May 23, 2016

Letters From Washington, DC

In the spring of 2016, Oakwood School sixth graders took their annual trip to Washington, DC. Below is a travel journal by teachers and chaperones that was shared daily with parents back in Los Angeles.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

“I just can’t get it into my head that we’re actually in Washington, DC!”

That quote from one of our sixth graders sums up the tremendous first day in our nation’s capital. Yes, we’re finally here, safe and sound, and the buzz of excitement is palpable amongst students and chaperones alike.

After retrieving our luggage, we were greeted by the friendly face of Preston, our expert bus driver and tour guide who has had the pleasure of introducing numerous Oakwood sixth grade classes to the fascinating sights of DC. Preston kept up a running commentary as we passed numerous places of interest, including the Congressional Cemetery, the Washington Navy Yard, the Marine Barracks, and the National Archives. Preston seemed quite impressed when the latter’s 72 ornate columns were correctly identified by the students as Corinthian.

After a tasty dinner came the highlight of our first evening: a visit to the staggeringly beautiful Jefferson Memorial, which is especially striking when seen at night. The children spent considerable time reading the inspiring inscriptions adorning the interior walls of the impressive structure and taking advantage of many photo opportunities to preserve their memories of this first taste of DC.

The Jefferson Memorial

Monday, April 25, 2016

There are moments in one’s life that are unforgettable, and today we shared one of those rare occasions with our students. Meeting and spending time with a Supreme Court Justice is, of course, a profound privilege in itself, but meeting one as warm, generous, and inspiring as Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a deeply life-affirming experience for all of us.

Yet that extraordinary meeting was but one component of a day packed with enriching activities. Up bright and early, we were pleased to see the students looking well-rested and primed for a day of discovery and excitement. After enjoying a hearty breakfast, our first stop was the home of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895): abolitionist, women’s rights activist, esteemed and influential orator . . . his accomplishments were seemingly endless. We viewed a film about his life, then were treated to a guided tour of his carefully preserved home, discovering along the way that the former slave turned U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia had not only taught himself to read, but also to play the violin and to speak three languages. Reverberations of the sixth grade human rights-based social studies curriculum ensured that the visit was rich with meaning for the entire class.

The United States Supreme Court was our next destination. We waited in line in the brilliant sunshine, the anticipation slowly building for our encounter with Justice Sotomayor. We finally entered the imposing building, making our way toward the venue for our meeting: the magnificently appointed East Conference Room, adorned with somber oil paintings of former chief justices and capped with a lavishly ornate ceiling. At one end of the room, a large armchair sat in waiting for its esteemed occupant to take her place before the audience of Oakwood students and their chaperones. Who was more excited, the children or the adults? It was impossible to know.

And then, we waited. The children maintained a hushed silence for around fifteen minutes (their respectful behavior filled us with pride) before, finally, Justice Sotomayor entered briskly and gave us all a warm welcome as though we were simply an especially large group of close friends.

The justice spoke with notable eloquence, but was never intimidating—quite the opposite! Her delight in regaling the children with deeply held beliefs about the nature of justice and the importance of the legal system was so vivid, and so spirited, that we couldn’t help but be completely absorbed. She asked the students how they thought laws affected their everyday lives, and by approaching the topic with lucid clarity, she helped both adults and children gain a firmer grasp on why we should care about the law and justice.

The justice took many questions from the children, who had prepared inquiries in advance, developing insightful and creative questions in the hope they would be called upon to ask them. Not everyone had the chance to ask a question, of course, but many did, with some examples being, “How has discrimination made you stronger?,” “Does bias influence your legal opinions?,” and “How has your relationship with your mother influenced your life?”

The children reflected afterwards that they found the justice awe-inspiring, but also very human. While there was no question that her presence was commanding, she also humanized lofty topics and made such a grand institution as the Supreme Court seem strikingly accessible, at least for those precious moments in her company.

The United States Supreme Court
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

It seems like the day could have ended there and still have been immensely satisfying, but we had yet more in store. A guided tour of the stunningly beautiful National Cathedral included many treasures, such as a sculpted pulpit portraying the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215 (another familiar topic to the sixth graders), the very pulpit from which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his final Sunday sermon in 1968. The students were also captivated by the “Space Window,” which incorporates a piece of moon rock brought back to Earth from the 1969 moon landing, and they appreciated the chance to touch the braille inscription on the plaque mounted where Helen Keller is interred.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was another highlight. The beautifully rendered likeness, gazing out at the Jefferson Memorial, loomed larger than life over the children as they considered how much, yet sadly how little, had changed between the time of Frederick Douglass’s struggles and the era of King’s.

