Designing for Student Choice and Voice


Tasha Pura is formerly a Making, Art and Design Teacher at LODESTAR, a Lighthouse Community Public Charter School in East Oakland, CA.


Many of us might remember reading an explanation of the water cycle in a book at some point during our early education. Maybe, if we were lucky, we even watched some videos or saw a part of it in action (i.e., the classic evaporation demonstration - now you see the water, now you don’t!). 

But how about embodying and acting out the whole system theatrically? Or breaking the water cycle system apart for ourselves? How about imagining and designing what it would look like as a 3D model?

During the 2018 - 2019 school year the third graders at Lodestar went on a journey with me to examine the water cycle as a system, comprised of interconnected parts and processes, each with distinct purposes. In addition to building our skills around systems thinking, we also explored ways to maximize student choice and voice along the way. 

In every lesson during this water cycle unit, I asked myself where could there be more student choice and voice? These questions fell into four areas: 

  1. Content - What ideas and concepts will my students grapple with?

  2. Product - How will my students’ final work express their authentic voice and creative ideas? 

  3. Process - How might my students decide which steps and strategies to use while creating their products?

  4. Learning Environment - How and when will students collaborate? Where in the physical learning space might they decide to work?

Students from LODESTAR acting out the water cycle.

Students from LODESTAR acting out the water cycle.

As a result of this extended inquiry, students explored the water cycle using multiple lenses and multiple modalities. Yes, they read and watched videos, and they also co-constructed a simulation of the water cycle by building a mini-ecosystem. They acted out the water cycle with a choice of whether to use props, motion, and sound. They also used the Agency by Design thinking routine Parts, Purposes, Complexities to analyze a chosen image of the water cycle. 

LODESTAR students collaborating on their water cycle diorama project.

LODESTAR students collaborating on their water cycle diorama project.

A big part of our journey, however, was spent designing dioramas to show their understanding of the water cycle. Students could choose to work alone or with others, what materials they would use, and how they would visually represent the key parts of the system, as well as the system’s interactions and complexities. They chose which parts would be interactive and which parts would be three-dimensional. Some students had clear themes: like the water cycle during the age of dinosaurs, or the water cycle in winter. Some students focused on painting beautiful landscapes while others worked meticulously on molding detailed figures.

A diorama made by LODESTAR students showing the water cycle during the age of the dinosaurs.

A diorama made by LODESTAR students showing the water cycle during the age of the dinosaurs.

Perhaps the greatest expression of student choice and voice was in their environmental justice connections. A pair of students invented a “Social Justice Clean-Up Boat,” which depicted play-doh people going out to sea to collect trash. Another team built a “Waterworks Wall” that filters and provides clean water for their city. Another team created an interactive before-and-after feature into their diorama, showing a polluted water scene that changes into a clean water scene. 

A student group’s final diorama with a key that explains the water cycle’s parts and purposes.

A student group’s final diorama with a key that explains the water cycle’s parts and purposes.

My biggest takeaway was learning that I did not have to show students a finished product at the beginning of a design project. This went against years of professional learning around the best practice of presenting a teacher-created or teacher-found model or exemplar. While I still do believe in showing students models so that they can have a clear vision of high-quality work and the criteria to get there, I now feel like there is a way to be more strategic and flexible about this. For example, I focused more on making sense of the criteria for a strong diorama with my students rather than putting a finished product in front of them. This allowed students to co-create a multi-faceted vision of success with me, rather than imitate a single vision of success put in front of them.  

I also worked on my own diorama in stages, alongside my students. At the beginning or end of each lesson, I would unveil my latest progress and ask for students to give me feedback, and asked them for their ideas as to how I could move forward. I would try to either stay one step ahead or one step behind them, depending on how much guidance they might need. For example, during one of these feedback sessions, I waited for my students to suggest/design a way to show a cloud raining or sun emitting heat, which encouraged them to inspire each other rather than look to me for ideas. 

As a result of these teaching moves and the opportunities for student choice built into these learning experiences, my students discovered that not only could they design a product that shows accurate parts of a system interacting in a beautiful and ethical way — they could create a product that is truly authentic to them.


“We learn our most powerful lessons by creating meaning ourselves. I believe maker-centered learning is when we explore ideas through all our senses, while thinking critically as we do so, to reach deeper understanding.”

Tasha Pura is formerly the 3rd/4th Grade Making, Art and Design Teacher at LODESTAR, a position that allowed her to bridge her experience facilitating rigorous, multidisciplinary and project-based learning with her personal passions in visual arts, photography, and design. After engaging in community activism and international development, she has dedicated the last 10+ years to promoting educational equity in the Bay Area, from both within and outside the classroom. Since receiving her Masters in Education from Stanford in 2011, she has been an early elementary teacher serving children and families in East Oakland. Her passion is to design innovative and holistic approaches that will bolster college, career and life readiness.

Teaching is a Political Act


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.


“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.


“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


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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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.


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.


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.

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.


"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.