see what learning connections can be made between students when you have them work collaboratively on a document.

What is your Mission Critical Google App?  Would the way you teach your students suffer if it weren’t there?

Leave feedback below.

Google Mapping Native American History

Every year I try to fit in a Native American unit into my eighth grade U.S. History curriculum. If I were to follow the prepared curriculum out of our mammoth sized textbooks, this would probably never happen. But, I think it’s important to recognize the uniqueness of Native American history and culture alongside the expansion if the United States history, so I make time for it.

Previous years I’ve tried to allow students to work to their strengths and create a final assessment for me that not only demonstrates their understanding and comprehension of the material, but affords them the opportunity to stretch themselves creatively. Students have turned in dioramas, movies, created songs, written reports, and other types of projects, all on a specific tribe they research. While it was very interesting to see what the students came up with, I felt they were placing more emphasis on the finished product, and not as much on the learning objectives. A sort of teaching to the diorama, if you will.

Out with the old

This year I was intent to reverse that trend, by limiting the projects students would do in favor of having them spend more time on research, analysis, and application. Rather than allow students to choose anything they wished, I narrowed the focus and required each group (3 or 4) of students to:

  1. Research a Native American tribe.
  2. Summarize their information in the form of a Google Doc they create and edit together.
  3. Apply that information to a Google Map they create.
Step 1
Students started out by first researching a specific Native American tribe they were assigned at random. There was a pool of about 20 different tribes I gathered ahead of time to ensure enough quality information could be found by each group. Their research packet was split into three categories: Geography, Society/Culture, and Economy/Resources.
Step 2
After they had done their research and filled out their packet, they had to choose one of the aforementioned categories and summarize their research in paragraph form on a shared Google Doc.  Since all of the groups information was on one Google Doc, it became incredibly easy for me to give them feedback in the form of comments, and, it allowed them to peer edit each others work.

Step 3
With their research analyzed and summarized in paragraph form, they could now easily create their Google Map.  I created a rubric for students to follow, and also provided some simple instructions on how to get started.  What was surprising was how quickly most students picked it up.  After reading through the directions, the majority of students would shoo me away and finish the map on their own.  Each group had to insert Placemarks of the three categories, insert relevant pictures that would help explain their paragraph, draw the area the tribe lived in and, for extra credit, they could insert a YouTube video about their tribe.

In with the new

So..did it work?

Compared to years past, this project was much more successful at having students meet learning objectives.  Not only did they have fun and use their creative energy to create a Google Map, but after giving them a reflective final assessment, it was clear to me that they had a better grasp not only on their tribe, but on the histories and cultures of Native American tribes across the U.S. during the 19th century.  If you’ve ever thought about using Google Maps with your students, I highly recommend you dive right in and try it out.  Especially, if your district uses Google Apps for Education, as mine does.


Here’s how you can insert YouTube video clips into a Placemark.

Google Enables Multiple Sign-In Accounts, Multiple Browsers Windows D.O.A.

My web Browser, now with more Google!

Google enabled multiple sign-in accounts today.  So what?  So what?? I’ll tell you so what.  That means that with my personal Google Account, my professional school related Google Account, and the Google account I have through our district’s Google Apps account, I can be signed in to all three at the same time.  Perfect for work productivity (personal) collaboration with colleagues (professional), and checking student work (Apps acct.)  There are some limitations though, so make sure you check the fine print here.

Analysis: Google Teacher Academy

At the beginning of Dec. (’09) I attended the Google Teacher Academy in Washington D.C. My intent on going was to: A) learn more about the offerings of Google and gain a better understanding of how I could use Google apps in my 8th grade U.S. history class, and, B) pick the brains of fellow educators from around the country who are also doing great things with technology in their classrooms.

Worth it. Totally worth it.

The entire experience was the best professional workshop I’ve attended. Ever. Unlike a lot of workshop/conferences I’ve been to, GTADC equipped me with tools I can use in my classroom today, and it allowed me the creativity to think about how I could implement these skills into my curriculum.

Some of the highlights:

