Youth create mural to celebrate their local watershed

How can art deepen our learning and understanding from a science class and how can it inspire stewardship/connection for our local ecology?

I had the privilege this Spring to facilitate a multimedia mural that engaged an entire student body at a K – 3rd grade elementary school in Petaluma with this question. Further questions followed: Why create art? Why care for our environment and our local species? What are some names of local species? What is the relationship between a butterfly and steelhead trout and why does this matter? And what do these questions have to do with our school??

My hope for the school and students through the creation of this mural: To inspire and create beauty, stewardship and pride for one’s local ecology – the ecology of the elementary school, surrounding community neighborhood, and natural watershed landscape.

The students, teachers, and I explored these questions and answers while collaboratively dreaming up, designing, and creating a multimedia mural that would celebrate the local Petaluma watershed. Choosing this theme was easy, the students were luckily learning about steelhead and environmental stewardship in their classes. Collectively, we realized that the austere and boring 300 foot long chain link fence in front of the entrance of the school desperately needed color, beautification and a welcoming attitude. Materials and mural design came next – surplus factory fabric was collected for weaving strips of color to create the landscape background, donated wood was shaped and cut into steelhead trout, monarch butterflies, and trillium flowers, and paint generously donated by Friedman’s Home Improvement was used to paint these local species.

Weaving the connection between art and ecology

So back to the original question – how can art deepen our understanding and connection with science and the local ecology? Art allowed and demanded that the students engage their classroom and local knowledge of the watershed landscape on creative, physical, and intellectual levels. While weaving, they physically created and felt the motions of a flowing river and the peaks and valleys of the rolling Petaluma hills.

The students had freedom towards how to paint and represent the local species – ranging from very realistic to extraordinarily magically – learning color mixing techniques, observational skills, and pattern recognition. Throughout the project, they worked in pairs and small groups, learning how to successfully work as a team and collaboratively make choices. The students experienced an environmental art project – learning with just a few surplus resources what a team can do to transform a boring fence into beautiful color piece of art. Finally, they transferred classroom knowledge to the outdoors and had fun!

I am grateful that such an art creation can offer such multidimensional learning opportunities for the students and community. The excitement, joy, and intelligence of the students was so influential towards the success of this project. The result? Students finished the mural feeling pride and connection for their school and its beautification, their local watershed and its species, and inspired to further care their place of home.

Bal Tashchit for the Bay

Michael with David Lewis
Seventh grader Michael Sipes presents Save The Bay Executive Director David Lewis with the fund raised for his Tzedakah Project.

Michael Sipes is a 7th grader at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School who selected Save The Bay for his Tzedakah project, which honors the Jewish value of obligatory giving. Each student chooses a Jewish value and a social issue that aligns with the value, as well as an organization working on the issue. Students then commit to volunteering, advocating, and fundraising for the organization.

Michael chose the value of Bal Tashchit and identified Save The Bay as an organization working to prevent environmental degradation. He fundraised $1,300 dollars for Save The Bay as part of his Tzedakah project, which he presented to Executive Director David Lewis.

In his own words, this is why Michael chose Save The Bay for his Tzedakah project:

The value I chose for the 7th Grade Tzedakah Project was Bal Tashchit (בל תשח׳ת), which means to protect our world. Bal Tashchit is important because the world is our most precious resource, and we must do everything we can, to protect it from harm. Save the Bay is an organization that works on solving environmental degradation by preventing pollution, restoring wetlands and by stopping bay fill in the Bay Area. By doing this, they are enacting Bal Tashchit. For those reasons I chose Save the Bay as my organization.

Thank you to Michael for your commitment to protecting our world through protecting San Francisco Bay!

Guest Post | Planting the Future

Planting the Future
Students help restore San Francisco Bay during a planting program with Save The Bay.

Jose Gonzalez recently experienced one of Save The Bay’s Restoration Education Programs. These observations were originally posted on his blog, Green Chicano.

A cool San Francisco Bay morning is warming up on a marshy shore of the Martin Luther King Jr. Shoreline, part of the East Bay Regional Park District.

A couple of joggers and walkers are on the trail as birds flutter about in the bushes and gulls and geese fly overhead.

Soon enough I hear some voices in the distance, distinguishable to me in much the same way birders can tune in to specific bird calls. “It’s a class of 4th or 5th graders”, I thought to myself.

Led by their teacher, they come up the trail and are greeted by staff from Save The Bay, a regional organization committed to the protection of the San Francisco Bay.

The students are here to do some habitat restoration, but first it is time for introductions and some warm up activities.

Looking at the group of 5th graders, the majority of them are Latino—I can hear their various comments to each other in Spanish though they understand and readily respond to questions in English about marsh habitats, sharks, and food webs.

