GTL March Edition, Breaking out of the Box: Students as Innovators


After months of dealing with an ever-dying battery, blurry classroom pictures, and limited hard drive space, I gave in and bought a new Android. It always amazes me to see just how quickly technology advances itself and this phone has been no exception. The first time I scrolled through the Facebook app, I was instantly mesmerized by the videos which automatically began to play. As much as I hate to admit it, I must have watched at least 10 clips of recipes and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects that first day.

When watching these videos, one cannot help but adopt a DIY attitude – an inner voice that claims, “I could totally do that.” Some people adopt a DIY attitude to save money, others simply enjoy the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. Even as I write this, I have a DIYer friend who is beginning the stages of building his own dining table. And, why not? In this day in age, with easy access to resources and experts (in person or virtually), more and more people are exploring the world of DIY.

“every child has a genius”

One fascinating thing about DIY is that it gives people the time and space to explore skills they would not necessarily use on a daily basis. It requires them to think outside the box and to stay motivated, even as unexpected challenges arise. During our March GTL event, Breaking out of the Box: Students as Innovators, we explored the work of a true DIY educator, Steven Levy, author of Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds Its Own Curriculum.

Famous for his innovative nature, Levy offered his students in Massachusetts the tremendous opportunity of designing their own curriculum. He even identified his “ideal classroom” as one that was completely empty on the first day of school. He wanted to allow his students to create a space that fit their needs. Why was Levy such a strong believer in “starting from scratch”? He understood the unique power of innovation. Levy recognized that when you give students the time and space to explore, you will begin to discover that “…every child has a genius”. Although this idea is not new to me, I cannot help but smile and nod agreement. As young as Kindergarten, students begin to realize their strengths and weaknesses. Michelle knows she is good with numbers and John knows he is a better reader, but what about the skills not found in a textbook?

“Brian’s” genius was professional wrestling. He wasn’t interested in learning to be a better reader. In fact, he struggled to write more than three words in his writer’s notebook. (Anyone out there find this familiar?) So, I did what any teacher would do, I begged him to write more. When that didn’t work (of course it didn’t), I knew I had to change something. I hopped online and began to teach myself all I could about professional wrestling. I read articles and watched videos, familiarizing myself with the “pros” and began to surprise Brian with wrestling-related questions in his notebook. His three words turned into a sentence and before I knew it Brian was writing a paragraph. Turns out, all I needed to do was ask the right questions.

Are you using innovation to support your students in discovering their “genius”?

Interested in learning more about Steven Levy? Check out his book (one of my personal favorites)!


small steps = big innovation

During this edition of Google Teachers’ Lounge (GTL), participants explored ways in which they can build innovative practices into their instruction. From discussing flexible classroom seating to learning about digital makerspaces, teachers figured out what worked best for them. One of the best takeaways of the evening was that innovation does not have to mean “starting from scratch”. There is no need to throw away those boxes of curriculum that are in your closet; instead, start small.

Build in innovation by offering students a menu of options. Let students choose how they want to show their understanding of a concept. A Google Slides presentation that includes graphics? A letter written from a character’s point of view? Maybe they could even record their thinking when solving a math problem. Offering these options allows students to draw from their “genius”, while still providing adequate data for a teacher. Most importantly, it allows students to become DIYers, while staying within the confines of that pesky pacing calendar.

Ready to break outside of the box and take on the attitude of a DIYer?!

…Because you can “totally do this” – Check out our full list of resources here!

Written by Emily Kirsch, @Ed_Tech_Em

GTL February Edition, Secret Agents: Students as Self-Directed Learners

the first day

This last September, I received a text from my sister on the first day of school. It wasn’t unlike her to send a morning text, but this day was different. It was the day my nephew would begin Kindergarten. As his Auntie Em, I was feeling a mix of emotions that morning – nervousness for him to be away from his younger brother, nostalgia for the days that I remember walking with him in the front pack – but most of all, excitement. I was sure he would love his teacher and, like all kindergarteners, blissfully squeal at the first sight of the playground.

The phone buzzed and a notification appeared on the screen. I tapped to open it, revealing a sunny video of a school bus pulling up to the curb. The bus slowed and there was my nephew, backpack securely on his shoulders, lunch pail in hand. As the door opened, he looked up at the bus driver who invited him on. I couldn’t help but to get choked up as I watched him climb the steps. Reaching the top, he turned to smile at my sister and then made his way to his seat behind the driver.

what we hope for

My sister and I talk regularly and our conversations over these past few months often come back to my nephew’s experiences at school. At first, we spoke of things in an “I hope he…” way. “I hope he goes to the nurse if he doesn’t feel good.” “I hope he knows that he can buy milk in the cafeteria.” “I hope he tells his teacher if someone is bothering him”. When it came down to it, what we were really hoping for was that he realized he had the power to advocate for himself. He had the power to take charge of his learning environment. Using current jargon, we wanted him to have “agency”. Agency is similar to autonomy, but it goes one step further; it is the feeling of empowerment that one must have in order to take charge and make choices.

