Teaching Model Diplomacy at Vanguard High School
Mark Klarman is a social studies instructor at Vanguard High School in New York. Once a social worker and then a corporate travel industry executive, Klarman shifted to teaching through the New York City Teaching Fellows. He has now begun his fourteenth year in the humanities department of Vanguard, a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools that uses portfolio assessments rather than state Regents Examinations to determine student promotion. Last spring, he introduced Model Diplomacy to his new semester-long foreign policy elective. CFR Education's Deputy Director Myka Carroll spoke with Klarman before the start of the academic year about the program's value to secondary students and instructors. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about Vanguard and your approach as an instructor.
Well, my career background is one of career change into teaching. I've always been in the humanities department with a social studies license and global history, but fairly quickly moved into U.S. history, which is an upper-school eleventh and twelfth [grade] combination of curriculum. So now I'm one of the history teachers in the upper school. The project that the kids have to do in that course is a graduation requirement from our school because we have a waiver from the state Regents exams through our membership in the New York Performance Standards Consortium. The presentation that students do for us in history meets the state history Regents requirement, which gives us huge possibilities because there's a paper, there's a stand-up presentation, there's a committee evaluation process. So as instructors we're able to go very deep, spend as much time as we need on units and topics and themes, and then give students their choice within some parameters of what they want to do for final presentation projects.
The mission of Vanguard is I think what you would expect for a school that wants to help students lead well-rounded [lives] as citizens and residents of the country and critical thinkers, and so when you read past the official mission, you get to see that wherever possible we're a college-prep curriculum with college-prep expectations. However, the deeper history is that we developed about twenty-something years ago in the small schools movement, in connection with the Coalition of Essential Schools and certain academic and pedagogical theories and structures, as a school that wants to avoid standardized testing so that students can develop critical thinking skills with depth. We are an alternative public high school in the sense that testing that is not based on the Regents exam. We're a Title I school, so our students primarily come from different backgrounds of need, with a vast majority qualifying for free lunch. Demographically we're very much a picture of New York, and our students come from many different neighborhoods. It's a diverse mix of students that reflects what New York looks like now.
Since you get such leeway in how you create your curriculum and the types of activities you can do, what types of pedagogical resources are you looking for as you prepare for a course?
We have to work from what we value in terms of what we hope to help students achieve. Some of the methods we value are a lot of group work, all in the service of the basic four elements of literacy: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We have English language learner students and students with learning challenges who have individualized education programs, so for each student there are different needs in that spectrum of literacy skills. So group work is quite important. Having students learn actively is very important. A lot of our graduates come back and say, "Thank God you were hard on me in having to edit and revise papers. Thank God you had me standing up in front of an audience presenting a PowerPoint and defending it." I think if we don't go too far from what those literacy expectations are, we're always working to find ways of addressing those, and then they need that organized around certain habits of mind that are rigorous. Like what we're talking about with Model Diplomacy is so beautifully made for, because the priority habits of mind for me as a historian and for our humanities department are working with evidence, finding it, understanding it, quoting it, paraphrasing it, crediting it. So evidence is the number one thing. Multiple viewpoints are probably the second most important thing among those habits of mind, to me. And then on to insight and significance.
Which is where I saw lots of opportunity when I was considering creating a course around foreign policy. On first blush, it may be tough to see how foreign policy is significant for the teenager who's dealing with a million things in their life, likely not thinking about the greater world around them. But they are paying attention to the world around them, they just need guidance in grappling with it all. It's so overwhelming for anyone to grapple with the range of global issues. Once you offer a guiding hand, the students are ready to take that journey.
You created the foreign policy course for this past academic year, and it was an elective?
Yes. Calling our classes "electives" is slightly misleading because not all students get to elect being there because of the realities of our staffing and our school day and our resources. They're courses that serve our needs in terms of credits, in terms of a well-rounded experience, so I love that question because it allows me to say not everyone wanted to be there but they surprised themselves once they were there.
To give background on how I chose to do a foreign policy course: I was at a foreign policy event and a scholar was making a very passionate claim that we face a true nuclear danger in the years ahead. The way she presented it was so stark that I thought, "This is something the kids are going to want to know about." I also thought that it's something that in the generation of students we have now, they don't have the same sensibility about nuclear threat that my generation does and that my parents' generation does. And I was looking to change away from the electives I had been teaching—I've taught journalism as an elective, I've taught current events as an elective, but not with the specific frame of foreign policy. It came at a good time; I saw provocative things that I thought students would care about. Because we're a very collaborative culture at our school, the principal said, "Go for it, sounds great!" I needed to start with something very manageable in a semester. It's only a semester course that meets two days a week for an hour and a half, and that presents a lot of challenges when you want to do things that are rigorous. The challenge I have in the course is sustaining interest and keeping accountability over that kind of schedule.
