Creativity and Empowerment at Lighthouse Community Public Schools

“At Lighthouse, we really think that maker-centered learning supports our students in making their dreams a reality, and in thinking about solutions to problems for themselves and their communities. And then when they enact those solutions- it’s really empowering”
-Aaron Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab Director, Lighthouse Community Public Schools

The Lighthouse Creativity Lab works with teachers to give students more opportunities to make and tinker. The Creativity Lab hosts an annual school maker faire where students in elementary, middle, and high school present projects that they have worked on over the course of the school year. The maker faire functions as a deadline for students to aim for when working on their project and a chance to share a prototype of something they have created, or try out an activity with their community. Lighthouse started their school maker faire as a high school prototype fair and quickly learned that the event increased teacher interest in making across campus; it was a major driver in growing the Creativity Lab’s maker-centered learning program from being solely based in the high school to being a K-12 program.

“In making class you can express yourself. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t hard- it was just.. right. And it hit me that this was going to impact my life in some way.” -Sarah, Student at Lighthouse Community Public Schools

In addition to regular maker-centered learning activities, the Lighthouse Creativity Lab hosts Designing Making Experiences, which provides intensive professional development educators eager to integrate making-centered learning into their own practice. Participants in the program learn about ways making can be integrated into classrooms, schools and curricula, collaborate with participants and Creativity Lab staff to plan a project or unit for your classroom or school, and learn new skills and methods to complement their project plans. Two day workshop intensives will next be offered in February 2018.

“Maker-centered learning supports a deeper conceptual understanding, so we really appreciate the power of maker-centered learning and hands-on learning when it comes to understanding mathematical ideas, or a scientific idea, or understanding civics and how the world around us works.” -Aaron Vanderwerff, Creativity Lab Director, Lighthouse Community Public Schools


Lighthouse Community Public Schools are located in Oakland, California and include two contiguous schools- Lighthouse Community Charter School and Lodestar. The schools serve elementary, middle, and high school students.

Agency by Design Oakland Culmination May 2017

On May 24, 2017 Agency by Design Oakland concluded a one year fellowship with a group of amazing educators. We celebrated at Chapter 510 in downtown Oakland, reconvening in the location where we began the fellowship the year before.

The event welcomed teachers, community members and students. Teacher fellows showcased artifacts, visual documentation, and videos from the inquiry work they completed over the year. Researchers from Project Zero at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education described the research process that coincided with the year and drove the inquiries that educators were trying out in their classrooms. The overarching research questions for the 2016-2017 year were:

  • How can learners make visible their ability to look closely, explore complexity, and find opportunity?

  • How can teachers qualitatively measure students’ performance within the realm of these three core maker capacities?

  • How can we collaborate with students and teachers to design a suite of practical documentation and assessment tools best suited to the development of maker empowerment?

During the event two fellows, Kennan Scott and Robbie Torney, presented Ignite Talks to give the crowd a snapshot of the leadership and work they’ve engaged in at their schools.

Kennan Scott, Engineering and Computer Science Teacher at West Oakland Middle School, presented on making computer science relevant in the hood. Kennan walked the crowd through the lack of diversity in the tech industry and described how he is empowering his students to see themselves in tech leadership roles. Kennan is also in the process of designing a new Oakland school, Coded Academy, which would focus on coding throughout the content areas.

Robbie Torney, Assistant Principal at Lodestar, a Lighthouse Community School, presented his ideas around redesigning schools to create more equitable education. He posed the question: What would school look like if it were built around agency and belonging?

You’re invited to this year’s culmination event, which will take place in the morning of Saturday, May 5th, 2018, location TBD. The current 2017-2018 Agency by Design Oakland fellows have created their own inquiry questions spanning leadership, assessment, curriculum integration, and more.  

Hands-On Empowerment at Oakland International High School

“The idea is that your voice can be heard. You can develop this skill that engages the community, but also there’s a final product that everyone can enjoy.”
-Mallory Moser, Computer Graphics Teacher and Media Academy Director, Oakland International High School

At Oakland International High School, which serves 100% newcomers, regular classes come to a close late May, leaving the last three weeks of the year to Post Session, where students enroll in one physical education or art based class. In 2017 OIHS received a Maker Empowerment Grant from the Abundance Foundation, which allowed for the creation of several multiple maker-centered learning classes, including Careers In Computing, Biking, Mural and Mosaics, and Bag Design.

