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You Went Where For Spring Break?! Students Develop Global Competence in Cuba

My colleague Brandon Wiley (Twitter: @bwileyone) shares with us an inspiring story of American students who go to Cuba as young ambassadors to forge better bilateral relations between two nations with a troubled past. Whether through study abroad trips, school-to-school partnerships, or via technology, we have to make international experiences the norm for our rising generation. It's good for the students, and it's good for our nation.

by Brandon Wiley0412-cuba2.png

"I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals." - President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Founder of People to People International

For many high school students taking a spring break vacation can be somewhat of a rite of passage. When I was a teacher, my students would often return to the classroom with stories of beaches, amusement parks, family reunions, or relaxing "staycations," where they just spent time hanging out at home. For the teachers of 38 high school students around the United States, the stories they heard upon their return to school last month sounded very different. These students told tales of architecture dating back to the early 1900s, automobiles from the 1950s, negotiating the use of a different language and currency, while experiencing a culture rich in tradition and unmarked by Starbucks or McDonald's. They shared stories of new friendships and a deeper understanding and appreciation for what it means to be a citizen of the United States and the world. In fact, their spring break was not quite a break.

People to People International (PTPI) organized an educational and cultural program for two delegations of American high school students to go to Cuba, a unique opportunity that few American adults have experienced. Founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, PTPI promotes international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural, and humanitarian activities while emphasizing personal diplomacy and nongovernmental contacts among people. Eisenhower realized the importance of uniting ordinary citizens from different countries to foster understanding and respect. He believed that, in particular, by bringing youth together from different countries, they would be more likely to overcome ideological differences and, ultimately, not succumb to war.

I was honored to lead such a special delegation. The program was designed to provide students a rare glimpse into the country's rich history, as well as a chance to meet with the Cuban people.

The experience was framed in a way that develops student global competency. In a purposeful, inquiry-based design, each activity gave them opportunities to apply the skills core to global competence in authentic settings, taking full advantage of the rich and dynamic Cuban culture that still remains a mystery to many Americans today.

The students were given four questions to consider: 1) what do you want to know? 2) how will you find answers? 3) how do you share information? and 4) now what? The full process, with real examples from the Cuban study trip, is outlined on our website. You may use it to apply the same experiential learning in different contexts. This exercise can work in local school communities just as it does on a study abroad trips.

After a week of investigative research by the students, we engaged them in a debate to help them synthesize everything they had learned. The topic was the U.S. Embargo: "Should the embargo and travel restrictions be lifted? Why or why not?" This led to a lively debate between the two sides, each offering compelling examples and rationale based on what they had learned throughout the program. Their level of analysis of the situation, the benefits and drawbacks of such a policy and the human impact were amazing indications of their growth over the course of the week. This type of learning could never be measured on a standardized test.

As the culminating aspect of the program, the teams were asked to develop a plan of advocacy or action. Each team devised a plan for how they would share their learning and experience to a broader community. Websites, blog posts, letters to local and state representatives, and public presentations were just some of the student plans. The overarching goal in each seemed to be focused on educating the American public about life in Cuba, while dispelling some of the myths and confirming some of the challenges that still exist there.

Implications for the Field

Travel provides one of the most authentic, eye-opening opportunities for students to step out of their comfort zone, challenge their perspectives and develop new understanding of others. This is best demonstrated by the reflections of three students:

"I had thought that I had a good understanding of Cuba before I went because I did a research project on it in world issues class. Once I landed in Cuba I noticed that I hadn't taken into consideration the culture, and overall mood of the country that you can only get by being on the ground and breathing the same air." - Mary (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA)

"Traveling to Cuba completely changed my outlook toward life. Visiting a foreign country that is totally different from America allowed me to gain new insight on a completely different world. Everything I experienced in Cuba I relate back to life in America, which helps me realize how fortunate we all are". - Travis (Lubbock, Texas, USA)

"It was all so unique and very interesting experiencing a culture that is so close physically but so distant culturally. The trip also gave me insight into myself and helped me realize how my assumptions and stereotypes of things such as Cuba are often wrong. Overall it was a life-changing experience!" - Julien (Wever, Iowa, USA)

In these tough economic times, travel of this nature may not be an option for all students or schools. It is critical that as educators, we find other ways to expose students to different cultures, and to get them outside of the classroom and interacting in meaningful ways with people different than themselves. Taking an inquiry stance in our classrooms is one of the only ways we can truly engage students, increase student motivation, and develop self-reliance.

Just as important as the travel component is the power of allowing students choice in their learning and allowing them to guide that learning. As the teacher, I set out broad parameters for the activities, but they drove where the conversations went, how they worked as teams, and controlled how they demonstrated their learning. In the end, there was no doubt in my mind that they left with a deeper understanding of the context and developed interpersonal and personal skills along the way.

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