Mariana Aguilar leads the Research team at education technology company, GoGuardian. In her role, she seeks to understand the relationship between the digital learning experience and student outcomes. Mariana began her career in education as a Teach for America corps member teaching 3rd grade in South LA. Since then, she has worked with various education non-profits including Murmuration and Citizens of the World Los Angeles. In addition to her time spent in education, Mariana brings both political and business expertise from her time serving as an elected official on the Del Rey Neighborhood Council and as a Consultant at Deloitte. Mariana earned her B.A. in Social Science with an emphasis in Psychology from USC, and an M.A. in Urban Education with an emphasis in Digital Learning from Loyola Marymount University.

Daniel: Will I ever learn my lesson. I get excited about an idea and in an almost manic like obsession, I throw all my energy and focus into a project. When I come up for air, I am beaming a grin plastered across my face from ear to ear. The problem is that when I share my project with the world and silence, nothing but crickets, because I forgot a major first step. I forgot you. Today's guest Mariana Aguilar learned a similar lesson. She got excited for an incredible library project only to get just a few steps from the finish line and turn back around. We'll start there in today's episode and share the major lessons learned about building networks and working complex projects. Hey, it's Daniel and welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, or show for Ruckus Makers. Those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our show's sponsors.

Daniel: All students have an opportunity to succeed with organized binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning. Whether that's in a distance hybrid or traditional educational setting, learn more@organizedbinder.com.

Daniel: Today's podcast Is brought to you by Teach FX. It's basically like a Fitbit for teachers helping them be mindful of teacher talk versus student talk, get a special 20% discount for your school or district by visiting teachfx.com/BLBS. I believe that school leaders are doing the best they can, but is it possible to be just a little bit better? According to Demetrius a school leader in California, the best part of the Mastermind is the hot seat. I learned so much from the challenges that we all shared during the hot seat because of the feedback that our members give is so insightful and valuable. Lauren, our principal in Washington, DC, remarked that the best part of the Mastermind is access to tremendous thought. Partnering. If you would benefit from getting connected to other elite school leaders and would enjoy discussing education and leadership deeply each week, then we welcome your application to the Mastermind. Apply today at better leaders, better schools.com/Mastermind. The Ruckus Maker. I am here with Mariana Aguilar who leads the research team at an education tech company Go guardian. Mariana began her career in education as a teach for America Corps member teaching third grade in South Los Angeles. She earned her bachelor's in social science with an emphasis in psychology, from USC and a master's in urban education with an emphasis in digital learning from Loyola Marymount University. Mariana, welcome to the show.

Mariana: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here today, Danny.

Daniel: Pleasure. So take us to the end of your first year teaching. You worked on a summer project regarding a library. You were very excited. You had a lot of support from senior leadership, but one of the local school leaders wasn't totally invested what happened.

Mariana: Yes, absolutely. This story brings me back. So it was the end of my first year teaching. It was also the year that common core was going to be rolled out here in California. Over the summer I had finished my first year. I was very excited to be going back into the classroom and my second year, and I was also aware that there was a project to build our new school campus along with the library on the campus. I was really excited and felt that there would be an opportunity for students to participate in creating their school environment by designing their local school library. I spent my entire summer creating a project-based curriculum using common core that would enable students to work in small groups, to design the library where they would actually be creating the kind of floor plan and the budgets.

Mariana: The vision was that they would then propose these designs in small groups and the winning team would have their design built. I was really excited about this. I've always firmly believed in the importance of students participating in creating their environment and creating these types of real-world learning experiences. I took the full curriculum to some of the executive leadership at the organization. They were incredibly supportive, very excited about it, that it was a big lesson for me because come the very start of the school year, what I learned was that some of the local school leadership felt that this wasn't the right time. We were switching to common core and the focus really needed to be on rolling out this new curriculum effectively and preparing our students for the new set of assessments that would come at the end of the year. I think this story really illustrates sometimes the excitement, the energy, certainly the passion that a lot of folks I believe, feel and wanting to create transformational learning experiences, but also a really important learning around the importance of building buy-in or with this community and not just trying to create change alone. So that's a great story. Thank you so much for asking about it, Dan.

Daniel: Appreciate you sharing it. Where you ended there. I think it'd be very valuable for the Ruckus Maker listening. They're leading in a complex school environment and definitely have to navigate the organization and buy in and not giving up on partnerships. So what did you learn through that experience and what tips might you offer the listener?

