(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: United Nations University Global Seminar

Henceforth referred to as “UNUGS” or just “Global Seminar” for laziness reasons.

What it is: Global Seminar is a program for high-English-level high school students in Ibaraki Prefecture who have an interest in discussing world issues. Any 1st or 2nd grader from any high school in the prefecture can apply, but their English needs to be about EIKEN pre-2nd level, or they have to be super motivated, because it’s a pretty intense program. There are 6 full-day workshops spread out over the course of 5 months (October – February) and it culminates with the students visiting the United Nations University in Tokyo for two days to listen to grad students present on sustainability.

What was my role? Global Seminar is organized and run mostly by ALTs, with some help from Ibaraki’s Board of Education (B.o.E.). I was one of the 8 ALTs for this past year’s Global Seminar. So over the past 5 months, I’ve been heading to Mito (the capital city of Ibaraki) one or two Saturdays a month to lead small group discussions, give lectures, and grade student presentations along with the other 7 ALTs. The whole thing was a fair amount of extra work — for both the ALTs and the 40 students who participated — but I think we all agree it was worth it.

Global Seminar was also a huge change from my normal work here in Japan. You see, most of the students that I work with in my schools are low-level; for the most part, conversations don’t go past “How are you?” and “What’s your dream?” It’s hard to go deeper into global warming or the immigration crisis when students can barely string together sentences.

However, students who participated in Global Seminar had the vocabulary and the interest to go deeper. Also, it was refreshing to hear student’s opinions about these global issues. I learn a lot from my students — yes, even though they are low-level students — and it was interesting to hear what these higher-level students thought of the world, too.

For the seminar, each ALT was assigned a “mentor group” of 5 students. Throughout all six Workshops, the mentor groups would meet for morning meetings, and during Workshop 4, students presented their 30-minute individual research projects in their mentor groups. The five students in my mentor group were absolutely awesome, and they made the experience that much more memorable for me.

My favorite moment of the seminar occurred during Workshop 5, when my mentor group was choosing a topic for Workshop 6’s small group presentation. Students could choose to either present on what they learned from one of the UNU presentations, or they could choose to present one of the countries that the UNU grad students were from. I gave them no guidelines for the presentation — I just handed them a list of the presentation topics and the countries, and sat back, silent, as I watched them decide.

My mentor group ignored the grad students’ topics; students looked at the list of countries and unanimously decided to rank the countries based on how much they knew about them, choosing the most unknown countries. In the end, my mentor group decided to make a group presentation about Zambia, only because no one in the group knew anything about Zambia, and everyone wanted to learn about it. Their decision to research a completely unknown country showed such a strong sense of curiosity about the world and a motivation to learn. It made me so proud.

As I sat there, quietly beaming at my students, the students themselves got right to work. For the last 20 minutes of the preparation time, my mentor group was intensely researching information on their smartphones and sharing interesting facts about Zambia while one of the group took notes. They assigned roles for each member of the group. One of the quietest members of the mentor group stepped up and decided to be the leader, responsible for emailing everyone and making sure the project was getting done on time. I almost cried, I was so happy.

It was another joy to see this teamwork. Back in the beginning of Global Seminar, during Workshops 2 and 3, my mentor group had been quite shy with each other; but by Workshop 5, here they were, working together smoothly as a team. They were independent. They didn’t need me to guide them through the process  anymore. My work was pretty much done.

And my mentor group’s presentation on Zambia for Workshop 6 in February? They killed it.

Global Seminar is now finished for the year.

But starting next October (or, if you count planning, then August), it’ll start back up again, and I’m excited for another round!

And after the last workshop, the 8 Global Seminar ALTs went out for an enkai (drinking party) to celebrate! The restaurant was curious about why 8 foreigners were having an enkai, and once they found out the reason, they helped us celebrate with the above plate. So cute!

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