Monday, October 31, 2011

Everyone Has a Story

I was standing in the kitchen washing potatoes several years ago--it was a winter night, dark had come already, and there was a steady hum of kids playing, NPR reporting, and my husband working around the house.  I reached for a knife to cut off a green portion of a potato when suddenly a childhood story about a homeless man who was in my grandparent's basement eating their raw potatoes came pouring back to me.  I quickly cut up the potatoes and raced through my living room yelling over my shoulder to my unsuspecting husband, "I need to go write something..."

I had a story.  I am reminded of this every year when I embark on our memoir writing unit in 7th grade.  I start the unit by telling my students the green potato story, and later read what I had eventually written down--words that wove together my childhood memories and my adult realizations of justice and prejudice to show how we find meaning in our memories.  On this first day, we sit in a circle in my classroom on the floor and just spend 40 minutes telling stories.  The only person who can speak is the one with the bouncy ball.

Writing memoir is one of my favorite units to teach, but this particular day is one of my favorite lessons.  Without any sense of hindrance from getting language fine tuned on their paper, my students begin to pour forth their stories.  And so I hear about getting lost in the grocery store; near death experiences, traveling, washing a cat off in a mall parking lot mud puddle, buying a new puppy, getting stranded in the snow, mistaking another adult as a parent...

Every child has a story.  That's one reason why I think teaching English Language Arts is nothing short of an honor; my job allows this intimate glimpse into what my students think about, believe in, and question.  But even then, I wonder if I take the time to really know everybody's story.  Do we, as teachers, know the stories that are guarded behind a child who is a behavior problem?  Do we know the stories behind the quiet student in the back of the room?  Because when we know those stories, we are suddenly much more efficient in the classroom.

Last week on an 8th grade trip to Boston, I stood on a cement wall a couple of feet above my students, in front of the Holocaust Memorial, explaining to them what the towers and numbers represent.  An elderly man and his wife wandered over to our group and stood among the students listening.  I wondered why they were standing there, and I have to admit, my first reaction was one of annoyance.  As the kids left me and began to stroll through the memorial, I saw some of them give the old man a quick lookover and then promptly move away from the stranger.  I walked over and reached out my hand.  "May I help you?"  I asked.

The man was a WWII Navy pilot who flew over the concentration camps, never knowing what they were--he was never told until his service was up.  He was shot down over Yugoslavia and it took him 10 days to get to safety.  He asked me why my students were so interested in the Holocaust--he didn't think they would care.

And there you have it--I almost missed his amazing story because of an initial response to a stranger "infiltrating" our group.  And he almost missed the story of how 14 year olds are passionate about justice, find meaning in history, and are fascinated by the Holocaust.

Think of all the stories we miss in a day because we are too busy, overwhelmed, annoyed, overbooked, scared, shy.  We must not only remember to take the time to hear each others' stories, but to teach our children to take the time to hear one anothers' stories as well.  And we need to, above all, make sure that our school environments are safe and comfortable enough for our children to share their stories.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One Week at Home: Final Reflections

"She was beginning to understand that evil is not absolute, and that good is often an occasion more than a condition." ~Gilbert  Parker

I had hoped to come to some solid conclusions about life in Cuba after my brief visit.  I had hoped to sit down in the airport terminal in Miami and let it all pour onto the paper.  But draft after draft filled pages of messy, unorganized writing and unclear thoughts.

If I learned anything on this trip, it is that things are not black and white.  And while we often give lip service to this cliched adage,  nothing more so as my experiences last week has made it more clear.

When faced with different ideologies, we Americans, revolutionists and patriots at heart, tend to lean toward polarization--we feel that there must be a right way and a wrong way. We crave justice and justification. But I came away from Cuba with the new understanding that humanity is a leveling factor that simply defies ideology.  We are so quick to judge another country's downfalls without examining our own, and we are afraid of embracing and learning from successes that our enemies may have encountered along the way.

