GTA NYC Reflection – Part 1: Welcome Activities

Immediately following the Celebration dinner after the Google Teacher Academy in NYC, the GTA Team conducted a relatively detailed debrief of the session and produced notes and action items for the next event (which has yet to be announced). Many of those reflections are of course not meant to be blogged. However, many of my personal reflections are – and as they are relevant to professional development in general I thought I’d take the time to compose them on the plane ride home and share them here. (Note: A week has elapsed between the time I wrote this on the plane and the time I was finally able to pause and post it on the blog… and another day will pass before it actually appears on the blog – since I’ve set this series of four posts to appear one per day over the next four days.)

Like we did in our debrief, I’ll use the agenda for the day as a rough outline for this reflection… and you’ll see a few themes develop straight away: Innovation, Inspiration, and Passion

Back in the spring, when we began planing for this new round of GTAs, we decided to replace our original welcome activity in favor of something more meaningful. But having missed the original activity at our last two events, we brought it back for this event. Reflecting on the benefits and drawbacks of each got me thinking about the role of a welcome activity in general (or for professional development meant for educators at any rate).

As with so many other things, it helps to be clear about the purpose of the Welcome Activity. This may change depending on the event and the audience, but in general I think a welcome activity needs to do the following:

  • Help participants get to know each other
  • Help participants get their mental juices flowing
  • Help participants get physically involved in the event
  • Help participants get emotionally (or passionately) involved in the event

This is asking a lot. In our case, the old activity (“Building Innovators“) had the advantage of helping participants get their mental juices flowing and get physically involved in the event. (They are eventually asked to create a tower out of 3×5 cards that they’ve written on.) However, it more or less failed at helping participants get to know each other – and for the most part it didn’t engage people’s emotions or passions, though there was some competition involved. The newer activity (“The Innovation Connection“) had the advantage of helping participants get to know each other, get their mental juices flowing, and (ideally) get emotionally involved in the event (as they shared stories about “non-technology” classroom innovations). Arguably, the necessary movement around the room was physical, but it was not as concrete as the physical building exercise in the previous activity. Also, it was a bit confusing for participants to execute – so perhaps that belongs on the list above as well. A welcome activity must be easy to participate in. :)

My goal is to dream up a new activity for the GTA that does all of these things. I think, though, it might take more time in the agenda – as many things done right tend to do. Perhaps I’ll put a few new activities “into beta” by testing them out on upcoming Google Learning Institute events. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on what makes a good welcome activity for a professional development event.

4 Responses to “GTA NYC Reflection – Part 1: Welcome Activities”

  1. Paul Bogush Says:

    I was dreading a big smiley “get-to-know-you” icebreaker at the NYC GTA. I was real happy to hear we were going to do the tower instead of the innovation connection. The tower met my needs at least to fell at ease within my group and get my “juices flowing.” However, I would have liked to have done the innovation connection later in the day. I think intensive workshops like GTA can benefit from multiple ice breakers, each one building on another.
    …and I really, really wanted to do the last activity that was done at the Chicago GTA instead of the reflection piece!
    Thanks for the great day!

  2. Jim Lerman Says:

    Hi Mark,
    Not having the opportunity to be present at more than the one GTA I was part of, it’s kind of difficult to make comparisons between the 2 opening activities.
    I’ve planned and led a lot of large and small group sessions, so I have some thoughts to share that I hope may be helpful.
    You are right to start off with trying to figure out the purposes of the opening event. Where the group may have started to run into some difficulty is in the purposes that were identified. I would argue that the only meaningful purpose from the list in your blog post is the first one. By this I don’t mean that there aren’t other purposes that could be meaningful, but that of the 4 given, only this was is important. With 60 or so A-type personalities in the room, in 20-40 minutes there is little that needs to be done to get them emotionally jacked up. Getting picked to come to Google and be annointed as a GTA does that very well. To get them physically involved, all that would be necessary is a few call-and-response cheers and a couple of get up and run around your chair requests.