So when I started the course, I asked for certain students I knew to be placed in the course. I asked for upper-school students—eleventh and twelfth—because I thought at that time I knew the learning they had around this, especially around our history curriculum, and I thought there would be something of a readiness for eleventh and twelfth graders. However that judgment was challenged in a happy way in the second semester when I had our lower-school students—ninth and tenth graders—and many of them were as passionate, as attuned, as analytical, as articulate in writing and speaking as the upper-school students. In fact, I think for next year, I will say to the programming team—because they tend to know our students—if you think someone will be a good fit, send them, and it doesn't matter what grade they are.
It sounds like you started to do some initial work on your own for this course, pulling from different resources. When did you discover Model Diplomacy in that process?
I knew about CFR of course, but I think I considered it a think tank and a resource to decision-makers, scholars, and diplomats. I didn't instinctively or by reputation see it as a resource to classroom educators. Then I received the invitation to come to [CFR's] High School Educators Workshop, and the timing was brilliant because it was there that Model Diplomacy was presented, so then of course I said I need to follow up and talk to the right folks for making this happen. I found myself on the brink of the spring semester and I wasn't able to bring in Model Diplomacy lock, stock, and barrel, but I was determined that I would work with it as a pilot, with no sense that it had to be perfect or that I had to do everything to the letter—but rather let's see how this works for us. I think because there's so much with these case studies that any instructor can make it work for them. It was never like it went horribly wrong because I didn't do a certain component or read a certain document or watch a certain video. At the end of the semester we were able to do a first attempt at the Interrogation Policy case.
The case materials are meant to be very flexible and participatory.
The abundance of resources was very helpful, because what I noticed students doing once they were all invited to join the case and the process started—and I know this because our class meets in a computer lab, so they're always sitting at a desktop—I noticed that their own instincts and curiosities took over, and they were looking wherever they wanted to look. I saw some videos going on, I saw some reading going on, I saw some conferring going on, I saw vocabulary being kept, I saw note-taking.
How did you structure your simulation?
The course only met twice a week, so I thought that I could achieve it in six sessions, which would have been over three weeks. So I immediately saw we're going to need several weeks, with the last one being the last day the class met for the semester. I knew the time frame that I was able to do it in, and then, as in planning anything that's a unit or expanded lesson, I worked backward, which was identifying the options the president was going to have. Students understood the dilemma and understood the crisis, but they needed a lot of support and we needed to drill down into, what's that meeting going to look like? The president can hear from ten different people, but what options is he or she ultimately going to have to choose from? They don't have ten different options; in this case, the president had three. So one of the things I wanted to be very clear with was, where is this going?
Another thing I wanted to start with was, who are these people? So my students were familiar with a number of the players that would be in this case, and that helped a lot. I presented students the list of the participants and said, "Find out who's the current person that has this position. What do we know about
them? Find a photo of them, how old are they, where did they go to school, what does their work life seem to be like? Find a resume." So that by the class time, that was one of the start-up pieces, where they could actually see those individuals being at the table.
It helped them to concretize it a little.
Absolutely. The middle piece was, after knowing the events that had occurred: Is this a foreign policy crisis? Is this a military crisis? What's the legality here? What's the diplomatic component with our neighbors and allies and opponents on the global stage? And that's where one has to make smart choices and help students make choices where they can focus. I also noticed that at some point there's information that everyone needs, and then there's information that the experts need. So the attorney general needs information that others really don't. And then realizing that what the president values is the attorney general's legal perspective—the attorney general cannot make the diplomatic case. So that came through to me as I reflected after the work. Even if the class met every day for an hour and a half, there's only so much that each student or each team of students—which is the way we ran it—can gather, master, then later express. There's only so much they can hold. I found too that because of the rigor of the reading, we needed, for the first few classes, to read aloud with printed text, with space to annotate, with time to take questions.
So you were able to take the time to work with the students in that initial process of breaking down the introductory material, the introduction to the NSC, and helping them get the overall context that they would be working in?