I recently received an angry three and half page typed letter from a Cuban exile who personally attacked me for my views posted on this blog, requesting that I "withdraw that fantasy drivel" that I have written.  At first, I began to compile research so I could write a rebuttal.  But then I went back through to reread my "drivel" and realized that we are reading through two different sets of eyes. We  are of different generations, different nationalities, and have different historical perspectives.  What I write as inquiry and wonder about a process and its results, he misperceives as awe and admiration for a gang of bloodthirsty thugs.  What he has determined as black and white for so many years now, I am now viewing as gray.

This is the very problem with policy and polarization.  Cuba has a bloody revolutionary past.  At the end, many left, frightened and having lost everything. Loved ones went missing.  Others saw their families settle into better situations,  experiencing greater equality.  Anything historical can be seen through two sets of eyes.  As Americans, we can admire our innovation and Western expansion of this great land and nation, while Native Americans may recall a time when 30,000 of their people were lost to combat and 80-90% of their population fell victim to smallpox.  It's all about perspective.

Cuba is fresh though.  Those who prospered and those who suffered are still alive, trying to make sense of a living history as Fidel Castro lay sick, and his 80 year old brother leads the country.  And the changes that are positive, like health care and education, feel outweighed at times by the documented human rights atrocities and limitations on freedom of speech.

Nothing is black and white.  Some situations elicit inconclusiveness.  But no situation eludes the necessity of inquiry and exploration.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Examining Cuban Literacy: aka The Reason for my Travels to Cuba

In 1961, the rural illiteracy rate in Cuba was 42% (illliteracy in urban areas was closer to 11%) .  During that year, nearly 270,000 teachers traveled into the countryside to live alongside families to teach functional literacy.  Of those 270,000 "brigadistas," over 100,000 were between the ages of 10 and 19 and more than half were female.  Within one year, the illiteracy rate was lowered to 4%, and today, 50 years later, Cuba has the second highest literacy rate in the world and is called upon by numerous nations to assist with raising their literacy rates.

I find this fascinating.  There are pictures of hundreds of thousands of teachers returning to Havana, marching into Revolution Square, carrying large, wooden pencils where their leader greeted them.  Teenagers were willing to leave their families to go and teach others--it was a political initiative and it embraced the youth.

"Yo Si Peudo" is the name of the Cuban Literacy Program that is now implemented across the world. The program works with coutnries such as New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, and Boliva. In 2006 UNESCO recognized Cuba's innovative methods and recognized its work with over 15 countries to improve social conditions through literacy.

At the Cuban Literacy Museum we were given a presentation and shown the materials used in "Yo Si Puedo."  And while we only had the time to quickly peruse the English materials, I didn't see anything remarkable.  What was remarkable were the initiatives that embrace such materials, the cultural sensitivity when applying them in different countries, and the developmental pedagogy involved when educating adult learners.  Each country who has enlisted Cuba's help in literacy training has made it a priority.  And while putting youth in uniforms and marching them into the fields is a bit extreme and unlikely to occur in any other country than post-Castro Cuba, the sentiment remains the same:  literacy is a priority.  When Cuba collaborates with another nation, it does not just make adjustments in language; it calls for developing materials that align with the intended audience's culture.  Actors from those countries are brought in to create the video clips used and written materials address local customs and culture.  Adult learners are given adult topics; it is recognized that making connections is a critical element to reading comprehension.

The United States has a 99% literacy rate--only .9% behind Cuba.  But the largest difference is the value placed on education and literacy.  Detroit has a 47% functional illiteracy rate.  Imagine, with our force of powerhouse teachers and youth, what could occur if we gathered our own sorts of reading troops and made adult education a priority.  That would be unheard of..

 Like the history of Cuba and Castro or not, the country's commitment to adult literacy is impressive.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day 4 In Cuba: Just the Facts

On the first day here, Sarah Daisy, our guide, asked us to hold off until the end of the week before we drew any conclusions about her country.  I will.  For the time being, here are some of the facts that have come to light for me, which I will use to form my opinion:

1.       Every single person in this country is given a ration of food.  Today I was able to sneak a look at a ration book.  Among other things, each person in a household receives 2 pounds of chicken and 7 pounds of rice per person. Other foods include cooking oil, flour, eggs, pasta, juice, beans, etc.  If they want to trade their ration at the store for something else, the grocer will generally allow it.  If they want other foods, it comes from their paychecks.