In Careers In Computing students used Makey Makeys, Arduinos, and Rasberry Pis to get hands-on with computer coding. This was the first time these technologies were introduced at OIHS and at first students were confused, but the physical computing aspect of these technologies soon got them excited and engaged.

“I realized that our students don’t have enough opportunities to get their hands on different kinds of technology, and to not just use them but to write their own programs and think about themselves as agents.”
-Courtney Couvreur, Math Teacher, Oakland International High School

The Biking post session focused on ridership and bike maintenance. Students learned how to ride and repair a bike, enabling their own empowerment in a mode of transportation that they may be familiar with or altogether new. For many students it was their first time using tools, and taking apart a familiar object. As Math Teacher David Hansen described, “I think for some students using tools isn’t a new idea, and they’ve done it before. But for other students, a lot of them in fact, this is the first time they’ve used tools to take something apart and to put something back together. I think that basic skill and confidence is hugely important for a lot of different things.”

Students in the Mural and Mosaics session collaborated and created a permanent public artwork on campus. By learning and utilizing the design process, students learned how to work together, how to implement symbols in artwork, and learn the technical skill of making a mosaic. Students chose to represent butterflies in the mural to symbolize immigration. Alexis Calderon, a 10th grader, described the symbol: “We made butterflies because we think that they represent immigration because butterflies fly together to different countries. That’s the same as us, we came from different countries to this country.”

In the Bag Design class students took bags apart to see how they were made and learned to create multiple styles before designing their own final project. They learned different design techniques, how to hand sew, and how to use a sewing machine. As with all classes at OIHS the curriculum in this post session emphasized language development, with a specific emphasis on vocabulary and verb usage. But the biggest takeaway was being a productive maker. Says the Art Teacher, Sara Stillman, “My students have learned that it’s super easy to make something that they can use, which I think is super empowering.”  


Oakland International High School is a public high school in Oakland, California, that serves predominantly newly arrived immigrant students from approximately 30 different countries. The school relies on public funding, foundations and community support to keep their work going. With today's political climate and funding shortages, they need your support more than ever before.  Here's how you can help:

Donate: Funds enable us to do the work that we do. All donations are tax-deductible. Donate here.

Buy an OIHS Sweatshirt: The perfect gift to keep you warm and wear with pride. All funds go to buy much-needed bus passes for OIHS students.

Support an OIHS Teacher: Our teachers have listed project and supply needs on Donors Choose. All donations made will be matched during the week of December 8!

Volunteer: Can't give financially, but want to support us with your time? We are always looking for more volunteers! Check out our volunteer opportunities here.


Assessment in a Technology and Design classroom, at Wood Middle School

“I just love the jist of building stuff, and the think, make, and improve process where you have to brainstorm, build, think, and re-design. And it was just satisfying, looking at what I built.”
-Student, Wood Middle School

Sixth grade students in Ngà Nguyêñ’s Technology and Design class are supported with multiple assessment structures that promote reflection and agency. At the core of the class are engaging hands-on projects, like the assignment to build a rocket—in two weeks—that flies over 50 feet. These projects build in other content area skills, too, particularly math. “Everything we do is just a trick to get them to learn how to measure,” says Ngà. To successfully make a rocket students had to go through an iterative process of drafting, building, testing, re-design, and another round of testing. But it’s the additional assessment structures that Ngà has been experimenting with these days that are pushing his practice.

Ngà has collaborated with an on-site colleague and arts integration coach, Lindsey Shepard, to develop a student-centered reflection. At the end of the rocket project mentioned above, students create an artist statement, or “Designer Statement,” in which they choose a Studio Habit of Mind as a lens to reflect on their process. The Studio Habits of Mind is part of a framework developed by the research institute, Project Zero, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Similar to the Agency by Design research project, the Studio Think Framework was developing in collaboration with Bay Area educators, and outlines eight habits visibly evident in the art studio. Wood Middle School has introduced these habits school wide, using them as a tool to invest in arts integration across content areas. In Ngà’s class, the designer statements over time turn into portfolios, an authentic assessment tool used by real world professionals.  

