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Toilets: a teachable moment

​It’s amazing how some things just fall into place. My students and I just held our 3rd Annual World Water Week  festival at our school last month. This year, we chose the theme of sanitation and health with a focus on the world’s toilet crisis. It’s a taboo topic that grosses most people out. But the more my students and I learned about the issue of sanitation, the more urgency we felt for raising awareness. Our goal was to get our entire school talking about toilets as a first step of addressing this critical global issue. And little did I know, that I would soon end up abandoning lesson plans for spontaneous learning experiences for my students and me around this issue.

It took about five months to plan this year’s festival. In November, students posted newsletters with toilet facts (2.5 billion people in the world do not have access to toilets, 1.5 million children die every year from diarrhea due to poor sanitation, etc.) in every toilet stall in our school. Also in November, we confirmed our keynote speaker, Jack Sim. Sim is founder of the World Toilet Organization and traveled all the way from Singapore to speak at our school.

Recently, while I was up late emailing potential speakers for our festival, I watched a very timely video online. Matt Damon, actor and activist extraordinaire, had announced a new campaign with water.org. He staged a press conference to announce that he was going on strike; he would not go to the bathroom until the global water and sanitation crisis was resolved. His campaign culminated on March 22nd (World Water Day), which was also the final day of our festival. If you haven’t seen the video, here it is:

I could not believe that after almost five months of work to provoke a serious discussion about toilets in our school community, Matt Damon decided to blast cyberspace with a high profile campaign of his own. It was so perfect!

I showed Damon’s video to my student leaders, and they immediately started to work on a video response. They wrote a letter to Damon, inviting him to come to our festival and share the stage with Jack Sim. They wrote a script for a video response to Damon’s press conference. We took photos of students from our school “on strike” with Damon and posted them on his website. Here is my students’ video response entitled “We’re Talking to You, Matt Damon”:

A few days later, I made the decision to throw out the lesson I had prepared for my Global Leadership class, and we spent an hour filming the video. Students took turns stepping up to the camera and saying their lines. We did take after take as students tried their best to keep a straight face. It was a beautiful thing to see my students cheering each other on. Kids who had barely said a word the entire semester got up and spoke to the camera with confidence. I couldn’t have designed a better community-building activity for my class.

Sometimes you just have to toss your plans and teach in the moment.  Consider it an investment in your students’ learning for the rest of the year. When I taught my actual lesson about toilets a couple of weeks later, I had immediate buy-in from my students. As a result, our discussions were richer and my students’ thinking deeper. What are your favorite “teachable moments” in your classroom?

3 Comments

Sharolyn G commented on April 4, 2013 at 1:26pm:

Great Learning Project!

Way to go!  What a way to get kids hooked on such an important topic.  You all did a lot of work.

Gee Gee Magee, MS commented on April 8, 2013 at 10:39pm:

Alt. Ed. Therapist

Your responsive video is outstanding.  If Matt sees it, he'll show.  Now, get on with the real work at hand- sanitation for all.  Don't know you guys, but am real proud of your efforts, and civic responsibility.  Rock on!

Susan Graham commented on November 10, 2013 at 10:03pm:

Well, Well!

Apologies for th bad pun, but---

There is a great book, Flushed:How the Plumber Saved  Civilzarion, that builds on the premise that development of population centers has always been dependent on sufficient potable water supply and and a sanitation system, and points out that many of the first engineering efforts are often directly relate to water supply.

Another great resource for interdisclplinary is History in Food which views development of civilization, and world exploration. and world politics and power through the lens of foos supply.

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