LINDEN, NJ - Michael D’Amato is out to make the world a better place, one gallon at a time.  The social studies teacher at Soehl Middle School in Linden recently challenged his students to carry around a gallon jug of water for a whole school day. He wanted to build empathy and solidarity with girls their age in developing nations who struggle with access to clean water.

Many can’t go to school because they are forced to spend their days walking miles to lug five-gallon jugs of water back home for their families.

“I wanted to get my students to understand what it feels like to be one of these girls,” said D’Amato, who has been at Soehl for 21 years and this year teaches sixth and eighth grade.

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“Maybe it sounds weird, but I wanted to make them a little uncomfortable. I’ve had students say, ‘My hand hurts’ or ‘My back doesn’t want to do this anymore.’ So if I can have them experience a fraction of what these girls experience, I see that as a start.”

The “One-Gallon Challenge” took place Jan. 9, two months ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, and Women’s History Month in March.

D’Amato’s goal was to raise awareness of the issue so that maybe more students or even other schools would get involved in the challenge in March.

“I’m amazed at how many students did this, but I see this as Step 1,” he said. “I would love for my students to become activists. There are many issues out there. If they see something, I want them to say something. They may feel, ‘I’m in eighth grade, I can’t vote, what do you expect me to do?’

There’s social media, where you can quickly take a picture with your friends, and say,

‘Here’s the One-Gallon Challenge.’ ”Interim Superintendent Denise Cleary stopped by to see D’Amato’s lesson in action, as students came in and out of class carrying their gallon jugs.

“A fantastic project like the One-Gallon Challenge is able to capture a student’s interest in a unique way, but I saw them learning valuable lessons in the classroom as well,” Cleary said. “They discussed global issues and asked insightful questions, and you could see as the light bulb went on. They realized that girls their age have to struggle with something that we all take for granted every day.”

A project like the One-Gallon Challenge helps engage students in ways that regular class lectures or readings wouldn’t.

“As a teacher for 21 years, the same topics come up every year,” D’Amato said. “Poverty, genocide, slavery. And my challenge is to think how can I teach better than I was teaching last year. As teachers we need to create catnip. Students have their cellphones, they have social media. I need to be better than that."  “I think a lot of them are going to remember this for a long time.” 

Beyond the classroom, he feels the project can cause ripples and have real effects on a global scale.

“I told the students the other day there are 7 billion people on the planet, and more people use cellphones than toilets,” D’Amato said. “So what we do here, they can see this. If they see what we’re doing, I want especially the girls to know we see you, we see what you’re going through.  The countries with the most terrorism have the lowest female literacy rates. So if you reduce the female illiteracy in these areas, you will reduce terrorism.  So in a very far-stretching way, I think this does make the world a safer place.”

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