Google Teacher Academy and What I Learned (Am Learning)

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Last month I spent two days at the Google Teacher Academy  (GTA) held in Mountain View, California. I was nervous driving up to the fancy Google campus, and I admit I arrived way to early and thought way too much about what I was going to wear. It felt like I was a driving into a foreign city where I might not speak the language. However, I need not have worried because—of course—the morning was planned to get us working like “Googlers” right from the beginning. I barely had a chance to think for the entire two days. Isn’t thinking what it’s about? Maybe. Actually, the GTA is more about experiencing it and then reflecting about it later.

For this blog post, I’m attempting to put together my initial thoughts and takeaways from the experience. I suspect, however, that I won’t be able to record everything.

1) What is a Google Certified Teacher (GCT)?

The GTA leadership has a very specific answer to this: A GCT is “an outstanding educator who has a passion for using innovative technologies and approaches to improve teaching and learning, a creative leader who understands opportunities and challenges and has the desire to empower others in her community and beyond, and an ambassador for change who models high expectations, life-long learning, collaboration, equity and innovation.” I like how this description emphasizes collaboration and creativity, not necessarily the technological tools. I noticed something more about the GCT culture: Extreme positivity and “can-do-it-ness” (not a word, I know, but I can’t say it any other way). People simply do not sit around complaining about what is wrong with education. We did talk about challenges but only in regard to what we can do about them. The GCT leaders and participants were all willing to have fun, to take risks, to work together, and to absorb new ideas. There was seriously a lot of enthusiasm in that room.  Honestly, this group made me feel almost lazy by comparison.

2) What is Google teaching and learning all about?

Obviously, there is no one answer, but there were some common threads I noticed over the two days:

  • Promote creativity and risk-taking with game-based learning. Throughout the course of the GTA we had many “challenges,” all of which involved working in teams and with a time limit. It was about getting the job done, not about perfection. Because we usually had a limited amount of time, there wasn’t any wasted time in the groups—no off-topic chatter or, “I’m bad at that, so why don’t you…” We just got to work.
  • Provide models and templates. I love how Google Apps allow you to make templates via Slides or Docs for participants to copy and make their own. Instead of handouts, the Google templates are interactive: Students can change text, add color, click on hyperlinked text, and collaborate—all without having to crowd around a piece of poster paper or deciding who will be the “scribe.” Everyone thinks, everyone reads, and everyone writes.
  • Publish! Almost all of the challenges and activities were published to the group in some way. For the “GTA MTV YouTube Video Awards” we created video shorts about a challenge in teaching, pasted the URL onto a Google form, watched our cohort’s videos and voted on the best one from the entire group. During the “Magic School Bus Field Trip” using Google Maps Engine, we took pictures of ourselves using Nexus tablets—these had to be metaphorical pictures based on given clues—and uploaded the pics for the rest of the group to see. Every activity had some kind of publication component and since it was all digital, it didn’t necessarily have to be done during the time frame of the activity.

3) What are some tools / activities I can use in my English classroom right away?

There were too many ideas for me to type up here and I am still processing, but this is a list of some of the standouts from my perspective as a junior high English teacher.

