Agency by Design Oakland: Looking Back and Looking Forward

 In Community Initiative, customized giving, Designated Fund, guest post, PVF News

Guest post by Brooke Toczylowski, Co-Director of 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. 

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. 

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. Here are some ways in which Agency by Design Oakland was a leader in 2020:

  • Leading with Vision: We knew when the pandemic hit that people were floundering; Teachers didn’t know what to do. We chose to send out a series of rapid missives 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.
  • Meeting Kids’ Needs: 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.
  • Rapid Prototyping: 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.
  • Let’s Do-It-Together: Leaving us isolated and siloed, the virtual landscape and distance learning cannot be navigated alone. It must be done together. 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. That’s why 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, reaching almost 4,000 students. Principals are joining us for three sessions over the course of the year and together they are working towards sustainable change at their sites.

Only three weeks into the second semester and we’ve already: led a fellowship meeting that included five hands-on making workshops, facilitated multiple team meetings, and handed out seven mini grants to support our teacher fellows’ redesigns of distance learning.

Much of our work is focused on supporting teachers who are iterating on their inquiries and reflecting on what steps they’ll take next, but we’re all about asking the deeper questions in order to impact our mindsets and dispositions in the world. During this traumatic time, transformation is happening all around us. We must reflect and envision if we want to be a part of designing the next phase of life.

What are the new ways of being you’ve learned during this time?
What are you leaving behind?
What do you envision for public education post-COVID?

We recently asked our leadership team to write a headline imagining the future and what they dream of in the post-COVID landscape.


“[I envision] that teacher fellows get inspired to change their teaching practices and push against what’s the norm right now. It’s time to break the traditions we’ve had that are not working for students. I’m hoping that our fellowship gives nourishment and I hope teachers try some new things, that they stick, and that the momentum builds and builds… [I envision] Oakland educators leading the nation in that change.”

– Paula Mitchell, Co-Director of AbDO and Teacher on Special Assignment at Grass Valley Elementary


“It’s [frustrating] when people say ‘I can’t wait until we get back to normal.’ But, normal wasn’t working. Imagine If…classrooms weren’t so large…the cost of living goes down…if outdoors spaces in education were the norm…”

– Alia Ghabra, Humanities Teacher at Elmhurst United and Coach and Facilitator w/ AbDO

If you know our work, you know we are thinking routine nerds. We invite you to try out one of our favorites, Imagine If…

Imagine if the public education system was more… equitable? …ethical? …efficient? …beautiful? or..?

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