Students gain world view through donor’s vision

Beside a colorful poster sprinkled with facts about the South American nation of Suriname, fourth-grader Kaoxue forages online resources for a few final details. She’s preparing to share her group’s research with a big audience.

“I felt nervous at first about presenting about our country, but as I practiced it, I got more connected to it,” said the Humboldt Park School student. “Now it’s a lot easier.”

Newfound confidence is a handsome complement to the global knowledge Kaoxue and her peers at nine Milwaukee Public Schools are gaining via a special curriculum launched through the visionary gift of Joan Robertson, who for 34 years has partnered with the Greater Milwaukee Foundation for her philanthropy.

 “Kids are very interested in the world around them. It excites me to know that for some it will be a lifetime interest."

- Joan Robertson, Foundation donor

The innovative program – United Nations Schools of International Learning (UNSIL) – incorporates world studies and Model United Nations content at the elementary and middle school levels. It was established by a $100,000 gift from the Foundation’s Annette J. Roberts and Joan R. Robertson Fund for World Peace, World Law and Peace Education. Robertson was 30 years old when the UN was founded in 1945 and remains a passionate advocate for its goals.

“It is so important for people to know what the United Nations is doing and the viability of the United Nations in its better capacity to achieve peace in the world,” said Robertson, who is an active member of the United Nations Association of Greater Milwaukee. “The mechanism is there. I’m thrilled with MPS for taking this on, and I hope it is successful and grows.”

Global cultures in microcosm

Students at the participating schools – Bethune Academy, Burbank School, Garland School, Humboldt Park School, Milwaukee Academy of Chinese Language, Parkview School, Story School, Zablocki School and Victory Elementary – represent many cultures of the world and speak 35 different languages. For some – whose families entered the United States as refugees – the learning is particularly personal.

“For the students who don’t speak English, they see that United Nations symbol, and they feel safe,” said Michelle Wade, MPS K-12 social studies curriculum specialist.

UN academic content typically is not available until high school, so by introducing it in the younger grades, Robertson hopes students will be motivated to participate in Model UN or to start their own if it doesn’t yet exist at their high school. She also hopes parents are inspired by their children’s enthusiasm to support the mission of the United Nations.

This first year of the UNSIL program has introduced global studies and research skills in fourth and sixth grades. Fourth-grade teams investigated UN member countries for their projects while sixth-graders wrote position papers connected to one of the UN’s “Global Goals for Sustainable Development.” One group, for example, examined gun violence in Jamaica. Another studied factors contributing to poverty in Colombia. All considered interventions that could help a nation move from its current reality to a desired reality.

“The students did a fabulous job and really liked working on real world issues,” said Elizabeth Markwardt, a sixth-grade teacher at Humboldt Park. “They feel like they’re doing something, not just talking about it. It’s something they’ll remember forever.”

The curriculum is designed so students master critical academic skills such as research, writing and presenting with a focus on world affairs and current events. In addition to learning about other countries, cultures and international relationships, students have been gaining experience in debate, negotiation and conflict resolution – competencies that are transferrable to college and career. UNSIL will expand to other grades in ensuing years.

Showcase of knowledge

More than a thousand students in matching United Nations T-shirts buzz about their exhibits, eager to talk to guests at the UNSIL World Fair held March 20 at Tripoli Shrine Center in Milwaukee. Flags of all colors line the aisles while the aromas of international cuisine fill the hall. Teachers and parents join in celebrating their scholars’ accomplishments at this special event showcasing the results of their months-long learning.

The modest woman who made it all possible smiles broadly as she meets student after student and sees the unmasked enthusiasm of the next generation of world leaders. The cheers are deafening when she is recognized by MPS Superintendent Dr. Darienne Driver during the formal part of the program. What excites her, however, is the future.

“The fact that this program starts young, it inspires a real interest in learning,” Robertson said. “Kids are very interested in the world around them. It excites me to know that for some it will be a lifetime interest.”

Honored at 101: Joan Robertson named Woman of Influence by Milwaukee Business Journal