Category Archives: Google

Going on a #GoogleExpedition

My school had the unbelievable good fortune to get selected for the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program and it was AMAZING! Here is how our day went.

First, it can never be a bad day when you go out to the parking lot and there is a Google car waiting for you.


Natasha was our Google Expeditions Coordinator for the day and she was fantastic. Energetic and quick on her feet; she was able to solve any problem we had throughout the day. She brought with her 3 sets of 30 Google Cardboard along with Asus phones, and a teacher tablet pre-loaded with all of the Expeditions. I arranged for classes to rotate throughout the day into each of the classes in 30 minute sections. While all of the teachers picked their Expedition in advance, they were free to change as the need arose because all of the locations were pre-loaded and we didn’t need an wifi connection.


These 6 boys are all in the same location, but looking at totally different things based on what interests them the most.

The students took to Cardboard very, very fast, as was to be expected.

IMG_20151109_075824 IMG_20151109_101127

Of course, our Principal and Superintendent needed to get in on the action, too.

I think the best part of Expeditions is the material that’s pre-loaded for each location. As you can see in the following photo, if the teacher was unsure of what she was looking at, she could swipe to the left and all the information was right in front of her.


Included was an overall description of the location and some guiding questions for the teacher to ask the class. The teacher could tap on the photos and arrow would appear on the screen of the students’ devices to direct their attention to something specific. Smiley faces were on the screen of the teacher’s tablet showing where each student was currently looking so she could tell who was engaged in the lesson. The students loved going into the rainforests and any Expedition that brought them underwater, especially swimming with the sharks. Some of my personal favorites were seeing Jane Goodall’s home in Gombe, following the Museum Photographer from the Museum of Natural History, and standing on top of a building in Rome.

I think the best comment of the day was from a senior who said, “We’re in the freakin’ Colosseum but we’re really in a library in NJ!” I think that was the best part of this experience: showing the kids parts of the world that they have never or may never experience. We spent more of the day just having fun than actually linking it back to the curriculum, but I think that’s ok since we gave them an experience they will never forget.

So, where do we go from here? Actually, anywhere our imagination can take us. My Principal and I were talking and just in a couple of minutes we said: have teachers record vacations or locations from around the world and develop lessons with them, video ours of our school, walking tours of colleges, and a Google Street View walkthrough of our Art Show. Once the video and sound capabilities are included, Google Expeditions will become an amazing learning opportunity for students all over the world.


A glimpse of Google Classroom’s potential

To be honest, I wasn’t going to use Google Classroom this year. I see that it has a lot of potential, but it just didn’t really fit what I wanted to do with my students this year. Last year I moved from my Moodle site to Edmodo. This year I was going to shift back to Moodle so that I could do more online assessments and free up time in the classroom for other activities. Unfortunately, Moodle is taking so long to get up and running the way I want it to that I needed to make another shift.

Enter Google Classroom.  Well, sort of…

So I didn’t decided to use Google Classroom until the end of my first class of the day. The night before I shared a document we would need for the next class with all of my students. During the first block, I showed the students how to find the document, make a copy, and share it with me. In between classes I had the realization that everything I just did could happen a lot faster if I used Classroom.  Later in the day another class came in for the same lesson plan as earlier and, but we used Google Classroom this time for the assignment.  That class, despite having more students, were into the activity TEN MINUTES faster than the earlier class.

So I learned my lesson with that one. But the purpose of this post is not to talk about how prior planning would have helped with this. I wanted to share one aspect of the review process.

We are working on Naming and Forming Compounds. After explaining the process with ion cutouts as manipulatives, the students joined the Google Classroom and accessed the assignment for the day. First, what we found was the assignment doesn’t appear in the students’ Google Drive until the access it in Classroom first. This forces the students to log into Classroom to see any announcements or directions prior to starting the assignment. Once they have clicked on the assignment Classroom makes a copy in their folder (if you set it up to do that) and creates a link for the teacher to access it at any time.

For this assignment, I wanted to be able to check how the students were doing as they were both naming and forming ionic compounds. I told them that I would leave feedback in the document for them for the next class so they can correct their mistakes before the due date. Below are 2 screenshots so you can see my comments.:

As you can see above, this student had a number of mistakes that needed to be addressed. I left both short and long comments depending on what needed to be fixed. Also, any changes I recommend making can be left either as comments or “suggested edits” which is a new feature in Docs.
This student only made a minor mistake so I left positive note at the top.
All of the assignments for the class was in an alphabetized list for me in Classroom instead of being in my Incoming section of Google Drive mixed in with all of my other documents. Since everything is technically in my Google Drive, I was still able to leave feedback on the students’ work from my phone (this is how I kill the hour my kids are in swimming class). I never found this easy to do from Edmodo and not possible at all in Moodle.
While Classroom really made this aspect of my job easier, the jury is still out on whether this will be my go to method for distributing assignments. It is great for HW/Classwork, but anything that requires group work doesn’t function here. I will continue to update on how I use Classroom as the year progresses.
If you are using Google Classroom with your students, I would love to hear the ways it is working for you. Please leave your comments below. Thanks!

