University Educators Find Cuba a Literate Land Where Imagination is King

February 10, 2015

Hear the word “Cuba” and many associations might come immediately to mind: aromatic cigars, plentiful rum or sugar, beautiful beaches or pulsating nightlife.

Or perhaps the first thoughts are of Fidel Castro and communism, of revolution and political unrest.

But on this Caribbean island, only 90 miles from Key West, lies many secrets – success stories many might never have heard.

Literacy is one of them – extreme literacy, in fact, as in 100 percent, a figure associated with a story of turnaround and triumph that began with Castro more than 50 years ago near the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.

According to the 2015 UNICEF report covering the period from 2009 to 2013 titled “The State of the World’s Children,” 100 percent of Cuban youths, males and females ages 15 to 24, could read and write.

Debra A Pellegrino, Ed.D., dean of the Panuska College of Professional Studies, and her husband, Michael Hardisky, Ph.D., a professor of biology, visited Cuba in January to learn about its remarkable literacy rate, among the highest in the world, and perhaps return with the beginnings of an action plan to implement in the United States, which is heading toward what some experts call a literacy crisis.

“I’ve always had an interest in Cuba, thinking, ‘How can their education system be better than ours?’ ” Dr. Pellegrino said.

Cuba is a Spanish-speaking country that places the highest premium on education, and “early education is key,” Dr. Pellegrino said.

The first years, she noted, are spent learning Spanish and especially Spanish grammar, then pupils begin learning English, German and Russian in second and third grade, before moving on to even more languages.

There are no private schools in Cuba, and every student wears a uniform. All public education also is free, right through to university level.

According to Dr. Pellegrino, Cuba also loves culture – it has an official Ministry of Culture – and guarantees its children free access to artistic education, including musical instruments.

And, everyone, everywhere, is reading, she said. If they aren’t reading, they are writing. “It is amazing,” she said. “It is like everything you dream of all the time that you want to see here for our kids.”

For Dr. Hardisky, the key word is “widespread.” Access to education has resulted in a turnaround that took less than half a century but is likely to have a much longer and farther-reaching impact on the world. The highlight of the Cuba trip for him was the organic farming in the suburbs of Havana.

It all began two years after the start of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. One of the most aggressive literacy campaigns in world history, led by Castro, began in 1961 and was credited with a sea-change in the Cuban literacy rate, which now bests the rates in both the United States and Britain.

In one such effort in 1961, Castro summoned 14- and 15-year-olds to go into the rural areas of the country where the literacy rate was at its worst. These young people were asked to leave their families and to work in the fields with their host families during the day. They were then to teach their host families to read and write at night. More than 100,000 participated in the program. The oldest person who was taught to read and write was 110, and the youngest teacher was eight years old.

Such interaction among the ages was something Dr. Pellegrino also witnessed in Cuba, when she and Dr. Hardisky visited a senior day-care center that also was an early-childhood center. She described seniors as being “actively engaged” with the children – some playing dominoes, making crafts or reading to the young listeners.

Dr. Pellegrino also noted that dance, art and sculpture are everywhere in Cuba, saying “imagination is king. Imagination allows one to be transformed by communicating a new sense of seeing possibilities and seeing new ways of knowing.”

“You don’t see a lot of people on cell phones or watching TV. They are all reading or writing in journals,” said Dr. Pellegrino. “The Internet is not accessible.”

She is now envisioning ways to apply in Scranton the lessons learned in Cuba.

“I keep thinking about the cultural things that happen after school,” she said. “What can we start providing for our students beyond the school day? I think we need to incorporate artwork more. I also think we are missing opportunities in the early years.”

That’s something she – and educators like her – will strive to figure out.

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