Teaching citizenship the Cuban way

Spring 2007

CubaSi reports on the first official link between a UK education authority and the Cuban government and the rewards it is reaping for Cuban and British schools...

It was a chance conversation with a tour guide and glimpses of a local school, while on holiday in Cuba which began a three year exploration into the best ways to forge links between teachers and schools in England in Cuba.

“It has been a three year struggle to set up the link, but we are beginning to realise our dream,” says Annie Birch, global citizenship coordinator for the London Borough of Havering. “It has been an adventure, but global citizenship is more than visiting somewhere exotic, it’s about what you learn in the process and how it changes you.

The result was the signing of a five-year linking agreement between three primary and three secondary schools in Havering and six corresponding partner schools in Cuba’s Holguin in 2006.

“We hope to involve all the teachers in the partner schools, making the link sustainable and enhancing the curriculum,” explained Annie.

“Cuban schools are not rich in cash and resources, teachers earn the equivalent of about £15 a month, but the values and the standards of literacy are very rich. I think we can learn a huge amount from it.

“We are connected to other people on the other side of the world now, and that is making a difference to our lives.”

Teaching exchanges

Four Cuban teachers and two officials from the Cuban Ministry of Education have just completed a visit to their partner schools in Havering, thanks to funding from the British Council, which also funded the visit of six Havering teachers and staff to Cuba at Easter.

After much negotiation with schools and education officials in Cuba and Havering, the link started between two secondary schools in April 2003.

Jude Rosenberg, head of art at Sanders Draper School, was the first to send her students’ work to Cuba with Annie.

Comparing schoolwork

“My students used symbols and imagery to explore the theme of ‘identity’ and the work was very personal,” explained Jude. “But when we received work on the same theme from Cuba I realised they had communicated very little about the country we live in.

“Our students focused on material things from mobile phones and Nike trainers to PlayStations and the music they liked - it could have been from anywhere in the developed world.

“In contrast, the work that came back from Cuba was about patriotism - the love of national heroes, and national symbols. It was about who they are and their life in Cuba - but it wasn’t about their things.

“So we had another go - looking at the similarities and differences with our partner school. We looked at the history of the school, the nationalities in our school, the religious and cultural differences, and the languages spoken at home. Since we have a hearing impaired unit, that includes British sign language.”

Discovering local heroes

Jude explained that each Cuban school is named after a local hero, which inspired her pupils to investigate Raymond Sanders Draper, the man after whom her school is named.

“It was a fascinating story. And one element of it was particularly relevant. A member of the family was deaf mute and a teacher of the deaf was hired to teach him. That teacher turned out to be Alexander Graham Bell, who himself had a deaf mother. His invention of the telephone was linked to his desire to aid her communication.

“It was wonderful to make this discovery, of something that deaf culture has given to hearing culture, in a class which includes hearing impaired students.”

Jude was one of the teachers who visited Cuba this year. “Thanks to discussions with teachers there, I have started working on a project on heroes that has literacy, citizenship, history and RE elements and can be worked on in lots of different ways.

“It looks at the difference between a celebrity, a hero and an icon, and at the qualities of a hero. Then we look at personal heroism, and bullying.”

Calm and peaceful schools

All the teachers who visited Cuba commented on the calm and peaceful atmosphere in the schools and the warm and respectful relationships between teachers and students.

“There was lots of activity, with people working beautifully together,” said Jude. “And the students were very proud of their own achievements and each other. It was a wonderful experience to visit Cuba and we learned a great deal.”

Paula Eyton, geography teacher at Gaynes School and Specialist Language College was equally enthusiastic about the visit. “It was a real eye-opener and has broadened my horizons,” she said.

Paula’s school is partnered with a rural school of 300 pupils who live in dorms during the week. Most of the parents are farmers or employed in tourism.

Confident students

“The fabric of the school very poor, with a lack of equipment and basic resources,” said Paula. “But the pupils were confident, happy and proud, and there is good pastoral care, with teachers visiting parents to find out if there are any problems 3 or 4 times a year.

“There are excellent standards of teaching and learning. As well as their studies, pupils are given the opportunity to share and take responsibility for their community,” said Paula. “They work a few hours on land growing food for the school, help serve each other and clear up - and they seem to do it willingly and take pride in it.

“You would not see much of that in a British school.

“But despite the differences, I have learned that we have a lot of similarities - we have the same problems and the same goals,” she concluded.

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