Teaching Traveling: Think travel to Cuba is off-limits for Americans? Read on to find out how U.S. teacher Sarah Brown was able to visit!
Sarah, tell us a bit about your background.
Sarah:I am from Massachusetts, but currently living in Providence, RI. This upcoming school year will be my third year teaching English literature at Plymouth North High School, but I most certainly did not take a linear path to get there! Upon graduating with a B.S. from NYU in Communications and Journalism, I worked for ABC’s Good Morning America for about a year. I had interned in television news for the last two years of my time at NYU as well.
After working at GMA for a year, I left to pursue endeavors in the field of education. I got a taste of travel studying abroad in Spain my sophomore year, so almost immediately after leaving GMA went to Lima, Peru, to work and teach the elderly in an impoverished neighborhood. Upon my return, I was asked to go to a small town northwest of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to start a library and teach at an all girls’ school.
After these two trips, I worked for Brown University’s Career Development Center for two years, while securing my TOEFL license, and taught ESL in the evenings at community centers in Providence. Alas, I finally took the plunge, and in 2009 I began my MAT at Tufts University while student teaching at Malden High School. I completed this degree in 2010. Some might consider my path towards becoming a classroom teacher a bit non-traditional; however, I have come to recognize that I have been an educator all my life. I entered the field of journalism with the same goals I have a classroom teacher–to create an informed citizenry that is capable of making decisions that allow them to be contributing members of society.
TT: What an amazing back-story! And one close to my heart as I went to college at Brown. So how did you end up traveling to Cuba??
S: Recently, I traveled to Cuba on a group educational study tour to investigate the boasted high literacy rates and education system. I was there for a little over a week with Cuba Education Tours, and had a pretty grueling schedule during this time visiting schools, community centers, the literacy museum, Hemingway’s home, as well as speaking with professionals in various fields.
Without getting political, I will say that Cuba seems to be a country of contradictions, where the official statement says one thing, but the people, and the visible evidence seems to indicate another. Many people seem desperate– desperate for food, desperate for rights, desperate for money, and/or desperate to leave. It was often the case that individuals performed jobs that required unskilled labor when they were qualified for much more.
I was particularly interested in Cuba because as a teacher of English literature, many class discussions lead to the dynamics of power, and what an ideal power structure would look like, and as Cuba’s communist system regularly enters the conversation, I wanted to be able to speak to it with more validity and experience. One aspect I found particularly interesting is when speaking with young Cuban men and women about their career aspirations, they were often quick to discuss their dreams of being a dancer or musician. I rarely hear this answer from my students, who dream of being lawyers, financial brokers, or doctors, and I wonder if it is because the system in Cuba allows them to pursue what they love, since financial gains are rarely a reality, and therefore not a motivating factor. On the whole, the people in Cuba were upbeat and very fun-loving. They demonstrate a desire to enjoy the life they have been given to the best of their ability, and welcome anyone to join them!
I also studied in Russia for a month on grant received by Rotary Foundation, and as I mentioned earlier, taught in Honduras and Peru. There is much to say about all these places, and am happy to answer any questions readers have!
TT: Wow! How did you find these travel opportunities, and how did you pay for them?
S: A friend recommended the group I went to Cuba with, as they knew I love to travel to augment my classroom experiences, and they had a friend who went through the same organization and had a successful trip. I paid for my travels through savings.
TT: Tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
S: The point about students in Cuba desiring to pursue their passions was interesting. The political and financial dynamics were intriguing. Many professionals left their “official” careers as teachers, chemists, engineers, etc. to become waiters, or to be in a profession that is driven by tips. I do not want to speak too much of these potential politicized elements of Cuba, but I will say that it was intriguing.
My most fun and interesting moment was going to a show where the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club played with other famous musicians, singers, and dancers from the 1950s. They were FANTASTIC, and I even had the chance to get up and dance with them!
Additionally, visiting the home of Jose Fuster, the Picasso of the Caribbean. which is termed Fusterlandia, was astounding. His entire home–rooftops, stairwells, walls, benches, hallways– is decorated with tiles and mosaics, and is very reminiscent of Gaudi’s Parque Guell. He is even taking steps to beautify his entire neighborhood, and had begun working on the homes of his neighbors. His home is breathtaking, and he even allowed us to enjoy lunch amongst the beautiful scenery!
TT: Love it. How have your travels impacted you as a teacher?
S: In education today, there is a huge emphasis on making learning culturally relevant for students, and using the students’ culture and background to make learning meaningful for them. By exposing myself to a number of different cultures throughout my lifetime, I feel that I have been taking the appropriate steps towards making myself an effective educator. When you are able in a classroom to initiate or divert a discussion, and actually tie your point to a personal experience, it resonates with students, and it opens them up to perhaps seeing the world that is beyond their classroom, and beyond their hometown. Some students need that cultural input, because at their young age they are lacking in this particular area of their education. Cuba was one of my most unique travels, due to its cultural practices and political climate. I am now more aware of differences and more equipped to deal with a diverse classroom.
Additionally, I love to share my experiences with students. Not all of my students have had had the opportunity to travel; I want to teach them about the world, and inspire them to get out there and see it for themselves! This is why infuse my lessons with knowledge that I can back up with personal experiences
TT: Such important points. How have your travels impacted you as a person?
S: This answer also relates to the previous one, but I have learned as a result of my experience in journalism that the world is a big place, and it’s the responsibility of each individual to get out there and educate themselves. Our world is only getting smaller with the increasing role of technology in our lives. The only way to promote peace is to build understanding.
We are all different, but human beings are inherently the same — they have the similar feelings and experiences, even if they are thousands of miles apart. We should focus on our similarities, so that we are not immobilized or incited to haste, negative reactions by our differences.
TT: What advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?
S: Just go for it! You will gain so much knowledge and experience to augment your teaching. I know that travel can sometimes seem overwhelming, and that changing your routine can be a daunting task, but as writer Paulo Coelho says: If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.
TT: Wonderful advice, Sarah! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for this bold traveling teacher? For another article on educational travel to Cuba, click here!