Yes. And there I realized that unlike in my history class, there's almost no one in the class who's been taught this material, been taught the language of the discipline, the language of these experts. People come to an upper-school history class with knowledge of certain things, which allows them to make connections. Here, there's so much less of that. You can always count on their critical thinking skills, but beyond that you're also hoping that some students have brought their personal interest. And sure enough, there were three or four who were feasting on this and who were aware of the issues and knew geography and knew something about the economics of oil, for example, and knew something about our allies, knew something about NATO. And then I had students who had taken our history class—which is where we spend a lot of time on the Constitution, landmark cases, and the like—who come to the table ready to explore and understand the legalities that can be involved. So those who took on the role of the attorney general were seeing references to cases, and they didn't need an explanation of "what does something v. something" mean.
You mentioned you put the students in teams. Did you pair people up?
One thing I chose to do was to give students choice in who they wanted to be.
So you let them pick their roles.
Yes. Because they had had some experience, they were connected enough to those figures that they knew what they were getting themselves into by choosing to be the attorney general or secretary of state. So what ended up happening was there were two to four students for each of the roles. Beyond the president and the vice president, the key roles we used for this simulation were the secretary of state, the UN rep, the attorney general, and the director of national intelligence. Once we were at the table for the actual role-play, they had a name card with the title of who they were, and I made it very clear whether there are two or three or four of you, you [collectively] are the secretary of state. When presenting, the natural way of people is that some are ready to speak right away, others need to warm up for it, and others gain their confidence a little more slowly. Because there were enough rounds of conversation, we found that the second or third person came forth as secretary of state. I thought giving them choice—which they're very used to—was very fruitful because it was authentic that way. They get invested in it so fast.
Were they required to meet beforehand and confer and be consistent in their overall position, or did you leave some room for there to be a little friction within a particular role?
That is one of the areas where I was most hands-off. I was trusting that they understood their charge, and that together they would work through developing their position. What I did hear was the language of the case and the language of the topic was always in the air.
So what happened when they all arrived at the table?
The recommendation in the Case Prep materials that the instructor be a national security advisor I think was essential for this first time in doing it. I don't think any instructor should worry that that's taking agency from their kids or being too heavy handed. They absolutely need that in doing it the first time. Everyone had their roles and had been prepping, and I had selected as president someone who has sort of an innate presence in the room and a confidence in speaking. I, as national security advisor, welcomed everyone and introduced why we were there. We then allowed the president to make some remarks, in which he articulated the overall stakes and how much he was counting on all of the best efforts of the different presenters. Then we had the opening positions, and there you saw that some were better prepared than others, some were more fluid, more confident. What was very notable was the room was absolutely silent throughout. The students who had drifted in and out of the course during the semester—not heavily invested, not contributing a lot—everyone was focused on what was being said in the room. It was great. As a first run, I noticed people would deliver their piece and then there was sort of, who's got the ball? And that's where being the national security advisor is very useful.
It gave you the ability to impose some structure, keep the momentum going.
Some structure, yes. The debate and deliberation was a little tentative. The president was able to identify contradictory statements from within one role—I loved seeing that. The players themselves were able to see where they had sort of tripped up: "Oh wait, no, I don't think that—Tiffany thinks that, but the secretary of state doesn't think that." Then we came back around to the final recommendations, and some of the way that was articulated had changed a bit from where they had started and that was due to what had happened in between.
As teachers, we like to be able to tie things up, and having a shortened class day for it worked to my advantage because it caused me to create a timed agenda. And all the time was filled. The president took the recommendations and then knowing that the students were leaving for the summer and weren't going to get his final decision on paper, I had primed him to say where he thought this left him in terms of a decision. That's a moment of discovery for everybody in the room: What is the president going to say? I didn't know how he was going to come out. I did notice that he made the choice that was most fully articulated by the team that wanted that outcome. And so even looking only at how the argument is working in the moment in the room, on the president and whoever else, is something that's very revealing.
The power of learning to speak persuasively.
And maybe the human process of accepting the argument that is best made in the moment. What I think a lot of them realized, especially the president, was I only have these minutes to get the full-on presentation of all the viewpoints, and then I have to make a decision. You can't go away, and come back and go away, and think on it and sleep on it, meet again, come back. Which is why I'd like to have a class where I say we only have a week for this. That may be another iteration of the course another time.
