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Model U.N. Breathes Life Into Often Dry Subject Areas

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 04, 2007 7 min read
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When Sakinah Smith entered high school, her main worries were her hair and nails, and, of course, her grades.

Now, in her third year of participating in a global-studies initiative here at Brooklyn College Academy, the 12th grader has immersed herself in the heftier problems facing her contemporaries around the world. Her research on war, disease, poverty, and the scarcity of freshwater supplies has opened the teenager’s eyes to the realities of life in the developing world and dwarfed her own concerns. It has also brought greater depth to her studies at the public high school, where she is this year’s valedictorian.

“I was so closed in my own little world,” she said recently. “You start out feeling like only your needs matter, … but now I realize my issues are really so small.”

As part of Global Classrooms, a program that highlights the work of the United Nations, the 600-student school offers government, history, and English courses and an after-school club that infuse lessons on international affairs, human rights, global trade, and world politics into the curriculum.

High school students from the United States and abroad represent their assigned countries at the Model U.N.

“We start with teaching them how to do research, the rules of procedure, and we do quite a bit of work on how to write position papers and resolution writing,” said English teacher Michael Mahrer, who is an adviser for the academy’s Model U.N. program and helps high school teachers throughout this city implement Global Classrooms. “Then there’s all the content, everything they learn regarding the actual issues and what’s going on in the world, at any point in time.”

Those lessons, and students’ intensive study of specific topics on an assigned country or region, help prepare the participants to debate the issues with their peers from cities around the world in a simulated United Nations session each spring. They also help breathe life into required subjects that high school students may not typically find relevant.

Looking the Part

At the annual Model United Nations Conference held in part at U.N. headquarters here last month, Ms. Smith and teenagers from the United States and abroad joined in intense debates and negotiations as they tried to resolve pressing world issues. As a delegate representing Bolivia, Ms. Smith and a classmate, Chantal Louison, drafted resolutions before the UNICEF executive board that promoted education programs, health care, and age limits on military service for children affected by war and other societal conflict. Delegates from Senegal, Myanmar, Germany, Japan, and other nations all signed on to the proposal.

Other students from the academy, assigned as foreign diplomats for Sudan and Qatar, were asked to respond to allegations before the Security Council that they support gangs of armed gunmen in Sudan’s Darfur region, and have failed to act amid the furor over the genocide there.

In another Security Council session, a debate over nuclear proliferation became heated between the students speaking for North Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The students around the oval conference table looked the part, with their dark suits and poised expressions, and gave realistic performances as they defended the views of the nations they represented.

Down the hall in the General Assembly, students huddled in small groups to negotiate proposals for addressing the AIDS crisis. During the comment period, a representative of Bangladesh explained that despite his country’s conservative views on sex, and general opposition to common preventive practices such as condom distribution, his delegation would support a resolution recommending such measures but allowing countries to decide for themselves how to stem the pandemic.

Roots in Classroom

After a training session on the rules of procedure and the flow of debate for the event, students appeared adept at negotiating the complex progression from discussing contentious issues to debating and drafting resolutions to forming alliances with other delegates.

Faced with the gravity of the issues, the participants displayed the kind of diplomacy that is the basis of good international relations.

They sent scribbled notes to delegates from other nations to persuade them to sign on to resolutions, or to meet to negotiate their differences. Some took to the podium to make a case for their motions on improving water quality, removing land mines, or dealing with immigration issues.

The students began taking up those and other sobering topics months before in classrooms in New York’s Queens borough; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Tokyo; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Johannesburg, South Africa.

At Brooklyn College Academy, which had some 80 participants in the Model U.N. event, students were each assigned a country and issue to research in January. In class and after school, they studied their countries’ positions on the issue using Internet resources, published articles, and news accounts. They researched the political, cultural, and historical bases of those views until they could convincingly represent their assigned countries in the simulated proceedings.

“The kids spend a lot of time in the computer lab doing the research they need to learn enough about a country” to excel at the conference, said Mr. Mahrer, who taught two introductory classes, offered as electives, this school year. “The students who are more self-sufficient do a tremendous amount of work on their own” getting steeped in the perspectives of their countries.

Global Classrooms offers teachers help with the content and structure of the program through a curriculum based on state and national standards in social studies, English, geography, civics, and government. The program is sponsored by the United Nations Association of the United States of America, a New York City-based organization that promotes education about the world body. Teacher training and support services are provided throughout the school year. Global Classrooms has also helped several city schools organize smaller simulations to give students a chance to build their procedural skills prior to the culminating conference.

The Model U.N., which was started more than 50 years ago, has become a staple in thousands of secondary and postsecondary schools through Global Classrooms and similar programs. Global Classrooms, founded seven years agao, targets urban middle and high schools, where teachers use it as a resource for compulsory classes like world history, or electives in international relations, government, and leadership.

“These students are learning to build consensus, using negotiating skills, and learning about international relations and global issues,” said Liza Rojas-Alford, the project coordinator in New York City. “The stronger students are naturally going to be more interested in participating, … but we work with teachers to assure them that [most students] can do this.”

Explaining in ‘Kidspeak’

Lauren Popkoff has seen the benefits for the 9th and 10th graders in her history classes at Brooklyn College Academy who take part in the Model U.N. The students have gained deeper knowledge of the world and the critical issues affecting the health, prosperity, and safety of people on other continents. They now tend to look for the broader context of news events and even in routine daily tasks, such as running tap water. And they see themselves as global citizens with a role in resolving problems elsewhere.

Teachers in other subject areas at the school have reported that students are adapting their newfound knowledge, as well as the research, writing, debate, and persuasive skills they picked up, to other coursework.

“The other teachers come to me and ask, how do these students know about what’s happening in Kashmir?” Ms. Popkoff said. Other teachers have sought her advice, she said, on exploring global issues in science and English classes as well. Recently, a science teacher asked her for more information on current environmental issues after students asked to learn about freshwater resources.

That enthusiasm seems to be contagious for students who take classes with Ms. Smith and other participants in the Model U.N. As they get drawn into discussions of current events, Ms. Popkoff added, most of her students become intrigued by how much their classmates understand about the faraway issues. The Model U.N. students often end up briefing their classmates on the issue or country under discussion to allow them to join the debate.

“In class, these kids have gotten up and explained things like globalization and genocide to their classmates, in ‘kidspeak,’ ” said Ms. Popkoff.

“The students who participate in the Model U.N. have had an obvious impact on other kids,” she added. “They’ve shown their classmates that history is not just a dead subject. It’s happening right now.”

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Model U.N. Breathes Life Into Often Dry Subject Areas

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