Teaching is a Political Act

AN IGNITE TALK BY 2018-2019 AGENCY BY DESIGN OAKLAND TEACHER FELLOW JULIA CHENG

At the time of her ignite talk at Agency by Design Oakland’s year-end event on Saturday, May 4, 2019, Julia Cheng was the 6th Grade Science Teacher at Edna Brewer Middle School. Julia began her talk by sharing her personal story of change in her professional career as a teacher and the changes that were also happening in her wider community.

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“I've had a really weird year. This year I quit a job, I started a new job, and next year I'm going to be at a third school. In the middle of all of this, there was a teacher strike. So, all this transition meant this year I was thinking a lot about community, and school, and our roles in schools. I want to talk about centering our work in community.”

In the midst of personal change and district-wide change, Julia realized the importance of centering herself and her philosophies around teaching. From her experience, Julia realized that centering one’s teaching practice allows one to shift from individual to community-focused practice because:

“...when you find [your purpose in teaching], then you can find more connections between yourself, your community and your curriculum.”

Watch Julia’s inspiring Ignite Talk below! And follow the #pictureofpractice hashtag to see more Ignite Talks and leadership from our 2018-2019 Teacher Fellows.

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“We are preparing students for an uncertain future. For me, the most important skill students need is to know how to learn. I believe maker education provides those skills and the imperative to design for community.”

Julia was raised in Mississippi by Taiwanese immigrant parents, but has lived all over from the DC metro to Kenya. She is a science teacher at Elmhurst United Middle School in Oakland, CA. She is passionate about neuroscience, community, metacognition, and feelings.

Strengthening SEL Skills Through Maker-Centered Learning

A PICTURE OF PRACTICE BY 2018-2019 AGENCY BY DESIGN OAKLAND TEACHER FELLOW Liz Cruger

Liz works at EnCompass Academy, a K-5 elementary school in the Woodland neighborhood in Oakland, CA serving a student population that is 96% students of color. 60% of the students at EnCompass Academy are classified as English Language Learners.

“What have you learned from working on our Maker projects?” was the first question on the student reflection. Within minutes the room got quiet as students were writing reflections about their work.  “I learned to be kind to people, be helpful, and also use my tools,” wrote Noah. “I learned I can do everything if I try,” said King. “I learned to persevere when I’m sewing,” Sasha responded. Reading these reflections was incredibly gratifying because it meant this work was reaching deep within my students and hopefully will have a lasting impact on their lives. 

For thirteen years, I’ve had students within my classes who were struggling with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which result in toxic stress that can harm a child’s brain.  For the 2018-2019 school year, however, the serious traumas and toxic stress my students are experiencing is overwhelmingly high. As much as I try to create a safe and positive learning environment, my students continue to struggle with healthy interactions.  They have difficulty managing their emotions, communicating their feelings and needs, and thinking calmly and clearly to become problem solvers. I had to do something MORE to support my students to build resilience, confidence, and learn strategies for a healthy emotional life.  This need led me to my inquiry question: 

“How can I use maker-centered learning projects and routines to help support and heal the social and emotional learning needs within my classroom?”

The 12 Tools from TOOLBOX (by Dovetail Learning).

The 12 Tools from TOOLBOX (by Dovetail Learning).

We started by having a discussion about emotions. “Everyone has emotions,” I said. “They are completely natural…we don’t have to think of them as good or bad, but rather, we might feel them as comfortable or uncomfortable.” I began like this to take judgment away from the emotions that my students may feel are difficult. We brainstormed emotions and put them in categories of comfortable and uncomfortable. For our first maker project, each student created an Emotions Book, which included their self portraits. Using TOOLBOX (our school’s SEL curriculum), the students also integrated tools from the 12 featured TOOLBOX Tools or other strategies that they could use when experiencing uncomfortable emotions.

Students collaborating and helping each other with cardboard construction.

Students collaborating and helping each other with cardboard construction.

Our emotions exploration led to a second project in which each student created a three-dimensional cardboard toolbox or fabric toolbag, in which to put physical tools that they also created. I The materials I provided were cardboard, masking tape, glue guns, fabric, fabric markers, paint, and other art materials.  This was an open-ended project. Students used their design and construction skills to build and make what they wanted to create. I started to see my students really owning and enjoying the maker process. They were excited about creating. There was a productive hum in the room. Collaborations developed and students who didn’t always get along were choosing to work together. Students were engaged, persevering with the difficult tasks of construction and sewing -- using materials to create their personal visions.  They were sharing ideas and even making toolbox gifts for others. 

Collaborations developed and students who didn’t always get along were choosing to work together. Students were engaged, persevering with the difficult tasks of construction and sewing — using materials to create their personal visions.
A student’s tool box with an Empathy Tool.

