Oak Grove School


As some reading this may already know, my journey of exploring holistic education began a number of years ago. There are many impactful experiences that have developed my own understanding of what it means to learn and grow. But, there is one in particular that stands out, and in many ways it is what inspired this current expedition. In 2016, and then again in 2019, I spent time at Shibumi, a small Krishnamurti School in Bangalore, India. Thanks to the divine workings of the universe, I met Karuna at a yoga course in Dehradun, India and she shared with me about Shibumi and some of Krishnamurti’s philosophy. I went on to read his work and listen to his talks on education and found them profound and thought provoking. It was during my visits to the school that I had the chance to spend time with the teachers and students and bear witness to the daily movement of living and learning that transpired in the school. I have since been deeply impacted by my time at Shibumi and feel that there is something invaluable about being in, experiencing, and seeing a school first-hand. This is why I wanted to travel and spend time at holistic schools, to gain such experiences that would create opportunity for my own deep learning and growth both as an educator and a human being.

img_1501I felt inspired to share a bit of my origin story as this current post is about Oak Grove School, the only Krishnamurti School in the US. I was excited to travel to Ojai, CA to visit Oak Grove and have another opportunity to experience an educational setting inspired by Krishnamurti’s teachings. There is much to be said about Krishnamurti’s work, however, one of his messages that has resonated with me deeply is the pursuit and engagement with self-inquiry. K encouraged those who listened to him to think for themselves, to constantly be curious, open, and inquisitive. We so often focus on trying to find the answer, to have solidity in our ideas and thoughts, rather than to maintain a state of present awareness that opens us to consider and see life-and-being deeply. We are quick to be drawn into the latest fad in educational pedagogy, the new method that is the “best practice.” We then decide that “this is it, we have solved the educational puzzle!” As soon as we land on “it,” we stop seeing what “is.” Our awareness to what is gets muted and our opportunity to be open, curious, and adaptable shuts down. This, among many other topics came up when we met with Jodi Grass, the director of Oak Grove School. She shared that K’s teachings are very subtle, they are not meant to command or be authoritative, they are questions for us where the intention is to look. Jodi, and the school as a whole, attempt to create space for this practice of looking.

img_1557On the morning of our visit to Oak Grove, we began the day with a dialogue in which we read a short excerpt and contemplated together how Krishnamurti suggested his secret was that he “doesn’t mind what happens.” The dialogues take place every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday and are attended by teachers, staff, and parents. It is an opportunity to listen to others and inquire about the deepest aspects of being. It is not a meeting to discuss what is happening in the school, although topics relating to school life may very well arise, or to directly address a conflict. Dialogues are an invitation for us to step back and notice ourselves and our own movements in daily life. Through this process we may begin to see further into broader aspects of being human such as fear, love, relationships, conditionings, and attachments. It is not an attempt to find a definitive answer, but to openly look together into what it means to be human.

img_1560Next, we were invited to attend the “pastoral care time.” Pastoral care is a time dedicated every morning to mental and physical health and wellness. All the students in every grade participate in their own practice, and parents are also invited to an adult pastoral care session led by various volunteers. It is a non-religious form of guidance and puts mindfulness and attention to the well-being of the self and the community at the forefront of the day. We joined the adult session which was a lovely practice of yogic breathing techniques and mantra chanting. It felt both refreshing and revitalizing, the energy from the practice, and the sense that the whole community was also engaged in something similar was marvelously uplifting.

Another practice that is school wide is the council practice. Students or teachers can call for a council in which the class will sit together in a circle and use a speaking stick to discuss a situation or respond to a question together. During this sacred time, the intention is to listen completely, with your whole body to the words of others and don’t plan what you are going to say in response. In this space of deep listening, students bring up questions they may have and want to discuss, such as, “Do you have to be friends with everyone?” Jodi explained to us that in that space we respond to the questions, not the people. There are so many questions that we all share, and so many ways of looking at the solutions. It isn’t about finding one answer, but to understand the importance of looking together and gaining some insight into ourselves, and our being in the world. As the students progress through the school, this process carries on. In high school, the students take part in regular inquiries based on questions or provocations of their choosing.

