7 Tips for Google Earth in the Classroom

Remember when Google Earth was a slow desktop program? Thank goodness it is now has a sleeker web version (earth.google.com/web) that is perfect for teaching geography. This is especially true for students using touchscreen Chromebooks. Additionally, the iTunes Store Google Earth app is great on iPads. Here are 7 tips for getting the most out of Google Earth in the classroom.

Tip # 1: Use Google Earth for Geology Concepts

Do you teach about volcanoes, plate tectonics, seafloor spreading, or other geology concepts? If so, click the ship steering wheel in Google Earth to access Voyager.

The steering wheel in the Google Earth toolbar opens Voyager: Interactive stories and maps.
Look for the steering wheel.

Then click “LAYERS” and enjoy some very useful content. Watch as I demonstrate:

Tip # 2: Use Google Earth for History

Google Earth Voyager has plenty of great content besides Geography. Click the steering wheel and click “HISTORY.” Each unit of content, called “stories,” leads students through an interactive map. PBS Learning Media authored five of the History stories. Watch as I demonstrate how to access Voyager History stories and the first two scenes of the Underground Railroad story:

Tip # 3: Find Voyager Stories

There are stories in each tab in Voyager. The tabs other than Layers and History are Editor’s Picks, Travel, Nature, Culture, Sports, and Education.

The tabs other than Layers and History are Editor's Picks, Travel, Nature, Culture, Sports, and Education. 

This content is very useful but challenging to find because there is no search function inside Voyager. Scrolling is the only option for finding stories in Voyager. The good news is the search in the Google Earth toolbar searches Voyager stories. At present, a search term has to match a term in the story title. Watch as I demonstrate:

Tip # 4: Learn More About Countries and Cities with Points of Interest

Search Google Earth for a country or city. The search will take you there on the map and add points of interest in the right part of the screen.

Points of interest in Google Earth.

Each point of interest comes with content. What a great way to introduce foreign places. Watch as I preview Tanzania’s points of interest:

Tip # 5: Use Google Earth to Measure, Distance, Area, and Perimeter

The ruler in the Google Earth toolbar is useful for showing students real-life applications for the geometry concepts they learn in math class.

The ruler tool in the Google Earth toolbar measures distance and area.

The ruler measures the distance between points on a line. It also creates shapes and displays their perimeter and area measurements.  On the iPad, there are buttons for copying that data:

Screen capture of a shape in Google Earth. There are buttons for copying the area and perimeter measurements.
Notice the “copy” icon to the right of the area and perimeter measurements.

One drawback of shapes in Google Earth is they cannot be saved. To level up using Google Geo Tools to teach geometry, have students create shapes in Google My Maps. This is a great way to teach scale and how maps can be distorted. For example, maps show Greenland to be about the size of Africa. Is that true? Make a copy of this Google My Map and have your students move the shape to find out.

  • Click the [    ] in the upper right corner to view this map fullscreen.
  • Click the three dots. Then click “Copy Map.”


Watch as I demonstrate using shapes in Google Earth and Google My Maps:

For more information on Google My Maps, please read my blog post, Google My Maps Tips and Tricks.

Tip # 6: Perfect Image Captures on the iPad

The camera icon in the Google Earth iPad app.
Notice the camera icon in the Google Earth iPad app.

Pressing the camera icon results in a screen capture of the Google Earth screen without toolbars:

A picture produced by the Google Earth iPad app.

This also works in the Google Earth Android app. Watch as I demonstrate the Android app.

Tip # 7, Your Anchor Activity: Use I’m Feeling Lucky for Anchor Activities

All done reading the first 6 tips? Great! The Google Earth toolbar has a dice icon. When clicked, it functions as “I’m Feeling Lucky” and takes students to a random location. What a great anchor activity!

The dice in the Google Earth toolbar Is
Roll the dice. Or to be more precise, click the dice.

When students say, “I’m done,” reply with “Great! Click I’m Feeling Lucky and share three things you learned about your random location with the class during the last five minutes.” Watch as I demonstrate using the “I’m Feeling Lucky” dice:

Thank you for reading this post! What Google Earth questions do you have? Please comment below or tweet me @TomEMullaney.

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Lessons Learned About Risk-Taking in My Education Career Told in 3 Risks

Are you a teacher who loves education but feels the need to change things up in your career? For many reasons including circumstance and my itch for something new, I know the feeling and have experience acting on it. Read on for what I have learned from risk-taking in my education career.

Risk 1: Special Education to General Education

I am honored to say I was a Special Education teacher for 10 years. Burnout in Special Education is very real.  I was not burned out as much as I was ready for something new. Over the years, I attained a few subject certifications to be highly qualified. One of them was Social Studies, a subject I’ve loved since I was a middle-school student. There were two retirements in our school’s Social Studies department. I asked to be considered for one and was suddenly a secondary Social Studies teacher.

