Interesting Learning with a Couple of Google Tools

Google Maps Gallery was a new resource for me.  It’s a place for organizations to make their maps public.  Why?  Read the reasons why here.

That sounds so good.  I decided to dig into the maps in the gallery just to see what people were posting.  One really caught my interest.  Most of the maps in the collection were in English which intuitively made sense to this English speaker.  But this one didn’t.

Quite clearly, it’s a map of Japan with markers all over it.  But, the description is in another language – presumably Japanese.  (nothing gets by me…)  Mousing over the descriptor reveals a link, I check the link to make sure it’s OK – it points to another Google Map so I click it.  I’m presented with a gallery of three – I check one of the links to dig deeper.

Interesting, but I’m really no closer to understanding the map.

Ah!  Time to Translate. 

I open a new tab, and head to Google Translate.

Back to this tab where I select the text above, copy it, and then over to the new tab with the translation utility open and paste the text into the left pane.

Google Translate immediately confirms that the text is indeed Japanese and then does its best to translate the text and make it appear in the right pane. 

I do listen to the original text by clicking on the speaker icon.  It’s a reminder of what a beautiful language Japanese is even though I didn’t understand anything.

I look to the right pane and read the text.  It’s a reminder that online translations are not entirely perfect but I’m able to read enough to understand the point of the map. 

Stepping back, it never serves to be humbling that I’m able to do all of that on my laptop while sitting in a reclining chair.  No matter your age, think back to an activity in school similar to this.  The best I could remember was working with a piece of French text.  The process was painful.  I can’t help but marvel that today’s students will have these sorts of tools at their fingertips.

In my day, in addition to snowing more, true research and exploration was done in English and limited by the collection in my school’s library or, if I was ambitious and walked downtown, in the public library.  If I really needed another resource and the library had it in a collection elsewhere, I could place an order and it would arrive within a week.  Today, speedy delivery is only limited by bandwidth!

Are these sort of research activities used in your class?  Shouldn’t it be if we want students to be global citizens in the best sense of the words?

Back to the original exploration of the Gallery.  This appears to be a new Google endeavour.  At the time of writing, only a limited number of collections are included.  (The numbering system confuses me.)  But, the collections are of really interesting content.  This will be worth monitoring to see it grow.


A Tecumseh Trip

Last weekend, we returned from up north and a class reunion.  We’ve made this trip so many times and it doesn’t make any difference what route we take; it always seems to take the same length of time.  Usually, it’s a race to get home but this Sunday was different.  The dog was boarded and we couldn’t pick him up from the Hound Dog Hilton until Monday so there was no real rush.

As we entered Kent County, we saw the familiar signage for the Tecumseh Parkway.  It didn’t take long to say forget the 401; let’s run the Parkway and see the sights.  We’ve stopped at the Tecumseh Monument and the Fairfield Museum in the past but it was a quick stop en route to our destination.

The Parkway follows the Thames River which is absolutely not a straight river.  Throughout the drive, there were “pull offs” where you could stop and read information about the history that happened at/near the spot.  It was fascinating.

When I got home, I decided to do some research and found the wonderful site linked above. 

But there was another incredible resource.  I think that we’ve all seen the use of Google Maps on websites to document locations.  But, I’ll bet that you’ve never seen anything this detailed and inclusive.

Notice all the pin drops.  What a monumental task!

I could kick myself for not having this preloaded on my phone to help with our drive.  This really is a great example of history meeting modern technology.

I’m also thinking that his is a perfect exemplar in the classroom.  Certainly, it’s a great resource for the War of 1812.  But I know that many people use Google maps to document their community or to show historical events. 

Why not use this as a model and an inspiration for inclusion and detail?

Jaimie Was Here

Numerous times a day, Jaimie and I go for walks.  I swear that he can tell time and knows when his next walk is due.  At least twice a day, we do a walk through the King’s Navy Yard.  There are lots of flowers to look at and we mark the trail on our travels.  Actually, he marks while I pause for a bit.

It was with great interest that I read that Google Maps now allows for multiple points as it maps out a total distance on a map.  I thought – why not mark out our walk?

Off we went to find that our usual walk would be shorter than usual.  It was Sidewalk Sale Days in the downtown and the last thing that we would want to do is take our normal jaunts through the displays.  If you get my drift…

When I got home, I marked out our route on Google Maps.  It was easy to add multiple points – just right click where you want the point and the resulting menu …

… has the option to mark a “Distance to Here”.  I took a shot at mapping out our walk.

It was actually kind of difficult at first since the brick pathways weren’t on the map.  Then, I clued in … switch to Earth View and zoom in!  The path was very clear.

A little back and forth between map displays and I was able to come up with the route and the distances.

But, how accurate was my drawing?

Fortunately, I also had my smartphone with me and the app My Tracks installed.  I asked it to map things for me from beginning to end of our walk.

I had to smile.  According to this, we didn’t walk in straight lines!  It could be an error or more likely could be our little dodges to the bushes and interesting distractions on the way!

When I look back, I was quite impressed with the functionality of Google Maps and the abilities to add markers along the way.  This is a definite keeper.  Imagine drawing maps for walkathons or marathon races or just anything that needs multiple points!

I’d be remiss not to point out a favourite spot along the way…the signature Hostas Garden.  Of respect, we walk by it and not through it!

