An Innovator’s Journey: Part 1-The People

This is part of an ongoing series of posts on my experience in becoming a Google Education Certified Innovator. You can view the other portions As Well.

On Innovation

100_0198.jpgI should begin with the idea that I kind of despise the words innovator and innovative. It’s not that I don’t believe in the concepts, but there seem to be issues when they’re applied to education. Mostly it’s because I think the word has been terribly overused to reference even minor changes that may actually demonstrate progress in the wrong direction. I am not opposed to using the word. I am a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (a lot of superlatives there) and now a Google Education Certified Innovator. I consider Lisa Nielsen, The Innovative Educator, a personal friend, and the impetus for my writing this blog. And I fully support a systemic structural change in our education system, if that is to be called innovation. I love history’s great innovators like Marconi’s radio, Disney’s cartoons, and Franklin’s DNA study. But that isn’t what innovation often looks like in education, where it often simply means, “Hey, look! We use computers in this class.”

Innovation in its most basic sense simply means a new idea, a new device, or a new way of doing things. If novelty alone is the measure then it serves no purpose because new does not necessarily mean better. For some people in education, innovation may just be mind-numbing worksheets now shown on a new laptop or writing a script to make multiple-choice drills more efficient. I have no patience for that kind of ‘innovation’.

But if by innovation, we look past ‘the new’ and instead define it as changes of direction in thought and action that produce better solutions and the meeting of needs that before were unaddressed, then I wholeheartedly support innovation. The new shouldn’t be a measure because as Solomon says, “There is no new thing under the sun.” All of our ‘new’ inventions and practices are mostly only minor modifications of what came before, and that’s fine.

Susan and Papert
2-time Smithsonian Award winner Susan Abdulezer and 1st-time winner Seymour Papert, the father of constructionism

It reminds me of how every time I have a conversation with my co-worker, the incomparable Susan Abdulezer (someone to whom I will soon dedicate a whole post) I am reminded of how all the cool educational things I think I am doing aren’t new at all. She is 100% encouraging and kind, but Susan has the effect of both encouraging and humbling me simultaneously. We should all have someone like that in our lives. With her I see how, whether it’s my work creating accessible spaces through tech, empowering students through visual media, or creating virtual reality environments in the classroom I find she was doing it back in the 90s with less easy-to-use tools.

It shows me that I’m not as innovative as I like to think, but that it doesn’t matter. Am I doing something new and exciting in my classroom? Are my students engaged and enlightened by what I am now sharing? Am I willing to experiment, stumble, and reiterate with tools and practices that are new to me? If you can answer yes to those questions then you are more than innovative enough and your students are all the better for it.

Google Innovator Academy

Group 1: Students

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 9.56.56 AM.pngSo I was selected to attend the Google Innovator Institute recently in Venice, California. It is a complex application process and an intensive design and learning opportunity, but I will focus on the process during the next post in this series. Suffice to say I’m probably not the best person to give pointers, but I got in, so I’m certainly not the worst. For now, I want to focus on the people involved because that is always a key factor in our success as teachers. The message is crucial but who is delivering it and who it is being delivered to determine the message’s effectiveness (i.e. using CRISPR to edit the human genome is a bold message for many geneticists but only the most advanced kindergartners).

So the first people I want to focus on, as all teachers should, are my students. You cannot be successful as an educator without really knowing yours. Due to the special needs of my students, I have long known that traditional direct instruction is ineffective and inappropriate for them. What I’ve since come to learn is that holds true for most students across the spectrum. The vast majority of children would be better off if they were engaged in solving open problems through playful and challenging hands-on learning. Struggling students would gain access and high-achieving students would be stretched to think differently. Below the video of my students relays my efforts to meet those needs and the struggles that demand innovative thinking.

