Nature Poetry and beyond

Hi everyone! My name is Maya Xu, and I’m a current senior at Crystal Springs Uplands School. I started at Crystal when I moved to the Bay Area from Hong Kong in 9th grade, where I’d been trying to increase climate awareness at my middle school. My story as an environmental activist started in 6th grade, when I watched the premiere of the documentary “A Plastic Ocean.” Up until then, I’d noticed the odd paradox I lived in, with the urban sprawl of Hong Kong bordered by lush jungle and deep blue ocean, but it wasn’t until I watched that documentary that I realized how important it was for humans to actively strive for living in balance with nature. Since then, I’ve been passionate about exploring environmental topics like achieving zero waste and ecological conservation.

When I first arrived at Crystal, they didn’t have any initiatives dedicated to environmental activism. To combat the shocking apathy toward climate activism on campus, I co-founded our Green Team with a few other students, which has been improving campus sustainability and climate awareness with the help of the San Mateo County Office of Education’s Environmental Literacy Initiative for the past four years. I was looking for other ways to join the fight against our climate crisis in my community, and that’s how I found the EV! 

Maya helping visitors during open hours at the EcoCenter

I joined in 11th grade as a Teen Docent, coming to the EcoCenter once or twice a month before the pandemic to help run Open Hours. With the EV’s mission of promoting “the understanding of and responsibility for the environment through hands-on science education,” I felt like it would be perfect for exploring my interest in local environmental education. I was originally most involved in the EcoCenter, setting up activities for visitors and helping kids learn more about the Baylands, as well as maintaining the bird mounts and organizing EV files. I loved being able to interact with the visiting families, especially showing the kids the different animals of the Baylands. 

During the pandemic, I helped the EV transition to remote learning by making their materials electronically accessible and helping them with their website. Some of the activities I helped digitize included the “How do you know?” spreadsheet about the different characteristics of life, and putting together visuals for Water Quality Month. However, over the past few months I collaborated with the EV to create and lead a nature poetry workshop for 3rd-5th graders on May 15th as part of my school’s senior project. Seniors at my high school close out their Crystal careers by choosing a topic that they’re either passionate about or interested in exploring more in order to solve a problem – in my case, environmental education and climate activism through creative writing checked both of those boxes! Crystal’s senior project acts as a capstone, combining the skills we’ve gained in research, fieldwork and creative/artistic design. I decided to do nature poetry because creative writing is an important tool in the climate advocacy movement, and introducing it to kids at that age would be the best way to inspire them.

I was mentored by Christine throughout the design process, who I’d been working with during my remote volunteering period. She taught me how to make flyers using Canva and to do marketing outreach on different social media platforms, which we ultimately used to send out the Eventbrite link and spread the word about the workshop starting a month or so beforehand. We had decided to do the workshop over Zoom, so she and Drew also helped me with tools like Jamboard to interact with the kids. They also gave me pointers on my preliminary presentation, telling me ways to keep the kids engaged and format my workshop both structure and timing-wise so they’d be able to absorb the new material.

As I crafted my workshop, I started by researching the educational methods of experts such as Kenn Nesbitt, the former US Children’s Poet Laureate, in order to structure my own workshop and decide on the types of poetry I wanted to share with the kids. I ended up choosing key techniques like employing imagery to engage the five senses, or explaining the pros and cons of free verse versus rhyming poetry. It was definitely a new experience formatting the material for 3rd-5th graders, as I’ve become so used to an audience of peers and teachers. In high school, I learned to speak faster to cover more ground in a short time span; with the EV, I relearned how to think like a kid, slowing down and focusing on a few simple main points, as well as making them interactive and exciting for a younger age group.

There were around 15 kids who showed up to the workshop in the end out of the 36 who signed up, and I was really glad to see how engaged and engaging they were when I was teaching them the material and writing the poems with them. We had a great time making up a haiku together about the salt marsh harvest mouse, an endangered species living in the Baylands, and also reading the poems they’d written on their own out loud at the end of the workshop. In our closing discussion, I loved hearing them describe what they’d learned from the workshop, from the different types of poetic devices to saying they felt inspired to use poetry to try and save nature. 

Overall, I had a really positive experience creating and leading my workshop, like I have working with the EV over the past two years! The EV provides valuable opportunities for Bay Area families to become exposed to local conservation and also consider the impact we as humans have on our environment. It’s been really rewarding to be part of the work in educating the next generation of environmental activists, and I feel like I’ve been able to develop much more as an activist. I’ll be staying in the area for college, as I’ll be attending Stanford University in the fall, and I hope to continue participating in environmental conservation initiatives and working with the EV in the future.

By Teen Docent, Maya Xu