#COL16: My Google Innovator Academy Journey and Recap

I started teaching in 2007 as an 8th grade social studies teacher.  I taught in a great school, with great colleagues and I knew it couldn’t get any better.  Three years later I moved to a different school in the county teaching 6th grade geography with an amazing work family and incredible kids.  I knew it couldn’t get any better.  With the help from school admin, I wrote a grant for a class set of 30 iPads to model 1:1 technology in the classroom…was awarded the grant and taught the rest of the year digitally.  This time I KNEW it couldn’t get any better.  In 2013 my principal asked me to take over Technology Education and teach all 700+ students in our school and re-write the curriculum…wait! What?!

There was no one in my district who was doing what I was **trying** to do.  There were a couple of other “tech ed” classes out there that were teaching totally different content in a completely different schedule structure.  I was a lone duck. In December 2013 I presented at my first national conference: AMLE.  It was during the first few sessions I realized I was missing out on a whole world for educators: Twitter.  I changed my profile picture and attempted to make my bio sound semi-professional.  During a session on flipped classrooms I started tweeting.  I had zero clue what I was doing and barely understood the concept of a hashtag.  Nevertheless I virtually “met” Colleen from Missouri.  We connected during that conference…stayed connected after the conference…connected our classrooms and 3 years later are STILL connected.  She was the first to truly show me the power of the virtual PLN.

In March of 2014 I attended my first KySTE event (Kentucky’s ISTE affiliate).  After my dive into the Twittersphere I had virtually connected with a few Kentucky educators on #KyEdChat.  During KySTE we decided to have a meet-up.  Sitting in the atrium of the Galt House in Louisville, KY, around a coffee table with James, Donnie, Tricia, Todd and Mike, my life and career was forever changed.

After attending several of Donnie’s sessions at KySTE, I had one question:  WHERE in the WORLD did he learn all of this?  Donnie had recently attended the Google Teacher Academy in Sydney Australia and encouraged me to apply for the next cohort.  I had no clue what that was, didn’t even have GAFE at the time in our district but at that moment “YES” became my motto.  I applied for the Google Teacher Academy in Atlanta and Mountain View during the summer of 2014.  (#GTAATL #GTAMTV).  I was not accepted.  I’m not one to take no for an answer.  Matter of fact, every time Donnie introduced me to one of his “Google” pals, I introduced myself as “Brooke Whitlow, future Google Certified Teacher.  (Donnie loved this little intro.)  I applied again in December to the Google Teacher Academy in Austin (#GTAATX).  I was not accepted.  During the course of the next year, the Google for Edu team was revamping their program and it was the most excruciating wait of my LIFE.

January 2016 rolled around and #MTV16 applications opened.  Over the course of two years I had grown exponentially.  I had a better understanding of GAFE and a much better grasp on how to use these amazing tools from an instructional and administrative perspective.  I applied and poured my whole self into that application.  I was not accepted.  I told myself that was my last go of it.  I found out later that I submitted the wrong certificate. (Right? Who DOES that?!)  I couldn’t go out on a stupid mistake so I applied again to #COL16 in Boulder and was accepted.  It was surreal.  What a journey.

Today’s date is July 19, 2016.  Our Google Innovator Academy was June 29th-July 1st.  It has taken me this long to recap.  My cohort was amazing and God bless them, several wrote their recaps waiting for their flight home.  I was in a haze.  I’m still in a haze.  To be perfectly honest, I am so grateful that the Google for Edu Innovator team forced me to wait 2 years.  Two years ago, I was not ready for the academy.  Professionally, COL16 happened at the most perfect time.  I’m still struggling to put it all into words.

The Google Innovator Academy was truly the best professional development of my life.  I am thrilled to represent their community but I am most excited to connect with other Certified Innovators and invest our lives TOGETHER for the improvement of education.

Here is a break down of my top 3 takeaways from #COL16:

1. Culture is key.

Ya’ll.  During day 1 of the academy we had the pleasure to learn from many different “Googlers”.  What a day.  To be perfectly honest I didn’t take a lick of notes because I was too busy catching flies with my mouth and twitching with ideas on what to iterate and take back to my own district.  Here is the thing.  People matter.  Let me tell you something…I try to live by the golden rule: love God, love people.  The bible was onto something with that one.  Nothing else matters.  Standards…psh.  Test scores…gahhhhh.  PEOPLE matter.  Ya’ll know Field of Dreams right? “If you build it, he will come.”  Well I feel like that quote is fitting here.  If you invest in the culture, the PEOPLE of your building, classroom, districts (whatever your role) all the other things will come.  The Googlers on day 1 proved this to be true.  In everything we do (as admins of districts and schools and as teachers in our classrooms) we must invest in people. Love people.  Care for people.  I’d tell you more, but I honestly have no clue what I’m allowed to share…because…well, I was in a fog of excitement.