The Google Teacher Academy and Me

Last week I had the unbelievable opportunity of attending the Google Teacher Academy at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA.  It took a week for me to fully process everything that happened into something that I could put into a simple blog post.

Let’s start with the Googleplex:
Everything you have heard about Google is absolutely true. I couldn’t take many pictures as most of the buildings are considering confidential areas and I signed a NDA, so below are what I could take. One of the  coolest things were the micro-kitchens in each office area that was stocked with snack bars, cereal, water (flavored and unflavored), soda (holy crap was there a lot of soda), fruit, coffee makers, and chips. What I loved most was there were almost no name-brand products anywhere. Soda machines said “Cola” and all of the snacks were focused on organic or natural ingredient companies. There wasn’t a Lays or Herrs to be found. Red Bull was there, but that’s probably because the all natural energy drinks are terrible.  All of this was completely free and we were encouraged to snack as much as we wanted to keep our energy up.

Me on a Google Bike
where you park your Google bike

the Google car
me in Jelly Donut

statues of all the Android OS
the Disney store for adult nerds

one of the Alien creatures from Alien
I don’t know why there is a dinosaur skeleton

This was a random guacamole and salsa table setup under some trees. There was also fresh made strawberry lemonade. This was setup for anyone who wanted it. Just one of the many little touches Google supplies its employees and guests.

The second thing was the way Google treated its employees.  There were exercise areas, volleyball courts, pool tables, and community gardens so employees could enjoy their outdoor environment whenever they wanted. They were encouraged to go outside to have meetings or just simply to get away from their desk for a little while.  Employees have no sick days. If you are too sick to come to work, stay home. If you do decide to come to work, there are doctors on campus to take care of you just in case. But the coolest story
came from one of our lead learners who told us that one day when she came to work very sick and none of the doctors were available to see her, a Google employee drove her to an emergent-care in San Francisco (over 30 min away and close to her apartment).

The GTA:
The best part about the GTA is gathering educators, who are considered the crazy ones in their district, into one room and letting them loose on redesigning their classrooms. It was invigorating and inspiring and overwhelming and so many other positive words that I don’t feel like looking up in a thesaurus. There were only a handful of attendees that I had met in person prior to the GTA, but it felt like we were long lost friends. I had basically strangers driving me from the airport, taking me along for dinner, and dropping me off in random places in San Francisco.  And none of it felt awkward. We are now a weird, Google nerd family and it feels fantastic.

There were 5 sessions run by our lead learners spread over the 2 days. They were hands-on exercises that not only showed us creative ways to use Google tools, but gave us concrete examples of activities that we can take back to our classrooms immediately.  My favorite ones were the scavenger hunt activity we did using our Nexus 7 tablets and NFC tags/QR code and using hyperdocs.

In the scavenger hunt, we were given a link to a Google map with the exact location of each of our targets. We needed to walk around with the map open to guide us to the location.  When we arrived, we found a tag that linked us to a quote.  We then needed to take a picture with our tablet that creatively addressed the quote and share it to a Google+ community created for this event.  What I loved about this was that it wasn’t about simply finding an answer and then moving on.  We really needed to think differently about our environment, the features of the camera app, and finding a picture we were willing to share to a community of learners who were going to judge our submissions. Some of the locations included piles of chalk and play-doh, chairs and rocks, or just hidden near a tree. The best part was the submission to a digital community. I found I was much more critical of my work and put more effort into using the features in the app before just posting a picture because I wanted to impress my peers who would be deciding on the best submission later.

HyperDocs are basically a Google Doc that has links to videos, forms, slides and other Google docs embedded in them. I see them as a great way to transition from traditional note taking to something more interactive. It doesn’t require the teacher to recreate everything he/she is doing, but simply put it into a different form. HyperDocs allow the motivated student to move faster than the rest of the class, for the teacher to collect reflections on the assignment, and for the entire class to gather information on a topic throughout the unit into one location. This is great for students who are absent, who are falling behind or for those who are having trouble organizing their work. HyperDocs might also be an alternative instructional method for flipped classrooms. Rather than using the videos to drive instruction, the major information can be written into the Google Doc with the videos linked as additional resources. There can also be short quizzes or reflection forms included to check for understanding.

