Measuring Water with Justice

A multidisciplinary lesson that explores water issues

By Bob Peterson

Photo: Bob Peterson
Angela Barreto experiments
with removing oil from a
feather in her 5th-grade

‘Who actually owns the water?” One of my students asked me as I introduced a mini-unit on water to my fifth graders.

“Well, who do you think does?” I responded.

“The government!”


“Bill Gates!”

“The fish!” were among the chorus of replies.

I wrote the question and responses on a wall chart that listed what the kids already knew about water.

The students already knew many basics: About 70 percent of the earth is covered with water; most of it is salt water; it exists in three different forms; most of our bodies are composed of water; and more.

Their questions included: Who contaminates water? What country has the most water? How much does water cost? Does the chlorine put in the water in the state’s largest water park hurt animals?

I told students that they could add more questions throughout the day and I would type and categorize them for us to discuss the next day.

I had decided to do a water unit for several reasons. I wanted the “data and statistics” unit in the math curriculum to be engaging and socially relevant; the school science night loomed a couple weeks ahead; and I had learned some fascinating things about water on a recent trip to the Tijuana border area during a Rethinking Schools “From the World to Our Classrooms” curriculum tour. I had been particularly amazed at how much water cost in the impoverished community of Chilpancingo, just outside of Tijuana.

I had more specific goals as well. I wanted students to not only learn the importance and power of data in understanding significant scientific phenomena and problems, but to get some practice in representing that data and communicating it to others. And I wanted students to learn more about water — the availability of which they take for granted — and the central role water plays in our lives ecologically and socially.

After school I categorized the students’ questions, pulled relevant books from our school library, and downloaded images from the Internet to make a short PowerPoint presentation. The presentation included the students’ questions, images of people from Africa and Asia collecting water, and the aftereffects of oil spills.

The next day we reviewed a couple of key math concepts and skills. I had each student draw and label a circle graph of the percentage of the earth’s surface covered by water. In the process we reviewed equivalent fractions and percent. We looked at a chart of a person’s average water usage in the United States and calculated how much water a person would use over the course of a week and year.

Then I showed them the PowerPoint presentation and some books I planned on sharing with them. We concluded by sharing the students’ previous day’s questions, which I had divided into four categories:

  • Water basics — fresh and salt water; how much do we use?
  • Who can get clean water?
  • How much does water cost?
  • Oil spills.

Images of oil-soaked birds and seals generated the most interest and I realized that if had let the students indicate their preferred areas of study, all would have chosen oil spills. I decided to postpone the choosing until the next day, and instead read to them the picture book Prince William, by Gloria and Ted Rand, a fictionalized account of the rescue of a baby seal during an oil spill.

For homework that night I asked students to record every time they used water and estimate how much water they consumed.

That evening I decided to divide the oil spills category into two: oil spills of the world and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. That would allow more students to focus on oil spills and their consequences. I also decided to have all the students do a science/language arts activity on oil spills to tap their interest.

The following day I explained in more detail the five topics, the questions they would try to answer, and some suggested activities they might engage in. I asked students to list their top three choices on a piece of paper.

I told the class that since many students were interested in oil spills I had changed my plans to allow for that: They would all conduct a science experiment using feathers, oil, and water, and write diaries from the perspectives of ocean animals harmed by oil spills.

Science Experiment

Working in groups, the students examined the simulated impact of oil on a feather and how easy it is to wash off. One student in the group poured a mixture of vegetable oil and cocoa (added to give the appearance of darker crude oil) into a glass of water. The groups made observations of what happened to the oil such as, “The globs of oil went to the top.”

Then I gave each student a seagull feather that I had collected from the Lake Michigan shore. The students dipped the feathers in a cup that had the oil and water mixture and made more observations:

“The feather gets heavier and skinnier,” said one student.

“It got messy and oily,” another added.

I encouraged them to imagine how the oil might affect a water bird. “It probably became so heavy that it couldn’t fly or find food.” Jose said.

They then tried to clean the feathers by dipping them into three different solutions: cold water, warm water, and warm water with detergent.

