TAMPA — Eion Scott thought the United Nations was based in Washington, D.C. Vinquandria Hopps knew next to nothing about Ireland.
All of that changed in under an hour for these fourth- and fifth-grade students at Lee Elementary School.
Lee, which prides itself in being cutting edge, is taking kids where they usually do not go until middle school — the Model United Nations.
The group, 20 in all, meet one Wednesday a month with hopes that six of them, representing Ireland, will participate in a mock session this spring in Dallas.
"I like to debate with lots of people," Eion said during the group's December session.
For Vinquandria, the club appeals to her curiosity about the world.
"I like to travel," she said. "Especially on planes."
To Lara Barone, Lee's lead magnet teacher, the class provides opportunities to work on research and writing skills, not to mention general knowledge of history and geography.
Barone says her school is the first elementary school in Hillsborough County, and perhaps in Florida, to get involved in the Global Elementary Model United Nations.
"We felt it would be a good way to expose the students to issues and topics," she said. "A big part of it is public speaking skills and debate skills."
The activities also will help Lee, with 253 students, market itself as a magnet school. Inevitably, the kids will get a taste of political issues, including the historic tensions between Ireland and the United Kingdom. A group of girls puzzled when they glimpsed the map, wondering about the shaded area that was labeled Northern Ireland.
"I guess it's like we have West Virginia," said Scout Elmore.
The Model United Nations has counterparts for high school and college students, tackling everything from the Palestine question to gay, bisexual and transgender perspectives in education.
For students in elementary and middle school, the subject matter tends to be less controversial.
"It's more likely to be about the lack of water," Barone said. "We play it as safe as possible."
Even so, the very idea of the United Nations evokes controversy in some circles, especially in a presidential election year. Republican hopeful Mitt Romney has called it a forum for tyrants, Newt Gingrich has pledged to curb its "absurdities" and Rick Perry would consider pulling the United States out of the United Nations altogether.
In an essay called "Teaching Your Child To Be a Dictator's Lackey," conservative writer Daniel Greenfield criticizes schools for promoting the notion that "nations are equally valid, regardless if they are banana republics, brutal Islamic theocracies, Communist tyrannies or nations with free and open elections that offer human rights to all."
Closer to home, the Model United Nations program at Tampa's Monroe Middle School recently attracted the attention of Geoff Ross, the Panhandle activist who took Durant High School to task over its social justice club.
Ross said he didn't want to shut Monroe's program down, but wanted to make sure the kids understood that supreme authority comes from the U.S. Constitution.
At one point, in an email to Monroe's principal, Ross pledged to hand-deliver thousands of copies of the Constitution "Give me a day and time that's good for you," he wrote.
So far, Barone said, no one has objected to the club at Lee, although "anything is possible. You never know."
The group's lesson last month was fairly basic. The kids learned about the organization's overall goals of promoting peace and easing poverty. They familiarized themselves with the population and topography of Ireland, fascinated by photographs of street scenes in Dublin.
This month they'll see video of speeches from the Irish delegate and will begin working on a position paper for the spring session.
Through fundraising, they hope to raise about $4,000 to send six students and two adults to Dallas.
Student Terrence Wise said he is looking way beyond that event.
He's seen footage of the earthquake devastation in Japan and is concerned about shortages of food and water.
"I want to know how different places in the world look so I can help them," he said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected].com.