I moved 300 feet down the hall to my new classroom, but I might as well have moved to a different planet. That’s how hard the adjustment was. That first semester I was steamrolled. It was like being a first-year teacher again. I thought my Special Education background would be an asset, but it didn’t help at all. I had no clue how to manage a class of 28 students or create engaging learning experiences for large groups.

Those first few months could have killed my education career but there was a savior: block scheduling. There is merit to arguments for and against it, but block scheduling saved me. It was a chance to have the first day of school all over again. By Thanksgiving, I was able to process what was happening and plan ahead to the start of the second semester in February.

That semester was so much better. I tinkered with lessons. I developed an ability to find good Social Studies content. I managed the classroom environment. Having emerged from crisis-mode, I applied what I learned from Special Education to be inclusive and create opportunities for all learners.

Lessons Learned:

  • Take advantage of opportunities to add subject certifications.  They open doors.
  • Changing your audience changes the experience. It may not be for the better.
  • Taking a risk in an education career can pay off – but it will take time to do so.
  • On the fence about making a change? Consider block scheduling a plus in the “do it” column.

Risk 2: Pennsylvania to North Carolina

I was cooking with gas teaching secondary Social Studies. My eighth and ninth-graders received Chromebooks the same fall Google dropped Google Classroom.  But change was on the horizon. My wife and I grew tired of northeastern winters. Dangerous driving conditions, back soreness exacerbated by the cold, wintertime illnesses, and dry skin from indoor heat were among the many things weighing on us. The North Carolina Research Triangle met the conditions we were looking for: south enough to be appreciably warmer, job opportunities, and relative proximity to the northeast. We decided to move. One teacher at my school warned me ominously: “They don’t pay teachers down there.” He was right, but that weirdly worked out in my favor. Read on.

So I rolled the dice. I left a tenured job doing something I loved at a great high school in a union state to move to North Carolina where teachers are chronically underpaid.

Here’s a side-effect of underpaying teachers: it makes it easier to get a teaching job. Talk to anyone applying for a teaching job in states with strong teachers unions such as New York and Pennsylvania – it’s tough. In North Carolina, there is much more fluidity in the job market because teachers are always trying to get a little more compensation or improve their working conditions in a different district. Most teachers hired by my school district in Pennsylvania like the pay and working conditions. They have a union to collectively bargain for them so they’re staying put. I wish those things for North Carolina, but the lack of them enabled me to land a job as a Digital Learning Coach at a great middle school. That kind of job would draw hundreds of applicants in a good Pennsylvania district.

I was so excited for this next chapter of my career – edtech coaching. Then I saw the device all students and teachers used: it looked like the 1970s had a laptop. It was thick and heavy with a terrible 11-inch screen that converted any shade of gray to white. And painfully slow too! This dampened my expectations.

I am so grateful we had such terrible devices. It made my expectations more realistic. I was pleasantly surprised when I met a faculty determined to creatively use technology despite this obstacle. The next year we received brand new Chromebooks. Teachers adjusted to students completing work faster because the prior device was that slow!

Lessons Learned:

  • States with poor teacher compensation may also be the best places to attain a hard-to-get education job.
  • Realistic expectations are important. Do not put any job on a pedestal.

Risk 3: North Carolina to California

Being a connected educator, I made a connection that opened an unimaginable door: the opportunity work for the San Francisco Unified School District office. Dating back to my AP Euro teacher playing The Graduate after the AP exam, I’ve long been fascinated with the west coast in general and specifically the San Francisco Bay Area. I even proposed to my wife there when a business trip of hers took us to San Francisco.

In my excitement, I did not consider livability. The city is very expensive and has a growing inequality problem. Perhaps I should have read this, this, this, or that as I weighed taking this risk.

Having ignored the livability issue, I took the leap and was privileged to work dynamic, student-centered colleagues.

I wish that benefit made me a good fit for the city of San Francisco. In addition to affordability and inequality problems, being so far from friends, family, and my PLN on the East Coast was more difficult than I anticipated. I missed the fantastic North Carolina edcamp scene which spans from the mountains bordering Tennessee to Dawson’s Creek on the coast.

Further, in an example of biting off more change than I could chew, I worked at district office in a 12-month job. As I type this, I am enjoying the last moments of summer vacation before the school year starts. No matter what happens in my job, the schedule pushes the reset button around the summer solstice. Working during the summer, the last week in December, and spring break was a big change I was not ready for.

Having said that, I took the risk. I visited the main Google campus, watched baseball at the best stadium in the country, and enjoyed vegan soft-serve less than a five-minute walk away from my home.