  • I teach 8th grade U.S. history, so the implementation of Google Maps AND Earth was phenomenal.  The point is not to just show students places on the earth, but to interact with them and expand them.  A presentation on Google Lit Trips sealed the deal for me.  Instead of just showing where battles of the Civil War were, I plan on having students add details into Earth about the surrounding areas and putting the battles in chronological order.
  • Speaking of the Civil War, how cool would it be to see a 3D modeling of Antietam, Gettysburg, or any other battle site of the Civil War?  SketchUp would allow me (or the students) to create one of these and bring the battlefield to them.
  • In past years I’ve set up a wiki from PBworks for a collaborative project where students research different events that followed the writing of the Constitution.  This year, I’m determined to use Google Sites.  My students already have Google Accounts, so there’s really no point in using a new service where they’d have to remember a brand new login and password they may use only once.  Plus, since their login will work with Google Maps, Docs, etc., there’s near limitless possibilities for embedding these existing tools into their own site page.
  • Since I don’t teach math, I’ve stayed away from using Google spreadsheets a lot because well, math is icky.  Really, it is….  After having a grand tour of it however, I’m ready to sing its praises.  While I’m not too interested in plotting and graphing points along an X and Y axis or managing different mathematical formulas (icky, like I said), I am interested in seeing different statistics from different countries over time.  Life expectancies, GDP, literacy rates, etc., are all different things one could graph into a Google Spreadsheet.  AND THEN, you can insert a gadget into that spreadsheet to make it look really cool and give it some animation over time.  AND THEN, you can insert that spreadsheet into a site or have multiple students collaborate on it.  Really cool stuff (and not icky at all).
  • Because of a generous grant in our district, I will soon be receiving a classroom set of iPod Touches.  In between guest speakers and breaks at GTADC, I spent a lot of timing picking the brains of teachers (like him and him) who know what they’re talking about and teachers who can help me make this leap.  Although it wasn’t sponsored  by Google, networking with so many fellow educators from other points on the map was really encouraging and inspiring.

I could go on and on about the awesome things I experienced, but sooner or later I’d run out of bullet-points.

The last thing I’ll say, is that before attending, I was skeptical.  And perhaps maybe even a little cynical, and I know I’m not the only educator out there who’s ever had this sentiment. Even though I wanted to go and applied to go, I was leery of drinking the Google Kool-Aid and having them use me as a conduit to hook my young and impressionable students into using their free products for life.  After I got there and went through the process, it became evident to me that I should really use these Google Apps for Education for what they are: products (FREE products mind you) to help students become engaged and learn.  What’s wrong with that?  Why is the outcry not as loud for text book publishers who have been price gouging school districts for decades?  Microsoft has been doing this for years, and even Apple fanboys have to admit that Apple’s expansive play into education is rooted in turning a profit first and providing an educational experience second (seriously, if nobody made any money in it, no company would ever bother with us plebes in the lowly public sector).  So, if Google is going to offer me and my students something for free to make their learning experience that much better, I’ll take it.

After all, when I was in high school we only had Coke machines, and now I prefer Pepsi.  Turns out I can make decisions for myself.  Who knew?

It’s Only Broken If You Don’t Know How to Fix It

The tree in my backyard sheds more than a St. Bernard in July.  Leaves are everywhere and there’s’ no end in sight.  To remedy this problem, I ventured to the nearest Home Depot and bought an Echo blower/vac to use the leaves as mulch around my recently re-landscaped yard. It worked pretty well.  For 3 hours.

Then it broke.  It started to smell like it was catching fire, which is certainly not something you want to have happen while dealing with gas-powered yard equipment.  And, the pull cord no longer pulled.  It was done.

Mugshot #1 of the perp.

There are very few things that annoy me more than when you invest money into technology that promises to part the seas and change your life, only to have it not part the seas and drown you in a tidal wave of frustration.  Had I really known how to fix it, I would have, but that’s not the point.  The point is, technology is supposed to make life easier, less complicated, and to aid us in tasks we already do.  Not make life more difficult, take up more time, and add frustration.

For some of my student’s in class, this is exactly what I am giving them.  Not intentionally of course, but that’s what they feel, and that’s their reality.  How then, can this be combated?

Mugshot #2 of the perp.

Well, a lot of it has to do with education.  If, for example, I knew how to fix the leaf blower/vac, I could have fixed it myself had the problem recurred in the future.  Or, knowing that it’s a piece of junk, I could take it back to the Depot of Homes, get a refund, and swear off Echo purchases again (something I would never do because I love the weed-wacker I have).  Since I wasn’t (and still am not) educated enough to understand how to disassemble a motor like that, I can’t fix the problem myself, but that doesn’t mean I need to give up and allow the leaves to win now do I?  Even if the gadget doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, the experience is something I can learn from.

At school, students (and the occasional parent) may have the tendency to shut down when they don’t understand how to use something we’re doing in class.  The latest instance of this I experienced was a paper I had my students type using Google Docs.  For some, it was a real challenge to create an account, type the paragraph, and learn how to share and edit their paper with myself and their peer editing partner.  Some students wanted to just use Microsoft Word, while others were so exasperated they just wanted to write the whole thing by hand.  The time before that, students needed to make a map using Google Maps.  Embedding and highlighting the routes explorers took to North America was a significant challenge to some students.

In both situations, it does no good to abandon the project altogether and write the paper or do the maps the old traditional way.  They already know how to do that.  What they need is to learn new processes that make it easier to learn, share, and collaborate.  Sometimes, this works exactly the way it’s supposed to, and others, well….sometimes you have to return a blower/vac to Home Depot and try again.  If you give up, you don’t learn anything new.  If you don’t learn anything new, you’re raking leaves in two feet of snow.