Transforming Your Leadership With Google Classroom (and making tech tools fun again!)

I have always been somewhat of a techie.  As an only child (don’t hold that against me) growing up in upstate New York on a 10 acre apple orchard, without other kids around, it was up to me to entertain myself.  

I had a Commodore 64, an Atari, and a giant stereo complete with speakers taller than I was.  I didn’t stop there like most pre-teens in the 80’s may have.  I also had a Double Play Rabbit, a Sony Watchman, and the first ever tablet, the Atari Tablet.  Yes, it did exist!

Throughout my career I was always up on the latest tech.  In the 90’s, my gadget of choice was the Palm Pilot.  I used it to keep stats for my varsity basketball team, to take attendance in class, keep locker combinations for my PE class, and as an electronic calendar.  

In my first administrative interview, they were so impressed with my Palm Pilot that they later told me that it was the deciding factor for me getting the job. Looking back, I realize the field must not have been very strong.

The reason for the first admin job?

I continued to utilize technology as I changed administrative positions. I was always seen as a Principal who was “up on tech”. I was often called into classrooms to fix smartboards and computers.  I was successful more than not utilizing the computer repair skills I learned in the 80’s such as blowing on the device, turning it on and off, and unplugging and plugging back in wires.  

I even wrote my dissertation on the not-so-long-lasting educational tech tool, the ipod touch.   Believe it or not they still do make it (I looked it up).

Despite my love for tech and my belief that when used properly it can help to support good instruction, I was sort of “teched out” the past few years.  

It started to seem like too much.  I was spending too much time learning new tools and really wasn’t sure it was making me a more efficient or inspirational leader.  

That all changed one night at the dinner table last September.   My family and I were having our nightly meal, a half hour minimum of all of us sitting together, breaking bread, no electronics, and my wife’s delicious home cooked meals.  

This night, it was pre-made turkey meatballs in Ragu sauce over extra soft and mushy pasta.  For an added bonus, we got a stale loaf of bread from the local Stop and Shop.  I once made the mistake of telling Rebecca that throwing some pre-made meatballs in a pot of Ragu didn’t constitute cooking.  That went over as well as you would expect.  The kids found it funny, Rebecca not so much.

Despite Rebecca’s prowess in the kitchen, the best part of family dinner was the time talking as a family undistracted. Since it was early September we pressed the three boys about school, teachers, coursework, and, my favorite, the endless hours of the always stimulating and motivating homework.   

My favorite homework assignments are the ones where the boys have to find the answers in the chapter and rewrite the question in full sentences.  Those are almost as meaningful as the essays in which the boys have to guess exactly what it is that they are expected to write.  But, hey, “they have to get ready for the next level.”

You may get that homework and, more specifically, poorly designed homework is a sore spot with me and something I am determined to improve in my District.  

After my anti-homework rant, Justin, my oldest, mentioned some of his teachers were using Google Classroom.   I was intrigued because I knew a lot of North Rockland teachers were using Google Classroom, but I really didn’t understand it or how it worked.  After a quick tutorial from Justin, I realized that like everything else Google, it is pretty user friendly and intuitive.  

I asked Justin what he thought and he said it is the best invention ever.  That certainly resonated with me. Justin is social, loves sports, and is an excellent student, but I wouldn’t say passionate about school.  Sneakers, sports, girls, and, believe it or not even at 16, family.  I hadn’t heard him get so excited about something school related since he was school president in 5th grade.

I decided I needed to learn more about this tool.  The next day I met with Craig, our laid back Technology Specialist.  Craig spends his summer playing in a band on Cape Cod and his school year finding and mastering everything Google.  I am not sure what all of the Google certifications mean, but I knew he has the highest one; he obtained that a few years back in a prestigious Google Summit in Australia.  He is the type of guy that can pretty much figure out anything and teach it to you without making you feel inferior, no matter how tech challenged you may be.  

The problem for me is I find his stories so interesting that I can sometimes get off track when speaking to him.  A conversation regarding the best way to use a Pear Deck can somehow veer off into the time he opened for Bruce Springsteen one summer at a tiny bar on the Jersey shore.  If you are as big of a Boss fan as I am, you will be happy to know that he is as down to earth and chill as you would expect.

That day, I was determined to learn about Google Classroom.  I was able to keep my ADD in check and, after about 40 minutes, I had a pretty good understanding of how to use it and how it might benefit me as a leader.  

The next day I happened to have a pre-conference with one of our Elementary Principals, Mary.   Mary is the type of Principal that makes being in central office easy.  She is smart, organized, professional, and caring.  In my mind two things separate Mary from the good Principal category to the great Principal category. The first is that she is always trying to improve and get better. It doesn’t matter that she is one of the most experienced and well respected administrators in the District; she is always reflecting, learning, and asking for honest, critical feedback.  The second is she always–always–puts kids first; no matter what, she always has the kids’ best interest at heart and will make a tough decision, even if it is not a popular one to benefit her students.

