Sixth Grade's Long Walk

Bill Fisher
In Linda Sue Park's award-winning book based on real events, A Long Walk to Water—a primary text in the sixth grade's study of African history—the realities of water scarcity, war, and the refugee experience come to life through the stories of two Sudanese 11-year-olds, Nya and Salva. Nya has to fetch water from a pond that is two hours’ walk from her home; she makes two trips to the pond every day. Salva is 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. Later in his life, Salva emigrates to the United States and founds a nonprofit, Water for South Sudan, whose mission is to create access to and monitor safe drinking water for communities located in remote rural areas.

Based on real events and individuals, these stories inspire lively discussions around the Harkness table in history teacher Pat Coyle's classroom. They also serve as the model for learning experiences outside the classroom: sixth graders are challenged to carry heavy five-gallon buckets of water in teams around Shore's Oval, and in the iLab, they must use rudimentary tools and materials to construct a water pump similar to one that might be used by the nonprofit Salva founded after he emigrated to the United States.

According to Coyle, these first-hand experiences serve a number of purposes. "By simulating the actual difficulty of retrieving and carrying water for long distances in challenging conditions," he says, "sixth graders—many of whom are the same age as Nya—can develop empathy for the main character and others like her. And in fact, many of my students comment on being surprised by how hard the task feels, despite their having advantages such as cooler weather, modern shoes, and peers to help them." That realization fuels valuable reflection on their own lives and those of the real-life communities they're learning about.

When they enter the iLab, sixth graders investigate the science behind pumping water from wells, the idea that inspired Salva's creation of his nonprofit. As they dig into concepts such as vacuums, pressure, and the properties of liquids, the students also gain insight into how pumping water from a well can change the lives of people who once had to walk to find water. Indeed, this change is chronicled in the book when the stories of Nya and Salva intersect:  Salva's nonprofit builds a well in Nya's community in South Sudan.

"Ultimately, we come to the idea that fresh water creates opportunities," explains Coyle. "We see that when Nya no longer has to use an entire day to get water, she has time to learn after a new school is built. We also observe that all around the water well, more schools, marketplaces, medical tents, and other resources seem to pop up, raising the quality of life even further."

With such a wide range of ideas and connections to the curriculum in science and engineering, A Long Walk to Water is an essential text in sixth grade. "We're really aiming for an immersive experience that can provide a rich view of life in another part of the world," says Coyle. "This unit inspires deeper reflection than would be possible through reading and discussion alone—students get a personal sense of how the lives of others may be different depending on where and when they live."


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    • Sixth graders carried water around the Oval.

    • Students discussed the book around the Harkness table.