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 Drive Update Adds Functionality for the Classroom

The Google Drive app for Android was updated yesterday and includes a bunch of cool features for teachers.

The standout updates for me were:

Ability to download files.  The older Drive app allowed you (and still does) the ability to save a document or file for offline viewing.  Now, however, you can actually download the file directly to your Android device.  I tested it out by uploading an .mp3 to Drive on my laptop, then downloading it onto my device and it worked.  From there I was able to open it up in the Google Play Music app.  This is great because file management on mobile devices – how to get things from point A the student to point B the teacher – has always been an issue.  Yes there are workarounds but it’s usually a process and it’s hardly ever seamless.  Now, if a student creates a movie or audio file on one device, they should be able to save it to their Drive account, download it to another device and keep working without having to include Dropbox, and thus another login account.

Download a file
Download a file

Scan documents.  Drive for Android now allows you to scan documents as a PDF.  I use this function quite a bit with Evernote for anything from receipts to important documents, so it’s nice to see that functionality extended to Drive.  Drive utilizes OCR to help quickly search for a document and pull it up, which is helpful.  Scanning documents from a mobile device is one step closer to becoming a near paperless class.

Scan a doc in Drive
Scan a doc in Drive

Although this is available for Android only at the moment, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that the update will be coming to iOS devices in the not too distant future.  Google has a pretty good track record as of late of keeping iOS and Android apps competitive with each other (i.e. Maps) and in some cases, better (still no YouTube Capture for Android?).

See the list below for all of the features available for the latest Google Drive for Android.

* With Google Drive, you can store all your files in one place, so you can access them from anywhere and share them with others
* Use the Google Drive Android app to access your photos, documents, videos and other files stored on your Google Drive
* Upload files to Google Drive directly from your Android device
* Share any file with your contacts
* Access files others have shared with you on Google Drive
* Make any file available offline so you can view them even when you don’t have an Internet connection
* Manage files on the go
* Create and edit Google documents with support for tables, comments and rich text formatting
* Create and edit Google spreadsheets with support for text formatting, multiple sheets and sorting
* Edits to your Google documents and spreadsheets appear to collaborators in seconds
* View Google presentations with full animations and speaker notes
* View your PDFs, Office documents and more
* Scan documents, receipts and letters for safe keeping in Drive; then search by contents once uploaded
* Print files stored in Google Drive on the go using Google Cloud Print
* Open files stored in Google Drive through Drive enabled apps in the browser
* Optimized experience to take advantage of larger screens for tablet users, Honeycomb (Android 3.0+)

List taken from Google Play.

Google Moderator in the Classroom

Google Moderator is a tool that allows you to easily add to a conversation.  You can either submit your own idea or question to be answered, or, ask a question or submit an idea.  Pretty easy, huh?  The neat thing it though, that you are an active participant in the discussion by voting on other questions or ideas that are “in the que”.

This way, you don’t just ask a question and sit back.  You also get a chance to see if there are other questions you might also have or maybe an idea you hadn’t even thought of yet.  I think this has a lot of potential in the classroom to incorporate higher order questioning with topics and have students submit their answers to the questions, or, make evaluative judgements on the questions that are being asked.

Here’s a brief example of how it works:

So how could you use Google Moderator in the classroom?  Click HERE to submit an idea and see how it works!

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.

Using Google Docs for Peer Editing

I’ve recently posted on how I share a Google Doc with students.  One of my goals using Google Docs with students is for them to become better editors of each others work.  With that in mind, I’ve taught my students a few simple ways to edit each others works in Google Docs.

Over time, I’d like my students to become purveyors of their own work more and more.  The idea (and I’m sure it’s not mine) is for the students to be able to critically analyze what each other written work to improve their own writing.

So far, I think it’s an effective tool.  The catch is, that the feedback needs to be authentic and not just fluff.  Of course, this is where teaching instruction comes into play.