UN-derstanding the United Nations

Use these interesting facts as a springboard for a culturally and globally diverse classroom discussion on the United Nations.

By Christen Amico

World flags

With a simple mission of promoting world peace and eliminating violence, the United Nations has been largely recognized for its abundance of generosity geared towards helping those who can’t help themselves. In the midst of war, poverty, and famine, members of the UN faithfully hold on to the dream of a better world. Through educational, health, and legal programs, they negotiate for freedom and social progress on behalf of countries enveloped in turmoil. By integrating real-world social issues, such as the role the United Nations plays in world history, teachers are able to promote global awareness and foster critical-thinking skills in their classroom. However, a topic such as this, although important, can often become boring. Here are a few lesser-known, but very interesting facts that are sure to get kids engaged in a high-level classroom discussion about the most well-known organization in the world.


Not Numero UN-o

The United Nations was not actually the first multi-national organization to come into existence. The first world organization, named the League of Nations (1919), was created after the First World War as a means to prevent another world war. Despite their good intentions, a Second World War erupted and the League of Nations fell apart. Originally created in San Francisco, 51 nations signed the United Nations Charter in 1945 and the UN was born. Teachers can use a Venn diagram, or other type of graphic organizer, to compare and contrast the League of Nations with the United Nations, and then discuss how those differences contributed to the failure of one organization and the success of the other. As an extension, remind the class that not all citizens agree about the effectiveness of the UN. Take a class/school poll to find out how many people believe that the UN will eventually fail, just as the League of Nations did.

It Figures

The United States pays more money than any other country to be a member of the UN; Japan is a close second. Fees are based on a country’s ability to pay, and range from .001% (Liberia) to 22% (U.S.) of the budget. Although the actual number is debatable, according to Fox News in 2006, the United States allotted more than $1 billion dollars to UN programs. Teachers can turn these figures into a real life math problem by using the data to calculate exactly how much money each country spends on the UN each year. Then ask the class "Is this fair?" After a class discussion on whether or not each country should pay the same amount, students can sum up their opinions and write a persuasive essay addressed to the UN.

Stamp It

For all you stamp collectors out there, and those who like to impress, the United Nations has its very own stamp available for purchase. The 2012 stamp will cost you $1.05 and is dedicated to the 20th anniversary of the UN conference on Environment and Development, which will be held this year in Rio de Janeiro. This is a great opportunity to integrate visual arts with social studies. In conjunction with a discussion on symbols, young artists can design their own stamp that symbolizes peace and equality. This activity can be extended by combining the new stamps and creating a class "stamp collection" to be displayed in the school library or Open House.

Privacy Please

As of 2006, all high ranking UN officials are required to disclose all financial records to the UN. Some employees even voluntarily post this information on the official UN website. With full support from the Ethics Committee, Secretary-General, Ban-Ki Moon, has lead by example; assuring the world that there is a zero-tolerance policy for financial mismanagement and that any conflict of interest will be eradicated by the UN. Learning about why it is important for the UN to remain as neutral as possible will help young leaders to recognize morality and ethics as a vital part of being a global citizen.

Say What?

There are six official languages in the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The two original, working languages were English and French, and others were added as needed. Meetings are simultaneously translated orally and most official UN documents are available in all six languages. If a delegate chooses to use a non-official language, he or she must provide a translator or a written translation. Bilingualism and multilingualism are important facets to becoming a global leader. Classroom activities can include using internet tools such as Google Translator to translate written assignments or researching how many world languages actually exist. It has even been suggested that the UN develop a universal language rather than relying on so many different languages. Here are a few things to discuss during class time:

  • How would your students feel about having to learn a new universal language?
  • How do the number of languages and hence the vast number of cultures impede the social progress that the UN is trying to accomplish?
  • Would the invention of a new language help or hurt the UN?  

Heading up the Headquarters

Consisting of four main buildings, covering over 18-acres, and costing $65 billion (paid for with an interest-free loan from the U.S. Government), the UN headquarters broke ground in New York City. As a symbol of both peace and hope, the headquarters are completely owned by the United Nations; thus are located on International Territory and exempt from most State and Federal laws. However, bound by mutual agreement, employees may not engage in any criminal act on the premises, including providing refuge to those avoiding arrest by the U.S. government. Currently, the headquarters are undergoing a $1.9 billion renovation to be complete by 2013. Tours are available daily and visitors are welcome! If possible, arrange a field trip here. Check out the Target Field trip Grant to help cover costs. If not, plan activities in which kids draw and map out the important parts of the headquarters.

Related Lessons:

ESL United Nations Holiday Lesson Plans

This is a great set of vocabulary, reading and writing activities, including word searches, matching and fill in the blanks; all aimed at helping students learn about the United Nations. Each section can be printed out and used for in class or homework to review facts. The information is most appropriate for upper elementary students.

New Nations, New Problems

With a historical focus on the time period in between the two World Wars, this PowerPoint presentation helps students to understand the events and decisions that transpired between 1914 and 1922. Slides include maps, charts and biographical information. There is a slide specifically dedicated to the rise and fall of the League of Nations.

Model United Nations

Turn your classroom into a mock UN headquarters. This unit plan has everything you need: videos, manuals, handouts, and scripts to help young leaders learn exactly how the members of the United Nations act out their daily duties. This is an effective tool for using a cooperative learning and/or constructivist approach to teaching history.