Monday, July 28, 2014

Visiting Google and Being the CEO of My Own Classroom

Earlier this week I was fortunate to be a participant in the 2014 Google Geo Teacher Institute.  It is basically two intense days of geeking out on Google geo tools and thinking up ways of to use them in education. It is an opportunity I highly suggest for any educator.

One of the fringe benefits of this particular institute (they also have one in 2014 in Pittsburg) was the location – Googleheadquarters in Mountain View, California.  The Mothership.  The Googleplex.  Geekapoloza.

This was actually my second time attending a Google sponsored workshop at the Googleplex.  I attended the Google Teacher Academy here in 2012. Prior to my first visit I was afraid that all of the hype I had read about the Googleplex was destined to set me up for disappointment.  How could all of the descriptions of colorful offices and abundant creativity really exist?  But alas, it was true.  I left my first visit blown away by the prevalent culture of collaboration.  I could go on about the food (amazing) and the perks (things such as being able to bring your dog to work and climbing walls in offices) but I want to focus on one thing in this blog post – collaboration.

The Google campus is abuzz.  It is tangible as you walk around.  As non-Googlers we weren’t allowed in certain places (and we weren't allowed to take pictures inside buildings on campus) but when we did walk past an office space on the way to a session you could see people working in close proximity. I didn’t see long hallways with doors that open to individual offices. Instead I saw work spaces where 3 or 4 people worked next to each other in a relatively small space (and quite a few standing desks from what I could see).

There are many areas where small groups – 4 or 6 people – can get together to work.  Some of these areas are collaboration rooms with a door. Inside is a table where about 4 people can sit with a large screen on the wall for Hangouts.  I did notice a lot of Hangouts taking place.  I should also mention these places to collaborate and not your standard room with white walls.  They are all astronomically cool with themes and colors.

The place on campus where I could really see the collaboration was the cafeteria (again I wasn’t allowed to go many places within the office spaces). The food that Google provides for it’s employees – breakfast, lunch and dinner – is legendary.  It is provided free as a perk to employees and it is delicious, think five star restaurant.  In a nutshell it is part of Google’s original DNA : give your employees amazing free food on campus and they won’t want to leave campus to eat elsewhere.  Thus, they eat together, socialize together and talk about what they are doing at work – collaborating.

Walking through a Google cafeteria you notice the sound of many people talking.  It is busy and the ones I walked through were full of people socializing with co-workers.  I’m not naïve enough to believe all of these conversations taking place are meetings working on a way to improve your ability to share a Doc on Google Drive, but it sure seemed like along with the socializing there was a lot of “work” type conversations happening with the numerous laptops and body language.

During our lunch on the second day of the institute many of us teachers had gone outside in the courtyard/plaza area on a beautiful Northern California day to eat our lunch.  There were people everywhere. In addition to the three cafeterias within a 200 yard radius that all served amazing food, Google had brought in three food trucks to serve BBQ and ice cream right in the middle of the courtyard and flower garden.  (I swear I am not making any of this up.)

Click here to view a 360 degree photosphere of the Google campus right before the lunch rush.  You can see the food trucks!

While eating our lunch several of us discussed how cool it would be if our schools could have the same type of environment for lunch – time to eat, a relaxed atmosphere and time to talk to a collegue about a lesson plan or an activity. There are millions, if not billions, of reasons why this would never work in a public school setting to the degree it does at Google (time, money, supervision, money, money) but hey you can dream right?

I was thinking about it the next day and then it hit me.  I should focus on the things I can control instead of worrying about the ones I can’t control.  I am the CEO of my classroom.  I know all teachers have varying degrees of control of the manner in which they set up their classroom and some of the design elements but I bet there are things you can do in your own room that can really change the way your students learn in your space.

All of the collaborative spaces at Google that I mentioned did not just organically appear out of nowhere.  They are there by design.  Those spaces and environments were designed with the intent to help nurture collaboration.  There is a lot that I can do to attempt to create a similar vibe in my own classroom because I am the CEO of my space.

When I want to work on my dissertation I often go to coffee shops or places that have free wifi and lack the distraction of other things I could be working on instead.  Last fall while working at a newly remodeled Mc Donald’s – chairs and tables which could be moved in different arrangements, tables where small groups of people could comfortably sit, etc. – I began to wonder why a fast food restaurant had abetter nicer place to collaborate than my classroom.  My classroom had 33 individual student desks.  I had arranged them in different ways so they weren’t all in a line all the time but there are only so many ways you can arrange 33 desks.  They also don’t encourage collaboration or group work in any way.

I asked if I could trade in my individual student desks for tables.  Fortunately the district at that time had some tables in storage and I traded in my 33 student desks for 6 tables that had 33 chairs. It is probably the most impactful physical change I have made in my 20 year teaching career. Students were able to talk to each other (of course some had to be reminded on appropriate times to collaborate) and doing any type of group activity or lesson was much easier.  There was more space in the room for me to walk around and talk to students.  I don’t think I could ever go back to desks after having tables in my classroom. Designing with intent, result = increased collaboration.

There were other simple things at Google this week that I want to incorporate into my classroom. In the halls there are glass walls on which people write messages, notes and quotes with dry erase markers.  I have several nice white boards in my classroom that I have traditionally underutilized in the past 10 years.  This year I want students to take ownership of those boards.  What will they use them for? I don’t know.  I want to ask them how they want to use them.

This year our classrooms at Discovery Middle School with be 1:1 for the first time.  I want to encourage more group work and collaboration on projects with students.  I need to reprogram myself to allow groups to work on a project in the hallway or the commons without my shadowing them the entire time.   I need to give them more ownership over their spaces.  It truly is their space, not MY classroom.

I can’t recreate the Google campus in my classroom and I certainly can’t feed them gourmet style food for lunch (although I do sometimes have hot chocolate available for them on cold winter days) but I can start to increase the collaboration with intentional choices in design.

I am the CEO of my classroom, but I want my students to run the company.


  1. Great article Eric. Check this out: