An Interview with Zoe Branigan-Pipe

Zoe Branigan-Pipe (@zbpipe on Twitter) is one of those folks that I’ve known and interacted with online long, long before I ever met her.  If you’re wondering what a “21st Century Teacher” does, you need to follow Zoe.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview her.  Think you know Zoe?  Read on; I’ll bet there’s plenty you don’t know!

Doug:  My wife always knew that I ran in different circles but I don’t think she knew the depth of commitment until you two met.  Do you remember when?  (hint, Washington at the ISTE Conference)

Zoe: I remember it clearly because it was the first time for me to experience the joy and excitement you get when meeting someone face-to-face that you’ve interacted or followed on social media. It’s where I met Kent @kentmanning and @aforgrave as well – and have since developed such meaningful friendships. I feel so fortunate as it is these relationships that have supported, nurtured and developed me – professionally and personally!

Doug:  After that meeting, I think my wife really got the gist of why we value the electronic relationships that we use to learn from each other.

Zoe: That reminds me of a funny story. Do you remember the time when you sent me my address through a Twitter DM? It was only a week after getting my first iPhone and I neglected to turn off my location settings before using Twitter. Awkward!! Luckily, at the time, not many people were following my Twitter account! But, like I said, it was nice that you had my back. Thanks!

It is incredible to think how many stories that we’ve shared since! I remember a few years ago tweeting you during class (not sure if it was allowed back then) because I couldn’t figure out how to do a screen capture on my PC computer. You answered me in about 30 seconds.

Doug:  Professionally, I knew you as this person that was doing great things at your brand new school in Hamilton.  The consultants at the time raved about the things that you were doing and I remember inviting you and your principal to present at the Western RCAC.  How was that experience?

Zoe: Yes, I’ve been so fortunate to have started my career with some pretty supportive leaders!  I attribute so much to my principal at the time, Bill DeMille. He was one of the first Principals in my district to see that the way we were  doing things wasn’t working for so many students (or teachers). It was he that first introduced me to Clay Christionsen’s  “Distruptive Schools/Classroom”. Bill was a bit of an outlier in our district and way ahead of our district’s time of “21st Century Fluencies”. It was truly unfortunate that he never got the recognition that he deserved before he left due to a serious illness. I owe much gratitude to him for giving me trust and respect as a teacher leader.  I am glad to have had the opportunity to not only work at a cutting edge school (for that time) but to work with such an innovative thinker.

This RCAC that you mention was the first of several times I presented for this conference. I met many people, including Rodd Lucier (@thecleversheep) who was at that session and since we have also shared in the development of many projects, including Unplugd at Northern Edge Algonquin.

Doug:  Now, you’re gearing up for #ecoo13.  You undoubtedly have the best session title:  Redevelopment of an Urban Landscape –> Geography, Math and Minecraft: An Inquiry Driven Project presented by Zoe Branigan-Pipe

Can you tell the readers what to expect when they attend your session?

Zoe: I’m excited to be at  ECOO again this year, not just as a presenter, but because I’ll get to interact with so many people that I admire and learn from! My session will demonstrate the process and methods that I used to teach and assess an integrated, language and math unit in a completely differentiated way and with a variety of blended learning and interactive tools. The Barton and Tiffany project is something that can easily be recreated in any community and lends itself to social activism and civic involvement by addressing higher order learning through meaningful and authentic questions. I know that you are from the Windsor area so you might be interested that we even used some of the blueprints and online sources to look at how the Windsor Community was impacted when the 401 was rerouted through what was once a commercial and residential community. Issues of development, mapping, and housing are those that resonate with all of us. Why not bring it into the classroom and use current tools to explore, engineer and help nurture visionaries?

Doug:  Why not indeed?  That is so cool.  You’ve always been on the cutting edge of things.

I’d never heard of the Livescribe Pen until I heard some of the great things that you’ve done with it with students.  Can you tell us some of the ways that you’ve used it?

