Your story

This week we have a guest post by one of the latest teachers to join our ever expanding pool of  volunteers around the world, Emi Slater. What Emi writes fits in very well with the current trend in the work of the Hands Up Project to focus more on children creating stories, rather than merely consuming them. Over to you Emi…

I cannot believe that in my little village on top of a hill, deep in central England at 7am on Monday mornings I have been hearing and telling such profound and deep stories. I’ve just started working with the Hands Up Project and Nick asked me to work with a wonderful teacher called Sarah Zahran. She is also new to the project and we have had some fun over the last few weeks getting to know each other and the students despite the foibles of the Palestinian internet.  After the first lesson Sarah asked me if it was really true that there were homeless people in Britain. When I told her there were thousands she asked me “but how! you are such a rich country?”. I was reminded of the time I spent travelling around the Soviet Union on the cusp of Perestroika when people in Siberia regularly asked me if it was really true that all British people had servants. That in turn reminded me of Nick’s comment on this blog that becoming global citizens is the only way out of this mess we are in.

We started with Nassreddin and the dinner party – using the Stories Alive version about a farmer who goes to a party in his work clothes and is rejected because of his appearance.  So cross is he that the party guests only accept him after he has been home to change that he starts to pour food into his pockets, his hat and his trousers. When reprimanded for making a mess he declaims  ‘I’m giving the food to my clothes’ . ‘I think you invited my clothes to the party – not me!’ Sarah had chosen it and it seemed so perfect for a group of 13 year old girls who would presumably be interested in clothes and self-image.

But their responses turned out to be far from such shallow trivia that so often preoccupies British teenagers. By our first lesson the girls had already written out the story, drawn their own pictures and were enthusiastically retelling me the story with their pictures on line. I was blown away by their enthusiasm and asked Sarah if the girls could write down their responses to this tale.

By the next lesson the girls had written their own moralistic tales, illustrated  and even adapted them into mini plays – one about a poor black family who helped the white people despite how badly they had been treated by them, one about a man who, having lost his legs on his journey to work in England, was mocked by his own son for begging because he was too ashamed to return home, one fable depicting the ever increasing divide between rich and poor and one about a man who put a spell on some boys to stop them throwing stones at old people.  I was slightly at a loss – the stories were already so wonderful and they had already illustrated them and performed them! It seemed wrong to start picking them apart and working on language or correcting them or even developing or editing them. The girls voices were strong and clear across cyberspace and I didn’t feel right interfering with such honest, important stories. I felt like I would be threatening the whole delicate and important ethos of the Hands Up project if I started behaving like an “english teacher”. And so it occurred to me that the only thing that might perhaps be useful for the girls was to hear my version of their stories. Partly for language learning purposes (obviously by recasting and extending I was creating more complex sentences which might perhaps be useful for the students to hear and perhaps work with later) but the key reason was confirmation. Confirmation that I had understood their stories correctly, and this not just on a linguistic level but on a human communication level – did I really “get” what they were trying to tell me?  I tried to imagine what it would be like to hear someone Russian (the foreign language I know best) tell me a story that I had tried to write in Russian back to me. I decided it would probably be thrilling and so I suggested it to Sarah. The girls in Sarah’s class seemed to like my version of their stories and you can see them nodding at various points in the video. Is this them responding to my confirmation or is it because they liked or were interested in my version of their story from a language perspective?  And of course they were only my versions.  Certainly I could try harder at it making them fuller, rounder, more vocabulary rich but as Nick has been consistently saying on this blog the simplest things so often work best.

The original story created and told by Palestinian learners of English in a girls school in Hebron, Palestine 

A reformulated version of the same story told by Emi

The Hands Up Project playwriting competition

After working online with so many different groups of children and their teachers in Gaza over the past two years, it was such a joy to meet some of them face to face last week when I finally managed to get there in person. The British Council and UNRWA organised a wonderful conference where Scott Thornbury and I both gave plenary workshops for the 250 Gazan teachers of English who attended.


We were also treated to performances of song, dance and theatre by the 50 children who were also there. It was while watching this play, written and performed by Gazan children that I had an idea for the first Hands Up Project competition.


