Building empathy through experience
Forty billion hours; not thousand or even million … 40 BILLION. Women and children in Africa spend 40 BILLION hours walking to gather water every year. They walk for hours to obtain water that’s not even safe for their families. Water that breeds waterborne diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery.
When 11-year-olds hear these statistics, they say “wow, that’s a lot of time,” and then move on with their day. There’s no connection because they simply can’t relate. They walk 17 steps down the climate-controlled, flat hallway to get safe, cold, and maybe even fruit-infused water immediately out of the faucet. It’s their norm, it’s their everyday. They don’t have to climb over thorn fences, trip over rocky terrain, or dodge animal and human predators.
When I started at Detroit Country Day School six years ago I did the water lesson in our Africa unit. I showed my students videos of women walking for water, I bombarded them with staggering statistics, and involved them in dynamic discussions. I thought it was a truly epic lesson, but I realized quite quickly that none of those things really impacted them in a meaningful way. The issue was so abstract and far away (a literal ocean away), it wasn’t even a second thought for them.
Year two, I had a different plan. A plan to build empathy and understanding, connection. I wanted to create an experience they wouldn’t likely forget. I planned a water walk for the sixth graders and have been doing it ever since. I have a lot of crazy ideas as a middle school teacher but this one seems to be achieving the goal and giving students the opportunity to connect on a deep level with someone they have never met before.
We ask for teacher volunteers every year, and teachers who have never seen it before often ask “What is this water walk? Do they just walk around with buckets of water?” That’s not necessarily the whole picture. They engage in exercises of understanding, building hope, and developing ideas to help with the worldwide water crisis.
Let’s run through a typical water walk day which starts at 7:00 am. My teaching partner and I are knee-deep in waders in the Rouge River to fill up 64 buckets with river water. Thankfully we have students who help in the process so we are not out there all morning. The buckets are full (with minimal face-planting in the river), the villages and rest stops are established (Tanzania, Algeria, DRC and Nigeria), and hopefully, just hopefully, the sun is shining. The journey is about to begin.
Students walk down in their country teams and start their journey for water. They walk about a quarter of a mile to get to their village where they engage in discussion questions. Discussion questions such as: Compare your walking experience today to what they might experience in your country. What obstacles might they face along the way? What obstacles have you faced along the way so far? After they have thoughtfully reflected on their questions as a team, they are off to continue their trek to find water. While on their journey they discuss three questions: How might your life be different if this was your everyday? Brainstorm an invention to help bring clean water to more people. And my personal favorite, how can we help the world water crisis as 11-year-olds from suburbs in Michigan?
The students stay in their country teams to find their water; always together. They walk about a mile to their “resting spot,” where they engage in more pointed discussions, guided by the questions at their rest spot. Comments such as “This is so boring, we’re just walking!” are frequent. But … that’s exactly. The. Point. They’re building empathy and they don’t even know it. When they are at their resting spot, the discussion shifts focus to how they would use water if they could only gather 10 gallons (the average American uses 100 gallons of water per day, per person).
After they rest (they are very much eager beavers to get to their water at this point), they are on their way to gathering water from their water source. They gather their buckets and off they go. The initial feeling of the kids? Excitement! Anticipation! They just want to grab their buckets and get back to their village. After about 500 feet, their enthusiasm fades quickly into agony. Dramatic, teenager angst. Shoulders are hurting. Backs are sore. Hands are cramping. Their conversations start to shift and that’s when the real character building takes place. They start talking about how terrible this is. How they hate this. How they would hate to do this every single day. And that’s the moment. THAT IS THE MOMENT. There’s the connection. The lightbulb moment. When they rest, they have to rest as a team, carefully setting their heavy buckets down as to not lose water, which would mean less water for their “family.”
Some teams rest more than others and that’s ok, they’re together. It builds such a sense of community because they are in this experience with each other. The buckets weigh about eight pounds when filled with water, one on each arm. I often get asked “What if they can’t make it? What if they’re too heavy?” Kids are great like that. They always make it. We had a team this year take on some of their teammates’ water load by pouring her water into their buckets to lighten her burden and increase theirs. Humility. Kindness. Selflessness.
Back up the hill with their water. Back to their village. Back around the track. You get the idea. By the time they are done with their experience, they don’t want to do it again, ever. The students receive an envelope that says whether or not the water they worked so hard to gather and carry back to their village was safe or not. Three-fourths of the teams receive envelopes that state their water contained bacteria that caused water-borne illnesses such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. When they get their envelope and we have a big group discussion, that’s when the frustration comes out. The students walk all that way and the water they gather isn’t even safe. Over the years there have been many tears in this circle discussion. Not tears of pain but tears of tremendous feeling. Tears of extreme exasperation. Tears of feeling helpless.
When we start the lesson, we tell the students we are not doing this so they feel pity for the women and children who walk for the water. We want the students to see the crisis from another person’s perspective. Gain some humility. Overcome adversity. Brainstorm inventions and ways they can make a difference with the water crisis. Experiencing some discomfort over the course of an hour allows our students the chance to build empathy towards someone who starts their day in a very different way.
One of the students reflected on the water walk: “This activity was so impactful because it showed us what obstacles people have to go through to get clean water. It’s one thing to read about something, but to actually do it leaves a huge impact.” And that about sums it up; character development and content fused together to create an unforgettable experience for our students and hopefully one that they will carry with them throughout their lives.