The child am­bas­sadors

Four hun­dred school­child­ren ded­i­cate a three-day weekend to dis­cussing the global is­sue of the short­age of clean wa­ter, un­der the guid­ance of the Montes­sori Model United Na­tions. By Anthea Ay­ache

Friday - - EDUCATION -

The large au­di­to­rium was alive, the sound of in­tense dis­cus­sion and thought­ful de­lib­er­a­tion car­ry­ing from one hud­dled group to the next. Words such as hu­man­i­tar­ian, cri­sis man­age­ment, re­source del­e­ga­tion and fundrais­ing were bat­ted around while par­tic­i­pants pre­pared to stand up and deliver speeches to their 400-strong au­di­ence.

De­bat­ing the best way for­ward for re­solv­ing the world’s wors­en­ing wa­ter cri­sis, they shuf­fled pa­pers and scrib­bled notes, and as the room fell silent for voting, a few fi­nal hushed thoughts were quickly ex­changed.

A room full of ex­perts em­u­lat­ing the way in which global or­gan­i­sa­tions deal with some of the world’s un­fold­ing emer­gen­cies may be some­thing ex­pected of suited and booted adults, but worldly wise terms res­onat­ing around the room from the mouths of nine to 15-year-olds is not quite so com­mon­place.

Wel­come to the Montes­sori Model United Na­tions (MMUN), an or­gan­i­sa­tion that strives to make such prac­tices amongst the world’s el­e­men­tary school kids an or­di­nary oc­cur­rence. An or­gan­i­sa­tion that holds the slo­gan ‘in­spir­ing youth to cre­ate a bet­ter world’ and that its founder, Ju­dith Cunningham, says is look­ing to in­stil the val­ues of ‘global ci­ti­zen­ship’ in all.

For two days pupils who vol­un­teer to take part in world­wide MMUN work­shops are taught un­der the guid­ance of MMUN-cer­ti­fied train­ers to un­der­stand, de­bate and con­ceive ideas about in­ter­na­tional is­sues in­clud­ing hu­man rights, child labour, the en­vi­ron­ment, food and hunger and glob­al­iza­tion. On day three the stu­dents trans­form into UN Am­bas­sadors, as­sum­ing the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of world lead­ers, putting their pro­pos­als on the school’s world stage. From there they must vote on the best strate­gies to shape a bet­ter to­mor­row.

This year for the first time the con­cept – that ties to­gether the mis­sion state­ment of schools founded by three-time No­bel Peace Prize nom­i­nee Dr Maria Montes­sori with the mis­sion of the United Na­tions – came to the Mid­dle East and more specif­i­cally to Al­dar Acad­e­mies in Abu Dhabi and Gem­sWorld Academy (GWA) in Al Bar­sha, Dubai.

Hav­ing trav­elled the globe since 2007 train­ing chil­dren of to­day how to be Am­bas­sadors of to­mor­row, MMUN this year de­cided to bring the

‘The ses­sion made me re­alise how many people in the world don’t have ac­cess to clean wa­ter’

UN sim­u­la­tion to the Mid­dle East. The move was prompted by the ded­i­ca­tion of Ishrat Sid­diqui, now the re­gional di­rec­tor for the Mena re­gion, who got to know of the pro­gramme five years ago and af­ter tak­ing stu­dents from the Mid­dle East to the Geneva con­fer­ences pe­ti­tioned to have MMUN brought to the re­gion.

“I re­ally feel like the stu­dents here were just wait­ing for us to show up,” says Ju­dith. “When they started right away their ideas were great, they were ready. It wasn’t as if they needed to be prepped or primed.’’

In GWA’s state-of-the-art au­di­to­rium, 400 chil­dren, af­ter an on-screen pre-recorded wel­come note from UN sec­re­tary-gen­eral Ban Ki-moon, were split into groups to as­sume their se­lec­tive coun­tries, be that Brazil, Bos­nia or Bar­ba­dos. Un­der the guid­ance of the train­ers, who flew in from New York for the event, they were taught the re­al­i­ties of the crit­i­cal global is­sue of clean wa­ter short­ages and con­tam­i­na­tion.

“The ses­sion has made me re­alise just how many people in the world don’t have ac­cess to clean wa­ter,” says 12-year-old GWA stu­dent Imelda Mor­ris. “I some­how thought it was just a small num­ber of people but I re­alise the prob­lem is huge.”

Tak­ing on am­bas­sado­rial roles in a Model UN sim­u­la­tion, the chil­dren (who had each paid Dh1,285 to at­tend the course) were not only re­quired to re­search the topic of wa­ter thor­oughly but were also obliged to un­der­stand and de­bate vi­able, ef­fec­tive so­lu­tions for their rep­re­sen­ta­tive coun­tries. The re­quire­ment that stu­dents role­play cit­i­zens from di­verse cul­tures pro­vides them with a clearer in­sight into the many dif­fer­ent facets of so­cial in­jus­tice and teaches them not only about dif­fer­ent coun­tries but also key co­op­er­a­tive life skills.

