Making As an Act of Healing

Written by Nico Chen, Program Coordinator, Agency by Design Oakland

When our teacher fellows came back together in March the Oakland teacher strike was still looming largely in our minds. While our professional development curricula often focuses on critical thinking, content knowledge and instilling agency in our school communities, we are reminded during this crucial time to repair our educator community through joy and creativity. We asked, “how do we, as an educator community focused on maker-centered learning, begin to heal, remain resilient, and find the agency to rebuild our seemingly broken systems?”

Dr. Shawn Ginwright’s recent talk at OUSD Office of Equity’s Culturally Responsive Practice Series reminds us that while educators should remain student-centered, we must also attend to our own socio-emotional well-being — especially during this post-strike period where our systems are still rebuilding. “Adult providers need healing too!” Ginwright writes in his article The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement. “Healing centered engagement requires that we consider how to support adult providers in sustaining their own healing and well-being.”

When we reconvened with our teacher fellows for a daylong meeting of teacher inquiry, we started by facilitating a restorative healing activity: making mindful nature mandalas. This arts-integrated practice is not new — we learned it in the Integrated Learning Specialist Program, from Jessa Brie Moreno of Studio Pathways, who learned it from Dr. Monique LeSarre of Rafiki Wellness and the California Institute of Integral Studies.

“You’re doing a phenomenal job at creating a safe space for us,” says Jane Lee, Instructional Coach at Roots International Academy, a school facing closure at the end of this 2018-2019 school year. “Even starting with a mandala…[it made me think about] how many people in the US actually even know what a mandala is—versus thinking it’s stupid?”

Agency  by  Design Oakland Fellows participate in nature mindful mandalas as a restorative community healing activity before and during their teacher inquiry during a March daylong meeting.

Agency by Design Oakland Fellows participate in nature mindful mandalas as a restorative community healing activity before and during their teacher inquiry during a March daylong meeting.

While much of our March daylong focused on the intellectual heavy-lifting of teacher action research, we returned to the joys of making in our midday design challenge. Using the prompt “make something that balances on your head that shows where you are with your inquiry,” our teacher fellows synthesized their inquiry-in-process through structural headpieces.

Seeing our fellows’ joys in their creations, we also return to Ginwright’s healing centered engagement. He writes, “we know very little about the systems of support required to restore and sustain well-being for adults. Healing centered engagement has an explicit focus on restoring, and sustaining the adults who attempt to heal youth — a healing the healers approach.” While there is not much “data” on what systems of support are required to restore and sustain well-being for adults, Agency by Design Oakland aspires to be a system of support for our community of Oakland educators.

As we continue forth with our teacher fellowship, we are continually reminded of the importance of Ginwright’s healing centered engagement when engaging our educators with maker-centered learning. One major affordance of maker-centered learning is all the joy and creativity that emerges from students and teachers alike, and it remains an integral part of our mission. Says Julia Cheng, Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow, “One thing I enjoy in this professional development is that it goes deeper than content. It allows us to explore our deeper pedagogical approaches to why we teach, and that’s humanizing.”

As we near the end of this year’s fellowship calendar, we invite you to come see what our teacher fellows have been innovating at our upcoming culminating event (see details below), and to come share in their joy and creativity.

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Post Strike Reflections: Why Systems Thinking Matters

By Brooke Toczylowski & Paula Mitchell

A year and a half ago, when we established Agency by Design Oakland, we situated ourselves inside the system. This is why both our executive director, Brooke Toczylowski, and our fellowship director, Paula Mitchell—who are “Teachers on Special Assignment” and therefore a part of the union within the Oakland Unified School District—went on strike at the end of February. We went on strike to improve the Oakland educational system by advocating for more in-school supports for students and a respectable wage for teachers. It is a pivotal time for public education in California and the nation. This is a unique moment where we have the opportunity to activate our communities and act on our collective agency to help change inequitable systems.

At Agency by Design Oakland we believe best practices and new ideas thrive on cross-pollination, so we work with district-run schools, innovative charters, and the occasional independent school. But we are especially focused on the teachers and students at district-run schools who have had less access and less flexibility to implement forward-thinking research models. We are committed to investing our resources in developing high-quality, reflective teachers who offer their learners opportunities to understand and remake the world around them. And the strike has provided yet another backdrop to highlight the importance of our work and why our framework—which focuses on developing a sensitivity to the design of objects and systems—is essential for times like these.

It is a pivotal time for public education in California and the nation. This is a unique moment where we have the opportunity to activate our communities and act on our collective agency to help change inequitable systems.