The competition is open to any children and young people in Palestine under the age of 18 and the task is to write and perform an original play in English which is maximum 5 minutes long and which has a maximum of 5 actors. Any groups who would like to submit an application need to send a video recording of the performance, together with the written script to by 31st October 2017. Videos longer than 5 minutes long, with more than 5 actors (1 actor may play more than one character of course), or submitted after the deadline will not be accepted. The best entries will be published in a book and the videos published on youtube. Entries will be judged on both the quality of the performance, as well as the quality of the writing. The panel of judges will choose one entry to be the overall winner and the actors from this entry and their teacher will be invited to perform the play face to face at the Hands Up Project conference which will take place at a location in Europe in early 2018.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be writing a couple of posts which will focus on some of the language learning benefits of writing and performing a play in English to help you through the process. The very best of luck to you all! 🙂


Here’s a post by Sahar Salha in Gaza and Alex Guzik in Russia, which shows the wonderful way that teachers are working together to produce very effective classes for children through the Hands Up Project.


Sahar: It’s a long time that me and Alex are working as a team. We agree on what we are going to do during our online sessions. Alex always leads the session, giving instructions, asking questions, and answering the girls’ questions. And I’m on the ground facilitating the session and monitoring the class during the activities.

Alex: This is a great opportunity to be able to discuss what we can do in our online session. Sahar helps me a lot when choosing topics for sessions and types of activities we do with the girls. In one of our conversations we mentioned visualisation as a possible activity for one of the following sessions.

Some background from Alex
Visualisation (or Guided Visualisation) is a tool I quite like to use with my classes.  Getting children to close their eyes and dive into the jungles of their imagination makes a big difference to whatever is happening later in this class.

The advantages of Visualisations might be:

  • The learners process the language and transform it into images. This promotes thinking in L2, which is, arguably, the main purpose in language teaching and learning
  • By listening to nice music, learners relax and their thinking process is not disturbed by the worries of the day.
  • It also gives a great opportunity to practice


Alex: This was the first time we used visualisation in our online session. It was a risk, for the connection is not always reliable, the voice might come in bits and pieces with some delays, and the ‘right’ atmosphere is a bit more difficult to create than with face-to-face classes.

We certainly struck it lucky with the connection last time. The girls looked excited when they heard my ’Sit comfortably and close your eyes’. And with their teacher, Sahar, in the classroom everything went smoothly.

Sahar: During this session, Alex gave clear instructions; e.g close your eyes, imagine that you are in a village ,walking ,eating …..etc with background music ,but I was watching the girls, how relaxed they were, how quiet the atmosphere in the class was.

When the music stopped and the girls returned to the real world in the class, I liked how Alex encouraged the girls to talk to their partners about their imaginative villages. Then they followed this up by telling Alex about their villages. The most interesting thing was that the situation was completely spontaneous. I liked the way the girls expressed their imaginative world using simple innocent words and sentences which encouraged them to speak irrespective of grammatical mistakes.

Alex: I was amazed by the girls’ great imagination! And this time it seemed much easier for them to express their ideas and they felt much more confident speaking. Thanks to Sahar’s hard work!

Sahar and Alex, 19th April 2017

The translation game

The other day I found myself suddenly having to cover an online session in Gaza because I’d forgotten that one of our volunteers wasn’t able to make it. I didn’t have any specific plans so I began by asking the boys what they would like to do in the session. Several of them said they’d like to hear me talking Arabic, so we came up with this simple and highly enjoyable idea for a game.

The boys took it in turns to come up to the webcam and interact with me.  I tried to say something in Arabic and they tried to translate it into English. Then we did it the other way round – with them saying something in English which I had to translate into Arabic.

There are four things I particularly liked about this activity…

  1. It seemed to be a great way to combine some inner with outer language use (Willis 1992) -(See one of my early blog posts for more details about Jane Willis’s way to categorise classroom discourse). In fact it seems that for the learners, the inner language – the sentences that got translated – were actually quite a minor part in comparison with all the outer language that happened around discussing the translations.
  2. The activity plays around with traditional status patterns in the classroom by turning the students into teachers and the teacher into a student. I think this is good for us all.
  3. It was a completely spontaneous activity. We thought of it on the spot but also the sentences that we asked each other to translate came up spontaneously; sometimes out of the things that we’d been saying to each other. Khalid’s idea to ask me to translate ‘I don’t have any grey hair’ when we had just been talking about this was brilliant, as was the way he gently teased me by saying ‘You will win fil mish mish’ 🙂
  4. Because of 1 and 2 and 3 it was a lot of fun.

Willis, J. (1992) Inner and Outer: spoken discourse in the language classroom in Coulthard, M. Advances in Spoken discourse analysis; Routledge p 162 -183

The Hands Up Project at IATEFL, Glasgow

Anyone who came to my talk about drama at IATEFL, Glasgow on Tuesday will have seen two groups of children performing live two traditional Palestinian stories, Jbene and The farmer who followed his dream. The performances were excellent and the audience of over 150 people from around the world were very moved by the experience. Thank you girls for the amazing show you put on, and thank you too for your teachers, Sahar Salha and Saida Madhoon for putting it all together so well.

