Send in the clowns

A few weeks ago I was one of the speakers at the IATEFL Pre-conference event organised collaboratively by the C Group and the Global issues special interest group. Towards the end of the day we were given a talk by Julie Pratten about her project Heart ELT which has set up a school in a refugee camp in Iraq. At the beginning Julie gave us all a blank postcard and told us that we would be doing something with it later. As she approached the end of her talk she asked us to use the postcard to write a message to the children in the camp. I looked down at the postcard in my hand and noticed to my surprise that while I was focussing on what Julie was saying, I had absentmindedly rolled the postcard up into a scroll. I immediately felt guilty and a bit panicky because I’d done something a bit silly. But maybe there was a way that I could use this scrolled up postcard as a message for the children after all? Without really thinking where this might be leading. I wrote ‘What’s inside?’ on the outside of the scroll. I then unravelled it a bit and wrote ‘An animal’ and then ‘A cat or a dog? ‘ before finally writing ‘A cog’ and drawing a picture of an animal that was a mixture of a cat and a dog. I realised that out of my mistake I’d created a sort of very simple book and I thought this might actually be quite a motivating thing for the kids to receive. It might also serve as a model for them to create their own mixed vocabulary scrolls. 

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Afterwards I started wondering whether this might be a good activity to try out in my online sessions with children in Gaza. I liked the fact that there was something very creative about it and that it pushed learners to think about the meaning of two vocabulary items at the same time. I also thought it might be a motivating way of practising some simple areas of  language (It’s got a cat’s ears but it’s got a dog’s tail etc) When I got back from IATEFL I tried it out with the first class I had. Here’s what happened.


Like many of the things I do in these sessions, this activity would probably work better in a face to face context where the teacher could go around the class and talk to the kids about what they have drawn, or monitor conversations that they were having between themselves. If you do try it out in your classes, I’d be very interested in hearing about how it went.  As a teacher there’s something that really appeals to me about this activity and I think there are interesting ways in which it could be developed. For instance how would it work if children tried to draw an animal which had features of lots of different animals not just two?

With my teacher trainer hat on, this whole process has also got me thinking about the extent to which innovative ideas for the classroom emerge, not out of meticulous planning, but rather out of mistakes and problems which arise spontaneously in class. And yet this ability to work creatively with what is actually going on, is something that is rarely emphasised on teacher training courses. Stand up comedians and theatrical clowns regularly work in this way, often building a whole routine out of something that spontaneously happens when they are on stage.  Interestingly, these can be the moments which draw us in, and make us feel involved when we are watching, which of course is what we want to happen to the learners in our classes. Perhaps learners are more engaged in our classes when we are thinking on our feet, rather than sticking slavishly to the plan? Perhaps being a clown is a useful metaphor for being a teacher? What do you think?

14 thoughts on “Send in the clowns

  1. A very brilliant idea . Playing with language is really fun and beneficial to students . I like the book tree the kids produced . Thank you for sharing this .


    1. Yes – I agree Samar. Students like playing with language and it helps them develop a sense of ownership of the language. They benefit from having lots of opportunities to do this in my opinion.


  2. I agree with you completely as I believe that the teacher is a good clown and a professional actor. As being teachers we sometimes play sing and act with the students. And I think using this way in teaching is considered a good example of educational games. Using games in teaching is very interesting and enjoyable for the students. The students are playing ,practising and acquiring the language. In your new technique ,the students can produce as much vocabulary and ideas as they can . Thanks for providing and sharing us with your ideas.


    1. Thanks Sirin. I wonder how far we can take the idea of language learning being about ‘play’. Can it all be about fun and games or is there also an element of ‘no pain – no gain’? Can playing games and having fun help students pass exams for instance? What do you think?


  3. I would prefer a chameleon metaphor as we need to change colours and look in more than one direction at once:D
    I think it’s a very funny way to practise vocabulary. The fun and interesting moments inside the classroom stay vivid in students’ memories. I had, once, an extra class in the afternoon. I greeted my students by saying “good mafternoon” 🙂 They could guess what I meant and they greeted me back. However, it rather goes beyond mere practising a language. Students develop their critical thinking skills and creativity while learning.

    I’m wondering whether such an activity would work well with beginners. Wouldn’t it be a bit confusing for young learners? It could be dangerous to do this activity with beginners.


    1. Teacher as chameleon, eh Amal? It’s certainly true that we have to take on lots of different roles at the same time. Sometimes these roles are even in conflict with each other.

      I love the ‘good mafternoon’ idea 🙂 I think this has the same principle as the activity in the video – two words for the price of one, and students have to visualise the two original words (morning and afternoon/cat and dog/bird and horse/table and book/tree and book etc) in order to understand the meaning, and this is good for their brains 🙂


  4. Hi every body .Thanks to you all for your fruitful posts and comments . Thank you Mr. Nick for this creative idea . I think it’s a wonderful way of learning language .Students can remember as many words as they can . But we should be aware of something that is students may make nonsense words that mean nothing for them later or at least for others . So when they use those new words they made themselves , they may not be understood by others because it means nothing to them . Another thing to be added is that later students may think they are basic vocabulary while they are not . So why not think of this wonderful way in another creative and safe way to help students learn a new language easily and safely ?


  5. Thanks a lot for your comment Sereen. It’s interesting that you mention the lack of safety and Amal above also says that it could be dangerous doing this type of activity with beginners. I prefer the word risky to dangerous to describe what is happening. Dangerous to me seems purely negative but risky is more neutral or could be positive. You’re right that the activity does not play things safe, but creativity isn’t really about being safe in my opinion. I think that innovation and learning can often come out of mistakes and problems and out of thinking ‘outside the box’. Learners are often consumers of language when they are in a classroom but I think it can be useful and highly memorable for them when they become creators of language too. I think this helps them to have a different relationship with the words that they are creating language around. By coincidence I learnt a new word that someone created today in English. It’s called ‘Snaccident’ as in ‘I had a snaccident while I was watching television’ Do you know what it means? It means eating a whole pizza/ box of chocolates/ packet of biscuits by mistake! 🙂


  6. Hello, Nick! Thank you for your comment. I don’t like the chameleon metaphor, either 🙂 but it popped into my head when I read your words about the clown role. Actually I don’t see myself clinging to a tree 😀
    As for the use of the “dangerous” word, I agree with you. It isn’t the right one and I thought about “risky” but after posting my comment.


    1. I’m not criticising your English Amal, I’m just saying what I think. We have an organisation in the town where I live called ‘Dangerous Dads’. It’s for fathers and their children to do sports, crafts and outdoor activities together. It’s a pretty good name, I think. Dangerous can be a good word too in my opinion.


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