Maggie Zhang and three other students in a tenth-grade Drama class were facing their laptops with their notes on the side, getting ready for a round-table conference on inclusion and diversity. But there was no round table; the only circles in the talks were their avatars.
Circular avatars represent students and teacher Joel Godiah (upper right quadrant) in a digital round-table discussion for a Drama class on Microsoft Teams
The students employed the Harkness Discussion—a learning method typically conducted in an oval table to encourage open dialogues—and exchanged their views on the meaning and role of community and inclusion in the context of a shared narrative. A couple of days following this online class, the four students became delegates to the Keystone United Nations (KUN), collaborating in cyberspace across different time zones.
Stretching the Limits in Learning
The Keystone United Nations is an interdisciplinary unit (IDU) showcase of the Individuals & Societies (I&S) and Mathematics Departments in which the entire tenth-grade level participates in seven interrelated forums concerning global peace and progress. These forums—or topics in the IDU—are World Bank (microfinancing), the UN Committee on Women (women’s rights), the Food and Agricultural Organization (food security), the UN Environmental Programme (wildlife conservation), the World Health Organization (vaccinations), the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (economic partnership), and the China State Council (Belt and Road Initiative).
Major IDU presentations like the KUN are the culmination of months of planning and collaboration between two subject departments. Associate Head of School and Dean of Curriculum Lili Jia says that IDUs are advocated in the MYP (Middle Years Programme) and requires the two departments to share the same unit components.
“The Statement of Inquiry is common and subject teachers use the same unit planner—the Interdisciplinary Unit Planner, on which they collaborate, develop, and complete. Teachers then need to have a common summative assessment. But in order for students to complete that assessment, they will need the knowledge and skills they learned from different subjects. The unit has common assessment criteria. But obviously, teaching is different. Sometimes the teachers will get together and co-teach some components of that unit. Sometimes the students go to different subjects in their classes,” Ms. Jia explained.
An interdisciplinary unit in the MYP may last between four to eight weeks and may require a formal exhibition, which is “challenging to plan” and “very labor-intensive,” according to Meredith Phinney, Assistant Head of Middle School and MYP Coordinator. Such presentations stretch teachers to make authentic connections between their disciplines and ensure the subjects are on an equal footing.
“It gives teachers an opportunity [and] it is the best type of learning,” Ms. Phinney adds, “Oftentimes, collaborating is difficult. [The IDU] is a great example of how we teachers live up to what we try to teach our students every day, that is: ‘Collaboration is important; creativity is important; we're working together.’”
Teacher moderators Rachel Hopkins (I&S) and Jason Roy (Math) are sharing their final remarks at the UNCW forum
A Forum for “Changing the World”
A total of 92 students in the tenth grade attended this year’s Keystone United Nations via Microsoft Teams. The decision to hold the sessions virtually was one that “made many teachers very nervous,” I&S teacher Dr. Deborah Smith Johnston said.
When planning on the KUN began in August 2019, tenth-grade teachers from the I&S and Mathematics Departments envisioned the event where they could meet with students to discuss the issues to be tackled in seven strands of the IDU. While the preparations went on, students studied statistics in a Mathematics unit, so they could better use statistical reasoning to determine policies within their committees and use appropriate data to strengthen their arguments.
Keystone classes migrated to online platforms as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and so did the tasks of students for the KUN program. I&S teacher Jeffery Heitmann said the biggest challenge was designing the forums “in a way that allowed for student interaction and conversation.” Moving the instruction to an online platform allowed the teacher organizers to send out meeting reminders and topic prompts within the forums.
I&S teacher Dorothy Mubweka and Math teacher Kelby Govender moderated the FOCAC Committee
“In that way, the online design better facilitated us to concentrate on the forum that we were moderating and helping those students. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity as most of the students in my forum have other classroom teachers,” Mr. Heitmann said.
At the UN Environmental Programme Forum, Middle School Mathematics teacher Dr. Cos Fi said moderators would be listening to how students use statistical knowledge. “We are more interested in the accurate use of statistics than volume. The most important thing is using displays to support your argument. It has to be partnered or relevant to the unit discussion. It just cannot be anything.”
In the same forum, Dr. Johnston encouraged students to see the KUN as a way to fine-tune the ideas they had been thinking about or solutions that they had been working on.
“If you don’t get critiqued or come up with rebuttals or answers to somebody’s responses or critiques, then your argument isn’t as strong. The stronger your arguments are, the better your research paper or position would be. But in all of this, we want you to have fun. This is a chance for you to think about how people change the world and how they make it a better place,” Dr. Johnston said.