A student’s tool box with an Empathy Tool.

We then had discussions about the TOOLBOX Tools that we could make to go inside our toolboxes and toolbags. For example, some students created stuffed hearts to hold and remind them of the Empathy Tool.  I saw toolboxes and toolbags that included replicas of the tools, pillows to hold, and pictures. The TOOLBOX Tools have become much more real and meaningful to us through making. 

This project has had a big impact on my class. They love time spent making and creating and ask to do it every day. I’m reminded, again, that students need and deserve art and making-centered learning in school. For my students, art and making is an act of healing and critical to their emotional well-being. It is helping them to feel creative and calm. This is only just the beginning of a much longer process of building resilience.

Liz Cruger’s documentation booth at Agency  by  Design Oakland’s culminating event on May 4, 2019.

Liz Cruger’s documentation booth at Agency by Design Oakland’s culminating event on May 4, 2019.

“Maker-centered learning invites people to be creative within a huge array of disciplines. It is an invitation to express yourself, find your voice, work with others, teach, learn, fix things, transform materials, think, reflect, problem solve, look closely, collaborate, persevere, and often have fun. For young people it is often very empowering, which makes it important. It can help shape identity..."I am a Maker". This empowerment, capacity to be creative and problem solve is a perspective that can guide a person through life.”

Liz is from Detroit, and feels lucky to be from a Maker family...her dad is a found object artist and automobile clay modeler and her mom creates quilts and pottery. Liz studied Theater and Interdisciplinary Arts in Chicago, working as a waitress, actress, director and writer. Liz is currently part of the Collaborator Staff at Brightworks, a K-12 learning community in San Francisco, CA. During her time as an Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow, Liz was the 2nd/3rd Grade Inclusion Teacher at EnCompass Academy in Oakland, CA.

Letting Go of Power: Who is the Teacher?

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AN IGNITE TALK BY 2018-2019 AGENCY BY DESIGN OAKLAND TEACHER FELLOW FATIMAH SALAHUDDIN

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At the time of her ignite talk, Fatimah Salahuddin was an Ethnic Studies Teacher at Roots International Academy, which closed its doors in June 2019. “After attending several draining board meetings in January that led up to the closing of my school and going on strike a month later,” shares Fatimah, “I was completely and utterly exhausted, and in many ways broken.” In this powerful talk, Fatimah shares how she shifted power to her students during this difficult time by redirecting authority and helping students build agency by being the teacher.

“I [asked my students] in a reflection — ‘How has being the teacher helped you build empathy?’ And some students told me ‘It taught me to care and stay paying attention.’ Or another student — ‘I know how teachers feel when we rude.’ […] by letting go of power, it empowers our students.”

Watch Fatimah’s inspiring Ignite Talk below! And follow the #pictureofpractice hashtag to see more Ignite Talks and leadership from our 2018-2019 Teacher Fellows. To learn more about Agency by Design Oakland’s work supporting teachers during the 2019 Oakland strike, read our blog posts Post Strike Reflections: Why Systems Thinking Matters and Making as an Act of Healing.

“Maker-centered learning is important, particularly in the context of Ethnic Studies, because it can empower my students to challenge the very social structures and systems that have been created without them in mind.”

Fatimah Salahuddin is a Bay Area native and a long time community organizer and educator. Before her current position as an English Teacher at Fremont High School, she was an Ethnic Studies teacher at Roots International Academy. She recently received her graduate degree in Education from Mills College, where she also earned her bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies (‘14).

Imagine If... We Lived in a More Inclusive World

Agency  by  Design Oakland Teacher Fellow, Crystal Barajas Barr, and students from the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) host a professional development training for teachers at Urban Promise Academy.

Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow, Crystal Barajas Barr, and students from the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) host a professional development training for teachers at Urban Promise Academy.

A PICTURE OF PRACTICE BY 2018-2019 AGENCY BY DESIGN OAKLAND TEACHER FELLOW CRYSTAL BARAJAS BARR

Urban Promise Academy is a full-service community school located in the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, CA. The student population is 79% Latinx, 10% Black, 7% Asian, 3% White, and 1% Mixed.

When you ask young people to imagine a different reality, one that is more beautiful and inclusive, you are asking them to dream a new world into existence. Imagination is a first step to calling in change, and the Agency by Design Imagine If... thinking routine is a courageous step towards acknowledging what isn’t working, in order to name what needs to shift.

I chose to focus my Agency by Design Oakland fellowship research on the following inquiry question:

How can thinking routines like ‘Imagine If...’ and ‘Think, Feel, Care’ help shift school culture to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive?

