Robyn Sturgeon, a Tyler educator, went to the Republic of Sierra Leone in western Africa, among the most impoverished countries in the world, to give tips to teachers there about how to improve instruction for students.

Sturgeon was part of a team from Bethel Bible Church that recently spent a week in that nation, where the Tyler church works with churches, sponsors a couple of schools and offers scholarships for students to attend schools in Sierra Leone.

Bethel Bible Church sends a group of its members to Sierra Leone every six months, but the latest trip was Sturgeon’s first and marked the first time that anyone with an education background went along to assist schools in Sierra Leone.

Sturgeon spent much of her time observing and helping Sierra Leone schools and leading professional development workshops for teachers.

She also consulted in Freetown, the capital and largest city in Sierra Leone, with officials of Freetown Teachers College about its educational program training future teachers and how she could work with the college in the future on professional development for teachers.

Sturgeon, who moved to Tyler six years ago with her husband, works for NWEA, an educational nonprofit that provides assessment tools for schools.

She currently travels throughout the U.S., working with consultants and teachers in schools to help them understand how to use data to help their students. She spent 23 years in public education as a teacher, instructional coach and assistant principal.

Sturgeon used vacation time for the trip to Sierra Leone.

In workshops she led for primary and secondary teachers in Sierra Leone, Sturgeon discussed the kinds of questioning techniques that could be used to help students process deeper and also talked about instructional strategies.

Sturgeon gave the teachers opportunities to write and discuss questions at different levels in ways of learning they hadn’t been exposed to.

There was “rich discussion,” Sturgeon said. “It was wonderful to be a part of opening dialogue about how to move students into critical thinking and some ways to do that.”

In presenting several instructional strategies, Sturgeon suggested a “think, pair and share” approach in which students can think about a question, talk about it with a partner and share answers.

Her favorite strategy that she gave the teachers is a “four-corners activity,” in which students go to a corner of the room and talk about why they chose an answer to a question.

She let the teachers experience the activity by asking them to go in groups to corners of the classroom and tell why they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed or strongly disagreed with how the father in the book “Charlotte’s Web” allowed himself to be persuaded by his daughter not to slaughter a runt pig for food and instead keep it for a pet.

Since people in Sierra Leone are too poor to have pets, Sturgeon said she found the reasoning of the teachers “fascinating” because of their culture.

In observing classes in Sierra Leone, Sturgeon noted that students do not have textbooks, and that the only educational material teachers have is one textbook. Teachers write information from the textbook on the one blackboard available and students write it down in their notebooks.

Sturgeon also noticed that teachers in Sierra Leone do not have maps. She saw one teacher giving a history of soccer trying to help students understand without a map that soccer started in London in the United Kingdom.

“Teachers were doing so much with so little resources,” Sturgeon said, “and students were learning. Teachers were finding every opportunity to move students forward.”

In going to different classrooms, Sturgeon observed about 50 children ages 3 to 5 in one small classroom. “The teacher was doing a beautiful job of engaging them and getting them to learn their letters,” she said.

Children in Sierra Leone attend school from age 3 through the 12th grade. To graduate, they must pass the West African Summative Test. Some take the test as many as five times.

Visiting Serra Leone allowed Sturgeon to see the needs of the schools there and inspired her to set goals to set up a library and computer lab in two schools.

Sturgeon plans to organize a book drive in Tyler for encyclopedias, textbooks and fictional books, as well as teaching resources that she can ship to the schools for a library. Her second goal is to provide a computer lab, since students must have computer skills in order to receive their graduation certificate.

Neither of the schools she visited has a library or computer lab.

Sturgeon said that during her visit, she was struck by seeing the people in Sierra Leone doing much with little and was inspired to find opportunities to do that in her life.

“Their world is so different than mine. It was a great experience for me to remember that we are all different, but our hearts a lot of the time are the same,” Sturgeon said.

She said she now thinks about how she can look at people and see their heart and have them see hers and how she can connect with others despite differences in culture.

Twitter: @Tyler paper

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