Opening Statement



Monday, 8 August 2011

The CSP: Cuba School Project Story

My flight left early Monday morning without incident, as did my arrival. I'm waiting to check into my room after having slept most of the trip. Good news: The Melia Santiago Hotel has Wi-fi. Not so good news: it's slow and kind of expensive, but no matter. Posts will be forthcoming once I settle in! In the meantime....

 
The last day or two before any trip is always a nail bitter for me. The first day is usually spent settling in. With a ittle luck I will be posting shortly from Santiago de Cuba. This posting and the last two, along with the slideshow of photos from my previous trips will hopefully hold you for now, and provide some good background info until I am back up and running again from down there.

This will be at least my fifteenth or so visit to Santiago de Cuba, there may be a lot more, I lost count long ago. In 1992 I first visited on a class trip with my politics students. It was fascinating that all the band members a the hotel were teachers like myself, probably earning more in tips than the approximately ten to twenty dollars a month they would've earned in pesos teaching at school. On the sly they would slip in the odd Beatles song, much to my delight. They had to be careful. Beatles music was still illegal in Cuba! One night I sat in on a jam with them at their school, helping them out with the lyrics. The window shutters were closed tight. Nobody knew we were there in case they got caught. I instantly fell in love with the place.

Since then there have been many changes. Beatles music is quite legal now and perhaps more popular in Cuba than anywhere else. At anyrate, it sure has caught on, and also sparked a lot of interest in the English language and the outside world. It is strange and a lot of fun to go into a local Cuban night club for folks our age and live the sixties all over again as they now enjoy what was long denied to them.

Over the years the Cubans have also been able to go into business for themselves. Some of the teachers opened an independent community English instruction school under one such reform in the early nineties, as Cuba re-opened it's doors in earnest to tourists and foreign trade, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and it's satellite states. Everybody wanted to learn English now to take advantage of the new opportunities this presented.
 
In Santiago few people at the schools I visited had ever met a foreigner. I was quite a celebrity of sorts on my many visits back then, often staying in the teacher's room at the back of the school, where I would teach and help out with developing the English instruction program. Back home in Canada I would solicit educational aid grants from both OECTA; the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, and OTF; the Ontario Teachers Federation to help pay for the school supplies and construction of the new rooftop Toronto Friendship School English Community School in the innercity barrios of Santiago de Cuba.
 

Later I worked with my Cuban colleagues at the Oriente University Pedagocal Institute and the Jose Marti Society to develop the "Ingles Para Ti/ English for You" teacher and student instruction workbook. Recently a more practicable DVD interactive version has also proven quite useful and popular at the local schools. The project still continues, with an updated version being planned, and will indeed be a main focus of my trip.

There's a saying that you can give someone a fish and they won't be hungry for a day. Or you can give him a fishing rod and they don't need to ever be hungry again. I like to think the CSP is more a case of the later. Good jobs are opening up in Cuba if one can speak English, in tourism and business with many of the western countries besides the US. Their economic embargo still remains in place since shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. It seems ironic that there is little consternation about trade with other previous Cold War foe in Russia, China, and Vietnam, with Cuba still being the exception. It is not important to beleager the politics of commerce here now except to say it's home grown Revolution with a salsa beat, despite whatever mistakes have been made, remains a relatively innoculous Utopian brand of mixed socialist and open market ideologies, in no way comparable to what we see in North Korea or any of the other few remaing Communist hold out states. It is only through education and interaction with the outside world that I believe any real change can continue to take hold in Cuba today.

My international readers might be interested to know that Canada has never been a part of the US embargo. Cuba remains a trade partner but mostly a very popular tourist destination, as it is for many other European  and Latin and South American countries. It is well known for it's friendly people, great pristine beaches and incredible vistas. It is a very safe country to travel about unlike most every other Caribbean destinations. It also has universal medicare and education up to and including university, with one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas, even surpassing the US. It can be a very pleasant and interesting place to go!

I was once puzzled while teaching a conversational English lesson with the students blank stares as I tried to have them practice a telephone conversation in English. When I asked them if they had a phone at home only one or two put up their hand! I was also struck by the awkwardness of the class while we read  a story about a man who found a nice apartment for the reasonable price of $800. Then I realized most of them earned the equivalent of $10-20 a month! They right to housing, and monthly food rations is guaranteed, but of course a lot more than that is needed. However to make use of another phrase, the educational materials available were as useful to them as giving a bicycle to a fish, and one out of water at that!

With "Ingles Para Te" we began including local contexts, references and life styles to come up with something more useful and recognizable to somebody living in Cuba in a "Made in and for Cuba" workbook. It seemed a far cry better than the outside Spectrum Series or the government provided program of learning how to translate Che's speechs to entice visitors to socialism. While these have long since fallen by the wayside, "Ingles Para Ti" continues to grow. I look very foward to both discussing with Professor Jose Luis his plans for the next edition and revisiting the Toronto Friendship school to help the teachers and see what they need to continue their good work during my visit there this week!

 
PS: See my postings below for more information on Santiago de Cuba and my CSP trip.....

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