Educators inspired by trip to Cuba, a literate land where imagination is king

By Sandra Snyder

Say Cuba and many associations might come immediately to mind: aromatic cigars, plentiful rum or sugar, beautiful beaches or pulsating nightlife.

Or perhaps the first thoughts are of Fidel Castro and communism, of revolution and political unrest.

But on this music-filled Caribbean island only 90 miles from Key West, Fla., yet long off-limits to many American travelers, lie many best-kept secrets, success stories many might never have heard.

Literacy is one of them – extreme literacy, in fact, as in 100 percent, a figure associated with a story of turnaround and triumph that began with Castro more than 50 years ago near the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.

On, the World Bank defines literacy as the percentage of people above age 15 who can, “with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.”

Generally, the World Bank says, literacy also encompasses numeracy, or the ability to make simple arithmetic calculations.

According to the 2015 UNICEF report titled “The State of the World’s Children,” 100 percent of Cuban youths, males and females ages 15 to 24, could read and write in the period covering 2009 to 2013.

Meanwhile, according to the same report, in 2013, only 17.7 per 100 youths used mobile phones, and 25.7 percent used the Internet.

Those are not only the kinds of paradoxical figures that get Debra A Pellegrino, Ph.D., dean of the J.A. Panuska College of Professional Studies at the University of Scranton, excited enough to use the word “amazing” 10 times in as many minutes but that she has seen evidenced by actions and behaviors up close and personal.

Pellegrino and her husband, Michael Hardisky, Ph.D., a professor of biology at the University of Scranton, began their new year on Jan. 2 with a 10-day trip to Cuba to learn about its remarkable literacy rate, among the highest in the world, and perhaps return with the beginnings of an action plan to implement in the United States, which is heading toward what some experts call a literacy crisis.

To hear Pellegrino tell it, Cuba “has always been on my bucket list.”

“I’ve always had an interest in Cuba, thinking, ‘How can their education system be better than ours?’ ” she said, noting, “In this respect, Communism works.”

Cuba is a Spanish-speaking country that places the highest premium on education, and “early education is key,” Pellegrino said.

The first years, she noted, are spent learning Spanish and especially Spanish grammar, then pupils begin learning English, German and Russian in second and third grade before moving on to even more languages.

There are no private schools in Cuba, and every student wears a uniform. All public education also is free, right through to university level. But Cuba also loves culture – it has an official Ministry of Culture – and guarantees its children free access to artistic education, including musical instruments. Even street musicians are licensed performers in Cuba, according to

This makes workaday life eye-opening and revealing. For example, Pellegrino said, taxi drivers can be and are engineers and entertainers can be and are physicians.

And everyone, everywhere, is reading, she said. If they aren’t reading, they are writing.

“It is amazing,” she said, using her go-to adjective for a trip whose memories make her nearly giddy. “It is like everything you dream of all the time that you want to see here for our kids.”

For Hardisky, the key word is “widespread.” Access to education has resulted in a turnaround that took less than half a century but is likely to have a much longer and farther-reaching impact on the world.

It all began two years after the start of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. One of the most aggressive literacy campaigns in world history, led by Castro, began in 1961 and was credited with a sea-change in the Cuban literacy rate, which now bests the rates in both the United States and Britain. The revolution emphasized literacy because of its connection to population empowerment.

These details are described and a vivid picture is painted on, a site that lays out a YMCA initiative focused on developmental assets in California youths. Writer Linda Silvius explains that in January of 1961, Castro summoned 14- and 15-year-olds to go into the rural areas of the country where the literacy rate was at its worst.

“He asked them to leave their homes and live with host families. These young people were to work in the fields with their host families during the day and teach them to read and write at night,” Silvius wrote, noting he got 105,000 volunteers.

The youths were given a crash course in how to teach reading and writing to totally illiterate people, Silvius wrote. The people who taught the youths were university-educated teachers or university professors, or people in political agreement with Castro who came from Mexico and all of Central America.

Lanterns became symbolic of the movement. Each of the youth teachers who went into the countryside took not only teaching supplies but a lantern supplied by the then-Soviet Union, Silvius wrote.  Because the studying and teaching had to happen in the evening, after a day in the fields, and electricity was absent in rural Cuba, the lantern was not only the symbol of the literacy movement but a practical tool.

 The oldest person taught to read and write was 110, and the youngest teacher was 8.

Such interaction among the ages was something Pellegrino witnessed in wonderment in Cuba, “where the family is key,” she said, and “they really take care of their own.”

Case in point: She and Hardisky visited a senior day-care center that also was an early-childhood center.

 “What a fantastic idea,” she said, describing seniors “actively engaged,” say, in playing dominoes or making crafts with the stimulation of youth all around them.

For travelers such as Pellegrino and Hardisky, whose journey was arranged through Friendly Planet, a People to People exchange licensed by the U.S. Department of Treasury, overstimulation might have been an operative word, in the best sense of it.

Pellegrino described the prevalence of American music – “our taxi driver played ‘Pretty Woman’ ”– and said dance, art and sculpture are everywhere in Cuba.

“These are things being cut in the United States of America,” she noted, adding that “imagination is king.”

Echoing the UNICEF report, she said, “You don’t see a lot of people on cell phones or watching TV. They are all reading or writing in journals.”

In fact, she said, her visa requirement for Cuban travel is that she herself keep a journal for five years.

She is likely to fill that journal with memories of sights, sounds and systematics that made a lasting impact.

“The roads are excellent, way better than in Northeastern Pennsylvania,” she said, noting maintenance was a requirement under Castro so the Cuban military could move.

Cars are old, 1950s American vintage – the only type private citizens are allowed to own – but they are often restored to mint condition.

Houses are humble but immaculately clean, and the people – most of whom eagerly chatter about the expected lifting of the longstanding American trade embargo and travel restrictions – are “on the whole just very hard workers.”

And everywhere you go, people are talking about John Lennon, a veritable icon in Cuba and a figure on whom Castro, who once banned Beatles music, had a change of heart. He came to see him not as a symbol of Western consumerism but an activist dedicated to emancipating the working class.

So the fixation is fitting, and it’s no surprise the song “Imagine” is frequently played – or sung – in the streets of Cuba.

The lyrics may long linger in Pellegrino’s mind as she attends to her journal and envisions ways to apply in Scranton the lessons learned in Cuba.

 “I keep thinking about the cultural things that happen after school,” she said. “What can we start providing for our students beyond the school day?”

For one, she said, “I think we need to bring in artwork more.”

“I also think we are missing opportunities in the early years.”

That’s something she and educators like her must figure out, much like Cubans must figure out another, separate issue involving childhood, specifically its diminishing presence.

With an increase in education, Pellegrino said, comes a decrease in birth rate, and Cuba’s birth rate is “almost nil.”

Yet the people are hopeful, and most of them think Castro is going to step down, she said, noting the dwindling numbers in the Communist Party.

Their hope should give us hope, she said, recalling a touching video she has of a Cuban girl singing “Imagine.”

The song’s message was as impactful as the trip itself. Cuba was “everything I imagined and more,” Pellegrino said.