Have you checked out this new functionality in Google Maps?  How would you use it?

Google’s Smarty Pins

OK, so if you have all the information in the world and all the maps in the world, what more could you do it with beyond driving instructions and all the things that we’ve come to expect from Google Maps?

Why make a trivia game from it.

That’s what’s Google has done with the latest release – Smarty Pins.


Start with a pot pourri of topics or choose from a category…


… and you’re good to know, er, go.

You know how much I enjoy mapping so you can only imagine how much time I wasted, er, invested with this thing.


You’re given a clue and about 1,600 km allowance for being close.  Decode the clue and drop the pin on the spot you’ve understood from the clue.  Seems simple enough, right?  Did I mention that there’s a countdown timer, just to make it interesting?

As with any trivia game, some clues are easy and some are a bit of a challenge.  If you’re ready to forgo your bonus, you can ask for another clue.

I found it taxing my levels of trivia understanding.  As I mentioned above, some were easy and some, well, I just didn’t have a clue.  Even after getting the extra clue.

Through brutal force and a need to find out what happens when you actually win a game, I eventually succeeded.


I am under no illusion that I’ve mastered this.  It’s well bookmarked and sure to be a source of entertainment for a long time to come.

Looking Good

Out of the box, most browsers look the same.  Kind of silvery with tabs and it’s only when you start to poke around under the hood that you realize that there’s a big difference.  I’ve always customized my computer – it’s just pleasing rather than having to deal with a boring interface.  Since I spend most of my time in a browser these days, it seems only logical to customize the look of the browser.

There are many themes available for you already created and waiting for you to download and apply them.

One of the things that intrigued me about Opera Next was the menu option right in the browser to create your own theme. 

I’ve always been impressed with this image that was part of a Ubuntu release and have maintained it as my desktop on my computer.  With Opera’s built in “build a theme”, I was able to make it part of my desktop of my browser.

But what about the other browsers?

Well, you could poke around the theme repositories and see if you could find one – or you could roll your own.  Here are a couple that I played around with. 

The applications are essentially extensions to the browser.  Just install them and away you go.  There are others so if you don’t like it, try another.  The goal here is customization.

Canvas for Firefox

Theme Creator for Google Chrome

They both function similarly.  You personalize with images that you upload from your computer and you can adjust the colours for the application.

As I was looking around the already created themes, I notice that there are a great deal of options if you’re a soccer fan and want to show your loyalty via a browser customization.  Editorial Note – lots of Brazil!  If you’re in a school setting, how about a custom school theme with school pictures and colours?  Themes can be shared amongst friends or the whole world, if you’re interested.

I’ll confess – I’m no artist.  Despite my efforts, I couldn’t do better than the themes that I’m currently using.

There’s definitely an element of green there.  It sure beats silver.

A Secret Door to Writing Ideas

How many times have your students written a blog post about their dog or their cat?  Looking for something new and completely different? 

Then, you need to check out “The Secret Door“.

Open the door (by pushing it with your mouse) and you’re immediately transported somewhere interesting in the world, viewing your location with Google’s Streetview.

If you’re not interested in where you land, as the Secret Door to take you somewhere else.

And, like Rod Stewart says, “Every picture tells a story”…what a great inspiration for writing. 

Have your students put themselves into the picture, or make themselves a fly on the wall watching what’s happening, or what happened just before (or after) the picture was taken?  Depending upon the picture, some research about the area may be necessary.  But, in the language or second language classroom, this just inspires.  Displayed on a data projector, it could be the start of great conversations and inquiry.  The potential is limitless!

The use in blogging is so apparent.  Capture the image to the post and then write about it!

After all, think of the stories that would be inspired by this image!

What a wonderful rabbit hole for your students to fall into for writing inspiration!


My wife is very good about staying out of the room when I’m in a Google Hangout planning for the #BIT14 Conference.  She hears either me or Cyndie and knows that it’s going to be a long one and enjoys the peace and quiet of not having me around.

This morning, she heard me talking and stayed away.  When the conversation kept going and going, she decided to drop in and see what was up.  Imagine her surprise when it was just me talking to my computer!

I was playing around with a recent Google Experiment for Chrome called “Spell Up“.  This is very cool and I’ll confess to losing all track of time.

Think of it as the ultimate Spelling Bee but not in a Scripps way with young kids showing off.  It’s you and your computer running Google Chrome and the application.

At varying levels and difficulties, you’re presented with various word challenges.  It might be spelling a word, unscrambling a word or filling in the missing letters.  (And maybe more that I haven’t found yet!)

The intriguing part is that you’re not working at the keyboard in the traditional sense of computer word games.  It’s you, your speakers and your microphone.

Instructions for the current puzzle are given to you via audio clue and you speak the answer.

This has hooks that just reached into me and I’m now addicted.

You can play it anonymously or login to keep your place.

It was a great deal of fun.  I know that my voice can be nasal at time and did find that the program had trouble distinguishing between Fs and Ss.  Other than that, it performed so nicely for me.  The concept is to keep adding words to the pile and see how big you can make it.  Levels of difficulty mean that I was never bored.

Who doesn’t like a good word game?  I’m sure that you will.  And, in the classroom, where language activities are always welcome, this will make for a nice addition.