2.       Everybody is guaranteed housing, and they pay 10% of their paycheck for their homes.  Just recently the government passed a law that residents are allowed to sell their houses.  However, there is a major housing shortage, and so if somebody wishes to move, they need to find somebody else who is willing to swap homes with them at the right price.  This makes moving into a nicer home or a bigger home difficult, because it is rare to find somebody in a nice, large home who is willing to trade for a smaller, dilapidated home.  And there are many of those, because the government decides when you can refurbish or repaint homes.  In the 90s, during the Special Period, the economy was particularly bad for Cuba, and then in 2005 the island was hit by numerous hurricanes.  This has left many buildings uninhabitable and in disrepair.

3.       Cuba has the second highest literacy rate in the world.  They have some of the best doctors in the world, and their infant mortality rates and average lifespan rival first world countries.  This is because when Castro came into power, he focused on healthcare and education.  I find this fascinating, because for any country to rise from poverty and become empowered, those basic needs must be met.  In countries like Sudan, you see efforts focusing on healthcare and education.  Because of this, when you walk around Havana, you see healthy people, and most of the people we have encountered here are well educated.  These are priorities.

4.       Because the government pays for all jobs, people who work in the tourist industry and receive tips sometimes make more money than doctors or teachers.  One of our cab drivers was a teacher, but decided to become a driver because he makes more money that way.

5.       The embargo makes getting simple supplies expensive and this creates great hardships.  With a bit of digging and talking to people who were finally willing to share, we heard that hospitals don’t have enough supplies.  They have amazing doctors, but no supplies.  People don’t have enough food.  They are guaranteed a certain amount, but it is not enough, and their salary is so low (one man told one of us he didn’t even make $200 last year) that they have a hard time paying for food.  While we have been shown beautiful schools, we have passed other schools that are in shambles.  We have heard that there are not enough books for children.  They are allotted 2 pencils per month per child.  One man in the streets begged me for pens for his nephews. 

6.       The government subsidizes the publishing houses, and because so many book publishers are tied with American publishers, it is difficult to get outside authors published in Cuba. Four hundred copies of every book that is published are placed in libraries around the country.  According to the director of the Cuban Book Institute, they are not interested in publishing the likes of Dan Brown, because he is not literature.  Any kind of writing that would encourage violence will not be published.  The government has the final say in what kinds of literature the people will read.

7.       For a Cuban to travel, he or she must receive a written invitation from the person he or she would be visiting.  Even if this occurs, it is difficult to save enough money to visit other countries.  The United States is supposed to give 20,000 Visas a year for Cubans to visit, but last year only allowed 400.  Sarah Daisy saves Euros and American dollars in the hopes that someday she will have enough money to save to travel.  If she could go anywhere in the world, she would choose Canada.

8.       Under Batista, there was legalized segregation.  Fidel Castro integrated buses, schools, and workplaces.  With slavery as their backdrop of history, Cubans are highly aware of race relations.  And while racism still occurs, interracial marriages are more common, and the general public, especially in Havana, is fairly tolerant.

Tomorrow:  opinions.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Havana: Day 3 In Poetry


With rum that pulses in veins to the
rhythm  of cha cha bands—
men caressing guitar strings,
muting trumpets,
and swaying their hips—
it easy to forget the call of democracy.

No ocean breeze
penetrates the age old heat
that is trapped by walls of stone
in a town square.  Vibrant blues, greens, and
oranges take our attentions captive
so that we do not recognize the absence of
the life we know.

Laundry blows from a balcony
and cigar smoke lingers in the air.  The lilt
of foreign tongues dance while
a man with smooth brown skin winks.  Bueno.
A child laughs.
An old woman, hunched in an arched doorway
watches, nods.  We forget heartache.

