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Book inspires Young Scholars to educate peers about water scarcity

Aerial view of Kuhlman stadium with water tower in foreground.

Eleven fifth graders in Normandale Elementary's Young Scholars (YS) program are working to make a difference after reading a book that inspired them to share what they had learned. A Long Walk to Water is a story about a girl in South Sudan, Africa who must bring water from a pond that is a two-hour walk from her home – a trip she makes twice a day.

While her story is fictional, based on reality, the second narrative in the book is a true story. Salva is one of the "lost boys" of Sudan who fled his home as it was attacked by rebel forces. He later founded the nonprofit Water for South Sudan. The stories moved the Young Scholars to action.

“I was aware there were people who didn't have enough water but I didn't know people had to walk eight hours just to get dirty water,” said one student.

Young Scholars is a program that provides enriched academic experiences for students from diverse backgrounds, aiming to increase the likelihood that they will pursue and succeed in advanced level courses at the secondary level, and will continue on to higher education. Several years ago, the districtwide YS teaching team selected A Long Walk to Water as a multicultural, dual-narrative novel study for fourth and fifth graders.

“Since YS is an interdisciplinary talent development program, we do not focus on any one specific content area,” said Colleen Mahin, gifted education teacher at Normandale. “This text is extremely versatile as it covers several big topics, such as Sudan’s civil war, immigration, refugee resettlement, water scarcity and hygiene, and service learning. Through this unit we touch on science, math, reading, writing and speaking skills.”

Mahin said after reading the book, the fifth graders were “quite touched” by the stories and by Water for South Sudan, the organization founded by Salva. That prompted their own idea for a project to help educate their peers at Normandale on issues around water scarcity. “I didn’t have much knowledge of the situation (in South Sudan) because I was so focused on my own life,” said one YS student. “But now I know other people need help.”

With guidance from Julie Bascom-Rogers, the district’s service-learning coordinator, the students followed the IPARD Framework, a student-centered inquiry model that that follows five steps: Investigation, Planning & Preparation, Action, Reflection, and Demonstration. They began with a 10-question survey to their fifth grade peers to assess prior knowledge of the subject.

The YS team then created a presentation for their classmates with three goals in mind: to inform about the issue, to influence attitudes, and to change behaviors. (Since Normandale is the district’s French immersion school, all of their work is in French.) The presentation opens with a short video showing members of the YS class attempting to carry a large bucket of water down the hallway. The students go on to explain that, besides the laborious task of carrying the water, the book also describes wading through rivers full of crocodiles, lion attacks and the effects of war in Sudan.

“At the beginning of the book I knew it would be about water, but I didn’t know it would be this interesting and the conflict would be this intense,” said a student.

Besides informing about the situation in South Sudan, the YS students helped the fifth graders analyze their own behaviors and attitudes around water usage, and offered suggestions on how to use water more frugally. One slide asked, “Have you ever had to worry about having water?”

“Seventy percent (of the fifth graders surveyed) said they think they do use more water than necessary,” said a YS student, as they analyzed their first survey. It made the YS students hopeful that their friends may be willing to change some habits.

Following their presentations, the YS students issued another survey to try to gauge how successful they were in achieving their goals. The data from that survey is not in yet, but once the students have analyzed it and compared the data to the first survey, they plan to end their project by producing a three-minute reflection video to share the results of the awareness campaign and their own learnings.

“It’s unfair that we have really clean, safe water that we just get out of our sink,” said a YS student. “They have to walk eight hours for water – and it’s not even clean water!” “Some people don’t know about this and we think it is very important for everyone to have water,” said another. “We want them to know they can help.”