  • Are You a Google Iron Chef Master? For this activity, we were given a template of Google Slides which we copied and shared in groups of three. The template contains directions for what should be included on each slide. Each group member was in charge of one slide. This meant reading the material attached with hyperlinks, writing a summary on the slide, and adding an appropriate image. All with a time limit and, if memory serves,  music like in the TV show Iron ChefFinally, each group quickly shared its slide project via the TV screen in the conference room.  This is an idea I can use right away — the reading materials are easily attached to Google Slides and students are required to read, think, write, and even conceptualize the main idea with an illustration or photo. It made practicing literacy skills fun and relevant. (from Jon Corippo, GTA WA ’11and JR Ginex-Orinion, GTA NY ’12)
  • HyperDocs: This is a related idea in that it utilizes hypertext to pull together materials for students. The idea is for the teacher to put together lessons or entire units of study in one place—Google Slides, Google Docs, or Google Sites. The learner clicks on links to find the reading materials, videos, and worksheets. The HyperDoc functions as an interactive binder that can evolve with the class. I love that collaborative materials can be linked—so students may watch a video and then comment on a table. Since it is a Google Doc, many students can write on the same table and everyone can see their answers. I also love the idea of planting “easter eggs” or fun little diversions along the way. Not everything has to be so serious. Lead learner, Lisa Highfill shared this HyperDoc lesson using Google Sites: How Old Am I? Everything is one place and the creator can make modifications at any time. This is how I want all of my units to be.  (from Lisa Highfill, GTA WA’11)
  • Blogging: I already know that I want my students blogging and I started on that journey with Kidblog last year. The conversation I had with the other GTA participants made me even more dedicated to this idea. Here’s why: Blogging is an authentic form of 21st century writing. It provides an audience and demands feedback. It allows students to write about topics they care about and to experiment with different forms. Also, let’s face it: I’d much rather read a student blog than an analytical essay about the character motivations from a novel the student may or may not have read. I got a few tips that are worth writing down here:
    • Grading: Based on completion of a certain amount of words / or number of blog entries (i.e., “showing up”), plus adding blogging elements, such as hyperlinks, images, and commenting on others. Another step might be to add stylistic elements such as metaphors or imagery.
    • Safety: No last names, no photographs of student faces, no personal information whatsoever. Also, kids who are uncomfortable with comments may have the option of turning them off. Question: Can students be in charge of moderating their own comments? That is something I’ll experiment with next year.
    • Go Public! Real bloggers crave an audience. For my young bloggers, this means clearing it with parents. One elementary teacher I met at the GTA has parents sign a consent form for every app she plans on using during the year, including Twitter, Kidblog, Edmodo, and Skype.
    • Mentor Texts: Have students read several examples of blogs and come up with the criteria of what makes a good blog together.
    • Organization: Use a reader like Feedly to keep up with reading student blogs. Alternatively, you can use a Google Form and have students past their blog URLs into it.
    • Use Online Resources for Help: Teachers from all over are making this happen with students. I love Mrs. Yolllis’s Classroom Blog because she proves that even elementary school kids can be bloggers. Plus, it came up in our GTA conversation that even older kids will enjoy watching the tips she and her students give about how to blog. Here’s a YouTube video: How to Write a Quality Comment.
    • Work in Progress Publication: Blogs are often not finished products and this should be made clear to students and parents. I am not saying that they shouldn’t edit for grammar, but rather that they are creating a body of work, which should show their growth as writers over the course of the year. I wondered aloud what to tell parents who worry about their thirteen-year-old’s writing being online because, obviously, it will not be perfect. How will this affect future job prospects? Well, according to the GTA, when Google is looking to hire new employees, they want to see portfolios of progress, showing “how awesome they are.” They want their people to be learners. Here’s an article about it from the NY Times: How to Get a Job at Google.

(from the “unconference” moderated by David Theriault, GTA CHI)

4) What are some strategies to use for professional development?

  • Number One: Keep all materials online in a central location. I love love love that GTA had a website for their agenda and materials. I didn’t feel worried about making sure I got every handout and I knew I would be able to find everything I needed later. Plus, this made it very easy to share collaborative documents.
  • Get everyone’s email (well, Gmail) at the outset. GTA gave us our own special emails for the event, so they didn’t have to spend any time with the logistics of that.
  • Set a fun and positive mood: GTA set the tone from the very beginning. When we walked in, breakfast was served, welcome balloons were out, and fun music was playing. A slide show cycled through pictures of the participants laced with unusual facts: “Can you guess who…?” We played a community-building game involving spaghetti and marshmallows before introductions or housekeeping business. When it was time for introductions, the moderator showed a video clip of Miss Universe 2011 —a fun way to encourage us to be brief and upbeat. Also, since we were such a big group, they had about one third of the room introduce themselves and stopped for a “demo slam” before moving on. No chance to get bored at all.
  • Individual action plans provide relevance and accountability. The GTA requires teachers to complete action plans within a month of the academy. I’m still working on mine, but I knew before it started that this would be part of the deal. As a participant, it made me feel that much more like paying attention. The action plan is kind of like a test at the end, but a test that I actually want to take.
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