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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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.