University Lake School teachers travel to Cuba

Now that diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba have been restored, some Americans are paying a visit to the country that for decades was off limits to U.S. travelers. That includes a trio of teachers from University Lake School. A group of students from the school are scheduled to do the same in the spring.

ULS Spanish teachers Ann Mocchi and Robynn Horner along with sixth grade teacher Jen Putnam led a group of 22 adults, including ULS parents and recent graduates, on a trip to the recently-opened country in conjunction with the educational travel company EF Educational Tours.

The July 27 – August 4 trip involved meeting artists, musicians, community organizers and naturalists.

It was a reconnaissance mission of sorts; ULS will be offering Upper School students the opportunity to travel to Cuba in the spring of 2017 as part of an intersession program and faculty members wanted to assess the safety and learning opportunities available.

The Cuba the teachers saw was in some cases not the Cuba they expected to see.

For example, Mocchi said she expected to encounter an Anti-American sentiment, but that wasn’t the case.

“People were eager to talk to us, laugh, and share their stories,” Mocchi said.

Horner agreed.

“The most surprising thing to me was how freely the people shared their opinions with us and also how warmly we were received by the Cuban people,” Horner said. “We were told time and again that the Cuban people like and identify with the American people.”

Mocchi said the aspect of the trip that has stayed with her the longest is the overwhelming sense of living history that pulses through every Cuban street, building and plaza.

“That heady sense of stepping back in time is not overplayed in the media,” Mocchi said. “In Havana, there are so many colorful vestiges of both the Cold War and the Mafia heydays, while in smaller cities farther afield like Trinidad and Cienfuegos, it’s all about Spanish and French colonialism. Not everything is in ruins, but there is a crumbling elegance that fires the imagination.”

The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961, but over the last several years things have changed. Diplomatic relations have been restored; President Obama’s March 2016 visit to Cuba was the first by a sitting president in over 85 years.

Horner said it was very surprising to see how the people in the countryside were living – very few automobiles, mostly horse and buggy, and people working their fields with very basic implements.

“One of our guides said the people in the country are 50 years behind the rest of the world,” Horner said. “I would have to say though, one of the most surprising things was the joy, gentleness and vibrant culture that exists despite a very unstable economy.”

Horner talked about what she hopes students will learn when they make the trip in the spring.

“I hope the students will gain greater empathy for others, that they will be able to see that it is possible to be happy without all the “stuff,” that they will realize how fortunate they are to have so many opportunities and liberties, and that they will gain an appreciation for democracy.”

Mocchi said it’s important to teach kids to question everything they learn, read and hear, and one way to do that is to get out into the world and experience life through your five senses and begin to analyze situations for yourself.

“There is still a lot of fear out there about what Cuba is and isn’t, as well as the many black and white perceptions about who is right and who is wrong,” Mocchi said. “Traveling to Cuba is one way for students to begin to peel back the layers of suspicion, deceit and propaganda on both sides.”

University Lake School spring intersession is a concentrated, week-long study of a topic. There are usually multiple travel abroad courses offered during intersession with at least one Spanish-speaking country option.

Horner said each year the Spanish department chooses one culture to study and the whole school explores the same theme. Last year students studied Peru. This year the focus will be Cuba, so the social studies and history classes that explore communism will include Cuba in their studies.

Bob Dohr, Lake Country Now

August 23, 2016

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