Cuba Travels Post #1: What? Why? How?


Thanks to funding through Fund for Teachers and its local partnership with Math for America, I (along with other members of my school community) had an amazing opportunity this past summer to take a 2-week course at the Instituto Nacional de Higene, Epidemiologia, y Microbiologia (National Institute of Hygiene, Epidemiology, and Microbiology) and learn about Cuba’s health education system. My goal was to type my reflections while I was in Cuba and then publish them whenever I had access to connect to the internet, but that never happened for a variety of reasons. However, my revised goal is to blog a little bit about my experience as a post trip reflection the next few weeks.

Why was I there? 

Cuba has developed a preventative approach to healthcare which starts early on by implementing a national health curriculum in all schools. We essentially went to Cuba to learn about the general health care system, the education system, and the cross-section of it all.

“Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development. This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation,” She also praised “the efforts of the country’s leadership for having made health an essential pillar of development”

~Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO)

Isn’t it illegal for Americans to go? How did this even happen?

When I told family and friends, I was asked this question enough times. No — it’s not illegal to go to Cuba. Going to Cuba for the purpose of tourism is still illegal, but there are 12 categories for authorized travel. Since one of them is educational activities, our trip was completely legal.

Our amazing guidance counselor made it all happen! Her father has some contacts who work in the Cuban health ministry. At some point, they talked about the work we do at our school with regard to social-emotional health. The Cubans were extremely excited to share with us their approach to health, education, and health education. I cannot express how much because they JAM packed so much into 2 weeks, so much that it felt that I was in Cuba for much longer than 2 weeks. Just look at out program!

When we all signed up for this, we acknowledged that there would be a chance that we would have to pay for this out of pocket. Thankfully some team members (including myself) were eligible to receive a Fund for Teacher’s grant. We wrote a team proposal, submitted it in January and found out in April that it was approved! A few people fund raised through other means, which meant the trip was not completely self-funded.


So who went?

There were 7 members from my school and 2 members who joined us from a different NYC school.

This group consists of guidance counselors (3), social worker (1), Special Ed-certified teachers (2), ENL specialist/teacher (1), and 2 math teachers 😛



Key Take Aways 

These are my personal impressions based on what I saw and learned. But to be honest, with my limited time in Cuba and limited background knowledge of its history and current political system (which is currently in a period of transformation), I don’t think I have the entire picture. I can’t. Especially with people not being able to say anything against the government, it was hard to ask or speak frankly about what didn’t work or what was really happening as opposed to what we were told was happening. We were mindful when we had those conversations. Additionally, since school was out for the summer, we did not really get to interact with many teachers or any students.

I hope to write about these take-aways with details, but these are the few that come to mind:

  • The Revolution is very much kept alive in Cuba–and arriving in Cuba 2 weeks prior to Fidel’s 90th birthday, I definitely saw so much more than normal.
    Saw lots of homage to Fidel like this. Courtesy of El Mundo


  • There are elements of Cuba that are “frozen” in time, but there are so many other ways Cuba is progressive and revolutionary.
  • Mental health is integrated and all doctors regardless of specialty are trained in mental health to a certain extent.
  • The key approach towards health is prevention and not treatment.
  • The approach to health and education seems research driven.
  • A lot of what Cuba is able to do with regard to health and education is because of socialism and a lot of what is happening in health and education is dictated by the government in a top-down manner.
  • Special education services seem much more stream-lined as there is one government entity that overlooks it all.
  • There is a partnership among parents, doctors, and schools with regard to student performance.
  • While Cuba has systems and structures in place, much of the weakness lay in the fact that they have limited resources-which includes access to quality medications and facilities.

¡Viva la educación!


Year 4 Goals: By June 2017 my students will hate/fear math less than they do right now.

My goals for this school year came full circle while I was speaking to Brian P. I want my students to leave my classroom in June 2017 hating or fearing math less than they do right now. Perhaps even be a tad bit excited because they did something in Ms. K’s math class that reminded them that they do not suck at math. That they can still “do math” even if they don’t have the correct answer because their thinking process is just as important, or rather more important, than their final answer.

Okay that might be a bit much, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

So I decided that this year, in order to meet this goal I’m going to focus so much more on establishing and cultivating the classroom environment. It’s always has been rushed the past few years because we “need to get through the material.” But not this year.

  • I started our first math class with Sara Vaderwerf’s amazing 100 numbers to get students talking
  • We established some group norms based on the previous activity and I refer to them often.
  • I’m spending MORE time on LESS things so that students have time to explore, engage, ask questions, and then explore those questions.
  • I’m modeling what talking in math looks like. I’m facilitating those conversations when I check in with students instead of pushing the conversation along.
  • And I’m trying to be okay with not “finishing” as long as I know that students fear math less and are willing to engage even when they are not sure what the correct answer is.

Hoping the best for a great 2016-2017 school year.