Fellowship Director, Paula Mitchell and Executive Director, Brooke Toczylowski, picketing at Grass Valley Elementary School during the Oakland Education Association’s 7-day strike, from February 21 to March 1, 2019.

Fellowship Director, Paula Mitchell and Executive Director, Brooke Toczylowski, picketing at Grass Valley Elementary School during the Oakland Education Association’s 7-day strike, from February 21 to March 1, 2019.

Knowing the history of an institution and the forces at play is necessary when examining ways to make systemic change. The Oakland Unified School District has had system-wide issues around the equitable distribution of resources for decades. Years of underfunding due to the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 helped contribute to an untenable financial situation that ended in state receivership and a $100 million loan from Sacramento whose shadow still hangs over OUSD. Recent mismanagement at the district level—including gross overspending—put the city’s schools in even greater peril. Soaring housing costs and stagnant wages, meanwhile, have contributed to a teacher retention that is concentrated at the schools with the greatest needs and the most vulnerable learners. When teachers don’t receive the support they need and subsequently leave, these schools and students must figure out a way to deal with almost constant instability.

Paula has been here before; during her second year of full-time teaching in 1996 the union went on strike for 6 weeks. Listen more to her journey and experience with that strike and the current situation on her recent podcast interview with the GR project.

Despite this, we are seeing evidence of agency and empowerment all around us. From the successful United Teachers of Los Angeles strike in January to the powerful, sustained efforts of the Roots International Academy community in advocating for their school to remain open, people are becoming activated in ways that are raising the level of action and demands for our futures. Examining systems in order to find ways to leverage teacher and student empowerment and agency is critical to the mission of Agency by Design Oakland. The strike offered a real-life example of how teachers and students can learn more about the system they’re engaged in every day and figure out how to affect positive change.

A key aspect of the Agency by Design framework, and one that sets it apart from other maker-centered or project-based pedagogies, is its focus on systems. In the run-up to the strike, during a January daylong workshop with our fellows at Frick Middle School, we asked teachers to use the Parts Perspectives Me and Parts People Interactions thinking routines to look closely at a variety of systems, including those connected to the strike. After digging in and identifying the many parts and perspectives connected to their chosen system, participants then found opportunity through an Imagine If… prompt. Instead of building a model, we asked participants to use theater tableaus or skits to demonstrate their understanding of the systems and how they would redesign them, which they presented back to the group.  

Teacher fellows using Agency by Design tools and theater to engage in systems thinking around issues involving the strike.

One group, for example, looked at maps describing the distribution of charter schools and campaign contributions across the city—and ended up talking in depth about resources shared (and not) between charter and district schools. Ultimately, our goal is for educators to bring a systems focus back to their classroom so learners can better understand and remake the world around them. As one teacher reflected, "The best part was the opportunities to participate as student learners as we practiced systems thinking routines because it provided me the chance to think about how these structures could be translated to my computer science classroom."

Now more than ever, understanding systems—how they are designed, how they function, and how they interact with one another—is the key to creating change.

Throughout the strike we saw teachers and students engaging in the system in new ways. But one display of student agency was particularly moving. On March 4, the first day back to school after the seven-day strike, the school board met to vote on proposed cuts that would eliminate programs supporting Asian and Pacific Islanders, Foster Youth, Restorative Justice and libraries—and hundreds of high school students organized their own walkout and marched to the school board meeting to protest these cuts.

Student board member Yota Omosowho speaking passionately to the crowd of students about taking on the system and fighting the cuts to student services the board passed moments before. Board member Roseann Torres speaks in support after.

The line of students waiting to speak stretched around the auditorium as student after student spoke about the impact these programs had on their lives. Some pleaded with the board and left the podium in tears, needing to be supported by their friends. Others spoke with fire and passion, refusing to give up the floor even when their mic was cut, turning directly to the crowd to be heard. All the students showed a depth of knowledge about the programs on the chopping block and both plainly and eloquently spoke in support of initiatives that have impacted them so positively.

In the end, the cuts passed. But the student engagement in this moment is evidence of a growing awareness around the systems at play and how one might find opportunity to remake them. The students at this board meeting, who perhaps before the strike knew little about the state of the district’s funding, learned from the strike how to show up and use their voices to demand a change. We did that. We teachers, through our actions, modeled for the students how to do that—and they took the baton and ran with it.  Now more than ever, understanding systems—how they are designed, how they function, and how they interact with one another—is the key to creating change.

Learn more about K-12 systems thinking tools and activities here, or check out the book Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds, which showcases Oakland teachers’ case studies.