Che Guevera, impossibly handsome, overlooks
every move from a poster here.  A billboard there.
His warm eyes convincing us
that revolution can be progressively suave.

The people are warm.  Ask us anything they tell us.
We will be honest. 
But the cab driver from Guantanamo
driving a 56 Chevy
doesn’t quite answer my questions about Castro.
And the tour guide with her open smile dismisses
me with humor.

But I understand.
I too live in a country where the corrupt are forgiven or forgotten.
Where those who have sinned against us
do not need to repent,
and the people who have
been sinned against,
do not often know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day 2 In Cuba: Old Cars, Long Meetings, and a Little Cha Cha

Day 2 In Cuba

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I am still pinching myself—I am in Havana.  Old cars cruise the street.  Music blares from apartments.  Laundry hangs over balcony walls.  Dogs roam the sidewalks.  Old women smoke cigars.  People everywhere are falling in love.

Looking at our agenda, I would say that today was probably the most difficult day for me. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I cannot sit still long.  Meetings that stretch for hours leave me doodling or pacing in the back of the room, and no matter how compelling the speaker or the subject, I lose interest and become impatient, antsy, and rammy.  Unfortunately, I experienced this a bit today—an engaging, charismatic teacher—one who was part of Castro’s original literacy movement 5o years ago ran a session for us to inform us about Cuba’s education setup.  Sarah Daisy, our guide/escort/interpreter for the week translated her words.  But the lilt of the words and the cadence of the Spanish began to lull me, and I once again found myself standing in the back of the room. 

That being said, the professor’s session was incredibly informative and struck a cord with me, as she kept mentioning the importance of family and community involvement with their schools.  Cuba underwent a huge public awareness campaign called “Educate Your Son” (yes, I know, I too have a problem with this title…) that really brought the importance of early childhood education (0-5 years) to the forefront of parenting.  The campaign reminds parents that they are the most important resource for their children in those early years.  She talked about how decisions for children are made with the families and how they are involved with the school.  It was very impressive.

Before our next meeting, we had an hour of free time, and so my new friend Peggy and I hit the pavement and explored the neighborhood taking pictures, meeting new people, and just soaking it all in.  The streets of Cuba teem with life and color.

We then traveled over to the organization that is hosting us and met a lovely woman who spoke to us about how they work with other international organizations.  We discussed political issues—particularly the one with the Cuban 5—five men who have been arrested in the US and are being detained and accused of terrorism.  It is very interesting to read the US version and then to hear the Cuba version.  It makes you realize the different perspectives that emerge from cultures.  It also makes you realize that Cuba may not be the only place that uses propaganda.  I am finding myself wondering how much of it we are fed ourselves.

We had a city bus tour, and this would be my third bus tour this year.  DC, Huntsville, and now Havana.  All I will say is I hate bus tours and ended up falling asleep. 

With an hour and a half back at the hotel, I finally got out for a run along the pathway that weaves alongside the waterfront—the Atlantic on one side, Havana on your other.  The intense pollution, uneven tar, inhibiting heat, and ridiculous machismo of the men sitting on the seawall, riding their bikes, or just driving by, made running difficult, but  how often do you get to run in Havana?

Dinner was heavenly—and I was able to rouse my delegation to some dancing to the cha cha band; we even got the cook and waiters to dance with us.  But it was a restaurant for tourists, and I am desperately wanting to find my way into the real Cuba to talk to real Cubans.  I asked Sarah Daisy about this, and she told me that tomorrow when I am free for the afternoon to just start talking to people and adventure will find me.  I want to eat at roadside stands and walk crumbling streets.  I want to hear people’s stories.  I think I can talk a couple of the other delegates into this as well.  I was not able to successfully convince anybody to hit up the jazz club across the street tonight, but I’m working on it.

My vegetarianism doesn’t quite fit into the pork pork pork diet here, but they are delighted that I eat fish, and so I have had fish for four straight meals.  It has all been delicious, but I wonder how much fish I will have eaten by the end of the week!

