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Global Education

A Playbook for Using Model UN Debates to Engage Middle School Language Students

Dual language programs are as diverse as the students they benefit. They do, however, share three common goals: bilingualism/biliteracy, high academic achievement, and sociocultural competence. Exposing students to meaningful learning experiences that require students to use their language skills in authentic ways, beyond a traditional academic setting, is key to achieving these goals.

Imagine if your dual language students had an opportunity to discuss global problems in their target language from the perspective of nations around the world. An experience like that would certainly provide an authentic and engaging language opportunity and would make progress toward the primary goals for dual language students.

Participate Learning partner schools are doing just that by participating in the annual Conexiones Model United Nations. This year’s event brought together nine Conexiones classes to discuss the problem of fast fashion from the perspective of nations all around the world. Creating an experience like this for your own dual language students is easier to achieve than you might think.

Let’s explore how you might create an event like this and the ways it can benefit your dual language students.

Decide on a structure for your event

The first decision you have to make is the structure of your Model UN debate. Will it be collaborative or competitive? Will it be an in-person event (and the logistics to accompany that) or a virtual event? For Conexiones Model UN, we decided on a collaborative rather than competitive structure. This focus on collaboration honored the inclusive spirit of the event, and made it easier to differentiate the outcome based on the participating students’ level of Spanish. The Model UN was also conducted over Zoom, which allowed students to easily connect with students beyond their individual school to discuss ways to address the pressing global issue of fast fashion.

Choose a topic carefully

The topic of your Model UN debate should strike the balance between being narrow enough to guide students and being broad enough for them to develop unique solutions and have a lively, robust debate.

The ideal topic for your Model UN debate should satisfy three objectives:

  • The topic should be an issue students are passionate about.
  • The topic should be relevant to students’ lives in a way that they can effect change.
  • The topic should strike the right balance between requiring students to use familiar vocabulary and new vocabulary so students can continue to enhance their language skills.

In the case of our Model UN, we began by identifying which of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were recurring focuses in Conexiones classes. From there we had teachers suggest a wide variety of issues that fell under the most popular SDGs. We then brainstormed potential resources and pre-existing student content and vocabulary knowledge related to each of the topic options. Finally, we put it up for a vote.

Once the topic was selected we audited our existing curricular content to develop lessons like this one that directly related to our topic of fast fashion. We focused on content knowledge and vocabulary development to give our students the tools to develop rich, complex arguments.

Decide on delegations

Another important decision is selecting the countries that will participate in the Model UN. We began by identifying countries commonly referred to in articles about fast fashion. We identified at least two rich articles in the target language, either from the perspective of or centered on each country, to ensure that students had the resources needed to develop their arguments. We randomly assigned the countries to classes, allowing students to increase their cultural knowledge about unfamiliar countries around the world.

For our debate, we selected Germany, Chile, India, Bangladesh, Italy, México, Spain, China, and the United States for our delegations. As a point of reference, here is an example of the resources we provided to the Bangladesh delegation.

Coordinate and schedule the event

Finding a time slot for a ninety-minute event in a middle school schedule is a feat. For us, coordinating across nine middle schools to find a time for our event was one of our biggest challenges. There is no easy solution, but here is what we learned about making this process a little easier.

  1. Start planning early. We started communicating with teachers and schools about two months in advance of the event. We started by asking participants about any dates and times that would be off limits, followed up with possible options, and finalized the event details so everyone could add it to their calendars well in advance.
  2. Establish a time frame for the event. In an effort to narrow down the date and time, we put forth a two-week period and limited the time of the event to within the school day. We also limited the time of the event to the school day to minimize complications with after-school transportation, but consider holding the event outside of the typical school day if you are struggling to agree on a time.
  3. Communication is essential. In addition to ensuring that all participating classes stayed informed throughout the planning stage, we created a series of emails for administrators that shared the purpose and goals of the event, requested their support with scheduling flexibility, and involved them in the process from start to finish.

Practice debating within the Model UN format

For many Conexiones students, this event was their first opportunity to speak in a formal debate. Give students a chance to practice beforehand so they are familiar with the format. To help the debate flow seamlessly, we conducted a run-of-show that prepared students and teachers to understand what to expect. It also provided a common language to facilitate debate.

Our event began with an introduction to the problem from a participating student, and the debate was led and moderated by the United Nations president, a student selected by his or her teacher for having a strong grasp of the content and language. From there, each delegation presented the formal arguments before moving into an informal debate. At the end of every argument the student would thank the president for the opportunity to speak. This common closing phrase helped the president seamlessly transition between arguments and cued the other delegations for their next opportunity to speak.

Learning outcomes

Integrating global themes into secondary language classes enriches learning by contextualizing vocabulary and exposing students to different cultures. The Model UN structure should be carefully aligned with learning outcomes from specific ACTFL standards that prepare students for the AAPPL exam and beyond. AAPPL tests language readiness or the ability of students to use the language in the real world.

In preparation for a simulated debate, students research the issue and their assigned country’s stance by watching and listening to videos, as well as reading articles. After this, they write the opening arguments for their representative to present during the formal debate. Finally, they present their opening arguments. During the informal debate section, they use their speaking and active listening skills to respond to other delegations. These debates require students to use all of the five language proficiency skills developed in the Conexiones curriculum, four of which are assessed on the AAPPL test.

Opportunities like a Model UN increase students’ confidence in their ability to speak their target language outside of a classroom setting. This confidence is crucial as they develop their language skills and begin using them beyond the classroom, particularly in their professional and personal lives. Participating in programs like Conexiones prepares students to become future leaders in a global community and to succeed in the 21st-century marketplace.

Our Dual Language Programs create authentic, immersive, and equitable learning environments for students. Learn more about our K-5 or middle school options or contact us here.

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