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.

Great Day of Sharing and Learning

I started today as I normally would.  I grab a bowl of cereal and my iPad.  I open the News folder and then the Zite application.

This is Doug’s current mode for finding out what’s happening.  It’s a big jump from the days when it used to be with a newspaper.  I’m constantly amazed at the breadth and depth and new interests possible now that my reading has gone digital.

It’s more of less like a regular day.  I find a lot of good things that pique my interest.  As per normal, I figure that if they interest me, they might interest someone else.  By sending the link to the article to Twitter via Zite, that sharing happens and sends a copy to my Diigo account for a permanent record.  In the middle of all this, I get a Twitter message from @barbaramcveigh.

What a nice comment!

I flip back through what I’d shared to that point ….

15 Tips & Tricks To Get More Out Of Google Drive


Tips for Sharing iPads in Schools


Test if your router’s UPnP is exposed to the Internet –


If It Were My Home: Compare Countries Visually


iOS App Recommendations for Literacy


A Must Have Poster on Digital Literacy


Three Infographics About Valentine’s Day, Including One Perfect For English Language Learners


2 Websites To Create Disposable Content On The Web


How to connect your iPad to your Interactive Whiteboard


The Teacher Report: 5 Excuses Kids Give for Not Reading (and Ways to Respond)


Mobile Learning: It’s Not Just About the Kids; It’s Also About the Teachers!


Digital Storytelling with the iPad –


A Beginner’s Guide To Proofreading – Edudemic –


As I look back at these (and there were a few others), I have to agree.  Those were some pretty good resources.  Many others agreed as well.  I look at the interactions on my Twitter account and I see that people are retweeting and bookmarking these resources.  As an aside, I was wondering why my account was in English – and when I check my settings LOLKATZ is missing as a language.  Such is the price of using something marked Beta.

If I dig back just a little further, I see a resource that I had shared even earlier.  It’s a two thumbs up, five star, red ribbon, gotta have blog post from Sue Waters.

Getting More Out Of Student Blogging

But it’s not all about me.  Those are my humble contributions.  I’m reading and checking out resources from other Ontario Educators for which I have a great of respect.

That’s but the tip of the iceberg.  I could crop and paste all day long with the spectacular list of sharing that was happening.

Where else could you even begin to get this type of professional learning?  I think of the traditional view of learning which involved a book and I smile … how long does it take to research and write that book?  After it’s published, how much is dated?  Does that book include articles that are recent?  Yeah? How about within the past 24 hours?  How could I share a passage with that article with members of my department – oh, yes, go to the photocopier and put copies in their mailbox.  Tell me how I can get that richness from London, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Stratford, Toronto, or London again that immediately.  Given those challenges, I suppose Perth (and not the Stratford or Ottawa one) would be totally out of the question.

And yet, we all are doing it, doing it well, and doing it daily.  We’re vetting, filtering, researching, sharing, and learning daily.

That, folks, is what it’s all about.  The topping?

It’s a little Twitter message from an individual in Luxembourg who I’ve never met but certainly hang on his posts and have had many interactions.

For the moment, take out the @dougpete reference.  It’s only important for the few seconds that Gust took to post the message.

Can you insert your own name there?  If you can, you’re doing it right.

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An Interview with Shannon Smith

I first met Shannon at an OTF Professional Learning event but we stayed in touch over the years through our use of Social Media.  While at the event, we agreed upon the need for global connections, but we both could see the need to push for something uniquely Ontario.  This fall, Shannon assumes the role of Principal at Glen Cairn Public School in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board.  I used this as an opportunity to interview her as she makes this big, exciting move.

Doug:  Congratulations on the appointment to Principal at Glen Cairn.  This must be an exciting time for you.

Shannon:  Thanks, Doug.  This is indeed a very exciting time for me.  I am still amazed at how lucky I am to be a Principal in a really progressive district here in Ontario.  

Doug:  Your background is strong as a Special Education teacher before entering administration.  What unique attributes do you bring to the school because of this?

