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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Our Day of Professional Development With Civicorps

[Editor’s Note]: The following blog post by Program Coordinator Nico Chen describes a daylong professional development facilitated by Brooke Toczylowski and Paula Mitchell. Agency by Design Oakland partners with various schools and districts to offer customizable workshops and coaching. Workshops range in length from short meetings to multi-day intensives. Agency by Design Oakland team members also work with individuals and groups through one-on-one and small group coaching and consultations.

If you or your school site are interested in Agency by Design Oakland workshops or coaching, please email Brooke Toczylowski at

The hands-on, collaborative activities were a fun way to explore ideas with colleagues. The facilitators were all knowledgeable, professional and pleasant. They offered a lot of great resources as well.”
— Anonymous Feedback, Civicorps Teacher

Agency by Design Oakland spent a day with the educators from Civicorps, a continuation high school in West Oakland for students ages 18-26. Our day of professional development focused on Maker Empowerment and Systems Thinking. Below are some “Aha!” moments from our day of hands-on and minds-on maker-centered learning activities.

9:30 a.m. - Design Challenge!

The day kicked on with a hands-on activity: a design challenge! We asked our Civicorps educators to split up into teams of 3 and build a chair that holds their own weight using only brads and cardboard. Above are pictures of their resulting creations.

10:00 a.m. - Observations Using the Agency by Design Framework

While we had most of our Civicorps educators participate in our design challenge, we also asked three Civicorps educators to participate as observers. They were given the Agency by Design framework to observe for signs of learning: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunities to reframe, rethink, and innovate.

After our two groups finished their design challenge, our three educator-observers shared out their findings. Health & Wellness Teacher Katrina Lashea noticed how teachers were looking closely through “a lot of communication and generating lots of possibilities.” “I noticed everybody paid attention to each other both physically and idealistically,” said College Counselor Deneah Murphy. “The teachers were exploring complexity because everybody had their own idea about what the chair would look like but they found ways to incorporate everybody’s ideas into making their chairs.” English Teacher Joseph Bradshaw noticed that both groups “seemed very focused” and were finding opportunity when they “testing out the different pieces of cardboard” and “took advantage of the creases in the cardboard pieces that they found.” “Towards the end, there was a lot of celebration,” said Lashea.

10:30 a.m. - Looking Closely/Take Apart

We asked our Civicorps educators to get into new groups and to choose an object to take apart — one group chose an old office phone, while the other group chose a small speaker. Using the Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine, our groups looked at their taken-apart object closely and documented their thinking on paper.

After consolidating their thinking on paper, each group presented what they learned through the take apart activity. Research Teacher Katy Avila said, “While this phone is outdated in certain respects, our iPhones do not have the office applications that this phone has — like background music while you’re put on hold or conference-call type functions that are specific to an office phone.”

“Could anybody in the room get into the complex metallurgy of carbon steel or the mixture of various elements and materials to create this rubberized plastic?“ inquired Science Teacher and Tech Lead Aakash Desai about the parts of his group’s taken-apart speaker. “You can teach a whole class just based on a deep dive into each component.”

1:30 p.m. - Exploring Complexity/Systems Thinking

After lunch, we regathered our Civicorps educators and did some thinking around systems. We asked the question “Is it a system?” while looking at a series of pictures. The answer was invariably “YES!”

We then asked our Civicorps educators to get into groups and to choose a system to analyze through the Parts, People, Interactions thinking routine. Using the materials available, each group sketched out a visual representation of their system. After completing this minds-on activity, we asked our Civicorps educators to push their thinking with the Imagine If… thinking routine and to document their thinking on paper.

We pushed our Civicorps educators’ thinking even further by asking them to synthesize and distill their systems thinking into a headline. One group that dove deeply into the system of surveillance using a picture of surveillance camera came up with this headline: “Parenting in a Capitalist Society: It’s a Set Up for Failure!” Another group who dove deeply into the system of symbols using a picture of a flower in a grenade came up with the headline: “How Symbols Control Our World.”

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3:30 p.m. - Finding Opportunity/Bridging Into Practice

After a full day with our Civicorps educators’ active participation as learners, we asked them to reflect and find opportunities to incorporate these Agency by Design ideas into their own practice and context. “I was thinking about how I could start each class with a looking closely routine,” said Math Teacher Michelle Cascio. “I could provide a visual example and have a discussion with my students about what they see, and then ask them what we are going to learn today.”

“Lately I’ve been doing this college research project,” said College Counselor Deneah Wilson, “but instead of making them do all this research, I could have them look at systems of colleges and make them create their own colleges…seeing what they want out of this particular institution and using this to help them decide what colleges they want to go to.”

“I’d like to try the [Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine] when it comes to breaking down a poem collaboratively,” said English Teacher Joseph Bradshaw. “In my class, people are usually having a discussion or people are writing, so I would like to do something different.”

This training was very helpful, especially in regards to learning new and more effective ways to keep students active and engaged during class.”
— Anonymous Feedback, Civicorps Teacher

Ancestral Tech & Making


Crystal Barajas Barr is the Art and STE(A)M Teacher at Urban Promise Academy Middle in Oakland. As part of her inquiry as an Agency by Design Oakland teacher fellow, she decided to explore the questions: Who are makers? What is making? How do we define technology? Who gets to define which tech is valuable? Out of these questions, Ancestral Tech and Making emerged. 

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"Being curious, asking questions, facilitating a person's learning process by encouraging them to consider the question at hand from a different perspective is a part of maker-centered learning."

Crystal Barajas Barr
Art and STE(A)M Teacher, Urban Promise Academy Middle, OUSD

Crystal Barajas Barr has been a tinkerer all her life. She studied art with an emphasis in metal fabrication/sculpture, and is experienced in welding and casting bronze and aluminum. Crystal is UPA's Art Teacher, STEAM teacher (at the Create Lab), and the GSA (Gender and Sexualities) Liaison in a school community that encourages social-justice education, self-reflection, innovation, and imagination. In addition to her role as a teacher and liaison, Crystal is also a maker of things and is always very curious about materials and processes. Currently, she enjoys playing with arduino kits and soundart in addition to writing, music, gardening, and exploring in nature.

Highlights from Our Fall Gatherings

It was great having the time to talk with colleagues about the thinking routines and what has been working in their classroom, as well as what plans they have for future activities. I really appreciated having time to plan and reflect!”
— 2018-19 Agency by Design Oakland Fellow

Dear Friends and Supporters of Agency by Design Oakland:

While we appreciate our time off this holiday season to gather with our family and friends, we are deeply grateful for the time that we have with our community of dedicated educators through our teacher fellowship. Our monthly gatherings crackle with curiosity, and flourish with our educators' willingness to try on the innovative ideas that will empower our Oakland students through maker-centered learning.

As 2018 comes to a close, we invite you to consider supporting Agency byDesign Oakland with a gift.  Your contribution is fully tax deductible and supports Agency by Design Oakland through the Oakland Public Education Fund, our fiscal sponsor.  Your generosity will give us the gift of time for our Oakland educators to gather for transformative work and growth in supporting the development of agency and maker empowerment in Oakland students. Your donation provides:

  • A yearlong professional development for one teacher in our teacher fellowship - $1500

  • Professional development at a school with limited funds - $600

  • Cost of a sub for a daylong workshop - $150

  • Supplies for our hands-on maker experiences - $50

  • Snacks to keep our teachers energized at our evening meetings - $15

Below are highlights from our 2018-2019 Agency by Design Oakland teacher fellowship gatherings:

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