Innovative teaching, technologized

Justin Birckbichler, center, a fourth grade teacher at Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School in Front Royal, assists Olivia Jackson, 9, during a coding class at the school on Thursday. Birckbichler has been named one of 34 Google innovators from a pool of educators worldwide and will be heading to Google headquarters later this month for an academy session. Rich Cooley/Daily

At Hilda J. Barbour Elementary School, teacher Justin Birckbichler is leading a particularly tech-savvy group of fourth graders and working on an Innovation Project designed to empower students’ families.

Birckbicher is one of 34 Google Certified Innovators who will be attending an academy at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, at the end of the month. He said some of these educators will be traveling in from Canada, the United Kingdon and South Korea to work together and diversify their teaching toolkit under the tech giant’s guidance.

Google offers various levels of educator certification for those who want to keep on the forefront of computer-aided classroom learning. Birckbichler said that attaining the first two Google Certified Educator levels mostly involved online testing, while becoming a trainer introduced some new challenges. Attaining Google Certified Innovator status meant taking the next step above and beyond.

“As of right now, that’s the top level of certification that you can get from Google. … I think the next step would be like working for Google,” he said laughingly. “It’s been quite a journey, from not really knowing what Google Drive is to going to Google headquarters.”

In preparation for the Jan. 11 application due date, Birckbichler said he spent much of his winter break on a variety of assignments, including making a one-minute video lowdown on his project, designing T-shirts and laying out an ideal classroom. His Innovator Project focuses on parents and their ability to help their children succeed in the rapidly changing and ever-intimidating subject of math.

“We need to help support the parents … so they can continue teaching their children, so they can help at all points with the child’s education,” he said.

Birckbichler, known to his students as Mr. B, seized the initiative this school year to make his class the district’s elementary school pioneer of a 1-to-1 student-to-Chromebook ratio. He said he accomplished this feat through two crowdfunding campaigns in the summer and fall and some generous donations.

Every student in Mr. B’s class had their own device by the beginning of December, and he said having that ratio attunes his teaching to each child’s personal needs. Currently in his third year teaching at Hilda J. Barbour, he said he’s tried to integrate a wealth of technology from the start.

“The kids have really taken to it, they’re really good with all the technology,” he said. “They’re growing up with this.”

At the Innovation Academy, he’ll be working with the rest of the cohort to develop each innovator’s project. Because the company has recently reinvented its educator training center to keep it up to date, he said his cohort of innovators will be pioneers of a new program. Google directors have promised the innovators constant support, and Birckbicher said the diversity of innovators’ specialties (he considers himself a podcast specialist) form an internal support system, too.

“I think we’re just ready to take education to the next level,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a lot of cool and innovative, outside-the-box type of things that we’re going to learn.”

Birckbicher has attended and presented at a number of conferences centered on technology and education methodology, and has plans to hit up even more of them in the spring. He’ll find out if he’s been accepted to become a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator in March, but seeing his myth of visiting Google HQ become a reality will truly be a landmark achievement.

“It’s really all come to a head and been taken to the next level this year with all the different Google things,” he said. “I look forward to continuing that pattern.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com