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.

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