In their own write

I decided to write my first book for teachers, Dialogue Activities (CUP 2007), because of an idea which I think I’ve always been very interested in as a language teacher. This is the principle that when spoken language is written down by learners (as in when they create a dialogue for example) it can provide a slowing down of experience so that more noticing of language, and ultimately, more learning may happen. It’s a way of focusing and reflecting on spoken language without the immediate pressure of having to produce it spontaneously in real time communication. This premise is central to many of the activities in the book.

Dialogue Activities

It’s also one of the main rationales behind the playwriting competition that we run for Palestinian children – now about to enter its third year. Of course when creating a play, there are many other things to do before getting down to writing the dialogue (brainstorming ideas, coming up with stories, agreeing on which story to turn into a play etc) but even at very high levels, both the thinking involved in composing a story and the discussion involved in choosing a story is likely to happen in the mother tongue. I would argue that working together in groups and drafting, redrafting and editing the script is one of the stages of play making which is most conducive to second language development, and since as language teachers our contact time in class is never going to be enough, I’d say that this stage is what we should prioritise class time for.

So we could ask learners to do these other stages outside of class time, or it may be more appropriate to give learners ready-made scenarios in small groups and ask them to start working on turning them into scripts straight away. This way there is an immediate focus on spoken English and, because the learners know that they are going to be saying the lines that they are writing, there is an inherent need for what is written to be accurate, appropriate and clear. Learners will also automatically start mentally preparing themselves for saying the lines if they know that the lines are part of a dialogue.

Here’s one of the scenarios that I used with some children in Gaza in a workshop on remote theatre that I was running in June this year.

The hospital window

Two women are lying in bed in the same hospital room. One has a bandage over her eyes as she is waiting for them to heal. She is really depressed about her situation. The other is sitting up and looking out of the window (the audience). The two women talk a lot about their lives and the woman by the window describes all the beautiful things that she can see out of the window to cheer the other woman up. One day the woman by the window dies peacefully in her sleep and soon afterwards the others woman’s bandages are removed. Her eyes are better, and she looks out of the window only to see…a brick wall! The woman can’t understand why the other woman was telling her about all of the beautiful things that she said she could see. The nurse explained that the other woman was blind and she said those things just because she wanted to make her feel happy.

making a play
Children in Gaza working together to create the script for a scenario

Now I know I keep banging on about the benefits of young people creating plays to be performed in the language they are learning (this must be at least the 5th post I’ve written here about the topic!) but it’s because I’m convinced that it’s one of the most powerful ways that there is of enabling learners to move away from just being regurgitators of language supplied by their coursebooks or their teachers, and towards being fully fledged users of language in their own right. If you haven’t already tried asking your students to make a play in English, I’d really recommend that you give it a go.

Green screen storytelling

I’m looking forward to our online sessions with young people in Palestine which will start again soon, and this year I’m particularly excited about experimenting with online storytelling using another of Zoom’s free tools – the virtual background.

My eldest son bought me a green screen for Xmas last year but it’s only during this long break from sessions over the summer that I’ve had a chance to pin it to one of the walls of my shed and try it out.

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It basically enables you to project any image you would like to be seen behind you whilst in a zoom session. Up to now, when using pictures in an online storytelling session, I’ve done this through screen sharing of powerpoint slides. The disadvantage with this is that the video of you telling the story is quite small and tends to be dominated by the images. Of course, it may be really important that everyone is really focussed on the pictures, but when telling a story online I think it’s also really important that the children can see the storyteller well; that he or she can make eye contact, make visible gestures and facial expressions, enter and leave the stage sometimes, and even interact somehow with the background.

Here are some screen shots of me telling a story (sea glass soup) using three different virtual backgrounds – one for each of the scenes of the story – the beach, outside the house, and the kitchen.

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If you’d like to know more about green-screen storytelling, I’m building it into our training courses for new volunteers and I’ll also be doing a short Friday training session on it for existing volunteers soon. If you’re a teacher in Palestine and you’d like to arrange a weekly online storytelling session for the young people you work with then get in touch with us soon and we’ll find a volunteer for you.

Speakification activities

It’s often true in classes in Palestine (maybe in classes all of the world) that learners know lots of words in English but they are not always so good at using these words in their own utterances. So perhaps one of our jobs as teachers is to design activities which challenge learners to speakify language.

