Finding Depth in Paper Circuits

Check out a recent Agency by Design blog post I wrote “Finding Depth in Paper Circuits,” about a day-long workshop I co-taught to Santa Barbara art teachers.

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Art Workshop Fundraiser

Join me for an upcoming Printmaking Workshop, also a fundraiser!

REGISTER HERE on Eventbrite!

Final.OIHS.block printing invite

Fractions & Art Integration

Working with the Agency by Design project has changed the way I teach traditional art projects. In the maker-centered learning environment one often starts with close looking and taking something apart. We all know that artists do a lot of close looking, but I wondered how the taking apart might become more visible. My collaborating teacher, Michelle Beal, wanted to support students’ understandings of parts to a whole in fractions so I chose to experiment with grid drawing.

Emerson Elementary Cheetahs: In this one-lesson integration experience students looked at work by the Artist, Chuck Close. In groups they discussed: What do you SEE? What do you THINK? What do you WONDER? 

Next, the young artists learned to make a value scale and think about proportion. This was important so that they could transfer the small image from the cheetah onto a larger square. Like Chuck Close we made a grid drawing, but each person enlarged just 2 or 3 of the parts and we put them all together to make a collaborative drawing. As we added squares to the drawing we kept track of the growing fraction of the cheetah that was filled in – from 1/76th on up.

fractions.image1 fractions.image2Student Reflections

I drew 2/76th of the cheetah. I learned that you can use a grid to draw different kinds of things.

I drew 7/76th of the cheetah. I learned that arts use fractions, which I didn’t know.

[I drew] 3/76th. I learned that when you color in 38 squares you’re really coloring in half.

Teacher Reflection, Ms. Brooke

The goal of this collaboration was to do an art project that would support the students’ understanding of fractions and in particular their understanding of parts to a whole. I notice in the students’ reflections after the art experience that almost everyone can name the fraction that represents how many pieces of the cheetah they themselves drew. For me this means that students can at least make the link between the art experience and math and I hope that it sparks their curiosity about what else is made of fractions in the world around us.  Almost everything!

My next wondering is around whether or not this activity will help Ms. Beal in teaching fractions and how will she refer back to it. I also made the transparency piece that outlines 1/2, 1/4, and other fractions of the whole cheetah so students could see the relationships between different fractions. We didn’t have a lot of time to debrief this part so I wonder if and how Ms. Beale will find this useful and might use her expertise to dive in deeper. I hope this activity supported students’ conceptual understandings of numeracy and I wonder how it could be extended into a whole unit. 



Agency By Design Research on KQED

What an honor to have our Agency by Design teacher research with Project Zero be profiled on KQED! Check it out!

Lots of quotes by me and my work at OIHS in the second section.

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animal prints!

Prints are now for sale at local boutiques in Oakland, including:

Ruby’s Garden in Temescal 

Bella Vita in Rockridge for website - no prices


Kalassal + Annual Artist’s Exhibit


ACOE inventing our future Summer Conference, Part 2 of 2

Last week I had the opportunity to represent the Agency by Design project at ACOE’s Integrated Learning Conference, this year titled, Inventing our Future. I taught two workshops for teachers, “Observation, Elaboration, and Maker Empowerment,” and “Using Systems Thinking to Re-Design Public Education.”  To see my post about the former workshop click here.
systems.blog1How can we use systems thinking to re-design public education? How can systems thinking help young people make sense of and develop a sensitivity to the world around them? As a group we first defined “system” and through guided photos started to identify systems within the public education system. Groups identified one system to work with and started mapping out their thinking around the parts and relationships to the whole. Later they moved into thinking about the actors and motivations within those systems. I immediately realized that the workshop title was a lie and that there was no way we were going to have time to re-design anything. The first step is understanding and systems thinking was bringing us to a deeper level of knowing and making connections. systems.blog2At the same time there was confusion. About 30 minutes into the workshop a participant asked one of the most important and challenging questions a teacher can answer. “Wait, why are we doing this?” I froze and she immediately apologized, but we all knew this was critical. I paused to reflect on my answer and responded that we’re doing this because:

1) Systems thinking promotes high order thinking. When I practice systems thinking I am forced to stretch myself into becoming a better thinker in the world. I thought back to Jeffrey Andrade’s morning talk that day and asked myself internally, “Can that be standardized?” No. Good. Because anything that CAN be standardized is not worth teaching, in my opinion.

