Agency (and Comedy) by Design

North Oakland Charter School Teacher and Agency by Design OLC member Tatum Omari describes how her experiences with power tools and doorknobs expanded her vision of everyday objects.

Before attacking them with household tools, Tatum and her colleagues in the Oakland Learning Community used a Project Zero thinking routine to consider the parts, purposes, and complexities of everyday objects—like this soon-to-be-dismantled doorknob.

When I started working with the Agency by Design research project this past September, I had no idea how much it would impact how I moved through the world. The major aim of this initiative is to empower students and give them a sense of agency they can carry with them throughout their lives. As it turns out—doing this work has had the same effect on the teachers partnering with the research team.

During one of our recent AbD workshop sessions the Project Zero research team led us through a PPC (Parts, Purposes, and Complexities) thinking routine wherein we were asked to disassemble simple mechanical devices. My group had the incredible good fortune of getting to take apart a doorknob. The experience was ridiculously exhilarating. Our eyes and brains fixated on this most ordinary of objects. Quickly, our doorknob morphed from being simple and mundane to becoming one of the most interesting and complex objects ever. We had totally underestimated this household masterpiece!

I can still remember the crescendo of our voices as we finally figured out how to use our tiny tools to get the darn thing to come apart. It was so exhilarating that a few AbD colleagues and I decided to give an entire PPC exercise later to a group of educators at an arts integration retreat. As you might have guessed, our session was focused completely on doorknobs! One of the most interesting quotes from that day was: “There’s blood, we’ve got blood over here!” Hey, we never said looking deeply at objects wouldn’t be fun… and perhaps a little dangerous.

Coincidentally, about a week after the arts integration retreat I found myself locked out of my house. (Here is where I need to give you a bit of personal back-story: My husband had worked as a locksmith for a brief stint one summer and had mentally run me through the process of breaking through a lock with a drill.) Armed with the memory of my conversation with my husband and my newfound expert knowledge of all things “doorknob,” I just knew this was something I could do by myself. That, and I had another ulterior motive—I had always wanted a cordless drill!

I did the math and I basically had a choice: I could buy a drill for $200.00 and do it myself—or pay someone $200.00 to do it for me. Though the cost was the same, the latter option would leave me without an amazing awesome drill in the end. I really, really wanted that drill. So I embarked on a mission and managed to find a hardware store willing to sell me a cordless drill (that was also charged) and came home and got to work.

I was feeling all sorts of empowered when I sank the drill bit into the metal. I got even more excited as the drill started to push through. Sure, maybe I had no idea where I was supposed to be drilling but I had a good feeling! And then it happened, the drill bit broke off in the door and my face crinkled a bit—like the guy in the bitter beer commercial. I thought quickly to myself “No! I can do this! The drill bit kit came with four bits—I still have three more!”

Fast forward three more broken drill bits—when I finally realized that maybe I needed to learn a bit more about power tools and doorknobs before I could fully claim I had locksmith superpowers…

Tatum and her colleagues used a variety of tools to tinker with household mechanical devices.

When the locksmith arrived the look on his face—when he saw four broken drill bits in the door—was priceless. He couldn’t resist a healthy belly laugh as he looked at me, sitting next to my awesome cordless drill. This was not the end though. I was still determined to learn and luckily he thought I was just hilarious enough that he was willing to pass on some tricks of the trade.

As he removed the lock to my home, the locksmith patiently guided me through each of the steps and all of the things to consider before actually attacking a doorknob with a cordless drill. This included the necessity of first prying off the cover plate of the doorknob to expose a hidden security plate. This plate is designed to protect against any random person—someone like me in this instance—being able to easily drill through and dismantle the lock. Definitely a good piece of info to have! I also learned that you need a few tools in addition to the cordless drill to adequately do the job. For example, the task also required a small flathead screwdriver to pry off the cover plate of the doorknob. Lastly, you have to know where you’re drilling! Once the cover plate is off and you remove the security plate you can then aim the drill directly at the screws attached to the other side of the doorknob. This was where a light bulb really went on for me—I realized the entire purpose of the drill was to unscrew the screws in a reverse motion! It was like magic watching the locksmith complete this final part of this process. It all looked so easy!

While I may have been too quick to apply my newfound knowledge of doorknobs and power tools this time, if the opportunity were ever to present itself again, I know I can get inside that door!

Reflecting on this experience, I realized a major shift had occurred for me and I had learned two exciting new things about myself. First, if for no other reason than the potential comedy, it’s always worth trying to solve a problem yourself before calling in a professional. Second, I am no longer the passive user of objects, rather, I have come to understand their hidden complexity and just how interesting they can be! I now look at the myriad objects that surround me in a constant state of curiosity. I see the outside and immediately wonder what important parts are contained inside, hidden from view. I also consistently wonder, over and over again, “Who in the world thought of this!” Seriously, if you ever have the opportunity, try taking apart a doorknob! You won’t believe how many teeny, tiny pieces interlock and work together like a mechanical symphony.

My doorknob experiences have made me wonder: how many seemingly ordinary objects do people underestimate on a regular basis? How many opportunities for entertainment, learning, and the possible acquisition of expensive power tools, have you missed out on by simply calling on someone else to fix a problem for you?


Tatum Omari is a kindergarten and first grade teacher at North Oakland Community Charter School in Oakland, CA. Her approach to project-based learning comes from her experience with Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding Framework and her participation in the Alameda County Office of Education’s Arts Integrated Learning Specialist Program. Her involvement in the Agency by Design research initiative has rekindled her love of making that was sparked early on for her as the child of a general contractor and avid DIY adult role model of awesomeness.

This blog was published on April 24, 2014.
Authored by
Tatum Omari

Guest author Tatum Omari is a North Oakland Charter School Teacher and Agency by Design Learning Community Member.