Opening the Book on Cuba
By Robert Schroeder
For more than half a century, communist-controlled Cuba has shielded itself from the outside world and likewise has been shunned. Now, a National Louis University professor with extensive experience studying education in Latin America is seeking to lift the veil on Cuba's unique literacy programs.
Dr. Donna Ogle, professor in the National College of Education, is leading a delegation of educators and reading specialists to Cuba to study the impact of the Cuban National Literacy Campaign. The rare excursion, authorized by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control, will provide deep insight into the workings of a largely unknown educational system.
Cuba's literacy efforts launched on January 1, 1961, two years to the date after Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement overthrew Fulgencio Batista. According to author Douglas Kellner, the year-long campaign raised adult literacy rates from somewhere in the range of 60-76 percent to 96 percent, particularly influencing rural and poor populations. Author Louis Perez reports that Cuba achieved a nearly 100 percent literacy rate among children in 1986. Literacy efforts continue today, albeit on a less massive scale.
Researching the tactics of a communist country may raise eyebrows, but Ogle says with Chicago's heavy Cuban immigrant population, educators should feel an imperative to understand the cultural background of their students' families.
"When kids and parents come to our schools, they are often confused by our priorities," Ogle said. "If teachers are aware of how systems work in other countries, they are much better able to communicate with students and with parents what are the values here and how we can help kids establish the idea of discussing books and forming their own ideas."
The group, developed by the International Reading Association, will focus in particular on Cuban community literacy centers. Unlike the United States, which developed schools around growing population centers from its early stages, Cuba launched its literacy campaign by developing public literacy centers geared towards both children and adults. The group's research perspective focuses on the tactics used to develop community programs and how those tactics could be applied in the United States. Ogle is also interested in understanding how community centers may spur parent involvement in literacy efforts.
As educational technology grows in importance, one area of study will focus on how Cuban literacy centers and schools use computers in early literacy education, an area still under experimentation in the United States. The group is hoping to examine how Cuba has turned physical literacy centers into computer programs, software that has been exported to other Latin American nations.
The group will meet with leaders of Cuba's literacy movement to share common experiences and concerns.
"I think that part of the work of academics is to learn as much as we can and look at how in different contexts literacy is developed," Ogle said. "Anytime we step outside of our own culture and look at what others prioritize and how they go about structuring, organizing and creating common incentives in their culture, that can only help us in our work."
With the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions set to be renewed in September 2011, Ogle sees this glimpse into a different side of Cuba as a small step towards building better relations between the two nations.
"Here's an opportunity and a door being opened to us that is a particular gift at this time," Ogle said. "This is an opportunity to learn from 50 years of literacy development and see if we can help heal some wounds of the past."