Our partnership began in October 2016 with a ‘Rivers of the World’ Project.

Teachers from around the world united in the British Council building in London to discuss this project and how we could connect the classroom work of schools from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Nepal and many other ‘underprivileged’ schools across the globe. Inspired and enthused, we all shared ideas and engaged in collaborative planning to ensure all our pupils could begin their own enquiries across connected topics which all fed into the theme of rivers.

Soon after, Kathleen Guthrie (the Global Schools Coordinator) put us all in contact with our partner school teachers in the hope that we would further develop ideas and maintain contact, across classrooms, working towards agreed common aims.

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As a result, pupils of Winifred Holtby and Albert Academy achieved their most successful collaborative piece to date: Rivers of the World. This piece was exhibited across classrooms in Sierra Leone and Hull; all pupils involved achieved phenomenal outcomes which are testament to their engagement and commitment throughout the collaborative global project. Not only were the pupils involved already over the moon with the fact their work had been exhibited around the world – but that they were part of a team chosen by myself to take part in the most prestigious group of artists at the academy. Showing pupils photographs of the schools in Sierra Leone completing similar lessons with huge smiles on their faces, despite being in a lot less-privileged setting, really made them think and embrace the culture.

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Astounded, inspired and motivated by the phenomenal outcomes of the Rivers of the World Project, several teachers were invited to take part in a project which would enable them to take the partnerships formed to the next level and truly connect global classrooms.

In May 2017, the British Council launched their next project: Connecting Classrooms. Teachers engaged in a series of planning workshops which continually pushed our creativity and imagination to ensure we were able to offer our pupils additional outstanding learning experiences. We set targets and goals to become more experimental with the way in which we approach pupil learning.

Upon completion, the British Council explained a unique and incredibly exciting opportunity: Global Team Teaching. Teachers across Hull were given the chance to apply to travel to Sierra Leone and teach with colleagues across the globe with our partner schools. Once confirmed, the excitement continued to build alongside our ongoing collaboration of ideas.

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In February 2018 the wait was over. A group of teachers from Hull travelled over to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Our main objective was to share ideas, experience and planning with our partnering schools. Throughout the time there we were warmly immersed in their culture and society. The hospitality was incredible; the staff at many schools that we visited joined us outside of the school time to show us not only how they plan and teach – but how they live and socialise.

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Travelling to Sierra Leone required a little more than just jumping on an aeroplane. With no direct flights and the actual airport itself not being in Freetown (it is just outside in a town called Lungi), we knew this was going to be a trip to remember. Roughly twenty hours, three coaches, two flights and one very rocky boat trip later, we arrived at the hotel in thirty-three-degree heat.

After catching up on sleep, we were greeted by a group of extremely welcoming Sierra Leoneans who had planned a jam-packed welcome weekend to immerse us in their culture. Locals gave up their weekend and together we explored local museums, parks, churches and restaurants. We soon learnt that Freetown is one of the most exciting and energizing cities in the world. The atmosphere was electric: happy faces greeted us around every bustling corner. It is incomparable in the sense that we have nothing like it in England or Europe as every corner you turn feels like a new story or photo opportunity. The things we saw on a day to day basis was like watching a two-week long movie. The hospitality was tremendous.

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You could tell that all they wanted was for us to return with a great experience of their city. The stories they told us about their city and the way in which they were just constantly happy to relive experiences about the good times and quite upsettingly the bad times, was amazing. Just after spending two days with this very warm and welcoming group of people, we knew this was going to be a fantastic trip.

After an amazing opening weekend, teachers from Hull all split up and travelled to various schools around the city of Freetown. I headed to Albert Academy: Winifred Holtby Academy’s partner and this is where I spent most of my week.

Albert Academy is an all-boys school at the base of Oriol mountain in the east of Freetown, with roughly 1200 pupils attending each day. The first couple of hours we walked around the Academy observing the way in which the Sierra Leoneans learn. It was very old school: chalk boards and crammed classrooms in all rooms. However, the passion and drive were infectious; an unbelievably unanimous desire to learn.

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Pupils hung on to every word each teacher said. When a teacher explained something to the pupils, you could hear a pin drop. When the pupils were writing down answers their hands would fly in the air when complete to show they were ready to move on. The atmosphere around the school was tangible as all pupils really were just trying 110%.

Pupils were so eager to learn about our culture in the UK: question after question was fired my way- pupils inquisitive and eager to learn about all aspects of British life, although football proved to be the most popular topic of debate. Just before I left for Sierra Leone the overwhelming generosity of pupils, staff and teachers of Winifred Holtby, alongside Tiger’s Trust, shone through. I received parcels packed with equipment, cleaning products and clothing. The faces of the pupils- and adults- as I revealed over seventy Hull football and rugby shirts was incredible. They were so grateful and they threw the shirts on instantly.

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Other than wandering around the classrooms and getting to know the pupils and teachers, the time I spent there was mostly in the art classroom and in the staff room when the group projects got a little large. The pupils were so grateful to get the package we put together. We took paper, pencils, watercolours, paints, palettes and brushes. When we got to working we created a huge banner that will be put up in Winifred Holtby which incorporates the meeting of the two schools and the collaborative work we will continue with them. Thirty pupils were involved in this banner, and this was a similar group to the pupils that completed the rivers of the world poster a year ago.

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As I left the school the drama department put on a huge display for me including a play all about the founding of Freetown. I have brought home many artefacts and souvenirs that the pupils have insisted on me bringing – so these will all be used in the future lessons at Winifred Holtby.

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Throughout the week I did choose to go and visit other schools, I wanted to see the various teaching styles and the way in which the pupils were taught the crucial building blocks at primary school. The Bill Clinton primary school was a very small school in Allentown and teaches 4-year olds all the way up to 20-year olds. The school is split into four different buildings each around a 400 metre walk from one another. The pupils were fantastic here and all wanted to get involved in the drawing lesson we had later on in the day! Their timetables, just like Albert Academy, are split into different lessons, English, Maths etc just as an English school would teach a rounded curriculum. They would start the day with a huge singalong including religious songs, school songs and the national anthem. Explaining to the teachers there that we do not sing the national anthem before school did not go down well, they could not understand why!

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The other school that I visited was Penn-Sped school for Autism. It is run by two fantastic leaders called Mary and Alice who have Sierra Leonean family but have lived in USA and England studying Psychology. They moved back to Sierra Leone to set up the first school for Autism. They explained the stigma surrounding Autism in Sierra Leone, which we found very difficult to hear of. However, we wholeheartedly respect and support the work that is being done to break this down. Along with the help of donations from the area, Mary and Alice have established a very well-structured, welcoming school which is currently home to 25 pupils – all with unique and challenging learning needs. Despite the obstacles that they face, all pupils were so happy. This school has been put together in the last four months and already has a waiting list of 200 pupils, so the owners are putting a huge push on the continuation of funding. They are putting together a football game with John Keita, the manager of Sierra Leone national team, facing off the east of the city versus the west of the city which already has got a huge following from the public of Freetown.

Seeing all three of the schools in action has given me a massive spring in my step about teaching and what we have achieved in the last few years at Winifred Holtby. The improvements that are needed to get our partner school where we are, are huge. The only thing we can do as a team is keep up the partnership and try to get as many departments involved as possible. I plan on keeping the link there for my remaining time in teaching and getting more teachers involved so hopefully they will one day catch us up as that is what the passion and drive of all the students deserve.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all involved in this partnership so far and look forward to seeing what we can achieve as we continue to work together.

Photographs and article by Joey O'Mara