Nearly every activity we did was on a timer. It was frustrating, and nerve-racking, and totally awesome. When we give students projects, we give them lengthy timelines so that they can accommodate other class’ projects. But students just start shoving as much information as they could fit and teachers start putting rules in place to limit how much they can do. Instead, we can give them 10 minutes in class, very specific guidelines for the information they need to include, and 1 Google slide to do it in. Time is spent not on perfection, but on focusing on the most important information and creatively presenting it. It takes me 10 minutes just to explain what I want from the project. I am actually thinking about using this in the first days of school for the students to introduce themselves to both me and their classmates. I am going to create a title slide explaining what they need to do, make every student create a slide in the same document, and then give them only 10 minutes to work. At the end, it doesn’t matter what they have, they are done because I am going to change the sharing settings so they can’t tweak it after class is over (which is what the perfectionists will want to do).

While there is always a “sit and get” portion to every PD, the practical application time was the most valuable. We were not being instructed on how to use a particular tool or what the different options were, but rather we were simply thrust into a situation and told to figure it out. That is what we need more of in schools, less hand-holding and more go figure it out situations. There were several times we were required to use a tool I had zero experience with. I immediately looked for someone who knew what to do and got a 30 second explanation before jumping in. Kids today know how to figure things out. My 7 year old had never typed before, but within 30 minutes of using Typing Club he figured out how to cheat the system and get himself higher scores. He is not a genius, just an example of how quickly kids are to play and learn.

Looking back, two days was not nearly enough time to learn as much as I wanted, but I don’t think my brain could have handled any more. I have so many ideas swimming in my head that it is difficult to figure out where to even begin. I could go on and on about so much more, but I guess I should close with a succinct list of my takeaways:

  1. We need to stop wasting time in the classroom with procedures and get out of the way of the students as they are demonstrating their learning, in whatever manner they deem fit to demonstrate it.
  2. Today’s world is about adapting our SKILLS to novel situations and being able to work in any work environment.
  3. The world is our learning space. We need to get out of those four walls and start using it more.
  4. There are educators all over the world who are crazy awesome and we need to connect ourselves to them wherever/whenever we can.
  5. Using Google tools is so much more than going paperless or using free tools.  They are about creating a new environment for learning and instruction to happen.
When I applied to the Google Teacher Academy, I never thought I stood a chance of getting in. This has been an unbelievable experience from start to finish and I encourage everyone to take the leap and apply. Even if you don’t get in, you learn so much about yourself and your teaching you end up growing as an educator.

Rolling on Chrome

My colleagues call me Mr. Google because when someone comes to me with a technology problem, my answer usually has something to do with a Google application.  I mean, their products do everything short of making your dinner and walking the dog so I use it whenever I can.

While at the Greater Clark County Conference in Indiana, I saw the release of the Chromecast and knew it was exactly the device I needed to get my hands on.  Here is a picture of the moment it arrived

In a nutshell, the device connects to the HDMI port of a projector or TV and allows you to send what is in your Chrome browser to the TV over the local Wifi.  Currently I use a Warpia VGA to USB wireless adaptor to transmit my computer screen to the projector in my classroom.  While this device works well for general use, one of the downsides is that everything that is on my screen ends up on the projector.  The Chromecast app allows you to connect a single Chrome tab and then work on anything else on your computer.  A huge benefit to teachers who might to show a slide show or video, but then work on sensitive information (emails, grades, etc.) at the same time.  While showing videos in class, my wife backchannels with the class, posing questions and engaging in discussions.  Her district no longer uses DVD players since every computer has a DVD drive so this allows her to do both tasks without interrupting the students’ attention.

After installing the Chromecast app on the computer, an icon appeared on my extensions bar in Chrome,  This allows me to instantly display the tab I am on in seconds.  YouTube and Netflix have been modified also with Chromecast buttons that will display the videos in full screen automatically.  The one major downside it the device only works with Chrome.  You can’t display any other software or browsers.  Great for doing presentations on Google training, but not for my every day teaching. (oh and great for parents who can now show Netflix on a TV in a hotel room while on vacation!)

So that was July.  August rolls around and I stumble across a $30 coupon for a Samsung Chromebook available for 1 day only.  I think it took about 30 seconds before my car keys were in my hand and I was out the door.  It turns out Staples only had 1 left and it was an open box (which always makes me nervous), but after 2 coupons and a discount for the open box, I was walking out with a new computer for $50 less than listed.

So the Chromebook.

If you don’t know what it does, you are living under a rock.  The device runs Chrome OS and needs an Internet connection for most of its functions.  While it will work offline for several Google Apps, it really needs Wifi to be more than a shiny paperweight.  I can’t foresee giving up my laptop for teaching and everyday use, but I am not likely to be carrying around a heavy laptop to meetings or lunch duty.  The Chromebook feels like it weighs nothing and is smaller than a paper notebook.  I have to say that I am definitely in love with this device.