“It’s hard to clean off a feather,” Aliza said.

“Detergent and warm water work really good together to clean feathers, maybe a whole bird too,” Zuleyeda concluded.

Afterwards, we cleaned up and I made sure everyone washed their hands.

Writing on Oil Spills

I read aloud and we discussed another picture book, Washing the Willow Tree Loon , by Nancy Carpenter and Jacqueline Briggs Martin. The book describes how a bird is rescued from an oil spill, cleaned, and returned to the wild. I also gave each student a two-page fact sheet on water and pollution from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website. (See end of article for URL.)

After reading both materials we brainstormed all the different animals that might have been affected by the spill and what aspects of their lives would have changed. I had each student choose one animal from the list and asked him or her to write from that animal’s perspective. Before writing, we talked about what might be in an animal’s “diary” — how it first saw the spill, how the oil affected its food supply, living situation, members of its family, etc. The students worked on their animal diaries during writing workshop and continued them for homework. The next day they worked with their peers to write second drafts.

The writing on the oil spills grew naturally out of the science experiment and the books we read. Over the next couple of days all the students completed their diaries. Eventually, the students glued their final drafts to construction paper, added either a drawing or an Internet photo of an oil-soaked animal, and displayed them on the bulletin board. The writings were uneven. Some students used lots of details about how the animals might have reacted to spills, while a few had the animals die immediately.

Aliza wrote from a duck’s perspective:

I was swimming until blackness filled the water. A beautiful day it was, until it started to get very cold. I thought I was a Popsicle, frozen, couldn’t move, could hardly breath. I tried to clean myself but the taste was unbelievable. So disgusting like black coal, thick, hard to swallow. I tried to escape, I tried to fly but I couldn’t. I was trapped. That whole day I thought I was going to die.

Another student, Margarita, des-cribed the thoughts of an otter:

Then some black ooze came towards us. It was smelly, thick, slimy and smelled gross. It covered all of me except my head. It was like glue, I couldn’t move. The black ooze was everywhere. I thought what is this? Will I die, are these the last days of my life? Then suddenly this person took me to a place that had a sign saying “Rescue Center for Animals.” Of course I didn’t know what it meant. I was wondering where I was. I couldn’t see any water.

When we were inside, they put me into water and it was so relaxing. They cleaned me off and it felt great. I heard them say, “We got the oil off and she looks great.” I wondered what oil was. One thing was for sure I was cleaned off. I was saved. I was so content these were not the last days of my life. I was the happiest otter ever.

While the writings were basic, they encouraged the students to look at human-made phenomena from the perspective of other species. I think in this country we not only take too many things for granted — like the availability of water — but we rarely stop to think about the impact our actions on non-human species. Perhaps this exercise pushed students a bit in the direction of what some call ecological literacy.

Photo: AP Photo/John McConnico
Children play along the banks of the highly polluted River Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Water Basics

I posted the research groups at the beginning of the day so students could finish complaining about who they were or were not with before math time started. At the beginning of the math period I reviewed my expectations for group work, especially the requirement that all students need to be engaged and that students need to stay in their assigned groups. I also presented a list of activities that I expected each group to complete during the next four math/science periods. I reminded students to show their math work, to use their own words in presenting information, and to put their final work on a tri-fold poster display board.

The “water basics” groups worked on graphically showing the role of water in everyday life. They graphed the percentage of water covering the earth’s surface, the amount of water in a human being, and the amount of water that a typical person from the United States uses every day. One of the group members exclaimed, “Water is everywhere. Inside you and you use it all the time. It’s almost like we are fish. Well, not really.”

Students in the group working on who has access to clean water were among the most startled. Reading the book For Every Child: The U.N. Convention on Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures and a selection from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they found that access to clean water is considered a human right by various international conventions. They were surprised that despite this, 18 percent or 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water. Using data from the UNICEF website they wrote, “Every day 5,000 kids die because of dirty water and poor sanitation — that means 242,000 kids die in a year because of water.” Using the book What’s a Million? they wrote, “Over one billion people don’t have clean water in their house. Can you imagine how many zeros one billion has? One billion has nine zeros! If you started counting to one billion it would take you 95 years.”