2) Because systems thinking is a scaffold and tool on the path towards empowerment. It builds a sensitivity to the design of systems in the world around us and has a built-in structure to help us notice and question the parts and relationships inside them. Ultimately the goal is to have enough of these experiences with systems thinking to re-imagine, re-design, and re-make the systems in our world that do not work.

ACOE Inventing Our Future Summer Conference, part 1 of 2

Last week I had the opportunity to represent the Agency by Design project at ACOE’s Integrated Learning Conference, this year titled, Inventing our Future. I taught two workshops for teachers, “Observation, Elaboration, and Maker Empowerment,” and “Using Systems Thinking to Re-Design Public Education.” Not being a Maker Education expert I went into the workshops feeling nervous about representing the work of the Project Zero researchers and my teacher colleagues in the North Oakland Learning Community. But I came out feeling more excited and committed to Maker Education and what that might look like in the classroom.

Observation, Elaboration, and Maker Empowerment

Above were my understanding goals for the first workshop. The plenary beforehand included brain researcher Ken Wesson who basically endorsed my planned activities. He explained that play is a fundamental part of how our brain develops and that it creates brain shoots that lock in info. He said one of the best ways to develop spatial reasoning, thinking skills, engineering, and problem solving capabilities is to go to Goodwill, buy some old objects, and than TAKE THEM APART. He said, “When you play with objects you also play with ideas…You can’t speak without ideas and you get those ideas from play.” Essentially, our brains are turned on by hands-on experiences and we have to have sensory, tactile learning opportunities to build understanding and meaning. I already knew this of course, but having someone say this right before my workshop was validating.

image2b.clean image3This was an engaged and active group. We spilled out into the outdoor space and there was much conversation, questioning, and learning. As the teacher participants worked to observe through the Elaboration Game and take apart their objects using a Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine I walked around and documented their ideas.

What are you thinking about? What insights are you discovering during the Take Apart?

 “Looks can be deceiving. It’s got a complicated wheel system. The little thing in the middle we had to get to by taking everything apart. That little part was the most complicated. The smallest thing has the most power.”

 “[It’s] put together systematically. Sequencing is really important. The deeper we got the more social it became – we wondered who owned it before, and…”

 “It went from being a train to a toy. It became a representation of a train but not an actual train.”

During the workshop I also shared examples from my colleagues in North Oakland and discussed how these hands-on activities could be used in the classroom. What I was really excited about though was taking a stab at discussing disposition shifts as teachers and learners ourselves. I made a simple continuum for participants to notice if the activities helped them go through any shifts in the way they see the world. My desire to focus on disposition has come out of the thinking of my colleague at Park Day School, Jenny Ernst, who is teaching a class on Teacher Disposition at PZ AWAY in San Francisco in October. We looked at and discussed the continuum at the beginning and the end of the workshop and there were more than a few participants who noticed a change in themselves. For example, one noticed a thinking shift in the way she thought about hands-on activities, and another had a broadened understanding of what it means to be a “maker,” away from being someone who crafts and more towards someone who sees opportunities for change in the world.

Where do YOU fall on the Maker Disposition Continuum?




Tinker Lab at Camp Kala

This video was made by a teaching assistant, Yuwei Zheng.

Last week I taught a Make/Design/Tinker/Hack class for middle school students at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. It allowed me to stretch and explore many of the topics we’ve been researching with the Agency by Design research team. For the first time I drew concrete connections between traditional art making and engineering and design and now I feel confident about how I will bring more of this into my classroom at Oakland International.

Two main sources of inspiration were the Nueva Design Institute I attended in June, and the ever inspiring Exploratorium and their “The Art of Tinkering” Book. Below is the brainstorming I started at Nueva.