New Year’s Resolution

A few years ago I decided never to make a New Year’s Resolution again.  Usually I failed to complete them and felt like a failure at the end of the year instead of looking toward all of the good things that could happen in the following.  A week ago a student came to interview me for a piece he was doing on New Year’s Resolutions for Video Production class and I sent him away disappointed because I refused to make one.

But today I had the realization that I need to make one, but it is going to be the same every year from now on.

Do one audacious thing this year?

I am still reading In the Plex (see previous post), and they were talking about these quarterly objectives/benchmarks that every employee must keep.  The first thing that amazed me was that every employee had to publish them on the company website with their bio and picture (can you imagine publishing your Professional Growth Plan to your class website?).  The second, was that you were not expected to fully achieve your goal each quarter.  In fact, you were actually in danger of being fired if you exceeded your goal because it shows that you played it safe and were “audacity challenged.”
We can’t keep playing it safe.  We have to be better next year than we were this year.
So, any suggestions?

In The Plex

I picked up a copy of In The Plex:  How google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.  We hear so much about how Google is changing the world, I figured there has to be something to learn from their experiences.  I am only about halfway through it (and to be honest I haven’t read everything as it tends to get too technical for what I am looking for), but there are number of quotes that I wanted to share, along with a couple of ideas of my own.

We are focused on users.  If we make them happy, we will have revenues.  We focus so much on test prep, but if we provide more meaningful coursework for the students, they will work harder to learn the material.  The standardized test scores will take care of themselves.

A healthy disregard for the impossible.

The only true failure was not attempting the audacious.

If we are not a lot better next year, we will already be forgotten.

Their hires would show traits of hardcore wizardry, user focus and starry eyed idealism.  I think this is a great philosophy to use when hiring new teachers.

Discipline must come through liberty.

Nothing a teacher does should destroy a child’s creative innocence.

Our core values should be manifested in our work environment.

Anyone hired…should be capable of engaging him in a fascinating discussion should he be stuck at an airport with employee.

Can you imagine sitting in an interview and the principal turns to you and asks “Do you have a healthy disregard for the impossible?  We are only looking for educators who view teaching as a form of wizardry.”  I guarantee if asked this you would look at the principal like he/she was nuts, thank him/her for the interview and quickly run to your car.

But is it too much to ask that teachers have starry-eyed idealism?  Or be interesting enough to hold up their end of a conversation about almost any topic?

One of the problems that so many of us run into is making our “crazy” ideas (or our Googliness) work within the traditional system.  Google was able to set up their ideals so easily because they were a start-up.  In fact, many of their employees left larger companies like Microsoft and Apple for the, at the time, smaller Google because of it radical philosophy (others did the reverse move for the opposite reason).  Would the Google founders have been successful if they had instituted these radical ideas in an already established environment?

When you take educational administration classes, they tell you not to make major changes for 6 months to a year.  First you must sit back, evaluate the system, and gain the trust of the staff.  But a year is a REALLY long period of time.  What steps should a new administrator have to take in order to bring some of these ideas to fruition?  Is it too much for a school/staff/student body to handle these changes right from the start of school?


What’s the point?

We have to teach a lot of topics in a given year.  I don’t know of a single teacher who didn’t wish they had more time in the year to cram in a few more of the items that we stuffed into the textbook/curriculum.  If I could create the perfect chemistry class, it would focused around chemical reactions–as much is physically possible.  Chemistry is a lab science in which we study the interaction of molecules in a variety of scenarios.  Yet, an inordinate amount of my time is spent teaching math.  Not just teaching math, but trying to come up with real-world examples of the math to develop “meaning” for my students’ question of “Why do we need to know this?”  I understand real-world examples are important, but if I have to manufacture examples, maybe the information isn’t meaningful in the first place?

This coming school year we have a challenge.  We are shifting to an A/B Block which actually reduces the time in class by 88 minutes per week, but are not modifying the curriculum nor the district-wide exams.  Some teachers turned to the textbook and started looking at what chapters could be shrunk or cut.  I took a slightly different approach to the problem.

One of biggest pet peeves is “teaching math” inside of chemistry.  While there are obvious places it is necessary (stoichiometry, moles, solutions because they all relate to chemistry), there is one place it is not and that’s Dimensional Analysis.  You remember this:  I give you a measurement in feet and ask you how many nanometers it is.  Where’s the chemistry in this?  What purpose does this serve in either my class or the real world?  I used say things like “Well, if a person walked up to you on the street and held a gun to your head and said ‘Perform the following metric conversion’ you would be able to do it”, but that’s ridiculous.  In today’s world, if someone actually did that, I would pull out my phone and GOOGLE THE ANSWER!!  I have a friend who is an actual scientist for a pharmaceutical company and he hasn’t performed a metric conversion since he took Physics back in college 14 years ago!

So, why do we continue to teach topics that have no relevance in both our curriculum and the real-world?

Please don’t let the answer be “because it is in the textbook.”