We couldn’t end the day without acting on Justice Sotomayor’s recommendation that we walk through her favorite DC monument, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, where the children posed with statues of the four-term president, influential First Lady Eleanor, and FDR’s beloved Scottish terrier, Fala.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

After yesterday’s blockbuster schedule, you would be forgiven for thinking that today may have paled in comparison. On the contrary, however, the day we have just spent with your children was uniquely transformative for all of us. By the time the students returned to their rooms for the night, they had demonstrated a maturity far beyond their years, and their ability to grapple with profound human concerns with intellectual rigor and a deeply felt sense of empathy has made us so very proud of every one of them.

We began our morning with a brief but memorable visit to the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, a compelling arrangement of bronze sculptures, glass panels, and stone inscriptions anchored by a constantly burning ceremonial flame. Pondering the cost of war and the lifelong injuries sustained by many service members in armed conflicts around the globe was a fitting opening to a day punctuated by moments of serious reflection.

Our next stop was to partake in a much-treasured Oakwood sixth grade tradition: the preservation of our DC memories in the form of a group picture snapped in front of the Capitol Building. The structure’s grandeur was fully intact despite the scaffolding currently in place while the iconic Capitol dome is being restored.

We are fortunate during this trip to be exploring all three branches of government. Yesterday the judiciary featured strongly in our itinerary, and today we touched base with both the executive and the legislative branches. Our White House tour was an exciting way to connect with the former. We were in awe as we strolled through the Green Room, with its distinctive silk-covered walls enhanced by beautiful paintings, including the first work by an African American artist to be added to the permanent White House collection (Ossawa Tanner’s “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City”). We may not have been admitted into the Oval Office, but we were happy to settle for the oval-shaped Blue Room, where the President receives many heads of state, amongst other dignitaries, and we also had a glimpse into the White House’s well-stocked library. The sight of several presidential portraits was a highlight, especially the George Washington portrait that Dolley Madison famously saved from being looted by British troops. We were reminded, however, that slaves were the ones who did the heavy lifting to remove the weighty item, rather than Dolley herself.

Upon exiting the White House we were surprised by a special souvenir: a box of the famous red, white, and blue Presidential M&Ms. The treats inside may not have lasted long, but we’re sure the boxes that contained them will be treasured for years to come.


American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
United States Senator, Cory Booker

After yesterday’s revelatory visit with Justice Sotomayor, it was hard to imagine we would meet anybody else quite as magnetic over the course of the week, but today we were proven wrong when we were granted the opportunity to spend time with Cory Booker, the former “Super Mayor” of Newark and a current United States Senator. Senator Booker proved to be exceptionally charismatic, but moreover, we were impressed by his ability to inspire passion amongst the captivated students. “Stand out, don’t fit in,” he urged them, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln: “Everyone is born an original, but sadly most die copies.” The children hung on his every word, and his humor and sense of fun, coupled with an obvious commitment to responsible government and social justice, made for a tremendously entertaining interaction!

After some much-needed lunch, we dropped into the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum—a destination eagerly anticipated by many. The children enjoyed the opportunity to roam the exhibits independently in small groups before they hit the multi-story gift shop. Judging by their eagerness to show us their purchases, they were happy customers!

The children were then asked to shift gears quite dramatically as we drove to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Our guide Preston, always so reliably knowledgeable and sensitive, framed the impending experience with appropriate gravity, advising the children that it would leave them changed and enriched beyond measure.

Ascending several floors in elevators, we slowly worked our way down to ground level as the story of one of humanity’s most devastating tragedies unfolded before our senses. The students, having been well-primed in class, were familiar with many elements of the historic record—the growth of antisemitism in Europe, the Nazis’ rise to power, Hitler’s “Final Solution”—but the visceral impact of many of the exhibits, and the extent of the horrors that were documented, were acutely felt by all.

Upon returning to the hotel, we all needed to further process what we had seen and heard at the Holocaust Museum, so we gathered in a large conference room and shared the thoughts and feelings that we could no longer contain. The discussion was thoughtful and wide-ranging. Some asked how could this possibly happen? How could people kill children and babies? Others stressed the importance of questioning authority, and of choosing to cling on to hope when everything seems hopeless. Some debated whether, if one could go back in time and kill Hitler, these events could have been prevented. We discussed the similarities between the Holocaust and other forms of deadly prejudice, like slavery and the various genocides that have taken place throughout history and continue even today. And finally, we connected cruelty on a mass scale to the micro-prejudices that we all display at times, and that we can work toward eradicating from our own behaviors.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Our penultimate day in DC with the intrepid sixth grade class of 2016 was, quite simply, a blast! Today’s agenda was diverse, and the schedule as jam-packed as ever: two first-class museums, a guided tour of the United States Capitol, and a lengthy exploration of Arlington National Cemetery, led by none other than our very own Washington, DC, guide, Preston.

