May 11, 2023

Empowering Students to Put Learning Into Action

Denise Ross / Elementary Campus Principal

The following is an edited version of presentations delivered by our school principals at Oakwood’s State of the School event, which took place on May 1, 2023, at Oakwood Secondary Campus.

These words from our Statement of Philosophy speak to the truth that the school’s mission has always been rooted in Action and that we are always evolving the ways we bring this core belief to life. It is no coincidence that this year, our school theme is Transforming Our Future.

In 2013, the editor of Independent School Magazine, Michael Brosnan, wrote “By connecting learning to life, engaging students in their local communities and connecting them to global communities, linking disciplines to each other, encouraging students to make things, and setting them loose to solve real-world problems, we are helping students find that essential spark not only to build their academic resumes but also to be creative, caring, capable, engaged human beings.”

Those words resonate as they answer the question, “Why Action?” I hope to illuminate the ways that Oakwood has been investing in our students by doing this work–one step at a time.


Two years ago at the elementary campus, we changed our schedule to be able to provide more course offerings. One addition was Spanish-language instruction, and the other was Explorations. In the video below, you can see Explorations in action and hear from two of my colleagues, Shane Finch and Samantha Brawn, as they speak to the intentions and values of this class with knowledge, clarity, and conviction.

The learning experiences in Explorations are the first steps in developing the skills and habits of mind to put learning into action. And as you’ll see, Explorations also lays the foundation for the brilliant work that students go on to do at our secondary campus.

This next video showcases a 4th grade class project that touches on many elements of a comprehensive social justice Action project. It is interdisciplinary, involving work with Kat Svetlik, our librarian, and Samantha Brawn, our science teacher. It is student-driven, with classmates choosing the focus of their groups, leading the research, and creating proposals for the work they would do in the garden. Many facets of their projects consider sustainability and other environmental issues. And this all culminates with an activism project on the topics of climate change and biodiversity, followed by our students crafting calls to action in the form of persuasive letters to lawmakers.

The video below also presents a strong curricular connection between divisions, from elementary to middle school—something that has been a  primary focus in recent years:

Action at the Secondary Campus

From the emerging activities in Kindergarten to robust 4th grade social justice projects, we now move to the secondary campus, where Action in its various forms is integral to the educational journeys of 7-12 graders.

Immersion is the quintessential experiential learning approach, embodying the important educational goals of today’s students and tomorrow’s world citizens. These classes broaden and deepen knowledge, providing hands-on learning and application to real-life issues. Immersion also expands learning, curriculum, and pedagogy beyond the classroom walls into the communities of greater Los Angeles.

While these classes are grounded in our core beliefs and values, as with all programs and approaches, we are continually evolving and improving experiences for students. Secondary campus educators are exploring ways to provide:

  • An emphasis on connecting immersion to UN sustainable development goals
  • More cohesive grade-level experiences at key moments
  • Opportunities for language-based immersion, through trips and other avenues for authentic language acquisition and use
  • A reenvisioning of senior projects by potentially moving them to an earlier part of the school year and strengthening connections between senior projects and immersion.

Today, I would like to highlight two of those immersive experiences–both of which have connections to the elementary campus and incorporate the DEI and social justice lens.

Honoring Indigenous People Through Mural Making

This project was a partnership with our local resident tribe, the Fernandeno-Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, which enabled students to investigate how culture changes and adapts to new contexts, and the role of historical moments in the creation of art. The questions inspiring this study included 1) Who controls what images we see? 2) What are the purposes of a mural? 3) What space does a mural hold in the community?

The result of this Immersion course is a new mural at our secondary campus Math & Science Building. Soon, the tribal president will visit Oakwood to lead a blessing at a forthcoming community event.

Exploring Immersion Journeys in 8th Grade

Another Action-focused highlight in the planning stages is for the entire 8th grade class to take an Immersion journey to Washington, D.C. While the upper grades at the elementary campus begin to lay foundational knowledge of American history, this 8th grade study, through its carefully-crafted itinerary, will build community, integrate experiential and cross-discipline learning, explore social justice and DEI issues, and see classroom learning come alive.

Vision without action is merely a dream.
Action without vision just passes the time.
Vision with action can change the world.

Joel A. Barker

The Pad Project & Gender Justice at Oakwood

The Pad Project needs no introduction, but it is critical to underscore that the idea behind this organization was conceived by Oakwood students when they learned that girls their age were missing school because of their periods. Our students raised funds to purchase a pad-making machine with their NGO partner Action India and documented the process on film. Their documentary, Period. End of Sentence won an Academy Award, which sparked a global conversation and launched the Pad Project. Today, The Pad Project is a 501(c)(3) that funds menstrual health programs nationally and internationally in 13 countries.

More recently, Oakwood hosted its inaugural and highly successful Gender Justice Summit, partnering with the Pad Project to bring together human rights leaders from around the world who are working to achieve United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #5: to promote Gender Equality. More than 400 guests heard keynotes by human rights activists from India, Kenya, and the US and participated in dozens of breakout sessions led by members of the Oakwood community. Most importantly, this provided an opportunity for students to combine learning and active engagement with real-life implications as they served as task force leaders, performers, and breakout facilitators.

The Oakwood Gender Justice Summit, February 11, 2023

Taking Action on the Climate Crisis

Last month, Oakwood middle and high school students presented at the Buckley Climate Conference. The goal of this conference was to explore the relationship between human systems, climate change, and our environment. Students presented on topics such as the Amazon’s biome, the tundra, greenhouse gasses, and overfishing. The compelling piece of this, beyond the workshop presentations, was the challenge for students to “communicate a message that inspires others to act.”

Environmental Justice at Oakwood is a student organization on the secondary campus that developed into the sustainability working group last year, which also includes board members and administrators, parents, guardians, and faculty. The efforts of these students will ensure that their school is more environmentally-minded through sustainability initiatives.