Group 2: Coaches & Facilitators

The entire event was coordinated by program managers from Google and EdTechTeam who were dedicated, organized, accommodating, and giving focused and friendly, but I’ll get more into their work and the process in the next post. It was a fast-paced and high-energy environment during the institute and it would have been easy to feel overwhelmed if not for the coaches who kept their groups on track, encouraged, and relaxed. Even before the institute, there were a number of activities to help prepare us but it was their commitment to helping us grow into the process that made it achievable.

That’s important because so much of the growth process is about self discovery. It’s about refining our own beliefs and holding on to the parts of ourselves that are essential and discarding the unnecessary baggage.


Unlike many of the participants, I was still working (year-round school) up to and during the Institute on top of many other professional and personal obligations (graduations, presentations, etc.). That meant I could only allot a small amount of time for preparation and despite my OCD, I was struggling to manage all the events I had on my plate at the end of the year. So while other participants prepped for their vacation, I continued to prep end-of-year school events and the beginning of the summer session. To their credit, the facilitators continued to make sure I was hitting the major pre-event markers. The emails helped me stay in touch when I struggled to coordinate between my DOE account and actual Google accounts in the Classroom and Hangouts. It took some time to work out. In the end, I had 3 separate emails/accounts connected through the process (a little confusion for the sake of complete awareness) By the time I on it, I felt like I was so far behind. But they kept me encouraged and prepared. Despite all of my struggles and shortcomings, they were very inclusive and understanding.

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During The Institute

The time seemed to fly with so much awesomeness during the institute that I wish I could do it again just because I could have been there twice as long and still have felt like I was missing out with all that was happening. The coaches were amazing from the beginning making sure everyone was comfortable and connected. I was amazed at how they would edit their slide deck on the fly to include moments we experienced and the designs we created in the midst of the event. They weren’t just guiding us, but they were experiencing it all with us.

The design exercises in advance really helped prepare us but the attitudes of the coaches to help us fail quickly so we could learn, grow, and reiterate eased the tension. Their commitment to fostering camaraderie though made the biggest impact. Whether it was personal insight, teamwork exercises, playing soccer, or taco piñatas they were committed to keeping us unified and encouraged.

Les McBeth, the Director of PD at the Future Design School, appropriately led us through the design process but the two coaches I worked with most to refine my efforts were David Chan whose thoughtfulness will lead you to unexpected insights (and provide you the shirt you forgot) and Jornea Erwin who will happily lend you her abundance of energy and enthusiasm. Even though I failed wonderfully throughout in small and silly ways and bigger ways too, they made it clear that those failures would only lead to future successes.


I’ve only just begun the year long and beyond post-institute experience, but I’m already invigorated enough to, with the inspiration of coaches, completely change the focus of my innovation project. I’ve recorded a new pitch video and set new goals. I received a postcard inspiring me to set goals for both Monday and someday. Soon I’ll be connected to a mentor from a select group of previous innovators to continue the direction and encouragement begun in the institute. I look forward to it.Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 11.25.34 AM.png

Group3: Fellow Innovators


20180607_133944I feel in many ways like the short straw in this group, but the encouragement kept coming despite my social awkwardness. These amazing fellow innovators inspired me so much that I feel comfortable using that word to describe them (though not totally comfortable using it for myself). They were impassioned before the camp and continue to be well afterward as evidenced by their extensive Hangouts chat (another of my shortcomings). Like I said above, I was probably over-scheduled so I couldn’t give the cohort my full attention.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 1.15.47 PM.pngThis will probably make me seem like a robot (I am), but I’ve always been more task-oriented than socially oriented so it’s hard for me to find a way to insert myself in conversations especially with people I don’t really know. The Innovator crew was so cordial and accommodating but my schedule, time differences, login struggles, and a natural disinclination kept me from really investing early on. We had a video conference at one point before the conference where people continued the conversations they had been having (I was not very familiar with it-something about a deep love of tacos). I had read info on them and watched their fun and moving videos to get to know them, but as I sat at my 2 sons’ soccer practice I found it hard to focus on the exercise. Yes, part of that was the noise of traffic nearby and planes overhead and the poor signal on the field, but part of it was my general feeling of being an outsider in social experiences. It’s something I’ve struggled with much of my life which is perhaps to my understanding of students with autism, but not necessarily positive here. Despite all of that there was never anything but kindness offered by the Innovator crew. So even though when it was my turn to talk I was rushing from practice to the car to get my kids dinner, they continued to try to connect with me despite my shortcomings. That kind of acceptance is rare.