Mariana: Absolutely. This is really critical. A school is very much an organization. Many of the practices that come into play when navigating any organization, be it a business, a nonprofit or school still really rang true. I think one really key component there is to identify who the key stakeholders are in any decision-making process. I was in a school, yes, this is usually the administrators and the school leaders, but it can also be parents. I think that's a really critical stakeholder group that oftentimes is overlooked within a school community, but there play a really large role in success of their students as well as in the success of the school. So I would say thinking about one who are the key stakeholders that need to be involved in this decision, and then two, how do you involve them in that decision-making process, whether it's having a parent assembly in the evening to be able to invite those conversations or meeting with your administrators in order to discuss a potential idea or facilitating a professional learning community with like-minded educators. Right. But it's about identifying the stakeholders and then bringing them in to be a part of the solution making process.

Daniel: Yeah. So making sure that everybody has a seat at the table and using them as focus groups or whatever dig into their lived experience because ultimately whatever you're trying to build is going to be a lot more successful if you bring them with you. Is that right? Cool. So I remember you sharing that. You did a pretty neat, whale project, I think, with some younger students and you brought them to college visits, tell us about those experiences.

Mariana: Yes. The whale project. That is how I remember it too. One of the things that I did in my classroom, as I've mentioned, I believe it's very important to create these types of experiences where students have an opportunity to connect with their learning and apply it to the real world. We spent some time at the end of the school year, beginning to really read articles and leverage these types of resources out there Newsela. was a tool. I used a lot in my classroom, which I'm sure many folks listening are probably familiar with, but if they're not in Newsela offers differentiated news content at different reading levels. And so this enabled my students to be able to engage in the content, the reading level that was appropriate for them. And then we would have a really meaningful discussion. And so one of my favorite moments as we read this article about climate change, and I asked my students to come up with a solution in groups, come up with a solution that would allow us to reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation of supplies and goods.

Mariana: The idea that I always remember, because I think it really beautifully illustrates the imagination of children. This one group said, "Well, we've been learning a lot and we know that whales migrate and all these ships have to travel around the world. So what if we actually had the whales that are already migrating, pull the ships, the ships don't have to use gasoline and this idea, it just, it brings a smile to my face. I hope it brings a smile to yours as you're listening. I think it illustrates the imagination, the creativity and the desire for students, no matter how old they are, right? These were third graders to participate and to want to be a part of building a better world. So that's one of my favorite story.

Daniel: Well, the neat thing about that too. So there's the creativity imagination of your students. I think it was Einstein who said that imagination is actually more important than knowledge, which is pretty wild having somebody like Einstein say that about imagination. But the other thing I want to Ruckus Maker really think about is the kid was looking at something that was already happening and how could we sort of latch on physically and figuratively a problem to something that was already happening to potentially find a solution. So I don't know what the concrete example is for you, Ruckus Maker, that's listening or whatever issues you may be experiencing right now. There might be a way to actually solve it, just connecting it to something that's already occurring within your organization.

Mariana: Absolutely. Danny, I think that's an excellent point. So often it is about creating those partnerships, right. And seeing the opportunities for partnerships, even amongst your students, if there's an issue that they care about or that they're passionate about solving, oftentimes there's an opportunity to be able to connect students with local organizations where they can volunteer or intern or bringing in that organization into your own classroom, to co-create a project or maybe a small group, or even the entire class as an opportunity to take action in their community to address an issue that they feel is most pressing. So yes, I think that's an excellent point. Thank you so much for highlighting.

Daniel: Yeah. In terms of partnerships and networks, I know that's something that you're passionate about. Do you have any tips for the Ruckus Maker listening who wants to expand her network and to create more powerful partnerships? What are some things that she might consider?

Mariana: Great question? I think the most important thing about partnerships is to recognize that there are partnership opportunities all around you. I think it can be very easy to feel like partnerships are not accessible or that they're very formal, but a lot of partnerships can begin through your own network itself. So whether that's through other teachers at your school, friends or family, but beginning to even talk about what are the needs in your own classroom or in your school is a great way to start, because you might surprised by the people who are also solving similar challenges. So I firmly believe in starting with the people you already know beyond that. I think there are tremendous opportunities in local government institutions here in Los Angeles. We have neighborhood councils, but I would highly recommend looking at the structure of local government because oftentimes there are city or neighborhood structures that are very eager to support local schools.

