An Innovator’s Journey: Part 3-The Academy

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.

So I hope it’s clear that being allowed to take part in a Google Innovator Academy is an immense privilege that is by no means guaranteed. With that said, if you do make it, it will be important to know what to expect so you can make the most of the experience. While I look back grateful for having been a part of LAX18, I also regret not taking full advantage of every opportunity. Also, there are certainly positive elements of the academy that can be replicated in a school/district environment. So here was my experience at a Google Innovator Academy which is not necessarily indicative of the experience of others or what you may discover in future academies. As I have explained before, they are consistently evolving and refining the process.


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I already discussed how excited I was to discover I was accepted into the program, but I was also nervous and apprehensive for several reasons. First, I wasn’t sure if I was up to their expectations. Sure I had tried to present my best self to be accepted, but what if my best self wasn’t close enough to my everyday self and they soon realized they had made a mistake with me. Could it be rescinded? Also the dates of the Academy happened to fall during the first full week of my school’s summer session (July 9-July 11). Would I be allowed to miss those days after I would already miss the last 2 days of the regular school year for ISTE? I was also obligated to other events that same summer to present and attend. Would I be forced to choose? I was willing to miss out on all of the money from our Chapter 683 summer session if necessary (a lot?!), but would I be forced to make that choice too?

Gladly I was given permission to take unpaid leave for those 3 days. I mean, I was going to be learning skills and bringing valuable information back to my district so it made sense to let me go. I was ready to roll so I took the following pre-academy preparation steps.

