Maddie was a student who “got it done” in my 8th grade math class.
Clearly she would ace the final test, so why give it to her? Instead I proposed a project analyzing data about global clean-water access and life expectancies. Her subsequent presentation blew me and the entire class away. Instead of a paper, she brought posters—instead of duty, she brought passion.
“Mr. Denton,” my 8th grade students declared, “We can’t just live with this, we want to do something. We want to bring clean water to these places in Africa!”
Thankfully, I was lucid enough to recognize this accidental opportunity and began to formulate a plan for my next algebra unit to center around a water fundraiser.
As I looked ahead to the next unit I found a math problem involving a walk-a-thon fundraiser. It didn’t take me long to see the connection between walking for water, and walking with water. Students would not only earn money, but also see what it’s like carrying water every day.
Students spent a month creating “pledge plans.” By using equations and asking neighbors for pledges for each gallon they would eventually carry, students were able to make predictions about how much money we could raise to build a well in Rwanda.
When you give students a compelling reason to learn math—to understand the stories in data and to do something about the problems they see in the world—they find great satisfaction and motivation to solve problems.
The day finally arrived and we walked 3.5 miles to the Poudre River and carried as much water back as we could—not only to fulfill our pledges but also to see what it was like for so many women and children around the world, bringing water to their families and communities each day.
Not one of my students complained. All made it the 7-mile round-trip and together we carried about 100 gallons of water, raising over $2500. Clearly, they were engaged.
A tradition was born that would last the next three years and result in raising over $10,000—enough to build a well! But somewhere along the way, I realized I didn’t have much of a clue about poverty or the water issues I was heralding to my students as a great cause.
When I learned that an organization called Fund for Teachers gave teachers grant money to develop their own professional development, I quickly pursued the funding for a trip to see the issues of poverty first-hand.
What I brought back further infused my passion for framing what I taught within a more global perspective: pictures and video of children struggling each day to collect water with the iconic yellow jerry cans, stories of how micro-loans were making a huge difference in people’s lives, and a sense of responsibility to help my students see themselves as part of a much larger world.
My math class became a place for conversation about what it takes to solve really tough problems. The perseverance, collaboration, communication, responsibility for learning, and discipline necessary in mathematics, as it turns out, is just the recipe for solving even more complex problems like poverty. My students recognized this more and more as I shared my experiences in Rwanda with them.
What I found out about my students was that empathy was a cure for apathy. When you give students a compelling reason to learn math—to understand the stories in data and to do something about the problems they see in the world—they find great satisfaction and motivation to solve problems. My students found a reason for learning math, and saw their own educational opportunities within the light of an expanded worldview.
This post was written by Kevin Denton, a middle school science and math teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado and a member of the Geo-Educator Steering Committee. Kevin returned to Rwanda this summer to continue his work in education there. You can read more about his experience on his blog, Exploring Education in the Kivu Hills.
The Geo-Educator Community is a community for educators committed to teaching about our world. To learn more and join, visit www.geo-education.org.