Drawing out language

Asking students to draw and then share their images through the webcam has become a staple activity of the Hands Up Project’s online sessions. In the video below we can see how Palestinian teacher of English, We’am Hamdan, one of the latest volunteers to join us, expertly uses student drawings with her group of Syrian children in Zaatari. They are used as both a springboard to personalise learning and to practice and activate a range of areas of vocabulary and grammar.


Here’s the sequence of activities that We’am sets up. It’s great to see that despite the fact that there are no materials whatsoever (except paper and pens) the students are engaged and motivated throughout, and there’s lots of language being drawn out and activated.

  1. The students are asked to individually draw pictures of something that they want to have, or a place that they want to go to.
  2. One by one, students come up to the webcam and describe their pictures to We’am. We’am draws what they describe, asking questions to check understanding. Teacher and student then show their pictures to each other and they discuss differences. We’am asks further questions to activate more language.
  3. We’am reads out a sentence (Eg. In this picture there are two tables) and the class have to say which student’s picture it refers to. They do this as a competition between two halves of the class.
  4. Now students are asked to write down five sentences that they can say about each picture. One person from each team then comes up to the webcam and reads out their sentences to We’am. We’am scaffolds and corrects what they say.
  5. We’am describes two thieves to the class and the students draw them based on her descriptions.
  6. Students take it in turns to come up to the webcam with their pictures and We’am asks questions to check understanding and reactivate the language. (Which thief is tall? Which thief has big ears? etc)
  7. Now the roles are reversed and the students take it in turns come up and ask questions to the teacher about the pictures (Who’s got round eyes? Who’s got long arms? etc)

Do you ever ask students to draw in your language classes? If so how do you use their drawings to develop activities which practice and activate language. Please share your ideas in the comments below.


Cooperative story building

We now have volunteers in around 20 countries around the world, who are ready to connect to Palestinian and Syrian children for remote storytelling activities. This means that I don’t do so many sessions myself any more (freeing me up to train new volunteers, promote the project at conferences and generally manage everything else )

But I still like to do a few sessions when I can, and these days I’m focussing a lot on activities to help students create stories, rather than just listen to them. Here’s a neat way of doing this which I tried out with a group of Syrian children in Zaatari refugee camp on Sunday.

In the original activity, which I learnt from the Macmillan Education ELT youtube channel, the students were only asked to provide one word at a time. I can see the advantages of this approach. For a start it pushes the learners to really focus on accuracy and to notice each individual word. It’s also a kind of improvisation exercise, encouraging learners to make spontaneous choices.

I used to always do the exercise like this, but on Sunday in Zaatari, it didn’t feel right to make them do it in that way – I think because we’re really trying to encourage this beginners group to break away from single word responses and to speak more extensively. The activity is very simple but I like it a lot because (like all my favourite teaching activities) it combines student creativity with teacher support in the form of  scaffolding and correction.

Would it work in your face to face classes? What other ways do you have to help students create stories? Please share you ideas in the comments below.

Reading between the lines

One of the ways in which the Hands Up Project is expanding and diversifying in this new academic year is in the setting up of online book groups between teachers of English in Palestine and people in other countries around the world. The idea is very simple – a small group of teachers in Palestine choose a book that they can all easily access and that they would like to read. We then find another small group somewhere in the world who would like to read the same book and when everyone’s ready they meet through Zoom to discuss it in English.

The first of these is happening between 3 UNRWA teachers in Gaza and 3 people in my home town, Totnes. And because I have masses of free time at the moment (not!) I’m one of the people taking part.  We’re reading ‘The Alchemist’ by Paolo Coelho and to give myself a bit of a challenge, I’m trying to read it in the language it was originally written in – Brazilian Portuguese.

This is not easy for me at all. Although I lived in Brazil for three years and worked as a teacher there, it was more than 20 years ago and I was never very good at reading anyway. In fact I’ve never read a whole novel in Portuguese before. But, I must say that the task of reading in a foreign language has become much simpler and more satisfying for me since I invested in an e-reading device.

Let’s take an example from ‘The Alchemist’. Here’s the first page of the story.


