Swanson Middle School student Chris Newman, posing as a delegate from Tanzania, proposed his resolution for the U.S.-Iraq stalemate: Give the international community more time to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"If we put more effort into inspections, we still have some way of stopping him [Saddam Hussein] . . . we will put more force into inspections and be able to monitor it more closely," said Newman, 13.
But classmate Thomas Neff, as the delegate from Japan, did not want to hear it.
"Iraq has been blatantly lying to us. We have already found 16,000 chemical weapons. It's hard to search for something roughly the size of a bookcase in a desert the size of California," he argued in pushing for United Nations Resolution 1441 that would declare non-compliance on the part of Iraq, allowing for a possible U.S.-led invasion.
The two-hour debate among the Arlington eighth-graders raged one recent evening in the school library as intensely as it might have at the U.N. General Assembly. That was social studies teacher John Hart's goal.
Hart staged the mock assembly as a way to engage his 78 students in current affairs and history. He did it with the help of a teaching program known as History Alive! and the newer Social Studies Alive! The programs were created by the California-based Teachers' Curriculum Institute, a for-profit group that creates teaching strategies and materials for middle and high school teachers.
At a time when teachers are de-emphasizing traditional teaching methods such as rote memorization and textbook learning, Hart said the new program has broadened his choices of ways to engage his students.
"Every teaching technique is another tool in the toolbox, and my goal is to have a lot of tools to access," he said. "History Alive! offers many good ideas."
Hart is among 300 Arlington teachers trained to use History Alive! Arlington is one of a growing number of school districts, locally and nationally, that have incorporated the program into their curriculum. Other Washington area school districts using the system include Alexandria, Loudoun and Prince William, said Brandie Sleeman, a company representative.
The program was founded in 1989 by former teachers Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell. Bower said he decided to devise a new way to teach social studies and history after spending eight years in the Los Altos, Calif., school system. He recalled walking into classrooms with every type of student imaginable -- blind and hearing-impaired, immigrants who didn't speak English and high performers.
"They would all be in one class," he said.
But instead of segregating students into groups based on abilities, which Bower likened to creating mini-South Africas, he decided to enable students of varying backgrounds and skills to learn together.
"I knew putting these kids in a room and telling them to be quiet while we lecture and read from a textbook would kill their minds," Bower said. "I call it silent violence."
He and Lobdell found ways to make students more proactive learners. The program borrows from strategies developed by Harvard professor Howard Gardner, Stanford professor Elizabeth Cohen and Jerome Bruner, a former professor of psychology at Harvard who is now at New York University.
Gardner has theorized that students excel in two to three of seven intelligences and that teachers must somehow engage them in those areas. Cohen contends that cooperative interaction among instructors and students increases learning, and Bruner's theory of the "spiral curriculum" states that all students can learn if taught "to think and discover knowledge for themselves" and build on difficult concepts "through a step-by-step discovery."
So with History Alive!, instead of just reading about the Great Depression or the mass migration at the turn of the century and then writing a book report about it, students research the subject through various means and take on the roles of those involved.
They might play world leaders attempting to resolve a conflict, as in the U.N. example, or act out an immigrant family's experiences in moving to America. There are also interactive slide lectures and other exercises.
Judy McConville, social studies curriculum specialist for Alexandria public schools, said the school system's scores on Standards of Learning history tests have jumped since History Alive! was introduced in 1998. Most of the school system's teachers have been trained in one of the three levels the program offers, she said.
"The old idea of chalk and talk is not going to work. You have to get students involved in the subject matter," said McConville, who added that the approach has also has been successful with special education and English as a Second Language students.
Students said the program makes learning history more fun and interesting.
Swanson student John Cambridge, 13, said the class has totally changed his attitude about social studies.
"You consider different views of other countries and even of other people," he said. If it were a traditional lesson in which students had to read from a textbook, Cambridge said jokingly, "I'd probably be failing this class."
But while students said the approach makes learning more interesting, proponents are quick to note that it's not about entertaining students.
"This is not interaction based on games," says Diana Hasuly-Ackman, social studies supervisor for Arlington schools. "They have to have the background information and research the content in order for them to stand up and do the illustrations."
Hasuly-Ackman said teachers understand that "the more kids are engaged, the more they will retain."
It was clear during the U.N. debate that Swanson students were engaged, so much so that when it was time for it to end at 9 p.m., a resolution was proposed to allow further discussion. It lost, but Hart said he was amazed that so many of the students didn't want to stop.
Hart had instructed his students to study the seven resolutions before the U.N. Security Council -- from ending weapons inspections to declaring a "material breach" that could allow the United States to invade Iraq. Students also had to pick which country they wanted to represent, study the country, come up with a name that would represent the area and, if they wanted to dress up, do it in a respectful and representative fashion.
He gave them advice: political leaders either dress in western business attire or traditional clothing. Security leaders might be in uniform; religious leaders in traditional robes, gowns or headgear; and business leaders usually in western attire.
The students came prepared. There was the pope in her -- yes, her -- long, flowing robe; the delegate from Turkey with his dark suit and pasted-on mustache; and the Queen of Bhutan with her tiara. At one point during a break, the delegate from Turkey, his mustache slightly lopsided, found the tiara on the floor and handed it to Hart.
"I think it belongs to the queen of Bhutan," Hart told him. "I'm sure her highness would be grateful."
But moments of levity aside, most of the discussion was serious. and almost no one came better prepared than Lara Grantham. As Koimale Fedu, supreme general from the Maldives, an Indian Ocean island nation, the 13-year-old was determined to make sure that the three resolutions she supported would triumph.
Grantham had spent the previous five days lobbying other delegates -- her classmates. She and two classmates decided to build an alliance called the WALL (War Always Loses Lives) and started rounding up votes to ensure the success of her resolutions.
"The WALL was basically an alliance with other countries who were against the material breach," she explained.
Her work paid off. The majority of delegates voted for her resolutions, including one stating that no individual U.N. member can authorize a preemptive strike without approval of the U.N. Security Council.
"The stupid WALL did us in," lamented Neff, the delegate from Japan, who wanted a "material breach" declared.
The next day, in one of Hart's social studies classes, the excitement from the night before still lingered.
"Everyone was really into it," said Jovan Howard, 14, who played a delegate from Spain.
But the assignment was not over. Hart had students reflect on their actions, asking questions such as: "What were your objectives for the international conference?" and saying, "Describe the political maneuvering which occurred before the conference."
At one point, a student told Hart that friends were turning against each other.
Hart used it as a teaching point. "Is that what's happening to us and France?" he asked the class.
Hart said that he also incorporates traditional quizzes and memorization assignments into his lessons but that the new learning methods enrich his students' learning skills.
"For teachers, activities are like trinkets, and we're always collecting trinkets," he said.