Sense-Infused Descriptions and Colorful Imagery: Fourth Graders’ Coastal Art and Poetry

From squid and jellyfish to sand, surf – and even Santa Cruz’s iconic Big Dipper roller coaster – each has inspired the sense-infused descriptions and evocative art pieces of Mount Madonna School (MMS) fourth graders. For the past several months as part of their language arts curriculum, the students have been reading and learning about poetry, and their study culminated with each student writing an original poem and accompanying art piece.

Earlier this week, the students entered their works in the 2022 K-12 Coastal Art & Poetry Contest sponsored by the California Coastal Commission.

While entering the contest was an appealing way for the students to share their work beyond the classroom, the poetry focus is part of the EL Education Curriculum used in MMS’ elementary program, which includes a grade-appropriate learning module on the literature form. Teacher Nick Cabassa introduced students to different poetry forms, and shared poems from the book “Love That Dog” by Sharon Creech.

“Poetry as a form of literature is so broad,” commented Cabassa. “I want my students to see how simple poetry can be, how they can refine a narrative and move from telling a whole story, about their experiences in detail to exploring more descriptive feelings, utilizing their senses and emotions to present these aspects in a simpler, pared down format.”

As relates to the Common Core Standards, said Cabassa, poetry can convey opinions, narrate events, evoke emotion, recall information from previous experiences, and create shared connections with others through descriptions of experiences.

During the course of the project, student Jacquelyn P. commented on her inspiration as she sat at her desk and drew different compositions of adult and baby seals.

“I really like seals,” she said, “they’re kind of like the ‘dogs of the sea’ because of the sounds they make and how they’re really playful.”

“One goal for this project is for students to take their sense- and experience-based observations,” said Cabassa, “and turn them from the narrative stories they are more accustomed to telling and writing, to cadence-based forms with free-flowing structure.”

“I’ve always liked squid and octopuses,” shared fourth grader Narayan Aron-May. “Their unique adaptation is that some of them squirt ink to defend themselves.”

The contest theme – the animals, sights and sounds of the California coast – was familiar and inspirational subject matter for these young students.

“When you think about Santa Cruz, it’s like ‘oh yeah, the beach’,” commented student Eli Kayne. “I know about marine animals and I like the beach.”

Classmate Amelie Powers said she has written poems “a couple of times” previously and was focusing on sea turtles for this assignment.

Meanwhile, one afternoon as students worked independently on their projects, Cabassa circulated among the students offering feedback.

Perusing one student’s drawing of a breaking wave, Cabassa and the student discussed the concept of proportion, perspective and ways to add depth and dimension to the depiction. Nodding his head in understanding, the student resumed working on the drawing.

Looking over another student’s draft poem, Cabassa spoke about creating a cadence between lines, forming stanzas and how to arrange the poem by intentionally choosing where one line stops and the next line begins.

“I can do that,” said the student.

“Let me tell you why I chose jellyfish,” said fourth grader Dylan Kasznar. “They are cool and some of them glow in different colors. I’ve seen them at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the person guiding us around said they use their colors to communicate with one another. That’s my favorite thing about them!”

Classmate Conrad Comartin said he likes the seashore and especially enjoys swimming in the ocean. His own experiences at the iconic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk infused his poem and roller coaster drawing.

Providing each student with an opportunity to recite their own poetry can be a powerful learning experience, offering opportunities for practicing public speaking and English conventions.

With this in mind, Cabassa and his students concluded the project by gathering outside on the grass near their classroom, so the students could take turns reading their poems aloud and sharing their artwork and inspiration.

“For me it’s all about the ocean,” said fourth grader Marc Monclus. “I am inspired by the sounds of waves crashing, the feel of sand and warm sunshine on my shoulders.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.