“I think when you are forced to ac­cept a point of view that may be cul­tur­ally or geopo­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive, it forces you to con­sider those mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives and you have no choice but to try to un­der­stand the other side, even if you may not agree,” ex­plains GWA Prin­ci­pal Ja­son McBride. “So any event that puts kids to­gether to share those ideas lends it­self to bet­ter in­ter­cul­tural un­der­stand­ing.”

That’s why the IB (In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate), pri­vate in­de­pen­dent school man­aged by Gems Ed­u­ca­tion, de­cided to open its doors to MMUN and to other Dubai stu­dents with a de­sire to par­tic­i­pate in the three-day ses­sion. “We were ap­proached by the

MMUN,” says Ja­son “and I think they saw that as an IB school, our philo­soph­i­cal align­ment with what they were try­ing to do matched re­ally well, our mis­sion state­ments are so com­ple­men­tary. Not to sound clichéd but ours in­volves cre­at­ing a bet­ter, more peace­ful world and if you look ver­ba­tim at the MMUN mis­sion state­ment it’s the same thing.”

IB schools have a strong fo­cus on pro­mot­ing in­ter­cul­tural un­der­stand­ing and cre­at­ing inquiring, thought­ful learn­ers who over their ed­u­ca­tion are equipped with the re­solve to cre­ate a bet­ter world. The Montes­sori Method is com­pa­ra­ble, es­tab­lished as early as 1909 by Italy’s first fe­male doc­tor Maria Montes­sori. The es­sen­tials of ed­u­ca­tion for peace are built into her el­e­men­tary school cur­ricu­lum at ev­ery level. It was this fo­cus on build­ing a bet­ter to­mor­row that led to the union of the el­e­men­tary school and the Model United Na­tions (MUN) to cre­ate the Montes­sori Model United Na­tions pro­gramme that would for the first time tar­get el­e­men­tary school chil­dren.

The con­cept was born in 2006 dur­ing an un­sus­pect­ing con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Ju­dith – who was at the time a Montes­sori teacher and ad­min­is­tra­tor – and the Am­bas­sador of the Do­mini­can Repub­lic to the UN, Fran­cis Lorenzo.

“He asked me if there was an MMUN pro­gramme,” she says. “Now you have to un­der­stand why he would ask that. As an am­bas­sador he be­lieves the MUN is the suc­ces­sion plan for fu­ture am­bas­sadors and he also knew that the Montes­sori Method of ed­u­ca­tion has the pur­pose of es­tab­lish­ing world peace through the ed­u­ca­tion of young chil­dren. When I said it wasn’t tak­ing place he told me that as a Montes­sori ed­u­ca­tor it was my job to do that. It was one of those chal­lenges one has to ac­cept.”

The first MMUN con­fer­ence was held in New York at the UN Head­quar­ters in 2007 with ap­prox­i­mately 400 at­ten­dees aged be­tween nine and 15 from the US and Canada Montes­sori schools. By 2012 that num­ber had risen to 1,200.

“They were just wait­ing for us to ask them their opin­ion,” says Ju­dith. “And they were wait­ing to take ac­tion. It is re­ally un­for­tu­nate that we have not lis­tened to them [the young] ear­lier. Montes­sori once said when she was a mem­ber of Unesco [United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion] that if one day they chose to in­volve the chil­dren and chose to lis­ten to their ideas they would find the chil­dren of im­mense value in in­fus­ing new life into so­ci­ety.”

She was ar­guably not wrong and the chil­dren at­tend­ing the con­fer­ence at GWA in Dubai were tes­ta­ment to her vi­sion. Kevin Alim, nine, from the Dubai Amer­i­can Academy said on the side­lines of the vote, “My favourite part was in­ter­act­ing with the other del­e­gates to dis­cuss the is­sue as the US (be­cause that’s who

we are rep­re­sent­ing). We’re go­ing to do real fundrais­ers and use the money to build pipes for wa­ter in parts of Africa so people there will not have to walk long dis­tances to wells.”

Artem, 14, from the Aus­tralian School in Shar­jah says, “We de­cided we’d fund spe­cial cam­paigns in uni­ver­si­ties to find in­no­va­tive ideas. I re­ally en­joyed learn­ing how to de­bate be­cause when I grow up I want to be a diplo­mat and see­ing how coun­tries in­ter­re­late has re­ally helped me.”

The chil­dren’s views came in for praise. “The kids have been amaz­ing,” says Ja­son. “At this age chil­dren are so com­mit­ted to mak­ing the world a bet­ter place. They don’t un­learn that un­til a lit­tle later in life so it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep that cu­rios­ity and drive for ac­tion, that pu­rity alive.”