There are lots of words I don’t know and this can make the process of reading a real struggle. Even in the second sentence (It was beginning to go dark when he arrived with his flock of sheep in front of an old abandoned church) there’s already a word which I don’t understand – rebanho – (the Portuguese word for flock of sheep).

Now I can’t really guess the meaning of this word through contextual clues, as it’s not until the next paragraph that the word for sheep (ovelhas) appears and I don’t even know yet that the boy is in fact a shepherd. So who or what is he arriving in front of the old church with? His prayer book?  His wheelbarrow? His lover?

When reading a physical book, I’d have had to get out my Portuguese English dictionary and look up ‘rebanho’. This would take time, and by the time I’d worked out the meaning, the image that had been implanted in my mind of the boy arriving in front of the church at dusk would have been lost and  I would have had to recreate it. On the e-reader I can can just click on any word I don’t understand and it will give me an immediate translation from the dictionary I’ve pre-installed. This takes a maximum of a few seconds and I’m straight back into the context of the book.


Another very useful thing in terms of language development is that the e-reader keeps a record of every word that I look up and I can go to these at any point I want to, through the inbuilt vocabulary builder.


I can then click on any word again and I can see all the instances in the whole book where the word is used or, if I need it, the translation again. It will even allow me to create e-flash cards for all the words I’ve looked up which I can test myself with. And if I feel that I’ve mastered a word I can remove it from the set so that I only focus on words that I need more practice with.



I’ve always found reading in a foreign language a chore – something that I felt was useful but not much fun, and certainly not something that I felt I was very good at it.  Now with the e-reader I’m using reading as a way to develop my rusty Portuguese but most importantly, for me, I’m now actually enjoying reading in a foreign language, and my confidence has increased a lot.  I can’t wait until our first meeting to discuss the book.





Eye Contact

I’ve never experienced a teacher training course which mentioned eye contact. But I’m starting to think that the way we use it as teachers of young learners is actually a key thing to be aware of, and something that should be focussed on more. If good teaching is about building relationships (and I strongly believe that it is) then the simple act of looking at each other in the eyes is one of the most powerful ways we can do this.



In April this year a group of girls from an UNRWA school in Khan Younis, Gaza, the winners of last year’s playwriting competition, were invited to perform their play at the beginning of Mark Thomas’s comedy show at a theatre in London. There were going to be over 300 people in the audience and the girls had never even been in a theatre of that size before, let alone performed in one, so they were understandably nervous. To make them feel relaxed Mark advised them to avoid making eye contact with the audience when they were acting as this could put them off.  Zaheya, the main actress in the play, (pictured above in a different play, ‘The Screen’ ) thanked Mark for his advice but said that she would look the audience in the eyes anyway, because she wanted them to know who she was.

jumping through the screen

I like that simple idea. People in Palestine want and need us to know who they are and we want the same from them too of course. We need to use eye contact effectively as teachers and as students, to help people to feel that they are being listened to and understood. But when we stand on a stage and act or tell a story, making eye contact with the audience is equally important. It establishes an immediate connection and, as Zaheya says,  tells the audience who we are.

Eye contact is especially necessary, but also more complicated, when connecting remotely. There was a lovely moment during a remote performance of the Palestinian story, Jbene at the IATEFL conference in Glasgow last year when the main character, Zeinab went right up to the webcam to ask the audience a question. Although Zeinab’s looking straight at the video of the audience on the computer screen (so in her eyes is making eye contact) to the audience she isn’t, because she’s not looking directly into the little green light of the webcam.

Glasgow - eye contact

Compare this to the remote performance at this years IATEFL conference by a group from another UNRWA school in Nuseirat camp, Gaza, where it does feel that eye contact is being made. I think this is because most of the girls are looking into the webcam light rather than at the video of the audience. This strange phenomenon of making eye contact by not making eye contact ( if you know what I mean 🙂 ) needs a bit of training and practice for teachers and students because it somehow goes against our natural instincts.

Unity eye contact

In the screenshots below (from a session in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and another in Beit Hanoun, Gaza)  you can see where I’m getting it wrong, and where Rosalia and Alex, HUP volunteers based in Italy and Russia are getting it completely right.


zaatari boys cropped

eye contact alex

So what about you and your classes? Have you ever thought about the impact of making or not making eye contact in the classes you teach? Are there any cultural issues which may come into play here? Is eye contact always a good thing and can you ever have too much of a good thing? It would be great to see some comments below.

