Remote theatre for children in challenging circumstances

At the IATEFL conference in Brighton last week, and again at the Hands Up Project conference at Westminster University which immediately followed it, Rida Thabet and I gave a talk about the special type of drama that The Hands Up Project is enabling Palestinian and Syrian children to perform through Zoom to audiences around the world. We have termed this form of drama Remote Theatre.

Why remote theatre?

If theatre is being used to tell a story to the outside world, then a basic requirement is an audience. But if you live in a place like Gaza, or the Occupied West Bank, or Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where movement out or in (or even within) is extremely limited, then an audience made up of anyone who comes from anywhere apart from your immediate surroundings is very difficult to come by.

Performing theatre through simple video-conferencing tools like Zoom enables children in these contexts to reach audiences in my diverse contexts around the world – to HUP volunteers in South America, Europe and the Far East, but also to classes of school children or conference delegates almost anywhere in the world.

What are the features of remote theatre?

Remote theatre is rather different of course from normal theatre where both the actors and the audience occupy the same space.  Remote theatre is one dimensional, in that the only view the audience have is what can been seen through the lens of the webcam. However this doesn’t mean that it can’t be engaging, and moving for the audience and the actors, providing that certain features are there. These may include:-

  1. The actors being as close as possible to the webcam.
  2. Speaking more slowly and clearly than is necessary in face-to-face theatre.
  3. Making eye contact with the audience by looking directly into the green light of the webcam wherever possible.
  4. Physicalising what is said wherever possible.
  5. Having very clear entrances and exits. When actors aren’t involved in a scene they should generally be out of the field of view of the webcam. There are interesting ways however in which they can make an entrance (for example appearing from underneath).

Many of these features can be seen in the snippet of video below, where a group of girls in Gaza are rehearsing (through Zoom) their interpretation of a story from English for Palestine called The wolf’s shoes

And they can also be seen in this great play written and performed by Dana Nawas, Rawan El Bahnasawi, Batool Mohsen, Nada El Khatib, and Raghad El Na’ami from Nuseirat Prep. A Girls School, Gaza with support from their teacher Mariam Abu Seifan. This play was performed live to great effect to everyone who came to our talk in Brighton.

There are many other great plays that were created by children in Palestine, which they would love to perform remotely to a class of kids of a similar age somewhere else in the world. You can access a video of many of these plays in this youtube playlist. If there is a particular theme that you are exploring with your students you may well find a play that relates to it. For instance..

-human rights  – Window onto the outside or When will the sun rise?

-family relationships  – Live your life   or My mother in law is a troublemaker

-plans for the future –    I have a dream or Stolen dreams

Please get in touch if you’d like to arrange something in your school.

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Teachers’ Interaction During Videoconferencing – mediated Co-teaching

One of the things that I find most moving about the work of the Hands Up project is the relationship that develops between the remote teacher and the classroom teacher. Alex Guzik in Russia and Sahar Salha in Gaza have been working together for well over two years now, planning online sessions together, feeding back to each other after the online session has taken place – even negotiating together what will happen next while the session is going on.

I’m particularly looking forward to their joint talk at the Hands Up Project conference on the 14th April entitled, “Enhanced teacher performance through remote team-teaching”, where they’ll be sharing some ways in which their classroom practice has been improved through working together online. 

The interaction between this team teaching pair, and between others, has also been the subject of a Masters dissertation by Hornby scholar from Venezuela, Maricarmen Gamero, studying at the university of Warwick, and the following blog post, looking at some of her findings was kindly written by her.

Over to you MariCarmen….

alex screen

TEACHERS’ INTERACTION DURING VIDEOCONFERENCING-MEDIATED CO-TEACHING

Videoconferencing- mediated co-teaching in the context of the Hands up Project is carried out by two instructors, who are in different geographical spaces, working collaboratively to enhance English language learning. The main purpose of applying such practice in an online setting is to give learners the opportunity to improve their language skills, and to have contact with other cultures, people and varieties of English. Obviously, the successful outcomes of the process rely mainly on the relationship dynamics between the classroom teacher (CT) and the remote teacher (RT). The former is the one who, at the time of the live session, shares the same space as the students in Palestine. The latter is the volunteer teacher in another country, for example Russia, England, Chile, Belgium, among others.

The common principles that sustain the relationship between the teachers are: 1. their social responsibility of contributing to the progress of communities in need; and 2. the value they give to innovation in their teaching practice, promoting change through the integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) to the classroom. Depending on those beliefs, and considering the purpose and moment of the process, each pair of teachers in the Hands up Project adopts a co-teaching model. This coincides with what Heo and Mann (2015) mention about co-teaching models, claiming that the adoption of a particular style depends on many contextual and personal factors. So, it is impossible to assert that there is a fixed model within a particular context or even within a particular teaching team for a prolonged time.

