A Cuban practicum for future teachers of English as an international language

Twenty-five students enrolled in the Certificate in the Discipline of Teaching English as an International Language Program (D-TEIL) offered by York’s Glendon College returned to their studies this fall full of anecdotes about their two-week teaching practicum in Cuba. The students were the first to benefit from a formal agreement between York University and the Instituto Pedagogico Superior of Varona in Havana, Cuba.

Right: The Glendon group on a beach in Cuba

Varona is Cuba’s leading teacher-training institution, whose 19,000 students proceed through a five-year program which, over the years, includes progressively increased practicum requirements and trains individuals to become teachers of both English and French – very much like Glendon’s D-TEIL program.

Before their departure, the Canadian participants were divided into small teams and assigned the specific Cuban classes they would do their practicum with. In addition, they received extensive training and preparation for their practicum in advance, within their Glendon program, as well as a great deal of practical information from the staff of York International.

Once at Varona, participants had the opportunity to teach collaboratively as well as individually, focussing on “the 3 Ps”: presentation, practice and performance in the classroom. A significant component of the Glendon D-TEIL course is the enhanced role of reflection on classroom experience, and this was given considerable emphasis in the Cuban practicum. Student teachers were required to observe language classes and report on their observations. At the same time, they had several peer-teaching opportunities, which allowed them to exercise self-criticism and public reflection, aimed at fine-tuning their teaching techniques. In the Varona experience, these reflections were always delivered with great empathy and a supportive approach.

Left: The Glendon students worked in the classroom with Cuban students

Two members of Glendon’s teaching faculty, both with considerable Cuban experience, accompanied the student group: Ian Martin, a professor in the English Department and coordinator of the D-TEIL program; and Rosalind Gill, professor in the Glendon School of Translation. Their role was to observe how well the students performed, as well as to consult and advise as needed. They were joined in coordinating the practicum by Varona’s Professor Alejandro Torres, who had visited Canadian universities in 2002 on a Canadian Embassy grant, with the objective of exploring possibilities of academic exchanges. A condition of this grant had been that the Cuban institutions involved in the exchange program were to include a Canadian Studies component in their upper-year courses. The Glendon group had the opportunity to visit Varona’s Canadian Studies Room and meet the participating students.

The Canadian group was housed on Varona’s Ciudad Libertad campus, which had served as Che Guevara’s headquarters in 1960 after the take-over by the revolutionary army. The group was able to explore many other interesting places, including the famous Tropicana Club, beautiful colonial buildings, exotic parks and tropical beaches. The Canadian students were taken on memorable outings, including the May 1 festivities in Revolution Square, a guided tour of old Havana, a visit to the Museum of the Literacy Campaign, and a “Cuban Night” dance party. The host teachers and Varona professors gave the Canadians an unforgettable, warm welcome and many friendships were formed during the visit.

Right: The Glendon students were able to explore many interesting places including this outdoor market in old Havana

A highlight for the accompanying professors was the open house event of the Cuban Professional English Teachers’ Association (GELI), which happened to take place in Havana during their stay. GELI’s organizers welcomed the entire group to this event, where Glendon’s Martin gave a talk on “The role of reflection in a TEIL program”.

Ian Martin expressed the opinion of all participants when he stated that “this experience couldn’t have been better.” One student commented: “We thought we were coming on a teaching practicum, but it turned out to be a learning practicum.” Another said, “I realized the relevance of my undergraduate education and was put in contact with the global community of language teachers and experts, to which I belong.” A third student teacher commented: “I was touched at the generosity of each individual and how they gave and gave, when they have nothing. I could not have asked for a better international ESL experience than with these Cubans.”

“This 2006 D-TEIL Practicum is the most extensive international sojourn of any class in Glendon’s history,” concluded Martin, “and we are all most proud to have been a part of it.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.