I think I may have just invented that word! What I want speakification to mean is to put new language to work by using it in speech. I think there are three main reasons for doing this:-

  1. It challenges learners to focus on how words are pronounced.
  2. It pushes learners to think about collocation, colligation and context.
  3. It helps to make language memorable for learners because it challenges a key process involved in memorisation – retrieval

So here’s a simple game that Lozan (their classroom teacher) and I (their remote volunteer) used with a group of 11 year old girls in Beach Elementary Co-ed UNRWA school, Beach camp, Gaza. The stages went something like this:-


  1. I showed them a piece of paper with drawings of lots of things that began with the same letter as my name. I asked them to try to work out what the drawing represented
  2. I asked them to do the same for their own names.
  3. They showed their pictures to me and I tried to work out what each drawing represented.
  4. I described the words in my drawing to the whole class (without showing the picture again) and they tried to work out the words from my description.
  5.  They took it in turns to do the same activity to me. We made it into a competition by saying that the winner would be the person who could describe the most words in a minute.

Now of course this activity, although it’s quite motivating and fun, isn’t actually that good as a speakification activity. For a start it pushes the listener to retrieve and say the word rather than the speaker. It also doesn’t really challenge anyone to say the word in a natural utterance, thereby failing to address issues of collocation.

So what do you do in your classes to get leaners to speakify new language? Please share some ideas below in the comments so that we can all have some ideas to try out when classes start again in a couple of weeks.

Remote theatre training – for teachers and students

So, as promised last week, here’s a post talking about how we organised the teacher development courses in Gaza on remote theatre, and how we incorporated learners of English into the workshops.

The two day course was delivered twice – once in Gaza city for teachers from the Northern areas, and once in Khan Younis for teachers form the Southern areas. There were 10 teachers and 15 students on each course. The teachers have been appointed as remote theatre specialists for their areas, and this workshop framework may serve a model for them to conduct their own workshops for teachers and students themselves.

Here are the basic stages that we used in conducting the workshop..

  1. Remote theatre warm up. The teachers and the students worked in separate groups with five people in each. I gave each group a single word (time, freedom, the future, family or hope) and asked them to prepare a very short remote theatre performance where the only thing they could say was this word. I asked each group to use their voices and their bodies in interesting ways to make the performance as creative as possible. Everyone gave feedback to each other after each performance, and in the end we voted on which performance was the most creative.


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2) Scriptwriting/Script reformulating. Then I gave the three students’ groups a short, simple summary of a story.  I asked them to start working on turning this summary into a script. They worked together to do this. Meanwhile I put all the teachers together in one group of 10 and gave them a script created by students in Gaza in a previous session. I asked them to discuss how they would upgrade and reformulate the language. We did some feedback on this, and once we’d agreed on a definitive version we worked on pronunciation – particularly on sentence stress, pausing and intonation.  While this was all going on, I was hovering between the students’ groups and the teachers’ groups, trying to help out where it was needed but not get in the way too much as well.



3) Upgrading the students’ work. The students were asked to finish their scripts as homework, so on the next day I assigned 3 or 4 teachers to each group and asked them to apply what we’d focussed on the day before to the student’s scripts. Once they were all agreed on the final version of the script and the lines had been assigned, each teacher worked with one or two students to help them with the pronunciation of their own lines.



4) Rehearsing. Working in three larger groups again with 5 students and 3 or 4 teachers in each, they worked on learning the lines and rehearsing their plays to make the best possible remote theatre performance that they could.  I moved between the groups, making occasional suggestions but most things came out of the discussions between the students and the teachers.


  1. Performances and feedback.  The plays were performed remotely via zoom to two hands up project volunteers based in the UK. These volunteers then provided feedback, initially to the actors in each play but eventually to the whole group.



So this was a framework for conducting a teacher development session on remote theatre. I think that remote theatre has lots of potential as a meaningful way for young people in Palestine and around the world to find international audiences for their creative work. Please let me know if you would like me to run a training course on remote theatre in your school.

Learner Voices in Teacher Development Sessions

I’ve learnt lots of things about education from working with teachers and students in Gaza. Like other areas of the world which are discriminated against, oppressed, and neglected, people in Gaza generally value education very highly. This is perhaps partly because studying hard is seen as a possible way out of the mess that the rest of the world has inflicted on the people of Gaza, and partly because, with nowhere to go, mass unemployment and not much to do in terms of leisure activities, studying is often the only thing that you can do to keep yourself active.

Although, I’ve worked with teachers and students from Gaza for about 7 years now, the first time I ever went there in person was only in April 2017.  This was to speak at an UNRWA, British Council conference, together with Hands Up Project trustee, Scott Thornbury. I learnt an important thing on that day about organising teacher development sessions  and it’s stayed with me ever since.  Scott was due to do a workshop called ‘My ten favourite speaking activities’ and mine was called ‘My ten favourite writing activities’.  Both sessions were very practical in nature and we’d planned to demonstrate the activities with the participation of the teachers who were there – which I guess is a standard way of working in TD sessions.

However, when we got there we found out that as well as around 200 English teachers, there were also about 40 eleven to fourteen year old learners of English in the room. We spontaneously decided that we’d get the learners to do the activities instead of the teachers wherever possible, and have the teachers observe. I think this worked really well for a number of reasons.