The Art of Repair: A Middle School Elective Class

By Shraddha Soparawala (Sopar), 2018 - 2019 Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellow & Math Teacher, Ascend Middle School, Oakland

Ascend is a TK-8 public charter school in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. The student population reflects the demographics of the community, serving mostly Latinx families. There are 486 students: 10% are in special education, 70% are multilingual learners and 92% free and reduced lunch.

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As I started my Agency by Design Oakland fellowship experience this school year I saw a clear line between what I was reading about in Maker-Centered Learning and in design thinking and repair work. I thought creating this elective would be a perfect place to explore the thinking routines and the repair grant provided the context. Therefore, supported by a Culture of Repair mini grant I started an “Art of Repair” elective class for students that meets once a week.

To start the semester I wanted to surface students’ background knowledge around repair, so I asked students:

What is repair? Who does repair? How do you repair? What do you need in order to repair? Who does repairing? How does it feel to repair something?

We then discussed our ideas and one student documented them on the poster seen below. My goal for this conversation was to use this to frame all of our activities in this elective class, and to add our new ideas to this as our experience with repair grows.

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Next, students watched videos on different types of repair activities and they chose which one they wanted to try out. The activities were centered around two major ideas, which we are calling the Principals of Repair, which came out of our discussion around repair:


Repair fixes something that is broken, sometimes making it more beautiful

This first principal of repairing was connected to a Kintsugi project, the ancient practice of repairing broken pottery with gold, where they used epoxy and gold glitter to repair broken pottery.

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Repair gives something a new purpose, it’s like going from nothing to something

This second principal we applied to turning cardboard into a glider.

Students used the materials funded by the Culture of Repair mini grant (box cutters, rulers, epoxy glue, gloves, and more), and used Youtube videos to guide their repair work. We ended by reflecting on the questions from the beginning and added to the list in black ink.

Students reflections on what they learned through their first attempts at repair:

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“I learned that the first time to try to do repair work it might not go as planned. Sometimes it’s because instructions online are different from what materials you have.”

“I learned that repair can be exciting but it can also be stressful because you want it to turn out a specific way.”

“I learned that you need creativity and patience when you repair because things don’t set right away and sometimes you don’t have the tools you need.”

“I learned that you can repair by giving things new purposes like cardboard can be turned into a glider and that gives it a new purpose.”

Purpose, Hopes and Intentions

My intention in creating a repair related elective was to promote a problem-seeking and problem-solving sensitivity in my students. I want students to see something breaking or something not working as an opportunity.  It could be an opportunity to take something apart and see how it works, it could be an opportunity to fix it so that it works again, or it could be an opportunity to turn it into art. I want the elective to be a space where they can develop the skills and confidence to repair what is broken and take pride in both the process and product.

I called it “the art” of repair because our middle schoolers do not have an art class this year and I think it’s important for middle schoolers to have time to be creative and expressive.  I also think by calling it “the art” of repair students will grow to see that repair doesn’t always mean returning something to its original state or even a functional state—sometimes the object can be transformed into art.

My hope is that students are using skills of repair they learn in the elective to do repair work at home and around our school.  I also hope that as we work and conflicts emerge that we can use our “Principals of Repair” to also mend relationships.

Wonderings and Next Steps

My next step is to have students choose a skill to focus on developing.  It is very easy for them to get discouraged and move on to a different project. I want to gear their experiences so that they are getting more “at bats.”  This will build their expertise and their confidence as repairers. In my view, “failing forward” is a critical component of developing a repair mindset. I need build in pauses where we can reflect and monitor progress to see our growth over time.  

In my view, “failing forward” is a critical component of
developing a repair mindset.
Sopar’s documentation board from the Agency  by  Design Oakland mini-culminating event in December, 2018.

Sopar’s documentation board from the Agency by Design Oakland mini-culminating event in December, 2018.

I am wondering how I can manage having students working on multiple projects or tasks at the same time. I am wondering what pitfalls there are that I should anticipate.  I am wondering what types of questions I can ask to push students to deepen their exploration.

As they begin to develop their identity as a repairer, I think their sensitivity to seeing opportunities for repair will grow as well. One way I can track that is by sending them home with a smaller version of the document we began the elective with.  I want to see how their notions of “who does repair” “what needs repair” “ what is repair” evolve to include themselves, their family members, things within their home and daily life. A stretch goal would be to run a repair clinic at our school before the end of the year. I think it would be amazing to connect our school community with the larger repair community that exists in the Bay.  

