From Gaza with love…

When I’m speaking at conferences for language teachers around the world I sometimes wonder why the voice of the most important resource we have – the students themselves – is somehow missing from the talks and workshops that we deliver. It’s all very well talking about techniques and strategies that we can use in our classes, or even demonstrating them with teachers, but do they work with real learners? What do students actually think about our approaches? Can they see the benefits of what we are trying to do?

At the ADRIES conference in Split, Croatia I was hoping to redress the balance a little in my talk about drama and language learning by linking to a group of girls in an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.  But I’d sent them a zoom link and not heard anything, so I’d assumed that sadly the internet wasn’t strong enough for them to be able to connect.

In fact their timing couldn’t have been better! They joined by zoom just as I was showing a slide with an extract from Scott Thornbury’s introduction from our just published book of thirty of the plays from last year’s playwriting competition. So I was able to ask the audience to read the slide and hold it in mind as they watched the remote performance of a play the girls had created, ‘Live your life’, and as they listened to the girls’ reflections afterwards. I now invite you to do the same.

“More importantly still, drama is expressive: it invests an imagined world with the thoughts, experiences, feelings, fears and hopes of its creators. In the context of Palestine, this is an incredibly important function – it provides a means of thinking the unthinkable, of saying the unsayable, of dreaming the undreamable. And it is transformative: it empowers its creators by enhancing their English skills, and hence giving them a powerful voice in the wider world. But also, by construing their lives as narratives that can be performed and shared, drama eloquently affirms their identity as Palestinians and as global citizens”

(Scott Thornbury, Toothbrush and other plays – Gilgimish 2018)


The 2018 Remote theatre competition

So here’s a little video that George and I made about this year’s remote theatre competition for Palestinian children. (The full rules and requirements are underneath) Last year was incredible but here’s hoping that this year we get even more amazing entries from all you creative kids in Palestine. Good luck to you all…

The Hands Up Project Remote theatre competition 2018

A play writing and play performing competition open to young people living in Palestine, launched, administered, and judged by the Hands Up Project, a UK based educational charity (Charity number 1170272)


-to provide a motivating context for young people in Palestine to practise and develop their spoken and written English.

-to provide young people in Palestine with an international audience for their creative work.

-to raise awareness around the world about the creative work of young people in Palestine.


-The play must be a maximum of 5 minutes long. (It can be less than 5 minutes.)

-It must be with a maximum of 5 actors (it could be fewer than 5 and each actor may play several parts)

-All participants must be aged 15 or under and attend an UNRWA or Ministry of Education school in Palestine.

-Participants need to send a video recording of them acting the play to this email address: The file will probably be too large to send as an attachment so it can be sent using

-Participants also need to send a written version of the play in the form of a script (with stage directions if necessary) to

-The main language of the play must be English.

-It must be an original piece of writing. Participants may choose to use an existing, well known story but the lines of the play must be their own words.

-The video and the script must reach us by 31st December 2018.

-Anything reaching us after this date and which does not fulfil the other requirements will not be considered for the prize.

Suggestions for plays

Providing the requirements are fulfilled, the topic of the play is very flexible. Plays could be performed with or without narration. Some suggested topics could include:-

  • An adaptation of a traditional story
  • An adaptation of a modern story
  • A story about life in Palestine
  • A story created entirely by the participants
  • A play about an event in history, or a famous person

Suggestions for performance

Since the play will initially be performed through video, rather than face to face, it’s important to ensure that the actors are as close to the camera as much as possible and that they make eye contact with it as much as possible. Incorporating gesture and physicality wherever possible will also make things clearer for the audience. It is fine to include, masks, puppets, music or singing in the play but none of these things are a requirement.

The prize

The best entries will be published in a Hands up project book and credited to the group who created them. If desired, the videos will be published on our youtube channel. The group that creates the one winning entry will be invited to come and stay in London and perform the play live at the Hands Up Project conference which will take place in central London on the 6th April 2019.

Judging criteria

The panel of judges will pick the best play based on quality of acting performances, quality of the play, and creative expression. Though English should be used, the plays will not be judged on the level of English of the participants. So it will be possible for learners of English at a low level to also take part.

We very much look forward to seeing your entries. Good luck!

Nick Bilbrough, Founder and Coordinator, The Hands Up Project

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.