“International Investigations in Cuban Education”

When I started my PhD last fall, I never imagined I would spend nine days in Cuba with two-dozen graduate students, conducting research, and meeting with colleagues and schools in the Cuban education system. As I continue to think critically about education in the US, I have to be aware of how education exists in other cultures and contexts. And this is what lead me to apply for the opportunity to study abroad.

If we truly care about education, the status of students (of all types), the future of our systems, and how globalization shows up in classrooms and schools, we have to consider our individual and personal contributions to advancing knowledge within the field. And so, “International Investigations in Cuban Education,” commenced.

And as I entered that space of learning and seeking knowledge, I quickly realized I didn’t know all that much about Cuba.

“Elián González. Old cars. Guantanamo Bay. Fidel Castro.”

When asked about my knowledge of Cuba before this trip, these points represented my low level of understanding. Furthermore, before this trip, I knew virtually nothing about Cuba’s education system. I grew up with peripheral perspectives, but never developed my own, formal and concrete version of what I knew Cuba to be versus what I had heard from others.

As a result of this opportunity, my colleagues and I were granted the privilege of great access to Cuban schools and educators. We spent a substantial amount of time before the trip reading and reflecting on the history of Cuba, the dark connections to the United States, and the reality of a free-to-all education system that exits from preschool to graduate higher education. Although brief, we got a small glimpse into a system of schooling that was unknown to most everyone on the trip.

“But what did you do,” you might be wondering? To synthesize some highlights, and connect to my desire to keep pursuing context and knowledge, the following thoughts and photos best capture my time on the island.

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School Visits
While we had opportunities to tour, our primary responsibility was to conduct independent research on various components of Cuban education. Curious about campus environments and institution types, my study looked at the differences between one primary school and one university in Holguín Province. Over the course of three days, I had the opportunity to visit each school, and found incredible similarities between the two. Art and colorful paintings were found throughout each school, and adorned classroom walls and outdoor spaces. Gathering areas transcended from inside to outside, and historical figures were well-represented across both environments. There was no shortage of historical understanding or national pride. Natural air flowed through classrooms, breezeways, and open areas, and the warm climate felt less severe as a result of this design. We also got to experience break time, which we might identify as, “recess,” in the US. I don’t think I stopped smiling during that 40-minute break. Kids of all ages were running, dancing, singing, laughing, and engaging with their teachers and friends. This outside and common space that was so still just moments before the bell rang had become a concrete playground of joy and engagement.

Meetings with Educators
In addition to visiting schools, my colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet with scholars, researchers, and teachers from various Cuban institutions and pedagogies. We had long discussions about the differences in our schooling, and always connected back to the reality that a student-centered framework can  make a huge difference in the way we approach education. “Didactics” existed as a continued theme in our conversations, and the educators shared the ways in which this philosophy showed up as an art form rather than a style of teaching. The spirit and passion for teaching and learning was a big part of their approach. The biggest highlight from these sessions came from one of our final conversations, when the educators asked each of us US representatives to share more about our personal research agenda. This was the first time on the trip that I was asked to explain my interest in parent/family programs in education. With the reliance on a translator to articulate my idea, I had to be very intentional and succinct with how I explained my interest in investigating the exclusionary nature of these types of campus traditions. As I explained that we have many students who show up in education spaces without parents and families, I instantly felt a response that this, too, appears in Cuban spaces as well. My colleague who was translating looked at me and said, “They really appreciate your topic.” This was a validating moment, as I had just spent the past semester trying to better understand how to explain my topic, and questioned how to move toward a more thoughtful research strategy.

Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos
I hate to let Donald Trump rain on my Cuba parade, but alas, he has. And DeVos, too. If you follow me on any form of social media, you know that I have an incredibly strong opinion of DeVos and her dangerous and inexperienced approach to schooling in the US. And as much as I wanted to leave Trump and DeVos back in the US, while I was in Cuba, they continued to be a topic of conversation again and again. Outside of questions and general assumptions, Cuban scholars were well-aware of our current reality in education. They were aware of our shared questions and concerns. They were away of every tweet, and the impact future decisions can have on our country, and the countries around us. But there is power in sharing ideas and perspectives. We were in Cuba on an education exchange, but I would be remised if I did not admit that this exchange was very one-sided. You see, there weren’t (aren’t) 30 Cuban educators headed to the United States to engage in the same critical discussions as we were having. One US colleague stated in his closing speech, “The Trump administration can’t stop the momentum we have here,” and I am letting that idea guide much of my thinking as I continue to seek information, unearth new knowledge, and teach and educate those around me.

I also must acknowledge that Cuba is not perfect. And while we had a close glimpse at some of the educational entities in Cuba, we had limited time to understand and unpack the economic and social struggles that exist outside of the education system (and even some that exist inside the education system). We are not perfect either.

There can be an unsettling feeling when critically analyzing our education system in the US, especially when considering the complex nature of k-12, higher education, and all that exists between (even when simply starting with public and private differences). In Cuba, we heard, “Education is a human right,” again and again, and much of that was backed up by the literacy campaigns that existed following the revolution. With more time, I might be able to spot the inconsistencies in that mantra, though in the meantime, I feel as if in the US, we are moving away from that belief.

Do we really value education as a human right?

Are children really valued citizens, and how serious do we take their learning?

Do we take their learning serious?

Before applying to this program, I never would have imagined an opportunity like this, meeting university and education association presidents, school principals, and top scholars in Cuban education. The opportunity to engage and reflect is part of what made my time in Cuba that much more special. And the opportunity to see past what I always understood as Cuba has helped me better understand how I show up in spaces where gaps exist on others’ path to understanding.

In closing, one US colleague challenged each participant to make a commitment to “what comes next” after Cuba. If we want exchanges and experiences to be truly transformative and informational, we have to commit to life-long learning and growing, and to a reframe the idea that perfection exists without considering culture, history, and social context. Even as we ventured away from the country, we heard counter-narratives contradicting all that we had learned and began to understand. The shift became present. The balance became important.

We learned. And we are beginning and continuing to understand. As I reflect on this reality, I am thankful that the process, in this case, has become the product.

I commit,

Michael

Wondering about wanderers, wandering…

Many summers ago, I did a photo project, capturing a few friends holding up photos of specific words from one of my favorite quotes, “Not all those who wander are lost” (Tolkien). It was 2009 when I discovered this quote, and I was in one of the biggest in-between moments of my life. I had just left my job at TOMS, and was gearing up to move to northern Michigan.

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This line became a mantra for me, and one which guided so much of my personal affirmations and self-efficacy. I even blew up the photos as large mats, placing them over the desk in my room/office (I worked in residential life, for all those who understand the reality of a, “room/office”). In many ways, this quote still exists as a personal exclamation. Hell, scroll up – it’s the title photo for my blog. I live this. I genuinely believe that we are never truly lost. And more so, I believe there is a plan and a purpose behind everything we do or can do (and not even as much in the religious context, but more so that there are little bits of life and love and learning which exist at every, even random and unplanned, corner). Learning is essential. Dissonance is learning. And wandering is real, and raw.

This summer I was introduced to the Slow Club song, “Wanderer Wandering,” and of course I wore the song out on repeat. It became a badge of honor, and contrary to the belief that, “Pompeii,” was played while taking flight to China, it was actually this song which resonated with me most in the initial moments of international risk taking.

Just before I left for China, a very good friend of mine introduced me to one of his very good friends who is also abroad right now. This particular individual is in Morocco, working for the Peace Corps, and doing much larger and more impacting things than I could ever imagine. He and I will email a few times per month, process out some of our experiences, and provide support to one another. He frequently blogs about his experience, and one of his most recent posts really struck a chord with me. One specific paragraph reads as follows:

“However, a dear friend once told me earlier this year, ‘Sure, not all who wander are lost, but how beautiful is it to be lost and have the chance to wander.’ Beautiful words, and throughout my simultaneous belonging in the lost and found box in this crazy overlapping phenomenon of pure joy and pure chaos, those images I dreamed of sure began to look different when wandering.”

