Monday, March 25, 2013

Authentic Learning Experiences as a Way to Increase Student Engagement and Ownership

When I first started at New Milford High School, I discovered there was no Model UN Team.  Having been  involved with two previous teams before and having chaperoned countless conventions, I knew how great Model UN was at taking a student who really knew nothing about what was going on in the world, who had no experience public speaking or conducting intense research and writing, and throwing them in the center of intense debates and enthusiastic discussions.  The ability Model UN has to teach students how to arbitrate disputes, how to view issues from different angles, and how to compete with the muscle between your ears instead of your body is priceless.  I had seen this done with much success in my experience at the Bergen County Academies and with Ma'ayanot Yeshiva students, but both groups contained advanced students.  Could this be done effectively with your average student?  Could it motivate kids who where not in honors courses, who might not even love "history" in the classic sense?

I will never forget the first meeting I had with over 80 students in room 246 at New Milford High School.  The room, one that really was not designed to hold more than 35 students, was packed.  Kids were sitting on the heaters, on bookshelves, on each others laps, and even a bunch where outside the door.  I ended up having to hold two shifts to explain what the club was about.  Well, as soon as some kids found out it was not a modeling club, about 10 of them left, but the rest remained.  I spoke with them.  I did not dumb down my speech, I used charts to explain the working of the United Nations.  I explained its background, purpose, and other relevant facts.  I then showed them a brief video about Model UN and what it was like to go to a conference.  I had tried to bring in a former student currently at university to meet with them, but, last minute, that didn't pan out.  It didn't matter.  The students were entranced.  One student from the "regular track" told me, "No one ever talked to me like you did."  I asked him what he meant.  He said, "Like an adult.  Like a smart kid."  I looked him straight in the eye and said, "You are a lot smarter than you think you are.  You are only as smart as you are willing to work."  He got it.

Quickly cost became a huge factor in attending conventions. Many of the kids were significantly financially strapped because of the current economic climate.   Our first year, we became a club mostly focused on "global issues."  I began sending out links to articles and students created their own agenda for each meeting to discuss something permanent that had occurred that week and how other countries and the UN reacted.  They began sending me articles and even including me in online "discussions" about issues international concern.

This past year, I was able to take a small group to a local conference at the Bergen County Academies.  Since it was a high school conference that did not require overnight stay fees, we were able to go for a doable price. While the administration has significantly changed there since my days, the same Model UN Advisors are in charge.  In fact, a few of my fellow students were even present as chairs!

The students were hooked on their experience, ecstatic the entire time.  All except one had prepared background position papers on their assigned country's perspective on three issues related to the committee they were put in.  They got there obviously nervous, but immediately psyched.  I walked around the halls with my co-advisor, Serge Nadeau (who I had recruited to join me as my co-advisor since all great teams have 2 coaches and as a charismatic foreign language teacher, he was the perfect fit) and checked in to see how each was fairing in committee.  Despite the rather heterogeneity of the group, they all seemed pretty charged up and involved.  By the end of the conference, one of our delegates even won a "Verbal Accolade   beating out Tenafly and Fair Lawn along with a host of other teams.  Our team returned home victorious with triumph and enthusiasm.  They also returned home with a keen understanding of how Model UN worked and a desire to continue participating in conferences.  One student told me that was it, she was going to major in international affairs.

And that's how the New Milford Model UN Novice Conference came into creation.  A bunch of students came to me asking if in fact we could host our own conference.  It was too much money to attend another and they wanted to compete with other schools again this year.  Hence, I divided the students up into groups of 2 to be chairs on various committees of their choosing.  I allowed them to choose their own topics.  They crafted background assignments which we posted to the website  We invited schools.  Because this was pretty late in the year and we were not able to give much notice to other districts, we were not able to get as many other schools as the kids hoped, but I was pretty impressed that four schools initially responded positively and two schools ended up signing on.  Our conference will go on as scheduled April 23-24th.  It will have 40 students total.  We are all pretty excited about this conference and hope it is the first of many to come.  I feel lucky to have spent the past two years getting to know these students.  I'm glad they let me and enabled me to help facilitate their growth.  I've seen kids who were shy, disengaged, and even outright "problem students" join Model UN and really become focused.  I'm thrilled that an academic team can have such a positive impact on students. Perhaps we all might benefit as educators in convincing our students to participate in academic teams like Model UN as well.