Did you use the assessment exercises or did you make modifications to the assignments, particularly since you had a very group-work-oriented approach?
Because we were near the end of the semester, and they had really built up understanding across the work of the whole semester, I went a little easy on the assessment and in fact assessed them as a team. What's wonderful is that when you receive the position memo, that's the evidence of the work they did. I really used a holistic approach to the work due to what I saw. And of course I knew the students well enough that I watched how they worked very closely. There are a lot of places [in the program] where you can assess if you choose to quantify efforts—quantify efforts around the research, the ability to meet deadlines, group work, collaboration, cooperation, the written output of the work (which was the memos), the spoken piece. It's beautiful because it's literacy in all its aspects, and no one person is boxed in and pressured to have to perform exactly the way everyone else is.
Did you have a wrap-up discussion?
The conversations were very informal, as people were up and moving. I saw some of the students from the class later in the day and asked them anecdotally, "How do you think it went?" I think everyone in the room felt empowered somehow. While you're speaking, the mic is yours. So a range of emotions came out. I think our natural dispositions and personalities are sharpened and more vividly on display. So the person who needs to have everything in hand to do their job had everything at hand. The person who thinks they can wing it tried to wing it. The president felt this awesome responsibility, because this was a student who is accountable in his work and does want to do the best he can do. It's really amazing portraits of the students as thinkers and in action that come from this. If they were subjected to a chalk-and-talk course, you wouldn't know 75 percent of what's going on with them. And here you know so much more about their process and about them as learners. I wish I had time for more written reflection on the process, especially from those students who, as we said, are often really on the periphery and don't seem to be joining in but who in this setting were fully present and fully engaged. There are so many places to get students engaged in this, despite it looking like it's heavily reading based. It's just not. It is quite the experience, and I think for them to have it twice would absolutely be great for them. I think they would look forward to the second one after doing the first.
So you found it to be an effective capstone experience for your foreign policy course. Will you teach it that way again or are you thinking about a more time-limited style, where they have only one week on a case?
What I like in the way it's constructed is, despite the pressure I had of only a certain number of days, you must slow down to do this work. The instructor has to slow down to plan it well, but the students should be given permission to slow down and absorb it and work with it. I think given that we meet two days a week I would do two of the cases, using the first one to work slowly and then in the second one raise the stakes: We're going to work faster. I'm expecting more of you, especially around the written component, the cited evidence that they bring to bear, their ownership of their knowledge and their expertise when they're at the table. With more practice, like with anything, I see them being more confident, owning it more.
What advice would you give to a high school instructor who's taking a first look at Model Diplomacy?
Doing these case studies doesn't require a certain type of student. It's very much about managing time and knowing the time one can dedicate to the process, and CFR recommends different combinations of time [in the Instructor Guide]. My regret is that we didn't have a five-day-a-week course to do it. I strongly recommend that an instructor do it who's teaching every day.
With any good planning, I think you're always rewarded if you plan backward. So for example, knowing that we had to get a decision around three options, working backward from that then presents the opportunity to choose materials that will help inform those choices. The case study contains enough variety of materials that an instructor can rely heavily on those. I would say expert instructors can bring any additional materials they want to bear, they can excise things and put them aside. Particular attention needs to be paid to how the cases are introduced—in other words, being aware of prior knowledge students have or don't have to be able to tackle these. I think the most delicate moments are those first days or hours of the course where you're trying to get them engaged but also meet them at their level.
Also, being aware of the things everyone needs to know and the things that the experts need to know. This is one of those structures where it's OK that everyone in the room doesn't know all of the same things. You're the secretary of state—it's OK, you don't need to know the per capita oil distribution on a ship in the harbor or something. That makes the students feel better, and it enhances their ownership of [their specific role].
What did you as an instructor get from Model Diplomacy?
I had to confront that I had preconceived notions about student interest and ability for this. I felt that I was taking a risk in expecting every student in the room to get engaged, and then do the work and be accountable. I'm reproaching myself a little bit because the students—as they often do—just defied my preconceived notions and really wowed me. Part of their success is attributable to the package that Model Diplomacy delivers, part of this is attributable to the way I led them on the journey through the case, and the part that hits it out of the ballpark is that their critical thinking is engaged, all the literacy skills we were talking about are engaged, their egos are engaged, and wherever they can rise to, they can. There's a beautiful blend of independent work with guided work with group work, and then the instructor can decide what the stakes are. Overall, I am so, so happy to have this.