Seventh grader Elizabeth stood in awe as she looked around the General Assembly of the United Nations, realizing that she was moments from being seated in the same room that is usually occupied by ambassadors from around the world.
For the last several months, she had been studying about South Korea and its stance on disabilities as part of the Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN). Her arrival at the General Assembly in New York City started the final day of a four-day conference that brings current day issues to the forefront of tomorrow's leaders.
MMUN is a simulation of the UN General Assembly that invites upper elementary and middle school students from around the world to debate current issues. Rather than express their own beliefs, students must view these issues from the perspective of an assigned country, which creates a unique experience of empathy and global mindedness. For instance, Chinese students may represent the United States and Chilean students may represent Germany. This year, Whitby students were tasked with representing China and South Korea.
"We talk about appreciating and understanding different cultures, having a global perspective, so many of the issues that the students look at...it's not an issue for one country; it's an issue for lots of countries," said Andy Greene, Upper School Individual and Societies Teacher. "It's not an issue that can be solved independently or by a few countries getting together. It's something which requires much broader participation to really get at a lot of these issues, and I think it fits really well with our mission."
Whitby's participation in MMUN first began when Greene wanted to start an elective. He initially wanted to create some kind of debate team, but became interested in MMUN after finding a flyer for the organization in his mailbox. The school's first MMUN class consisted of six students who, along with their chaperones, commuted daily from Greenwich to Brooklyn via train.
The following year, Greene and the students began staying in the city overnight so students could take advantage of the different after-hours networking opportunities and cultural experiences offered throughout the event. Since then, the MMUN elective has seen tremendous growth, expanding from a modest six students to a now overflowing 26.
The interest from students is somewhat surprising to Greene since the class demands a lot from its students while being an elective. The class requires a significant amount of research and work on sophisticated topics ranging from the rights of indigenous peoples to disaster risk reduction.
Though the MMUN conference lasts four days, the work begins every fall. First, each student must research their country and topic to develop a position paper. Once that's finished, the paper becomes the foundation for a speech to be read in front of their committee, which can consist of 40-80 students. After each student reads their speech, they identify which delegations might have similar thoughts to their own. From there, the likeminded countries work to find solutions to their issues.
The process is designed to follow UN procedure as closely as possible, and Greene suggests this is one of the most formal experiences his students have faced at this point in their life. They must wear business attire and follow standard UN language and communication protocol in terms of how they address each other and those running the meetings.
Elizabeth said the hardest part about being at MMUN was building up the courage to share her ideas and make her voice heard. "You were collaborating with people you have never met before and it was such an incredible thing to be doing because you came up with a solution you wouldn't have come up with yourself," she said.
Deliberations are broken up into four three-hour committee sessions over two days. Once committees have met together, group members are elected to read their resolution to the wider MMUN collective, which Greene estimated to be about 1,000 people this year.
Eighth grader Sam started in MMUN as a seventh grader after wanting to try something new and hearing about his brother's experience in the program. His second year in the program, Sam represented China and studied the topic: threats to international peace caused by terrorist acts.
“I’d say signing up is the hardest part of model UN because you’re signing up to do a position paper, do a speech, and put as much effort as you do to get to committee,” said Sam.
This year Sam was chosen to represent his committee during the General Assembly session. He embraced the opportunity but didn't grasp the scale of the room until reaching the front. While standing onstage facing a room filled with his peers, his face projected on two screens accompanying him on either side, Sam delivered a brief message, one that would become a memory to last a lifetime.