Shannon:  That is a tough one because I cannot imagine any educator not having the same high level of commitment to every student – those who struggle as well as those for whom school comes easily.  I can say that having a daughter with a developmental disability drew me to Special Education and I think that she has had a greater impact on my philosophy than any level of specialist training I hold.  

Having said that, as a Special Education teacher, you are afforded many opportunities to work with families who are going through difficult times.  Every single time I sit with a family who is learning, perhaps for the first time, that their child is “different” from typical children, I am keenly aware of what that experience can feel like.  I have learned so much from sitting and listening to parents as they share their fears, their hopes and their love for their child.  

Doug:  A while back, I had written the post “Your School Doesn’t Need a Newsletter”.  When I visit the Glen Cairn website, I see icons for Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, and YouTube.  is this a sign that you’re prepared to go paperless?

Shannon:  Glen Cairn PS had made some moves towards less paper before my arrival.  They did away with agendas in favour of online homework calendars (google) and a few teachers already have blogs.  I will still send home paper notices from time to time, but I do plan to rely quite heavily on digital means for communication.  We are using our blog and those other services you mention, as well as weekly synrevoice messages (email and automated phone calls).  After speaking with staff at GCPS, I discovered that a very small percentage of families do not have access to the internet at home and this is why I plan to use a combination of paper and digital communication.

The more important shift for me is from broadcast only to two-way communication.  Digital communication facilitates this, if used effectively.  The caveat is that communication with the learning community must invite participation.  Using blogs and social media will only be “old wine in new bottles” if we don’t also shift to engaging in dialogue.  It is not enough to broadcast what you are doing.  We know that parents play a key role in supporting learning, and so whatever choices I make around communication channels, I must look for ways to draw the community into discussions and decision-making.

Doug:  Related to this, do you see eBooks and electronic textbooks in Glen Cairn’s future?

Shannon:  Great question.  GCPS is about to transition from a K – 8 school to a middle school next year.  There are many decisions to be made and I intend to have staff involved in making decisions related to our future.  Personally, I like to offer a variety of types of learning materials.  I don’t feel a huge need for e-textbooks because I think that textbooks are too linear and limited.  I would prefer to spend that money on teachers — supporting staff who want to try new approaches, acquire tools that they will use meaningfully with students.  If someone wants to try something new, I want to be in a position to support that.

Doug:  Glen Cairn is located in the heart of Kanata, one of Canada’s high technology centres.  Does this put extra importance on the use of technology effectively at the school?

Shannon:  I don’t know if it puts additional importance, but it may mean that we have some parents who are quite accustomed to using technology in innovative ways.  It is critical that we foster digital literacy within our students, regardless of where the school is situated.

Doug:  Is or will Glen Cairn be a BYOT school?  What do you see as the possibilities for this?  Is there a concern that some students will not bring technology of their own to school?

Shannon:  Students in intermediate grades will have the opportunity to use their own technology at school.  This is our first year with wireless, so there is going to be a learning curve.  If students are unable to bring technology, they will not be left out because we will make it a priority to ensure that everyone has access.  Stay tuned as we move into BYOD!

Doug:  There may come a time when you add additional staff members to your school.  How important is a strong technical background coming into the position?

Shannon:  I will be adding many new staff members next year, as we are projected to double in size when we transition to being a middle school.  You can bet that a strong interest and comfort level with technology will be an asset.  I will be looking for teachers who are master learners first and foremost.  I have already begun conversations with staff members who will stay when we make the change to explore what strengths we already have and what gaps will need to be filled.  For instance, we have an instrumental music teacher and a Core French teacher with a strong Visual Arts background.  We will be looking for individuals with strong backgrounds in Math, Literacy, Science and Physical Education.  We intend to link with our neighbouring High School whenever possible and I believe that a solid comfort level with connective technologies will play a key role in that relationship.

Doug:  Will you do a Social Media “check” of applicants?

