Bring United Nations Day to School

Ideas to honor the mission of the 193-nation-strong organization that fosters peace, sustainability, and human rights around the world.

By Judith Smith Meyer


United Nations flags

The United Nations charter was first ratified by the five permanent members of the Security Council on October 24, 1945. In the worldwide devastation that followed World War II, France, China, the Soviet Union, United Kingdom, and the United States worked together to create an organization of international states that would foster global peace, prosperity, and justice. Fifty-one member states signed on the first year, with a goal of preventing a third world war and improving global quality of life. Most recently, the United Nations accepted South Sudan as its 193rd member nation in July 2011.

Every year, October 24 is observed as United Nations Day to celebrate the ideals and impact of the United Nations.  It is even an official non-working day in Kosovo, because the province is officially still administered by the Interim Administration Mission of the United Nations.

The theme of this year’s celebration is Solutions for a Prosperous World. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated that, "United Nations Day is a day on which we resolve to do more. More to protect those caught up in armed conflict, to fight climate change and avert nuclear catastrophe; more to expand opportunities for women and girls, and to combat injustice and impunity; more to meet the Millennium Development Goals."

Bring UN Day to School

Educators can celebrate United Nations Day with learners of all ages. Starting in the earliest grades, learning about and honoring the value of cultures worldwide can spawn the compassion and tolerance for others that is the basis for peace. In our multicultural classrooms, we can encourage children to interview their families about cultural history and share the traditions they observe.

Classes can look at flags from around the world, explore their meanings, examine the United Nations flag, and create flags for their class, group, family, or community that represent the ideals they espouse or strive to uphold.

Build Tolerance and Global Community

Upper elementary graders can certainly understand the essence of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt and representatives from France, China, Lebanon, and Canada in 1948, it is the first document considered to have international normative value. The 30 articles contained in it provide food for thought that one group of 6th graders turned into posters focused on the single right expressed in the document that is most important to them. One student I know, who thinks a lot about homelessness, made a poster with his group that featured language and art emphasizing that everyone has the right to a home.

Human Rights at School

Class members could also review the Declaration and construct a similar document declaring the rights of anyone in their classroom or school. A lunchtime celebration in which your administrator reads and honors the declaration would be a suitable way to celebrate U.N. Day at your school. It could be a component of anti-bullying or restorative justice programs at school that seek to build community while protecting the rights of all students to learn in a safe environment. The U.N. website encourages anyone celebrating United Nations Day to invite congressional leaders to participate.

World Peace and Worthy Nonfiction Text

Secondary readers could take on the Declaration itself, it’s preamble and 30 articles, and chart it as a supplemental nonfiction text to accompany any unit on the Holocaust or study of current events like conditions for women in Afghanistan. You could arrange a jigsaw-style peer teaching activity in which partners draw, write, and present about each article to the class (quick) or spend more time examining each article and brainstorming issues or historical and current events that might necessitate such a declaration (That is, where and when in the world—possibly even right now in your very own country— might such a right be being violated?).

Technology and United Nations Day

The United Nations website hosts an array of educational resources. UN4U features information about ways the United Nations has an impact on everyday life. A link to CyberSchoolBus provides all manner of ideas, curriculum, games, and information galore for you and your class. For my 8th grade social studies (American History) or my 11th grade English language arts, I’d schedule a few days in the computer lab and let partners conduct inquiry research about current U.N. projects, areas of concern, and history. Find out what’s important to your tech-intuitive charges as they guide their own, and your, learning about the United Nations. They could publish Glogster pages to your class website to demonstrate their knowledge and for parents to enjoy.

Seven Billion, and Counting

For United Nations Day 2011, Ban Ki-moon recognized that the world’s population would shortly reach 7 billion (which it did on October 31) announcing, “Let us unite, 7 billion strong, in the name of the global common good.” A world population total board, in constant motion, can be seen at here. How powerful it might be, to have it running through one lesson or one class period, on your classroom screen, to emphasize the importance of working together to create a sustainable, peaceful future.  

It Takes a (Global) Village

The UN works with many specialized agencies to further its mission, including the World Health Organization (WHO); the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); International Labor Organization (ILO); United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); and United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Collaborative groups could research and teach their classmates about what each of these organizations does.

Connections among college and career readiness, 21st century living, and the Common Core abound in projects like these.

Look into these resources for ideas about incorporating United Nations ideals into your curriculum:

Service Learning Inspired by United Nations

A series of class sessions focus on the history and purpose of the U.N. and lead learners to develop service projects to support children’s causes, at home or abroad. The plan links to many of the U.N. sites mentioned in the article and provides structure for teaching about the U.N. and applying its ideals to our own actions.

History of the United Nations

Get a larger-scope view of the United Nations in this lively Lesson Planet article. Includes a host of interesting facts about the U.N. to use as a springboard for class discussion about a topic that could seem a little dry in an ordinary classroom. I’d encourage the use of apps like TourWrist to take a virtual field trip if funding is too tight to take your class there in person!

Weighing the War

Read the text of a speech President George W. Bush delivered to the United Nations and examine the text (public documents). Effective questions provided lead to critical thinking and inform class discussion about persuasion and global conflict. Combine this New York Times article with current news about the outcome of the war in Iraq, or the ongoing conflict in Aghanistan.