Zoe: I’ve always described the Livescribe as a contradiction of technology since it is pen/ink and paper.  The beauty of the tool is that anyone that can use a pen and regardless of their tech ability or level of understanding can also use the Livescribe. The fact that the pen allows people to also record their voice while they write and then access the recording by simply touching the ink on the paper makes it seem like magic. It also is a key tool in helping students who’ve struggled in getting their thoughts down. It helps teachers write assessments and gives students an opportunity  to use an audio format to demonstrate. It really can begin to level the playing field. My students appreciate being able to use this tool, especially because their minds often think faster than they can write! I also love it because I can do audio anecdotal notes that give way more information than the usual or more traditional checklist.  I didn’t even tell you about the fact that whatever I write can also be uploaded to the class website for pre and post learning. Seriously cool and so much potential!

Doug:  So, I have mine now and it’s in my computer bag always with me.  I’m afraid that I don’t use it to its greatest potential.  What advice would you give me?

Zoe:  I love the tool when I’m trying to describe or share something with someone (like a screencast). Think of it like a photocopier. You can jot something down for someone, rip the page out for them and you still have a copy yourself (once you plug it in). I think you might also like it for a podcasting feature when interviewing someone since it is much less intimidating then a microphone or video camera. Just write down the questions, ask the interviewee to answer them by drawing a dot on paper and pressing record. So much more personal to hear a voice. I bet this might be something fun to do while teaching your grandchildren to draw, doodle and write and they hear themselves during the process!

With that said, Doug, we need to all know when the right time and place is to use this tool. I don’t use it instead of my iPad or computer, I just use it for tasks that I can’t with those other tools or when it is more convenient or practical. Even my students sometimes ask for the Livescribe when they have an iPad sitting in front of them. I don’t think it is an either/or question.

Doug:  Now, you’ve won the Canadian Microsoft Virtual Innovative Educator Award. What does that involve?

Zoe: I’m pretty humbled to be representing Canada at this international conference. I am not sure where it will be held this year.  I will be sharing how I’ve integrated Project Based Learning methods and how the use of Microsoft tools has impacted my practice as an educator. I’m excited to interact with other international delegates!

I also feel that this award should be for my Gifted Class at Dalewood who gave their time and trust to pursue different types of projects. These students have had a strong influence and impact on me and I often tell them how humbled I am to have had this opportunity to have a small part in their learning journey.  These students have reminded me that our system often expects them to fit into a box instead of the box changing shape for them.

Doug:  Enjoy the experience.  I attended the one in New York a couple of years ago and the connections and the enthusiasm of those there is mind numbing.  I still treasure the pictures, notes, and of course blog posts from there.

Were you on your own with this innovation or did you get support from your centrally assigned consultants?

Zoe: Um. Difficult question Doug. I can’t say that I received support from the system consultants with this project, however, the Superintendents of Leadership did support me by funding some conference costs and I appreciated that! I’ve also appreciated the support that the Ministry of Education provided over the last few years through both the TLLP program and the faculty forum. They continue to keep me posted and call or email me to see how things are going. It is a support that I never expected – but has been authentic and meaningful.

As you know, recently, I was in Israel working with teachers and leaders from around the world, including our own Deputy Minister. The question of system and school support was a key discussion as it pertained to learning and teaching in the 21st Century. Do you know what the #1 factor was when it came to teachers feeling safe to explore and try new tools and methods? It was the principal’s support. This was regardless of the country, the type of system, the grade or level,  school or religion. Every teacher said it was the Principal’s support and trust. My principal – Joanne Hall, has been a key factor in supporting me with this project and with other non-traditional teaching methods that allowed me to engage students with tools and methods that interested them. From the beginning she provided me with the tools and trusted my judgment.

At the system level, however, there is definitely reluctance with teachers trying new tools or pedagogies, especially when there is not a lot of evidence out there that supports its success – or that the evidence is constantly either contradicting itself or is outdated. As you know, when technology is developing and changing at such a fast rate, our systems need to figure out ways to support teachers who are working at all ends of the spectrum, like we do with students.