I began by thinking about how artists make marks and how we might be able to explore that through making drawing machines. This type of thinking on paper I learned is part of a new field called Visual Thinking in which visual imagery is just as important as the text. Since I’ve been taking notes like this for years I was thrilled to hear that there’s a whole field out there to explore. If you’re interested I encourage you to start by watching this great Ted Talk by Rachel Smith.

making marks3


We first looked at and then watched an ART 21 video of Cai Gui-Qiang who uses gunpowder and explosions to make prints. (We silenced Qiang’s metaphor for art making as love making. I had forgotten it was there!) The students then created their own tools and experimented with mark marking and then presented their most exciting discovery to each other. We also tinkered with printing and added sticky foam shapes to cardboard tubes to experiment with how printmaking can use movement.


Next we played an adapted version of THE ELABORATION GAME, a close-looking activity developed by the Agency By Design researchers at Project Zero. In my version three different artists/observers take turns elaborating on each others’ drawings and writings. During the regular school year at Oakland International I’ve found that ELL students need to be concretely taught to Elaborate, what that means, and how to do it. This activity forces them to search for words deeper than the surface.

take apart

The PPC (Parts, Purposes, Complexities) Thinking Routine has been a central activity created by Agency by Design and a very helpful way of looking at objects and systems. As with my ELL students I found the middle school students more interested in pulling the object apart than recording their thinking on paper. It’s an enthralling activity that consumes kids’ attention and leaves them with exciting questions. As the student on the left wrote for the complexities of a computer mouse, “How it ***ing works!” This is the same 10-year-old that taught me to solder two days later.


teaching teacher

Using the same objects we had taken apart, plus an array of other awesome items from the East Bay Depot the students were asked to transform these objects into art experiences, sculptures, games, or other. This was where I felt super excited and engaged, because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The kids went into all different directions, combining two items into one (a pencil sharpener and fan), creating a game out of Angry Birds, or making delicate sculptures from reclaimed computer pieces.

During this HACK session we started learning how to re-claim motors from toys and solder on our own wires. Above the kids are teaching me how to use my new soldering iron. The transition of my role from teacher to learner in this moment made me feel like this was becoming a real MAKERSPACE and that all skills were fluid and able to be explored in this kind of environment. It’s important to note that the students in this summer camp were self-selected and came in with an inclination towards being curious tinkerers and hackers. Middle school also felt like the right age for tinkering and hacking. My thought is that my high-schoolers wouldn’t want to hack what they might consider trash and would prefer more refined materials. I look forward to trying out some of these playful activities with the high-schoolers.

design process




Above are images from the last two projects and part of the exhibit at the end of the week. I knew I wanted the kids to design their own drawing machines so I first scaffolded the project with the Exploratorium’s “scribbling machine.” This project in itself can be hacked and designed in so many ways that the students from the beginning created unique machines. We also looked at a number of artists who make drawing machines including Tyree Callahan  and Sam Van Doorn. Then, using what they had learned to date they were challenged to design their own drawing or art machine. This gave us the opportunity to learn more about the full design process that I had just learned at the Nueva Institute. Starting with a Saturation Board in groups students brainstormed then planned out their ideas on paper. After that they started to tinker, solder, play, and experiment. Then we had group critiques and students refined their machines. Some were able to actually draw but others were prototypes of their ideas. These machines were out of this world exciting! It felt less like a MAKERSPACE and more like Nueva’s INNOVATION LAB.

I was disappointed not to incorporate the user centered interviews, which I think develop a deep sense of empathy, but we did do a couple design challenges during the week that did include interviews (i.e. design a nametag for your interview partner). At Nueva the arts classes do not incorporate the interview process into the arts classes because the director told me art is often times more about self-expression, but for me it was such a powerful and important part of the design process that I’m excited to think about how to use it in my arts class this coming year. I also think that the definition of art is so fluid and unconventional that even the interview itself could be considered an act of art.

The last project we worked on was another Exploratorium inspiration – an Automata. This was an EXCELLENT project – so great in fact that  I will write a separate post about it soon.