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
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