When teachers take part in activities which are designed for lower level language learners, they either have to pretend that they are lower level language learners themselves, or (more commonly in my experience) they do the activity as themselves, using all the language that they have available to them as fluent, or near fluent users of English. Neither of these situations is ideal in my opinion. If as trainers we’re demonstrating activities because they have the potential to promote language learning it’s far better that real learners of English do the activities so that this learning may actually happen. This also frees up the teachers to be able to observe the activity taking place and to reflect on its potential benefits.

scott with learners
Scott demonstrating a speaking activity at the conference with real learners of English

In next week’s post I’m going to share my experience conducting a remote theatre training course in Gaza in which there were 15 young learners of English and 10 teachers of English working together in the same room. Before I do that, I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

If you’re a teacher trainer have you ever worked in this way or would you ever consider doing so? Is it feasible to do this in your training context? What other ways may there be of bringing the voice of the learners into a teacher development session? If you’re a teacher would you like to participate in a training session that included real learners or the voice of the learners more? Comments below please…

From Gaza to Jerusalem

It was wonderful to witness the enthusiasm and sheer joy that 15 girls from Gaza felt when they visited Jerusalem, took part in a drama workshop with young Palestinians of their age from Jerusalem, and performed their plays at the Palestinian National Theatre. But sadly the teachers who worked so hard to get the plays ready for performance were not able to be with them and share in their success, as their permits to leave Gaza were not granted. One of these teachers, Haneen Khaled, sent this to me after the girls had returned.


From Gaza to Jerusalem: The dream has come true!

With its adorable beaches , sandy shores and very tasty food , Gaza could be the most beautiful area to spend a holiday by the sea. However , the reality is not like that . Life in Gaza has become more difficult than one can imagine. People in Gaza are deprived of many things, including the simple right of being able to  travel freely. But still they have a dream that one day everything they hope for will become reality.


The Hands up Project has succeeded in making this dream come true. 15 girls from three different UNRWA schools in Gaza managed to break through the blockade and make it to Jerusalem as finalists in the Hands Up Project’s remote theatre competition.  I can’t put their hearts into my pen while writing this as it is an indescribable feeling when they were there in the most holy place in the world. Their heart beats say that the hands up project has made a massive achievement that deserves us taking our hats off for it.

I think this trip is not only a prize for winning , but it is also a space to connect the two parts of the world together and unify all under the umbrella of drama . It is a golden chance for those girls from Gaza and others from Jerusalem to put their hands together and sing for their beloved country the closing song ” Let us be together ” despite crossings and borders . In fact , they did it amazingly well . They showed their success and glory to the whole world .


When coming back , they were flying high in the sky holding their accomplishments and their gratitude to the hands up project and to Nick Bilbrough , the manager of the HUP who made all this come true . Abeer Al-khatib wrote about this , ” It was an enjoyable trip that allowed me to learn and get information about my country , acting and theatre . I will not forget this in all my life ” .

My last word is,

” Hands up project gives our students a space to tell their stories to the world

They gather to write and act to travel by their souls abroad

Writing a play become their joy

And to Nick Bilbrough , we say thank you ,

You made our dreams come true ”




Animated stories

This week we have a post by Luzan Mattar, a teacher at  Beach Elementary Co-ed (C) UNRWA school, Beach Camp, Gaza who has been coordinating HUP sessions in her school for a long time now. Luzan is very interested in using drama activities and her students performed one of my favourite plays in last years’s competition – ‘I will wait till they open the gate’ . Here though she writes about a strategy for involving students who feel less confident about acting in front of others. 

Teaching English as a second language for Palestinian children is a big challenge, especially under the tough circumstances they live in. Palestinian teachers are always looking for suitable techniques that may facilitate and support their process of learning English. So the Hands Up Project has been a golden opportunity for the children in our care.  It’s their chance to practice English through drama and the online sessions in which they can express their ideas, feelings and emotions freely. They also have a lot of fun during the online sessions and they feel they can improve their English very easily like this . The playwriting competition made their dreams come true and stimulates  their creativity by enabling them to write and perform things that express their life and dreams in the real world. The competition opened a window to the whole world to tell other people around the world the truth about Palestinian life.

Although lots of students at school want to participate in hands up project online sessions and participate in writing and performing plays, still we have students who are not brave enough to do so. I tried to find a way that may help these students to be  involved too. So I thought about asking them to write their own stories, or rewrite a story they like in their own words and to make an animation out of it.  This technique was really good because it encouraged the shyer students to get involved in the world of storytelling and they were excited and motivated by doing it. Then when they watched the animation of their stories it helped them feel braver about speaking English in their regular classes.

Here’s a short film of some of the animated stories my students made..