I was pretty confident that the tool would be something that could work for me as a leader, helping me to be more efficient, organized, and a better facilitator.   Mary’s enthusiasm confirmed my thoughts; she not only loved it as a way for me to work with our administrators, but decided she was going to give it a go with staff.

I have since created several Classrooms that I manage. I have a Classroom for administrators, department chairs, Curriculum Specialists and new Teachers.  I also use Classroom for various initiatives that I lead.  These include the Examining Homework Team, the Reading Task Force, and Professional Development Planning group.  

The great thing is now that I have started using it, other leaders in the District have as well.  This has lead to even more classroom teachers embracing this effective tool.

Easy To Use…Difficult To Master

I have found Google Classroom to be similar to the great arcade games of the 80’s that I loved so much: easy to use, difficult to master.  For me, it started with the basics.  

The first thing I set up is the about section.  This includes basic information such as:

  • Meeting dates
  • Google Folders with resources
  • Timelines

I then use the stream to post agendas, articles, links to resources, and other general information that the groups may need.

The administrative group appreciates that our meeting agendas are Google Docs that have live links to all of the activities, presentations, and information that we work with at each meeting.  This allows them to find resources they may want to use with their faculty or just to find general information.  

I have found it useful to post questions that allow us to have discussions or give each other feedback in a much easier way than the dreaded email chain.  

The assignment feature, originally designed, I am sure, to torture kids with homework (I mean reinforce the student learning that happens in the classroom), is a great way to collect desired information from the groups.  

A Google Doc can be created and then assigned by making a copy for all members of the class or a collaborative doc that everyone can work on. Some examples I use are:

  • Monthly Logs
  • Faculty Meeting agendas
  • Reflections
  • Sign ups for conferences
  • Requests for professional books
  • Scheduling and rescheduling meetings

Google Classroom has recently added a feature that always you to differentiate.  This has been a great addition.  I now can use the same classroom for all of my administrators.  Each month I hold elementary Principal meetings, secondary Principal meetings, Assistant Principal meetings  and Director meetings.  

We have found it important to take comprehensive notes at each meeting, capturing the following key components of the meeting:

  • Decisions made
  • Decisions that still need to be made
  • To do list

Our agendas are all created on this template and we take our notes right on the agenda.  After the meeting I can now copy the “To Do” section of the notes into a new Google Doc and post it in the classroom as an assignment for the appropriate administrators.  

During meetings I am able to push out activities that allow the teams to collaborate on projects, plan, and participate in professional growth activities. It not only makes it easier for the groups to find what I want them to work on, but much easier for all of us to access at a later date.  

Using the assignment piece of this tool allows me to check for when the group has finished and when it’s time to move on.  We often spend time reading at our meetings.  Sometimes we jigsaw several articles on a particular topic.  I can simply ask the readers to “turn in” something on Classroom; that lets me know they have finished their reading.  

As I said earlier, this is an easy tool to use, but difficult to master.  I have only recently started to explore Google Apps and extensions that have made my experience with classroom even better.  

Insert learning is an extension that allows me to ask questions, make comments, start discussions on any web based article.

Flipgrid is a great video capturing tool that allows for collaboration in a quick and easy manner.

Group Maker is a quick and easy extension that lets you randomly select groups to work with.  It seems there are new and great ways to use classroom each and every day.

The key is finding what works for you and putting it into action.  A great resource for getting ideas and new extensions is Ditch that Textbook.

Recently I presented at NYSCATE, the New York technology conference on the topic of Google Classroom for Leaders.  I would like to think those in attendance took something from my workshop, but I feel like I got just as many ideas from the participants.  That is the great thing about educational  learning; it seems to be shifting to a more open and collaborative model.

I am not an expert, but rather an administrator who has found a tool that not only helps me to be a more efficient and engaging leader, but helped me to regain some of the passion I had lost for cool tech tools.  

In fact, there are a few on my Christmas list this year.  Google Pixel 2 earbuds, which I hope will be as good as Babelfish, and the Amazon Echo Show, basically Alexa with a TV screen.  Hopefully both will be better than the Double Play Rabbit; for those who were wondering–it was a device that allowed your Zenith TV to have picture in picture capability, a feature that is better in theory than practice.  

Unfortunately, Justin’s affection for Google Classroom has waned.  He went from thinking it was the greatest invention ever to something less than “mad chill.”  It was ruined for him last February when on a snow day one of his teachers assigned a pretty labor intensive homework assignment that cut into our NHL 2017 Hockey tournament on XBox.  I refrained from telling his teacher that it would have been great if she used a tool like educreations to create a mini video lesson and dipped her toe into a flip classroom model rather than more electronic dittos.

I can’t take all the credit for my good judgement, my better half basically told me to keep my big mouth shut.  She may not be the best cook, but she certainly makes up for that in many other ways–intelligence and judgement are two.

If you are a leader who is sometimes stressed and close to feeling overwhelmed, I have two pieces of advice. One, try Google Classroom. And two, never, ever–I mean ever–utter the words “ I am overwhelmed.”