Gasp, right? Real, right? I would add, raw and relevant, as well. And I would further argue, people are part of that chaos. And with each location, endeavor, job win/loss, challenge, barrier, and gain, people take up space in the beautiful, “lost and found box,” of life. And with each person we meet, a new and unique perspective is added to our repertoire of curiosity and knowledge. For example, I spent the weekend in Beijing (as you know, I’ve been living remotely two hours east of the city), and on my first day in town, I met a man in the elevator who was, ironically, from Morocco. In my attempt to connect this new elevator introduction with my electronic Peace Corps pen pal, I actually ended up making a new friend. Nearly four hours later (and five glasses of wine for me), we talked through the American preK-12 education system, diversity and racial dynamics, perceptions of the United Staes, travel, family (he and his wife have a precious 10-month old), and a myriad of other engaging and thought-provoking topics. And following this conversation, I was tired. My mind hurt, and I was intellectually drained. But all I could think was, This is growth. This moment reminded me of the power others hold to truly grant us perspective. Again, This is growth. It is important to be around people who inquire about our values and beliefs, and more so, ask questions which challenge us to know why it is that we know and believe what it is that we believe.

So, a new week is here. And there are millions of people out there with different experiences, perspectives, and life lessons ready to be shared and learned. How can you capitalize on that growth? How can you maximize your own story, thus letting others share in that learning and growing? Are you even sharing your story? You have one. We all do. And as you wander, wonder, or ponder, my challenge is to look up. Meet a stranger on an elevator. Give an honest and raw answer when someone asks how you are doing. Be open and honest about the current status of your heart. Embrace unknown. Accept unknown. Accept your most authentic and raw self. And then, be okay with the unknown that comes with that acceptance.

Still wandering, ever accepting,

Michael

“Soak up today. Ask someone, ‘How is the state of your heart today?’ Ask yourself the same question. Strive to be a human being rather than a human doing.” – Janine Myers

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Having my moment.

When someone tells me to, “Lean In,” I almost always throw up a little in my mouth.

Let’s pause there for a moment.

I recently had a friend move across the United States with her family, and has captured her post-move adventures via her blog. She is one of the best writers I know (and hilarious), but also one of best human beings I know. Recently, this particular friend posted about her transition and it really hit home for me. To summarize her thoughts (though, I think you should read the post for yourself), said-incredible human being had an inner conflict about how she was feeling versus some of the messages she had put out into the world via social media and through her blog. The truth about transition is that it’s yours alone – no one person can predict or anticipate how they will react or accommodate to a change in pace. Needless to say, this friend nicely packaged some of the very things I had been feeling for the past few weeks.

Similar to my friend’s sentiments, I, too, have had somewhat of a challenging adjustment. This process has been tough, and though my Instagram and twitter are filled with detailed photos and delicious food and breathtaking sites, the struggle is still real (and not in a, “the struggle is real,” kind of way, but actually, this struggle, is a reality for me). When you go from a job where you are surrounded by people and tasks every single day to a remote city where you are one of few people who think, talk, and dream like you, the battle is truly uphill. And as I have previously noted, the reality of being alone with my thoughts has been a new endeavor, and one which has actually prompted many more life ‘ah-ha’s.’

Thus, Takeaway #2 from this experience: If constantly surrounded by the hustle of a busy life, your thoughts are often overpowered by the hustle of a busy life.