The relation between the CT and the RT becomes stronger or weaker depending on the time length and frequency of communication with each other, as well as the distribution of tasks between them. Commonly, they communicate in an asynchronous way during the planning and evaluation stages, and in a synchronous way mainly during the implementation stage. Hence, the mechanics of the relationship between teachers rely on the use of different ICT tools. For instance, emails and Facebook chats to agree upon logistic aspects of the videoconferencing-mediated sessions; and Google Docs to write reports about the activities carried out during them. This shows how co-teaching gives place to informal collaboration, as mentioned by Honigsfeld and Dove (2010), who highlight that such exchange of information can be done “via teacher mailboxes or designated folders, school e-boards, e-mail correspondence, blogs, and wikis” (p. 63).

During the planning stage, collaboration comprises feedback between the teachers who agree on how to enhance language learning for a specific group of students. The RT requires the help of the CT to verify the appropriateness of the content to the learners’ level and culture, as well as to arrange time, date and materials for the videoconferencing session. Owing to planning procedures, RTs have an opportunity for professional development when learning about cultural matters and putting into practice their skills for content adaptability.

During the implementation stage, the RT acts as the leader and the CT as support. The former delivers content through story-telling and the application of activities that promote critical thinking skills, and in which students experience intake and perform output. The CT is the one who sets the conditions for the videoconferencing, checking internet connection and the necessary devices for communication. The CT is also responsible for classroom management, monitoring and scaffolding. The RT depends on the CT´s help to clarify meaning, whether through translation or gestures, to check if instructions are being understood and to help learners answer questions.

Generally, in the days after the videoconferencing sessions, the CT teaches alternative information, since the content given in those sessions is seen as the introduction to the ones included in the formal curriculum. So, the CT develops the formal content using the vocabulary, phrases and story taught by the RT. On the other hand, when sessions are not completed owing to any external or technical interruption, the RT establishes follow-up activities with the CT. In this particular case, learners and the CT become a team preparing a performance for the RT. Owing to this; the teachers learn to trust their students’ skills, their relationship improves, and a climate of collaboration happens to be a key feature of the classrooms. Such benefits are analysed in the evaluation stage of videoconferencing- mediated co-teaching, which corresponds to the CT’s views about their students’ progress and their perceptions of the sessions.

The success of videoconferencing-mediated co-teaching depends not only on the tool itself, but on the interaction established between the RT and CT. The relation between teachers is reinforced through their interpersonal skills, and the use of other ICT tools that allow regular asynchronous communication. In that way, the rapport between teachers can give place to a community of practice that grows beyond teaching and includes researching, creating and implementing other classroom projects.

Likewise, the use of videoconferencing-mediated co-teaching brings opportunities of professional development for teachers, since the recordings of the sessions can be used to review the performance of the learners and as a self-reflection tool for teachers about their methodology and style. In fact, this is supported by the ideas of Tripp and Rich (2012) and Mann and Walsh (2017) who consider that reflecting on recorded class sessions can be beneficial for in-service teachers to make pedagogical decisions.

 

REFERENCES

Heo, J., & Mann, S. (2015). Exploring team teaching and team teachers in Korean primary schools. English Language Teacher Education and Development Journal, 17(3). Retrieved from: http://www.elted.net/uploads/7/3/1/6/7316005/v17_3heo&mann.pdf.

Honigsfeld, A. & Dove, M. G. (2010). Collaboration and co-teaching: Strategies for english learners. Doi: 10.4135/9781452219516.

Tripp, T., & Rich, P. (2012). Using video to analyze one’s own teaching. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(4), 678-704. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01234.x.

Mann, S. & Walsh, S. Reflective practice in English language teaching. Research-based principles and practices. New York: Routledge.

 

Testing the teacher

In many language classrooms around the world teachers generally ask a lot of questions to students. They do this as a way to generate chat and discussion, as in ‘Did you have a nice trip?‘ or ‘What do you think Jbene should do now?‘, but they also do it to test the knowledge of the students, as in “What’s the past of go? ‘ and ‘How do we say سمك in English?

Recently, in my online sessions with groups of kids in Palestine, I’ve been experimenting with a technique that encourages the learners to ask the questions. What I do is ask their teacher to organise them into different groups of about six students. Each group is assigned a different topic – Geography, History, Science, Nature, Palestine etc. Their task is to plan and write down some questions to ask me. Their teacher helps them out with language queries that come up and then as a group they choose their most difficult questions that they think I won’t be able to answer. We then do it as a kind of competition. One representative from each group comes up to the webcam and asks me the question. If I get it right, I get a point. If I get it wrong, they get a point. Here’s a short excerpt of how it worked with one group in an UNRWA school in Deir-al-Balah, Gaza.