Shannon:  I will pay added attention to individuals who highlight a positive digital footprint in their application.  I have pondered the “check” quite a bit and I don’t think at this time that I would do that.  I must admit though, that I do expect an applicant to have spent some time researching the school online and to be able to articulate, based on what he or she finds, how she or he will compliment the school team.

Doug:  I note that the Glen Cairn website is created using WordPress whereas other OCDSB websites are templates from Sharepoint.  What do you see as the advantage of a web presence this way?

Shannon:  Nice catch!  I am a wordpress gal.  I tried google sites this summer and just couldn’t get the site to do what I wanted.  I want strong social integration.  I want it to look pretty and I want it to be very accessible.  I have to admit I don’t know much about the inner workings of Sharepoint, but I found the template very limiting.  I like easy and seamless.

Doug:  One of my favourite Ontario blogs has always been “ShannonInOttawa”.  You’ve been very transparent with your learnings there.  Will that continue?  Will there be a “ShannonThePrincipalInOttawa” blog instead?

Shannon: Thanks, Doug.  I will keep with ShannoninOttawa, although I anticipate many cross-posts to because I intend to share my personal learnings there too.  I think that posting my own learning on the school blog might engage parents, students and staff in conversations about learning.  I also think that when I share about my own learning, I model what I expect of all members of the school community.  I will look for feedback and pushback too, although I know it will likely take some time for community members to feel safe engaging in those conversations online.  

Doug:  In your new position, you will not have the assistance of a vice-principal.  Can your use of technology help with this?  How?

Shannon: Yes!  In a sense I am filling two positions this year – principal and vice-principal.  Within those roles I wear many other hats.  I rely heavily on technology to keep me organized, to help me stay current in my professional reading and lead the instructional program, and to build relationships and communicate with my community.  

I stay organized with a google calendar.  My husband is also a Principal in our District and we have two children (Violet is 12 and Donovan is 10).  We have swimming lessons, skating, dancing, skiing.  We have 2 staff meetings and 2 parent council meetings every month.  I also have many meetings with parents, community members and professionals every week, as well as District PLCs and operations meetings.  The google calendar is indispensable.  

I subscribe to many blog feeds with my google reader and I check it from time to time to stay current on what others are saying about education around the world.  I use Diigo to bookmark and share great finds on the web and I also use twitter to share.  That way, I can go back and find the gems when I want to reference them, either in a blog post, or a PD session with staff or community.

I blog to share and solicit feedback on my thinking and vision.  I think that adopting a stance of openness has given me some initial credibility within the GCPS learning community.  I hope that as we head into a fairly large change process, that trust will continue to grow.  I expect push back too, because that is all part of engaging in honest dialogue.  And while the face to face conversations are real, connections that happen with Social media can be a great starting point.

Doug:  You’ve been a leadership voice in the Connected Principals initiative.  Now that you’ll be attending principals meetings and professional learning opportunities, do you see the Ottawa Carleton influence growing?

Shannon:  I hope so.  There are many leaders in the OCDSB beginning to “get” the benefits of connected learning and leadership.  I believe that we are about to see a “tipping point” within leadership across the province as more school leaders realize the power of harnessing technology across all domains of leadership, from instruction to relationship building.

Doug:  Bizarre as it may seem this early in your stint, there will come a time when you move from Glen Cairn.  In the sentence, “We remember Mrs. Smith when she was principal.  She was responsible for ……”, how would you like to complete that sentence?

Shannon: “… helping us to have a smooth transition to a middle school environment”.  That is my priority at this point.

Doug:  One last question — you’re speaking at the ECOO Conference in October.  Can you give us a preview and inspiration to circle your sessions on our calendars?

Shannon:  I will be speaking in two different sessions.  The first is called, “Innovation or Novelty?” and it will be a lively discussion amongst participants, co-hosted by my husband, Brent Smith (@OttawaBrent).  Our aim is to tease out some of our beliefs around the role of technology with regards to fostering innovation, creativity and critical thinking in schools.  What role does tinkering play in the classroom?  Is there a space for playing around, or should we be demanding more rigour in our learning environments?  

