Every year, an increasingly globalized world seems smaller and smaller. Technology puts information about other cultures and places at your fingertips; 360-degree videos, social networks and digital translators make information about how other people live an Internet search away. But information is not knowledge, and getting to know a country with a complex history and a complicated relationship with the United States can be a tough task without seeing a place first-hand. With that in mind, twelve students and three teachers from Grace traveled south to Cuba for fourteen-days over spring break to conduct field research as part of a course titled, “Cuba: Culture, Philosophy & Religion,” a philosophy and religion elective.
Before even enrolling in the course, students were required to submit an application demonstrating their interest in the subject through an essay, proficiency in Spanish at level III and be in good academic standing. Accepted students began their study in January immediately diving into reading and assignments in both English and Spanish. A multidisciplinary introduction to Cuban studies, the course focused on exploring the formations of Cuban culture and nationhood, from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. Students studied the enduring impacts of the social revolution and the political philosophies of both religious and political leaders and thinkers. They also explored the development of social and cultural institutions, as well as the impact of media, art and religious practices across the island nation.
The coursework ahead of the spring trip was designed to prepare students to gather evidence and make thoughtful observations while they traveled. The faculty leading the course, Dr. Nathan, history, and Ms. Olivares, literature, planned their course using the PBL (Project-Based Learning) model. Through their study, students prepared a set of driving questions to take along with them on the trip, which would eventually form the backbone of a research project that would continue once they returned. Each student developed their own set of questions as they were intrigued by something they read or learned in the pre-trip study.
The journey to Cuba was unlike most international travel at Grace. The Grace International Exchange program has been offering Grace students a chance to study and then travel to foreign countries for decades, as well as host families from those same countries in alternating years. However, a traditional exchange is not possible in Cuba given the U.S. embargo. Using the field work model as part of a rigorous academic course allowed the Cuba trip to happen, even with strict restrictions set under the embargo. During their stay in the country, students were required to be in activities from 9am-5pm every day, and leisure and tourist activities are strictly prohibited.
For the duration of the trip, the group was accompanied by a guide who was intimately familiar with modern Cuban culture and politics and who provided a personal connection to the country for students. The group visited important historical and cultural sites that they had studied and met with scholars in a variety of fields. The group traveled the country by bus and spent many of the trips between sites journaling and taking notes on what they had observed, both the official sites they visited as well as everyday life for the average Cuban. Because of the intense preparation, students were able to ask advanced questions of their guide and teachers that linked what they were seeing with their reading.
Students continued the Cuba course after their trip, another departure from the exchange program. The task for students was to use what they learned and experienced during their field study along with new research to write a paper on a topic of their choosing. Once final papers were submitted, the faculty planned a one-day symposium for students to present their research to their classmates and teachers. The topics were wide ranging. On economics and inequality, students examined housing, the challenge of a dual currency, government distribution of goods, and the complicated relationship between tourism and socialist ideology. On religion, students looked at art and masculinity, the practice of Santeria both in Cuba and the United States, and the experience of Jewish Cubans. On the role of the government in Cuban society, students studied the power of professional sports, the perspective of young people in Cuba, government propaganda and the relationship between Cuba and Vietnam.
The public presentations gave other Grace high school students the opportunity to share in the experience of their classmates, who gathered information through field work in a country in which access to accurate information is difficult. Students in the course deepened their learning through the presentations by looking at the research and conclusions they drew and distilling their complex work into digestible and clear points for their peers. Using Project Based Learning and the in-person experience of field study in Cuba, students deeply engaged in their subject throughout the duration of the course, driven by their passion for their chosen topic.