 

There are six things which I particularly like about this activity:-

  1. It provides a link between English and other areas of the curriculum.
  2. It changes the traditional classroom status patterns so that leaners are enabled to say what is right and what is wrong, rather than the teacher.
  3. It can work well when there are power cuts or the internet goes off, as learners don’t need to be connected to the remote teacher during the question planning stage.
  4. It provides many opportunities for scaffolding and upgrading of language -with the class teacher, the remote teacher, and between the learners themselves.
  5. It provides a nice balance between accuracy (the writing and asking of the questions) and fluency (all the conversation that happens around the questions)
  6. It’s less about what learners know about English, and more about what they can do with English. (This is the theme of our conference which is happening 2 weeks today – more info here )

So how would it work in your context? If you teach French to teenagers in the UK, could you use a variant of this where you ask the learners to plan questions for you in French about recent films or songs that the learners know and like? If you are a foreigner teaching EFL to a monolingual class of adults, how about asking the students to prepare questions about the customs or culture of the country you are in?

I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on this activity. Please leave a comment below.

Performance in Language Learning

We are excited to inform you that Saturday the 14th April will be the Hands Up Project conference at Westminster University in Central London. As you’ll see below there is a fantastic line up of speakers and the climax will be a live performance by the winners of our playmaking competition – ‘Inner Thoughts’ from Khan Younis, Gaza.

Please reserve your place (and your Palestinian lunch!) using the details below. If you have a UK bank account you could arrange the minimum donation of £15 by bank transfer using these details and your name as a reference.

Account name : The Hands Up Project

Sort Code: 40 52 40

Account number: 00029718

Or you could do it through Paypal using the email address info@handsupproject.org

Hope to see you there!

The Hands Up Project conference -14th April

 

 

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Practising what we pre-teach

The Hands Up Project isn’t really very good at  ‘teaching’ language.

After three years of running this project, I’ve come to the conclusion that with all the power cuts, the often weak internet connection and the lack of physical presence, working online like this is actually quite an ineffective way of teaching anybody anything at all.  The sound quality is nowhere near good enough for most kinds of pronunciation clarification, and it’s really hard to know whether learners have understood any grammar or vocabulary focus that we might do, simply because we can’t see enough of them at the same time to be able to gauge whether they are following us, or not.

But thankfully we don’t need to worry about this too much. The children we work with in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan have their own English classes at UNRWA, the Palestinian Ministry of Education, and Relief International. Their teachers generally have a high level of English, and are very experienced and proficient in teaching grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. The fact that these teachers know their own curriculums inside out, and speak fluent Arabic as well, means that they are probably much better equipped than we ‘outsiders’ are to know what to teach, and how to clarify meanings.

But anyone who has ever taught a language for any period of time will know that there is much more to language teaching than teaching language. What the Hands Up Project can offer is an opportunity for learners to use the language that they are being taught in their regular classes with someone in a different context – someone with whom Arabic wouldn’t be the language of choice for communication. I think this can make their learning of English become more meaningful and motivating.

On Thursday I started a new connection with a new group of 50 grade four boys in a school in Gaza. Their teacher Ashraf, had been working with a unit in the coursebook called ‘Let’s make a cake’ and he’d asked me if I could do some practice activities with them to activate some of the language he’d been teaching. In the video below you can see some of the activities that we did.

The play as a project

Organising a play writing competition is a good way to motivate learners of English, but drama as a tool for learning has more depth, is more holistic, and is much more wide-reaching than an approach which only emphasises the achievements of the few groups that win.

In this post I want to focus on the process based drama work of two Gazan UNRWA English teachers, Sahar Salha and Saida Almadhoon who, each in their own way, have incorporated drama into their English curriculums by turning the playmaking competition into a drama project.

Sahar’s story..

Despite being in the era of global communication, Palestinian children  still suffer from the seige, from poverty and many other problems. So they really appreciated having the chance to convey messages to the world about love, peace, hope, dreams, illness, siege, poverty, war and social problems that the Hands Up Project gave them through the playwriting competition.

My students and me had a great experience preparing for the competition but choosing the topic for the play was really difficult. We discussed different ideas a lot and eventually decided to focus on a real story about a student in our school who suffers from cancer.

I’m so pleased that the girls worked really well as a team in writing the script in Arabic. They then individually translated it into English. When everyone had their own translation  they all worked together again to produce the best English version they could. It was nice to see them using the internet to look up words and expressions to use in their play.

They then discussed a suitable location to film it, the costumes , props, and background music, and then chose people to be the actors. In the end they produced something pure of their own which made them feel more confident.

In short , the process of creating our plays affects the girls and the teachers to produce their own literature not just for competitions, but also for life. When a twelve year old student has her or his own literature published in a book, this means that the Hands Up Project opens the space for Palestinian kids to become their own Shakespeares.

