“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

The 60-seconds following, “I do…”

Shortly after college, I went through a period where my calendar had more weddings than I could count. I attended many, while others received a disappointing regret.

Of course, the weddings I attended were wonderful, and the ones with open bars were ever better. A group of my friends and I even established wedding rituals. Sitting with the same 4-5 singles at each wedding (several of whom are now with partner, and/or child), we would take bets on how long the ceremony would last – in Oklahoma, a wedding could last anywhere from twelve minutes to sixty minutes, and counting.

I watched some of my best friends get married those years after college, and now as I exist within another wave of marriages, I am finding weddings to be significantly less stressful for me (I know, I know, “It’s not about you,” and all of that). Weddings can be expensive for out-of-town guests. I can always appreciate the folks who understood/stand that an, unfortunately-I-can’t-attend, remark is mostly as a result of limited coins, and not because I don’t want to celebrate their love. And more than expensive, weddings can be disappointing for 20 to 30- year old out-of-town guests. Because celebrating love is fun, and it’s beautiful, and can be incredibly inspiring. In this context, there is nothing tougher than realizing you don’t have the funds to celebrate the love of some of your most important people. I digress.

I received a second wind last summer while attending the wedding of a very dear friend of mine in Michigan. I was pretty unhappy at this juncture of my life, and even while driving to the wedding, I remember anticipating how horrible it was going to be to only know one person outside of the bride and groom at this particular event. I even almost turned around and headed home while driving from southern Indiana to western Michigan. I was super-single, and sulked in a pity party for 80% of the drive.

And then something magical happened.

Photo - Suzy and Michael

Suzy Smith and Michael Chandler, 2014

Aside from the wedding being absolutely beautiful and wonderful (I wrote about it here), I experienced an out-of-body feeling while watching the bride and groom walk down the isle after committing, “I do.” It was enchanting. There was an instant change in the way they walked, smiled, and even held on to one another.

And I sat with those emotions for quite some time.

As a result, I now strategically place myself toward the back of any wedding congregation. I have decided there is nothing more satisfying than watching a couple experience the, “I do high,” just moments after they’ve committed to one another. Those 60-seconds following, “I do,” are some of the more joyous moments I have ever witnessed outside of the last five minutes of any episode of Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. It’s so real. And incredibly powerful.

If you’re on any form of social media, you’ll know that I attended a wedding this past weekend in upstate New York. And it surely did not disappoint. And thus, I continue to believe in love. And to want love. And to spread love.

Sharing the same sentiments as I experienced last summer, I commit to, “happily ever after;” No gasps at wedding invitations and announcements of big life moments, no sighs of frustration in the celebration of other’s big life moments, and finally, no skepticism around love. Love love. And love it fully.

Here’s to newlyweds,

Michael

Photo - Laura and Chad

Laura Persico and Chad Munkres, 2015

Oxygen Mask Warrior

In education, it’s easy to pause and ask the daunting question, “What will they do without me?”

In fact, if you work in any student services or client-based field, this question has probably crossed your mind at least once in your career (and for some, once, per week). I certainly had this moment as I prepared to leave my previous posting in higher education, and covered it some in the piece, “The Educator Curse.”

I recently visited with one of my closest friends, who is currently torn between a huge possible job opportunity versus staying in his current position. Mixed within the layers of, “What if,” the aforementioned question, “What will they do without me,” was certainly alive and well throughout our conversation. And this was, however, a bit surprising to me. Up until this moment, I had always viewed this particular friend as an oxygen-mask warrior.

safety_oxygen_maskYes, you read that right: Oxygen Mask Warrior

I’m talking about making you your #1. I’m talking about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting others. I’m talking about making yourself matter.

This specific friend has always been one of the few people in my life to argue, “Michael, take care of you first,” and in the most, if-you-can’t-love-yourself-how-in-the-hell-are-you-going-to-love-somebody-else, kind of way. Furthermore, he has modeled the way in doing this, living as an example to me in all of his actions. But life happens, and sometimes we forget how capable and unique and talented and worthy we are.

And, all of this leads me to the question, Is your oxygen mask secure? 

Amidst the busy weeks, crazy hours, long nights, and unpredictable life moments, are you an Oxygen Mask Warrior? Are you kind to yourself?

So much of my move to Washington, D.C. is dripping in personal and professional selfishness, and in the best of ways, I have fully embraced this new reality. I’m excited about this. And, in fact, I’m thrilled about it. The only way upward is onward. Secure away, life warriors.

Taking care of me,

Michael