This is the future”, I think to myself, highlighted by three key demographic statements. Since 2010, the majority of school children in California schools are Latino. Furthermore, undergraduate applications to the University of California system were dominated by Latinos for the first time while this year may close with Latinos being the largest single ethnic group in the state.

As the saying goes, “the future is now.”

After some introductions and a “marsh march”, the students make their way to a section marked by flags. A Save The Bay staff member demonstrates the process for planting native plant species.

The kids are eager, still full of energy even after playing an active game to calm and focus them.

But they take to the task with much enthusiasm. Most of the boys run off to several sections while many of the girls calmly and methodically replicate the process of planting: dig the hole, tap the plant out of its casing, line it with the ground, add dirt, add mulch, add water and yell “plant check” for validation of a job well done. Then it is on to planting the next sapling.

The work the students are doing is important for several reasons.

First of all, restoring marshes provides direct habitat to many species that rely on the bay wetlands as a home and migration stops. In restoring the marshes, it also helps bay communities with potential flooding, not to mention the enhanced recreational aspects of having access to beautiful parkland and functioning habitats for wildlife. All of this in the face of marshes at risk from climate change.

But the process also helps connect the students directly with the land and outdoors in proactive ways. And it is heartening to see a group of Latino students so actively engaged.

Earlier in the day I struck up a conversation in Spanish with a parent volunteer. “All but one of them knows Spanish” she said. “And the teachers, though not Latino, know Spanish as well.”

It’s interesting because I think they thought they were going to pick up trash, but I like that they can come out here and learn about this place.”

I thought about that comment later on as the kids were antsy to start planting and one girl asked if she could just pick up trash—a helpful task, but it is good that kids get to engage with the environment hand- on beyond just litter cleanup, and to engage with it beyond as a lecture or presentation piece. I am reminded of how the writer Richard Louv put it: let them climb trees.

I introduced myself to several students. I noticed that in speaking Spanish to them, their demeanor would change at times—hard to exactly say but it seemed a bit more respectful—con respeto”. Throughout the morning I noticed some of the boys I checked in with would look around to see if I was watching. I would give them a nod, con respeto.

As I left I asked one student what was something that stuck with him about the activities. He responded “how we filled up part of the bay to make houses for people”.

And what do you thing about that?” I asked.

Well, people need houses, but animals too.”

The saplings the kids were planting are the future for a healthy marsh habitat—sorely needed homes for the animals. But so too are these kids the sorely needed future—a future that is here now taking care of the natural environment, engaging in its conservation—con respeto.

Jose Gonzalez is an educator with classroom and outdoor experience across all age levels, from elementary to college. Currently he is a Butler-Koshland Fellow with Radio Bilingue and serves as an adjunct faculty member with the National Hispanic University in their Teacher Education Department. He is interested in the intersection of Latinos and environmental conservation issues. Follow him on Twitter @green_chicano @JoseBilingue, see his postings at and


Notes from the Field | High School Volunteers In The Marsh

Throughout the school year, Save The Bay runs programs with high school students and I always greatly enjoy working with this age group. I am particularly impressed when young people choose to spend a portion of their weekend volunteering to help preserve our tidal marshes. Amid homework, sports games, SATs, college applications, and a number of other activities, these students have set aside time to give back to their community.

Check out these photos of high school students hard at work restoring our sites at Eden Landing in Hayward and Byxbee Park in the Palo Alto Baylands. We are so inspired by their enthusiasm for restoring San Francisco Bay!

Eden Landing, Hayward

Byxbee Park,  Palo Alto Baylands

When asked why they volunteer with Save The Bay, students responded:

“It’s cool to learn about different plants.” -Amanda

“I like learning about the species and everyone is really nice.” -Divya

“I’ve been coming since September. I really like how the place feels…Last time I came, I saw a Jackrabbit!” – Jenet

“It’s fun. I like the food.” -Fernando

Join us in the marsh to find out which edible plants Fernando has been enjoying!

 Jess Madding, Education Specialist 

Volunteer Spotlight | Niharika Bhat

Niharika Bhat
Niharika poses by the Bay at Eden Landing.

Meet Niharika Bhat, a student from Santa Clara.

How many times have you volunteered with Save The Bay?

I have volunteered 3 times and am looking forward to more opportunities!

How did you get involved with Save The Bay?

I initially started out to finish up volunteer hours for school, but now it’s just fun to come out and help the environment.

What other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

I love to read, dance, and write.

What is your favorite thing about the San Francisco Bay?

It’s so beautiful… and it’s useful too.

Sign up to volunteer with Save The Bay — register online today!