Doug:  That’s always been the way with technology and why we support people who try new things.  If you wait until someone declares something “best practice”, the train will have long left the station.  There’s no shame in trying and running into challenges to solve!

Together, you and I did the Great OSLA Faceoff!  We have the T-Shirts!

We reprised it for ECOO and also for a school in my old district.  Can you share with the readers what that involved?

Zoe: Ha Ha! I think this was where I first realized you were “Yoda” and I was “Luke”.  I hope that you have learned who these characters are since then!!

What a great way to combine the learning of ‘methods’ and ‘tools’! It was fun to work behind the scenes collaboratively to learn, find and share how new web tools can be creatively integrated into the classroom but it was even more fun when we made it into a play-by-play drama! The audience loved the fast paced presentation and appreciated involvement!

Doug:  Our friend Diane took and shared this great picture of us.

zoe and doug

Zoe:   I really treasure that experience Doug!

Doug:  I’ve had the opportunity to visit your wonderful family.  I was impressed with the computer abilities of your two boys.  Did they get that from school or just picked it up from their mom and the technology lying around the house?

Zoe: Both my boys, middle school age, would say that they didn’t learn anything from me, but I hope that I had some influence on their ability to use a variety of technologies responsibly and creatively. I run servers for both of them to play and create in the Gaming environment. Both of them have iPhones because they enjoy photography and sharing or interacting online. Recently, I noticed my youngest son Nathan using Google Hangout with his friends while he they were working on Minecraft. I asked him how he knew Google Hangout or Circles and he rolled his eyes at me saying, I just saw the “hangout” button and tried it.  Imagine. My son Jack has many friends in different countries that he interacts with daily through games like Starcraft or Minecraft. Our computer is set in our family room and I enjoy listening to them play and interact! Their vocabulary, their level of thinking, their respect for one another, their ability to collaborate and problem solve – it is inspiring and reassuring and yet it isn’t always reflected in their school assessments.

Doug:  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stewie.  Is he a technology supporter?

Zoe: Stewie loves Skype! He gets a little anxious when I travel for conferences so Skyping him helps. I should also mention that Stewie is my Australian Shepherd!

Doug:  Your husband has been a runner for years and I know that he’s got you out pounding the pavement.  What kind of a routine do you have?

Zoe: Running has really helped me balance my life.  Now that my kids are older, I’ve been able to find a way to reconnect with myself – my health and my personal growth. I’ve learned to spend less time online or in front of a screen and enjoy time exploring and experiencing learning in a different way – a way that gets me physically and mentally inside a community. Running with my husband Brad has given us a chance to reconnect. When we travel, we try to run at least once in every town/city. I value experiences and memories like running across the Golden Gate Bridge, through Steinbeck territory, Big Sur and along the Beach in Naples.  It is almost surreal to think about running through old Jerusalem.  It isn’t just about training or fitness, but about an experience or journey.

Doug:  Tell us about your marathon runs.  Are there more in your future?

Zoe: I’ve run two Marathons this year – Ottawa and Toronto.  When you met me Doug, I’d never even run a mile. Setting a ridiculous goal (like running 42 kilometers) was the best thing that I ever did.  Challenging myself physically and mentally helped me see things in ways that I didn’t see them before. I think it is important that everyone find something to experience that helps them nurture themselves. It has made me a better teacher (a better person) in many ways and helped me see the value of pushing people to places that hurt because often they come out the other side stronger.

Doug:  I hope that you’re booking “Run with Alana” for the #ecoo13 conference!

Zoe:  What a great idea. I’ve noticed that many people in our circles are finding and sharing passions and goals that go beyond just teaching and learning. I’ll never forget singing along with Andy Forgrave (@aforgrave), Colin Jagoe (@colinjagoe) (on their guitars) and others in a corner of the Hotel one year. We need to model to our students and colleagues the importance of exploration and creativity in areas of life that go beyond education!