Hanaa Mansour’s drama classes in Gaza

After posting yesterday about some of the drama activities we tried out in the courses for teachers, one of the participants, Hanaa Mansour, immediately got back to me with feedback on how the activities had worked with her students during their school’s summer English club.  This deserves a post of its own so over to you Hanaa…
Here I’d like to share how using the drama training course activities amazingly resulted in motivation, enthusiasm, and creativity in my classes as well as successful practice of vocabulary and grammatical structures.
The first activity I’ve used, which I also believe it’s very recommended to facilitate the students’ process of learning any area of the language, is Down the line dialogue. (adapted from Drama and Improvisation by Ken Wilson) For practising health problems vocabulary, students were involved in this activity in which they need to stand in a line, angrily ask about their friend’s health problem, and pass the question to the last student who expresses the problem and it goes back to the first student in a very sympathetic mood. This activity can also be effectively used for acquiring and developing any grammatical structure such as the questions with How as shown in the video.

After presenting the grammatical structure, adjective/ noun + infinitive, used for giving advice such as It’s important/ helpful to, or It’s a good idea to.., students were engaged in Bad day, Good day activity. (adapted from Spontaneous Speaking by David Heathfield) Students were divided into two circles. The inner circle stands for fathers and the outer circle stands for sons who have some health problems. In the bad day, fathers are a little tough and they start blaming their sons for not paying attention to their health. In the good day, however, fathers turn to be very kind, caring for their sons’ health, and gently advising them using the learnt grammatical structure.

While planning and deciding which activities can be appropriately used for a unit which mainly includes geographical features vocabulary as well as comparative and superlative structure. I felt that the Tour Guide activity (adapted from Drama and Improvisation by Ken Wilson) was especially suitable for practising such areas. Hence, students were asked to draw any geographic feature they like, give it a special name, act as a guide, and speak about this place using some facts of their sheer imagination as well as trying their best to conveniently use the comparative and superlative form.

Best regards and thanks to Mr Nick Bilbrough for such a remarkable course and I hope this feedback can be somehow worthwhile.

Bringing language to life through drama

I’ve just got back from 3 weeks in Palestine, running drama club leader training courses for around 120 UNRWA teachers in five different locations: Southern Gaza, Northern Gaza, Jerusalem area, Hebron area and Nablus area. The plan is that these teachers will set up English drama clubs in their schools when the new semester starts in September, and that these clubs will feed into the online weekly link ups that the Hands Up Project organises.

still image gaza

But the courses weren’t just about promoting drama as an extra curricular activity. I also wanted to share some simple drama activities which could be easily integrated into the teachers’ normal English classes, and which could complement their work with the coursebook, English for Palestine.

Here’s a nice activity for practising a dialogue from the coursebook in a motivating way. The dialogue goes down the line and is repeated by each person, but each line is said in a very angry way. It can be very engaging to perform and to watch and, in my opinion, it’s a great way to make the language that they are practising very memorable. It could be done with practically any short dialogue using the target language from the coursebook.

And here’s another, this one involving a volunteer coming to the front to be interviewed by the rest of the class.  The idea is that this student at the front creates a character by answering the questions not as him or herself but by spontaneously answering with invented answers. Here the volunteer is wearing a mask and a hat and has become a pirate. The questions that came up (and his answers) were very interesting, and focussed around what made him choose a life of crime and how he could live with himself for doing it.

When the activity is done with students with limited English it can be just as engaging even though linguistically it may be very simple (What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? Do you have children etc?). Here’s the same activity being used in an online link up session at Mamounia girls UNRWA school in Gaza city. After creating several characters in this way the students decided that it would be interesting to see what would happen if some of the characters met.

I first learnt both of these activities from ELT author and founder of the English Teaching Theatre, Ken Wilson, when he demonstrated them more than 10 years ago at a drama and language learning day that I organised at SOAS in London. Ken also included them in his brilliant book, Drama and Improvisation (OUP 2008). Thanks a lot Ken!

