Teamwork, Paddling Skills and Science: Students Bond Over Kayak Adventure

On a recent morning, a group of Mount Madonna School (MMS) teachers, students and parent chaperones gathered in Moss Landing near the mouth of the Elkhorn Slough. Following a brief orientation, the group of third grade students and high school seniors donned life jackets and paired off to explore – from the vantage point of sturdy kayaks – as they paddled from the slough mouth up into its interior. This annual excursion was led by Kim Powell of the Santa Cruz-based Blue Water Ventures, a guide for several outdoor explorations that are part of the MMS program.

“The opportunity to spend time learning about the biologically rich and critically endangered slough habitat, all the while having a great adventure together with ‘buddies’ was educational and fun!” commented Nicole Silva, high school science teacher.

“Kayaking with our third-grade buddies at Elkhorn Slough was a fun-filled day consisting of laughter, bonding and teamwork,” commented senior Cecilia Rothman-Salado. “My buddy Giavanna and I especially loved seeing the beautiful jellyfish and cute otters. We had a great time paddling and learning all of the interesting facts that our guide shared with us.

“All day long I was remembering how it felt to be the little buddy, and just how much I looked up to my big buddy when I was that age,” she continued. “I remember how good it felt when my big buddy treated me like I was one of them. I tried to give Giavanna the attention that my buddies gave me, because I remember how just how special it felt. One of the most special things about Mount Madonna School is its buddy program. About four times a month we meet with our younger buddies and participate in games and learning activities. It is a great way to connect with the younger students and strengthen our community.”

“At the slough we saw otters, big seals and lots of jellyfish on the beach,” shared third grader Skye Vissell. “It was neat to put the big net into the water from the shore, pull it in and see what we caught before we let everything go.”

“We caught a sardine in the net,” added classmate.

Silva, who participated in this trip for the past several years, said she’s noticed that students often start the day with a bit of nervousness. Older students wonder if their little buddies will be able to paddle the kayak, if they will listen to them and have fun, and what it will be like to be responsible for another little human being on the water. The little buddies, in turn, are usually nervous about getting into the water (for some, it is the first time they have kayaked), and wonder if their big buddy will like them, take care of them, and have fun with them.

“I learned that being patient and calm can lead to great adventures,” commented senior Tessa Ortiz. “Our adventure had been learning to turn the kayak without the paddles. Learning to problem solve during that adventure was my biggest takeaway. By not panicking and finding our best way out helped us to continue to have a great day.”

“I liked kayaking and looking at jellyfish with my big buddy, Tessa,” said third grader Amelie Thams. “When we got a little stuck, she was there to help and was very nice. I felt better because I knew that together we could do it.”

Third grade teacher Kristin Webb said her biggest take-away from this learning adventure was the opportunity for students to share a positive bonding experience in an inspiring natural setting.

“The senior students were incredibly kind and patient, and really seemed like they enjoyed being with their little buddies,” observed Webb. “There were also challenges to work through. The group I was in, for example, went a distance up the slough, and it required extra work to paddle and navigate back to the rest of our group. The third graders rallied and it was neat to see the older students’ example of positivity and perseverance trickle down to their younger buddies.”

“I have to admit that I was surprised by the amount of fun I had,” commented senior Fiona Burgess. “Things became a little challenging towards the middle of the day when my group went too far into the slough and got stuck trying to paddle against the wind. Despite being frustrated in the moment, by the end I was grateful for the experience, as it was a reminder to have patience. At the time I was quickly frustrated by how little progress we were making and that I wanted so badly to be eating lunch. I realized, however, that my buddy, Cadence, and the other third graders were all as tired as I was and I needed to think of them and not just my own concerns. After escaping from the wind and making it to the beach for lunch, I was proud of the work that our group had put into kayaking.”

“I really enjoyed being able to take a day off from the academics inside a classroom and be able to enjoy the ecosystem around me, and getting to know my little buddy, Molly,” shared senior Rachel Burgess. “At first things were a little new for her, but she learned very quickly and did a great job of helping with paddling.”

“Mount Madonna’s buddy program is truly one-of-a-kind,” said twelfth grader Tabitha Hardin-Zollo. “At no other school can third graders spend the day in nature kayaking with their twelfth-grade buddies, who are regarded as peers. I loved being surrounded by otters while bonding with my buddy Pierce. Pierce thoroughly enjoyed spotting giant jellyfish floating by.”

This field trip is a great combination of trust building, learning about the ways the slough and its surrounding habitat are impacted by humans, and healthy physical activity.

Third grader Leyla Klosinski shared a kayak with her dad. “We saw so many jellyfish,” she said. “I learned that you need to stay back several feet from the animals so that they don’t get startled, and the animals and people stay safe. After we were all done, we were salty, wet, sandy and a bit cold, but we learned and still had fun.”

Senior JT Curland agreed.

“While my buddy wasn’t there, I had a really nice time with my classmate, Given,” said Curland. “It was surprising how many jellies there were and how close to the surface they were. Overall it seemed like everyone had a fun time, and the smiles of little buddies and seniors alike could be seen all across the water.”


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

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a community of learners 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.