Doug:  OK, the million dollar question:  Mac or PC and why?

Zoe: Isn’t it about the tool that works best for the particular project? It depends what I need them for.  I use PC mostly at school and enjoy the fact that my students can use open source systems like Linux (or whatever)(. They enjoy building PC computers.  More and more, I’m finding the operating systems are working together seamlessly and it doesn’t really matter what it is.

Doug:  Great answer, Zoe!  I wish more fanatics felt that way!  Have you ever had a technology in your classroom that you didn’t like or use to the best of your abilities?

Zoe:  Some tools and technologies have replaced other things over the years. For example, I love my document camera, but now we use iPads instead. I love the Front Row audio system as well. Front Row Canada has provided my class with a new “Juno” unit which allows wireless audio podcast recording.  Over the years I’ve had a chance to experiment with Podcasting, including doing podcasts with expeditioners in the South Pole. With more time, I’d like to use this tool more often!  I am fortunate to have a set of iPads in my classroom and a mini laptop station, which I bought from the money I saved by NOT using the school photocopier!! True story! I rarely use the school computer lab as most students are bringing in their own devices.  

Doug:  I hope that your fund raising suggestion inspires others!  Does your philosophy include interactive white boards?

Zoe: I have a SMARTboard and projector in my classroom as well. There is much talk about  SMARTboards and their impact in teaching and learning. It is my opinion that any tool can be used well or not well and just depends on the level and depth of learning we expect.  It frustrates me when people generalize about tools and their impact. There is much value in the use of an interactive tool, just like there is value in any tool depending on how it is used.  We’ve really been enjoying the touch screen interactivity during our coding projects. It is fun to create a java script or HTML and then play with them on the Smartboard! So many of my students prefer to stand and touch the screen, especially when traveling the world or playing with math tools.

Doug:  You’ve always been embracing the new changes in technology and pedagogy as they come along.  You’ve taught at a Faculty of Education and now there’s a change in your assignment for next year.  What do you bring to the table that people need to be excited about?

Zoe: I have really enjoyed teaching at Brock University. I will continue to work part-time for the faculty of education teaching I/S students about technology integration and social media. As well, I will continue to teach Additional Qualification courses such as the Junior Basic Qualification courses.

I’m really excited for my new position with the HWDSB next year to support the Gifted Education Program. I will work with teachers, schools, students and their families in developing programs that are current and engaging.  I’d  look forward to extending this job beyond the board and developing partnerships across the province and further. I have so much to learn and I’m pretty fortunate to have so many online connections to help me develop and grow into this job!

Doug:  I think I speak for the thousands that know and/or follow you when I say that we wish you the best of luck.  You’ve always shared your learning on Twitter and through your blog:  Please promise to keep us in the loop as you experience this new adventure.

Zoe: Thank you so much Doug. As I’ve said already, it is with your support and guidance that empowers me to take risks and try new things. I feel so lucky to be working at a time when we can connect beyond our classroom and school. I feel so lucky to know that even when I make a mistake or am feeling defeated that I have friends to pull me up and point me back in the right direction. Life is full of opportunities and I will continue find the current and exciting ways to learn from/with and teach others!

Doug: All the best, Zoe.  Thanks so much for taking the time for this interview.

You can follow Zoe Branigan-Pipe on Twitter at @zbpipe.


5 thoughts on “An Interview with Zoe Branigan-Pipe

  1. Doug, I’m so glad that you decided to interview Zoe for this blog post! Zoe got me started in using Social Media just over 4 years ago, and I know that I wouldn’t be the teacher that I am today without her. Thank you, Zoe!

    You do many incredible things in your classroom, and you’re very deserving of this award. I’m also thrilled to hear of your new assignment for next year. As someone that will be teaching some gifted students in the regular class setting, I’m sure that I’ll be calling on your expertise throughout the year.

    I’m so happy to have both you and Doug as part of my PLN!


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