Reflective communication also came up in our discussion with Jodi. Again, this starts from deep listening, understanding, and a mirroring (or reflection) of what someone is saying. Instead of looking at a child’s drawing and commenting that it is beautiful or well done, one might respond, “tell me about this section here.” Or in a situation where a child behaved in a certain way, you might ask them to tell you what they were thinking when they did that. It opens space for expression and allows the child to be heard, rather than told. These practices seem to be a central and guiding practice among the teachers and students. The teachers want to support the children reflecting for themselves, essentially, thinking for themselves, rather than sending them a message of how we want them to be or think. By saying, “that’s a pretty picture of a sun you drew”, the child may now feel that you like when they draw suns in that way and they will continue to draw them like that in order to please you. In addition, the child who overhears that comment might also start drawing suns in the same fashion to gain attention and recognition from you. Jodi shared some stories about how teachers in the school learn the impact of using such feedback, they understand how it establishes a sense of authority and need to please that authority. Because they understand this dynamic, they understand how to respond in a way that promotes reflection and growth.

img_1530So one may wonder, how do the teachers develop this deep, authentic understanding? It doesn’t come from a set of school rules that states… “we will not comment on students’ work with this sort of feedback.” It comes because they have conversations about it as a community of educators. They inquire and look together at these questions. Their presence and responses in the classroom are based off of their own deep understanding they have gained through their own self work. There is no authority to dictate what is the best way to respond and support the growth of children, we as educators have to uncover that for ourselves.

img_1546During our tour of the school with Jodi, we felt a peacefulness from simply being on the school’s vast campus. The layout is aesthetically pleasing to behold and warmly invites you to bask in the variety of lovely indoor and outdoor spaces. The land isn’t overwhelmed with buildings, there is space to breath and enjoy nature. One place that was particularly interesting was the “Lost Meadow.” Jodi explained that this part of the school was left untouched. If a tree fell, they left it exactly as it was. The students would go to the lost meadow to explore and look at how the natural landscape has changed over time. They would even study animals as they naturally decomposed. There is typically such an urgency in our society to clean things up, to modernize and develop. In doing so, we miss the beauty and learning opportunities that the land’s natural movements provide when humans don’t interfere.

Beyond the land of the school’s campus, the students of Oak Grove start from an early age becoming familiar with lands beyond their school grounds. In elementary school they will go on trips to the beach (a lovely benefit of being in southern California) and progress each year from going with parents, to going with parents overnight, to going without parents, then several days without parents. In 5th grade they go to the desert at Joshua Tree, and in 6-8th grade they go camping. In 9th grade they do local hikes, in 10th grade they go backpacking and bushwhacking. By 11th grade they take a 10-day trip, and culminate their time at the school in their senior year with a trip to India. This gradual progression creates a greater sense of independence each year. It is beneficial for both the students and the parents as it builds agency, and help parents to let go. The children overcome challenges and learn their own limits.

Before some students and teachers headed off on one of these camping trips, Camden and I had the chance to chat with Mary Kelley, the 6th grade teacher. She shared about some of her personal insights from engaging with Krishnamurti’s work and gave us some interesting provocation. She shared that “Krishnamurti’s teachings suggest something impossible, but that is the beauty, to be in the impossible. We learn to be in discontent, to be moving.” It is as if the secret to success is continuous failure. If you feel that you have figured it out, solved the problem, and landed on an ultimate explanation, that is just as problematic as feeling like you haven’t done it. We have so many ideas of what a school “should” be, but schools and places of learning are always moving, changing, growing, just as we are. Instead of focusing on what we should be, we might just try focusing on being.

img_1565As always, I would like to conclude with the gesture that Jodi shared with us as an embodied expression of Oak Grove. She reached out her arms in a movement of openness and creating space, and then folded her hands in front of her heart in spiritual reverence explaining that when you remove the conditionings, the spiritual is all that is left. I would like to extend deep gratitude to Jodi and Mary for taking the time to meet with us and share about Oak Grove. We are also deeply grateful to Liz and her husband Jeff for warmly hosting us during out time in Ojai, as well as their friends, Laurie and Ollie (Oak Grove teachers) whose home we stayed in during our visit. The warmth and welcome we received during our entire stay in Ojai was deeply touching and we feel so blessed to have connected with such an incredible group of educators and human beings!

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