“Engage and Persist is one of our Studio Habits of Mind. You just have to persist on what you’re doing. You’re always gonna fail, that’s just the path to success. Failure is not bad. You have to learn from your mistakes and not avoid them.”
-Student, Wood Middle School

Ngà also joined the Agency by Design Oakland fellowship in 2016, which further pushed his thinking around assessment for maker-centered learning in his classroom. In particular, Ngà was interested in having the students develop more agency in the assessment process, and wanted to create a daily structure that would support students’ work. Ultimately he developed a system of goal setting and reflection, where students would reflect on their own learning process and goals, hopefully making kids accountable to themselves. Specifically he hoped to pass on to students a disposition of always wanted to get better, always looking for something to improve on. He says, “[It’s about] always looking for that motion to move forward. Perfection never happens.” -Tinkering and Making Facilitator Ngà Nguyêñ

The routine goes like this: when students enter the class they pull out a worksheet and quickly begin looking a small white board near the door, where Ngà has listed the class agenda for the day. On their worksheet students respond to the questions, “What’s the day’s agenda? and What’s your goal?” Then, at the end of the class period, students spend time following up on the agenda and goal, responding to the questions, “What did you learn? What do you wonder about what you made today? How did the day go?” This process is reviewed at the end of each week with a 1-5 rating and a longer reflection. Ngà’s system and questions appear simple, but he believes that by making it a routine it will become a habit for his learners to be in control of their own learning.

Wood Middle School enrolls 6th, 7th, and 8th graders and is part of the Alameda Unified School District in Alameda, California.

Wonder and Making at Alliance Academy of Integrated Learning

“The more we make in school, the more it just becomes commonplace.”
-Alia Ghabra, 6th Grade Humanities and History Teacher, Alliance Academy of Integrated Learning

A’aron Heard and Alia Ghabra, collaborating teachers at Alliance Academy of Integrated Learning, wanted to incorporate art, design, and critical thinking into their ELA and Humanities lessons. Both were fellows in the Agency by Design Oakland 2016 - 2017 cohort, as well as participants in a School Transformation through the Arts grant, supported by the Integrated Learning Specialist Program. They decided that since Wednesdays were a minimum day—when class periods are so short teachers don’t often plan much—to experiment with this idea of ‘Wonder Wednesdays.’  The activities on Wonder Wednesdays spanned art making techniques such as drawing, watercolor, and sculpture, transforming what is often a dull class period into an engaging opportunity for both teachers and students to experiment.

“Knowing that we’re going to have a whole day to do art—the kids look forward to it. They come in on Wednesdays and are like ‘Art Wednesdays!’ That’s been great because it has made us think about when we are going to do art for each lesson.”
-Alia Ghabra, 6th Grade Humanities and History Teacher, Alliance Academy of Integrated Learning

These hands-on activities were also designed to connect to the lessons and objectives in their academic classes. For example, as part of a Humanities unit on the novel Dragonwings, about a young Chinese immigrant boy who comes to San Francisco in the early twentieth century and meets his father, a kite maker, the students made their own kites. As a way to develop a sensitivity to how kites are designed and constructed students were first asked to look closely at store bought kites. They used the Agency by Design thinking routine “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” to think about how they were built, what parts were they made of, and how they work. From there students did research and created diagrams about kites they would make themselves. Design thinking was emphasized throughout the process, enabling students to come up with their own idea, prototype it, identify where their successes and failures were, and then redesign.

“It’s really about—How can students navigate challenges, uncertainty, and ambiguity? Everything that we’ve been doing this year around systems thinking and maker capacities [in the Agency by Design Oakland fellowship], and really giving [the students] a project where it was up to them and their peers to think critically, problem solve, and be creative in the process.”
-A'aron Heard, 6th Grade Humanities Core Teacher, Alliance Academy of Integrated Learning

Alliance Academy of Integrated Learning is a Title I public middle school located in Oakland, California. The school serves predominantly Latino and African American students with a large population of English Language Learners.

This year Alliance has three teachers in the Agency by Design Oakland fellowship, including A’aron Heard, who has moved into a role teaching Drama. In addition, Alliance has hired an Arts Integration Specialist, Gretchen Baglyos, and Elyse Hatschek joins the cohort as an English and
Humanities teacher at Alliance.

Maker-Centered Learning at Grass Valley Elementary School

“Maker-centered learning means that there’s choice, freedom for students to explore what they’re really interested in, to develop a passion for something, to really get engaged and light up their minds.”
Paula Mitchell, Teacher on Special Assignment for Maker Ed and Blended Learning
Grass Valley Elementary School

In the fall of 2014 Grass Valley teacher Paula Mitchell attended the conference: Project Zero Perspectives: Making, Thinking, and Understanding, in San Francisco. When she returned back to her classroom she brought new ideas, thinking routines, and making. Her principal at the time, Dr. Brandee Stewart, recognized that she was onto something: “I’ve always been on the search for this engaging culturally relevant way of engaging kids. And when I went into Paula’s classroom and saw and heard what she was talking about around maker education...I felt like this was the missing piece throughout my career.” 