This follows Takeaway #1, which asserts, “When you entertain the hustle of a busy life, you will always expect the hustle of a busy life.” The mute is real, and I never actually understood what it meant to have a clear mind or fresh perspective until I got to China. I can tweet, “#perspective,” all day, but the reality was that my mind was never truly clear enough to see and think as freshly as I needed. That is, until I got to China. And, when work and life’s busy stressors and anxiety were no longer present, I was forced to actually be alone with my pure and authentic thoughts (well, you can decide if those authentic thoughts are pure). Why do you think it is that, when at our most busy, we decide to add yet another thing to the growing list of things to do? Could it be that our mind is just use to being on overload, and saying one more, “yes,” is trivial in the grand scheme of things? Or, are we just scared to say, “no,” because we don’t actually understand what it means to be alone with our thoughts, or with our true self?

I don’t know if I fully buy-in to these questions, or if they are even relevant for everyone (or at least, every “busy” person), however I do know they are provoking me to think a bit deeper than I have been over the past few years. You see, I am still coming off the high of being constantly surrounded by people. And being constantly “needed” (this, too, is a flaw in education, which I am starting to wrestle with as well – are we creating professionals, teachers, or educators who people “need” versus who are just doing the job we need?). Each day here has ended with some type of walk into town, where I have ventured around and explored most parts of the province where I am currently living. And in light of this newly enjoyed alone-time, I have been left with a better idea of the wants and needs that my mind was finally able to reveal to me. Before my latest ‘ah-ha’ truly came to form, I reached out two friends for a bit of support. Barely touching the surface of my struggle, both friends responded with some type of reference along the lines of, “Well, Instagram sure had me fooled.”

Thus, Takeaway #3 (yes, two in one post): Let people have their moment.

So what, if Instagram and Twitter are my way of finding some sense of community. So what, if I am electronically connecting in lieu of physical and emotional connection. So what, if I am just a tiny bit homesick (wherever the hell, “home,” is these days). Transition is not easy, and all folks will eventually discover their personal way of coping. Let us all let others have their moment, however these moments may arise.

All of this gets to a point, I swear. Just before I left the States, my mentor challenged me a bit on my decision to take this opportunity. He had previously processed with me that I was ready and hopeful for a family and also some sense of settling down. Roots. I wanted roots. And he understood and validated those feelings. Needless to say, when I informed him that I would be moving to China (and later discovering it would be rural China), he wasn’t pleased. And in a lot of ways, he wasn’t really supportive. Note to all mentors out there or persons who identify as a mentor to someone: you don’t have to approve of or support all of your mentee’s decisions – this actually makes for a really great mentor. To this day, I am glad he stood by his initial advice despite any way in which I attempted to justify my decision to move.

Since getting to China, I have spent the past month really separating the realities of what I thought I wanted versus what I actually want. Specifically, I have revisited this idea of “settling down” and what planting roots actually means for me and my next steps. Roots. After all, Im not going to be in China forever, and I have to always be thinking forward. Now one month in and following the latest rounds of ‘ah-ha,’ I decided to reach out to my mentor, the one individual who was openly skeptical of this life juncture (though, I’m sure many others are/were as well). I texted him this past week, and as vaguely as possible, noted, “you were right.” I say, “vaguely,” as it took several texts to get to that sentiment, which was masked in, “remember when we had breakfast before I left,” and, “sometimes people figure things out later in life, right?” He was on to me.

My mentor’s response? He challenged me to, “lean in,” to the experience, the heartache, and the dissonance. At first, I wanted to electronically punch him in the throat, though before sending the “punch” emoji, I paused on his suggestion (I should also probably add that I have not actually read this book about, “leaning in,” nor do I really know much about the phenomenon – I have just always resolved to gasp or sigh when I hear and see the phrase articulated as an easy response to get someone to experience some sense of discomfort). In this case, leaning in wasn’t a physical moment. My mentor wasn’t advising me to do something I was uncomfortable with, he was encouraging me to push myself to think from multiple vantage points. He was pushing me to think about my stubbornness, my ignorance, and also my jaded point of view. He was pushing me. Again. The final note from my mentor, resonating most with me, was the idea of our, “Circle of Influence.” When times are tough: what can you control? When people suck: what role do you play in that? When a situation isn’t ideal: where is your voice?