Fueled with our customary hearty breakfast, we headed out to destination number one: DC’s state-of-the-art home of all things journalistic, known as the Newseum. We began our whirlwind trip through the world of news gathering by watching a “4-D” movie featuring the recreated exploits of legendary American journalists, Nellie Bly and Edward R. Murrow. Before the film began, the children debated what the fourth “D” was going to be, with many predicting a 21st Century take on “Smell-O-Vision.” Perhaps fortuitously, this turned out not to be the case! Rather, the film was a very entertaining theme park-like experience combining vivid 3-D imagery with some well-timed jolts. Judging by the screams of delight from our students and their exuberant attempts to “touch” the images protruding from the large curved screen, they were satisfied with the thrilling effect, and took away some knowledge about the history of investigative journalism in the process. After the movie, the children were free to explore the various exhibits in small groups, and (it goes without saying!) to indulge a little in the gift shop.

Following on from our earlier visits to the Supreme Court and White House, the third and concluding episode in our “branches of government” saga awaited: the Capitol tour. The building is currently undergoing a major, years-long restoration project, and the underside of the central dome is substantially concealed with scaffolding and canvas. This didn’t seem to dampen the students’ interest, however, and our bubbly tour guide made the Capitol’s disguised appearance seem like quite a novelty!

Our group had a brush with yet another powerful government figure when former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, walked by, passing through the line of sixth graders. While some of the students were lucky enough to see her, the chaperones remained unaware of her presence until after she had vanished down a hallway, much to their chagrin!

After a long and busy morning, lunch was enjoyed with great enthusiasm, and then we were off to our second museum of the day: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This multi-story treasure trove of Americana proved a potent attraction for the sixth graders, with a highlight for many being the Star-Spangled Banner that was raised in 1814 to celebrate a victory over British forces during the War of 1812. Another popular sight was Prince’s custom-made bright yellow guitar, recently put on display to mark the passing of this legendary performer.

Our last stop of the day was a little more sober, but no less engaging. Preston, with his wealth of knowledge at the ready, took us all on a fascinating tour of Arlington National Cemetery, a resting place for military veterans serving in conflicts as early as the American Civil War. The students were especially drawn to the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy’s grave site, and were captivated by the Changing of the Guard and wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknowns, featuring the precision timing and breathtaking self-control displayed by the impeccably trained 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Our final day in DC was no less exhilarating than the jam-packed days before it. We began our morning with a visit to the DC offices of Human Rights Watch, a major nongovernmental research and advocacy organization that works tirelessly to pressure governments and corporations worldwide to redress egregious human rights violations. The group’s passionately dedicated Washington Director, Sarah Margon, and her overachieving colleagues, were impressed and delighted by our students’ astute and remarkably sophisticated questions on topics ranging from racial profiling, the European refugee crisis, and reproductive rights in China.

Unwilling to allow a heavy downpour to dampen our spirits, we unsheathed our umbrellas and explored three unmissable DC sights: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. The dramatic weather failed to diminish the Vietnam Memorial’s subtle but profoundly moving design by Maya Lin, nor the squad of 19 soldiers rendered in stainless steel that powerfully dominate the Korean Memorial. And no amount of precipitation could ever reduce the impact of a 19-foot tall, 175-ton Abraham Lincoln, who towered over the astonished children and their equally awestruck chaperones.


Finally, the rain graciously subsided for our visit to Mount Vernon, the historic home of George Washington, our nation’s first president. Following an engaging tour of the iconic mansion, we roamed the expansive grounds, enjoying the bucolic countryside and paying our respects at the Slave Memorial, a tribute to the many souls whose contribution to history came at the cost of their freedom. We ended the trip on a lighter note, as the children delighted in the antics of a large group of sheep and their hilarious cacophony.

We hope these updates have given you an insight into the wondrous few days we have just spent with your children, and we thank you for entrusting your dear ones to our care. The invaluable time we have spent with them, the sights and sounds we have witnessed, and the esteemed and inspiring people we have met, have amounted to a week we will always cherish.