Here is what some of the actors said about the experience of creating our play “The fighter”:

Roqaya , the narrator

“This  drama means that we can write and act . I’m happy because we are little actors”

Sara , the doctor

“My dream in life is to be a doctor and I’m happy that I played this role in the play. When I join such activities, I feel that I am distinguished”

Rawan ,the patient

“I become more confident when I participated in this activity . I want to do more in the future. There is nothing impossible with my teacher –Sahar – and my parents’ support.

Maha , the mum

“I’m not afraid to speak English anymore. I will be on Youtube . I’m a star!”

Sara, the dad

“Engaging in such activity helps to practice my hobby and speak English and transfers our ideas and feelings to the world”

 

Saida’s story

It was a real pleasure for me and my students to participate in the playwriting competition. The students have gained lots of benefits through creating and  performing the plays. They have become familiar with standing on the stage in front of others as they performed the plays in front of the school principal and some other teachers. This, of course, has increased their self- confidence.

When I heard about the playmaking competition I decided to organise things in a way that could involve all the students in the school. So, I declared a competition for all students to write a short story in English with five characters or less. A lot of students participated and then I picked the best ones which I felt could be made into a play. I arranged a meeting with the students who wrote the best stories and discussed some ideas with them and with the school principal. As a result,  we agreed to create and perform 4 plays including Teddy and Benjamin Carson as examples of famous people whose lives have changed because of good persons behind them.

They started working in groups to turn the stories into plays. Most of this was done in the breaks between classes, using their own ideas, but they came to me to check things and sometimes I suggested modifications. It took about two weeks to agree on a final version of the scripts. Then we set up some after school sessions to rehearse the plays. The students who wrote the original four stories were given the chance to act in them more than others, and to choose who would play each part. Everyone was very enthusiastic during the whole process of making the play, I think because they had a specific goal that they were trying to achieve.

With love from Brazil

There is something very beautiful that’s been going on between Brazil and Palestine.

It all started last summer when I was sponsored by Cambridge University Press to go to Brazil to do a series of talks all over the country. I was talking about the use of images in language learning and, since images are such an integral part in the way we work, I mentioned the Hands Up Project a lot. The talks went down well but the Hands Up Project went down even better! After every talk I did there was a long queue of teachers wanting to volunteer, or to connect their classes to children in Palestine.

Now at that time of year the time difference (6 hours) makes online connections between Brazil and Palestine difficult,  but one teacher, Masako Moriwaki managed to overcome this problem by making HUP an English language learning project for her own teenager students, whilst simultaneously addressing the needs of learners in Palestine. Here’s how one of the students involved, João Felipe, describes what they did.

How did the project start?

Ms. Moriwaki suggested using the Hands Up Project as the last activity from our Language Course because we wanted to do something more creative and meaningful near the end of the course. It was explained to the students what was the current condition of Palestine and all the questions that the teacher couldn’t answer on her own were written down in a formal letter and sent to Mr. Nick Bilbrough, creator of the project.

What class activities did we do?

As we got to a better understanding of the condition of the whole Palestine situation, some activities were made such as various discussions to brainstorm what could be done to help the project, to decide each student’s function, to reflect about the work that was done and to give feedback to each other. E-mails were written to Mr. Bilbrough and a report about Palestine as well.

What did we do?

Live chats with Mr.Bilbrough were done to plan what could be done to help the project, therefore, in order to raise funds, a Halloween party was given to the young students at our school.  Then we held some video conference sessions in which we could get to know some Palestinian students. At these conferences, we discovered that there were delicious Palestinian food so we made a Palestinian themed dinner to reach an even greater deepening into the Palestinian culture and also to thank teachers and other school’s employees who were so helpful at the Halloween party. Then we made a series of videos to entertain and to introduce the Palestinians to Brazil. After reaching the accomplishment of all the different activities, an exhibition was held in order to show students from other classes the reality of Palestine, the Hands Up Project and what we’d been doing.

What did we learn from the project?

We learned that ignorance gets us further from peace and that making a connection made it possible that these kids had the opportunity to experience a different reality from the one they had to live in. When it comes to the Project itself, we loved to work with such dedicated people, we loved to hear their stories and to tell ours, it is relieving to know that there are people fighting for a better life in Palestine and we are glad if we have managed to help these people to get a few tiny steps closer to achieving a decent place to live and more respect from their neighbours.

Thanks João Felipe and thanks to Masako and all her students in Brazil who were involved in this. I love the way this idea simultaneously addresses the needs of English learners in two different contexts and it’s certainly something which I think could serve as a model for other learners around the world who’d like to get involved.

So now over to you! Here is the Brazilian students’ youtube channel with the videos that were made and are still being made for Palestinian children. My question to you as English teachers in Palestine is what would you do with them? Do you see any links with English for Palestine with any of the videos? Would you use them in class, or would you ask the children to look at them at home. What, if any, tasks would you give the learners while, before, or after they were watching? How might you follow up these activities?