I miss my TOY friends—we would have a blast here together and it feels odd to be on a trip without them.  And I miss my family.  My husband and I travel well together, and there are so many times I wish I could turn to him to exclaim over something.  Tomorrow we get to explore on our own.  My goals:  find some souvenirs, ride in a big old car, dance with a Cuban, and talk with a child. I just want to absorb it all. So I am.

Day One In Cuba--Entering Surreality

Monday, October 10, 2011 11:06 pm

Day 1

Cuba.  I am in Cuba sitting on a bizarrely large bed made up of two double beds pushed together (thanking whoever the room gods are that I don’t have a roommate) in a room that overlooks the city skyline of Havana.  The air outside is humid, and while I know I should be tucked in, putting myself to sleep, contagious Latino excitement fills the air.  Today is a national holiday for Cubans, and the streets are lined with people sitting alongside the ocean.  The jazz club across the street exudes waves of blue and green lights, and the mojitos here slide down a little too easily.  Sleep eludes me.

This morning—which feels a lifetime ago—I started out in Miami.  After a late night of couch talk with my old high school friend, I awoke this morning and strolled down to an Argentinian bakery and sat outside eating croissants and drinking fresh squeezed orange juice reminiscent of Mexico.  When I arrived at the airport, I found myself in a terminal that did not compare to any my other flight experiences.  Men resembling Oompah Loompas in their black outfits with neon green stripes around their midsection canvassed the terminal, convincing passengers to excessively wrap their luggage in neon green plastic wrap.  English was barely heard anywhere, and the counters were barely labeled with small signs of airlines I have never heard of.  Police officers rode through the hallways on mountain bikes.  When I looked out the window, it was obvious we were in a very remote area of the Miami International Airport. 

I walked around a bit and finally found my airline—Sky King.  (Really.)  And then I found the rest of my delegation—a diverse group of mostly university professors from around the country (except dear Rebecca, who made a very long trip from Uganda).  They stood in a group to the left of a long, snaking line full of Cubans with carts stacked unimaginably high with neon green packages—TVs, fans, tires, and bags and bags of who-knows-what-kind-of-stuff.  We got our boarding passes and checked our luggage.  Apparently, you can fly out of Miami directly to Cuba.   Who knew? Everything appeared to be normal, until the attendant came around with a pad of paper and publicly took down everybody’s body weight.  It was definitely an icebreaking moment of unexpected group intimacy, but I was suddenly a bit nervous about the possibility of a delicately balanced airplane.

We then received notice that our flight was delayed by 3 hours, so settled into a hotel lobby to meet.  Quick introductions indicated that we have a group of all women who, while committed to research and literacy, are truly part of this delegation because of the desire to visit Cuba.  Adventurists at heart, we will find excellent companionship among one another, I think.

Security and the flight were surprisingly uneventful.  The plane was large, and the landing was one of the smoothest and most relaxing I have experienced.  We caught sight of Havana outside our window, and then swooped over the lush, green countryside skimming the landscape for some time—so low we could see the details of palm trees and cars on the highway.  Perhaps this was a piece of propaganda to show us the beauty of the land? I appreciated it.  

Inside the Havana airport my picture was taken in Customs and I was made aware that intricately designed fishnet stockings are the current trend for the women workers at the airport.  We waited for some time for our luggage and then left the interior.  A large crowd awaited their families’ arrival outside—it looked like a Beatles concert—people reaching over the gate, cheering when a recognized face emerged.

We got a brief taste of the gorgeous scenery and old cars that await our cameras over the next few days and met our personal tour guide—Sarah Daisy—an articulate, honest, engaging Cuban.  “Ask me a question, and tell me what kind of answer you want,” she cheerfully told us.  “The official answer, or the regular citizen answer.”  She is honest in the struggles of Cuba, but also revels in its successes.  She is a wealth of knowledge and tells interesting stories.  She asks that we cast no judgment on her country until we’ve examined it closely.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with her.  Our hotel is a 5 star hotel that sits alongside the Carribean and my room is on the 13th floor, on which the elevator does not appear to want to stop.

