I’m a big fan of experiential (or performative, whatever you want to call it) learning. I was pretty involved with the Reacting to the Past program at UGA (a curriculum created by Barnard College. I was involved in the Athens game), which I think is one of the best ways to learn history out there. I’ve seen it work both in “regular” and “honors” courses, bringing students out of their fear-shells and encouraging them to learn both in the classroom and on their own.
But what I really want to talk about today are the Model International Organizations programs, such as Model UN, Model NATO, and Model Arab League (MAL) (there are tons of others; these are just the ones I’ve done). I don’t know how many times I’ve heard my former adviser at Converse College drop soundbites about the pedagogical merits of these programs. And I would smile and nod, proud of how well he “spun” what we did, when it really just felt at the time like hanging out with other smart, politically minded people and an excuse to go on fun off-campus trips.
He was absolutely right, by the way. It’s the best way to teach I’ve ever encountered.
It took getting out of the program as a student and working as a judge and on-site adviser to really see how valuable these programs are. Not familiar with them? Let’s use MAL as an example.
Students create a team of between 7-16 students (partners are allowed) who become experts on a particular League country they’ve been assigned (there are 21 of them at the moment–Syria’s been suspended). Each student is assigned a committee with predetermined topics, which they research in preparation for writing legislation along with other countries at the conference. Students spend the conference in committee meetings, split between formal and informal debate (governed by a modified form of Robert’s Rules) working on this legislation, which is then passed as a body of the committees at a Summit meeting.
Sounds pretty boring when I explain it, huh? But it’s not, I swear. Especially with a strong leader as chair, committees go from groups of shy (well, not everyone’s shy…) students who by the end of the conference are boldly demanding whatever is in their country’s interest. Students go from hesitantly reading from sources to fully owning the knowledge, speaking extemporaneously from their own expertise. All students can thrive in this model, from the most gregarious, outgoing speechmaker to the quiet, behind-the-scenes caucuser. And no one type of student wins awards (yes, there are individual and team awards).
I started out in this program fairly timid. As a freshman, I knew relatively little about the Middle East. My first country assignment at a national conference, given to me day-of (there were some last-minute changes, and I was needed in a spot I had not prepared for), was a country I had never even heard of! The conversation went a little something like this:
Adviser from Northeastern University: OK, so I hear you need help with Eritrea.
Me: What’s that?
Adviser: I believe the proper question would be “Where’s that?” We have a lot of work to do…
Me: *beet red*
Because of the strength of this program, and a group of lovely students and advisers who stepped in to help me, I was able to (pretty badly) represent Eritrea in two separate committees, as well as present an Arab Court of Justice (think ICJ but regional… and made up) case representing Eritrea v. the League. Was I stellar? Absolutely not. Did I learn a lot about how quickly I could research, learn, and represent material? Absolutely. Am I still friends with the adviser from Northeastern? Yup! That’s another great part about this program: you meet people from all over the country and world that you will be friends and colleagues with for the rest of your life.
So, why am I talking about this? In 2004, I first served as a student delegate at the Southeast Regional MAL (SERMAL) representing Jordan (Yes, Holly Jordan the delegate from Jordan. My committee thought it was pretty funny too… Libby Long, the delegate from Libya was also on my team. My adviser wouldn’t let us switch.) in the Economic Affairs committee. I was scared out of my mind. I had only recently joined the team, and even my fellow freshmen had a few more weeks experience than I did. In my ill-fitting suits, I stood up, knees knocking, and presented Jordanian thoughts on economic issues. I had no idea what was going on.
These programs changed my life. I went on to national leadership roles within this organization, sponsored by the National Council on US-Arab Relations and grew far more as a student and learner than I ever anticipated as an entering college freshman. And the program itself has evolved so much since I started. We’ve gone from murdering half the rain forest each year to nearly paperless conferences, with resolutions being projected on SMARTBoards and edited as a group in real time. The 300 pages of CIA World Factbook info on each of the member nations of the League (which I did print and put in a binder I still have…) is now available as an Android app.
So now, 8 years later, I have the opportunity to lead a team from Virginia Tech. Serving as Head Delegate, we will take a delegation, representing Mauritania, to SERMAL. I am so very excited to help facilitate this opportunity for Tech students. I’ve been pretty obnoxious about my excitement with them. I hope they will get why I’m so spastic after we return home. I promise to post pictures and reactions to how awesome it was!