The group spent considerable time printing photos from the Internet depicting how different people get water. I insisted that they write a caption describing each picture and identifying its location. Two of the group members wrote a dialogue poem between two girls — one with clean water and one without clean water — contrasting two very different lives.

In conclusion, the group wrote in huge letters on their poster board, “Clean Water Is a Right!”

Water Access and Cost

The group researching water costs had a hard time tracking down data because of differences in how water costs are reported, and rates that vary on the amount of water use. Students ended up comparing the costs of water in Milwaukee; Chilpancingo, Mexico; and Cochabamba, Bolivia.

The data that the group used were varied and interesting. The water costs from Milwaukee were based on my water bill. Some students were surprised to learn that we pay for water at all. The information on water prices from the community of Chilpancingo I had collected as part of the “From the World to Our Classrooms” curriculum tour I had taken. We found water costs in Cochabamba, Bolivia, on the web. We even found scans of actual water bills for individuals, showing a spike in prices once Cochabamba officials privatized the water, contracting with Bechtel, the giant transnational corporation. (See the URL at end of the article.)

The students made a chart that had information on the cost of water per gallon and per 100 gallons, the minimum wage in the area, and percentage of daily minimum wage to pay for 100 gallons of water. The contrasts were startling. They found that “in Milwaukee people pay $1.18 for 748 gallons of water. One hundred gallons of water cost only 15 cents. The minimum wage in Milwaukee is $5.15 per hour and $41.20 per day. The percentage of the daily minimum wage to pay for 100 gallons of water is about one-third of 1 percent. In Chilpancingo, Mexico the people pay 15 pesos, about $1.50 for 44 gallons of water that a truck delivers to their homes, which lack running water. So 100 gallons cost about $3.00. The minimum wage in the area is $5 per day. The percentage of the daily minimum wage to pay for 100 gallons of water is 60 percent!”

The group filled a plastic milk jug with water and labeled how much it would cost in Milwaukee and Chilpancingo.

The group didn’t make a direct comparison for Bolivia because the pricing varied depending on the number of cubic meters. They concluded, “The cost went high because some new people — the Bechtel Company — bought the water company. They doubled the prices or in some cases raised them by 50 percent. After lots of protests in which people got killed, the government took back the water company from Bechtel.”

Ivory, one of the group members, wrote:

In Chilpancingo, Mexico, people pay three cents for a gallon of water. That’s about 20 times more than what people pay in Milwaukee. In other words, we can get 20 gallons for what they pay for one, and people in Milwaukee make more money in the first place.

In conclusion, we think everybody should pay the same prices for water as in Milwaukee. It’s not fair that in Chilpancingo people have to pay so much money for so little water, especially because it takes up about half of their salary. For the amount of money that people in Tijuana pay for 44 gallons we in Milwaukee could get 1,000 gallons. We learned that water is expensive in some places and in some places it is cheap. In Bolivia the people protested to keep price of water lower. Next time I drink a cup of water I am going think to how much it is going to cost in other places.

In retrospect, I probably should have raised the impact of the possibility of people limiting consumption in these places — in the United States because of a tendency to waste water, and in Mexico and Bolivia because of its expense.

Oil Spills and Exxon Valdez

The students studying oil spills graphed the number of oil spills, starting in 1970, and then marked the location of the 50 largest ones on a large world map. They also made circle graphs that showed the causes behind large oil spills (more than 100 tons) and smaller ones, noting that “the larger ones usually are caused by collisions (28 percent) or grounding (34 percent), while the smaller spills usually happened during loading and discharging.” They were surprised that the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which we had all read about, was not the largest spill ever.

The group looking at the Exxon Valdez had the most information of any group — in the form of children’s books and websites. They wrote a brief history of the spill, drew a map of the affected area, and included photos of oil-soaked sea animals.

