31 Aug, 2021
Agency by Design Oakland (AbDO), an Oakland based organization led by current and former OUSD teachers, believes that all learners have the potential to be empowered change makers. AbDO offers a path to use maker-centered learning to support equity, critical thinking, joyful school culture, and a shift to learner-driven practice. What originally began as a research initiative with the Agency by Design research project based at Project Zero, a research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has blossomed into an organization bringing high-quality, hands-on, maker-centered, equity-framed professional development to Oakland teachers.
When asked what drives Co-Directors, Paula Mitchell and Brooke Toczylowski to do the work of AbDO, they both cited their experiences as teachers in the classroom. Attesting to her experience with students’ hands-on projects, Mitchell says, “Those were the projects kids always came back to talk to me about. Those were the things that got them excited, connected to their lives, and to future learning and what they might want to do as adults…” Mitchell continues, “That is what we focus on at AbDO; creating learning opportunities and conditions in the classroom for kids to come alive and get excited about their own learning, and become the changemakers we need for the future. That is what keeps me going every day.” Toczylowski mentioned her time as a teaching artist, “I would walk into classrooms with my art cart, and immediately heard students cheering, and I knew, this is joyful learning… Making has the power to not just activate kids’ passions for learning, but it also has the invitation to resist adult expectations for kids, and to reform and challenge the entire institution of public education — redefining what we deem as smart, talented, challenging, or gifted.”
AbDO’s largest focus is their Fellowship program, a two-year series of intense workshops and coaching with a small group of Oakland educators. Teachers engage in teacher-led classroom inquiry and maker-centered learning, with the goal of shifting the ownership of learning to students, thereby increasing student agency and supporting deep learning. Outside of the fellowship, AbDO partners with various schools and districts to provide customizable workshops and coaching focused on maker-centered learning.
As we all know, 2020 brought on unexpected challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. AbDO shifted the fellowship program to a virtual platform during the 2020-21 school year. To continue maker-centered learning at home, Toczylowski and Mitchell creatively collaborated with local nonprofit organization Oakland Literacy Coalition to bring SPARK! Maker Literacy Kits to Oakland students. A beautiful development that came from virtual programming, Mitchell mentions, was “Meet and Makes”— an activity where fellows introduced themselves through a making project exercise with other participants, fostering deeper connections within the cohort and modeling activities to bring to their own students. Operating within a virtual environment offered some benefits to AbDO. Removing the barrier of travel, AbDO saw an increase in participation, namely among principals. Students were also engaged in ways they had not been previously, holding virtual student panels about agency and empowerment, and creating a platform for students to present at their end of year event.
As AbDO looks toward the future, they’re excited to reach more Oakland educators, with plans to launch additional programming in the spring. “Our hope is that an investment in teacher professional development across the city will shift our focus in classrooms and schools toward student agency,” says Toczylowski. Fundraising is underway for training and coaching Oakland educators to support students in reconnecting with each other and back to school.
If Agency by Design Oakland could have any 3 wishes granted today, they would wish to:
Curious how you can support AbDO’s efforts? Toczylowski urges parents in the community to engage with their students’ schools, and ask about maker-centered learning at their campus. She says, “Ask if there’s anything you can do to support. Offer to teach a skill in the classroom: cooking, sewing, caretaking — parents are such a rich learning resource.” Mitchell and Toczylowski also invite organizations, schools, and funders looking to collaborate to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and edited by Bonnie Look and Kate Ray.