  • RSVP to the offer. This is followed by jumping up and down excitedly at work in a subtle way as to not look insane (or less insane than I normally do.).
  • Be an online creeper. Google set up a whole welcome guide that lets you know about the amazing Program Managers and Innovator Coaches who will be helping guide you on your journey. Then you can check out the group on a Twitter List and the Meet the Cohort page that includes people’s contact info, their goal. That page included, a map showing where to find them IRL, and a YouTube playlist showing their acceptance videos. I pored over that info trying to determine why I might have been selected amongst this group of clearly impressive educators. They all seemed to be connected to former Innovators and know each other somewhat (especially the Cali folks). I didn’t really have that benefit. Once again…more self-doubt. (Just accept that as a running theme of this post, and, I guess, my life).
  • Get connected. They provided multiple methods for connecting with the other members of the cohort through emails, Twitter, Google Groups, Google Classroom, and Google Hangouts. I have to say I was a bit overwhelmed especially with the pace of the Hangout chat that streamed a lot of info late into the night (West Coast folks). While many were about at the end of their school year I still had a lot of huge events and responsibilities ahead of me up until the moment of the academy. I recommend you take more time to savor these interactions than I was able to.
  • Begin to plan your travel and expenses. Google doesn’t cover the costs of your voyage. That means travel and housing are up to you. They did book some rooms with a slight discount but it was still a bit prohibitive. So I booked a flight and a cheap sort of nearby hotel and hoped someone else might come up with something better. I couldn’t plan fully yet though because I was still planning ISTE which came right before. They provide the schedule of the 3-day experience. Due to my summer school commitment (and cost of flights), I would be flying in the morning it began and taking a red-eye out on the night it ended.
  • Get overwhelmed with work and life responsibilities. This isn’t a required step, but I took on a lot this past year personally and professionally and it was hitting hard in May and June. They were good problems but I’m still learning the art of saying no to things.
  • giphy
    Feel insecure and disconnected.
    So I was unable to keep up completely with the pace of the social exchanges. That may be more representative of my not being generally good with online social interactions (or in-person ones that aren’t with kids). So take that with a grain of salt. Also while I tried to catch up a bit on the subway in the morning before the West Coast folks awoke, it wasn’t always possible. Then as I rushed into work and didn’t totally get the inside jokes (when did tacos become such a thing?) I couldn’t really think of a way to respond that didn’t seem entirely forced or false. I was in my head again.
  • Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 11.51.55 AM.png
    Video conference and chance at a reset button.
     I was hopeful that maybe I could redeem my, thus far, lackluster performance, through a scheduled video conference where we’d get all the major details we’d need before the event. It was somewhat problematic as it was scheduled at a time when I’d be obligated to take my boys to soccer practice. That field, near JFK Airport, is noisy from planes and gets very poor reception, but I’d try my best.  My distracted self that was present that evening was almost certainly not my best, but all the people were so kind and fun that my awkward stumbling didn’t seem too off-putting.
Sean's How Might We
How might we…encourage to students to engage in instruction in a way that is intrinsically motivating
How might we...make game-based learning  that is effective across content areas.
How might we...make game-based learning accessible
  • Complete project interviews and how might we slide deck. One of the major differences from past years was that we weren’t tasked with determining solutions for an educational problem but only with fully exploring that problem and the people it impacts. For that, we were tasked with interviewing users and determining what the real challenge was based on what they said and what we could infer. 
  • Be all-consumed with a conference presentation. The following day after the call I was presenting at the EDxED conference in other NYC teachers. It necessitated my full attention.
  • IMG_8150.jpg
    Have your phone explode with messages during that conference.
    In the middle of presenting accessibility though AR/VR in the classroom my phone starts pinging with Google Hangout messages like popcorn in the microwave.I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t check it yet, but I would come to find that everyone had begun receiving some exciting packages in the mail that afternoon. 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.
  • Get into playing a game. So I began to first dig into solving the clues to open the box and pondering what might be inside. It wasn’t that big, so what could it be?
  • Get frustrated by that game.  Did you know that every block in Canada essentially has a different zip code made up of letters and numbers? I do now. That’s because my Breakout clue necessitated that information. Jay Dubois’s Candian-ness helped other Innovators get on the right track to solving their boxes but the fact that he and several other people in my clue didn’t know their exact code being used made solving mine nearly impossible. Picture me cursing Canadian zip codes with my fist in the air as I formulate possible solutions first on paper and, after failing, in a more complex spreadsheet. I was eventually the person who solved my box simply due to dogged persistence. At that point, it took us to some online breakout clues.I was a bit confused about whether we were supposed to wait for those part of our new group to complete their boxes. That confusion led to me being distracted once again. I ended up not trying to solve the other parts until it was right before the institute. But others were helpful and encouraging even though I had been rather absent. They were happy to share their insights.
  • Get consumed once again with work. There were major end of the year events like our STEM Fair, graduations, a visit from my brother, and prepping for ISTE where I had 6 presentations and other required meetings. So I had to put off some of the Innovator details while I finalized and participated in all of that. Most others, now having finished work, were engaged in final preparations details and eagerly anticipating Googley Camp. I was rather frantically trying to balance all my other plates in the air. So I guess that kept my mind from second-guessing anything there.
  • See Innovators at ISTE and get reinvigorated. I randomly happened upon several teacher friends at ISTE. I attended one great workshop on GBL that was partly led by fellow LAX18 Innovator, the fun-loving Jon Spike, and I also happened to see another Innovator attending that same workshop, the kind and quirky Abby Almerido. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. After ISTE, I would check more of the Hangout feed and several other Innovators were able to connect. The in-person connection reminded me how special a group I was allowed to be a part of. I now had the LAX18 fever and the focus on my remaining ISTE presentations couldn’t dampen it.
  • Frantically finalize last-minute travel changes. A bunch of other awesome people helped arrange AirBnB housing which both cut my cost and allowed me to be part of the fun. An Wren, a caring and insightful TOSA, even volunteered to function as the official airport shuttle driver. Without them, I would have been even more lost.
  • Prepare my game. So upon completing Google’s breakout challenge I discovered I had to create my own Breakout that would introduce me to the other innovators. I created an antique letter that with images that appeared to be Roman stadiums and a clue in Latin to go along with my educator story. I was packed, prepped, and excited to begin the main part of my journey (though I now realize the journey had begun long before and would continue long after).
  • Relax and experience for the awesome.