Reverse physical stories

I’ve always liked Total Physical Response (TPR) as as an approach to language learning. It’s a safe and relatively unchallenging activity for learners, but at the same time it provides them with lots of  meaningful and highly memorable language exposure. Perhaps most importantly, it’s fun and it tends to make people laugh. Over the past two years I’ve used it a lot in the Hands Up Project, particularly in the form of physical stories where the I tell a story and ask for volunteers to come up to the webcam and act it out with me. In fact my first ever blog post was about it, and I also like this variation that I wrote about here

Recently, however I’ve started doing things the other way around. As a follow up to a physical story – often as homework – I ask the students to create their own physical stories and I tell them them that in the next session I will listen to their stories and act them out as they tell them.

In the video below you can see this happening in practice. The girls are taking in turns to come up and tell the stories that they wrote for homework. In fact it’s not just me, but also our newest volunteer Iwan who is performing the stories (Iwan was expecting to be just observing the session!) I’d be interested to know what you think of it as a technique and whether it is something that’s achievable in your classes.



A new adventure begins..

This week another Hands up project volunteer, Sibel KarataŞ, a teacher of Turkish and English based in Berlin writes about her experiences working with a large girls group in Hebron, Occupied Palestine…….

When I was first asked if I wanted to do online sessions with students from disadvantaged areas, I got really excited and a bit scared. As a non-native teacher of English, I had my doubts about whether I could have an effective communication with the students over a video conference. Not only was it going to be a strange way of communicating,  but also it was teaching students that I had no information about. Of course I would get the information I needed before the session, like their age, level, and number of students in the class. But, would that be enough to be able to really reach the students  without being amongst them, without being one of them? Would they be willing to do this, would their English be enough to understand the instructions and the story I would tell them? Would they like my way of storytelling. How about their psychology? They could be mad at the whole world including me. And most importantly, could I really do this successfully as this would be my first experience? These were the questions that were difficult to answer before diving in. After Nick’s training about how to do an online storytelling session and after I watched one of his sessions, it became more concrete in my mind. Since then, I have considered it as an invaluable opportunity to make a difference in these students’ lives and to have a satisfying experience for my career. In every session, I see that the students are so self-confident, eager and motivated, and I should try even harder to satisfy them in every session. One more thing that I am impressed with is that they are full of love, and they look much happier than most students living in much better conditions.

The session I am going to write about was with the students from Hebron, a Palestinian city. They are 13 or 14 years old and their English level is quite good.

At the beginning of the session, students performed the story they did the previous week. It was well prepared and fun to watch.

As the warm up sets the tone for the rest of the session and gives an idea of what to expect from that session, it was important to start with a warmer which was gripping and related to the story. So, I started describing a picture from the story, Nasreddin and the Dinner Party, and asked them to draw what I described. When they were finished, some of them showed me their drawings and I showed them the real picture, introducing them to the main character of the story they were going to hear in that session. Then I told the story, changing the tone of my voice according to the characters, speeding up and slowing down according to the importance of the parts. After we talked about the moral of the story, I showed them jumbled pictures of the story and asked them to put the pictures in the correct order. With the help of pictures, students could visualize the story they listened to and complete the blanks in their minds related to the parts of the story they didn’t understand fully while I was telling it.

For the next activity, I showed some of the lines of dialogues from the story and asked the students to say which character in the story said each one. Then, I showed them some sentences in jumbled order and asked them to unjumble them. In that way, they saw the summary of the story in written form twice in these two different activities. These sentences were deliberately chosen to give the complete summary of the story and to repeat new vocabulary for the students to have a better understanding. And they were ready to retell the story. Some of them were fine, some of the were great.. But all of them gave the impression that they paid attention to what I did during the session, had fun and comprehended enough to retell it in their own words. That was more than enough for me.

Retelling a story is an opportunity for the students to think about the story’s elements such as setting, characters and plot. As the students retell the story from memory, it makes them focus on how to create and organize the story, rethinking about the vocabulary and structures that they have learnt during the session. It is an effective way of developing critical thinking and speaking skills. That’s way I am planning to do a retelling activity at the end of each session.

Next week they will perform the story and I am looking forward to seeing their performance. I also want to thank their lovely and dedicated teacher, Nabiha.