Designing Community Making Experiences for Newcomer Students at Oakland International High School

By Yii Shinn (Nico) Chen —

Advisory is a space for community building. For the recently-arrived students studying at Oakland International High School, forging cross-cultural connections during their first few years of English language acquisition can be quite challenging. While classrooms at OIHS are designed to be multilingual and heterogeneous, our students often gravitate towards affinity groups based on shared cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

In order to increase cross-cultural exchange and community building, we decided to utilize advisory as a maker-space. “We wanted to find ways for our 9th and 10th grade students to participate as a community through making,” said Sailaja Suresh, the Learning Lab Director at Oakland International High School. “Making seemed like a great way to get kids actively engaged in advisory and that allows them a way to sort of connect to their classmates, connect to their quarterly themes and find another outlet that pushes them in different ways than their content-area classes.”

After consulting the instructional leadership team from Oakland International High School and receiving fiscal support from Oakland Public Educational Fund’s A-Z Fund Mini-Grant, I embarked on designing five advisory maker kits for the 2018-2019 school year. Drawing from the Agency by Design idea that “a key goal of maker-centered learning is to help young people and adults feel empowered to build and shift their worlds,” I  designed five community making experiences so that making would become a shared language that would empower our students to build community while also helping our students shift into more cross-cultural interactions in their advisory class.


“In our first sewing project, I saw my Guatemalan students emerge as leaders in their advisory because these were skills they have had for years in their home country,” said Susan Keen, 9th/10th Grade History Teacher at Oakland International High School. “Then, in our second project, I had no idea how to do paper circuitry myself, but then my Chinese student stepped up and ended up being the teacher!”

“We learned that students are able to shine in a lot of ways that they may not have previously been; the linguistic and academic barriers in a student’s first or second year of arrival can be quite high,” said Suresh. “Making is accessible to a lot our newcomer students and build on a number of strengths that they already bring with them.”

Since this  was OIHS’ first iteration of maker-centered learning in advisory, I was also observing how OIHS teachers were adapting the activities for their own advisory classes in order to learn how to improve the design of each maker experience. While observing Ms. Sara’s class, I was impressed by how she integrated language skills into her facilitation of community making experiences. This reminded me of a core value in the Internationals’ Approach — that “strong language skills develop most effectively in context and emerge most naturally in a purposeful, language-rich, interdisciplinary, and experiential program.”

Although the first four Maker Kits were designed to be two-day community making experiences, most advisory teachers also reported that each activity took three days or longer.  “This is our first year integrating maker-centered learning into advisory, so in many ways we are learning a lot through this process,” said Suresh. “One of the things that we are learning is that to do this well, it definitely takes time to have students make anything and to be proud of the results. It requires time preparing them and giving them time to explore the materials that they are using and be able to ultimately create.”

Taking what I learned into consideration, I designed Advisory Maker Kit E as a six-day community making experience that also embedded language skill development. Below are some artifacts that demonstrate how resources can be designed to meet this end:

What I learned from this experience is that I was challenged to grow in the maker capacity of “finding opportunity.” By utilizing resources, I was able to envision what community making experiences could be through discussions with the OIHS instructional leadership team. I was also able to make (and draw) plans by applying for funding through Oakland Public Education Fund’s A-Z Mini-Grant.  By prototyping and testing my first Advisory Maker Kit designs, I observed what was going on in different advisors’ classrooms and realized that I needed to reframe how I was designing these activities so that our newcomer students were given more time to make while also developing their English language skills.


Click the image above to access all community-making projects by Nico Chen.

Yii Shinn (Nico) Chen is a Ph.D. student in the Teaching and Learning Department at NYU Steinhardt. He is a critical learning scientist seeking to use design-based research with the purpose of re-envisioning English Language Learners as Multilingual Multicultural Makers (M3) through linguistically-responsive teaching, culturally-responsive teaching, and maker-centered learning. In embarking on this research, Nico wants to empower teachers to design with the whole child in mind. Prior to his research work, Nico was a 9th/10th Grade English teacher at Oakland International High School.

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