Cuba Unit Study: Week 3

Cuba may be a small island, but it is teaming with lifeincluding animal and nightlife! This week we will examine the ocean life that sets Cuba apart from many other marine environments, and we will learn about several famous musicians and artists with Cuban heritage. Lessons will include dance lessons, art projects, a STEM experiment about the color of the sky, and an online chess game. And of course, we will prepare a delicious, authentic Cuban meal. But first, let’s start with building an ocean diorama. Listo? (Ready?) Let’s begin! Don’t forget to download and print your skills tracker here.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

Tectonic plates activity:

  • 1 large orange (per student)

Coral reef and ocean Diorama:

Geographic art: project

Rooster art project:

  • acrylic paint
  • plastic fork
  • paper

Ropa Vieja recipe:

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Lesson 1:

For our first day, we’ll take a closer look at some Cuban earth science and ocean life.

Activity 1: Cuba is an island, and an island is a body of land surrounded by water. There are countless islands in the ocean, lakes, and rivers around the world. They vary greatly in size, climate, and the kinds of organisms that inhabit them. (source)

The Caribbean islands are fascinating and mysterious land formations that attract people from all over the world with their beauty and exploration opportunities. We know the Caribbean islands didn’t pop out of nowhere…so where did they come from? The largest group of the Caribbean Islands were formed by volcanoes erupting from the ocean floor while many other islands broke off the North American continent millions of years ago. Several of the smaller islands are a result of coral buildup peeking through the ocean’s surface. 

Scientists have established a classification system based on the way an island was formed. Within this system, there are five types, including:

  • Continental Islands
  • Tectonic Islands
  • Volcanic Islands
  • Coral Islands
  • Barrier Islands

Continental islands were once connected to a continent and then were separated. Scientists believe that separation took millions of years and occurred in one of two ways. Either the sea-level rose around the portion of the mainland that eventually became the island or the portion of land that linked the mainland and the would-be island was eroded by rivers, lakes, and ocean waves. The islands in the Greater Antilles island group are an example of continental islands. These include Cuba, Cayman Islands, Hispaniola (shared by the nations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. (source)

Underneath the ocean you will find the tectonic plates. Watch this video to learn about the Caribbean tectonics. Make it hands-on with this orange peel activity

Activity 2: Discover the Coral Reefs of Cuba. In the 1990s, Cuba took bold action to create extensive coral reef preserves. The basic purpose of these preserves was to provide safe havens for fish to regain balance in populations. But it also assured that all development in these areas would be viewed as a potentially lethal threat against the reefs. For several decades, development on Cuban shores has been curbed and the fish have been left alone. The results are some of the healthiest and most bountiful coral reefs in the world. (source

Watch this CBS special to see beautiful footage of Cuban reefs.

Read the book National Geographic Readers: Coral Reefs (or listen to this read aloud) or (+) read this American Museum of Natural History article about Cuba’s coral reef and ocean life in.  

Now that you have learned so much about coral reefs and the animals that live in them, make a coral reef diorama. Follow the directions to create the box and three different types of living creatures in the ocean. These include the brain coral, sea fan, and finger-shaped sponge. Add more to your diorama as you continue to learn about tropical fish of Cuba, some of which are listed here in this blog post.

(We learned a lot about coral reefs in the Australia Unit: Week 3. If your child enjoyed learning about coral reefs today, don’t miss the activities in Lesson 1 to learn more about coral reefs!)

Activity 3: There are many famous beaches in Cuba. Look at the photos and read the description of them in this article

Have you ever seen a sunset on the beach? Have you ever wondered why the sky looks blue in the day but as the sun sets the sky appears orange? Watch this Cuban sunset. This STEM experiment breaks down what is happeningand it is pretty cool! 

Lesson 2:

Let’s meet some famous Cubans and learn more about Cuban music.

Activity 1: Meet Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa! Read the book by the same name to hear her story. (We recommend the audio book to enjoy the music too!) or listen to this read aloud. Next, watch this video about her and listen to her perform here. Next, take a salsa lesson!

Activity 2: Last week, we learned about the Cuban activist and poet José Marti. His poems were turned into a song that has become famous not only in Cuba but in many parts of the world called “Guantanamera.” Listen to Celia Cruz sing the song here. You can read the words here as she sings them. Next, learn its significance and learn the meaning of the lyrics here

Are you inspired to write your own poem? Writing poetry can be challenging. We love this idea from Kelly Sage’s instagram account. Follow her directions as you use your favorite book (picture or chapter book) and write your own poem. 

Activity 3: Discover Amelia Pelaez. There are many Cuban artists who have left their mark in the art world. Amelia Peláez is one of them. She was born in Yaguajay, Cuba in 1896. She studied art in Cuba as well as in NYC and Paris. She painted with oil, drew with pencil, and created pottery. She also created murals like the one at Habana Hotel pictured below.

While alive, she didn’t sell many paintings, but she reached fame after her death. In 1992, her work was included in the exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. (source)

Visit this website to see one of Palaez’s paintings. Peláez often experimented with patterns and shapes and bold colors. Let’s do the same! Using geometric shapes and patterns as well as bold colors create your own art piece using this post for inspiration. You can find directions for this project on this blog post. Here’s a printable color wheel to assist your color choices.