Since then, in order to create a sense of agency and empowerment in their learners, Grass Valley has made the shift to maker-centered learning, placing it at the center of the school curriculum and culture. With the guidance of Paula Mitchell, who was hired as a Teacher on Special Assignment with Project Based Learning & Maker Education, the school prioritized hands-on experiences, with the goal of getting students excited and empowered about learning. 

“What can kids notice about their place in the world? And then how can they push against that? And how can they demand more for themselves?”
Roxanne Martinez, Resource Specialist, Grass Valley Elementary School

The overall shift toward maker-centered learning was implemented by first creating a long term vision then adjusting resources and schedules along the way to support that vision. Cohorts of teachers were created to collaborate on maker projects and share strategies within their Professional Learning Communities. Teachers in both special and general education collaborate alongside each other to share approaches and ideas, ensuring that the special education curriculum mirrors that of the general student population. 

“Students who traditionally may not show up as the successful student can actually exhibit a set of skills and knowledge and talents that often surpass students in general education classes.”
Dr. Brandee Stewart, Principal, Grass Valley Elementary School

In September 2016 the school opened their maker space, called the "Wonder Workshop," a classroom dedicated to maker-centered learning during the school day. This space has also served as a space for teacher collaboration, family making night events, and professional development workshops. 

The success of the maker-centered learning program at Grass Valley Elementary is due to collaborations across multiple individuals and organizations. Within the school, Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, provide dedicated weekly meeting time for teachers to come together and share curriculum ideas and professional development tools. In addition to the PLCs, community partners such as Agency by Design have and continue to play a key role in providing professional development, support, supplies, and funding along the way. Not only did Grass Valley teachers Paula Mitchell and Diana Culmer participate in the 2016 - 2017 Agency by Design Oakland fellowship, they, along with two other colleagues, took the online Agency by Design course Thinking and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom, which was funded by a grant from the Light Awards. In addition, Grass Valley has partnered with Maker Ed to receive Maker Vistas, and has collaborated with numerous community makers. 

Three times during the course of the 2016-2017 school year teachers brought their students together to share and celebrate their learning. The year-long curriculum focus on Health and Wellness was centered on these driving questions: 

  • How can we as students take control of our food sources?
  • How can we, as food scientists, investigate ways to interact with food?
  • How do we share our knowledge of health and wellness with others by producing, packaging, and marketing a product for a farmer’s market?

In Expo One students demonstrated what they were learning through visualizations of healthy food, maps of local food sources, and planter boxes they had built for seedling vegetable plants. In Expo Two students became food scientists, which was visible in their re-constructions of the human digestion system, cookbooks with their own recipes, and a variety of food offerings they had made. In Expo Three, the culminating event of the year, students produced a farmer’s market, showcasing products they had made, packaged, and marketed themselves. 

Grass Valley teachers’ energy and dedication to pursue maker-centered learning continues to grow. This year there were seven Grass Valley applicants to the 2017 - 2018 Agency by Design Oakland fellowship! We are excited to announce that Monique Parish and Roxy Martinez will be joining us this year, and Paula Mitchell will be joining the Agency by Design Oakland coaching team as a Senior Fellow.

Lastly, we celebrate and appreciate the leadership of the Grass Valley educators! Three years after Paula Mitchell attended the Project Zero Perspectives conference in SF, she and and Diana Culmer share what they’ve learned through a workshop of their own, “Authentic Inclusion and Hands-on Engagement,” at the May 2017 Project Zero Perspectives Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. 


Grass Valley is a small elementary school in the Oakland Unified Public School District serving just under 300 students, mostly students of color, in kindergarten through fifth grade. Over 70% of the student population is socioeconomically disadvantaged, 25% is served by the special education program and approximately 17% of the students are classified as English language learners. 

“Book knowledge is just one piece of a larger education. What you learn must be applied in your everyday life. They’re the next scientists, they’re the next inventors, they’re the next presidents. And all of that starts here.”
Dr. Brandee Stewart, Principal, Grass Valley Elementary School