Dinner was served in Old Havana—a maze of cobblestone streets and old, brick austerity.  Cats meander across the architecture 20 feet in the air.  Dogs laze around in the square.  Families play with their kids.  Women with baskets of fruit on their head, smoking cigars ask for money.  Mojitos are served with meals and the fish is simply to die for.  The heat does not break.

I exchanged US dollars for CUCs at the hotel and went across the street to a small market where I had to spend $8.40 CUCs for a 12 pack of bottled water (approximately $9 USD).  But I am supposed to run tomorrow, and already feel dehydrated.  I cannot figure out how to log on to the Internet, for which I also had to pay, but will attempt that in the morning.  The walls are thin; I can hear the mopeds zooming by on the streets and the couple next door engaged in a lively conversation.  Propaganda about America and Castro line the downstairs lobby hallway.  They clearly know who their audience is.

Tomorrow we begin our explorations.  I am anxious to start thinking about literacy rates, healthcare, and the desire for socialism.  My readings have reinforced the importance that I cannot look at the culture through my American lense.  There are two sides to every story, and this story, I believe will be an interwoven one full of the complexities of humanity, struggle, and justice.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Testing Season

'Tis the season.

For eight straight days, my 8th graders are settling into my room, uncustomarily set up in sterile rows facing front, handed #2 pencils, and asked to sit in silence for over an hour to complete their NECAPs.  It does not feel natural, and the students comment that they do not feel at home in here, in this setup.

But they listen attentively as I read aloud the same instructions they have heard for the past five years.  The same instructions that all students across the state and New England are hearing.  They do not feel as though I am personalizing their instruction.  They do not like that I cannot help them or guide them.  Yet, they still open their booklets, at the same time, and begin to read and write.  They use up every last minute allotted to them.  They fill their spaces.  I watch them and hope that all I've taught them about reading for information and writing about texts will become evident here, because even though this test was never intended to test my teaching, it is used in that way.

As a teacher who often works from intuition, who knows that science and data cannot name or dictate all parts of life, my first instinct is to criticize standardized testing in schools:  there is irrefutable research that shows that noninstructional factors--like poverty, parent education, and community--explain most of the variances between school districts.  When the 2010 PISA scores were examined closely, the only consistent correlation between achievement and another factor they could find was that between student achievement and parent education.  And when teacher accountability and performance is tied in with test scores gains, there is a 26 percent error rate. Clearly these are red flags. 

Yet, I am also a teacher who loves data.  I analyze what my students know and then use that to drive my instruction--because that's what we should be doing.  We should be able to justify every single moment of teaching in the classroom.  And to do this, one must test; it is inevitable.  Testing is not perfect.  It can be biased, and accuracy can be thrown by too many personal issues that students carry in the door with them--they will be the first to admit that.  But this imperfect source of gathering information is a place to start. 

I talk to my kids about all of this.  I go over their scores with them, so they know where they can improve.  We talk about what these scores mean and what we need to do in the classroom together over the course of the year.  I do not teach to the test.  I teach my curriculum, and I must do so with confidence that the test is aligned with my curriculum.  I explain each part of my curriculum to my students and tell them why it is important.  I listen to their frustrations about testing, but watch them pour over the data.  They see value in this, too, despite the obvious imperfections.

Amidst all of the criticism of standardized testing, voices of reason fail to emerge.  We need reform in this area, absolutely, but we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to push for more adaptive testing that indicates growth and not status. If policy makers had included educators in the decisions that led to this test-heavy educational environment, we may have arrived here earlier.  Once again, we are reminded that teachers, the experts, need to be the guiding voice in these kinds of decisions and educational policy.  But we do eventually learn from our mistakes.  New testing practices that are being examined do adopt better practices, and educators are being included in the conversations.  For the time being, however, we must embrace what positive we can from our imperfect system and use it to benefit our students.