Mariana: And will be able to play that role of partner or even facilitating partnerships with other local nonprofits as well. So that's another excellent place to start. And then lastly, I would suggest even looking at local businesses, a lot of times, small businesses are facing challenges that they need support with. And there can be an opportunity to partner with a local business to address one of their business challenges, perhaps as a project based learning opportunity for your students. There might also be a larger enterprises that have corporate social responsibility divisions and corporate social responsibility divisions within an enterprise are responsible for ensuring that that company invest time and resources into the local community. And so there might be for example, a local bank that has a financial literacy program and really wants to find a school to deliver the financial literacy program to. And they also might have a hard time finding that local school. There's an opportunity for you as a teacher or an administrator or school leader, education policy maker, even to reach out and facilitate that connection because there's a lot of interest out there.

Daniel: Mariana, I know you've used storytelling, you used it in today's conversation so far, but you've used it in your life in leadership as well to make change happen. One of those ways was to increase crossing guards or around us school community. So how do you use storytelling in order to do that?

Mariana: Yes. Great question. Absolutely. So a little bit of background context here. The crossing guard issue was really emerged as a result of conversations with schools and community leaders in which we found that there have been incidences of fatalities where students have been walking to school with their parents, and there had not been crossing guards in front of the school and there were some really tragic accidents. As a result, we were able to come together and advocate for the importance of reinstilling crossing guards and reallocating the budget. Oftentimes people wonder how do you create the impetus, the inertia and the need to create change like this. And I really think it comes back to storytelling. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful way for building human connection and for understanding what are the challenges that other people are feeling. So when I think about storytelling, I think the most important question that you can ask someone is why, why are you doing X? Or why do you feel this way? A why question really gets at the experiences someone else's having and why that experience is driving them or why it fuels them. And so I think the power of storytelling is that it enables you to understand what is the underlying cause for someone to feel like they need to take it.

Daniel: The why question is so profound and it's, it's an easy one, but a lot of people forget that step. And even ask why over and over back to a kid, but the more layers you continue to dig, you get to the real essence for what's happening there. I appreciate you. You sharing that I think this a good place. We can take a quick pause for a message from our sponsors. And when we get back, I'd love to talk more about Go Guardian and how partnering with the research team might help out school leaders. Today's show is brought to you by organized binder, organized binder develops the skills and habits. All students need for success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom.Learn more at organizedbinder.com. Are you automatically tracking online student participation data during COVID innovative school leaders across the country have started tracking online student participation using Teacher FX because it's one of the most powerful ways to improve student outcomes during COVID, especially for English learners and students of color. Learn more about Teach FX and get a special offer@teachfx.com/BLBS that's @teachfx.com/BLBS .

Daniel: All right. And we're back with Mariana Aguilar who leads the research team at an ad tech company Go Guardian. I'd love to talk about how partnering with Go Guardian as research team is helpful for, for Ruckus Makers. I know that leaders have a difficult time zooming out and taking a break from the immediate emergencies in tasks that need to happen. But even that part is important, but more important is the partnership that you find in the work that you can do together. I love you to take some time and just express what you do there.

Mariana: Yes, absolutely. Thank you, Danny. So we're very excited at GoGuardian about building the ultimate learning platform. This is our mission and our vision and the way that we bring research and school partners into this is that we firmly believe that in order to achieve such an ambitious vision, we need to work hand in hand with, with school leaders, with teachers, with students who understand and know this experience best. One of our key initiatives and programs is our school research partnership. In these partnerships, we are really looking for schools and school leaders, teachers who are very forward-thinking, who are trying to solve really tough challenges around what does the future of digital learning? What does it look like? What are those challenges that teachers and students and school leaders are facing? And so in this program, we work really closely with our K-12 school partners, to be able to identify the challenges that they're facing and really work together to co-create solutions, to some of these challenges and to better understand those challenges that they're up against.

Mariana: So if there are Ruckus Makers listening who are teachers or school leaders, or perhaps you're even a parent at a school that you believe has a culture that this would really resonate with, that's asking questions, like, what is the future of digital learning look like? How is technology used in the most effective way to facilitate transformational learning experiences? Then I would love to connect. Go Guardian would love to connect. I think that these are the types of school partners are really interested in embarking on a journey on together because it will very much be a journey trying to do something so ambitious and so unprecedented.

