Monday, December 8, 2014

My Initial Thoughts on Google Teacher Academy: Austin

The crew! Photo courtesy of Danny Silca
I was supremely lucky to get chosen as one of the 52 educators to attend the Google Teacher Academy last week in Austin. It was an experience. Some framing, then some reflections.

I come at professional development with a pretty democratic lean. As an edcamp organizer, I believe in the power of choice and conversation. While I often have to deal with professional development that doesn't develop me professionally, I choose to attend events outside of my paid time that do develop me professionally. Events that give me choice and ownership over what I'm learning and give me the time and space to have meaningful conversations with other dedicated educators.

Secondly, when you have the opportunity to bring together fifty talented educators - classroom teachers, tech coaches, administrators - plus eight or so GTA lead learners, well, there should be some pretty powerful conversations that come out of that time. We should be taking some big swings at some pretty thorny educational problems. Groups like this don't get to come together that often; this time is valuable. Let's make sure we're using it to dream up some moonshot solutions to education's biggest problems.

In retrospect, this bar was probably impossibly high. However, it was the hope that I came in to GTA with: to see some truly revolutionary PD and leave with an exploded brain and some solutions to go out and try.

Aspects of GTA completely met this goal and then some. Others didn't come close.

The highlight of the session parts of GTA were definitely the first morning and the second afternoon of the event. After talking a bit about moonshot thinking, we spent the first morning doing some design thinking around problems we faced at our sites or districts. We ranked these problems and chose areas to focus on. We were placed into common groups with folks with similar issues. These groups chatted about these problems and mapped some stumbling blocks to them using hexagonal thinking, which was a really neat process.

And then came the advanced tool sessions. For the second half of day one and the first half of day two. Given the goal I came into GTA with, this was not a good use of our collective time and passion.

Was some of it interesting? Yeah. Chris Aviles is a ninja. He shared some new things he does with his students using nGram viewer. I'd pay to hang out with Jennie Magiera. But sessions I'm told to go to, that have no choice involved in selecting what you learn, and have no connection to the moonshot thinking and design thinking process we just spent the morning of day one doing? The part of GTA I was really quickly geeked on? This was a big disconnect from that. In my opinion it was not the best use of the sixty people in the room's time. However, that’s just me. For others, this might have been the highlight of their GTA experience. Also sprinkled into this afternoon and following morning of tool time was a talk about the history of Chromebooks and a chance to chat with one of the Google employees working on Google Classroom. Again, in my opinion not the best use of the time of the sixty people in the room: it wasn't action oriented towards solving big problems we faced.

The afternoon of day two? When we got to dig back into our problems? When we got to craft and give feedback on our driving How Might We... statements? Then become action oriented and design solutions to these problems? YES!!! More of this! If I had my druthers, we'd do two days of just this. It'd be mega-intense, but people would leave action-oriented, and having spoken to lots of educators with common - and uncommon - issues.

So big picture, what are the takeaways? I got to meet some great people. I loved the passion of Dane Ehlert as he spoke about his math students and his desire - despite some very real obstacles - to do what was best for them. James Peterson is crazy smart. I got to reconnect with Chris McGee, who gave a great mini-presentation about saying yes to everything and working to make the people around you look brilliant. Joe Marquez's passion (and sweet belt buckle) were a great jolt of energy.

I leave Austin and GTA with some thoughts. I leave knowing that the time I get to spend with really brilliant people is valuable. While in Austin I thought back to the best session I attended at the CUE conference in Palm Springs last year: it actually wasn't a session. I sat in the Bloggers' Cafe and talked to Moss and Kristen for an hour about how we could make conferences really valuable for people like us who didn't need to talk about the hottest new tool, but needed to have conversations with smart driven educators. GTA reinforced this conversation, and the idea that these gatherings are rare and need to be really driven towards action and solutions. And the half of GTA that did this - the morning of day one and the afternoon of day two - was BRILLIANT. I need to keep this in mind for events that I'm lucky enough to attend that have these groups of people. *cough* Portland in February *cough*

I leave knowing that the GTA organizing team is taking risks and asking for feedback. When I talked to folks who did GTA a while back, they said that my experience sounded more valuable and a step in the right direction from the session-based GTA experience they had. I also got a chance to chat with a couple of the organizers of GTA, and they outlined the tweaks they had made and how they arrived at this point: by listening to feedback from attendees.

Is there a perfect way to do GTA? In my ideal world, I'd love two whole days focused on taking action towards moonshots with ideas generated using design thinking. No tool talk. Lots of time to see the moonshots and action plans of others and connect them to resources that I and other attendees might have. For me, that'd be revolutionary. That'd make my head hurt at the end of the day, but in a good way.

But that's me. I'm weird. Others may read this and think I'm an idiot and I've got it all backwards: GTA should be about taking deep dives on Google tools. And maybe it could be both things: attendees could choose a tool focused or a design thinking focused sub-academy within GTA.

In the end, though, I need to be clear: it was certainly worth my time. I'm very thankful that my school stepped up and covered the cost of the vast majority of my trip. There were moments of brilliance, to be sure. There were memorable people, folks who I want to keep in touch with. And I hope that this drive to maximize the face time I get with my PLN actually is a thing that I follow through on.  

Really, though, I need time. Time to process how to maximize the face to face time with my far-flung PLN. Time to see what doors being a GCT opens for me. Time to process how I'm going to take moonshot thinking and design thinking back into my classroom, as well as into the professional development spaces that I get to play a role in. Time to go for walks and think about all of this.

And in the end, in addition to everything I mentioned above, I got to share GTA with four of my closest edubuddies and chat and eat BBQ and go bowling with them. I'm thankful for Victoria, Rachel, Matt, and John for sharing this experience with me and for pushing me to be better than I think I can be.

***

If, for some reason, you've made it this far, do yourself a favor and go read Rachel and Matt's excellent reflections on GTA.