Friday, February 24, 2012

Great MUN delegates: born or made?

Our lives may look like a hedonistic whirlwind of temple photography and sushi consumption, but probably 80% of our waking hours are spent on teaching, our day jobs. It's been a while since we talked about teaching, so thought I would share some reflections.

Justin and I are in Kobe attending a Model United Nations conference. If you're not familiar with the program, imagine that the debate team and mock trial ran into each other at high speed and fell down in the political science department. Students role-play various countries and attempt to solve world issues through discussion while remaining true to the interests of their characters. To be successful, students need public speaking skills, good vocabulary, reading comprehension, and research skills.

I started teaching MUN last year, and my preparation consisted entirely of a 45 minute Skype call with a college friend who ran the Yale MUN conference. So it's been a hands-on learning experience, to say the least, and I have no pretensions to expertise.

Overall, my verdict is that for a humanities teacher, MUN is a godsend. It creates competitiveness among the students to develop the kind of knowledge and skills which we otherwise have to force into them. Students are desperate to improve their vocabularies and to be informed on global issues so they don't embarass themselves in front of their peers (a student once came up to me and asked desperately, "Can you help me find big words to make my speech sound more smarter?") When we go to conferences, the skilled upperclassmen from other schools become academic role models in a way you typically only see in sports. We can tell students a thousand times about the value of diction, volume, and articulate speech, and we don't have one thousandth the impact of a cogent, impassioned twenty-second objection by the delegate of the Russian Federation, a confident senior who uses words like "ameliorate."

MUN skills, once acquired, transfer outside the humanities as well. The students can debate stem cell research in Biology or confidently present a solution to a math problem.

Being good at MUN may not "cool" at most schools. A difference for us is that nearly everyone takes it, because it is offered as a class during the day, So all kids have the chance to be impressive or be impressed. This makes our program fundamentally different from clubs or after-school programs. Clubs are self-selecting and, it seems to me, draw students who are already good at MUN and enjoy the chance to use their skills. By contrast, we have shy kids, non-native English speakers, and kids who have never read a newspaper. It can be a real challenge to guide these students to MUN success (roughly comparable, I suspect, to the challenge my PE teacher faced trying to get me to run the mile. The difference is that I actually care that my students not be turned off the subject for life).

In a club school, I strongly suspect that these students would be too intimidated to join MUN, or not supported enough to stay in it. The irony is that these students may need MUN more than the "naturals" who can already read and speak in public. We have put a lot of work into helping this kind of student. It has been really rewarding here in Kobe to see students take on difficult tasks like amendment proposal when they started the class afraid to ask questions and not really even sure where their country was located.

To conclude, in MUN format:

Question of: MUN participation
Submitted by: Nana


Aware of the benefits of participation in MUN for students and schools,

Affirming the valuable contributions of outstanding students to MUN conferences,

Concerned by the possibility that some students do not receive enough support or encouragement and therefore miss out on the benefits of MUN

1. Calls for more schools to offer MUN as an academic class, to attract a wider range of participants,

2. Encourages high-level participants to continue to set a strong but supportive example,

3. Endorses the MUN program to schools which do not offer it,

4. Urges advisors to actively nurture and develop the talents of all students

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