I love teaching Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water because it’s such an accessible, engaging, and powerful text that provides the opportunity to practice so many essential ELA skills. This is one of the main reasons that it serves as our first whole-class novel unit in my 7th grade reading classroom.
Because the text itself is easier to read, I use the novel as an opportunity to dig into advanced literary analysis skills that we will practice the rest of the school year. It’s also the perfect novel to pair with powerful essential questions and practice important speaking and listening skills through a variety of discussions.
But the best part of our novel study? It’s the lessons Salva and Nya teach us along the way. It’s the fact that my students walk away from this book as better humans. This book is powerful.
But that also means it’s intimidating! How do you do a book like this justice? How do you make sure students walk away with both engagement and empathy, comprehension and connections, proficiency and perspectives? It’s challenging, but doable! For my fellow ELA teachers who want it all – mastery AND meaning – here are 10 of my favorite activities for teaching A Long Walk to Water.
1. PRE-READING LEARNING STATIONS
If you know me, then you know it’s no secret that I begin almost every single novel/unit with learning stations. Teaching A Long Walk to Water is no exception! Our pre-reading learning stations serve two purposes: to hook students before reading AND build essential background knowledge. During learning stations, students “get to know” Nya and Salva through key excerpts, learn about the setting and historical context, consider the impact of water on their lives, and more. These tasks prepare students for reading so that when we begin Chapter 1, everyone is engaged, confident, and curious to read more. You can check out these print/digital pre-reading learning stations HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
2. PHOTO GALLERY ANALYSIS
After reading the first few chapters, students will have natural questions about the Dinka and Nuer cultures. To answer students’ questions and strengthen their understanding of the cultural context, I created a lesson to accompany a photo gallery from The Guardian. After reading about the Dinka tribe, students “closely” read the photos and captions to learn as much as they can about Dinka culture. Then, we discuss what we think are the most important details to keep in mind as we read. You can check out this photo gallery activity in the Ch. 1-6 activity pack HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
3. POINT OF VIEW GROUP WORK
A Long Walk to Water is the perfect book to explore the development of point of view. After doing a simple Nya/Salva venn diagram with the first few chapters, I like to push my students’ thinking to the next level of analysis around chapters 8-9 (or whenever, really). I break students into groups and give them a chunk of the text & either Nya’s or Salva’s point of view. Then, students analyze how author Linda Sue Park develops the point of view in the specific chapters. This jigsaw work then leads into a great discussion where we can compare and contrast Nya’s and Salva’s point of view.
This work is challenging for students, but it helps to start these conversations earlier on in the novel so we gradually ramp up our level of analysis as we read. You can check out this point of view group work in the Ch. 7-12 activity pack HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
4. CONFLICT PIE CHARTS
To scaffold the “interaction of story elements” standard, I created an activity that would help students analyze the conflict in A Long Walk to Water. Specifically, my secret goal was to help them discover the relationship between conflict and setting. Instead of telling them that, I let them figure it out on their own through “conflict pie charts,” an engaging twist on the typical, “What is the conflict?” question. For this activity, students must break down the sources of conflict into percentages/slices of a pie chart.
After completing this activity for both Nya and Salva, students are able to compare/contrast and realize that the setting is the main source of the conflict. This activity works well about halfway through the novel, because it scaffolds the more thorough analysis we’ll do with story elements later on in the text. You can check out this resource in the Ch. 7-12 activity pack HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
5. QUESTION TRAIL
If you’ve ever dreaded the monotony that can sneak up halfway through a novel unit, then a question trail is the activity for you! A question trail is an engaging, kinesthetic activity that takes students on an interactive “trail” of questions posted around the room. Each question answer (A, B, C, D) directs students to a different question “on the trail,” so if students answer each question correctly, they complete a full circuit. It sounds a little complicated, but I promise it’s easy once you try it! For more information on how to set up your own question, click HERE for a blog post or HERE for an editable template.
I created a question trail to review Chapters 1-12 of A Long Walk to Water before our quiz. This question trail is a great way to check in with students, see who is reading, who is comprehending, and who is critically thinking. You can check out the question trail in the Ch. 7-12 activity pack HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
6. RESILIENCE NONFICTION
One of the most powerful takeaways from A Long Walk to Water is Salva’s astounding strength and resilience. We discuss this throughout the novel and analyze how Salva responds to the adversity around him, but it’s important for students to realize that resilience is a skill they, too, can practice. To help students see this and learn about the psychological relationship between adversity and strength, we read and discuss nonfiction about resilience. Not only does this reinforce themes of the book, but it gives students real strategies for overcoming adversity in their own lives. You can check out this resource in the Ch. 13-18 activity pack HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
7. CHARACTER POSTCARD ACTIVITY
As we finish reading the book, one thing we analyze is the role of Nya’s character in the book, since she is a fictional character derived from the true stories of countless girls. This is one piece to the puzzle of hitting the standard of understanding how authors “use or alter history.” To scaffold this skill, students get into Nya’s point of view and compose postcards to Salva to thank him for the well.
It’s a simple but powerful activity that gets students thinking. Writing the postcards helps students connect to the character of Nya, imagine the ripple effect water would have on her life, and feel the impact of Salva’s accomplishments. This provides the perfect springboard for a whole-class discussion of Nya’s character, the final chapter, and Park’s choices as an author. You can check out this resource in the Ch. 13-18 activity pack HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
8. POST-READING SPEED DISCUSSION
If you’ve ever finished reading an incredible novel with your student and then thought, “Now what?” then “speed discussion” is for you! Speed discussion is a speed-dating style discussion strategy in which students are paired up to discuss a variety of questions during quick rounds of discussion (1-2 minutes). Each round, students rotate to a different topic and peer. The magic of this activity is that it engages every single student Type here. You can check out this resource separately HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
To learn more about various types of engaging, speed-dating style lessons, read my blog post HERE.
9. SOCRATIC SEMINAR
A Long Walk to Water is one of those books that deserves to be discussed at length! Like I mentioned earlier, it is possible to have it all: engagement and empathy, comprehension and connections, and proficiency and perspectives. And a Socratic Seminar, or student-led discussion, is the perfect culminating assessment with the power to offer it all. If you’ve never hosted a Socratic Seminar before, it’s a student-facilitated discussion, one where the students create questions, prepare notes, and lead the conversation. And if you’re already skeptical, it absolutely CAN be done with middle schoolers. Trust me! After 6 years of teaching high school, I was intimidated to try it in middle school, too, but it’s one of the most rewarding lessons I’ve ever taught! To learn more about how to facilitate a successful seminar, read my blog post HERE or head to my student-ready resource HERE.
10. “GOD GREW TIRED OF US” DOCUMENTARY ANALYSIS
If you teach A Long Walk to Water, I can’t recommend this enough! “God Grew Tired Of Us” is a documentary that follows three Sudanese “Lost Boys” as they leave refugee camps to resettle in America. The film does an excellent job showing the young men as they struggle to adjust to life in America. This perspective is one that my students seem to want more of after reading A Long Walk to Water.
To maximize this movie time, I give students film analysis questions that require them to think critically about the film, the director’s choices, and the connections to the novel. Last year, I did this at the very end of our entire unit, but this year, I am planning on showing this before our Socratic Seminar assessment, because it will give us even more to discuss. You can check out this resource HERE or in the unit bundle HERE.
I hope this helps you jump-start your lesson planning for A Long Walk to Water. Enjoy the book, and good luck teaching it! For more information on planning engaging novel units, you can read my blog post HERE.
Interested in the resources for teaching A Long Walk to Water? Check out my jam-packed A Long Walk to Water unit bundle HERE.