PALM HARBOR — Palm Harbor Montessori Academy's senior elementary students have more on their minds this week than spring break. They have real-world problems to tackle.
Today and Saturday, PHMA students (ages 9 to 12) are discussing international issues — not as students, but as a delegation at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana. These fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are serving as mock ambassadors from Morocco at the Montessori Model United Nations (MMUN) Conference in Fort Wayne. The Palm Harbor students have been researching Morocco, its people, culture and economy since November.
"Our students have been very mature about researching the topics," said Louise Reid, co-lead teacher of the group. "Ten of our 13 students are going; three are not, for varying reasons. Even students who aren't traveling and could have had a bad attitude and be disappointed because they're not, have been a wonderful inspiration to the group. They've still done the work and given information. We're all still one team."
Reid and Laura Orellana have been teaching 17 years, the last two at PHMA. In 2008, Reid attended the New York regional MMUN, while teaching in the Virgin Islands. For Orellana, this conference is a first.
"The training workshop we attended (last year) was interesting and very challenging," Orellana said. "Our team has worked so hard. We're all excited to be going to the conference."
Reid says the experience can be life-changing for students, but it is not inexpensive. Cost to attend is only $75, but with hotel, flight and traveling costs, Reid said the bill was approximately $900 per child. This is the first Midwest MMUN, so the students are making history.
In addition to attending the conference sessions, five PHMA students will perform an African dance, one will sing a Jamaican song and five others participated in a T-shirt art contest. But the crux of the two-day conference is teaching the young mock ambassadors respect for one another's cultural differences and fostering the discussion of world issues that some adults might even find challenging.
"The students worked in pairs to conduct research," Reid said. "Each has written a long and a short speech that they may be called on to share."
Students were assigned subjects committees, just like in the United Nations. They are expected to discuss their assigned topics as representatives of the people of Morocco, so they have to know about its people, economy and culture.
"Lauren and I are in the Security Council branch of the U.N.," said Sagen Pope, who turned 11 on Wednesday. "It's tough but it's already worth it. I'm very excited about being able to cooperate with other kids in our age group."
Besides being on committees that discuss topics from nuclear non-proliferation to access to water resources and reducing child mortality, the mock ambassadors must also remember their manners.
Respect for fellow world delegates is an important aspect of the conference.
Being polite in an international arena is about more than saying please and thank you.
The young ambassadors must show respect by listening and not interrupting others and being respectful of others' views though they might differ from their own.
Still, the learning process goes a step further.
Students are educated in how to dress for success, with boys wearing suits and girls who choose to wear dresses or skirts having hems no shorter than two inches above the knee.
No loud prints. No sneakers. No T-shirts.
Eli Christo, 10, is on the mock Food and Agriculture committee and is excited about the trip and passionate about his research. "My subject is malnutrition and it's very important because kids under the age of 5 shouldn't be starving to death."
Lauren Ramirez, 9, is every bit as passionate about her committee. "My most important subject is the situation in South Sudan," she said. "I hadn't even heard of it before. Sudan and South Sudan is in a big conflict and they should make peace. Maybe their presidents could meet and do a treaty."
Unlike high school and college mock U.N. programs, this one, run by Montessori teachers, sticks to the Montessori philosophy and is non-competitive. But preparation was still required.
"You have to work very hard, and sometimes you get frustrated, but you keep going," said Hailey Plofsky, 10, whose committee is discussing land mines. "It's worth it in the end to know so much about your subject."