Elementary students plant a tree for an annual Earth Day eco-art project

Artist Xavier Cortada helps students plant a live oak at Fulford Elementary School in North Miami Beach on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.
Artist Xavier Cortada helps students plant a live oak at Fulford Elementary School in North Miami Beach on Wednesday, April 22, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

Earth Day was down to earth for 14 second-graders in Ms. Palmer’s class.

The students at Fulford Elementary in North Miami Beach shoveled dirt around the base of an eight-foot live oak tree on Wednesday. Working together with Xavier Cortada, FIU’s College of Architecture + The Arts artist-in-residence, the students planted the tree for Cortada’s ongoing Native Flags eco-art project.

"It's like planting a seed," said Andy J. Pierre-Louis, an administrative director for Miami-Dade County Public Schools North Region. “If you plant a seed now, they understand why we plant trees and save trees. If you start young, it makes a big difference in their lives.”

Cortada’s project fuses art, scientific knowledge and civic engagement by having people plant trees next to a green project flag with a mangrove leaf and the message “I hereby reclaim this land for nature”

“Just like conquistadors did when they got to Florida, or when the French got to Haiti, I want each of you to take a flag and reclaim nature,” Cortada said to the students, who lifted the flagpole together and pushed it into the ground.

This was the sixth year that Miami-Dade County Public Schools partnered with Cortada on Earth Day to plant one tree in each of 336 public schools in the county. The trees are donated by The Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science.

There are 12 options —buttonwood, dahoon holly, firebush, Florida privet, gumbo limbo, live oak, paradise tree, pigeon plum, satin leaf, seagrape, wild coffee and wild tamarind — which are on display year-round at the Deering Estate at Cutler’s Native Flags exhibit.

Cortada explained that the project engages the students on a pro-social stewardship journey, which will essentially reclaim the land for their children and grandchildren. Re-forestation, even one tree at a time, helps reduce greenhouse gases.

“By having these kids get dirt under their fingernails, I am enlisting them in the process where all of us have to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint and help mitigate against it,” Cortada said.

Additionally, the green flag becomes a catalyst for conversation.

The students who worked with Cortada were each given green flags and their choice of either a potted cocoplum or locust berry tree, which were provided by the School Board, to plant in their front yards. Cortada’s vision would be to see neighborhoods and streets lined with green flags.

As the second-graders were learning the important role trees play in the environment, President Barack Obama made a visit to South Florida’s Everglades National Park for Earth Day.

“The question that the president is placing at America’s feet at the Everglades, the students at this elementary school are answering with a shovel,” Cortada said.

At Fulford Elementary, 16140 NE 18th Ave., the students are looking ahead to the cool shade the long-lasting oak will offer. Principal Jean Teal said the 7- and 8-year-olds are requesting a bench be put under the tree once it grows.

“I'm excited about it because it's a great opportunity for kids to get involved with Earth Day and appreciate the world we live in,” Teal said about Cortada coming to plant with the students.

Cortada asked the students: "What is Earth Day?" One student said "it's celebrating the Earth." Another said "it's the Earth's birthday."

Said Cortada: “When your kids come to school here 25 years from now, they’re going to be sitting under this tree.”

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