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Shraddha Soparawala

7th/8th Grade Lead Math Teacher, ASCEND Middle School

“The importance of maker-centered learning rests in how it sees young people as producers of knowledge rather than just consumers of it. It recognizes that young people are fully capable of teaching themselves and others given the right framework, context and materials. In a maker classroom, anyone can teach and anyone can learn. The power dynamics are shifted so that age is not the sole determiner of who can lead or make decisions about the direction of a learning experience.”

Shraddha is originally from Chicago where she began working with young folks nearly a decade ago. Since then she has taught middle schoolers in New York City, Mumbai, DC. She has been working at Ascend in the Fruitvale community for that last three years. She works to couple project based learning with accelerated academic achievement. She believes that students thrive academically and socially when they are learning in the context of caring relationships with adults who are willing to redistribute authority.

From the Field: Oakland Educators Speak Up

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“Teachers are the innovators education has been waiting for.” -The Teachers Guild

In Oakland and across the country, it is essential that we listen to the voices of teachers and celebrate their stories—now more than ever. With a likely local teacher’s strike, the prospect of shutting down two dozen district schools over the next few years, and our continued budget crisis, teachers experience undo stress that pulls them away from the classroom. But teachers are also exceptionally innovative and creative in meeting our most vulnerable learners’ needs. We must learn from their experiences, hear their stories, and invite them to the table to design solutions for education’s most pressing challenges.   

On January 24, in a joint event hosted by Agency by Design Oakland and The Teachers Guild, five Oakland educators shared their personal stories of becoming teachers. Exploring themes of creativity, courage, and curiosity, the speakers brought to life their classrooms, schools, and communities. It was an inspirational evening of community building and celebration of educators in Oakland.  

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Monica Yupa

Computer Science Teacher, Urban Promise Academy Middle School, OUSD

Monica, a current Agency by Design Oakland teacher fellow, is a relatively new teacher with a visionary curriculum. In her talk Monica discussed how she’s using real world issues in the classroom to cultivate the next generation of thinkers.

"Education should help students cultivate their innate creativity and employ it in ways that are relevant to their community contexts."

“Algorithms carry the bias of their designers. We think they’re objective but humans aren’t objective and we/they HAVE designed the algorithms. We need to think about this during the full design process.”

“I asked my students to take an implicit bias test...and we’re looking at how Google Translate turns non-gendered language into biased gendered language...I want my students to have an impact on how algorithms are designed.”


Reina Cabezas

Career & Technical Education Coach, OUSD

Reina, a former Agency by Design Oakland teacher fellow, shared her and her family’s forced asylum story from Nicaragua to Miami. A story of transformation and healing, Reina now works with Oakland students in public schools and understands deeply their lived experiences.

“As a Bay Area adopted native it is an honor to share the migration story of my family seeking political exile like many of my students and their families today.”

“My family and I were benefactors of the privilege afforded us by close ties to neo-liberal US foreign policies that cause the poverty my students suffer from today. Sharing that complicated experience of privilege then struggle and resistance motivates me to co-design learning experiences that empower us, teacher and students, to shape and re-shape our own counter-narratives as an act of resistance.”


Samia Karimi

Program Manager, Danceversity, Oakland International High School, OUSD

Born in Afghanistan, Samia shed light on what it's like growing up as an immigrant in California.  She shared her journey in becoming a dance artist and youth arts education advocate.

“Context Matters. Connection Matters. What I offer you today is a peek at the experience of growing up an immigrant in the United States. My parents left Afghanistan in the 80s when the Soviets invaded.”

“The earliest memories I have from living in the US are from kindergarten, and they weren’t pleasant ones. My teacher slapped me in front of the whole class because of how I drew the ocean. They called me mute.”

“More than ever we need arts integration because we all learn differently, because we need joy and we need to connect to each other culturally.”  


Brandy Varnado

English & Entrepreneurship Teacher, Arise High School

Brandy shared her journey as a would-be-writer turned teacher, who then left education to become an entrepreneur. She now teaches Entrepreneurship and English at Arise High School, a charter school in Oakland.

“When I became a teacher I knew I needed a side hustle so I started selling cosmetics.”

“I realized I wasn’t being creative in the classroom. I was given a curriculum and it didn’t connect to me or to my students.  So I left teaching.”

“Students, especially black and brown boys need opportunities to be creative. As an entrepreneur I’ve learned a lot about myself, how to collaborate, how to be resourceful…Now in Oakland, in my business classes I teach students to harness the power of their innate creativity to create something.”


Hari Vasu-Devan, Math Teacher, East Bay Innovation Academy

“I’ve learned that my job is not to bank knowledge on kids but to create the opportunity for students to explore math and discover themselves”  


Collaboration is critical: Props to the amazing organizers of this event!