Now I’m back in North Carolina with no regrets. Opportunity knocked and I answered the door. I will never wonder, “What if?” Or as Prince Ea puts it:

Lessons Learned:

  • Not all that glitters is gold. That is especially apt considering I’m talking about San Francisco.
  • Attend edcamps and value them. They’re FREE! Better yet, all participants leave their title at the door. If a risk involves a move, ask people in the potential new location about the edcamps they attend. North Carolina’s edcamp is scene is great. So is New Jersey’s. Educators in Philadelphia and New York, please take note.
  • Summer vacation is an underappreciated aspect of teacher compensation. Time is irreplaceable. The opportunity to have two months of not waking up to an alarm and being “on” is precious. If a risk involves switching to a full-year work calendar, consider the costs of losing that time.
  • Location is important. When taking a risk involves a location change, there will be unforeseen consequences both positive and negative.
  • There is value in taking the plunge and not wondering, “what if?”

I hope these lessons learned have been helpful for considering risk-taking in an education career. Converse with me about the topic by commenting below or tweeting @TomEMullaney. Thanks for reading.

Photo by Diego Jimenez on Unsplash.

Diego Jimenez

Google My Maps Tips and Tricks

Google My Maps is a great tool for teachers and learners. Teachers can use it as an interactive platform to present lesson materials. Learners can use Google My Maps to document what they have learned.

For example, here is a Google My Map I created of Civil War battles in North Carolina for a Civil War digital breakout:

One of my favorite Google My Maps is this ingenious map someone made documenting every location in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:

To access Google My Maps, type mymaps.google.com into the browser. Unfortunately, My Maps does not appear in the apps launcher (AKA the waffle in the upper right of the screen in Gmail, Drive, and Classroom) so it makes sense to bookmark it or pin it to a Chromebook shelf.

Here is a brief overview video of using My Maps in which I make a map of Amsterdam and reference The Fault in Our Stars:

Use these tips and tricks to get even more out of Google My Maps.

Create in Google Drive

As I did in the video, create My Maps in Google Drive folders so they stay organized with other content for a given instructional unit.

Creating a My Map in a Google Drive folder.
Creating a My Map in a Google Drive folder

Change the base map

Scroll to the bottom of the legend to change the base map to one of nine different options. The default is “Map.” I am partial to “Simple Atlas” for historic maps.

Animated GIF demonstrating how to change the base map
Changing the Base map

Like a map? Copy it for yourself!

Click on the “NOT OWNED” tab in the My Maps home screen. You should see thumbnails of every Google My Map you have viewed and you don’t own, including the North Carolina battles and Always Sunny maps higher up in this post! Click on the three dots in the upper-right corner of the thumbnail to make a copy for yourself.

Animated GIF showing how to make a copy of a map
Make a copy of a map you like.

Explore the EXPLORE tab

Click on the EXPLORE tab to see Google My Maps other users have created. At the top is the top picks. I can’t lie – you will see a lot of Pokémon GO maps there.

Animated GIF of toggling between top maps in the Explore tab.
Click the arrows to toggle between Pokémon GO maps and more!

Scroll down to see staff picks to find some very interesting maps. This can inspire creative use of My Maps.

Animated GIF of scrolling to see more staff picks in the explore tab.
Scroll down to see more staff picks.

Open a My Map in Google Earth

Export the data from a My Map as a KMZ file. Leave all boxes unchecked to download:

Animated GIF depicting exporting a My Map as a KMZ file.
Export a My Map as a KMZ file. Leave all boxes unchecked.

Then go to Google Earth and enable adding KML/KMZ files in settings:

Enabling KML and KMZ files in Google Earth.
Click “My Places.” Then enable KML and KMZ files.

Then import the KMZ file:

Animated GIF depicting importing a KMZ file into Google Earth.
Click on “My Places” to import the KMZ from a hard drive or Google Drive.

Most data from the My Map will successfully convert to Google Earth, including pictures and text descriptions.

An image an description from Google My Maps in Google Earth.
An image an description from Google My Maps in Google Earth.

One caveat: According to Google, “Some custom icons and overlay images hosted on other websites won’t work.” The two maps in this post do not have custom icons, so their KMZ files import into Google Earth nicely. If the custom icon does not work in Google Earth, it will render like a red “X” similar to the one that appears for a wrong answer on Family Feud. Some custom icons do work though. The custom icons on this My Map of some San Francisco New Deal sites render correctly. That may be because the custom icons were created using image URLs.

Animated GIF of Google My Map data in Google Earth.
The custom icons render correctly. Notice the images and text from the My Map made it to Google Earth as well.

For more information on Google Earth, please read my blog post, 7 Tips for Google Earth in the Classroom.

Google Classroom integration…almost but not quite

The good news is that teachers can share maps so that students can view them and they can share a map so that all students can edit it. This is similar to settings for other Google Drive files in Google Classroom. The bad news is this is what happens when teachers try to make a copy of a My Map for each student in Google Classroom:

Animated GIF demonstrating that "Make a copy for each student" with My Maps does not work in Google Classroom.
Make a copy for each student does not yet work in Google Classroom.

I hope Google addresses this issue in the near future. In the meantime, My Maps is still a great tool for teachers and learners alike. If you would like to share your ideas about the Google My Maps, please comment below or tweet me at @TomEMullaney. Thank you for reading.

This is the Google My Maps icon image I used in the image for this post.