It wasn’t just the re­gion­ally rel­e­vant global is­sue of wa­ter con­ser­va­tion that was the fo­cus for the event but also im­prov­ing stu­dents’ de­bat­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and pub­lic speak­ing skills. Stand­ing up in front of a class can be a daunt­ing prospect for a child let alone in front of 400 peers – an is­sue that is ad­dressed over the course of the three-day event.

Isha Lin­gawar, 12, a stu­dent at Gems Mod­ern Academy, says, “It gave us a view of what the real UN is and how they solve the world’s prob­lems but it also gave us a chance to speak in front of lots of people. I was grouped with kids from an­other school, which was a great ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Twelve-year-old Sarah Hisham from Jumeirah Col­lege agrees. It’s a les­son in self-con­fi­dence, she says, “I thought I would be very shy but it turns out I’m re­ally con­fi­dent. I’ve learnt how to cre­ate proper speeches and sound sure of my­self be­cause if you sound shy you won’t get very far.”

Sarah Hobbi, 15, from the Aus­tralian In­ter­na­tional school says the con­fer­ence has helped her find di­rec­tion. “It has been a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says. “It re­ally has opened my eyes be­cause ev­ery­thing we have learnt is about chang­ing the world and mak­ing it a bet­ter place. I have al­ways liked the idea of that as I want to be­come a doc­tor but I want to be hu­man­i­tar­ian too and help people around the world, for free of course.”

While Sarah may next year join the UN does. At this age stu­dents have em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion for oth­ers, as we get older we tend to get more com­pet­i­tive and we be­come more cyn­i­cal.

“But at this age they dream big and it is from those big dreams that new so­lu­tions come.”

An ex­am­ple of the re­al­i­sa­tion of those big dreams is the story of Free the Chil­dren, to which the MMUN par­tic­i­pants are al­ways ex­posed. The story is that of Craig Kiel­burger who in 1995 at the age of 12 read a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle about a boy of his age in South Asia who spent six years chained to a car­petweav­ing loom be­fore es­cap­ing and fight­ing for the rights of Pak­istan’s child salves. Iqbal Masih helped to res­cue more than 3,000 Pak­istani chil­dren and made speeches about child labour through­out the world.

“He was stand­ing be­fore the par­lia­ment,” re­counts Ju­dith. “He said ‘Some people have told me I am just a kid, yes I am a kid but I can make a dif­fer­ence and if we don’t as chil­dren speak for other chil­dren, who will?’”

Iqbal was mur­dered aged 12 – some re­ports say be­cause of his views on bonded labour – and his story made in­ter­na­tional head­lines. It was this ar­ti­cle that com­pelled Craig to do some­thing. He gath­ered 11 friends and be­gan fight­ing child labour; to­day it is the largest foun­da­tion of chil­dren help­ing chil­dren in the world.

“This is an in­ter-de­pen­dent world,” says Ju­dith. “Our ac­tions have im­pact every­where and as we be­come aware of the prob­lems of the world we also have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make a dif­fer­ence. And those of us who come from so much and have such priv­i­leges have, I be­lieve, an in­creased re­spon­si­bil­ity. And we want chil­dren to be aware that you can make a dif­fer­ence.”

‘It re­ally has opened my eyes be­cause ev­ery­thing we learned is about chang­ing the world’

MUN ses­sions for sec­ondary school stu­dents, her views and those of other chil­dren in­volved in the con­fer­ence demon­strate the im­por­tance of high­light­ing so­cial in­jus­tice at a young age. El­e­men­tary stu­dents have a dif­fer­ent view of the world and the best way to solve its prob­lems. They are not yet blink­ered by age, com­pet­i­tive­ness or so­cial norms.

“We are a col­lab­o­ra­tive pro­gramme,” ex­plains Ju­dith. “We teach the chil­dren how to work to­gether to form con­sen­sual agree­ments, which is what the

The in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence, which will be at­tended by MMUN chil­dren from all over the world, will be held in the UAE in Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber.

Fly­ing the flag and fight­ing so­cial in­jus­tice

Ju­dith Cunningham, founder of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, faces her global cit­i­zens

Once they got go­ing, there was no hold­ing the chil­dren back


Chang­ing the world; from left, Sarah Hobbi, Isha Lin­gawar, Artem, Kevin Alim and Sarah Hisham

ED­U­CA­TION From left: Almas Menon, MMUN-UAE rep­re­sen­ta­tive; Ishrat Sid­dique, Re­gional Di­rec­tor ME & Asia; Ju­dith Cunningham, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of MMUN; Michael Ja­cob­son, Board Chair MMUN and Akeni Ya­mamoto, MMUN UAE Rep­re­sen­ta­tive

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