“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

“You’re annoying and I can’t stand you…”

My sophomore year of high school was a great year. I was one of two freshmen in the Advanced Theater program, and had built a great group of friends who were upperclassmen and planning to do big things in life (remember, I was going to “make it,” before deciding to go to college). The transition of watching friends graduate, however, was tough for me. After some sentimental goodbyes to graduating seniors, I noticed something in my yearbook that I hadn’t seen that May while parading it around for all friends to autograph. Hidden among the well-wishes for a great summer and promises to, “KIT,” I found the following note written as a PS from one of the seniors who I had known most of my life:

“PS – stop riding people’s coat tails and pave your own path.”

This was just a small percentage of what was written from this friend, but somehow I seemed to ignore all of what he had written and became solely focused on this last little note. I was devastated. And mad. But I wasn’t devastated and mad because of what my friend had written, I was devastated and mad because my friend was absolutely right. I hadn’t done anything for myself that year, and allowed others to chart the territory that I was hoping to uncover. Related, let’s flash-forward to my senior year of college.

When I was in college, I was part of an organization that consisted of some of the top campus leaders at my institution. Admitted as a freshman or transfer student, this group of leaders were required to stay involved and make good grades. In return, we would all receive a scholarship that covered our tuition for all four years of college. Golden, right? And privileged, you might be thinking. Accurate observation.

Each year, we had a big retreat that helped kick off the semester, which also served as a chance to “induct” the new students into this exclusive group of undergraduates (“induct” and “haze” could be interchangeable here – Conservative gasp, I know!). My senior year retreat was bittersweet, as I was excited to be a big, bad senior, but I was also sad to start seeing this important part of my life come to a close. At the retreat, we all take time to make mailboxes, where over the course of the weekend, people can deliver and receive “mail” from classmates and peers. On the bus ride home that year, I glanced at what was written to me and was surprised to find a small, ripped piece of paper, noting, “…and I think the same way about you too.”

I was confused, and it was that next week when I realized the context of this mysterious piece of mail. A good friend of mine and I were hanging out one night and she said to me, “I cannot believe I haven’t shown you this. You’ll never guess what was in my mailbox at the retreat.” She then pulled out a little piece of ripped paper with something along the lines of the following scribbled on it:

“You’re annoying and I can’t stand you…”

Putting the pieces together (literally and figuratively), we realized the note was to both of us, and was intended to say, “You’re annoying and I can’t stand you…and I think the same way about you too.” We then spent hours and weeks trying to figure out the culprit who would deliver such hateful “mail,” and specifically in what was always a safe and supportive environment for both of us. Clearly this ghostwriter of a critic knew that we would, at some point, find each other with this message, which is probably annoying in and of itself. I digress. You get the point.

Feedback has been with me for years, and even when not-preferred, is continuing to happen all the time. For all of us. Feedback is essential, and over the past few months, I have been actively seeking ways to improve (personally and professionally) based on my own reflections and the reflections of others. Why not attempt to better ourselves and/or myself, right? Thus, this blog.

This is obviously easier said than done, and I have always really struggled receiving feedback. More than the struggle, I have always been super defensive when receiving feedback, and always feel like I have (had) to have an answer or articulately respond to any critical layers of an area for improvement. I am now more conscious of this mechanism, and have been working on reminding myself to, in those situations, view feedback as valuable and helpful.

For years, “slow down,” was an area where I needed to improve, and in this next year, I would say, “be intentional,” has become my new mantra. So often, we do things (whatever, ‘things,’ might mean) because we can. We exist, we grow, we work, we play. And in a lot of these areas, we do so because it’s supposed to happen that way (in whatever form, ‘way,’ might mean). It’s rare to stop, take in some feedback (whether it be unsolicited or solicited), and identify areas to grow, excel, develop, and succeed.

So, what feedback are you receiving, and/or struggling with? Is that struggle because you feel the feedback is misplaced, or because you realize the feedback is accurate and might really be an area where you should improve? As I reflect on some feedback I received this weekend and over the past few years, my continued challenge to myself (and others, of course) is to be open to the feedback of others, and in whatever form it appears. Though it’s not preferred to receive anonymous feedback, or publicly written notes in a high school book of memories, these sentiments are still valued and valuable. Be open to the reality that, at times, others have a better view of us than we could ever have of ourselves.

Taking it all in,

Michael