Live your life, live your dreams

By David Heathfield

‘We always have our dreams’ 13-year-old Shaza in Gaza tells 73-year-old Japanese Hiroshi who, along with Eunji and KC from South Korea are in one of the classes I teach in Exeter, UK. The Internet connection is weak at both ends so we huddle around my mobile in the classroom. Video is impossible so we are straining to understand the erratic audio. But not to worry, the message comes across loud and clear. ‘Thanks to The Hands Up Project, we can communicate with people all over the world through the Internet,’ adds Razan.

Shaza, Razan, Sally, Malak and Marwa from Beit Hanoun prep girls school A Gaza, with the support of their teachers Manal Ismail and Rinan Al Muzanin, devised, scripted, rehearsed, performed and video-recorded a five-minute play which they entered in the 2017 Hands Up Project playwriting and performing competition. They have been doing online storytelling classes with Nick BiIbrough for a couple of years and are used to creative and playful English learning. I had the privilege of being one of the judges and was totally blown away by all the entries I watched in early January. Live Your Life stuck in my memory because of the simple and powerful message that families need to support their daughters’ desire to follow their dreams, and also because of the sheer dynamism and commitment of the five girls’ performances. So when Nick Bilbrough published his article and the script of Live Your Life in the IATEFL Young Learners SIG magazine , I couldn’t wait to show it to my class of five adult Japanese and South Korean students. They were amazed to read and learn about The Hands Up Project and liked the script so much, especially when they watched the girls’ vibrant performance on youtube.

Hiro, Eunji and KC closely related to the storyline and characters in Live Your Life and talked about the universality of the theme, particularly referring to changing attitudes in Japan and South Korea. They were eager to rehearse and perform the play themselves in the following day’s two-hour lesson so that they could show their version to the girls in Gaza who had created it. The five students cast themselves in the five roles and I suggested that they start learning their lines for the next day.

At the start of the next day’s class the students did their first read-through and we focused on pronunciation and emotion. Then, to my amazement, they put their scripts down and did it all over again. They had memorised the lines overnight, such was their enthusiasm. Learning by heart appears to be a skill many Japanese and South Korean people develop when they are young. We turned the classroom into a simple set and the students tried out a few bits of costume and props I had brought in. Immediately these students, who, with the exception of Eunji in the role of the controlling mother, had never done any theatre in their lives, threw themselves into rehearsal and, with a little direction, they were ready to do their final video-recorded performance five minutes before the end of the class.

Their performance had quite a different feel from what the girls in Gaza had achieved. The energy was gentler and the pace was slower, but the sincerity was beautiful to witness. The simple explanation is that they were performing for an audience they cared about. Immediately after they finished they recorded a spontaneous message for the girls in Gaza.

The next time I saw my class a week later, they had been reading about the situation in Gaza. They watched their own performance which I had uploaded to youtube on a private setting and were glad to make it public. After reading more about Gaza from the UNRWA site https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/gaza-strip , they decided they wanted to write an email to the girls and their teacher, Manal (see below). KC, who played the daughter with dreams of being a writer, chose an uplifting poem to accompany the message. In the next lesson they worked on their pronunciation and made a recording of the poem to send the girls.

And then yesterday we made the phone call. Each of the five girls in Gaza expressed themselves powerfully, each addressing the student in Exeter who played the same role she herself had played.

Nothing is more powerful in language learning than theatre when there is a desire to communicate as best you can with an audience. Thanks to The Hands Up Project for making this possible. The procedure described here is easy, natural, motivating and can be adapted to just about any teaching context. Let’s get students around the world performing the plays created by these amazing young people in Palestine. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwTmDrk314J41swBDlxDzWMLipGmmYFRM


Hello Manal, Malak, Shaza, Razan, Sally and Marwa

Congratulations on your amazing play ‘Live Your Life’. I teach English to international adult students at INTO University of Exeter in SW England. I was honoured to be one of the judges for the HUP playwriting competition and I fell in love with your creation. A class of international students who I am teaching, in response to watching your play, wanted to stage it themselves and send it as a tribute to you. Here is their own version of Live Your Life https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4A6xZQ74iY&t=66s along with a video appreciating your creation https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVfvLe0E9EQ. Yesterday they read about Gaza on the UNRWA website and today they have written you messages here below. Hiro, Ryotaro and Ayana are from Japan and Eunji and KC are from South Korea. Ryotaro who played the role of father, like Malak, finished his course last Friday so there is no message from him here – before he left, he told me that he really enjoyed the experience.

