There’s nothing better than reading a compelling book except when it’s combined with an authentic and relevant in-class project. This past summer the Upper Prep students read A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, a novel that explores the challenges of an 11-year-old girl, Nya, who walks eight hours to fetch water from a pond for a Sudanese village. The book also introduces a real-life character, Salva Dut, a Sundanese “lost boy” who builds wells in Sudan through his organization, Water for South Sudan, and interacts with the fictional characters.
UP English teacher, Alison O’Donnell, explained that the students viewed the story through the lens of the United Nations' 17 sustainable goals, focusing particularly on goal six which is “clean water and sanitation.” Throughout the year, the students will continue to reflect back upon the U.N. goals in their work.
So that the book and its message resonated with the students, O’Donnell created an in-class project on the idea of access to safe drinking water supplies. Students rotated through different stations representing different conditions: water abundance, physical scarcity, and economic scarcity to see how each station would impact water usage for its population, businesses, and agriculture. Each group was given a supply of water and cups, and the goal for each group was to fill the water needs for their population. At the first station, water abundance, the students easily met the needs of the people. In the second station, they didn't have quite enough to satisfy the needs. In the third station, the group had a closed jug of water that they were not able to access.
“What happened was really neat. The water abundant group had a mess with spilled water. In that five minutes, the students had extra time, and they were playing with the water. They saw that when you have enough water, you can use it for recreation. The physical scarcity group had to make difficult decisions. If they met the needs of the people, they didn't have enough to run all the businesses and agricultural needs,” said O’Donnell.
Through this hands-on activity, the students were able to visualize how both physical and economic scarcity is inextricably linked to poverty, hunger and health issues, and other challenges. The group reflected upon their frustration with economic scarcity that although the water was available to them, they were unable to tap the source due to lack of funds. Although they found solutions to either build a well or trap rainwater, the students confronted the economic reality that it takes money to do so.
The project sparked meaningful conversations among the students who, O’Donnell, said: “want to solve all the problems of the world.” She explained that the class was very focused and involved.
“It was everything that we want from a class. The students were engaged and doing the work. They had something tangible to talk about and used that knowledge to base their conversation upon,” she said.
By exposing the students to real-world challenges, students are able to empathize with the plight of others. There are no easy solutions, but raising the awareness of our young students encourages them to problem solve, make connections and develop a deep capacity for compassion.