By Marina Outwater
I started the school year teaching my seventh-grade students how to write an effective argumentative essay using the controversial topic of bottled water. The students conducted extensive research about the pros and cons of drinking tap or bottled water, participated in a “blind” taste test, and argued passionately about a seemingly straightforward topic that directly relates to their lives.
As we watched a video from The Story of Stuff, my students grew deeply affected by the statement that most of our water bottles actually end up in huge garbage dumps in India. This international aspect of the issue seemed to capture their interest more than anything else in the unit. They wanted to see photographs of the garbage dumps and learn about the families who live amidst the refuse. They wanted to read about the children who collect these bottles in order to refill them with unsafe tap water to sell on the streets for a few rupees. Suddenly, it became apparent that the issue was no longer just about their personal choice; it was about a much larger problem involving pollution, access to clean water, sustainability and so much more.
So, I designed, applied for and received a teacher grant last summer from Fund for Teachers to investigate the water crisis in India, one of the most populated countries in the world, to establish an inquiry-based, interdisciplinary unit, and to inspire students to be active agents of change.
Although I went to India to investigate the water crisis, I returned home with an entirely new way of thinking about life.
My fellowship began in southern India where I spent 10 days visiting sugarcane growing areas in partnership with Solidaridad, an NGO that has implemented a water conservation project in eight sugar mill-command areas in Tamil Nadu. I interacted extensively with farmers and met village panchayats, mill owners and local government representatives. This helped me gather information to answer the essential question about how social and ecological systems can co-exist in a sustainable manner.
In nearby Bangalore, I took the Trash Trail tour, a nine-hour expedition to explore the massive Mandurgarbage dump, trash-transfer depots, and the “informal” garbage sector where thousands of people find, sort and recycle garbage. This one-of-a-kind tour served to enrich the bottled water argumentative essay portion of my curriculum.
From there, I flew to New Delhi and took the train to Varanasi, where I spent five days exploring life along the Ganges River in order to understand why it is so sacred yet so polluted. (Every minute, 300,000 gallons of raw sewage is dumped into the Ganges, estimates the World Watch Institute.) I met an impassioned individual involved with the cleanup efforts. I also visited Mehdiganj, a nearby village, whose groundwater wells dried up (thus causing crop yields to diminish) after the arrival of a Coca-Cola plant. Again, I conducted interviews and sought to understand how human decision-making can negatively impact the environment.
After returning to New Delhi, I traveled north to the Spiti valley, which lies in the Trans-Himalayan belt.Through Ecosphere, a social enterprise focused on conservation, I created a customized itinerary of 10 days volunteering in remote highland villages. During two homestays, I farmed, herded and completed household chores, including the arduous task of collecting water. This unique opportunity allowed me to understand how difficult it is to live at such high altitude with very little water. Comparing this region of India to the other regions also helped me fully respond to the essential question about how India’s diverse natural environment affects its people. As I trekked from one village to the next, I observed the fragile ecology and took note of the special ways in which people interacted with their environment.
Click here for a video about another world water-themed teacher grant - Kevin Denton (Fort Collins, Colorado) designed his Fund for Teachers fellowship to research the lack of clean drinking water in Rwanda, resulting in a "Walk to the Water" student fundraiser.
As a result of this teacher grant, I now serve as a role model, inspiring my students to engage in civic action. I created five case studies that include photographs, personal journal entries and relevant newspaper articles. Since they have never used case studies before, this will give them the chance to research and then create meaning from the real world.
High-school students enrolled in a Contemporary World Issues class will also use my case studies; I will visit their class as a guest speaker. Students will move away from a textbook-centered curriculum and engage in real-world situations as a result of my participation in this Fund For Teachers fellowship.
Although water scarcity and pollution is a harsh reality for many people around the world, it is just an abstract concept for most American children, especially my Language Arts students from a suburban public middle school in Connecticut. Through my investigation of the topic, I’m better prepared to teach my students about this multi-faceted global crisis. I want to engage my students in real-life problems; I want them to become true global citizens who can make a meaningful difference. Compassion and curiosity fuel me, and I want my students to be compelled to stand up and be counted in this world. I intend to create conservationists, innovators, and advocates out of each and every one of my students. As Mother Theresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
It is rare nowadays for teachers to be rewarded for an interest in professional development. Often, schools do not have the money to provide teacher grants; professional development tends to be one day conferences or workshops during the school year and are usually devoted to dry, mundane topics. To be given the opportunity to grow professionally and personally during the summer with through this teacher grant has been life-changing. I can’t walk down the street now without thinking about the hard-working sugar cane farmers in Tamil Nadu or the inspiring teenage monks in the Ki monastery. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the laundry men of Varanasi or the village leader in Mehdiganj who is fighting to keep the hand pumps in his community from drying up.
After this experience, my teaching will certainly evolve because I will teach with much more meaning and purpose. I also expect my students to take a greater interest in serving the common good, and I will make this a priority in their assignments. I have transformed as a result of this Fund For Teachers grant, and I can’t thank the donors enough.
Images courtesy of the author
Marina Outwater is currently a seventh grade Language Arts and Reading teacher at Long River Middle School in Prospect, Connecticut. She is one of 487 preK-12 teachers awarded Fund for Teachers grants for self-designed professional development in the summer. For more information visit fundforteachers.org and read about additional Fund for Teachers grant recipients' work on the organization's blog.