    I think you need to dig a lot more deeply to articulate other goals you want to accomplish with the initial activity — and a good way to do that is to try to identify what you want the participants to know and be able to do at the end of the day that they didn’t or couldn’t at the beginning. What’s the value to be added by the GTA experience?

    Is it to give knowledge of the Google apps?
    Is it to support people in being evangelists (in the best sense of the word) for the Google apps?
    Is it to equip participants with improved skills in running PD events around the Google apps?
    Is it to form an active network of people who are passionate about improving education through technology (that will continue beyond the event)?

    The most important thing is that the opening event should bear a clear relationship to the other events of the day, including most importantly, the closing event. People remember beginnings and endings much more than everything in between – so it’s important to maximize the value of them and not fritter away these most significant of times.

    I would submit that one of the most important aspects of the day is getting to know as many people as possible. By this time, most of the GTCs already know a lot about the apps (this was much less so in the first year, but now I’d imagine that a high percentage of the chosen GTCs know plenty about the apps). Don’t know if you’ve thought about it yet, but it might be good to start setting up self-selecting tracks of sessions for newbies and non-so-newbies to the Google apps.

    I personally have gotten a lot out of being a GTC through networking with my peers online, in person, both IG and OG (inside and outside of Google events). I think that ultimately, people make the difference in this GTC group. So while knowledge of the apps is the context for our coming together, it’s ultimately more about laying the groundwork for an ongoing network.

    While the Innovation Connection had the definite attribute of getting people to know each other a LITTLE bit (2 rushed minutes of conversation), it had some real design flaws that I think detracted from the overall experience. The need to have seven rushed conversations was too much. Even though the groups had 8 people, it was not necessary for everyone to have a conversation with everyone else. The focus on coming up with the one best practice from each group instantly created 1 winner and 7 losers in each group. This actually contributes a negative tone to what is desired to be a positive experience. Add this negativity to the tension of unclear directions, the confining restriction of the 1-minute conversations, and the pressure to talk about an innovation when merely an effective practice would serve just as well, makes the probability that this will be a predominantly positive experience for most of the participants less than likely.

    Perhaps it might be good to have the first activity as a way mostly to get to know the other people in one’s group. Everyone in the group could have a sheet where they have to write down the name and location of an interesting person who they meet in each of the events over the day that they participate in. At the end of the day, the groups could come back together again and each person could tell the group about one or two interesting people they met, where those people are from and what they do, and one or two ideas they’ve gotten during the day that seemed cool to them, and why they chose the people and ideas. No emphasis on
    “best,” no group decision making, just people talking about interesting people they’ve met and interesting ideas they’ve gotten. We’re all competitive enough to not need to have winners and losers. And we’re all smart enough to be able to sort through the people and ideas and select those that will help us be more effective.

    Wow, this went on a lot longer that I thought it would. Hope there’s something in here that you can find useful. You’re doing a great job, keep it up!


  3. Educational Technology and Life » Blog Archive » GTA NYC Reflection - Part 4: Reflection Activities Says:

    […] In terms of what makes a good reflection activity in general, I think the purpose is similar to that of a good welcome activity – and a good reflection activity is at least as important as a good welcome activity, though it may be more important to focus on the things learned that day than on other outside passions. However, I usually shoot for the best of both worlds by trying to connect the reflection activity to the opening welcome activity (and to what they’ve learned and what their next steps are, of course). […]

  4. Mark Wagner, Ph.D. Says:

    Thank you for your comment, Paul… it’s great to hear you specific feedback on the welcome (and reflection) activities. You should know, though, that the proof-of-concept project idea was never completed at Mountain View or Chicago… we didn’t wind up having enough time at the end of the day to do it justice – and some folks ended up confusing it with the action plan. I still like the activity… and it may be that with the other changes we made for the NYC schedule it might’ve worked out better… so it may return one day. ;)

    And, Jim, I appreciated your detailed feedback (and thought provoking questions). This played into my later post revisiting welcome ideas… and into my thinking on the subject in preparation for workshops since that time.