Lesson 3:

Folk stories are part of many cultures. Let’s learn about some Cuban folktales today.

Activity 1: Folk stories are a wonderful way to learn about a culture. Let’s read the book Martina The Beautiful Cockroach (or listen to this read aloud).

Have you ever heard the children’s song “la Cucaracha”? The song “La Cucaracha” has Mexican revolutionary roots, but it has been borrowed and slightly changed by many Spanish speaking countries in North and South America (including Cuba) and enjoyed as a children’s song. (source) Listen to the Cuban version of the song here. Want to understand and learn the words? This Mexican version will give you a Spanish language lesson. Sing along and say the words as she teaches them to you.

Activity 2: The next folk story we will read is (or listen to this read aloud).

The rooster is an important symbol in Cuban culture that represents strength and power. It is considered a compliment for a male to be called a rooster. If you visit the city of Morón in central Ciego de Avila Province, you will be surprised to see a huge statue of a bronze bird in a park appropriately called Parque del Gallo (Rooster Park). Read the history of the park and its statue in this article

Let’s do an arts and crafts project inspired by the rooster. Using a plastic fork and a variety of paint colors, we will create a very realistic looking rooster with his feathers.

Lesson 4:

Let’s explore the arts further by meeting some very talented Cubans.

Activity 1: Cuba has produced many famous ballet dancers. Read the book Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina (or read it here on OpenLibrary) OR Alicia Alonso Dances On (She Made History) to learn about the life of Alicia Alonso. Watch a performance of Don Quixote by the Cuban National Ballet company, choreographed by Alicia Alonso, here. (To learn a bit more about Don Quixote, click here.)

One of Cuba’s famous male ballet dancers is Carlos Acosta, who performs with Britain’s Royal Ballet in London. Watch one of his best performances in this video.  

Not all of us have the talent of famous ballet dancers, but we can all practice having nimble fingers as we create these ballerina cutouts!

Activity 2: Let’s meet another famous Cuban athlete! The Volleyball Hall of Fame inducted Regla Torres Herrera as the greatest volleyball female player of the 20th century. Read about her career as an Olympian in this post

Volleyball is such a fun game! This blog post shares 13 different outdoor games inspired by volleyball. If you have a few children in your family or co-op to play with, gather around to play one of these games.

Activity 3: Discover José Raúl Capablanca, the grandmaster world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Nicknamed “The Human Chess Machine,” José Raúl Capablanca was born in Havana, Cuba. A true prodigy, he learned chess at age four and defeated Cuban champion Juan Corzo at 13. While attending Columbia University, he joined the Manhattan Chess Club and soon became its strongest player. He had a particular talent for rapid chess, defeating World Champion Emanuel Lasker in 1906. He eventually withdrew from Columbia to focus on chess. (source)

Want to try your own chess skills? Try this online chess game. It offers free games and lessons with its membership.

Lesson 5:

For our food history lessons today, we’ll learn more about ropa vieja, the national dish of Cuba.

Activity 1: This rustic, humble dish so perfectly tells the story of the country’s culinary and cultural evolution over the last half-century. Like many great parts of Cuban culture, ropa vieja started life in Spain. Its name literally translates to ‘old clothes’ and is based on a folktale. The story says that a penniless old man once shredded and cooked his own clothes because he could not afford food for his family. He prayed over the bubbling concoction and a miracle occurred, turning the mixture into a tasty, rich meat stew. What we do know is that the recipe for ropa vieja is over 500 years old and originated with the Sephardic Jews in the Iberian peninsula of Spain. Because cooking was not allowed on the Sabbath, the Sephardi would slow-cook a hearty stew the night before.

The dish then traveled to the Americas with the Spanish people, where it became a staple dish across the Caribbean and Cuba. In Cuba, rope vieja received a major upgrade. It was blended to include African and South American influences such as peppers, garlic, onion, bay leaves, oregano, and cumin, ultimately becoming an authentic and unique dish from Cuba.

Activity 2: Preparing ropa vieja requires several cooking techniques, including braising, sauteing, and liquid reductions. Let’s learn more about each one.

Braising meat: Long before cooks had ovens, they had braising. To do it, they would suspend a heavy, covered pot over a hearth fire or open grate in the kitchen and slowly cook, or braise, their food. This method of cooking yields delicious dishes with tender meats and rich flavors. Most braises call for the tougher cuts of meats or poultry. In beef, this means cuts such as chuck, flank, brisket, rump, and round. These cuts come from areas of the animal that are continually exercised, which allows the muscle tissues to develop more flavor extractives as well as strength. (Our ropa vieja recipe calls for braised flank. A short cut to hours of braising is using an Instant Pot or pressure cooker.)

Sauteing vegetables: The word sauté (pronounced “saw-TAY”) refers to a form of dry-heat cooking that uses a hot pan and a small amount of fat to cook food quickly. Like other dry-heat cooking methods, sautéing browns the food’s surface as it cooks and develops complex flavors and aromas. (source) Learn some sauteing tips in this post.

Reductions: Reduction is performed by simmering or boiling a liquid such as a stock or a sauce until the desired concentration is reached by evaporation. This is done without a lid, enabling the vapor to escape from the mixture. The goal of reducing a sauce is to concentrate it for a thicker consistency and full-bodied flavor. 

Activity 3: Prepare this recipe and enjoy!

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.