Students debate, solve major challenges at Bilingual Model UN
This article was written for our sponsor, Participate Learning
On March 28, hundreds of students from 20 different North Carolina middle schools boarded buses to spend the day at UNC Greensboro discussing one of the biggest issues facing the world. And they did it entirely in Spanish.
The gathering is much more than a field trip, though middle schoolers undoubtedly enjoy getting to leave school for a day to visit a college campus. Rather, this gathering is the culmination of years of studying Spanish, and months preparing for the day’s agenda.
Welcome to the Model UN, a program used by hundreds of thousands of students worldwide to learn first hand how to address real-world issues and to find solutions.
The event at UNC Greensboro is the annual Model UN gathering of middle schools that use Conexiones, the middle school Spanish program offered by Participate Learning, a Chapel Hill based global education company that implements dual language and global education programs in K-12 schools. Conexiones works as a bridge between elementary school Spanish immersion programs – which continue to grow in popularity – and the advanced courses offered in high school. This school year there are 33 Conexiones schools in North Carolina and Virginia, with more districts adding the Conexiones for the 2023-24 school year.
At the Model UN, students prepare opening statements to support their assigned country’s position on the topic chosen for the event. This year's topic was water scarcity. After each country makes their opening statement, students spend time discussing potential solutions, which they then vote on as resolutions at the event’s end. And while the students are not all native Spanish speakers, the entire event is conducted in Spanish.
The students attending the Model UN have been studying Spanish since they started elementary school and attended dual language and immersion programs. The event gives them the chance to practice using their Spanish in a formal setting, and tackling significant issues, said Jason Straus of Participate Learning, who organized the Model UN.
"The goal is to become bilingual leaders," Straus said. "Bilingualism is a superpower, and it can really enhance a person’s professional and personal life."
Learning Spanish and problem solving
To really prepare students to succeed in today’s global economy, more schools are adopting innovative new programs that combine lessons on problem solving with development of valuable skills.
One important skill many districts are making an instructional priority is learning a second language. The most effective way to do this is through dual language and immersion programs in elementary school, when research shows students are most likely to learn a second language. In North Carolina alone, there are now hundreds of dual language and immersion programs, with the most common second language being Spanish.
As a growing number of students complete fifth grade with a strong ability to speak a second language, more districts are seeking to add immersion programs at the middle school level. Conexiones serves as a bridge between the immersion of elementary school programs and the advanced courses offered in high school.
For middle schools that offer Conexiones, the Model UN serves as a focus for both strengthening students’ Spanish skills and providing challenging problems for students to work on throughout the school year. This emphasizes developing skills that students can apply to school and work situations throughout their lives, such as problem solving, team leadership, and clear communication.
Getting students ready for the Model UN starts with the philosophy that students are capable and ready to learn about real-world issues. Teachers, with the help of provided resources, focus on many elements of issue awareness including sustainability goals and international interactions.
Flor Guida, a middle school Participate Learning teacher in Union County, introduces her sixth grade class to such issues through age-appropriate books. As students progress in age and understanding, their Spanish vocabulary increases and they begin to practice putting what they’ve learned into words. More than just reiterating what they’ve read, Guida helps them learn how to contextualize the material and present the information in impactful ways.
Often students will explore how broader challenges have a local connection. For example, they might look into challenges with water and examine a local river or lake, how healthy that water source is, and what could be done to solve any issues they identify. This approach is important, Guida said, because it teaches students how to prepare for the future.
"They need to be prepared for the world that is coming and we need to give them the skills to succeed in a global environment."
The Model UN event
While the Model UN is an annual event for Conexiones schools, this year offered an in-person gathering, replacing the virtual versions of the year prior, caused by Covid.
The Model UN is for students in seventh and eighth grade. While preparation starts with the books and vocabulary already introduced, the Model UN process starts with analyzing and deciding upon a specific social problem. Students then explore and discuss the many countries that may struggle with that particular issue. For 2023, the Conexiones schools decided the topic would be the scarcity of clean water.
Each participating school then gets assigned to represent a specific country – or two countries if a school has a lot of Conexiones students. Teachers then ask students to do the research necessary to put themselves in the shoes of those who live in the country they will represent. This project-based approach aligns with the overall structure of Conexiones, which is to ensure continued growth in Spanish language proficiency while cultivating global competencies in students. After they have completed their research, students begin to develop their speeches on the topic.
Students become delegates for specific countries, Guida explained. They then deepen their research by asking the students to put themselves in the shoes of those who live in those places.
"We get them to think about what it would be like to live in that area and experience the problem," she said. "One of the things they learn through this is how to respect the differences of the countries and their issues because of the different cultures."
While the topic at hand is the primary focus, students each benefit from increased knowledge in international cultures and geography and they each get to practice essential skills like public speaking and critical thinking.
Guida said this program is a good reminder for teachers and parents that students don’t just come to school to get a grade — which is what she says most students think — but to also become better citizens.
"They can start connecting these goals with their community," she said. "It’s a perfect way to prepare them to solve problems in the future."
This article was written for our sponsor, Participate Learning