As an Auntie, there is not much I can do about ensuring my nephew’s agency in school. I can talk about with him and give him examples. I can even point it out when I see it in others, but once he walks through those doors, I can only cross my fingers. When in school, it becomes the responsibility of his teachers to provide him and his classmates with a sense of agency.

students as self-directed learners

During this edition of Google Teachers’ Lounge (GTL), participants explored ways in which they can provide their own students with a sense of agency. We worked together to find opportunities in learning for student autonomy: choice in resources, place, time, pace, content, or presentation. Then, with these in mind, participants took an in-depth look at a variety of instructional approaches which promoted student agency. The mentors from Educate and the NYC DOE provided guidance in how technology may be effectively integrated within each of these approaches. Breakout groups during this session included: Blended Station Rotation Learning, Flipped Classrooms, Student Self-Assessment, Executive Functioning Skills, and Back to the Basics (a group focused on the basics of utilizing the Google Suite). Sound intriguing? If you have 5 minutes, give this a try: How will you empower your students during your next lesson? One easy way to promote agency is by offering students a choice in how to present their learning. (i.e. Allow students to choose between summarizing their knowledge in a Google Doc or by creating a Google Drawing). 

Although each breakout group offered unique experiences and resources, each participant was able to walk away from the evening with an actionable step. Some shared these steps – things they were going to change tomorrow, next week, next month, etc. – in the Google Educator Group for NYC DOE (GEG NYC DOE). This public acknowledgement of their next steps allowed participants to offer each other support, both in “real time” and virtually. The enthusiastic camaraderie filled the room; I was even lucky enough to witness a last
minute exchange of contact information between two acquaintances.


creating a love of learning

It’s now almost April and my nephew has learned a variety of sight words, how to create number bonds, and has a 100th day celebration under his belt. His teacher has designated him as a classroom leader and he works hard at his job of making sure others are organized and their materials are kept  tidy. He loves to go to school and gets upset when not assigned homework.

How do we keep this love for learning alive? By creating an atmosphere where children feel empowered to make choices, where resources are abundant, and teachers walk alongside, rather than standing before their students.


Are you leaving room for agency in your classroom?

Check out the link below for resources from this edition of GTL!

Resources for Secret Agents: Students as Self-Directed Learners

Written by Emily Kirsch, @Ed_Tech_Em


GTL, January Edition, Finding Our Focus

picture this

There I sat, my toes in the sand, the sound of the waves soothing my pre-state-test nerves down to a soft murmur.  Looking to my right, I could see other teachers from my grade level, sipping from icy glasses of lemonade. In front of us stood our principal, our very own fearless leader, providing a training that was directly connected to our teaching.

Does this sound like your last professional development (PD) opportunity? Probably not. This next one may sound a bit more familiar.

Sweat dripping from my brow as I hoisted my over-sized teacher bag from one shoulder to the other, I ran through the parking lot into the middle school cafeteria. I scanned  the room for an empty chair and found one that seemed to be a universe away from my own grade level colleagues. Shrugging, I began the trek and couldn’t help but think about my growing “to-do” list.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? As teachers, our lives can be marked by the papers we carry in our bags, the random objects that we collect from our students, and those PD hours…

a better way

It is my privilege to share with you today what I would consider a revolution in professional development. As an instructional technology coach at Educate LLC, my colleagues and I came together with experts at Google for Edu and the NYCDOE to host our first event. It was a learning opportunity, which we are affectionately calling Google Teachers’ Lounge (GTL). An opportunity like no other, GTL brought teachers together into an official Google space in Chelsea Market. Teachers of varying backgrounds, each with a unique perspective, gathered together, connected by their propensity for innovation in education.

A stark contrast to the usual PD experience, GTL began with an assortment of food provided graciously by Google (worlds better than the typical snacks I find squished in the bottom of my teacher bag). Our own fearless leaders, Becca Garrison and Kyle Liao, then kicked off the evening with words of inspiration. They ensured teachers that the event was designed with them in mind. Teachers would walk away from this first GTL with an actionable step. How refreshing – to actually walk away from a PD experience with something you want to try.

take advantage

By the end of the the evening, I came to the conclusion that GTL offers three great advantages over your typical PD experience:

  • GTL offers authentic “facetime” with other teachers. It gives teachers the opportunity to exchange and explore fresh ideas with others outside of their direct school community. If for nothing else, come to recharge your batteries!  
  • GTL offers professionals the chance to…be professional! The self-directed, “ed-camp” format allows teachers to explore what is relevant to them and their students at that very moment in time.
  • GTL offers teachers a supportive learning community. With all of the “extras” expected of teachers in these modern days, it has become increasingly difficult for them to experiment with new instructional practices. Mentors from Educate as well as the NYCDOE provided guidance and facilitation, in at most a 1:10 ratio with participants. Coming together with other educators in this environment offers support and encouragement to take risks and try something new! 


As LeVar Burton would say, “…but you don’t have to take my word for it.” Come and check out GTL for yourself at our next event:

Secret Agents: Students as Self-Directed Learners

Thursday, February 23rd, from 4:30 – 7:00pm

GWB Tech Talk (Use Google entrance next to USPS on 9th Ave)

76 9th Avenue

New York, NY 10011

Click here to be added to the waiting list!


Can’t make it? Be sure to keep an eye out for another GTL blog entry, February Edition, highlighting some of those fresh ideas!

By Emily Kirsch @Ed_Tech_Em