Hot Potatoes on the Globe
When Head of School Malcolm McKenzie opened the virtual Keystone United Nations, he emphasized the “better, happier, healthier, and more sustainable place and planet” that we will achieve when nations are united and find a common purpose. Mr. McKenzie also encouraged the students to live by the five shared values to “produce robust resolutions and amazing actions.”
The seven forums teemed with insightful exchanges of ideas and critical analyses. At the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) forum, for example, graphs on food insecurity around the world greatly surprised student-delegate Marie Liu of China. Initially, she “wasn’t thinking too much” about her forum choice. But at the end of the discussions, she learned more about the connections between food security and environment safety—or in her words, a “hot potato right now.”
“I didn’t realize that the group of undernourished people in the world was so enormous,” she said. “The forum also made me understand one hindrance to food security: a polluted environment. Our food comes from nature, so we must keep the foundation safe first.”
Student delegates in the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), meanwhile, commended the “friendly debates” that allowed them to dig into the strengths and limitations of economic partnerships between China and African countries. Delegates provided a critical overview of the policies on issues concerning the economy, infrastructure, industrialization, and investment in their countries.
Cheryl Wang joined the FOCAC despite having limited knowledge of the economic situation in African countries. In her research into Senegal, the country she stood for at the forum, Ms. Wang said she was shocked to learn that only three-fifths of the population have access to electricity and realized the severity of the lack of efficient infrastructure there.
Only 60% of Senegal's population have access to electricity, Cheryl Wang reports at the FOCAC Committee
If she were to moderate the forum, Ms. Wang said she would encourage more discussions so the entire student delegation could consolidate and agree on a plan that would achieve their collective goal. The entire experience also made her reflect deeply on the challenges of multilateral cooperation.
“I think that African countries such as Senegal seriously need to develop their self-reliance, and not just to depend on China for aid, to achieve long-term and sustainable progress,” she said.
I&S teacher Jeffery Heitmann felt the entire KUN was “a positive educational experience for the students. Sometimes, we get an opportunity to do something that seems impossible. But we did it!”
He also hoped everyone would take inspiration from the entire student delegation who collaborated to understand different perspectives and remained flexible despite unpredictable situations.
“The 21st century demands skillsets that can adapt to changes and requires us to listen carefully and not to ‘point fingers’ and blame others for problems. We [have to] understand that we are not alone. And even though we come from different countries with different belief systems, we can still respectfully engage with each other to solve problems together.”
Making History Together
The UN Committee on Women forum lasted for two hours. There, Maggie Zhang, representing Pakistan, argued that “the lack of education and child measures, [as well as] religious factors have been the main factors to women being barely empowered” in the country. Ms. Zhang strongly advocated her position of increasing funding for NGOs and committees focusing on educating females to promote gender equality.
Maggie Zhang presents her research into the factors that cause gender inequality in Pakistan at the UNCW forum
Her responses were informed by her prior experiences of getting involved in the EGRC (Educating Girls in Rural China) Heart-to-Heart program in 2019, where she understood how ancient traditions affect females and how education empowers women. The Harkness Discussion and the topic of communities and inclusion in theater in her Drama class with teacher Joel Godiah also supported her arguments at the UNCW forum.
Mr. Godiah said “there is a smooth connection” between his class and the KUN since both activities stimulated the skills of students to participate in a respectful and objective presentation of arguments and ideas. For him, the current online learning environment has pushed students to gain broader perspectives.
“The absence of a teacher figure is making them become good teachers to themselves and their peers,” he added. “These are unique times and we are all discovering as we go along. Only when we approach the online learning era together can we write a beautiful story for generations to come. They will read about this time smiling and wondering, 'How did they manage to collaborate despite all the difficulties?' Let us make history together.”
“I love the fact that students were encouraged to articulate how they could positively change the world,” Dr. Deborah Smith Johnston said. “In this current global crisis, there is a need for people to stand up and inspire their peers to act. They did exactly this in their committees. They spoke upon an issue that they cared about and inspired their peers to vote in favor of change in their resolution. What a gift we have been given!”
Delegates from the seven KUN forums have produced practical resolutions, and some students are even exploring ways to implement actions related to their respective conferences and bring them around the globe.
Ms. Wang, from the FOCAC strand, now looks into pursuing a project that will train local technicians to boost the efficiency of infrastructure in African countries. Ms. Zhang from the UNCW forum says she will continue her volunteer work, moving forward.
“We came out with resolutions and it does feel rewarding when our meeting ended. I would love to continue my work in cooperation with the EGRC, to enroll more girls from rural districts, and promote this trend on to other continents.”
Screenshots from KUN forums