Jefferson 7th Graders Learn Firsthand About African Children’s Long Walk to Water

Jefferson Middle School seventh graders recently experienced what it felt like to carry water long distances in Africa, just like the children in the book they are reading, A Long Walk to Water with the help of teachers, Betsy Rowe-Baehr, Kali Simko and Hilda Ocasio. 

The book, by author Linda Sue Park, is based on a true story documenting the life of two, eleven-year-olds in Sudan, a girl in 2008 and a boy in 1985. The girl, Nya, fetches water from a pond that is a two hour walk from her home: she makes two trips to the pond every day. The boy, Salva, becomes one of the “lost boys” of Sudan, refugees who cover the African continent on foot as they search for their families and for a safe place to stay.

“Student’s knowledge of Africa is very narrow,” said Mrs. Rowe-Baehr. “At this point, many of them are basing their background on grand assumptions of what they’ve seen in the media and they have limited awareness of its people. As A Long Walk to Water is largely nonfiction, this journey helps them picture a young person in the midst of turmoil, which many of them can relate, but also challenges them to consider how the extreme situation of a war-torn, impoverished nation could produce brave heroes who want to live better and to give back. Reading about places outside of this country helps them to learn the emotions of compassion and tolerance for other perspectives.”

A Long Walk to Water is the seventh graders first shared text. They are setting the foundation for reading closely, and actively, so that as readers they can understand central themes emerging and to be able to gather meaningful text evidence to support their thinking. This particular book is also a cross-cultural experience and helps the seventh graders appreciate how others live and survive through hardship. As this school year begins, the writing instruction is also foundational. The 7/8 teaching team decided to incorporate more “Quick Writes” in their instruction. For example, students wrote reflection paragraphs that included their thoughts about water use in the U.S. and the responsibility of getting water for young girls in the Sudan.

“It really gave us the opportunity to see what it might be like to walk eight hours for water like they have to in the book,” said Jefferson seventh grader, Lillian Ingrao. “I think it’s cool to read about other cultures because it makes us more aware of what is going on in the world and maybe it will make us think twice about helping out a cause.”

The teachers decided to try the actual walk with water because many students learn by doing, instead of visually or by hearing. To hook them into any concept, getting them involved is key to getting them engaged. Carrying the water for the short distance and experiencing a little bit of struggle with balancing the weight is a simple illustration, but according to the post-reflection activities, many of them felt “it was actually difficult” to carry the water, but that they knew it was necessary to survive. That same evening, students counted the steps to their own water resources at home and were shocked at how convenient and “spoiled” they have it. Our recent viewing of Girl Rising, the documentary about disenfranchised girls across the globe who long for the opportunity to go to school, also helped to echo how third-world nations don’t have what we have. From water to education, these students are being surrounded with lessons about not taking their privilege for granted. The hope is that they see these resources as blessings and opportunities for their own journey to live better and to give back.

One common theme amongst the Jefferson students in their reflection writings was the willingness to do this labor if their families’ lives were at stake. They saw it as sacrifice, but were willing to take on the responsibility for their loved ones. It brought awareness of the risks as well. Many students commented on “dangers” of drinking contaminated water and having to travel in such harsh conditions.

“I was happy to see so many of our students express gratitude and awareness of their own privilege,” said Mrs. Rowe-Baehr. “They’ve begun to admire those who are suffering and to feel compassion for those who are fighting for their futures. It’s a beautiful lesson we all need to consider when what we do in education isn’t just a responsibility, but a human right we need to offer to everyone.”

posted on 10/06/2015 - filed under: Academics, Common Core, ELA, Middle School, Spotlight, Students