For the second session I will join Brian Harrison (@bharrisonp) to explore how we can use personal devices to capture, document and celebrate learning.  This session will look at how we can provide timely feedback to students and parents and streamline some of our assessment practices using smartphones and other “pocket” technologies.

Doug:  Thanks for your time and your thoughts.  I wish you all the best in your new setting and hope to see that you find the time to continue the online leadership that you have provided in the past.

You can follow Shannon’s education thoughts at

An Interview with Royan Lee

Recently, if you’ve been following Royan Lee (@royanlee) on Twitter, you’ve had a glimpse of what his classroom will look like in a couple of weeks when school resumes.  He’s openly transparent about what he and his students do.  Yesterday, he posted about his students’ “Thinking Books” and that really got me thinking.

In the middle of the post, he notes:
We are paperless in the sense that students and I don’t use paper to submit and return assignments, but we use paper everyday in the process of learning, to collaborate and think. Paper is an absolutely essential tool for learning; we shouldn’t try to eliminate it just for the sake of it.

After a couple of back and forths on Twitter and comment on his blog, I thought that this needed to be more than just a tweet or two and decided to turn this into a blog post.  I’ll also post this to

Doug:  Thank you for sharing your thoughts about paper and technology as you introduced us to your Thinking Books.  I really like the title and would like to follow up with some questions.

Doug:  In your post, you describe yourself as a Learning Centre Classroom Teacher.  If I was to walk into your classroom on a typical day, what would I see?

Royan: Well, we’re all public school teachers that deal with budgets, limitations, and equality of resources, right? In my room, you will currently see round tables designed for four people in a N-S-E-W configuration. You will also see an old IKEA kitchen bench which was redundant in my house, so now serves as essentially a work and charging station for mobile technology. We affectionately call it ‘the bar’. Look high and you’ll see something we’re terribly fortunate to have: a ceiling mounted projector. Other than that, it’s the same ol’ blackboard, whiteboard, etc. Oh, did I mention there are iPad devices and mobile devices scattered everywhere?

Doug:  Does your layout change when you’re using technology versus using paper for your activities?

Royan: Nope.

Doug:  Would you call your classroom a BYOT learning environment?  If so, how do you ensure that the students have the applications that you need?

Royan: One of the keys to getting BYOT to work in our class is our access to Google Apps for Ed. That, more than the devices, are the real key to making it work from a technical standpoint. GApps are device agnostic, and ever more so by the day.

Doug:  For students that don’t bring their own technology, do they feel different?  How do you address this?

Royan: This is the biggest molehill made into a mountain with BYOT. I try my best to foster a culture of equity where people get what they need, but not necessarily in an equal manner. We need our students to be comfortable with “he needs a notebook for this, and she needs an MacBook Pro for that”. That being said, BYOT works for us from an equity perspective because we have enough devices to supplement ‘have-nots’, and, like Robert Munsch, we share everything. When students see that I am willing to let a student use my iPhone or MacBook at any given time, they have no problem sharing. My students are not in little pods; devices are scattered everywhere. If an iPad gets bumped, bruised, or even shattered because of this environment, well, que sera. Learning trumps touch screens.

Doug:  For the technology that exists in your classroom (the MacBook Pros, the smartphones, and the iPads), who determines and installs the applications?  Most importantly, who makes sure everything is properly charged?

Royan: My students and I in equal measures. By the end of the year, there is always a core group of mini Doug Petes and Royan Lees eager to look after EVERYTHING tech related. My ‘geniuses’, to borrow the Apple Store term.

Doug:  In looking through the examples you shared from your Thinking Book, there is some pretty interesting artwork!  Is this the nature of the classes that use the Thinking Book or is The Arts a strong theme through everything that you do?

Royan: The arts is everything for me. I don’t even do it consciously. And, by ‘arts’, I mean creativity, risk taking, comfort in open-endedness. Some of my biggest influences pedagogically are David Booth, Larry Shwartz, and Bob Barton, not Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Doug:  Are students allowed to take their Thinking Books home with them?  Are they allowed to take any of the classroom technology home?

