Young Voices, Big Change

Showell Elementary School teacher and students meet Kelly Slater and create a homegrown book about keeping beaches clean.

Written by Kristen Hampshire

What if everyone tossed just one piece of trash on the beach—allowed a stray wrapper to blow away toward the waves or absently left behind a plastic bottle or can? Mackenzie Keyser and her second-grade class spark this dialogue in a book that was released on April 16 called, Keep Our Beaches Clean! What if Everyone Did That?

The idea swelled from a Zoom call lesson with pro-surfer and World Surf League champion Kelly Slater. “During virtual learning, it was a hard time, and I was battling with how I could still bring learning alive for my class over the computer,” says Keyser, who teaches at Showell Elementary School in Berlin, Md.

Surfer Kelly Slater

Embarking on a biography unit, Keyser went out on a limb—actually, more like a board.

“I thought it would be amazing if I could get someone on Zoom who would be inspiring, relatable to the students, and someone I’ve looked up to my whole life,” she says.

Keyser IM’d Kelly Slater.

In a sea of more than 3 million followers as a surf world GOAT, she wasn’t expecting a reply. But her Ocean City location prompted a ping back. Slater’s mother grew up on the Eastern Shore, and he vacationed there as a kid.

Slater agreed to the Zoom biography lesson and spent two hours answering questions from every student. He even gave them a tour of his backyard surfing spots. He told lots of stories. Keyser says, the ones that really struck students related to debris, garbage, trash, junk washed ashore and bobbing in the waters.

“He told us when he was in Indonesia surfing, there was so much trash that when he paddled, he was picking up handfuls of garbage,” Keyser relates. “The kids really couldn’t believe it.” There were times Slater wondered if he would choke on trash haphazardly tossed beachside that rushed into the surf.

After the Zoom call, the conversation continued. Keyser reached out to the Ocean City Surf Club to participate in its Adopt Your Beach initiative. She asked for 15th Street in the class’s name.

“So often, we think that books are published by adults and adults’ words matter, but if you have a dream and a passion, it doesn’t matter what age you are.”

– Ms. Keyser

“Kids took turns on their own with their families cleaning up the beach,” Keyser says.

They logged the types of collected trash in a database. The conversation grew even more passionate. “I reached out to Kelly and said, ‘Thank you for what you did.’ He suggested we write a class book about it.”

Keyser and students collaborated, each contributing a hand-drawn illustration to bring color to a serious issue. “We read it out loud to him on Zoom, and he loved it,” Keyser says.

Slater said he wanted to publish it.

A year passed, then in winter 2023, he reached out to Keyser and told her DiAngelo Publications’ Sequoia Schmidt was on board with a fully funded project. Proceeds go to the Kelly Slater Foundation, which raises awareness and provides support for social and environmental causes. It includes a lesson plan for teachers and the publisher retained all the students’ artwork, along with adding a foreword from Slater.

A real lesson: Kids have a voice. And when they spread good words, they have the power to change the world—one beach cleanup at a time, in the case of Ms. Keyser’s class. CS

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