How to Sustain the Work when Support Decreases

Integrating Design Thinking and Art in a Public Montessori School

by Agency by Design Oakland Teacher Fellows Ana Carrasco and David Harris, Urban Montessori Charter School

WHAT HAPPENS, AND WHAT WORKS, WHEN SUPPORT DECREASES? After a decrease from outside support for Design Thinking integration, Teacher Fellows David and Ana experimented this school year with new ways of supporting teachers to integrate Design Thinking and the Arts, building on work that had begun at the school in the previous years. Over the course of the fall and winter David and other collaborators tried different strategies and structures to sustain this work. Below is a letter they've written to their school colleagues, as well as a full report on their efforts and reflections. 

Dear Colleagues, Board, and Future Head of School,

We believe it is imperative to prioritize time for planning, goal setting, and building structures and systems in the areas of Art Integration and Design Thinking Practices. Teachers and students would benefit from a clear, sequential curriculum, with hands on training and creative spaces to do this work. There could be a more diverse and differentiated curriculum, which could include inviting experts in to build on teacher creativity. These best practices and a clear arts and design curriculum would foster real project based learning. Classroom levels will experience a sense of identity and unity working through the various projects together. Teachers will feel more aligned in their practices, sharing out student work and learnings in professional learning communities.

Thus, professional development and hands on training throughout the school year in these areas is necessary for maximum support and growth. The Montessori philosophy is directly correlated with the design mindset, both emphasizing observation and understanding through empathy as well as intrinsic creativity and independence. They should be thought of as complementary and we need to build on that foundation. Art and design integration with Montessori would provide multiple access points for all learners.  

Especially since a new Head of School will be in place next year, it is an important time to revisit and renew the systems and goals for these curricular pillars. We need to ask ourselves: What do we want students to get out of this work? What should it look like day-to-day in classrooms? and What should the experience be for students moving through the program from Kindergarten to Middle School?

There are hours of planning to be done and as shown in the data, the teaching staff is ready and willing to do this important work. This demonstrates that teachers understand the significance of this work and know it will have a positive impact on their classrooms. It is critical that we make time to step back to see the big picture in preparation for this next year’s curriculum planning around art and design at Urban Montessori Charter School.


Ana Carrasco

PROBLEM STATEMENT: Teachers are already working hard to deliver the Montessori academic curriculum so there isn’t extra bandwidth for the “more creative” curriculum that we should be integrating. Additionally, I’m not an expert, and I need support to learn the skills myself and to then teach the kids. I need help supporting exciting hands-on projects and a sequentially integrated curriculum that has a clear progression to be successful.

Long Term Proposal: Combine option #1 and #3 in the March survey sent to staff (see the full report to read more). We need someone on staff to hold the art and design work. This would involve but not be limited to curriculum mapping standards across multiple content areas and the arts, demonstrating and co-teaching arts integrated lessons, and planning and preparing arts integration lessons, assignments, assessments and materials. I also suggest a multi-use space where teachers could schedule time outside the classroom, where the teacher could serve students, and that teacher would also host outside specialists to build on curriculum.

David Harris

PROBLEM STATEMENT: A main problem I experienced while being the school lead for this work is that I had no access to leadership decision making, and wasn’t able to advocate for pushing the work forward, purchasing equipment, scheduling meetings and professional development, etc. The second main problem was that it was no longer possible for only one person, with little to no time in my day schedule, to support this work for all four levels (Primary, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary and Middle School). I had failed to do that for the last two years. Also, though there is the possibility of more teachers participating in the Agency by Design fellowship next year, and also of a return of support from the, Urban Montessori cannot rely on outside agencies to sustain the program, it needs to develop structures and school staff to do the work.

Short Term Proposal: For this upcoming school year, given the budgetary challenges, I would propose that the level leads (one teacher from each level, who represents the level on the Instructional Leadership Team, and runs level meetings several times a month), and a partner from each level, take on the Arts Integration and Design Thinking work. It would be cost effective. The level lead would be advocating for the work on the ILT, and making sure the necessary PD time was allocated, while the co-level advocate supports the logistics, as a teacher coach, facilitating the development of activities or units and running the PDs.


Ana Carrasco, Lead Montessori Teacher in Lower Elementary, Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland


David Harris, Former Design Thinking and Arts Integration Lead, & Former 1st - 3rd grade Support eacher, Urban Montessori Charter School, Oakland

David Harris was formerly a UMCS support teacher in a 1st to 3rd grade classroom. He was also the school's Creative Catalyst, leading planning, curriculum development and PD for the arts integration and design thinking programs. David came to elementary teaching after doing several kinds of other jobs, including working for seven years in OUSD's adult education program, where he taught English and basic skills and was a teacher on special assignment who served as a site coordinator and planner for professional development. He has also worked as an artist and writer in a variety of ways since college, now focusing his attention on writing and illustrating books for children.