Innovator Academy: Sprints & Sparks

The flight to LAX was a time to process a lot ups and downs (not talking turbulence here).  I knew that it was exactly the opportunity/spark that I’ve been looking for, but the idea of meeting, living with, and working alongside a bunch of strangers is very much a departure from my typical day.


This uncertainty immediately melted away when a car full of friendly faces was waiting to pick me up at the airport.  It was at this moment that I recognize the brilliance of having the cohort virtually get to know each other before the Academy via Hangouts, Flipgrid and twitter.  It was an instant level of comfort with my new edu-colleagues and inspiring friends.

A bunch of us arrived early to get time to bond a little and discover what Venice Beach is all about.  The beach, the street art, the people, the sunset.  The scooters.  A revelation in public transit.  You need to get to Venice Beach and try the network of electric scooters before they’re outlawed.  Ear to ear smiles for a low price – an Academy favourite.


The official Academy kicked off on Monday at the Youtube Space LA.  It was here where the entire cohort collected for the first time and met the Innovator Coaches and reps from Edtech and Google.  We toured a space designed for supporting the creation of content.  With only 10,000 subscribers, you too can book a studio space and get support from YouTube.  It’s a great concept – think maker space with potentially a global audience.  If you’ve had the opportunity to visit a Google space then you understand that their bricks and mortar locations are an exercise in flexible seating, inspiring spaces and cool design.  YouTube was especially cool in that it was housed on Howard Hughes’ old stomping grounds.  His spirit of innovation is alive in those hallways.

We headed back to Google Venice Beach and spent half a day learning about each other. It’s here we received our official Google Innovator t-shirts and our lanyards.  Break-out box stories, fun design-thinking process tasks, getting to know our teams and coaches – and letting it all sink in.  I’m here! (and did they make a mistake on my application…).


Food.  Humans connect over food.  We connected over food for three square meals a day, as well as the unlimited access to snacks and beverages.  Honestly, Google doesn’t mess around.  I could do a separate blog entry about Google food, but if I can say one thing it’s this: chorizo fried rice bowls for breakfast?  Game changer.

This cohort was a lot of fun. Our nights involved a ton of laughing, games, karaoke, pinatas, tacos, waves and riding scooters.

This cohort is also a collective of work-horses (there’s got to be a better metaphor – it’s just not coming to me right now ; ).  When it was time to SPARK and SPRINT, ideas flew, compliments and support was everywhere, and positively constructive feedback was key.  I think I can speak for everyone when I say that I learned so much in such a short timeframe.  It was tight.  I think that was the point.  Sharpies do not erase and being given extremely short timelines to ideate, empathize, and prototype meant that we didn’t have time to get hung up on the ‘what ifs’.  The time for fine-tuning based on user needs and feedback is what the next twelve months are about.   That being said, there is not an educator out there who doesn’t like being prepared, so giving an elevator pitch in front of brilliant people with very little prep time was definitely putting us outside our comfort zone.

There’s a reason that this ‘fail-fast’ design thinking process wasn’t stressful.  It’s because of the people.  Never have I worked with a group of individuals who were so supportive and generous, yet were thankful and accepting of feedback.  We were in this together and knew this chance to crowd-source feedback was a golden opportunity to help us tackle our edu problems.  No judgement.  Kudos.  Ideas.  What ifs.  How mights.  Yes, ands…

What’s a spark?  Les McBeth from Future Design School moderated the design process for the Academy and each team had an Innovator Coach to assist with the sprint tasks.  In addition, each Coach gave a spark talk – a short keynote.  It was great as our day was a great mix of working, learning and being inspired.  It was also cool that a few Innovators in the middle of the process shared with us via Hangouts.

We also had spark sessions choices (20 minutes) led by 15 of the Innovators in our cohort.  We could choose from a huge variety of talents:  app script, aquaponics, nail art, beatboxing, data stories, design, juggling and breakdancing!  It was fun and gave everyone the chance to share a passion.  (Imagine how schools could adopt this learning model…).  Let’s just say that I’m not a good beat-boxer or breakdancer, but appreciated the chance to dive into something different.

Fast forward to the last day of our Academy and the agenda shows ‘graduation’ at the conclusion of the day – a live YouTube event, no less.   It was a healthy day of sprints and sparks, food and icebreaker laughs.  Then it was real.  It was ending.  Our names were annouced, we received a certificate and pin, took team photos and drank champagne.  Some Innovators had to catch flights and just like that we were reminded that ‘day jobs’ await.  Luckily a large group booked flights for the next day so we had an extra night to connect and reflect a bit.  I’ve never seen such a huggy group – but the whole experience up to that point fostered closeness.  It was just a beginning, yet an ending too.


So once home I dumped all my swag on my kitchen table, much to my children’s delight.  Merge cube, lanyards, pins, stickers galore, and koozies from Districts around the US.  The personalized swag is special – we had some very talented design folks in our cohort.  The Innovator backpack and water bottle was cool.  The pins and cohort stickers and magnets are now spread across fridges and filing cabinets in North America.  Breakout boxes are stashed on shelves, just begging to tell a story.

People put endless energy into this Academy.  I’m grateful to have these mementos with me.  When I feel stuck and alone in my project, I can hopefully remind myself that I’m not actually alone – I have a bunch of truly awesome educators at my fingertips.

So I now hope to inspire others, take educators on a journey of empowerment and turn teacher voices up to 11. I’m going to ignore the hinting imposter syndrome and fake it until I make it.  Game on.

Thanks for the opportunity, Google.  A heartfelt thank you to the cohort – your warmth and big thinking won me over immediately and I’m thankful that we get to stay connected.  We sparked and sprinted our way towards transformation – personally and professionally.  Go make change.