Daniel: So if somebody reaches out and they're interested in this kind of work and defining what digital learning might look like in the future, or solving some of these interesting challenges that, that the Ruckus Maker is interested in, what does it look like potentially maybe to, to work together and is there a best way to reach out?

Mariana: Yes, absolutely. So we always begin with, we work really closely. Our research team works really closely with our partnerships team and any of these types of relationships always begin with a workshop facilitated by our partnerships team to really understand what are the unique challenges and questions that each unique school community has. And from there we, co-create a partnership that really works fast to meet the needs of each of our school partners and to engage in answering some of these complex questions. So if folks are interested in participating in this, they can reach out directly to me on LinkedIn or Twitter. You can also reach out to go guardian directly as well.

Daniel: Cool. And we'll have those links up for you Ruckus Maker in the show notes as well to make communication very easy. I wonder if you think about your old third grade students in South LA and take a swing at the question, like Why do research partnerships matter to schools? And would you explain that to a third grader?

Mariana: I love that. Why do research partnerships matter to schools and how would I explain it to a third grader? Yeah, I think if I were speaking to my third graders, I would say something along the lines of, as you guys may remember, we've recently learned about the scientific method and how important it is to follow a really specific process when you're trying to understand or gathered new information or new understanding about a topic. And so really similarly, as you have probably looked around at your own experience within a school, there are a lot of decisions that the adults make about what tools to use. How often, what textbooks do you have, what time is lunch, all of these types of questions and all of these types of decisions, uh, have an opportunity to be studied, to understand a really simple question, is it working and how could it work better? And so when your school and your school leaders are thinking about how to make really effective decisions or how to evaluate if a decision is working or not, your school might choose to partner with an organization like Go Guardian to better understand some of these challenges about what is working and what is not working. And we would use the same type of process, the scientific method that you all just recently learned about in your science class,

Daniel: Thank you for taking a stab at that. You handled it brilliantly. It was fun to see you go into teacher mode too. I like asking questions like that because it always unlocked something that I didn't hear before. It makes it a little more clear and a lot more practical for me. So I appreciate it. So Mariana, what message would you put on all school markees across the globe if you could do so for just a day?

Mariana: Excellent. So I think the most important message to get across is that change starts with you, whether you're a student or a teacher or a school leader, an administrator, counselor, parent, picking up your child from school, we all have the opportunity to shape the world around us and change really begins with each of us. So the message would be changed, begins with you. This is a call to action, to be a part of creating the type of change that you want to see in the world.

Daniel: You're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources. You're only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?

Mariana: Yeah, great question. I think how I would go about building the dream school, as I mentioned at the start of this podcast is how I would go about building the dream school. It was involving all of the key community members in the process to understand what the community needs from students, to administrators, teachers, every stakeholder, really having an opportunity to shape what is needed in that school. With regards to the top three priorities. One I would say is resourcing beyond just teachers and administrators, but in order to truly support students, the whole child, we need to be thinking about counselors. Uh, when you, after school programs, enrichment programs, how do we really bring in those resources for students? So one would be resourcing. The second would be a really strong partnerships program. So I know we've touched on this throughout the show, but I think that partnerships is what can really enhance the school experience for a child, as well as integrate the school as a true community center where students and families can go to find resources and opportunities.

Mariana: So I think the second is partnerships. And then third as a former educator, I think that curriculum, that experience that students have is critical. So I would be extremely interested and investing in and developing or finding the optimal curricular experience that really enables students to participate in co-creating their learning environment and even co-creating their community. So how do we create a project based curriculum that empower students to truly participate in owning the creation of their environment? So those for me are the top three resourcing partnerships and curricular experience in order to build a school that truly functions as a community center. Thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we've talked about today. What's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember? You can do it. You can be the chain.

Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel F better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at alien earbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alienearbud and using #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.

Show Highlights

  • Lessons on building networks when introducing complex projects
  • The Whale Project that produces solutions to concrete problems and highlights your purpose  
  • Your network is bigger than you think. Tips to expand and create more powerful partnerships 
  • Why questions that peel back the layers of understanding to drive meaningful change
  • Build the ultimate personalized learning platform to transformal learning questions with Go Guardian
  • The key to Including stakeholders to be a part of the solution making process 
Mariana Aguilar: The importance of partnerships for school leaders

“The most important message to get across is that change starts with you. Whether you’re a student or a teacher or a school leader, an administrator, counselor, parent, picking up your child from school, we all have the opportunity to shape the world around us… This is a call to action.”

Mariana Aguilar 



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