So, you get the point. I’m less aggressive about this whole idea of, “leaning in.” Hell, perhaps I can learn a thing or two from the buzzy framework. And, as I continue to learn more about myself, please accept my vulnerability as a means for saying, “Thank You.” The vibes have been felt, the texts and messages have been received, and it means the world (literally) to me that people are still reading this blog and haven’t begged my VPN company to shut me down. And more than all of this, thank you for allowing me to process and grow, while many of you watch and experience it all with me. The wind is picking up, and I feel the best may be yet to come.

Leaning,

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I’m moving to Wyoming.

I guess this is a good time to inform all of you that the China-bit was all a hoax. You see, I’m actually moving to Wyoming, and writing a book called, “That One Time I ‘Moved to China,’ But Actually Really Moved To Wyoming To Write This Book: and other tales of life as a ranch-hand.” I’m kidding. China is still a thing. In fact, I’m in the airport right now, leaving America pretty soon.

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It’s been a weird day, though, and I don’t think my mind has stopped racing since I woke up at 2:45AM to catch my first of three flights. 2/3 of my flights are complete, and both consisted of me sleeping from the time the wheels went up until the time the flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder to put my seat back to it’s normal setting (I like to recline my seat back, just as we are picking up speed on the runway, reaching full-extension as the wheels become sucked up by the plane – I fall asleep, every time).

I’m not sure if it’s good travel karma coming back to me following enduring the cross-country, three-car breakdown, however my United ticket agent not only upgraded me to first class for my first flight (don’t get too excited, it was just from Austin to Houston), she also allowed me to celebrate the fact that both of my checked bags were under 50lbs. This celebration included me blurting out, “Bless you!” She laughed, and then I danced. Seriously, I put my hand up in the air, and did at least two circle-rotations of dancing. She and her ticket-agent friend giggled, and I asked, “Certainly you’ve seen more dramatic ‘ah-ha’ moments at 4:45AM?” She agreed. And so, I went. Or, go, rather.

And so, I go. In just a few moments I’ll be boarding my final flight and on to the next adventure. I am hopeful, anxious, and nervous, and all in the best way possible. My stomach gurgled the entire flight from Austin to Houston, which was probably a mixture of general-nerves and First Class guilt. Either way, as I sat there, praying not to let today be the first time I’ve thrown up on a plane, I re-read an email from a dear friend, titled, “Open me when you’re sitting at the airport…” Among many other phenomenal nuggets, the following part from her email stuck out to me as probably, what I imagine to be, the most impacting piece of advice/inspiration/support I’ve received during this month of transition:

“… People are coming. People are going. People are traveling both alone and with others. Some are heartbroken while others are elated all around you right now.

I know your ticket says Beijing, but really, Beijing is just a starting point. While this flight path may be laid out before you clearly, I’m most excited for you to land so that you can step off the path and find your own trail.

Literally you’re already at the gate so there’s no turning back (until you find where to go next). Go find extraordinary things that give you life. Go meet people you could never find here. Explore places you’ve never imagined existed. Do all of this with a full heart.”

No more words are necessary. Upward and onward. Find your truth, and live it. Away, I go.

In transit,

Michael

General Life Thoughts

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People rule. Seriously, people rule. This past 48-hours has been a whirlwind of emotions, and all ones which I can honestly say have come from the very incredible individuals who have affirmed and validated me one click, favorite, view, share, and retweet at a time. Let’s pause there for a moment, as chances are I’ll start sobbing with just a few more clicks of the keys.

Aside from all the affirmation I have received this week, I also have a friend who, consequently, is somewhat upset with me. A few weeks ago, she asked me to hold on to her house key, and I resisted. I was moving apartments two weeks later, followed by my three week sabbatication, and generally just did not really want to feel responsible for someone’s security deposit. I resisted, yet eventually gave in with fear that she would just mail me the key anyway, thus even more pressure. Needless to say, I harbored the key.