These two Agency by Design thinking routines fit well within a student club like the Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) because both work to support student voice and student-led spaces in a school environment. The GSA is a group for LGBTQ+ students and allies to build community with each other and to share information through educating their peers, teachers, and staff. As the GSA liaison and a member of the queer community, I’ve heard students’ complaints about the lack of support from peers and adults in general. Students have expressed that they have never heard teachers mention anything about LGBTQ+ people and issues in school and have therefore internalized the idea that it is taboo to talk about.

Using the Imagine If... thinking strategy, students in the GSA generated ideas for what change might look like at our school. What would an LGBTQ+ inclusive school look like? What would students learn about in class? Many students were engaged in the thinking exercise and also expressed a concern that things would not really change. This is often a frustration expressed by students: why imagine that things could be different if the people in power are not going to listen and make change happen?

An important piece of the work of the GSA this year was inviting a former student, who is currently a senior in high school, to participate in facilitating and mentoring youth in the GSA. Gabriel, who identifies as a gay trans man, has been integral in supporting other trans youth at UPA and in shaping the teacher PD. The community building that has been happening in our GSA has been nothing short of inspiring and nourishing.

Our focus this year was to move beyond the confines of the club into shaping the overall school culture to be more inclusive. A good way to effect change more quickly is to have youth involved in shifting the ways teachers think about and understand issues facing LGBTQ+ youth in schools. Tierre Mesa, our Assistant Principal at the time and now our Principal, is a staunch ally, and made space in our PD calendar for our staff to receive some training around supporting LGBTQ+ students in our school.

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During this time the GSA students and I were able to introduce the Think, Feel, Care thinking routine and walk teachers through scenarios that featured common experiences facing LGBTQ+ and questioning youth in schools. The Think, Feel, Care thinking strategy encouraged staff to put themselves in the shoes of our LGBTQ+ students, in order to build empathy for their experience within our school. GSA youth were also present at the PD and helped introduce and close the training. This was the first time that youth have participated in a PD, where they were the teachers, and the GSA youth felt empowered from this experience. The staff was open and curious, asking many questions. Over 80% of staff at the PD reported an increase in knowledge of LGBTQ+ terms, and many considered the Think, Feel, Care exercise with the scenarios helpful for thinking through what they might do in a similar situation.

Throughout my time with the GSA this year I was humbled by the wisdom of youth, the insights our young people have, and their ability to educate others.
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Imagine If... is a great way to: 

  • Start having conversations about how we wish things were and get people excited about what could be;

  • Consider what is not happening at this time;

  • Generate excellent ideas, some of which we will be able to implement;

  • Creates positive connections to an idea, system, or project.

With the support of our amazing GSA Youth and staff, we will continue to shape curriculum and educate other students about issues that affect our LGBTQ+ communities, as well as contributions by LGBTQ+ people. We are considering other Agency by Design tools to deepen our thinking — we have now begun using the Parts, People, and Interactions thinking strategy as a tool to further analyze our school system so that we’re better able to understand how we can effect change. The GSA youth plan to host trainings on how to be more supportive of LGBTQ+ students, that will focus on educating other students. Val, our amazing Ameri-Corps Health Educator, also has been an important part of our GSA by bringing Somos Familia to UPA to support our trans youth and their families during the coming out process, as well as presenting LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed to our students.

To read more from Crystal, check out Ancestral Tech and Making, her Picture of Practice from her first year as an Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow.

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"Maker-centered learning is student centered, offers multiple entry points to the content for our diverse learnings, encourages creativity and communication, and is particularly engaging for students (and teachers!)"

Crystal Barajas Barr is the Art and Making teacher at Urban Promise Academy. She is a queer Xicana interested in bringing a decolonized framework to her curriculum. She studies herbalism and is currently learning how to sail as a way to connect with Mother Nature.

The Evolution of Reflection: Finding Opportunity for Student Voice Using the Problem Solving Process

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A PICTURE OF PRACTICE BY 2018-2019 AGENCY BY DESIGN OAKLAND TEACHER FELLOW chantel parnell

Chantel Parnell is a Computer Science Teacher at Bret Harte Middle School, which serves a diverse 600-student population in the Laurel/Dimond neighborhood in Oakland, CA. Their student body is 35% African American, 30% Latino, 15% Asian, 10% White, 3% Filipino, and 2% Pacific Islander.

During our first Agency by Design Oakland fellowship meeting, I asked myself the following questions, “What do I value in my computer science classroom?” and “How will I get my students to give more detailed responses to prompts?” I knew I wanted my students to value the process of creating over their final product, but now I wondered how I was going to get my students to do just that. 

Problem Solving Process with Empathy  graphic from “ CS Discoveries 2019-2020 ” curriculum (resources available at  code.org ).

Problem Solving Process with Empathy graphic from “CS Discoveries 2019-2020” curriculum (resources available at code.org).

