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Crafting Stories with Google Earth

Crafting Stories with Google Earth

Written by Joe Wood
April 15, 2011

I remember two things about 7th grade Texas American History – the maps hanging on my teacher’s wall and the flour & water topographical map we constructed at home. Yes, there was something about the Alamo, Sam Houston, and the fact that the original Six Flags amusement park in Arlington, Texas was named after the historical influence six different countries have had on Texas, but what I really remember is the maps. As I look back on any history class from middle school through college, I believe the maps hanging on each teacher’s wall have probably provided to me just as much content as the instructor. Maps have always fascinated me – the geography, the landmarks, the relationships between communities and their landscape depicted in a multimodal fashion. As a result, it should probably come as no surprise that I was completely enamored the moment I originally explored Google Earth.

Google Earth - Stories from Above

Like most people the first time I launched Google Earth I searched for my house, my old house, the house where I grew up as a child, the house I lived in as a foreign exchange student, my elementary school, my middle school, my high school, and even my current school. Zooming in and out, flying all over the world, my emotions could be summed up with one word…AMESOME!!! Naturally, as a teacher, my mind shifted to the ultimate question: “How can I bring this awesomeness into my classroom?” So like most technology-loving teachers I flew into my classroom the next morning, whipped out the laptops, installed Google Earth on each one, and planned for a day of awesomeness. What did we do? We searched for our houses, our schools, and any other cool things that popped into our minds. Based on the “ooohs,” “aaahs,” and smiles plastered across their faces it was obvious the kids loved every moment. I taught 8th grade, Physical Science, so I creatively justified that we were playing with Google Earth just to “get a sense of what students could independently do with the software,” but basically we were just playing with awesomeness.

After this initial experience, I kept imagining ways teachers could use Google Earth in their classroom. As a part-time technology coach I worked with a group of Social Studies teachers and figured that Google Earth would make an excellent tool in their classes. A few weeks later at the CUE (Computer Using Educators) conference in Palm Springs we went to every Google Earth class we could find, which ended up only being one. While I can’t recall who taught the class, I do remember we only lasted about 15 minutes in his session. The presenter flew around the world in Google Earth with a flurry of screens flashing open and spilling text, images, and computer code all over the place. We were so confused, scared, and even a little motion sick. We concluded we would never be able to figure out how to use this tool and decided to spend our time and energy studying a different type of technology resource at the conference However, in the back of my mind, Google Earth and its amazing ability to tour the world continued to linger.  How could I use it?

A Literacy Idea Develops

Later that summer, while following the ISTE Conference from home via Twitter I saw a post about Google Lit Trips. A California educator, Jerome Burg, had developed a website where users could download Google Earth files he had created that went along with a piece of literature. I happened to download the Grapes of Wrath file, a book I only read in high school thanks to Cliff Notes, and found myself completely engrossed in the story as it was told through placemarks full of text, images, and weblinks. “Oh, so this is what happened in that book?” I thought to myself. At that moment an idea began to grow in my mind linking Google Earth and literacy. If Jerome had created these files to follow a story, why couldn’t students?

Immediately, I called my friend who was a technology resource teacher for our regional technology assistance project.

“Burt, you have to help me! I want to create Google Earth files, but I have no idea how!”

“Neither do I,” Burt responded, “but come on down to the office and we’ll see what we can figure out.”

That afternoon Burt and I sat down with Jerome’s files and tinkered, and tinkered, and tinkered a little bit more. An hour later we still hadn’t figured out how he created each placemark. Then all of a sudden, one of us accidentally right-clicked on a placemark and viewed a lengthy menu with two magical key words: “Get Info.” The placemark full of text, images, and links popped open to reveal a box full of HTML code to which Burt responded, “Oh, you just have to create the placemark with HTML code.”

“Great, because I totally know how to do that,” I sarcastically thought to myself.

Fortunately, as we reviewed Jerome’s craft we noticed you only occasionally needed the code to do some of the “fancier stuff” like customizing text and embedding photos, videos, or web links. I could do totally do this! If I got stuck I figured Google and any 8th grader with a MySpace page could help me sort out the HTML code.

My First Publication

That afternoon my journey as a Google Earth writer began. The first story I decided to write was my own story, a Google Earth tour of my life. I figured I would use this to introduce myself to a new crop of students on the upcoming first day of school. Initially, my goal was just five placemarks, but very quickly I found that writing in this new medium was completely captivating and ended up with ten different locations depicting my life. The more I worked, the more I creatively challenged myself to construct a captivating narrative.

How can I adjust the view of the Earth so that you can really see the neighborhood where I grew up?

I wonder if there are any photos of my childhood town on Flickr I can use in the placemark?

Perhaps I can find my host family’s house in Germany from when I was foreign exchange student?

Would there be a video on YouTube I can use for the placemark where I talk about being the fastest grocery bagger of the year in high school?

The first day of school arrived and a few minutes after the initial bell rang, I shared my Google Earth story with my first audience – 32 groggy, and not-yet-convinced-school-had-really-started 8th graders. I purposefully did not tell them what they were about to see. Instead, I just launched Google Earth and dove right into my narrative. As I looked across the room every eye was on me, listening to my oral story illustrated with a geospatial tour of my life displayed on the gigantic screen behind me. Starting from our classroom, we visited my birthplace, Reno, Nevada where I explained that I was in fact not born in a casino. Next, we flew to Yuba City to check out my childhood home, toured the streets of Koln that I traversed as a foreign exchange student, and explored my college career on the UC Davis campus. As we landed back at our classroom hands started shooting up across the room with inquisitive minds wanting to know a little bit more about my life, but most importantly how did I “make that freakin’ awesome tour?”

