Making Across the Curriculum Takes Off in DC

Educators Jim Reese, Carole Geneix, and Jaime Chao Mignano describe how the Agency by Design: Making Across the Curriculum project is taking off in Washington, DC.


Mark Perkins, a teacher at Washington International School, uses the Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine to examine a taken-apart wind-up toy during a professional development seminar in the Making Across the Curriculum project.

In February 2018, the Professional Development Collaborative at Washington International School and Project Zero (PZ) launched a new initiative that brings maker-centered learning practices to Washington, DC, classrooms in a major way.

Agency by Design: Making Across the Curriculum aims to shift the paradigm of traditional teaching and learning throughout the city by bringing together a group of educators who want to use maker-centered approaches across grade levels and subject areas.

Teachers involved with this project have been investigating pedagogical tools and strategies that support students in diverse settings, all the while considering how maker-centered learning may become more accessible and adaptable to a wider breadth of young people.

Thanks to a grant awarded by the Edward E. Ford Foundation to Washington International School, the Collaborative has engaged researchers from Agency by Design in establishing the initial cohort of over 40 DC educators who want to infuse maker-centered learning into their classrooms.

Working with PZ Principal Investigator Edward Clapp—who has been visiting DC schools for several years and has headlined a number of events sponsored by the PD Collaborative—and Project Administrator Sarah Sheya, the cohort has been exploring key ideas put forward in the book Maker-Centered Learning: Empowering Young People to Shape Their Worlds.

Those involved in this endeavor have attended a monthly seminar series with Edward and Sheya and bi-weekly learning groups. Through this work, they have built an understanding of what is meant by maker practices and systems thinking, tried out ideas in their classes, and documented the process along the way.

This past spring, Edward and Sheya worked directly with teachers at Washington International School in piloting the project. In the fall of 2018, the Collaborative expanded its work to include teams of teachers from local public schools.

Teachers from four sites in DC Public Schools (DCPS)—H.D. Cooke Elementary School, MacFarland Middle School, Roosevelt High School, and Van Ness Elementary School—and one public charter school, DC International School, have participated so far.

Below are just a few examples of the ways teachers in these schools have engaged their students in maker-centered practices:

  • High school students in an International Baccalaureate Diploma Program “Theory of Knowledge” course went on a design hunt to explore the designed world around them. Once they settled on an object to examine closely, they debated two questions: “Is it art?” and then “What is art?” In other high school classes, students made observational drawings as a way to develop understanding of poetry and drama, and a History teacher, inspired by a visit to the “UnSeen” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, had her students re-vision iconic images in order to show the hidden story behind them.

  • Early elementary students created their own emojis, representing traits often missing from popular images, and wrote to tech industry leaders to propose their ideas.

  • Middle school science students took apart old musical instruments while studying the physics of sound, and then used their new-found understandings to build new musical instruments out of recycled materials.

  • In a middle school Spanish language arts classroom, students made visual representations of their understanding of 20th century social movements across Latin America.

  • In both DCPS elementary schools, teachers integrated maker stations in their classrooms that allow young children to make or take apart objects on a daily basis, or respond to challenges (such as making a catapult), with a focus on figuring out how things work or how to solve a problem.

Ultimately, through a focus on looking closely at the world around them, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity to take action and make changes, the AbD researchers posit that maker practices can enable young people to act on their world in constructive ways.

Among our findings in the first year of the project are that classrooms trying out these ideas experience more active engagement among students; many of the educators involved have grown more comfortable taking risks in the classroom and embracing interdisciplinary explorations; and the combination of bi-weekly learning groups and monthly seminars has supported the teachers in powerful ways.

As school-based leaders of the initiative, we now have a few wonderings we will continue to explore: Why has this initiative struck such a deep chord among the teachers involved? How do we insure that maker-centered approaches become part of the culture of a school? How can “systems thinking” inform the way we support students in analyzing complex material across subject areas? How do we differentiate professional learning opportunities for teachers from subject areas that already have making at their core, versus those that don’t? How can maker-centered learning assist students in addressing issues of power, privilege, and representation in various content areas?

We see these questions as exciting challenges and know that they speak to educators’ own concerns and passions.

This blog was published on January 28, 2019.
Authored by
Jaime Chao Mignano

Jaime Chao Mignano is a Senior Practioner Specialist on the JusticexDesign project and the STEAM Community Coordinator at Washington International School in Washington, D.C, home of Agency by Design's Making Across the Curriculum project.

Carole Geneix
Jim Reese

James "Jim" Reese is the Director of the Professional Development Collaborativet the Washington International School in Washington, DC.