If you’ve moved in the past year, you will know that two things happen: shit ends up everywhere and anywhere, and also you have a mini-meltdown where things get thrown away, donated, or sold. Both happened to me. Alas, the key went missing for around one month. My friend texted me this week, asking to make arrangements for her key to be turned in, and in an already unorganized living arrangement, I fearfully informed her that I had not a single clue as to where I placed the key for protection and pause. Bummed, she responded with some sense of understanding, yet major disappointment. This leads me to point one of two:

Sometimes, the smell is you.  

While eating breakfast this morning, I smelled something quite odd in odor. It wasn’t a bad smell, per say, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. I assumed it might have had something to do with the packaging of my just-opened box of Honey Nut Cheerios, and went on to finish my morning rituals. Moments after arriving at work, the smell appeared again. Shit, it’s me, I thought. I brushed my teeth, and also have a clean pair of clothes on (yes, I know, this should be implied, but just go with me on this), and then it hit me. I didn’t put on deodorant today. I was crushed.

I vividly remember being 12-years old, and following a basketball game, my best friend’s mom came up to me and said, “Michael, you stink. It’s time to start wearing deodorant.” This particular friend was from New York, and his mom was known for being super blunt and straight to the point. I was horrified. I remember begging my parents for deodorant that very day, and have never been without a few swipes since (literally, I cannot go a day without deodorant – it’s a thing). Alas, today is probably the first day in well-over 10-15 years where I am not wearing deodorant. I digress, I’m addicted.

So, there I was, sitting at my desk, thinking I’m a stink-mess, planning to cancel all my meetings for the day in fear of losing social-capital. Just as a friend stopped in my office to say hi, I paused her mid-sentence and screamed, ‘’It’s my pants!” Of course, she looked at me like I was crazy, and then humored me as I explained my fear of smelling, and as soon as she departed my office, I took my pants off and inhaled with the most excited, yet disgusted gasp. It was my pants. I was the reason this smell kept following me around. This might be what I get from not washing a brand new pair of jeans, because just as I realized this, the smell actually then became the tart “new” smell (which, some probably actually like – I do not).

Now, let’s turn this into a metaphor. When everything around you feels like lemons, perhaps it’s actually you who is the lemon (metaphors on metaphors on metaphors). This moment is real, and raw. The things we avoid or maybe project upon someone/thing else, might actually, truthfully, actually just simply be us (me, you). Let that sink in for a minute, and Ill connect the pieces soon.

Follow the signs.

Without boring you with details, I have had quite an interesting past few weeks. Aside from my sabbatication through six different states over a period of three weeks, I also did a lot of personal-time and personal projects and experiences (i.e., “I am more,” my high school reunion, beautiful no-filter’d Oklahoma sunrises, etc.). Again, sans-boring details, some other stuff happened, which prompted my good friend to say to me, “Michael, follow the signs.” She was right, I wasn’t looking up. I was hoping that (more metaphors ahead), in this ‘drive’ of life, things would just be whispered to me via some miraculous energy or hope. Reality check: people get lost when they don’t look at directions. People get lost when they don’t trust the process. This is me, trusting the process.

Fast-forward to yesterday (in a, rewind-but-fast-forward-but-maybe-rewind-again, kind of way), I had a meeting yesterday with a former faculty member and total higher education-god, who helped me process something specific going on in my life (related to the signs, and the, me-smelling, bit). Before our conversation even started, I opened my notebook and out fell a key. I looked at it, and closed my book to engage in this, what turned out to be, phenomenal conversation. As I was walking out of the meeting, it hit me that the key that fell out of my book, was actually the key from my friend’s house. I put the key in that book around six weeks ago, with hopes of seeing it and having it ready and available to turn in for my friend. A sign (and hell, the key itself is quite the metaphor, if you know what I mean).

Trust the process, generally, the life process. And then go all in. Here’s to finding your key, your smell, and then truly, going all in.

Traction,

Michael

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