Agency by Design Oakland: Responding to the demands of distance learning in a digital divide

This article is part of a series of interviews with our partner organizations in the Making Spaces program. Read more Hub Highlights here

Meet Agency by Design Oakland

Agency by Design Oakland grew out of Project Zero’s Agency by Design research project, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The original project, which lasted from 2011 – 2017, engaged Oakland educators in a professional learning community and investigated the “promises, practices, and pedagogies of maker-centered learning experiences.” In 2016 a book sharing this research and showcasing Oakland teachers’ case studies was published. This work stands apart from other maker pedagogies for its focus on thinking routines, systems thinking, and interdisciplinary approaches to curriculum design. 

As the research and funding sunsetted in 2017, the Oakland leadership team, noting the equity-focus of maker-centered learning and the transformative power of inquiry based professional development, decided to launch Agency by Design Oakland, a fiscally sponsored project of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation.   

Teacher fellows in the 2019 – 2020 cohort learn from one another during a daylong systems thinking workshop in Oakland. Photo provided by AbDO.

Since 2017 over 100 teachers from over 30 schools and institutions have been through our fellowship program. Each year, our fellows work directly with approximately 4,000 K-12 students. Citywide 73% of the learners we serve qualify for free and reduced lunch, 88% are students of color, including 54% Latinx and 22% African American, 42% are English Language Learners, and 16% are classified with an IEP in Special Education.


At the core of Agency by Design Oakland’s professional development is the teacher’s own action research. Participants engage in the inquiry cycle to test out ideas, document, reflect, and iterate. This work is supported through hands-on coaching and fellowship workshops.

A maker mindset 

Having a maker mindset has proved an invaluable tool in the pandemic. We’ve been able to adapt our work and find opportunities to hack, tinker, and play with available systems and structures. 

For example, we knew when the pandemic hit that people were floundering. Teachers didn’t know what to do. We choose to send out a series of rapid missives, like our New Guiding Principles graphic, that helped teachers and schools consider where to put their energies. We doubled down on liberatory pedagogy and stand by our approach to teaching and learning. “The communications from you all helped me to see where to put my energy. I didn’t see anything like that coming from the district.” said a teacher from Urban Promise Academy, a public middle school in the Oakland Unified School District. 


The path forward

To support the teachers and schools in their network Agency by Design Oakland produced New Guiding Principles in the days after the pandemic hit and California went into lockdown.



Then, responding to the demands of distance learning and the digital divide in our community, we held a series of Design Jam Sessions where we designed high-quality hands-on prompts for a series of books. Working in partnership with the Oakland Literacy Coalition we distributed 1,500 Spark! Maker Literacy Kits to Oakland students during distance learning. Learn more about our SPARK! kits here, including free PDFs to create your own.

At the same time, just six weeks into the pandemic, we pivoted our annual EXPO to be virtual. Equity in the Making: Before, During & After Distance Learning brought together almost 200 people from across the country, offered interactive experiences and 13 breakout sessions led by our 2019 – 2020 Oakland Teaching Fellows. Recording of the Ignite Talks and some of the activities can be found here.


Why did you originally join the Making Spaces program? Does this support look different than you planned for?

When we joined Making Spaces we already had an established program and were seeing results—our fellowship was transforming classrooms across the city and we were becoming a Go-To professional development experience. But in the spring of 2019, Morgan Vien, the former principal at ASCEND school in Oakland, sat us down and gave us some feedback. She said, “I can see how this is impacting the teachers who are in the fellowship, but I want it to extend beyond the four walls of their classrooms. How can this work impact the whole school and be sustainable?” 

Together with Morgan, and her collaborator, Jeff Embleton, we piloted a School Teams Cohort experience this past spring. We immediately saw the impact of having school leaders in the mix and we wanted more. Joining Making Spaces forced us to commit to a new fellowship structure and to start digging more deeply into what sustainability looks like. 

What we’ve been learning is that when teachers show principals what’s possible the leaders are there to step up. For example, in a recent team meeting with four teacher fellows and their principal—after one of the teachers showed off what her students had learned and created with hands-on materials she coordinated herself—he offered to pay for the materials, on the spot. 

We’ve also learned that the principals can’t do it alone either. After a day-long workshop with Agency by Design Oakland, Casey Beckner, Principal at Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland Unified School District told us, “I’m feeling lighter today. It can be very lonely being the principal. The thing I’ve been dragging my feet around has now gotten off the ground with a team.” 

Grass Valley Elementary School’s team (Monique Parrish, Rasheeda Jones, Paula Mitchell, and Principal Casey Beckner), showing off the graduate profile and visioning work they collaborated on together during a day-long session in the School Teams Pilot, early 2020.

Clearly, we need distributed leadership. Teachers can’t create sustainable outcomes without their school leaders leveraging systems to support the work, but we have also learned that the demands on school leaders are too great— they need their teams to support the work, too.

We’ve now fully pivoted our core program to be team oriented. We are currently serving 10 teams from 13 schools this fellowship year and next. Principals are joining us for three sessions over the course of the year and together they are working towards sustainable change at their sites. We were already prepared to make this change, but it was fortuitous given the pandemic. Leaving us isolated and siloed, the virtual landscape and distance learning cannot be navigated alone. It must be done together. Playing off the DIY: Do-It-Yourself tagline so common in the maker movement we are taking on DIT: Do-It-Together. 

What new things have you learned during Making Spaces, either about yourself/your personal practice as an educator, or about your organization’s role in learning?

The pandemic has us, as an organization and as facilitators of professional development continuously designing the aircraft while in flight. We are scrappy. Working it out, testing new things. Already dreaming for year two of this fellowship when we will be able to build upon our virtual relationships in person, mucking about with materials in hand. 

Are there other makers, organizations, and/or educators in your community whose work you’d like to celebrate?  

    1. Studio Pathways | @studiopathways
    2. Alphabet Rockers | @alphabetrockers
    3. Black Teacher Project | @blackteacherproject 
    4. Whole Story Group | @wholestorygroup
    5. The Teaching Well | @theteachingwell
    6. Destiny Arts | @destinyartscenter
    7. National Equity Project  | @nationalequityproject
    8. We Lead By Learning@lead_bylearning

Making Spaces is a 30-month professional learning and capacity building program designed to support local leadership around maker education and build the foundation for lasting, embedded change in pedagogy, community, and culture. 

Learn More About Agency by Design Oakland



Location: Oakland, CA

Social Media: Twitter





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