Many best wishes to you all


Dear Shaza Hamad,

 I am writing this e-mail to thank you for your play, “LIVE YOUR LIFE”. Our teacher David Heathfield was kind enough to let us see a nice video of your play last week in his class. We were so impressed that we laughed one minute, sympathized the next. I, as a grandfather of two boys myself, was truly convinced that family issues, especially the relationships between the generations, are so common beyond countries, races and cultures.

To your surprise, we, five students, two Korean, three Japanese played your script. Naturally ours is poor given that we only had just two hours rehearsal.

But after we knew more about the extraordinary situation you were in, my simple thanks have changed to my sincere admiration for you. As I have never been to Gaza, I even cannot imagine the real life there, but it should be a very tough one. 

I hope you live strong and brisk as ever and I pray you get peace and independence back as soon as possible.

Hiro Aoto from Exeter UK

Dear Razan Hweihi and your friends,

Thank you for sharing your great video with us. I really enjoyed watching it and I was really impressed.

I acted the role of younger sister like you! The younger sister has a great dream and she tries to persuade her mother. Because I couldn’t act very well like you, I respect you. I think your acting makes people cheer up.

If you enjoy our play, I will be happy.

I read an article about the situation in Gaza and I was so shocked about it and also I felt so guilty for you because I didn’t know about that.

I really admire you guys because even in a very difficult situation, you never give up having dreams and receiving education.

I hope your dreams come true and the situation will get better.

Yours sincerely,

Ayana Murai (the Japanese woman who acted the role of younger sister)


Dear Sally & your friends

Hi, Sally! I’m Eunji from South Korea. I’m studying in the UK. Because my teacher showed us your video, we tried to act it out! And I acted the role of mother like you. It was a little difficult to play because of many lines! How did you remember them? Finally I memorized them all, but I couldn’t focus on my facial expression and accent. However your performance was strong.

Especially I like the scene where the mother walked around the calendar. It was a good expression of the passing of time. I was impressed. You acted the characteristics of the mother really well and it was a very nice delivery of words. So I really respect you. Of course, I liked the acting of other friends too. Haha. After acting, I was interested in Gaza. So I searched some information through the internet. Also I could learn what I didn’t know about Gaza.

Thank you for creating the video and the fantastic acting! I really enjoyed it and had a good time. I hope your dreams become true!

Best wishes,



Hi Marwa Hamad!

My name is HyonJu Ham(KC).

I am the person who took the same role which you acted in the play “Live your life”.

Now, I am studying English in the UK and I will go back to my hometown in South Korea next month. During our English class, our teacher David introduced us your play and I really enjoyed it.

When David proposed that we just tried to perform the play which you guys did, I felt nervous, because I am a passive and introverted person.

I had never thought about myself as an actress in my life and whenever I saw plays, I thought that actors and actresses came from another world.

Anyway, after several rehearsals, we performed the play and we were able to watch the film which we made.

And the thing I felt after watching our film was how difficult it is for people who perform plays to express themselves and how talented they are.

Performing plays is totally different from watching plays.

So, now I know that you have a talent, especially, I looked at your strong voice, gestures and confidence in admiration.

I am really looking forward to seeing your great future.

Here is a poem for you:


Believe in Yourself

Set your standards high

You deserve the best.

Try for what you want

And never settle for less.

Believe in yourself

No matter what you choose.

Keep a winning attitude

And you can never lose.

Think about your destination

But don’t worry if you stray

Because the most important thing

Is what you’ve learned along the way.

Take all that you’ve become

To be all that you can be.

Soar above the clouds

And let your dreams set you free.

-Jillian K. Hunt-

I wish you live as you want and achieve whatever you want. Thank you for sharing your video and I hope to see your video again.^^

HyonJu Ham (KC)