Royan: Yes, everything. I’ve let students sign out iPads and 1 out of 100 times they come back damaged. Great odds.

Doug:  Are the Thinking Books or any of the technology used in a student led parent-teacher conference?  How?

Royan: Yes, absolutely, I’m so glad you asked that. They are essential artifacts for explaining the ‘whys’ of this kind of learning to parents, especially skeptical ones. Many parents hear about what we do and think: a) Awesome! b) What a hippie crackpot? c) Does he work for Apple? I want to make sure the latter two understand that it’s about their child as a whole, not as a number.

Doug:  In your post and my follow up Twitter message, it’s very clear that you have a balance of 50-50 with technology versus traditional paper.  Is this optimum?  How do you know?

Royan: I do think it’s optimum, because that’s the ratio I’ve observed students gravitate towards in settings where traditional tools and tech are integrated seamlessly on-demand. When the tech is boring because it’s always around, students can more objectively talk about which tools best serve a particular purpose for them.

Doug:  Is the use of paper or technology for a particular task a student choice?  Do you ensure that students experience all modes during the course of the school year?

Royan: It’s a mix. I basically use a gradual release of responsibility framework for this. I start off saying, “this must be done in Animoto, that must be done in chart paper, etc.,” then I get students to reflect on the tools. By January, everyone’s pretty metacognitive about it. I prefer to use differentiation, rather than systems like TRIBES, for culture building.

Doug:  Are there subjects that tend to be better addressed with paper than technology?

Royan: It’s funny you should mention that because I’m always thinking about this question. There are two main situations where I find technology to be a disruption, favouring pen and paper tools: math problem solving, and independent reading. I find that these two activities are ones that demand the most perseverance and quietness in the artificial setting that is a room of 30 sweaty children. I find it a good time to disconnect.

Doug:  Do you favour one or the other for student writing?

Royan: I personally favour digital by far, and I encourage students to write digitally, because of the collaborative and editing possibilities. Except in the case of idea generation. I try and make that a matter of personal choice.

Doug:  Do you use any other methods for students to create a learning portfolio?

Royan:  Yes, we use blogs, which we basically treat as our digital Thinking Books. Read more here.

Doug:  Do you have the full support of your administration and parents in your approach?  How do you show evidence of learning?

Royan: I do have a lot of support from parents and admin, which is basically what allows us to do what we do. In the case of the former group, I occasionally run into barriers from a vocal minority. I treat them as teachable moments. My approach has always been that if I think I may be doing something that is perceived as subversive in any way (note that I say perceived – many stakeholders have no problem with ‘traditional’ methods that have no foundation in curriculum or theory) I am ready with my pedagogical defence for it.

Doug:  Thank you, Royan.  One final question – if a classroom teacher is reading this and looking to get started with a blended approach to traditional paper versus using technology, where should they start?  How will THEY know they’re being successful?

Royan: Hmmm. This is a tough question for me, because I feel like my most honest answer could be seen as unhelpful or glib. I suppose the way I started is just by… starting. By trying to integrate technology into what I was doing, by collaborating with people and sharing my stories. I’ve done far more failing than anything else. Basically it’s about disposition. If you’re ok with working with these tools – any tools – in a manner akin to my 1yo learning to use a spoon, then you’re off to the races! I don’t really want to say, “Well, start with Google Docs” or “Get a MacBook Pro” or whatever. It makes no sense to say that because so much of it is contextual. It’s more important to take rewarding risks, surround yourself with people venturing similar terrain, and be resilient. As Yoda says, do or do not, there is no try. Do, reflect, share, do, reflect, share. Rinse, repeat. Thanks, Doug, love talking to ya.

Again, thank you, Royan.  p.s. He did miss a real opportunity.  If you’re getting started or you’re looking for ideas to refine your approaches, make sure that you follow Royan’s blog where he shares so much.