2. Think outside the box.

Does this one sound lame?  Probably so. #SorryNotSorry.  One of the most REWARDING aspects of the entire academy for me was learning from my fellow cohorts.  I flipping LOVED THIS PART.  If I could have attended all their sessions, I absolutely would have.  It was like drawing straws for me to decide on where to go.  These people seriously rock.  I wound up attending Sparks that focused the script editor in Google Sheets.  Yep.  I’ll be perfectly honest here too…until GAFE came along and Google Forms, I wouldn’t touch a spreadsheet with a 10 foot pole.  Here is what GAFE has done to me:  Last Thanksgiving I hosted our family dinner and forced my entire family to complete a Google Form that was set up to go to pages based on answer so that I could color code our Thanksgiving dinner on a spreadsheet.  I’ve really come full circle.  Anyway, I felt like I needed to invest some time into the roads less traveled of Sheets.  Daniel Sharpe and Jordan Rhea completely knocked my socks off.  I don’t think I took notes here either…they had the same fly-catching affect on me as the Googlers.  HOLY COW, ya’ll!  I had no idea the “hackability” of Sheets.  I can’t even describe to you what they taught me because we’d be here all day and I would probably still explain it wrong.  Hey, I’m learning.  What can I say though? My wheels have NOT stopped spinning.

3.  Ship, ship, ship, ship, ship.

Okay, stay with me here.  Thanks to Heather, I discovered Seth Godin in 2014 and I’ve not quite been the same since.  I’m a total Godin junkie and speak in his lingo at least everyday. (“That is so purple cow”…”be a poker”…etc).  My personal favorites are Linchpin and Poke the Box.  During my Google Teacher Academy/Innovator Academy applications the rejection nearly consumed me.  It felt so far out of reach.  The project proposal that I created during #MTV16 application was a teacher fellowship.  I was reading Poke the Box at the time. My favorite quote from that book nearly brings me to tears as I type it:  “Reject the tyranny of being picked.  No one is going to pick you.  Pick yourself.”  Seth Godin is my JAM, ya’ll.  I got rejected from the academy, looked fear in the eye and said “get the hell out of my way” (<<that’s another Godin-ism).  We created the HCS Innovate Teacher Fellowship a month after I was rejected and have outstanding digital leaders from all 22 of our schools that are going to move mountains this year.  Shipping that idea helped me realize that I didn’t need to “wait” to be a part of an academy to do good work.  Shipping ideas is how you get things done.  The more you ship, the more likely you are to find something that you love and something that matters.

Which brings me to my next point.  During the academy I was one of the few who had completely pivoted from my original idea.  I felt like I was moving right along with fellowship and wanted to use my time with the Google Innovator mentors and coaches to tackle another problem near and dear to my heart: minority gaps in computer science (more on this later!).  One of our last activities as a cohort was a gallery walk where we were silent, reading others projects and providing feedback via sticky notes.  After the walk, we went back to our station, collected and read our notes.  You guys.  My project idea (the problem, the solution, the whole nine yards) literally feels like my 3rd child.  I am passionate about it, could talk for days about it, obsess over it, coddle it, protect it and could brag on it for DAYS.  So reading that feedback was a little…prickly for me.  I love feedback.  Seriously – constructive feedback is my lifeline.  But if someone gives me feedback and aren’t around to answer my questions, allow me to dig into the problem to try and figure out a solution….well I don’t exactly handle it well.  (We all have growth areas, right?)  Anyway, I got a post it note that went a little something like this:  “This exists already. How are you going to change it?”  I’m paraphrasing.  Ya’ll.  I obsessed.  I obsessed so badly that Sergio, our coach, took it out of my hand, and ripped it into shreds right in front of me.  That was a powerful moment.  Pivotal, really.  It brought me to another of my favorite quotes from Seth Godin:  “Every voice doesn’t matter–only the voices that move your idea forward, that make it better, that make you better, that make it more likely that you will ship work that benefits your tribe.”  This has less to do with the 13ish or so words on a sticky note than it does how I handle feedback.  I don’t really care if my idea “already exists” somewhere.  The fact is this: I have a goal, I’m going to make it bigger, better, different, more efficient, more powerful, whatever I need to do to solve my problem and I will not focus on the multitudes of voices out there but zoom in on the ones who are going to help me move forward.

I could type for another 2 years and still not share everything or describe how powerful the impact of this experience. The connections I made in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains will stay with me forever.  It was an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life and the best part?  This crazy ride is just getting started.

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