Naturally each student wanted to create their own Google Earth autobiography. Sadly, between being their Physical Science teacher and transitioning to a district technology coach position, I was never able to help them create those narratives. It’s something I regret. I should have stopped, changed my lesson plans, and found a strategy for weaving chemistry, physics, and astronomy together with Google Earth autobiographies. It was a missed opportunity to help students hungering to find their voice through mulitmodal text.

Teachers Crafting Geospatial Text

However, since leaving the classroom I have helped numerous teachers and students craft their own Google Earth digital tales. Teachers leave my workshops with their own first day of school tour and I have used these same skills with 4th and 8th grade students to construct biographies of famous Americans and global explorers. In every single class, whether full of students or teachers, as I look across the room all the writers are completely engrossed in their craft – trying to find the best way to bring together text, images, and videos in a geospatial construct that will help them share their story.

I do have to admit, however, my favorite group to work with has been my National Writing Project Summer Institute colleagues. Last summer I decided to use my Google Earth work as the heart of my demonstration lesson for the Area 3 Writing Project. As in classes I have taught before, I saw a community of writers engaged in their work. However, this community of writers did not want to stop, so much so we had to adjust our schedule for the remainder of the day. The next morning, when we returned to the institute, one of my fellow teachers, Mary, shared the daily log from the previous day and it was a Google Earth tour! She stayed up late the previous evening creating a file with a placemark for each of our schools full of text and images, recording what we had learned and discovered the day before. As she started to share the log, Mary, a veteran teacher who was new to using technology with students, remarked, “Joe, your Google Earth lesson has inspired me to use more digital writing in my classroom.”

Why Google Earth?

I often get asked the question, “Why Google Earth?” My first response is usually, “Why not?” In the 21st century we have tons of writing tools available to us. Whether we choose paper, Microsoft Word, iMovie, a blog, or a wiki, each of us has to decide what medium will help us convey our message the best. Students need that opportunity as well. Google Earth is an unconventional writing tool, but it is one where writers can compose stories that have geospatial and mulitmodal components. When I share with a reader that I grew up in Yuba City, that reader is able to see the world’s smallest mountain range, the Sutter Buttes, in the background, along with the mountain bike trails along the Feather River I rode every afternoon with my high school friends.

Similarly, when an 8th grade student wrote about Abraham Lincoln being shot at Ford’s Theater, his readers could see the the three-dimensional building in the background. Along with a geospatial component. Google Earth allows writers to craft their narrative using text, images, hyperlinks, and even embedded video clips. The placemark at Ford’s Theater actually has an embedded video from the National Park Service, so when readers click on that placemark, not only do they see the text within the context of the three-dimensional building, but they can also take a docent-led tour of the balcony where Lincoln was shot.

Additionally, Google Earth is one of the few tools that allows teachers the opportunity to teach their students about writing while at the same time providing a purposeful context for talking about the HTML language that makes up all the online content we consume on a daily basis. Since few if any of us natively speak or write HTML, Google Earth also provides an excellent opportunity for teaching students searching and trouble-shooting skills. As I worked with a group of 4th graders, a student wanted to know how she could change the color of her text in a Google Earth placemark. With complete transparency and honesty I responded, “I don’t know, but I bet you can use Google to find out what you need to type in the placemark to make that happen.” A few minutes later when I returned to check on her progress, the text was a lovely shade of purple and she taught me the skills she learned on a second placemark.

Looking to the Future

While Google Earth is a powerful writing tool, I think we have only touched the surface. So far, our focus has involved creating biographies and autobiographies, with projects like Google Lit Trips crafting book summaries and support files. Even if you search for Google Earth files using a Google Advanced Search you will find the majority of the content is information that was originally presented in another format, such as a book, article, or atlas. There is very little original Google Earth content. As I look into the future, I envision writers crafting fictional text that makes use of the geospatial nature of Google Earth to take the reader on a global tour as they “turn the pages,” clicking on placemark after placemark. To understand the story you will have to experience it within Google Earth. The Google Earth software contains a function titled “Layers” that holds a variety of resources including live weather maps, 3D buildings, 360 degree photos, and models of Ancient Rome. Currently, few writers are making use of these features. How would they help us tell our digital stories? Finally, when writers share their Google Earth stories with an audience it usually involves presenting the story live in front of a room full of people. As a result, it’s quite difficult to understand the full narrative just by downloading and clicking through their Google Earth file. However, by utilizing screencasting software, such as ScreenFlow or Jing, Google Earth writers could share their stories more effectively with the world.

Getting Started

Getting started with Google Earth is very easy as there are a variety of resources to support students and teachers. Jerome Burg’s Google Lit Trips not only contains files users can download and deconstruct for commonly-read novels, but also provides a variety of down-loadable tutorials and guides to help writers craft their own Google Earth stories. As I learned to write with geospatial text I used many of Jerome’s resources as a guide and found that through Twitter, Facebook, and email, he was also a wonderful online mentor that helped me teach others how to use Google Earth.

Thinking back to Texas-American History, I wonder if I could possibly find my former teacher. Are there currently 13 year-old boys staring at the maps on his wall pondering what it must have been like to ride across the Texan terrain from San Antonio to Austin? Has he discovered Google Earth and the power it can bring to his classroom? Perhaps he is also a National Writing Project teacher looking for ways to link history, writing, and digital content. If so, Google Earth is definitely a place to begin the journey.

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