Experimenting with Google Maps

I’ve been an avid backpacker since middle school.  Between the ages of 14 and 25 I hiked with pretty much the same group of guys.  We used to use the term “growth opportunity” to mean an unpleasant experience that you just can’t do anything about.  For example, contract a water-born intestinal virus on day two of a 14 day outing?  Growth opportunity.  Experimenting with the latest in non-free standing tents, but you forgot to pack tent stakes?  That too is a growth opportunity.

So, when I dipped my feet in the 21st century pond two weeks ago, I was ready for a growth opportunity or two, and I even steeled myself for the possibility that the entire project was deserving of a “Golden Plunger” award.  First, the back story.

My Spanish 2 class is learning environmental vocabulary right now (deforestation, acid rain, etc.) and the grammar for the chapter is the subjunctive mood, which is used when the speaker expresses doubt, disbelief, emotion, or improbability.  For example, in the sentence I doubt that we can reverse the effects of global warming the verb “reverse” would be expressed using the subjunctive mood.  So, essentially, this chapter students should be able to describe environmental concerns and express their feelings and doubts about them.


  1. I set up dummy Google accounts for student use.
  2. Students research environmental concerns in the Spanish-speaking world.
  3. Students, working in pairs, create a bookmark in a shared map in which they describe the issues facing a particular country or region.
  4. Students proofread one another’s submissions and make corrections.
  5. Once the body of text is correct, students may embellish with all the goofy stuff they like putting on web pages.

During this process, I had realized that I was no expert on Google Maps, so when some kids couldn’t edit their bookmarks, GROWTH OPPORTUNITY.  One kid couldn’t find our map at all…GROWTH OPPORTUNITY.  Within a few days of kids seeing me during Office Hours, these glitches got fixed and in the meantime, I learned a lot about the way cool features of Google Maps.  But rather than being the expert in the room, I was learning right along with them.

Step two of this activity was to share how we feel about the many issues facing Latin America’s various ecosystems.  For this we used VoiceThread.  After a brief orientation (I’m a VoiceThread junkie, so this stuff I know), students essentially recreated their Google Map reflection orally, rather than in a written format.


  1. Upload pics of your area of concern.
  2. Record your reflection to the voicethread.
  3. Share your voicethread with your classmates.
  4. Add comments on three classmates’ voicethreads using the subjunctive with verbs of emotion, doubt, or disbelief.

Some kids had already had VT accounts, so I had to figure out how to migrate their account over to Westminster’s ed.voicethread account.  Some kids couldn’t share materials with others while others weren’t allowed to search for others’ voicethreads.  Some couldn’t record comments no matter how many computers they tried it on.  You name it, at least one kid had an issue with it.  One GROWTH OPPORTUNITY at a time.

Once all voicethreads were created, shared, and commented on, students went back to their placemark on the shared Google Map and posted a link to their VoiceThread.  The end product is an interactive map that shows the combined work of 15 students elaborating on environmental concerns in the Spanish-speaking world, and allows the viewer to see images and listen to students’ reflections, and allows viewers to make comments of their own.  The map is embedded below.  If you’re having trouble viewing it, just click here to view the map.

The “real” growth opportunity

I learned something tremendous with this activity.  I learned that having control is not necessarily a must for delivering effective instruction.  While I wouldn’t call the use of our time “efficient” by any definition, learning was achieved.  However, the many glitches that happened over the last two weeks did not affect me like I thought they would.  I was quite comfortable not knowing the answer, and I think that the kids seeing me not being the “master of the domain” was a pleasant change for them.  To an extent, I consider this a successful application of Daniel Pink’s Story, Design, Play and Meaning.  Symphony might be a stretch.  But most importantly, my lack of expertise caused students to make some executive decisions of their own, and they love arriving at an answer before I do!

While I’m proud of how this project turned out, I am still a neophyte at assessing this kind of work.  How do I know if the students learned something meaningful?  Quizzing them on the ails of Latin America would be a slap in the face to the right-directed work they’ve been doing all this time.  Then again, a wishy-washy reflection on what they learned will elicit pearls from one student and pocket lint from another.  I believe that in getting good information, the prompt is everything.  What would be a meaning prompt that would help me assess student learning for this activity.

Think quickly, I’m testing on Friday 🙂

5 thoughts on “Experimenting with Google Maps

  1. I’ve been having a few too many growth opportunities with technology lately. Fortunately, creating our invitation today was not one of them. I am going to blog a little bit about those growth opportunities in a minute here. I like that you have office hours available to troubleshoot with students. That seems like an ideal time to dedicate yourself to solving problems without ignoring your other students. There is always the challenge of balancing using a technology tool in class and using class time effectively. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to predict how much time will be dedicated to troubleshooting with the technology.

  2. Can I just say this: BRAVO. I don’t know who is enjoying this blogging process more than me: Reading what you all are trying to do, hearing of the successes and the “growing opportunities” is really thrilling.

    Love the project. We used Voicethread in a Spanish 2 project last year when they were learning the subjunctive as well.

    Assessment? Not sure I’m with you on this one. You’ve got demonstrated learning here. Why can’t what they created be assessed for 21st century “skills” as well as your specific content objective (development of use of the subjunctive)? What else needs to be “tested” and why do you need a written test? I must be missing something…

  3. Right, I think I’m asking the wrong question. If my school graded on an “Excellent/Satisfactory…” system (of which, by the way, I’m a big proponent) rather than the numerical system, I feel like I could easily assess these projects. I’ve never written a rubric myself, so I don’t feel confident that my scaling would cover the many merits upon which a project like this should be assessed.

    Can you point me in the direction of rubric writing?

  4. Ted,
    I totally understand the question. Whenever I do something new, I first consider what I want students to know, from basic skills to core competencies. Then I consider how to learn what they learned, how to assess their learning and skills, as well as my effectiveness. So, I always plan some sort of assessment. It often includes observations (general and specific), and some vehicle for students to provide feedback. I’ll ask them to do surveys, for instance, and give them the gentle guidance and time to be thoughtful. It often includes a vehicle for them to demonstrate something they learned, and this is wide open in format.

    What do you think of some form of self-evaluation, and perhaps peer evaluations? Also have them describe, say, three things they learned from someone else, and three things they learned from their own work. Describe,not just list. They could write it on paper or digitally (format is also wide open). In the end, you would have a “formal” feedback mechanism, with actual data. (I’ve used that sort of information to justify going even further afield with alternative assessments.)

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