At The Academy

Image result for google innovator application

I knew the first day would be a long one, and I was prepared but I hadn’t anticipated the connections I would make that day. My wife dropped me off at JFK airport before 6 a.m. so I would have time to be relaxed and prepared for my 6 hour flight to Los Angeles . I had my snacks, my devices, my pillow, my Google-colored shirt, and I was finishing my Lifelong Kindergarten (highly recommended) book as I waited anticipating how I could begin to implement the kind of groundbreaking changes on a major scale the way they were discussed in that book.

I arrived just before noon in L.A. and I was starving despite my airplane snacks. I didn’t have much time to contemplate that though as I gathered my bags and was already checking the Hangout to find that the dedicated and knowledgable Natasha Rachell had arrived from Georgia, the eclectic and energetic Jennifer Leban would be arriving soon from Chicago, and An was on her way to pick us up. So we had a brief moment to share our background and were on our way to the YouTube Studios. It was a fun way to casually slide in with the google folks and get to know each other in the physical world (though some had had the chance to meet the night before).  That first day I would be awake for over 21 straight hours, but my excitement exceeded my exhaustion and my hunger.

Building Social Connections

LAX18 Innovators at YouTube Studios in front of YouTube logo

We began connecting socially immediately. I suppose that was helped by all the ways we had done so online previously as well as knowing that everyone around you was dedicated and excited about the job ahead of them. It also helped that we began with a fun-filled tour of the the YouTube Studios in Los Angelas. My children had several requests for me on this journey, many of which I would be unable to fulfill. Amongst those was a promise that I should find the home and say hello to their favorite YouTube gamers like Funnel Vision and Denis Daily. But being at the studios where some of the only celebrities they cared about spent time earned me some extra dad cred, so thanks for that Google. And then we were off to the official Google intros at their offices in Venice Beach.

Group Efforts

So I walked in a little jet-lagged, lethargic and dragging luggage. That feeling didn’t last long as I soon fed physically from healthy Google snacks and mentally from healthy Google interactions. It began with the wildness of an educator and coach, Micah Shippee, who I had met earlier that year by chance and come to think very highly of. He had us play some fun games for introduction, get out of our comfort zone with weird walking challenges, and introduced us to our other cohort compatriots through strange handshakes, fist bumps, and other weird gestures. It made it clear this would be different. That was group 1.

Then we broke into our Breakout Edu groups to share our personal stories (and breakout challenges) which would lead us to meet our main (but not only) group for the Academy. This was a crew I would get to know well over the coming days. We would become known as the Meæt Surprises (an inside joke) with our own chants, gestures, theme song, and shared experiences.

Energizers & Challenges

Sean blindfolded throwing cotton balls at another blindfolded person with several bystanders

This portion of the Academy may seem somewhat similar to other PDs you’ve attended except that everyone was excited to be there and participate. Wendy Gorton led improv exercises like knife, baby, angry cat as well as Tweet contests, physical plank and tug of war challenges, and fun games like bubble machine and the cotton ball game. Yes, they were worthwhile brain breaks, but it also got us connected with other teams and helped us recognize how competitive some of us were. That’s useful knowledge for future collaborations.


On top of all the official ways to connect there were a number of informal hangouts and discussions. These occurred at meals, walking back to our AirBnBs and hotels, or just in conversation in passing. And that doesn’t even go into the after hours depth that comes from late night karaoke and games of Telestrations. Ultimately though I would later on that I was becoming part of a much larger community through ongoing Google Hangout Chats, the Inoovator Google Group, Twitter Chats, the YouTube Live events, and even Google+ to a degree. And then the new Google EDU Directory would share our efforts at change throughout the world. And eventually we would be matched with a Google Innovator mentor (more on that in the Part 4).