To show how much 11 million was — the number of gallons of oil dumped in Prince William Sound by the Exxon Valdez — students filled a plastic one-gallon milk jug with water dyed with food coloring to make it look like oil. Then they set it next to a math sheet with 5000 dots that the class had used in a previous math assignment. The group calculated that it would take 2,200 pages of paper, each with 5000 dots on it to equal the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez. “Just imagine all that dirty stuff going out into the water,” said one student after finishing the calculations.

The group reflected on its research:

We learned that 11 million gallons of oil spilled when the Exxon Valdez ran aground trying to avoid icebergs off the coast of Alaska in Prince William Sound. The water was polluted and it killed millions of animals like sea birds, otters, seals, whales, eagles, and millions of salmon and others. The carcasses (the dead bodies) of more than 35,000 birds and 1,000 sea otters were found after the oil spill but since most carcasses sink, this probably is only a fraction of all those who were killed. The best estimates are: 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 killer whales, and billions of salmon and herring eggs.

Science Night and Reflections

Each group made an oral presentation to the rest of the class. The presentations were somewhat anticlimactic because they were laden with data and the students hadn’t carefully thought through the best way to present the material. The two most engaging parts of the presentation were the dialogue poem and the students’ new knowledge about the large numbers of people who do not have access to clean running water in their homes. I challenged students to not use the faucets in their homes for the entire next day.

I intentionally asked the group reporting on oil spills to present immediately after the one on the Exxon Valdez. In helping the students research I was shocked to learn that from 1972 to the present there were 19 oil spills larger than that of the Exxon Valdez, including three that released seven times as much oil.

The final connection students made was when they looked at the pictures of the street demonstrations in Bolivia, where people protested the privatization of their water supply: “That’s just like in the Civil Rights Movement,” said one student. “The women’s fight to vote movement, too,” added another. “Geesh, just for clean water,” added a third. “That’s amazing.”

The afternoon before science night, the students set up their displays close to the bulletin board that had the animal diaries. When parents arrived, they read the diaries as well as the information on their display boards. Several expressed surprise at some of the information students had gathered, including the amount of oil spilled throughout the world and the number of people without access to clean water. A number of the parents had grown up in rural Mexico where they had to spend lots of time fetching clean water, so they told students they heartily agreed that water should be a basic right for all.

Unfortunately, not all the groups had a student member attend science night, so not all the children heard the positive feedback from the parents.

One indication that the students valued the project is that they all wanted to take the final project home. In addition, students regularly asked me if they could start working on their water projects. The project suffered, however, from some of the same problems group projects often suffer from: In a few cases a couple of people did more than their share of the work, which led to some feelings of resentment. I tried to address this through the individual writing assignments and by assuring students that I was observing who was doing what work. Next time, I will have students reflect in writing on both their roles as group members as well as what they learned overall from the project. I also plan to give individual feedback to each student.

I also realize that we never answered the crucial question: Who actually owns the water? Or a related question that we uncovered while researching oil spills: Why is there such a thirst for oil?

That’s one of the benefits of teaching. There’s always next year.

Bob Peterson (Contact Me) teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools.

Websites Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Includes age-appropriate background information and descriptions of science experiments. The Democracy Center, located in Cochabamba, has a lots of information on water struggles in Bolivia. Do a search for “water” on the site and find many useful articles.


For Every Child: The U.N. Convention on Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures, by Caroline Castle (text adaptation) (Phyllis Fogelman Books, 2001).

How Much Is a Million? by David Schwartz (Scholastic, 1985).

Prince William, by Gloria and Ted Rand (Holt, 1992).

Sea Otter Rescue, by Roland Smith
(Dutton, 1991).

Spill: The Story of the Exxon Valdez, by Terry Carr (Franklin Watts, 1991).

Troubled Water: Saints, Sinners, Truths and Lies about the Global Water Crisis, by Anita Roddick with Brooke Shelby Biggs (Anita Roddick Books, 2004).

Washing the Willow Tree Loon, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Nancy Carpenter (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

Bob Peterson ( teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee and is an editor of Rethinking Schools.