Paula Mitchell and Nico Chen from Agency by Design Oakland & Alysha English and Adha Mengis from the Teacher’s Guild

The Power of Thinking Routines

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“I used to think maker-centered learning was doing projects. Now I think maker-centered learning is a way of thinking.”

2018 - 2019 Teacher Fellow, Agency by Design Oakland

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what exactly our learners are thinking, and what that thinking shows about their understanding, or how they are making sense of the world.  By using thinking routines with our learners they can make their ideas and understanding visible to themselves, to each other, and to the teacher.

The ultimate goal of maker-centered learning is to develop maker empowerment—an “I can do that!” or “I can figure that out” mindset. Researchers at Project Zero, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tells us that one of the main ingredients in maker empowerment is having a sensitivity to the design of objects and systems in the world. But, how do we teach that? Luckily, the researchers break it down even further into the capacities supporting maker empowerment, which are looking closely, finding opportunity, and exploring complexity. And, specific thinking routines have been developed in order to support the development of each of these capacities.


In Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain, Writer, Educator, and Literacy Advocate Zaretta Hammond writes, “Building a culture of care that helps dependent learners move toward independence requires what I call a learning partnership.” Practicing these thinking routines with our learning community, anchored within and across content areas, empowers both teacher and student enter a learning partnership — to think deeply from a variety of perspectives, develop their curiosities, empathy, and understanding of not only systems, but also the different layers within that as well. “Think of it as an equation:” Hammond writes, “rapport + alliance = cognitive insight.” By using these thinking routines routinely, educators support learners in a culture of thinking, establishing a rapport and an alliance in their learning partnerships that lead to cognitive insights.

“Cognitive routines are social justice,” Hammond said after she attended Agency by Design Oakland fellow Tim Bremner’s workshop “How are cognitive thinking routines a tool for culturally responsive teaching?”

In this post, you will learn about the five Agency by Design thinking routines and see examples of how they’re being used by Oakland teacher fellows, in both STEAM and Humanities classes. These thinking routines can be used in a variety of contexts and throughout many different grade levels. The more exposure and practice that students have with each routine, the more they deepen their sensitivity to design and their capacity to think critically.

Think, Feel, Care

This powerful thinking routine can be used to not only explore the complexities of systems, but also peoples’ different lived experiences.  We have seen it develop empathy in learning communities, considering multiple perspectives when analyzing systems or events.  In this thinking routine, learners are asked to consider the different point of views of various people within a system, or within a single event - such as in a novel study, or the study of an overarching system.

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Parts, Purposes, Complexities

This thinking routine is fundamental in developing not only a sensitivity to the design of objects, but also harnessing a person’s natural curiosities about the how and why of a creation.  It allows learners to consider objects not only in their entirety, but also their parts and their purposes.  We have seen learners use this routine with physical objects (pens, pencils, old computers, tacos) and even less physical objects such as websites or apps.  It is a great way to introduce learners to a tool they may start to use (a screwdriver, or textbook) or something they might start to make or build (a kite, a website).  Exploring the complexities and purposes activates the questions of how and why something is built the way it is, and helps empower makers to consider their own designs and creations more from both a micro- and macro-perspective.

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Parts, Perspectives, Me

In this thinking routine, learners are asked to not only consider, or step inside, a system, but to look closely at one perspective within that system, and then consider their own role. A melding of Think, Feel, Care and Parts, Purposes and Complexities, this thinking routine supports a close study of macro-systems and micro-experiences.  Zooming in and out of systems, perspectives and themselves, learners can explore the complexities and the effects of the various systems in this world.

Parts, People, Interactions

Similarly to the aforementioned thinking routines, this one helps to support looking closely and exploring complexity.  Learners are again asked to step inside a system, and consider the parts of that system, the people involved in the system, and their interactions amongst each other.  Living in an individualistic society can often times stifle us into only considering our own perspectives and zoom in on how we, as individuals, are impacted by a system. This thinking routine helps to expand learners’ minds to see that there are many actors within systems, some who have conflicting interests, some who benefit, and some who don’t.  Like the Think, Feel, Care routine, this can be a powerful way to develop empathy towards different perspectives and experiences.

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Imagine If…

Last, but by no means the least, is a fun and playful thinking routine that supports the capacity of finding opportunity.  During this thinking routine, learners are asked to consider the design of objects or systems and to re-design them (through imagining) to be more effective, efficient, ethical and beautiful.  It is open-ended by design, so that learners feel and experience the possibilities of their wildest imaginations. Learners are not just bystanders to systems, but empowered to be creators themselves, imagining how they would shift and design the objects and systems in their worlds.

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