Design Thinking

Sean spinning in a non-tip chair at the YouTube Studios

So much of my Google Innovator experience was build around the design thinking process and the work of Les McBeth at the Future Design School. I was already familiar with the process through the project-based learning efforts with my students, my efforts with universal design, and my work with the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in NYC. (Interestingly YouTube in LA has the same non-tip chairs created at Cooper Hewitt). All of these details will necessitate their own post, but there were some powerful points in design that Les presented that I want to focus on. Like…

  • The design process isn’t neat. – Sometimes the idea leads to mistakes, mockery, coffee, beer, and boring meetings as much as it does a wireframe or prototype. That doesn’t mean all of that can’t take you to a successful launch or a worthwhile discovery that your idea needs to be reworked.
  • It must be user-focused. – Saying something is for everybody almost guarantees it won’t work for anyone. This goes to universal design. The curb cutouts for wheelchair users also help people with strollers, luggage, and more.
  • You should think 10X. Think of bold moon shot rocket-ship ideas even if they might seem unrealistic. Those big ideas can carry you great distances to bold choices that may succeed. And eventually even to the moon (whatever that means to you).
  • You should be prototype-driven. Your goal should be to move beyond the ambiguous idea and towards an actual physical model to demonstrate your big, bold idea.

To practice that before we got deep into our own projects we engaged in the sitting challenge which required more time on my feet than it sounds. We had to create a design to improve the sitting experience. I worked with my partner, Janet Gutierrez, to create the perfect sofa for mothers with a number of features like a fridge for her kids snacks, self-cleaning stain-resistant material, and adjustable comfort. And then I put on my best infomercial impression to sell that pitch. Time after time I adjusted my sales pitch (I was once very successful in sales) to win face-offs with other chair designs. I and my growing pitch-squad ended up coming in second to a, shall we say, adult-themed chair.

The design process
The Design Process

We then took that exercise into our individual projects. We planned, we designed, we iterated, we questioned, and redesigned. It started with our ‘How Might We’ questions and user interviews we did before the institute. Yes, it’s useful to look at the ideas of others that are completed. And we also sketched out reasonable and ridiculous solutions. We had gallery walks, built on our best ideas, sought insight from our peers and fixed our work based on that feedback. Ultimately though the best efforts all begin with good questions rather than solutions, like the questions posed in the creation of the Rubik’s Cube. The world is not to be memorized but to be figured out, rearranged, and made better.

For me that became clear quickly because I was creating elaborate designs for a digital and accessible project-based learning system. I still might end up creating it, but even amongst these savvy and skilled educators my efforts were misunderstood. That’s because they were unfamiliar with the population I worked with, students with moderate and severe disabilities, and thus didn’t understand the need or method for providing them access. For that reason I won’t even go into much of my design throughout the Academy, because I scrapped it as I walked out the door.

One of the biggest obstacles to success is the inability to discard old ideas and projects in favor of new possibilities.


I needed to first advocate and increase understanding for the need to provide accessible learning for ALL students and not just mine. So the final part of the design was pitching our idea to others. The video below covers my initial pitch.

Sparking Inspiration

Throughout the academy current and former Google Innovators shared their insights on topics ranging from writing scripts, professional relationships, juggling, beatboxing, and the perfect pot of coffee. These were some of the most encouraging and entertaining moments of the experience, but I will save all of those for a future post. For now, it is only important to know that everyone had unique knowledge that they could share from their lives. Our coaches shared their greater insights on our journey through a series of spaced out Spark talks, the goal of which were to spark our minds for the change we would become a part of. I’m not going to go into great detail, because each of these deserves a post unto itself and because these are their stories to share. I do want to give a taste of the amazing inspiration poured onto us by our coaches.

Every Being is created with will power
Nothing and no one can take it away
It can't be given away
It's the center of every Spirit's Being
First Nations Wisdom

Mark Wagner: Mark inspired us to seek more now! That’s about recognizing that we are the architects of what is possible. It’s thinking less about yesterday’s problems (except how to solve them for today), less about tomorrow’s worries (except to rid them), and more about what awesomeness you can bring into the world now. Be ready to make big, bold decisions to change your future today. And then how can you think even bigger? What keys or inspirations do you need to tap into to make that happen? Does it involve others? Do you need to connect with your anam cara, or soul friends? If you’re ready for that journey ask yourself, if you had a message from the future for educators, what would it be? What is your dream? What is your vision? Start dreaming it out loud.