The first unit in the Computer Science curriculum provided by code.org is devoted to students learning about the problem solving process through a series of puzzles, challenges, and real world scenarios. However, once you get into the rest of the units, the problem solving process is only mentioned in the teacher lesson plans and not explicitly laid out in the student-facing documents. 

Initially my inquiry was centered around students finding opportunities to refine their work using the problem solving process and students giving meaningful, helpful and deliberate feedback to support their peers in refining their work. My first attempt at tackling this inquiry was during our second unit on Web Development. I had students fill out a rubric at the beginning of our project, where they self-identified two targets they wanted to focus on and then I provided a class target.

Student rubric from Unit 2: Web Development.

Student rubric from Unit 2: Web Development.

At the end of the project they were supposed to revisit the rubric and grade themselves. In my mind I had identified four targets that I wanted students to focus on: Asking Questions, Effort, Supporting Others and Making a Plan, so instead of them revisiting their rubric, I created a Google Form that included the four targets, and language from what students had identified for each of the following categories: advanced, solid and needs work. 

 After looking at results of the Google Form I noticed that some students were putting in more effort to complete their projects, but some were still not getting their work done because they did not make a plan, ask enough questions, or seek help from their classmates or other resources. So I decided to unpack my original goal of having students value the process of creating over their final product a little bit more, by exploring the following inquiry question: “How can I find opportunities for student voice using the problem solving process?” 

During the third unit on Games and Animations I began to tinker with the student handout. For each project, the student handout followed the same structure: DEFINE (our goal for the project), PREPARE (space for students to sketch their ideas), TRY (the code needed), REFLECT (various prompts) and some notes from the lesson on the back of the handout.

While I did notice students putting more effort into completing their sketches and trying to recreate their sketch into a digital design, I was not completely satisfied with their responses in the REFLECT section. And so it began, with every new project, students were getting a revised prompt in hopes that it would elicit the type of response I was looking for. My prompts included: 

  • What type of advice would you share with a friend completing a similar project to make it easier for them?

  • What is one risk you are going to take in this unit?

  • As we define, plan, try and reflect on more projects, why do you think persistence is important?

  • After planning and creating in this unit, what are you most proud of?

  • What has been the most challenging part in Unit 3?

  • Describe a risk you took during this project.

In the last couple of projects for the unit, I stuck with the same prompt:

  • After completing this project, what type of technical advice would you share with a friend who was going to create a similar project, to make it easier for them? Think about the new code you learned in this lesson and explain how the new code works.

I landed on the prompt above after reminding myself that I wanted to focus on students being able to value the process of creating over their final product and to do that they should be able to articulate the new skills they learned, as well as identifying which mindsets enabled them to finish their projects. Before starting unit 4 and tinkering with the prompt yet again, I decided to ask students, “Why do you think there is a REFLECT section for each project we work on?” to see if my idea of why I have students REFLECT were aligned with what the students thought. Here are some of their responses: 

“I think there is a REFLECT section for each project because we could see what we're proud with and what we might change in the future.”

“I think there is a REFLECT section for each project because it reminds the student of what they've learned and went over with the lesson/project.”

“I think there is a REFLECT section because Ms. Parnell can give examples for the next period so they know what to do”

“I think there is a REFLECT section for each project because it could give advice to other people and when you are struggling the teacher will know what you struggle with and they may be able to help you.”

After reading through all the students responses and looking back at the many iterations of the student handout, I realized that my students could articulate the purpose of the REFLECT section, but students were not giving detailed responses to the prompts because I had not really modeled what exemplar responses looked like. 

I remember sitting in a meeting and hearing, “experiences shift mindsets, mindsets deepen experiences,” so it was not about tinkering with the tool, but about deepening students’ understanding of how to use the tool and reflect meaningfully. My students’ reflections helped me realize that I needed to create the space for them to practice what I was expecting from them and that in turn would improve how they engaged with each section of the student handout. As I start to think about next school year I believe I have a strong template that I can use to get students to value the process of creating over their final product and to reflect meaningfully by using the problem solving process. I also plan to devote time to allow for co-creations of exemplar responses for each section of the handout to ensure that students shift from a “jump right in without a plan” mindset to a “design thinking” mindset.

Chantel Parnell’s final template that gets students at Bret Harte Middle School to value the  process  instead of the final product (above), and her documentation board showing the multiple iterations of this reflection (below).

Chantel Parnell’s final template that gets students at Bret Harte Middle School to value the process instead of the final product (above), and her documentation board showing the multiple iterations of this reflection (below).

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“Maker-centered learning is important because it helps to empower young people and adults to be curious about their world and to see themselves as agents of change.”

Chantel Parnell is a Computer Science teacher at Bret Harte Middle School and at Girls Who Code. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in Mathematics with a minor in Education. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she moved to the Bay Area in 2011.