So my level of involvement started to change while I was in the middle of a presenting at the EDxED conference and my phone started exploding with messages. I had no idea what was going on. It turned out Breakout EDU boxes had started arriving for people. So after the day’s events, I caught up with the chat a bit and proceeded to get my box from work and begin the solution process. It turns out mine (shared with 3 others) was harder to solve than anyone else’s due to the complexity of Canadian zip codes. The task of solving it was far more in my gaming, puzzle-loving wheelhouse than an online conversation. But even then time constraints interceded again and confusion about whether I was supposed to proceed or wait for my teammates was unclear. I actually didn’t get on that until right before the institute. But others were helpful and encouraging even though I had been rather absent. They were happy to share their insights.

At the Institute

20180710_152102-ANIMATION.gifWhen I arrived after a long flight the afternoon of our first official events I met with fellow Innovators Natasha Rachell and Jennifer Leban at the airport and another Innovator An Wren served our local airport shuttle. I would even end up with a nice Airbnb to stay thanks to the efforts of yet another Innovator Ron Carroll. All my stumbles along the way didn’t matter now were buoyed by the endeavors of people who made clear to me why their hearts to care for others make them such dedicated educators.

IMG_20180709_131336.jpgIt was that warmth that made me feel comfortable despite my being awake for 16 hours, feeling hungry, not relaxing with those who arrived the day before, and looking a little worn when we arrived at the YouTube Studios. Despite all that and my general social awkwardness, everyone was so great. Despite being from different places with different backgrounds, having different aptitudes, and serving in different roles in our work there was a collective bond. I think it has something to do with knowing we share a committed to the needs of our school communities. Or maybe it’s just the tacos. Both are powerful.

When we got to Google, the energy from the coaches and Innovators (along with an apple and some granola bars) fueled me despite my exhaustion. That camaraderie and encouragement continued throughout the institute. People were happy to share ideas and their personal stories knowing that they were in a safe environment which is really something coming from me.

We challenged each other as well, but it always remained positive with a belief that the other person was definately capable of achieving their goals and all would help them get there. Imagine if all schools had that kind of environment. What would we be capable of then?

The Meæt Surprises

My group, the meæt surprises (long story), shared our histories, our hopes, and our challenges with each other. Jonathan Almerido, Jeanie Elder, Marcie FaustChristine Monge, and Kelly Orvick are different ages and come from very different backgrounds (a lot of time in Russia, Australia, etc.), but we were immediately supportive of each other. Kelly and I partnered through much of the design process and she is such a passionate and enthusiastic that it can’t help but drive you too. There were many other high-five and handshake partners (another long story) that I connected with as well who helped me review my project. All of the events went from early until late into the night with egg and spoon races, board games, karaoke, and meaningful conversations because we were happy to have found each other. We didn’t want the journey to end. We continue to connect and I have already scheduled ongoing opportunities to meet and work with some of those I met in those long 3 days despite our geographic separation from most.

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Group 4: Everyone Else

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 2.13.53 PM.pngWe learned throughout that we were part of a larger community of Innovators. Some spoke and shared about their triumphs and struggles with innovating in their educational environments. Others came to encourage us during our graduation. We have gotten connected to an even larger circle of educators who are struggling and succeeding in making the communities better places to learn and live. I have gotten connected to other educators and Google employees who are passionate about accessible technology. And soon I will have a mentor helping to guide me through my next steps. Beyond that though I recognize we are part of a larger community of educators who want more for their students but aren’t yet sure how to proceed. We step into the gap prepared to spread the good word about transformation in our schools.

We go back into the world having been refined by the flames of innovation and that fire, now lit, inspires us onward.

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