Ari presenting in front of colorful balloons

Ari Flewelling: Ari’s wonderful spark on Imposter Syndrome probably spoke to me most deeply probably because of my massive self doubt and my nature to second guess and question everything. After a brief quiz in which my neurosis allowed me to note how evident imposter syndrome was in me, she shared the 5 types or ways imposter syndrome might express itself. Then we dove into how to combat imposter syndrome. One of the methods that stood out to me was cultivating human resources which included the team I was building at the academy. And for someone who has long advocated embracing failure in the classroom, it’s

David Chan: David, my wonderfully encouraging coach, inspired us to change big. He entertained us with some Podcast-style fun with stories of is Evanston Life. He spoke of using technology to create equity and de-tracking students. It was stories of empowered students protesting school policies and recognizing our own biases. Sometimes the solutions can even begin with simple changes like providing digital visualizations and adjustments of bell schedules. And ultimately through David’s examples we were inspired to seek big changes and to incentivize ourselves to stay on track by using Future Me to remind ourself of our goals.

Micah Shippee: Micah let us have some fun and gave us an emotional release to help us make our problems go away with AR/VR. We used CoSpaces Edu and some Merge Cubes to bring our problems to life virtually and make them disappear. It was incredibly cathartic and it’s important to note that most of my problems were related to the MTA (aaaahhh subways!)

Jornea Erwin: Jornea is an amazingly kind educator who has called various southern cities home. At one point that was New Orleans, and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the community she loved was suffering. She was trying to remain strong for her students and her daughters and she saw some of the best of humanity exhibited in some of the worst moments. But we can unlock resilience and our full potential with the keys of love, growth, and inspiration. How might we love and grow and how might we create communities of love and support the growth of others? And ultimately she reminded us that inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone, and we should seek not only to be inspired but to be inspiring to others. Through that we unlock the resilience in all of us.

Michael Kosko: Michael sparks our thoughts on the power of crowdsourcing. As an example, collectively Foldit gamers solved the riddle of the HIV enzyme. They played to discover solutions to challenging problems. That worked for him with his students in Chicago as well. The key is to know that you don’t have all the answers and engage others. They don’t even have to be your friends (though it helps).

Katie Siemer: Katie discussed how building relationships can help make any efforts at change sustainable. This goes to the social emotional learning concept that it takes a village to successfully raise and educate children. It takes empathizing with the challenges of others and asking them questions to understand. It is being humble about our shortcomings, admitting we don’t always know, and giving others credit for their successes. And 90% of the time it’s about showing up and being present. Then you can connect to show appreciation in the manner that the other person needs.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Maya Angelou


Throughout the academy we got a first-hand perspective of what it was to be Googley, a word that, like Aloha or Shalom, has a multitude of meanings dependent on context. Googliness is about being adventurous and thoughtful, generous and humble, playful and fair. Several Google employees demonstrated that attitude exuberantly (while a few not involved in the Innovator Cohort seemed less Googley). Meanwhile we also got to see about what it was like to be in that hub in terms of atmosphere, access to fun (bicycles, ping pong, video games, etc.), access to materials, and spirit to innovate.

On top of the tours of various facilities, we also got presentations for Googlers on the work they are doing and how we can tap into their expertise. These included the power of YouTube to share stories as well as a Google masseuse who took us through mindfulness exercises. These revelations also involved sneak peeks into some new products that have already been released and others that as yet haven’t. But above all the greatest Google take-away was that we were being empowered to be the spark for change, for reform, for innovation when we returned to our schools. But not only that. We also had a team of friends and fellow Innovators who’ve walked that journey to act as guides and collaborators along the way. And that journey was only beginning. After the academy I would discover hoe

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